National and Global Mythologies in Canadian Theatre

Reviewed by Anne Nothof

The necessity of constructing a national theatre in Canada through the identification of a seminal founding company is implicit in a Toronto critic’s anthology of Tarragon plays. An ongoing construction of a Canadian canon is evident in the publication of three more plays by the prolific Playwrights Canada Press. Locating Canadian drama in an intertextual global landscape is the objective of two essays in a comparative critical anthology with an international purview.

In his introduction to Tonight at the Tarragon, former Globe & Mail critic Kamal Al-Solaylee posits that the Tarragon has fulfilled the function of a national theatre in respect to its development and production of Canadian plays since the 1970s, and has placed Canadian drama on the world stage. By way of example, Al-Solaylee offers five plays aimed at students of drama, selected on the basis of his own reviews. All but one of the playwrights is located in Toronto, although their plays have been developed and performed across the country. Canadian drama is a collective creation—the work of many theatres and individuals, and it has a broader reach than this collection assumes. Although he notes the paucity of multicultural and Indigenous works at the Tarragon, Al-Solaylee asserts that it constitutes a barometer of Canadian theatre in general.

Some of the plays in the anthology afford more insight into Canadian living and dying than others. John Mighton’s Half Life (developed with da da kamera and Necessary Angel) is one of the most insightful and moving plays I personally have experienced on any stage, in this case, the Citadel in Edmonton. Through the relationship of an elderly couple in a nursing home, it explores the meaning of time in terms of memory, and the nature of love and of happiness in the face of death. Rune Arlidge (workshopped by the Shaw Festival) enacts the corrosive, angry side of old age in its portraits of a cantankerous, incorrigible mother and her two dysfunctional daughters, in a Canadian formulation of Greek tragedy that offers no catharsis. Playwright-in-residence at the Tarragon for twenty years, Healey has resigned in protest after the artistic director, Richard Rose, decided against producing his new work based on the life of Stephen Harper, entitled Proud. The Optimists by Morwyn Brebner, also a long-standing playwright-in-residence at Tarragon until her resignation in 2012, premiered at Theatre Junction, Calgary in 2004. It presents the very different marital perceptions of two couples in a state o’ chassis in a Las Vegas hotel.

Kristen Thomson’s I, Claudia, in which the playwright performs an adolescent rebelling against her father’s second marriage, has enjoyed a long cross-country run since its beginnings in Tarragon’s tiny Second Space. Serge Boucher’s Motel Hélène is included as an example of the Tarragon’s introduction of Quebec plays to an English audience, even though it was eclipsed by productions of works by Robert Lepage and Michael Tremblay at other Toronto venues. Motel Hélène follows the tragic life and escape fantasies of a young woman whose son has gone missing, as observed by her sympathetic gay neighbour. Its intensity and pathos are evident on the page. Although Jason Sherman’s It’s All True explores the nature of making theatre against all odds, it is a baffling inclusion. First produced by Necessary Angel, it tracks the story of Orson Wells’ direction of The Cradle Will Rock in New York in 1937, and the conflict between art and politics. Al-Solaylee believes it to be the pinnacle of Sherman’s career as a playwright. Conceived in Brechtian style, it is difficult to access on the page.

The three individual plays under review exhibit a similarly wide range in Canadian theatre. Healey’s The Nuttalls (2009), commissioned by the Blyth Festival, depicts a farcical and dysfunctional relationship between mother and son in an Ontario summer resort. Erin Shields’ If We Were Birds (2010) replays the horrific story of Procne and Philomena in global terms of atrocities perpetuated against women in times of war, much like Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale (1989) and Joanne Laurens’ The Three Birds (2000). Celia McBride’s So Many Doors (Nakai Theatre, Whitehorse 2007) is a therapeutic play which shows how two couples respond to the deaths of their young children.

The two essays which address Canadian theatre in the critical anthology Theatres in the Round focus on multicultural and Native theatre, typically the preoccupations of scholars outside of Canada. In Land and Cultural Memory, Caroline De Wagter analyzes the continued and perpetual struggle for belonging to the Canadian nation state in Djanet Sears’ The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. In Celebrating Indigeneity, Marc Maufort demonstates how Marie Clements’ spiritual portrait of Norval Morrisseau, Copper Thunderbird, avoids the pitfalls of homogenizing Eurocentrism. As the amplified proceedings of a comparative literature conference, the anthology is eclectic and global—including essays on Norwegian Poetic Edda and the production of Beckett in China. In his essay on Black and South Asian theatre in the United Kingdom, Geoffrey V. Davis raises issues pertinent to the Canadian multicultural experiment: in its productions of Black plays, and its employment of Black actors, Britain’s National Theatre is altering the country’s perception of itself and redefining the concept of national. Several essays address plays grounded in Greek tragedy, concluding that such intertexuality argues kinship between cultures rather than alterity, breaking down stereotypes of colonial oppressors and Indigenous victims (David O’Donnell, Quoting the Other). Global subsumes national in the interplay of diverse cultures.

This review “National and Global Mythologies in Canadian Theatre” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 138-139.

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