Alexander M. Leggatt

The history of the theatre includes not only the facts that can be documented - productions, playhouses, sets and costumes - but a number of less tangible factors as well. One of particular importance to the Canadian theatre is the history of attitudes to the theatre itself. That is the history I would like to trace in this article. The fifty-year span the study covers shows a change in the handling of one particular theme - the theme of the land itself - that reflects a corresponding change, at a deeper level, in the attitude of the Canadian playwright to the theatre he works in.

Theatre has not always been taken for granted in this country, least of all by its practitioners. In 1928 Merrill Denison wrote, "I find writing about the Canadian theatre or drama depressingly like discussing the art of dinghy sailing among the bedouins... It is not at all surprising that there should be no Canadian drama. One's surprise comes from learning that anyone could have seriously believed that there ever could be a Canadian drama.1 Denison was of course using his artist's prerogative of exaggerating to make a point. But we know enough of the struggles of that time to realize that beneath the bitter joke lay a real problem: Canadian drama and theatre existed, but without deep roots and with little continuity of achievement.

The main reason Denison gave for this problem was that we lacked a national cultural capital, a single city that could be for us the equivalent of London, Paris or New York:, a place where the theatre could put down permanent roots and flourish. Denison did not anticipate the development of strong regional theatres in the 1960's, an international phenomenon in which Canada has shared, and which has had much to do with the flourishing of professional theatre in this country. But if his assumption that you need a single capital has proved wrong, there is a deeper idea behind it that is still valid, and that posed a more fundamental problem for the Canadian drama of his day. Whatever its origins in folk ritual, drama is traditionally an urban form. It breeds in cities. And, while one can think of many exceptions, it seems on the whole to take more naturally to city life as its subject matter - the busy traffic of man with man in a crowded world - than it does to the quieter life of the countryside. And until after the Second World War Canada was predominantly a rural culture. I do not mean simply that the majority of the population lived outside the big cities; I am thinking not of statistics but of a state of mind. Canadians thought of themselves as a rural people. (There are still traces of this left. The peculiar Canadian academic year, with its exceptionally long summer vacation, reflects the assumption that when summer comes students are needed on the farm.) And Canadians identified their country more easily with its landscape than with anything man had made. They saw the landscape as uninhabited, even alien. In literature, men against nature was a favourite theme.2 Possibly the most important, and certainly the best known, expression of Canadian culture in the early years of the Twentieth Century was the Group of Seven school of landscape painting. It is a feature of these paintings that, unlike European landscapes, they contain no human figures.

But from the Second War onwards there has been a gradual change in the way Canadians think of themselves. We can see the change outlined in the way James Reaney's Colours in the Dark traces, simultaneously, the growth of Reaney's own imagination and the history of his country. The central character begins as a child in a small Ontario town and then becomes a student in Toronto and a teacher in Winnipeg. The play's images go from church picnics, berry-picking and thunderstorms to railway stations, city streets and boarding-houses: from the rural to the urban. The historical period at which the central character becomes a city dweller is roughly equivalent to the period at which Canadians as a whole started moving to the cities in droves.

We now have our national drama. It has developed at a time when our culture has been moving away from the land that used to nourish the national imagination and made that imagination distinctive. Indeed, the move may be a vital factor in making our achievement in drama possible. In the argument that follows I would like to explore this paradox and its implications in a historical way, showing what Canadian playwrights from Denison onwards have thought of rural life, and how their image of rural life has been bound up, consciously or not, with their views of their own roles as playwrights and of the culture in which they worked. I am concentrating on the drama of Ontario because it is least complicated by other factors, such as memories of the Depression in Western Canada or the special political issues of Quebec. But what this drama shows us may have broader implications for the Canadian playwright's developing view of his art.

