Canadian drama



audio Lucy

LA Theatre Works
Type: Audio

In a thought-provoking new play, 13 year old Lucy, who suffers from autism, moves in with her estranged, misanthropic mother. Having lived her entire life with her father, Lucy, as well as her mom, struggle with all the difficulties of such an arrangement. “ A complicated and thoughtful piece” says

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Lucy DeVito, Roxanne Hart, Geoffrey Lower, Sarah Rafferty and Raphael Sbarge.

Includes a conversation with Dr. Daniel Geschwind, a leading researcher in the field of genetics, especially as it pertains to autism. He holds the Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair in Human Genetics and is Director of the Neurogenetics Program and the Center for Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA.

Lucy is part of L.A. Theatre Works’ Relativity Series featuring science-themed plays. Major funding for the Relativity Series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

Featuring: Lucy DeVito, Roxanne Hart, Geoffrey Lower, Sarah Rafferty, Raphael Sbarge

Theatre in English Until the twentieth century the history of theatre in Canada, a nation formed only in 1867 and not fully independent until 1931, is a record of domination by foreign touring companies offering standard fare from the classic English repertoire with generous doses of melodrama. The example of such art theatres as Grein’s Independent Theatre Society in London and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre inspired the development of a Canadian Little Theatremovement dedicated to innovation and experimentation. The Arts and Letters Players of Toronto (founded 1908), led by Roy Mitchell, presented plays by Maeterlinck, Yeats, Synge and other contemporary writers. In 1919 the University of Toronto’s semi-professional Hart House Theater opened under Mitchell’s direction, regularly performing new Canadian plays in addition to contemporary drama and the classics. The most significant playwright associated with Hart House was Merrill Denison, who produced a number of plays superior to any yet written in English in Canada. His The Unheroic North: Four Canadian Plays (1923) contains three short plays and the full-length Marsh Hay, a powerful portrayal of life in northern Ontario which bears comparison with the work of Synge. The example provided by the Hart House Theater was emulated in Canada’s other major cities; the most innovative contribution was Herman Voaden’s work with the Sarnia Little Theater, founded in 1927 in Sarnia, Ontario. Voaden, much influenced by German expressionist drama, drew heavily on music, painting and dance to develop what he called ‘Symphonic Expressionism’ in plays like Rocks, Earth Song and Murder Pattern, produced between 1932 and 1936.

The Dominion Drama Festival, founded in 1932, helped focus and develop amateur theatre of a high quality – including the presentation of new Canadian plays – in annual competitions held throughout Canada between 1933 and 1970. Among the playwrights associated with the festival were John Coulter and Robertson Davies. Coulter is important for demonstrating in his trilogy about the Métis (mixed race) rebel Louis Riel that Canadian history and attendant mythology could provide the substance of an indigenous drama. Riel, the first play of the trilogy, was produced by Toronto’s New Play Society in 1950. Davies, who had worked under Tyrone Guthrie at London’s Old Vic before returning to Canada in 1940, brought to his craft a rare professionalism. In plays written between 1950 and 1975, he explored wittily what he termed the ‘theme of the portion of life that is unlived’.

Radio drama played an important role between the 1930s and 1960s, a period during which the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast more than 3,500 original Canadian plays.

Gwen Pharis Ringwood, the most important of western Canada’s playwrights, is best known for her folk plays, Still Stands the House (1938) and Dark Harvest (1945), sombre tragedies that derive their power from a deep sense of place and the poverty of the Depression era. Ringwood’s trilogy – Maya, The Stranger and The Furies, first produced in 1982 – is a biting indictment of white society’s treatment of British Columbia’s native peoples.

Following the Second World War the number of professional theatres in Canada increased, with the establishment of, for example, Vancouver’s Everyman Theater (1946–53), Toronto’s New Play Society (1946–71) and the Crest Theatre (1954–66), and these institutions encouraged the production of new Canadian plays. The Stratford Festival opened in 1953, the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1962 and the Charlottetown Festival in 1965 (its perennial favourite a musical based on L. M. Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables). Perhaps the most important influence on professional theatre in Canada was the creation in 1957 of the Canada Council, a federal agency which provided substantial funding to create new theatres and sustain new professional companies.

In 1967 three important new plays symbolized the growth of Canadian drama: John Herbert’s prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which went on to international success; James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark; and George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a Native girl destroyed by white society. Both Reaney and Ryga have written a large body of dramatic work since then; especially notable is Reaney’s Donnelly trilogy, produced between 1973 and 1975. Following the example of Coulter, Reaney draws on Canadian history (the murder in 1880 of an Ontario Catholic family, the Donnellys) to forge new symbols and myths within a theatrical context.

