RICHARD PERKYNS, ed. Major Plays of the Canadian Theatre, 1934-1984. Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1984. 742 pp, $18.95

RICHARD PLANT, ed. Modern Canadian Drama. Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books, 1984. 908 pp, $16.95

JERRY WASSERMAN, ed. Modern Canadian Plays. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1985. 412 pp, $14.95

Robert Wallace

In his foreword to Richard Perkyns's anthology of Canadian plays, Robertson Davies explains that 'it never occurred to me when I began writing plays that I was contributing to the growth of a Canadian drama' (Perkyns, vii). His comment implies what is made evident not only by Perkyns's anthology but by the other two collections I have been asked to consider: that 'a' Canadian drama - a body of work both discernible and distinct - now is available for production and study, a body which, to a large degree, these collections reconstitute as 'the' canon of modern Canadian drama. That Davies was unaware his plays might or might not be valorized in such a manner indicates as much about the process of canonization as it does about the evolution of Canadian theatre during the fifty years represented in these books. Only Perkyns includes Davies in his anthology; the other two editors, while equally concerned to present 'major plays ... accessible from a single source' (Wasserman, 7), plays that are 'eminently worth performing or reading' (Plant, 13), exclude him for reasons unexplained. For some readers this will suggest Davies's tenuity in the canon, just as the inclusion of work by David French, John Herbert, Sharon Pollock and James Reaney in all three volumes will confirm their essentiality. For me, however, it illustrates the subjective, if not arbitrary, nature by which the canon itself is created - the problematic inherent in the cliché that what is 'major' to one editor can be 'minor' to another. Unfortunately, because these volumes provide the most comprehensive and compact survey of Canadian drama yet published, this can be overlooked far too easily; indeed, I suspect that for most of the teachers and students for whom these volumes seem designed, their very existence will validate Perkyns's assertion that his personal choices, like those of Wasserman and Plant, are more important than the reasons for them - are, without question, what he defines them as being, plays 'not only of outstanding literary and theatrical quality but [ones] that at the same time reflect the total Canadian ethos' (Perkyns, ix).

While the practical utility of anthologies such as these is obvious, their insidious influence in the construction of public knowledge and taste is less immediately evident and, until recently, rarely addressed - a fact that probably accounts for the somewhat cavalier attitude with which the three editors explain the emergence of these volumes. Only Wasserman takes care to outline the reasons for his collection, explaining that its origin was two-fold: to find 'a reasonably priced textbook for my Canadian Drama classes' and 'to sample the best or most successful or historically most important work' in Canadian theatre (7). In his introduction Wasserman elaborates that he intends his twelve choices 'to present as definitively as possible the highlights of modern Canadian drama in English' and how, for him, they represent 'the primary patterns into which modern Canadian drama has shaped itself' (19). His introductory history of Canadian theatre which precedes his short thematic discussion, although somewhat slight, provides a useful framework for approaching his choices and, along with his individual prefaces to the plays throughout the volume, helps to indicate why he considers them major highlights in Canadian theatre. Consistent in his choices is a depiction of 'the process of victimization' (19) that he locates as primary in our culture; using Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye to develop his argument, Wasserman outlines a thematic cohesion among his choices, concluding that 'Myth as the expression of a fundamental desire for some kind of heroism or nobility or efficacy animates every play in this collection' (22). Clearly this thematic is important to this editor, as is his sense that these plays bring him closer to understanding what the term 'Canadian' means.

Richard Perkyns also poses questions about the term 'Canadian' to begin the introduction to his anthology in which, like Wasserman, he prefaces each of his twelve choices with a short critical essay. These, combined with his bibliography that, unlike Wasserman's, includes lists of his authors' plays as well as selected references to general discussions of Canadian drama and specific articles on the individual playwrights, make his book more complete and, possibly, more useful. But while Perkyns is much more rigorously academic in his historical and bibliographic notes, he is much less effective in elucidating the organizing principle(s) for his inclusions which, ironically, makes his choices seem less 'outstanding' than he appears to think they are. Indeed, his failure to address, let alone problematize, the evaluation of 'major' that he builds right into the title of his anthology (which he, like Wasserman, acknowledges 'is an attempt to respond to requests from teachers of Canadian drama for a comprehensive anthology' [ix]) illustrates the nonchalance towards theoretical concerns that undermines his work. Considering that he includes such rarely produced plays as Aviva Ravel's Dispossessed, Herman Voaden's Hill-land and Gwen Pharis Ringwood's Drum Song, I am led to deduce that Perkyns considers production a much less necessary prerequisite to 'major' status than does Wasserman, whose choices can be regarded as 'historically most important' if only because they have been successfully produced on a regular basis. More seriously, just as Perkyns's idea of what constitutes a 'major' play is left unclarified, his definition of an 'established modern dramatist' (ix) is not explained. Does Robertson Davies qualify because he has an international reputation as a novelist? And why does John Herbert, who has had only one play meet with either Canadian or international success, qualify when John Murrell does not?