The first playwright who claims our attention is Merrill Denison himself. The title of his 1923 collection of plays, The Unheroic North, indicates his reaction against the popular, Romantic image of Canada as a land of tall pines and rugged mountains, peopled by a race of clean-cut young men with clear blue eyes. Denison presents his own view of backwoods Ontario, which he knew not from tourist posters but first hand. The best known of these plays is Brothers in Arms, a one-act farce about a big city businessman, J. Altrus Browne, who finds himself trapped in the backwoods and trying to get back to town for an urgent appointment. His wife Dorothea is unperturbed by his problems, as she is delighted to be in the romantic wilderness, with its strong silent men, she has seen in movies like Land of the Summer Snows, Unfortunately the backwoodsmen her husband encounters are not so much strong and silent as talkative, evasive and stupid. Browne wants someone to drive him to the station to catch a train; the particular backwoodsman he is dealing with would rather tell rambling stories about deer-hunting than deal with the business at hand. To any direct question his answer is always 'It's kinda hard to say.' The integrity of rural life in this play consists in its being slowmoving, stupid and impenetrably self-contained.

The most ambitious play in the collection is Marsh Hay, a full-length drama about the futility and despair of a farming family trying to eke out a living on the Canadian shield. The phrase that describes their farm, 'fifty acres of grey stone', is repeated throughout the play almost to the point of self-parody; but the repetition is Denison's way of conveying the mind-numbing futility of his characters' existence. The central character is the father of the family, John Serang, who spends his time denouncing the land, the government, his wife and children - anything that will excuse his own failure as a farmer. There is some point to his diatribes, as when he attacks the 'head lads' in Toronto for neglecting an area in which 'They's townships that ain't got twenty voters if they got that many' (p 43) 3 but there is also something self-destructive about Serang. He could leave his land and try his luck in the West, but he always finds some reason not to. At the start of the play, he comes back from cutting marsh hay with the complaint that there is not enough hay on the marshes 'to winter a cat' (p 10); but we also know that he has left the cutting too late, as he does every year, and others have been there before him. He takes an extra job to bring in some money, but it doesn't last: 'Got histed out'n my job. Some fellow from Hendale come along and offered to do the teamin for fifty cents a day less. I quit' (p 45). The ambiguity of the line is revealing: he was hoisted out of his job; he quit of his own volition. Serang is a put-upon man, the victim of other people, he is also a proud man, who will destroy himself rather than suffer a slight to his pride. Above all, he is the victim of his own despair. His bitterness is not that of a wounded idealist but that of a man who cannot accept that anything ever could go right. When one of his friends tells him 'You're expectin too much,' he replies, 'I ain't expectin nothin, Andy. I ain't crazy' (p 43).

Serang's despair is mirrored in the action of the play as a whole. His daughter Sarilin becomes pregnant; Serang tries to handle the affair in the usual way by forcing the girl and her seducer into a shotgun wedding; but his wife Lena, who has got some unconventional ideas from a city woman, tries to treat Sarilin's pregnancy differently. She puts the girl to bed, tidies up the house, puts up new curtains and does everything she can to create a decent home for the baby to be born into. As part of this campaign she sets her face against any marriage between Sarilin and the worthless young lout who happens to be the baby's father. Under Lena's influence the Serang household, which we saw in the first act as a place of filth and misery, becomes clean, bright, and even dignified, much to Serang's own bewilderment. But Lena has reckoned without Sarilin. As Lena is making a big speech about how 'that baby is goin to be born into the world with the best chancet I can give it' (p 39) there is a scream offstage; Sarilin has had, not a baby, but a self-induced abortion. In the last act the play's structure becomes circular: the household relapses into its former squalor, and Sarilin, recovered from her abortion, is out on the tiles again. In the dying moments of the play, Lena and Serang have a revealing dialogue that many another playwright would have used to create a moment of comfort or understanding in the gloom. Lena, after surveying the misery of their life together, says 'We must've been kinda fond of each other to stick together all these years, John?' We listen for the violins - but Serang replies, 'Fond? Fond be damned. We stuck together because we couldn't get away from each other... We're chained here' (p 46). The sentimental moment is deliberately blocked; the play's vision of despair is uncompromising.

