Saturday 2 April 2022

The Concept Formerly Known as Nationalism: Canadian Theatre in Theory and Practice

(This post is a repurposing of a conference presentation from 2002.)

Plenary Panel with respondents Djanet Sears, Richard Rose, Ker Welles and John Mighton, Association for Canadian Theatre Research (ACTR), 25 May 2002, University of Toronto

                                                            Professor Jay Sour, PhD, GDCS, MA, BA

In 1975, the theme for the newly-founded Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures at the  Learned Societies’ Conference in Edmonton was Canadian and Quebec theatre.  Although the conference programme was designed as a series of  “Confrontations” between French and English Canadian presenters, what emerged was a schism between academics, on one side,  and theatre practitioners, led by George Ryga, on the other.  Ryga would later write that the conference 

. . . left this observer with some critical questions about the role of universities as a supportive force in developments of Canadian drama in both languages.  Well-intentioned and vigorous statements were made about critical study and publication of papers on our dramas.  No doubt, these enquiries will have their effect.  I am in agreement with the sardonic comment by Jean-Claude Germain that more young Canadians are now studying Canadian drama that will ever see it as a living art in our theatres. 1 

The first question I would like to put before the panel is: Has the situation improved since 1975?  In 1975,  I fully agreed with Ryga that the academy did not seem willing to fulfill its moral obligations to promote Canadian theatre.  Today as a university professor I find Canadian theatre the most difficult subject matter I am required to teach.  Despite the existence of organizations like the Association for Canadian Theatre Research, my impression is that the gap between the academy and the theatre, between theory and practice, has grown over the postmodern period.  Is there reason, hope or even a desire to establish a framework for understanding the common ground of mutual interests among Canadian theatre practitioners and scholars? 

In the '70s my answer to this question would have been, without hesitation, “yes,” but its justification would have been couched in terms of Canadian nationalism. The concept of nationalism seems to have proven endlessly problematic and, in the end, perhaps even a liability in this country.  So, how do we get beyond the myths and negative stereotypes of Canadian nationalism?  How do we get beyond what John Ralston Sal calls the “negative nationalism” of fear and panic leading to conformity, ethnocentrism and xenophobia?  How do we steer clear of the pitfalls of essentialism and identity, as well as liberal-humanist illusions of universality?  How do we get beyond that nationalism which has been so readily labelled as zealous, jingoistic, militant and even racist, or condescending multicultural pigeon-holing, imposed bi-culturalism, or hegemonic harmonization?  How do we move toward an embracing and celebration of transculturalism and post-nationalism?  How do we take advantage of what Robert Wallace calls “the opportunities [which indeterminacy] provides for social justice” and begin to imagine the as yet “unimagined” alliances he alludes to ( Theatre and Transformation in Contemporary Canada 52)?     The objective of my presentation is to open reflection on how to continue the process of both theorizing and practising Canadian theatre as part of an  “imagined community” or at least as a crossroads of many “imagined communities,” as part of  what Denis Salter describes as  “an ideological complex which to function completely must always subject its premises and methods to rigorous re-examination” and Richard Knowles calls the cultivation of  “concerted difference and radical contingency.”  How can we participate in what Charles Taylor characterizes as  “deep diversity in which a plurality of ways of belonging would also be acknowledged and accepted” and  Sal calls the “positive nationalism of an open debate”? 

The premise of my argument is simply this:  No thing means anything by itself.   In my thinking, meaning derives from one thing’s connections and relationships to other things, to the world around it.   A text means something because it has a context.  A sign, a gesture, a word, a phrase, a play, a performance, a life–each has the potential to mean something because it can be connected and related to some other matrix of signs, gestures, objects, ideas, lives.  “Meaning,” in my thinking, is never sure, never guaranteed, never absolutely accurate or controllable.  Meaning is an endless process with infinite potential.  Conscious effort is required to grasp particular, specific meanings once the conditions are in place,  but ultimately, I suspect, most meanings simply happen.  We all do it, but I take artists in particular–such as playwrights, directors, designers and actors–to be in the business of putting things together in new and original ways and thus creating new meanings.  Readers, audiences, critics, scholars, teachers and students engage in the process which the artist unleashes.  Sometimes they “get” an intended meaning; sometimes they miss or misconstrue meanings; sometimes they add, transform and even enrich meanings.  Most of the time they do all of the above.   I take theatre artists and theatre scholars to be deeply and actively involved in this meaning-making process.  We have a mutual vested interest in making meanings as full and rich as possible. 