Such questions would be unnecessary if Perkyns supplied his reasons for his inclusions other than general comments on the order of 'they offer a universal outlook' (ix). While his outline of Canadian theatre history provides the plays with a more thorough background than Wasserman's introduction, which focusses primarily (and appropriately, given his choices) on developments since 1947, it fails to explain how these scripts 'reflect the total Canadian ethos,' particularly when, as Perkyns himself argues, 'the extensive regional differences between [them]' substantiate the assertion that identity in Canada is not only regional but local. Such a fundamental contradiction is exacerbated by other decisions which remain unexplained except in the vaguest of terms. Why begin Major Plays of the Canadian Theatre in 1934 after taking pains to explain that Canadian theatre is centuries old?

Although the decision allows Perkyns to bracket Canadian playwriting into a fifty-year span, it suggests an historical sampling that the volume only partially delivers, the majority of its offerings having been written since the late 60s. While, as Perkyns points out, the fact that the first and last plays in the anthology - Voaden's Hill-land and The Canadian Brothers by James Reaney - were hitherto unpublished supplies the book with a certain symmetry, this hardly provides it with an organizing principle, given that only one other play, Ringwood's Drum Song, fits the same category. Nor does Perkyns's vague suggestion of regional representation which he introduces in his preface seem a consistent or significant criterion.

For his part, Richard Plant offers the smallest amount of contextual information in a book that, as its title suggests, all but ignores 'theatre' and 'plays' - terms used by the other two editors in their titles - in favour of 'drama.' Approaching his inclusions as literary texts, Plant gives little information about the theatre to which they have contributed, an unfortunate oversight that first emerges in the introduction where he writes very little about Canadian theatre history, becomes clearer throughout the volume which omits not only a bibliography for the plays included but any reference to Canadian theatre in general. Plant also foregoes critical prefaces, using instead brief biographical notes on the playwrights to introduce the plays, completely ignoring the other artists who helped to bring these scripts to life as theatrical events; the cryptic production histories that also precede each script usually mention only the date and place of the original production. By comparison, Perkyns provides a full list of the cast and crew for the premiere production of most of his choices, as well as dates and venues; Wasserman offers a shorter list of credits, usually omitting the design and production crew but always including the director and cast.

What Plant invariably does include in his notes on the plays is documentation on the awards they have won, awards that appear to have influenced the overall selection. In the very first paragraph of his introduction, the editor explains that his choices 'demonstrate the generally recognized quality of recent years: among the twelve are six Chalmers Award nominees (four of them winners), the winner of the first Governor General's Award for published drama (Blood Relations, 1981), and four nominees for the Dora Mavor Moore Awards (one winner)' (13). Ironically, he fails to consider that these awards will mean very little to many readers of this book who, he acknowledges, will 'include a number of people unfamiliar with Canadian theatre' (14). Or does this matter to him? Perhaps Plant considers the fact that a play has won an award, no matter from where or from whom, will be as impressive to a reader as it appears to be to him - any award being considered to indicate the 'dramatic excellence' he refers to elsewhere in his introduction (17).

Plant's suggestion that he has picked plays 'eminently worth performing or reading' according to notions of excellence that he fails to explain, let alone acknowledge, indicates an underlying problem of critical practice endemic to the process of canonization that, unfortunately, all these books perpetuate. The notions of 'quality,' 'merit' and 'excellence' - what is 'best,' as Wasserman so baldly puts it - that are valorized in these collections are not just socially produced variables: they are systemic strategies by which critics, editors and teachers confirm their power both to arbitrate and to inculcate cultural values. For me, this problem is so acute that it eclipses the various achievements represented by these collections and forces me to question their fundamental purpose, which I think is not so much economic gain as intellectual control. As an editor who has published over fifty plays myself, I am increasingly concerned about the ways in which my editorial choices, like those of other editors given a similar responsibility, construct not only the scope and style of our emerging canon of dramatic literature, but the horizon of expectation that readers and audiences bring to plays and theatre. To me, it has become essential to make our reasons for our choices absolutely clear and, in fact, to consider why we hold these reasons in the first place. This task, I fully acknowledge, can be more painstaking and time-consuming than editing itself But maybe this is what editing finally is. If so, I must regard these books not as three important anthologies of modern Canadian plays but, rather, as three flawed examples of Canadian editing at an early stage of its evolution.