Political drama can be a difficult thing. For every masterpiece of theatrical agitprop that puts the audience into a state of agitation or fires up a crowd into revolutionary spirit, there is a dreary, hectoring piece of nonsense that is usually—thankfully—forgotten. Brecht’s The Threepenny Operais revived every couple of years, but Howard Brenton`s anti-imperial The Romans in Britain, for instance, is not known much outside academic circles.
A similar fate could have befallen Eight Men Speak, if not for Alan Filewod. A professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, Filewod has done an exceptional job of rescuing and editing a forgotten Canadian play, Oscar Ryan`s 1933 political drama, which was staged only once, and which has the dubious distinction of being the only play banned in Canada for political reasons.
Written in support of Communist Party leader Tim Buck, who at the time was imprisoned in Kingston Penitentiary, the play is, in Filewod’s words ““at once a play, a Communist Party leadership pageant and a political campaign; a text and a text event.” Ryan (a contributor to the Daily Worker, and later Tim Buck’s biographer) and his three collaborators wrote a six-act drama for the Progressive Arts Club that incorporated avant-garde staging, music, and propaganda. On its first and last night at Toronto’s Standard Theatre, the audience booed when the orchestra played “God Save the King,” but cheered when “The Internationale” was performed. The reviews were mixed. The Varsitycommented that “dramatically it was patchy, hit and miss and in many cases it relied on melodramatic tricks and parlour stunts for effects.” The Toronto Daily Star’s review focussed on the audience reaction rather on than the play itself. The Worker predictably declared it “an outstanding success.”
Eighty years later, it is perhaps difficult to see what all the fuss was about. It isn’t a great piece of theatre; it’s too didactic and simple-minded, but it must have scared a lot of people. Set around the events of the Kingston Penitentiary riot in 1932 and the attempted murder in his cell of Tim Buck, the drama is one-sided in its view of history, even as it attempts to give a broad cross-section of reaction to the riot from all levels of society across the country. There are few real characters per se; instead Ryan and his co-writers used types to represent the proletariat, the middle class, the capitalist, and so on. Scenes are short and highly populated (there are over forty speaking parts.) Staging techniques include projectors, stark lighting, spare sets, voices from the wings, music, song, and whatever else the authors could think up to alienate or agitate the audience.
Filewod’s excellent edition from the University of Ottawa Press includes the text of the play in full, as well as dossiers, reviews, and reports on its ban, in addition to a detailed background to the play, the Communist Party in Canada, and the Leftist arts scene in the 1930s. Eight Men Speak is an important text in the development of Canadian drama, and Filewod has edited what will be the definitive edition for many years to come.
Filewod provides extensive footnotes to Eight Men Speak. Similarly, David Fennario has included explanatory notes to Bolsheviki, his one-man satirical-revisionist take on Canada’s role in World War One. Part invective against militarism, part anti-imperialist rant, part foul-mouthed diatribe against some cherished values, the piece must be an actor’s dream, affording a performer the opportunity to mimic a variety of voices, to sing, to joke, to bluster, and to chew the scenery with aplomb. On Remembrance Day in Montreal in 1977, veteran Harry “Rosie” Rollins sits and drinks with a young reporter, telling tales from the trenches, many of which are of the sort that do not get written about in official histories of the war.
Rollins recalls the carnage and the bloodied bodies and the shell-shock, all of which is familiar territory of course, but he also recounts the fates of Canadian soldiers who deserted and who made unofficial truces with the Germans. Bolsheviki is trenchant and loud; it makes unsubtle points about war, but it deserves a staging, if only to see Canadian audiences bristle at its more uncomfortable shock moments.
There are similarly unsubtle points about capitalism and criminality in George F. Walker’s King of Thieves. Suggested by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and set in New York just prior to the Crash of 1929, this is a play that tars crooks and capitalists with the same brush, and it has an unoriginal premise: bankers are bad. It is part scatological cabaret, part gangster melodrama, part political satire, but wholly uninteresting.