Despite large government subsidies and the hope generated by these new plays, in the 1960s the country’s major professional theatres, such as Edmonton’s Citadel Theater and Toronto’s St Lawrence Center, still relied heavily on imported plays. But in the 1970s, prompted by a strong sense of nationalism and a groundswell of interest in Canada’s past, a new theatre movement – the ‘alternate theatre’ – emerged, and alternate theatre companies multiplied across the country. They included Vancouver’s Tamahnous Theater (1971), Edmonton’s Theater 3 (1970), Newfoundland’s Mummers Troupe (1972), and Toronto’s Théâtre Passe Muraille (1968) and Tarragon Theater (1971). The most influential of these has been Théâtre Passe Muraille, under director Paul Thompson, who pioneered the development of the collective creation, where actors (perhaps with a writer) addressed Canadian social, political and cultural issues by means of a collectively devised script, as in The Farm Show (1972). The form became very popular in the 1970s: Newfoundland’s Mummers Troupe’s 1978 They Club Seals, Don’t They? was a defence of the sealing industry; Saskatoon’s Twenty-fifth Street Theatre scored a hit in 1977 with Paper Wheat, a collective about the prairie farming cooperative movement.

Founded by Bill Glassco, Tarragon Theater emphasized professionalism in production values, and although its mandate did not exclude the production of non-Canadian plays, about three-quarters of the approximately one hundred works it has produced have been Canadian, and over half of these have been premières. Significant playwrights associated with Tarragon include David Freeman, David French and Quebec’s Michel Tremblay (whose plays have been performed in English). Freeman’s best play is the 1971 Creeps, a long one-act drama set in the men’s washroom of a workshop for victims of cerebral palsy. French is probably English Canada’s most accomplished playwright. His tetralogy about the Mercer family – Leaving Home, Of the Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon and 1949, produced between 1972 and 1988 draws on memories of his own Newfoundland background to describe an archetypal father-son conflict as well as a clash between supposed old heroic values (represented by rural Newfoundland) and the mores of a deracinated urban society (Toronto).

Another alternate theatre, Toronto’s Factory Theater Lab, has premièred many of the plays of George Walker. Walker’s early works are derivative, part surreal, part melodrama, with strong affinities with the B-movie. His trilogy The Power Plays, published in 1984, examines the value of liberalism in a world dominated by political and military power through the persona of a private eye, Tyrone M. Power.

While Toronto was undoubtedly the centre of English Canadian theatre in the 1970s, a number of playwrights emerged dedicated to articulating the social, cultural and physical character of Canada’s regions. Michael Cook’s The Head, Guts and Sound Bone Dance (1973) is the best of a number of his plays that dramatize life in the outports of Newfoundland. David Fennario’s Balconville (1979, at Montreal’s Centaur Theater), is rooted firmly in its Montreal milieu of the poor working class. Written in French and English, the play is a brilliant piece of naturalistic writing with a strong Marxist viewpoint. Ken Mitchell, the regional dramatist par excellence, draws extensively on his Saskatchewan environment. His Cruel Tears (1975), for example, is a musical based on Othello that transforms Shakespeare’s tragedy into a tale of love and rivalry among Saskatchewan truck drivers. Sharon Pollock has also written a number of plays with a regional interest: Walsh, for example (about the Canadian government’s treatment of Sioux chief Sitting Bull and his people after their escape to Canada in 1881). Her best play, Blood Relations (1980, at Edmonton’s Theater 3), is about the American Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her parents. John Murrell has written many plays with a west Canadian background and subject matter, but his greatest success has been with Memoir (1977), about the last months in the life of Sarah Bernhardt. It has been performed in many countries and has been translated into some 15 languages.

New theatre companies and promising new dramatists appeared in the 1980s: Thomson Highway, Judith Thompson, Brad Fraser, Allan Stratton, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Sally Clark, Wendy Lill, Joan MacLeod and Jason Sherman. There has also been a significant growth in companies addressing specialized issues feminism, children’s theatre (there are now some 60 professional theatres for young people), homosexuality – and there has been a dramatic increase in low-budget theatre favouring the one-actor show. Significant examples here include John Gray’s Billy Bishop Goes to War, which played London and New York after great success in Canada, and Antonine Maillet’s La Sagouine as performed by Viola Léger (in French and English). The attendant and necessary infrastructure of professional organizations, theatre publishers, professional critics and awards established in the 1970s was strengthened in the 1980s and 1990s so that it can be said with confidence that Canadian theatre has finally been liberated from its colonial past and is now playing an important role in the nation’s culture.

