Canadian Theatre Quips

  • Susan McNicoll
    The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945-53. Ronsdale Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Robin C. Whittaker

If it were not for journalists, we would have far less to say about Canadian theatre’s so-called “maturation” from amateur productions to a post-war professional era—recall Betty Lee’s whimsically dust-jacketed Love and Whisky about the Dominion Drama Festival (DDF). But Ottawa Journal writer Susan McNicoll’s The Opening Act will not earn the same ubiquity, owing only in part to its shorter scope. McNicoll seeks to examine “professional theatre” in three provinces between World War II and the opening of the Stratford Festival: “Without all the post-war struggles to bring professionalism to Canadian theatre, there would have been no Stratford, no cast of Canadian actors to make up the bulk of the company that trod the boards so tentatively that first summer.” Chapters are arranged geographically: British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. (She claims there were no professional theatres in the Maritimes or Newfoundland during this period and does not mention the prairies.)

Author of several fictionalized accounts of historical murders, McNicoll here collects anecdotes from fifty interviews she did with selected actors who worked in these post-war years, including Christopher Plummer and Amelia Hall. Taking these as gospel, she adds evidence from unattributed newspapers and un-cited histories. Her selection is guided by where her father, Floyd Caza, acted during these years (the book is inspired by her discovery of his papers).

The book shares with Lee’s a grating “professional is always better than amateur” tone while failing to adequately define “professional” or “amateur.” It neither questions its famous interviewees, nor states why professional practices are preferable to amateur ones. Donald Davis’ view of the DDF haunts these pages: “In those days the distinction between professional and amateur and community and so on, weren’t finely drawn.” The pages teem with anecdotes about “professionals” pranking each other while on stage, eroding any professionalism argument.

McNicoll argues that “The truth was it was much more of a coming of age than a birth” for Canadian theatre when Stratford opened. But how does a Canadian theatre “mature” by opening a festival dedicated to a British playwright almost 350 years after his death? Stratford is overemphasized because her interviewees overemphasize it. At best, the book is a trundle through selected theatre memories. At worst, tracts of chapters are paraphrased (referenced, but not cited) from extant scholarship on the Little Theatres and the DDF (dominant amateur practices that put the lie to the importance of professional theatre at the time), Radio Drama, and the New Play Society.

History buffs may glean something from these fan-lit pages, the interviews, and the serviceable index. But without grounded scholarship, The Opening Act is a bewildering read that fails to convince its reader of its overall historical accuracy or originality. It provides further evidence that what is needed now is a rigorous, reliable, and up-to-date Canadian theatre history text. Recommended only for quips at cocktail parties, McNicoll’s latest historical murder cannot be taken seriously as—according the claim in its subtitle—“Canadian Theatre History.”

This review “Canadian Theatre Quips” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 172-73.

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