When I make the leap of speaking of Canadian theatre, Canadian playwrights, Canadian audiences, I do so, not to impose a restriction, not to suggest a requirement or even an objective.  I think it is a sound, logical assumption that the meanings circulating through and around plays written and performed by Canadians and viewed by a Canadian public should be particularly rich, full, vigorous and apparent.  If this is not the case, we need to wonder and ask why?   

To begin to illustrate my thinking in concrete terms I will have to outline where it and I came from. My first encounter with what might be called a nationalist issue was as a high school debater in a tournament at the University of Ottawa being asked to debate Mathews and Steele’s proposition that ‘two-thirds of Canadian university professors should be Canadian educated.’  I was opposed.  When I was an undergraduate at Carleton University, Robin Mathews created a stir by publicly complaining that there was not a single Canadian literary work in the required first-year survey for English Majors.  I was not impressed.  Although I knew the lyrics of  Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot,  could recite poems by Robert Service, had read a number of Pierre Burton’s Klondike books and had seen all the episodes of The Whiteoaks of Jalna on TV, I felt an unmitigated pride in the superiority of my honours BA degree in English because I had been able to complete the first three years of it without ever being required to study a single piece of literature written by a Canadian.  To add to my cynicism about a nationalist agenda, one summer of my undergraduate years  I was part of a theatre troop which garnered an Opportunities for Youth grant by unabashedly claiming that we were going to spread the good news of national unity across the Maritimes.  When a graduate student named Terry Goldie was invited to give a presentation on the history of Canadian theatre in one of my classes, I was honestly surprised to discover that some people thought there was such a thing as Canadian theatre, all the more so that it had a history.  It was at this same moment that I happened to befriend Bill Law, a fellow student who shared my interest in theatre but who was, much to my discomfort, tightly connected with the Can Lit cabal at Carleton University. In 1974 when (my friend) Bill Law and I had taken over the leadership of Sock ‘n Buskin, the Carleton University Drama Society,  I was shocked and dismayed by Bill’s stubborn insistence that we were going to do a complete season of Canadian plays.  I decided to follow along with Bill’s plan because I was convinced that he would see the folly of his aspirations as soon as we tried to put them into action.  I thought I had proven my case when I checked out all the Canadian plays I could find in the Carleton University library–there were eight. 

     Bill Law remained undaunted and in the next twelve months Sock 'n' Buskin produced six plays including the premiere of Robin Mathew’s problem drama, A Woman is Dying, Mavor Moore’s musical Sunshine Town based on the Leacock sketches and Gerry Potter’s collective creation Chaudiere Strike.  The success of this season inspired us to join with Lois Shannon, Robin Mathews and Larry McDonald to form the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa with the continuing mandate of producing Canadian plays.  Although I remained the token liberal in the years I served on the company’s board of management, this period of nationalist awareness left me with the clear impression that nationalism was an obvious and appropriate response to the kinds of events and situations I found myself facing in the mid to late '70s. 

“Nationalist awareness” sounds terribly significant and expansive, but what I mean is simply that once the idea that Canada was a sovereign nation and, as such, should logically be promoting its own growth and development was in my head, I began to notice and question those times when it became obvious that this was not happening.  For example, I discovered that in 1974 there was considered to be an appropriate language for doing theatre in English in Canada.  When I called the Ottawa Little Theatre looking for a lead actor,  I was surprised that the very first question I was asked was would I accept an actor with a Canadian accent.  Thus, in a single moment, I discovered that there was such a thing as a Canadian accent (and, it slowly dawned on me that I must speak with this accent) and that it was not apt for the theatre. I found poetic justice in the fact that the first hit of The Great Canadian Theatre Company was an original play called Yonder Lies the Valley which required that the actors speak a broad Ottawa valley brogue and learn to step dance and appreciate the virtuosity of fiddle music. 

At the 1975 Learneds, I was sitting beside Robin Mathews listening to A.J.M Smith present a paper on Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.  When Smith concluded his paper with the comment that the play demonstrated that Canada didn’t have the kind of heroes which could be successfully dramatized on stage, Robin Mathews began to boo loudly.  The room cleared quickly, everyone trying to get away, as fast and as far as possible, from Mathews.  It probably didn’t help that someone had salted the rumour that I was Mathews’ bodyguard. 

When I became involved in the process of trying to raise funds for the newly formed company, I quickly discovered that the most common reason given by granting institutions, various levels of government and individuals for not supporting the GCTC was that they already supported The Ottawa Little Theatre or The National Art Centre.  When I pointed out that neither of these institutions produced Canadian plays, the argument had little purchase.  In fact, despite my earlier impressions that a nationalist agenda was a guarantee of funding, I began to realize that almost the opposite was the case.  The company’s mission to produce plays by Canadians seemed to put its credibility in question.    