Marsh Hay was printed in 1923; there are unconfirmed rumours of a production in Kiev in the 20s; but the first performance we know of took place at Hart House Theatre in Toronto in the spring of 1974, nearly fifty years later.4 Denison, then an old man but still full of fire, was in the audience. Discussing the play with the cast afterwards, he made an interesting confession: he thought, on reflection, that he had underestimated the people of the backwoods. They had, he declared, more gumption and more resilience than the despairing vision of Marsh Hay had credited them with. In particular, he called John Serang 'a false character.' Always a sceptic, Denison was finally sceptical about his own most ambitious play. But his view, if valid, simply means that the play is not a literally true account of life in Northern Ontario. It remains a true account of a certain state of mind, an examination of despair and futility that has its own validity, beyond its function as social reporting. But Denison's confession that he went beyond the facts leads us to speculate as to why he did so. And it may be fair to suggest that the answer lies in that 1928 essay in which he declared that discussing the theatre in Canada was like discussing dinghy sailing among the bedouins. In that bitter joke one hears the authentic voice of John Serang: 'I ain't expectin nothing, Andy. I ain't crazy.' The vision of rural life in Marsh Hay may be in the last analysis a vehicle for Denison's own sense of futility about his art. The plight of a dramatist trying to work without an established theatre may bear more than an accidental resemblance to the plight of a farmer trying to work fifty acres of grey stone. If Marsh Hay is an inaccurate picture of rural Ontario, that may be because it is a more personal play than it appears at first to be.

Denison's vision is deliberately unromantic, even antiromantic. A younger contemporary, Herman Voaden, took a very different view of the Canadian north. In his play Murder Pattern - which reversed the fate of Marsh Hay, being performed in 1936 but not printed till 1972 - we see a brave but perilous attempt to deal with the theme of man and nature in a romantic, even mystical way, through the medium of drama. Voaden uses a peculiar form, for which his own term is 'symphonic theatre'; it looks now like a branch of Expressionism, in its use of rhythm and light effects and above all in its deliberate abstraction. The play concerns a murder that took place in Northern Ontario: the central character, the murderer Jack Davis, is surrounded by choric figures with labels like First Earth Voice, Second Earth Voice, The Friendly One, The Accusing One. We piece together the story of the murder; we explore Davis's state of mind; but what really interests Voaden is the relation between Davis and the landscape around him. The choric voices are not simply a gimmick of the avant-garde theatre of Voaden's time, though they are that in part; they are also his way of bringing the countryside onto the stage, giving it a positive theatrical presence. There are descriptive, atmospheric passages - 'Dark as death are the swamps and forests. The lone moon-disc whitens the farms, and silvers the quiet mirrors of the lakes' (p 48) 5 As we are set up for the murder, the landscape seems bleak and menacing, the barrenness of Marsh Hay deepened into something destructive: 'Shut off from the world to the south, life stood still. There was no fresh blood. Here and there, in the great solitude, life moved backwards, towards the animal, the grotesque, the warped and evil' (p 47). There are, later, psychological explanations for the murder; but it seems at first to be an emanation of the landscape itself. 'With the darkness, comes the cold. Pity the isolate hill folk, fearful, estranged. They have no words to speak the terror of the gloom, and the silence, and the unending distances that wall in life from life' (p 48).

But once Davis has been imprisoned the dark, menacing nature of the first part of the play is transformed. To the prisoner the countryside now seems like a lost home: 'O prisoner, hill-bound to the end, forest-bound to the end. Born to the desolate, austere and eternal land, born to the fear of the wilderness, born to the lonely beauty of hill and water and forest valley ... even in dreams you see Clear Lake, and the beaver marsh, and the falls, and the little stream that flows out past your silent house to Long Lake' (p 57). In the process the nature of the landscape is changed; it becomes no longer menacing but vital and beautiful: 'Come back to the dark woods and the shining waters, where the wind is warmth and strength... Come back to the clear sunlight of the lake-land, to the rapture of the giant-lifted skies' (pp 58-59). Finally, Davis is released on compassionate grounds, and returns to the lakes and hills to die. The final speech, from the First Earth Voice, reads, 'You have entered the temple now at last, O lonely one. You are part of the mystery at last. Your body is one with the earth. Your dreams shall blow steadily in the eternal winds. In them your spirit shall brood and pass endlessly among the hills ... lonely and enduring as the hills' (p 60).

