Traces and Spaces, Memory and Stages
- Bruce Barton (Author)
Developing Nation: New Play Creation in English-Speaking Canada. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marc Maufort (Author) and Caroline De Wagter (Author)
Signatures of the Past: Cultural Memory in Contemporary Anglophone North American Drama. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Scott Duchesne
In her pioneering 1994 article “‘Coming Together’ in Lift Off! ’93: Intercultural Theatre in Toronto and Canadian Multiculturalism”, Mayte Gómez writes “To search for the universal takes us to the normative, to the static and unchangeable. To search for difference creates movement, interaction.” This thought, applied to two discrete, though not entirely disconnected, subjects, defines the attitude of these two new publications that offer important contributions and pose critical questions to the ever-evolving field of English Canadian theatre studies.
Gómez’s article functions as a useful link between these two collections, as she concerns herself both with the status of (inter)cultural memory and how the work of dramaturgy—the focus of Barton’s collection—determines that status, for better or for worse, in the material conditions that inform “workshops” and “festivals”. Not surprisingly, this status is the central concern of the first article in Developing Nation, written in 1986 by the late great (and greatly missed) Elliot Hayes. He writes: “The ‘masterpieces’ are worth producing, or watching; other plays ‘need work’.” For Hayes, “workshops and warehouse spaces seem to be the only outlets available for Canadian drama”, since “large theatres are so dependent on box-office income that they feel they must please audiences with tried-and-true products”, avoiding that unknown quantity called the “Canadian play”. In different ways and to different degrees, the articles that comprise Developing Nation address and interrogate these basic issues under the provisional rubric of “dramaturgy” and document what Barton calls the historical shift “from nationalism to multiculturalism to interculturalism and internationalism”. Indeed, one of the connecting themes of these two collections is an acknowledgment that increasing diversity in the form of the ongoing integration of a variety of ethnicities and cultural communities in (mainly) urban areas—in both of these collections, Toronto is the default urban space under consideration—must be addressed by cultural institutions, including theatre, in which the profitable lure of “masterpieces” or “classics” outweigh the risk of staging plays that challenge the comfortably normative, static, and unchangeable.
Barton’s underlying philosophy in Developing Nation is a refusal to define the subject of the book, which is, he claims, a historical characteristic of the practice itself: “dramaturgy resists the mantle of stable definition”, he writes. "[A]nd instead insists on perpetually redefining itself in relation to its context." For Barton, there is a playful, productive, and “adaptable understanding of dramaturgy” that resists the “‘one-size-fits-all’ approach” that is often associated with—and, if many authors in Developing Nation are to be believed, often practiced in—English Canadian theatre. To that end, Barton has gathered up articles f rom the late 1980s to the present day that never attempt to pin down this necessarily elusive profession; instead, they respond to it, contributing their own understanding of its changeable nature, which provides the reader with a productive range of approaches. The result is a collection that varies in degrees of interest and quality—there are some articles that are out of place, especially in the first half and the final “Snapshot” section of the book—but Developing Nation is nevertheless a useful and highly recommended first step in promoting a dialogue about the history and practice of dramaturgy both in the theatres, and, more importantly, in the theatre and drama departments of schools, colleges, and universities.
In Signatures of the Past, editors Maufort and De Wagter have assembled an impressive group of scholars who have produced a wide array of equally remarkable papers on the subject of cultural memory. It has been quite some time since I’ve been as intellectually engaged and energized by a collection of essays on English Canadian theatre. Gomez’s breakthrough article in Developing Nation would find a comfortable home in Signatures of the Past, as it mirrors many of the concerns of the authors, especially regarding Canada’s official policy of Multiculturalism as it has developed since the 1970s. In particular, it would make an excellent companion piece to one of several highlights of the book: Ric Knowles’ “Performing Intercultural Memory in the Diasporic Present: The Case of Toronto” which, like many of the other papers, assumes that “All cultural memory is performative” which attempts to “suture a divided cultural identity to the communal building of shared cultural memory” by way of “the embodied practices of intercultural memory.”
