About a month ago, Jordan Tannahill posted what he called an “anti-canon of essential Canadian theatre and performance” in list form as a note on Facebook; a few weeks later, a modified version appeared as blog post on praxistheatre.com; and yesterday, Sarah Garton Stanley’s response to Tannahill’s original list was posted on praxistheatre.com. The latter note ended with a rallying cry for the compiling of a multitude of similar lists.

I fear I couldn’t seriously respond to that call: I’ve not lived here for long enough, nor am I a historian of Canadian drama or theatre, and I’d have little to contribute beyond what I can crib from the pages of some of the standard works. But both Tannahill’s original effort and Stanley’s rejoinder have me asking questions that may be of some limited use:

– I’m struck, first off, by the extremely paradoxical proposition of an anti-canon of essential works. Surely those two terms — “anti-canon” on the one hand, “essential” on the other — are at odds with one another? If something is essential, it ought to be canonical; one may complain about its lack of generally recognized canonical status, but the very claim of essentiality implies that the work deserves to be in the canon. The only legitimate way an “anti-canon” could be constituted, as far as I can see, would be by doubling down on the principle of total subjectivity: here’s a list of 100 productions that are essential to me.

That’s what Stanley seemed to have in mind, too, in the list she drafted. In her post on the Praxis blog, she’s quite clear that her list records things she loved — i.e. (I take it) performances she has seen and that had an impact on her, as an audience member and as an artist.

Tannahill’s list was rather a different beast. As he says, many of the entries on it were produced before he was born and many others he didn’t see. However, given the clear focus of the list on performance, not on text — on productions that may not feature in the standard anthologies because textually, they’re not suitable for that kind of collection — this is a tricky undertaking. I’m sure it’s possible to say that Mavor Moore’s Spring Thaw has a place in the Canadian canon, but that can’t really be a subjective claim (since those revues were long over by the time Tannahill entered the world). The argument then becomes that this particular set of shows was more influential or important as performances than John Coulter’s Riel or the Robertson Davies plays at the Crest (all of the same period as Spring Thaw). I don’t really know on what basis that argument could be made, given that very, very few of us saw any of these shows on stage.

– Secondly, how can any canon — or even an anti-canon — include performances rather than texts or films? I’m fascinated by Tannahill’s rationale: what his list in part hopes to register is the works’ “impact, what is passed down through documentation, oral tradition, and the influence felt/seen in the work of subsequent generations of artists.” (I don’t want to sound catty: I think this is a very real question and very interesting response to it.) He’s right, of course: the majority of important performances are influential not directly but in a highly mediated fashion: you hear about them, you might see pictures, a few clips, read descriptions. However, if that’s true, then the ethos of the list (that the works it contains are “worthy of continued study/appreciation”) is perhaps a little off the mark: what strikes me as worthy of study is the reception of some of these works more than the works themselves, which are mostly gone in any case.

– That takes me to my third question: is a list of this kind really helpful? At least with many of the pieces in the Tannahill anti-canon, the uninitiated (like me) can go and read up on what some of those things were. With Sarah Garton Stanley’s list, I’m mostly lost. It’s doubtless my own fault (I don’t feel too guilty, though: I don’t, after all, make my living working in or studying contemporary Canadian theatre), but most of the names and pieces she lists mean nothing to me. What would be more exciting than a list — and more lasting as a record of non-mainstream Canadian theatre history — would be brief, subjective accounts of what seemed to matter about each of these shows.

– My fourth query concerns that idea of a non-mainstream theatre history. I don’t know that I really understand what it means. What or where is (was) the mainstream? There was a time when the most exciting work in Canadian theatre (as I understand the history of our national theatre culture) happened in fairly mainstream places — unless by mainstream, we mean commercial. But we don’t, do we?

– Fifthly, I can’t help but wonder what the status of the long-standing academic study of these questions is for theatre artists interested in recovering (or recording) an alternative history of Canadian performance. It rankles a bit (academics are easily perturbed by this sort of thing) that neither list-maker seems to think of their efforts as endeavours in close dialogue with debates that have been central to the work of a sizeable number of scholars in Canadian English and Theatre Studies departments for at least the past thirty years. Why not?

– Lastly, and to me, most crucially, I must admit that I find the particular focus of these lists quite depressing. They categorically exclude the possibility that Canadian productions of plays written by non-Canadians could have an impact on our theatre scene; and they do not contemplate the idea that exciting formal developments can occur — can be initiated — in new productions of old plays. In the case of Stanley’s list with its deliberate experiential focus, that’s just a little saddening; in the case of Tannahill’s list, with its broader historical sweep, I actually find it disturbing. One may like or dislike what Stratford stands for, but I think it would be hard to discount the impact of the festival’s first years on the Canadian theatre scene — an impact that had much less to do with the plays performed (there was Shakespeare in Canada before Guthrie…), but with a new performance venue, a new performance approach, a new infrastructure for professional performances. I don’t know which Stratford production(s) would need to feature in a list of essential Canadian theatre, but then I also don’t know which Judith Thompson play or which Smith-Gilmore show, or which Electric Company production should be picked. And surely the same is true of, say, the 1969 TPM staging of Futz? Or perhaps even one of the early Soulpepper efforts?