Time has not been kind to Murder Pattern. Its poetic language now seems stilted and overdecorated. Its theatrical devices of drum-beats and choric voices must have looked at the time like a vision of the drama of the future; and nothing dates so fast as visions of the future. But there is a more fundamental problem. Voaden himself called, quite explicitly, for the creation of a national drama inspired by the paintings of the Group of Seven 6 - inspired, in other words, by paintings in which there are no human figures. Yet the fundamental medium of drama is the human being; without the actor, there is no theatre. There are ways of evoking nature as part of the human drama, as Shakespeare and Ibsen did, in their different ways. But Voaden wanted to bring nature onto the stage in its own right, to make it the subject of a play as much as it can be the subject of a painting or a poem. There may be a way of doing that; but Voaden has not found it. Neither, to my knowledge, has anyone else. Denison and Voaden both wrote in a culture in which the national imagination was dominated by landscape. Denison shows the helplessness of man, with the landscape in the background, bleak and ugly, as one of the causes of that helplessness; but he gives us primarily a human drama of futility. Marsh Hay now creaks in places, but it still works well enough to merit revival. Murder Pattern tries to depict the landscape directly and poetically; it is now a curiosity, a theatrical museum piece. To put it a bit unkindly, while Denison wrote about failure Voaden achieved it. The common factor is the frustration of being a playwright in a primarily rural culture.

That theme is not explicit in the plays I have been examining, and has to be teased out of them by implication, as I have been doing here. But in the early plays of Robertson Davies the theme is very close to the surface, and it does not take much critical ingenuity to uncover it. Davies' own early career is relevant here. Born in Ontario, he went to Oxford; he acted with the Old Vic; he returned to Canada in the early 1940s to edit The Peterborough Examiner. Through his early work runs the theme of cultural deprivation: Canada is a barren land for artists and for lovers of art; for imaginative nourishment they look wistfully to the old world and even (in moments of desperation) to the United States. The theme finds typical expression in the early one-act play, Hope Deferred, in which Frontenac, as Governor of Quebec, tries to organize a performance of Tartuffe and is blocked by the Church. He concludes bitterly, 'There is no tyranny like that of organized virtue,' (p 76) 7 and sees behind this one failure a whole society with its priorities desperately wrong: 'if trade and piety thrive, art can go to the devil: what a corrupt philosophy, what stupidity for a new country' (p 76).

Hope Deferred is a sad, angry play. A more farcical and more effective treatment of the same theme is found in Davies' Overlaid (1948) which is set in a farmhouse in rural Ontario. Here we find Pop, an old farmer, sitting in the kitchen dressed in a top hat and white working gloves, listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast from New York, applauding wildly, and emitting cries of 'Yippee!' and 'Hot Dog!' at appropriate moments. Meanwhile his daughter Ethel is trying to get on with the ironing, and deploring her father's loose conduct. The conflict of the play begins when Pop gets a windfall of $1200 from his insurance company: to Ethel's horror, he wants to spend it all on one glorious spree in New York:

I'd get some stylish clothes, and I'd go into one o' these restrunts, and I'd order vittles you never heard of - better'n the burn truck Ethel calls food - and I'd get a bottle o' wine - cost a dollar, maybe two - and drink it all, and then I'd mosey along to the Metropolitan Opera House and I'd buy me a seat right down beside the trap-drummer, and there I'd sit an' listen, and holler and hoot and raise hell whenever I liked the music, an' throw bookies to the gals, an' wink at the chorus, and when it was over I'd go to one o' these here nightclubs an' eat some more, an' drink whisky, and watch the gals that take off their clothes - every last dud, kinda slow an' devilish till they're bare-naked - an' maybe I'd give one of 'em fifty bucks for her brazeer - (p 98) 8

This produces, from Pop's hearers, cries of 'Jeepers!' and 'You carnal man!' But Pop is, in Davies' terms, a spiritual man - a representative of art, culture, and the imagination. A literary critic would say that he represents the Dionysiac impulse; but Pop himself puts it more eloquently: 'God likes music an' naked women an' I'm happy to follow his example' (p 99).

