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?)
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- The Plough and the Stars (O’Casey; dir. Sean Holmes) Abbey Theatre Dublin, at Canadian Stage, Toronto, Sept 2016
- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
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