In his introduction, Marc Maufort defines cultural memory as a phrase that incorporates “a latent but nevertheless profound doubt of identity that plagues hybridized Western societies in an age of globalization”, reflecting concerns such as “diasporic identities, exilic predicaments, and multi-ethnic subject positions.” In response to this definition, it would be more accurate to posit that indeed doubt fuels many of the best papers in this collection, urging scholars to interrogate the predicaments that trouble cultural memory: Craig Walker’s “Hopeful Monsters and Doomed Freaks” explores cultural memory as a “relationship between the genetic heritage we carry in our DNA and the cultural heritage which we carry in . . . our present social codes”; Guillermo Verdecchia explores cultural memory in Latina-Canadian plays as “points of rupture and loss from recent Latin American history,” presenting “a significant intervention in the cultural memory of . . . Latino leftist masculinity” in his essay “Contending with Rupture”; Roberta Mock’s “Memories, Hauntings and Exorcisms in Brad Fraser’s Snake in Fridge” posits that Fraser’s Canada wills itself “into existence, straddling the borders between imagined history and imagined future, in a constant state of ‘becoming’.” Doubt, it appears, is the key to understanding Anglophone Canadian drama, and these papers make an excellent case.
Less successful, or perhaps less obviously significant, is Maufort’s conceit that informs the title of the book, which is influenced by Jacques Derrida’s concept of a “signature” that “evokes both a presence and an absence,” in which, according to Maufort, the essays “offer a clearer, but by no means definitive, assessment of those elusive ‘signatures’ of past cultural memories”. Not many of the authors in this collection overtly take up the concept of the “signature” in their work, though certainly it haunts many of their subjects. However, it does take centre stage in the final essay of the collection, Karen Shimakawa’s “Performing the Asian American Signature in Law and Theatre,” which stands out among an already extraordinary collection of work. Especially rewarding for me was the last section of her essay subtitled “Embodying the Ethnic Signature,” in which Shimakawa analyzes the assumptions grounding the material that forms the audio walking tour of New York’s Chinatown, marketed by Soundwalk, Inc. Incorporating Brian Massumi’s concept of the biogram, Shimakawa argues that how we move through and experience ourselves through space/time speaks to “how bodies and subjectivities are produced—constantly, dynamically, multiply/contradictorily, in motion and in space.” Although many of these essays make Signatures of the Past more than worth the price, it is Shimakawa’s essay in particular, I think, that makes this collection a necessary addition to your bookshelf. Signatures of the Past embodies the spirit of what Gomez defines as the search for “difference”: resisting the “normative, the static and the unchangeable”, moving and interacting with a doubt-full society through an approach that might compel scholars to re-examine their models of the study of theatre and drama.
- Canadian Theatre: Halcyon Days by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: A Fly on the Curtain by Fred Euringer
- British Columbia Theatre at the Edge? by Rosalind Kerr
Books reviewed: Theatre in British Columbia by Ginny Ratsoy
- Lesbian and Gay Plays for Posterity by T.L. Cowan
Books reviewed: Lesbian Plays: Coming of Age in Canada by Rosalind Kerr and Perfectly Abnormal: Seven Gay Plays by Sky Gilbert
- Theatrical Landscape by Neta Gordon
Books reviewed: The Baron Bold and the Beauteous Maid: A Compact History of Canadian Theatre by Brian Kennedy and Nextfest Anthology II: Plays from the Syncrude Next Generation Arts Festival by Steve Pirot
- Reality Theatre by Shannon Hengen
Books reviewed: Strategies: The Business of Being a Playwright in Canada by Caroline Russell-King and Rose Scollard and Questionable Activities: The Best by Judith Rudakoff
MLA: Duchesne, Scott. Traces and Spaces, Memory and Stages. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 165 - 167)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.