Even after leaving the theatre company and beginning studies in film and television, I seemed condemned to nationalist epiphanies.  I remember a university professor who was giving a course on Canadian film being asked why Don Shebib who had directed Going Down the Road had used only American actors for the leading roles in his film Second Wind.  The professor’s answer was that “there are no Canadian actors.”  When pressed, he allowed that there were three or four significant Canadian actors, but if Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, Christopher Plummer and John Collicos were busy then a director would have to use American actors. 

When I canvassed my fellow students in this course, I discovered that I alone preferred Shebib’s Canadian classic over his later work.  As one of my fellow students so aptly explained to me, “it makes perfect sense that people would prefer the later film because it looked more like what they already knew and considered ‘good’; that is, an American film.” 

In 1979 I happened to be in the control room in Toronto where CBC producers were receiving the feeds for the National News.  Most of the footage for the Canadian news was being fed to us from American sources.  The control room which was usually a somewhat noisy, bustling place went completely silent as everyone stopped to watch a series of scenes from David Fennario’s Balconville being broadcast to us from Montreal. When the sequence finished, the noise returned and the decision was quickly made not to include it in the National News.  Instead of the scenes from Balconville, there was an announcement that after three days in hospital John Wayne was resting comfortably.     

And so in the 70s, nationalism, to me,  seemed like the right answer, a logical corrective response to what seemed to me obvious errors and oversights.  Nationalism meant that Canadian theatres should be presenting plays written and produced by Canadians, and theatres which took the extra risk of presenting new and original Canadian works should be funded.  It meant that theatre in Canada should be allowed to be done in whatever languages, dialects or accents Canadians happened to speak.  To me, nationalism also meant that Canadians should be cognizant of the fact that there was an overabundance of talent in the country.  Canada had the good luck and grace of attracting talented immigrants from around the world.  Talented people were born and developed here.  Canada had talent enough to export endlessly into the USA and still have enough left at home to keep life interesting.   Nationalism meant recognizing that Canadians were as fit subjects for drama as the peoples of any other nation.  Nationalism also meant educating audiences to an openness to new, original and different styles of performing art, and it meant that when a play came along that was of obvious interest and significance, the national media had an obligation to tell people about it. 

But of course, nationalism was also the wrong response.  Even within the Great Canadian Theatre Company, we talked about how we were a vanguard movement, a radical response to a temporary situation.  When a hundred theatre companies started doing Canadian plays we would be happy to be put out of business.  However, in the years that followed I discovered a heartfelt animosity toward nationalist agendas in the Canadian public–people telling me that they would never accept having Canadian theatre shoved down their throats.  People who had never seen a Canadian play, couldn’t name a Canadian playwright and would be perfectly open to Italian theatre or German, or British or American theatre, still maintained that their liberty would be threatened by Canadian theatre.   There was clearly a mythology of nationalism in Canada; and here I mean "mythology" in the terms used by Roland Barthes; that is, a connection of one word to others that did not derive from its denotation.  The GCTC never seemed to be identified as simply a group of nationalists, but always as rabid, ranting, foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists in addition to being narrow, provincial, parochial and tribal. 

Of course, I understood the objections to nationalism in conceptual terms and from world history, but I still had trouble making sense of the objections in the Canadian context.   Every textbook on the subject of Canada rehearses the same basic set of facts.  At first glance, Canada doesn’t make sense as a country.  Everything about the country’s social and physical geography suggests that it should not exist.  We live in a country that is three thousand miles long, in which 90% of the population lives within a hundred miles of the American border; the vast territories to the north remain largely unknown to the majority of the population.   We are divided by language, race, ethnicity, gender, by sexual and political orientation, province, region and class.  The urban centres are growing, largely in isolation from one another, while every place else stagnates and shrinks.   Such a place can only be held together through conscious and considerable human effort.  Yet, nationalism seems to be a minor and extremely weak force in Canadian life.  I grew up being told that this country was held together by a railway.  The railway was sold because the truth was that in an age of communications the country was really tied together through its public broadcasting system.  As soon as this notion had installed itself, the budgets of the CBC were massively slashed.  Most recently the truism has become that Canada is held together by its distinctive network of social programmes: no sooner said than those programmes are under attack at every level of government in the country.  On the basis of recent history, I am not about to propose that the theatre is or should be a means of holding the country together. 