To be clear: what bothers me is that a list explicitly designed as a record of Canadian theatre (not of Canadian-authored drama) still only contains performances based on texts by Canadians or shows devised, created, collectively generated by Canadian artists. I also take it, though, that this decision reflects a fairly wide-spread way of thinking about what Canadian theatre is, and how to do innovative and exciting theatre in Canada now. So my discomfort is not so much with these two lists as such, but with what they, to me, represent (I should say that this is not an exclusively Canadian problem: I have found the same to be true of recent histories of modern UK theatre as well). To my mind, there is no reason why, say, a 1970s Canadian production of a Shakespeare play should not appear in lists like these: it’s a Canadian performance; it’s part of a Canadian theatre culture; if it had an impact, it did so not because of Shakespeare, but because of the Canadian artists (or the artists working in Canada) and because of the Canadian audience watching them. That the text that occasioned the performance may be hundreds of years old shouldn’t matter one bit: that’s not what gave the performance its power to excite.

As they are, these lists seem to associate the ability to affect change, to influence other artists, to shape a theatre, with completely new work (or, very occasionally, with work that adapts older non-theatrical texts into performance pieces; and with the singular exception of Philip McKee’s Lear). That is, indeed, the logic that underwrites much of our current theatrical endeavours. As far as I’m concerned, this is a very, very troubling development. But I don’t want to hold forth — so let me simply ask, instead: why is there no room on lists like these for new performances of old plays? (And I’d be happy to include new productions of older Canadian plays in that: the dates in Tannahill’s list suggest that all these works were influential when they were first staged, and had only a mediated impact thereafter. Surely there must be at least a few Canadian plays that have been restaged, perhaps to different and differently influential effect?)

2 Responses to Six Anti-Canonical Questions

  1. Hi Holger,

    I really appreciate your responses to writing on praxistheatre.com. Hooray for robust intellectual engagement. I have responses to all of your questions having thought about this for a bit:

    1 – There is no argument to be made for Sarah’s list. Without speaking for her, I think the point is that we all have our own lists, that there is no one singular list, and thus her call to action for others to create their own. In that context, an academic or intellectual justification for her list would be a true paradox.

    2 – I am not confused by a list of performances vs texts or films. One is ephemeral and is gone as soon as it happens. The others are physical and can be reproduced identically at will. A list that recognizes this seems like a fair exercise. The ephemeral is at a distinct disadvantage in our collective memories.

    3 – It’s okay that they mean nothing to you (See #1).

    4 – No “mainstream” does not mean “commercial”. As you know, the vast majority or our theatres are not-for-profit institutions. However, some of them are risk-adverse and produce work that reaffirm mainstream values other are more adventurous and challenge them. I would like to have a career working at all these places so don’t make me go into detail.

    5 – This one is my favourite. Mostly it makes me think – BUT WHERE ARE OTHER ACADEMICS IN ANY OF OUR DISCUSSIONS? In seven years of editing praxistheatre.com and hundreds of discussions over more than a thousand blog posts, you you are one of the first serious academics to engage with us. (Thanks!) There is a major and unnecessary divide between artists and academics. Any kind of engagement from the world of ivory towers would probably elicit many responses – but there have been 0. Our discussions are open sourced and can involve anyone. Yours are wrapped in many layers of barriers to artists trying to make work and ends meet. Happy to rectify this, but it’s not on us.

    6 – I like this point (which you make often). I think it is connected to arts funding and the idea that it is to tell “Canadian Stories” (which you have also addressed.) One of our projects at Praxis is creating an original adaptation of works by Brecht and Orwell adapted by Nicolas Billon. Will this play adapted, directed, performed and designed by Canadians not be “Canadian”? What if we incorporate beaver pelts? Hopefully minds are opening to how we define these things.

    Thanks again for being on the vanguard of engagement from the academic world. Bring your friends!


  2. Brian P says:

    Hi Holger,

    I felt similarly in some aspects to the lists in what (or I should say who) decides the productions mentioned on the list. Especially if the production is only known by hear-say and that it may well have been a stepping stone of Canadian Theatre History. The issue is that, and I may be a bit cynical, there is no essential criteria for the anti-canon list other than what seems to be a more-or-less independent theatre one time only vibe. Not to mention that some of these shows are incredibly well written (as a text based play) and deserve recognition on their own right for that. In once wrote an assignment on the “historical timeline” in a Canadian Theatre History course where I investigated a bilingual production of “Romeo and/et Juliette.” Of course reviews are our only way of looking back on a show we’ve never seen so naturally whatever the critics said define that production. Not that I’m saying it should be, but who’s to say that it doesn’t deserve to be on such a list? Which leads me to wonder the use of the list is by the end of it all…how do we examine or study a performance we have never seen?

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