There is no doubt that Pop is, within the special terms of the play, Davies' hero and spokesman. The values he represents are values Davies has been preaching all through his career. But of course he represents those values in a caricatured form, though the caricature is a friendly one; and in the second half the play changes tone a little as Ethel warns him, 'If you go to New York you'll just be a lost old man, and everybody will laugh at you and rob you' (p 102). We have to recognize the truth of that; and beneath the boisterous caricature of Pop there is an underlying sadness - this parody opera lover is the best that Smith Township can produce; his heart is in the right place, but if he ever tried to turn his fantasy into reality he would be sadly out of his depth. However, in the second half Pop himself becomes more serious, and makes some cogent attacks on the rural community that has left his imagination frustrated: 'There was just one purty thing in sight o' this farm - row of elms along the road; they cut down the elms to widen the road an' then never widened it' (p 102). He has a quarrel with the church, too: 'Last fifty bucks I gave 'em was for a bell, and what'd they do? Bought a new stove with it ... there's always a gol-danged necessity to get in the way whenever you want somethin' purty' (pp 102-3). This is the heart of Davies' attack on rural society: concerned with material necessities, it is blind to the deeper necessity of feeding the imagination, which it regards, as a needless luxury.

In the end, Pop realizes that one reason Ethel is so upset at his plan to go to New York is that she has her own dream of what to do with the money. He manages to winkle it out of her: she wants a granite headstone for the family plot. Pop surrenders; the dark forces of respectability have won. But in his last speech Pop declares 'I ain't overlaid for good' (p 109) and as the play ends he is whistling an air from Lucia di Lammermoor. Unlike Hope Deferred, Overlaid suggests that the Ethels of this world will not have it all their own way, and in a play that is shamelessly open about its symbolism it may be worth noting that Pop has switched off the broadcast from New York and is doing his own whistling.

Davies returns to the theme of Overlaid in a more sombre and enigmatic play, At My Heart's Core, first produced in 1950. This is set in Upper Canada during the rebellion of 1837, and is concerned with the frustration of three talented women living the pioneer life in the backwoods - Frances Stewart, Catherine Parr Traill, and Susanna Moodie. Mrs Stewart is a lady of charm and beauty who could have married a lord and become a great society hostess; Mrs Traill is a skilled naturalist; Mrs Moodie has a literary gift. All three have their talents blocked and frustrated by the rigors of pioneer existence - including the necessity of subordinating themselves to their husbands. Their talents threaten to wither because there is no opportunity to exercise them. This view is put to each of them in turn by a sinister, Byronic tempter named Cantwell, who has himself given up on Canada and is returning to the Old Country. He claims that his view is widely shared: 'I have watched some of those officers here in Upper Canada following the plough, and whenever they rest - which it must be said to their eternal credit is rarely - they always come to a halt facing east. I think that without knowing it they are looking toward England, as they wipe the sweat from their brows' (p 38).9 The play's central ambiguity lies in Davies' attitude to Cantwell. Up to a point he is, like Pop, a spokesman for ideas that are recognizably those of the playwright: the vital importance of art and culture, the crime of allowing talent to be neglected. But in tempting the women with these ideas, he has no positive end in mind; he is merely being cruel, revenging himself against an imagined social slight. He states his purpose as follows: 'It is only the crude seducer who takes a woman's honour, and in order to do that he must have some liking for her. It is a more lasting and serious injury to rob her of her peace of mind. These ladies will never, I think, know perfect content again' (p 80).