Of course, I have often wondered about the distinct antipathy of Canadians toward nationalism.  1970s notions of colonial mentalities and inferiority complexes have never rung completely true for me.  The idea of a capitalist conspiracy has at times seemed to supply at least the beginnings of an answer but, these days, the intentions of a globalized economy, though carried out behind closed doors, seem too apparent to be called a conspiracy. To me, Canadians seem quietly conceited about their nationality. 

For the sake of the discussion–because I think the discussion is all–let us bracket nationalism as an impediment and an attack on individual liberty. Let us remove Canadian nationalism from the discussion because of its potential associations with imperialism, racism, fascism, essentialism, patriarchalism, and xenophobia.  But at the same time let us embrace this other thing that celebrates difference and the ex-centric, that takes into account the rights of individuals and the legitimacy of self-interest, as well as justice and reason, tolerance and openness, creativity and imagination, pleasure and play, and critical and aesthetic judgment but which, in the end, allows us to remain net promoters of Canadian theatre and the theatre in Canada.  I am prepared to be unsentimental about the destiny of the Canadian nation, but I would consider it a tragedy if Canadians did not participate fully in the exchange and debate and decision-making process that determined its future and if theatre practitioners and admirers, teachers and critics were not part of that process.   Let us resurrect the lost art of “conversation” (297) which Richard Gwyn alludes to in Nationalism Without Walls and recognize, as Ramsay Cook underlines, that the basic obligation of the nation is “peace, order and good government” and the provision of a structure to “protect cultural pluralism.”  Then let us talk in and about a framework, a forum, an open debate, an encadrement , and recognize that it is time to prioritize problem-solving and construction.  Perhaps we find a hint of the beginnings of what we might be looking for in Alain Filewod’s observation of the documentary theatre’s impulse to “accommodate rapid social change” (qtd in Wallace, 24). 

I speak most humbly in the shadow of great projects and works on Canadian theatre that have been undertaken and completed by scholars in recent years.  My sentiment is that this work has not been celebrated sufficiently and widely enough.   I was also motivated to open this discussion after witnessing the presentations of Guillermo Verdecchia,  Rahul Varma, Michel Marc Bouchard and Aviva Ravel at the Laval conference last year, and recognizing how much they had contributed to the vitality and the validity of the association’s meeting and wanting to encourage more of the same. 

My remarks have been intended to create an opening where I perceived an impasse, a hesitance, a reluctance to discuss.  It is an impasse which I see as having an effect on me as both as an amateur (I like the French word because it implies a lover) of the theatre in Canada and as a teacher.   Last year I taught a course I had created called Anglo-Québécois Literature.  As I told my students, I really didn’t know if there was such a thing as Anglo-Québécois literature and the course title should have ended in a question mark.  However, the course gave me the excuse to present works by David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi and Colleen Curran, and to invite each of these playwrights to speak to the class.  The students’ attitudes toward the concept of anything Anglo-Québécois ranged from chauvinistic attachment to pronounced antagonism, and there was little harmony in the writers’ responses to the expression. Nonetheless, the students’ awareness of the issues in question gave meaning to the works of these writers and significance to their presence. 

During the same period, I led a graduate seminar on Comparative Canadian Drama, a course which I regularly and apologetically describe to students as a study of forensics because although I intend that we should study the theatre, by which I mean the performance of plays, we, in fact, could only study history, biography, theory, and scripts together with our own readings, improvisations and background knowledge of performance.  When I had the opportunity to invite David French, a playwright I have long admired, to this seminar, I realized that the students had very little means through which to relate to French and his work.  The students had read Salt-Water Moon and Antonine Maillet’s much-praised translation of the same play, La Lune Salé, but French was not really a Newfoundland writer although his play is set there, nor could he say very much about the business of translation.  When asked about being a Canadian playwright, French’s answer was an icy “If I was being produced just because I was a Canadian; I’d rather not be produced.”  Immediately, I thought, ‘what a typically Canadian answer!’    What Italian, Swedish, German, Japanese, English, French, Ethiopian, American, Moroccan or Iranian writer would answer the question “what does it mean to be a playwright of your nationality?”  this way?   I am in agreement with Filewod’s observation that “‘true Canadianism . . . can never be achieved” (“Between Empires” 14).    I am not interested in a list of immortal features or a defined and regulated culture or an identity to call Canadian, but I would like to be able to have a conversation on the topic of  “Canadian theatre” and  “theatre in Canada,” whatever these expressions might mean,  just to see where the conversation takes us. 

1. qtd. in Rota Herzberg Lister’s  “Constructing a Canadian Theatrical Culture: The 1975 Conference of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures in Historical and Personal Perspective,”   Textual Studies in Canada/ Études textuelles au Canada , 6 (1995): 22-32. 

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