A brief History of Canadian Theatre

Canada’s theatrical history is less well known then that of many other nations, yet it is the story of a performance tradition that dates back millennia. Canadian theatre has reflected the country’s ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversities, and in certain places and times it has provoked us and challenged us to stand up and define who we really are in this, “the true north, strong and free.”

Ritual

Canadian theatre is older then Canada itself. The Euro-centric idea of theatre (that which began with the Athenians) has been generally dismissed in Canadian academic circles as the theatre’s starting point. Instead the ceremonies, powwows and other shamanistic rituals of Canada’s First Nations have been belatedly recognized and valued as performance activities, and have been the subject of much more scholarly attention. Unfortunately, much of this theatre history is now lost, as is much of the history of Canada’s native peoples.

Colonial Theatre

The first recorded European-style theatrical event in what is now Canada was Marc Lescarbot’s Le Theatre de Neptune en la Nouvelle France, a scripted spectacle in much the same vein as a court masque, complete with elaborate special effects and colonists dressed as natives (racism in the New World already being well entrenched). But beyond that there isn’t much to Canada’s theatre during the colonial period. Like most of the world, the 18th and 19th centuries brought Canada very little in the way of quality theatre. There were performances, mostly poor reproductions of Shakespeare and other European classics, as well as base melodrama and touring productions from the American “star circuit.” Canada’s founding in 1867 did little to spur dramatic innovation.  

The early 20th century

Canada’s theatre history begins in earnest with the dawn of the 20th century. It began with amateur performers in places like Toronto’s Hart House Theatre. Taking inspiration from places like Ireland’s Abbey Theatre these pioneers began to see theatre as part of the process of forging a nation’s identity.  This, finally, led to the development of Canadian playwrights. Merrill Denison, Robertson Davies, Herman Voaden and others began writing plays (for the stage, and also for the radio) with Canadian themes for Canadian audiences.

French and English theatre explosions

One of the most important things to remember about Canadian theatre is that it is not a story of one national drama, but two – the English-Canadian (which is relatively simple) and the French-Canadian (which is anything but). While the social, linguistic, cultural and especially political messages each of these dramas reflect would fill volumes the one thing a casual student of Canadian theatre history should know is that the French and English theatres each have a different point in the 20th century when it is agreed that they “came of age.” In Quebec this point is 1945, but in the rest of Canada it is 1967, the centennial year.

1967

Canada’s centennial provided the impetus for some important developments in Canadian theatre – the Canada Council for the Arts (a major funding body), the Dominion Drama Festival (an adjudicated competition for amateur companies) and the development of many of Canada’s largest theatres. In 1967 George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe encapsulated, in a way, much of the fabric of the emerging national conscience – a successful play by the son of Ukranian immigrants about the cultural degradation of Canada’s native peoples, with aboriginal characters playing supporting roles in the play, yet with a white woman in the leading title role.

The modern era

Canadian theatre has continued to evolve along this dual path – combining thought-provoking, nation-forging ideas on the one hand (of which the treatment of native Canadians is but one) with commercially “safe” escapism on the other (exemplified with problems like the limited roles available for actors of Asian descent, among others). It will be some time before these two forces synthesize into a coherent unified vision, if ever, and Canada’s theatre history remains a rapidly evolving, shifting, perhaps distorting reflection of national identity.