With Mrs Traill and Mrs Moodie, Cantwell succeeds: they end the play in precisely the state of discontent that he wants, with no hope of escaping from it, though Davies may be counting on our knowledge that the historical equivalents of these characters actually became considerable figures in early Canadian literature. Davies himself has recently described At My Heart's Core as 'a Women's Lib play,' because of the sympathy it shows for the plight of the three women.10 And it may be remarked that the frustration of the artist in a pioneer society runs parallel to, and is involved with, the severe restraints on the role of women in a male-dominated society. The men of the play are allowed full public lives and a good deal of freedom; they belong to a kind of club from which the women are excluded. The women's role is domestic, and nothing else. In so far as the play protests against this, Davies' description of it as 'Women's Lib' is fair enough. But the ending is another matter. Frances Stewart, the only one of the women to find content, finds it in her role as Mr Stewart's wife: that is enough for her. In 1950 domestic subordination could be presented as a happy ending for a woman much more easily than it can be now. But I suspect Davies was not just following conventional thinking, for he is still prepared to take this idea seriously long after it has become unfashionable. In his recent play, Question Time, the Prime Minister's wife sees her own role in these terms, and declares, 'Many a one hath cast away her final worth when she hath cast away her servitude." 11

In Davies' 1949 play Fortune, my Foe, the young university teacher who is the hero accepts the fact that while Canada is a frustrating place for men of his kind it is still his country and he has to stay. For one thing, if he and his kind leave, the country will never get any better. Mrs Stewart, accepting her role as a wife, is also accepting her role as a settler; and Mrs Traill tells us exactly what that means: 'A new country brings new hope, and it also demands sacrifice. Have you ever walked in our graveyard? Many stones there mark the graves of children. One of those children was - is mine. A fair hope vanished, Mr Cantwell. And other hopes must be buried which may even be harder to give up. New countries mean not only hopes fulfilled but hopes relinquished' (p 47). For all their occasional wit and charm, these early plays of Robertson Davies present a bleak view of Canada. It is a barren wilderness; its rural life is the cultural equivalent of John Serang's fifty acres of grey stone. Art, culture, imagination - these are firmly identified with the old world, and in Pop's case with New York. There seems to be no way of closing the gap. You leave, and betray your country; or you stay and suffer. The main virtue is that of Frances Stewart or the hero of Fortune, my Foe - the virtue of submission. But just as there is a touch of hope at the end of Overlaid, so there is one hint in At My Heart's Core that imaginative nourishment can be drawn from the soil of Canada itself, and need not always be sought elsewhere. The comic Irish settler Phelim Brady, who sees himself as an artist because of his capacity for spinning tall stories, commiserates with Mrs Traill: 'We're the songbirds that aren't wanted in this bitter land, where the industrious robins and the political crows get fat, and they with not a tuneful chirp among the lot of 'em.' It sounds like a typical Davies complaint: but Mrs Traill retorts, 'How odd that poets are such bad naturalists! There are songbirds all about you, you foolish old man!' (p 41).

The promise implied in that line, 'There are songbirds all about you,' is not actually fulfilled in Davies' early plays; they remain poised between acceptance and frustration, with hope perpetually deferred. In that way they report the state of Canadian culture as Davies saw it around thirty years ago. But as the cities have grown and the theatres have at last flourished, new playwrights have turned again to the countryside to look at it with fresh eyes - to see in it not the spiritual wasteland of Davies and Denison but a place that has its own culture, its own integrity, a place that can in its own way nourish the imagination. We might suggest that this vision has become possible only because the writers are no longer bound themselves to a rural culture; they can see it with a certain artistic detachment that reveals in it a power and interest not always evident to those who live in it every day. A fascinating example is The Farm Show, a collective creation of Theatre Passe Muraille. The actors went to live in a farming community, and produced a series of scenes based on the lives of the people they met; they then toured the show around rural Ontario, presenting the farmers to themselves, before finally taking it to Toronto. It was printed in 1976, the written version being the responsibility of one of the actors, Ted Johns. In the production photos that accompany the text, there is a disconcerting contrast between the soft faces of the young actors from Toronto and the tough, weatherbeaten faces of their farm audiences. These people, one feels, are trying to make a play out of a life that is utterly alien to them.