Theatre in French Despite its relatively long history (the first recorded performance was in 1606, in present-day Nova Scotia), French-language theatre in Canada entered the twentieth century in precarious condition. Since its origins, theatre in French Canada has had to struggle to survive, its existence threatened by demographic and economic factors (a relatively small population spread over a vast area with, until the second half of the nineteenth century, a poorly developed transportation system) and, most importantly, by frequent, stubborn opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, to which the overwhelming majority of Canadian francophones adhered until late into the twentieth century. Primarily because of these factors, the stage arts remained resolutely amateur, cyclical and marginal until the last decade of the nineteenth century. A hundred years later, it is obvious that theatre, despite the many obstacles it has faced, has managed not only to survive, but to flourish brilliantly. The last quarter of the nineteenth century had been marked by more and more frequent visits of professional troupes from France, notably those accompanying Sarah Bernhardt on the nine tours she made to Quebec and Montreal in the period 1880–1918. The church had reacted strongly to the sexually permissive boulevard plays these troupes offered, and to the ‘immoral’ actors who offered them. But, naturally, local amateur groups had begun to emulate this repertoire, often adapting it for local sensitivities. At the same time, American entrepreneurs tightened their control of commercial theatre, replacing the traditional stock companies with the ‘star system’, a development which favoured the establishment of local semi-professionals who could, at little cost, supply the supporting cast and supernumeraries necessary for New York-style productions. As a result, the first professional companies grouping local French-language actors began to appear in Montreal in the 1890s, initiating a period often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of theatre in that city.

This Golden Age died with the beginning of the First World War, but even before then its glitter had begun to fade with the advent of film and of American variety theatre. After the war, movies and touring companies from abroad vied with burlesque (the French term includes vaudeville, variety and English burlesque), the last influence becoming more and more insidious as it adapted to local diction and themes. With the introduction of radio and soundtrack films, the place for traditional theatre was scant; and much of that was occupied by shallow melodramas such as Aurore l’enfant martyre, based on a sensational local crime (the play would be performed at least 5,000 times between 1923 and 1950). But a surprising quantity of drama – much of it devoted to patriotic, religious or historical themes – continued to be written and published in French Canada, although little of it was performed.

By the early 1930s radio had become the most important vehicle of cultural solidarity French Canada had known, since now for the first time the fundamental problem of demographic dispersal could be overcome. Many of those who worked on radio had come from the theatre, and the successful new medium, initially pernicious to the stage arts, soon helped them indirectly, as for the first time something approaching financial security was possible through radio performance. Actor-scriptwriters such as Henry Deyglun and Henri Letondal moved easily back and forth between stage and airwaves, writing prolifically for both media, with their most successful works (Deyglun’s Coeur de maman, for example) occasionally made into films as well. Meanwhile, throughout the worst years of the Depression, burlesque continued to prosper, and to make its influence felt on stage and radio.

The 1930s also brought two major developments that led directly to the full flowering of theatre in the 1960s and beyond. The first of these was the emergence of a group of well-trained amateurs, the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent – ironically, under the supervision of a Catholic priest, Emile Legault, and based initially at a Montreal college, itself under church control. From these amateurs came the professional actors, directors, designers and technicians who continued to shape Quebec’s theatre to the present. The other factor is even more closely tied to one individual, Gratien Gélinas, who was learning his trade as actor and writer for radio and stage revues. By the end of the Second World War Legault’s dedicated graduates had infused new life into the theatrical process; and the première of Gélinas’ first full-length stage play, ’Tit-Coq (1948), permanently changed indigenous playwriting. The full effect of these two factors would be felt over the next decade, but it was only after the end (in 1959) of the repressive premiership of Maurice Duplessis – the period since characterized, with some exaggeration, as ‘La Grande Noirceur’ (The Great Darkness) by some historians – that Quebec’s society, and therefore its culture, truly came of age.

It was in this period also that the major theatrical institutions were established: Le Rideau Vert (1948), a company founded by Yvette Brind’Amour; Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (1951), the most respected and influential of existing theatrical companies in French Canada, founded by former members of Legault’s Compagnons; and the National Theatre School/Ecole nationale du théâtre (1960), with Jean Gascon and Michel Saint-Denis as its first directors. The 1950s witnessed as well the introduction of summer theatre and the sudden profusion of small théâtres de poche, often operating in direct opposition to the policies and repertory of established, traditional companies like the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.

Television came to Canada in 1952, immediately drawing writers, artists and spectators from stage and radio and, for the first time, threatening even the survival of burlesque. Its influence was immediate and pervasive, in every aspect of theatrical arts. The major author of the decade, Marcel Dubé, began writing for national television in 1952, and all his major works (some three dozen, to date) are visibly influenced by that medium, notably Florence (1957) and Un Simple Soldat (1957). His example was soon followed by others, and the transition of a production from stage to television, or vice versa, became commonplace. Finally, the 1950s saw the establishment at the federal level of the Canada Council, followed by provincial and municipal funding agencies whose subsidies and the policies they reflect have had a profound and lasting effect upon theatre in all of Canada.

Consequently, the 1960s was a decade of great effervescence in theatre, marked by enthusiastic iconoclasm, much of it directed, ironically, against existing institutions, especially the governmental ones from which the stage’s economic lifeblood flows. The prolific Dubé dominated the first twothirds of the decade, passing the baton after 1968 to Quebec’s best-known dramatist to date, Michel Tremblay, whose epoch-making Les Belles-soeurs was staged in that year. The revolution inspired by Tremblay was first centred on the choice of language (in his case, the form of Quebec French known as joual – the impoverished, heavily anglicized dialect of the urban proletariat, hitherto considered unfit for public use except in burlesque). Critics, at first too scandalized by that language to appreciate the splendid originality, poetry and strength of Tremblay’s drama, were, in the main, hostile. But within a few years the battle had been won in that arena as well, as amply demonstrated by the sudden surge of plays composed in joual, many of them less than memorable. By 1970 half of the annual stage productions in Quebec were of indigenous works, a crucial development indeed in the evolution of theatre in the province.

The provocative, adversarial and separatist tone of most of the drama written in the early 1970s – much of it composed and performed by collectivist troupes, many of them anarchistic or Marxist in sympathy changed perceptibly after 1976, the year when the first indépendantiste government came to power in Quebec. Thereafter, mainstream drama and theatre were less narrowly introspective and much more universal in focus, representing a healthy antidote to some of the excesses of the preceding 15 years. The early 1980s brought serious problems, most of them economic in origin. With national and international economic recession, public subsidies declined markedly, even as the number of companies continued to increase and the theatregoing proportion of the population remained static. Quebec boasted some 125 professional and at least 425 amateur companies in 1986, more than the total of the other nine provinces combined. Judicious pruning would be necessary to ensure the viability of those companies which deserved to survive. At the same time, the overall quality of stage and costume design, directing and acting continued to rise impressively, as did the level of dramatic composition. Tremblay continued to write major plays (his Albertine en cinq temps, 1984, is considered by many to be his finest play to date), joined now by a dozen dramatists of the first order, most notably Michel-Marc Bouchard, Normand Chaurette, René-Daniel Dubois, Robert Lepage and Jean-Pierre Ronfard. An imposing generation of female writers, most of them actively feminist in their views, also appeared, led by Marie Laberge, Jovette Marchessault, Elisabeth Bourget and Maryse Pel-letier. Many of the latters’ plays have been produced by women’s troupes such as Montreal’s Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes and Quebec City’s Commune à Marie. As Quebec enters the new millennium its theatre remains, despite persistent economic problems, varied, vibrant and self-confident.

It was in Acadia (roughly consistent with today’s Maritime Provinces and part of the state of Maine) that theatre began in 1606, with the performance of Marc Lescarbot’s Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France, but thereafter it disappeared for some 260 years. Its rebirth in Acadia was timid, mainly confined to the college stage, and this was the venue for nearly all theatrical activity until the 1950s, consisting mainly of historical and patriotic texts performed by amateurs for local audiences. Acadia’s first major playwright, and still the dominant literary and dramatic voice for her homeland, was Antonine Maillet. Now internationally known (she received France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1979), she sought to exorcise, in works such as the enormously successful one-woman play, La Sagouine (1971) and Evangéline Deusse (1976), Acadia’s troubled, mythologized past as crystallized in the great Deportation of 1755. Other Acadian playwrights of importance in the 1980s and 1990s are Laval Goupil, Jules Boudreau, Germaine Comeau and Herménégilde Chiasson, all of them concerned with the recuperation of a lost cultural identity and the affirmation of that identity in a linguistically split and economically troubled present.

In Ontario there are three major francophone cultural centres: the Ottawa-Hull area, where theatre in French began in the 1860s and has since been heightened by the growing prominence of the federal capital in the arts as in other spheres; Sudbury; and Toronto. Sudbury is the home of the major Franco-Ontarian dramatist to date, André Paiement (dead, tragically, by suicide in 1978, at the age of 28), and of a rising star, Jean-Marc Dalpé, whose Le Chien, dealing evocatively with the problems of a Franco-Ontarian in an Anglo-Saxon sea, won the Governor-General’s Award for Drama in 1989. There are at present some two dozen French-language troupes active in the province, one of the most enduring and most dynamic being Toronto’s Théâtre du P’tit Bonheur, recently renamed Le Théâtre Français de Toronto. In Manitoba and the West, French-language theatre has been surprisingly widespread, considering the small and declining proportion of French-speakers there. As elsewhere in French Canada, theatre in Manitoba began in educational institutions, in this case in the 1870s. By the 1920s local amateur groups flourished, most notably the Cercle Molière in Saint-Boniface, established in 1925 and still vigorous today. As in Acadia and Ontario, the principal preoccupation of local dramaturgy has been the plight of embattled francophones, as exemplified in the plays of Roger Auger, Claude Dorge and Rose-Marie Bissonnette.

from Eugene Benson, Leonard E. Doucette, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).