The odds against The Farm Show were great: it could have been condescending, or sentimental. It is neither: it presents an honest account of rural life, accepting the facts for what they are, with sympathy but without judgement. Early in the play one of the young actors is made a kind of sacrificial victim in order to establish the play's attitude: he greets the farmers with sentimental gush about 'organic vegetables from your own garden and all, far out!' (p 24).12 He is then made to load bales for several hours on a blistering hot day. He concludes, 'Why would any human being choose, for the better part of his life, twice a year, to put himself through that total and utter hell? I didn't understand it then - and I don't understand it now' (p 43). If he had claimed a new wisdom and insight from the experience, the moment would have been as sentimental as his earlier cooing over organic vegetables. Instead, he has simply learned one important fact, that farming is damnably hard work. And he reports that fact for its own sake. This is the attitude of the play throughout: it tells us what's there - the frustrations, the eccentricities, the occasional fun; the Orangemen's parades, the hot-gospel religion - above all, the farmer's dependence on machinery. In one scene, actors impersonate rival tractors in a contest of strength at a country fair; in another, a housewife describing a harrassing day stands symbolically inside her washing machine. But through the reporting an attitude emerges, one of respect for a demanding and frequently absurd way of life that has, in the end, an integrity of its own. In this play farm life is not, as it is for Davies, a vehicle for a larger commentary of Canadian culture. Pop, of Overlaid, would recognize this life and point out that it still has no glamour, no sophistication, and certainly no opera; the difference is that the creators of The Farm Show do not care; for them, farm life has in itself sufficient material to feed the imagination. The gap between culture and farming has been sealed up.

But The Farm Show is still a documentary: its interest is in reporting the facts as they are; it is poetic only if one uses that term very loosely indeed. For a transformation of the rural past into poetry we have to turn to James Reaney's trilogy The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones, St Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs. This story of a family of Irish settlers massacred by their neighbours was becoming one of our national myths even before Reaney got hold of it, but he has given it a particularly vivid - possibly definitive - form. In doing so he has used a special, idiosyncratic style of theatre that he developed during the 1960's, mostly in plays written for children. A company of actors not only plays an enormous cast of characters, doubling and sharing roles, but also impersonates landscapes, roads, animals, trains - anything the play needs. Time and space are telescoped, and the awareness of theatrical make-believe is constant. (In one of the early children's plays, Geography Match, a group of actors has to impersonate Niagara Falls.) This makes the plays hard to read, till one is used to the idiom; but they act brilliantly. And it gives Reaney, like the creators of The Farm Show, a freedom to bring documentary facts to the stage: the actors recite place names, railway timetables, entries from census reports. They impersonate roads by lining up in straight lines and calling out the names of the settlers who lived on those roads. In Sticks and Stones especially, there is a remarkable evocation of the maps of pioneer Canada, with the wilderness cut into straight lines and rectangles - man starting from scratch with the land, imposing on it a neat pattern that still exists today - 'wild lands ... cut into concessions ... cut into farms" (p 47).13 We seem to be in at the birth of a society.

Reaney gives these facts an imaginative resonance. The straight lines of the roads, represented by ladders, become walls that hem the Donnellys in. The tollgates along a coach route become barriers the Donnellys must pass. The facts of the map acquire extra significance in lines like 'Why is our father's farm so narrow?' As Mrs Donnelly tramps the roads to collect signatures on a petition to save her husband from hanging, the names of the places she passes through are alternated with a recitation of the accounts for the building of the gallows: 'Rope from W.E. Grace 24¢ Four long polls at $1 each... One mask 12½¢ One white cap for prisoner 50¢ (p 115). Swiftly and economically, documentary becomes drama. The objects that now clutter our pioneer museums, tools, barrels, ladders, become weapons charged with menace. The events of pioneer life, from logging bees to barn-burnings, become as ritualized as the ceremonies of the Catholic church, which Reaney also uses throughout the plays.

And the Donnellys themselves, whatever they; may have been in history, become in Reaney's play figures with the stature of myth. Mr Donnelly, the leader of clan, is a stubborn man who will not submit to the demands of the tribe. The root of the trouble between him and his neighbours comes from his refusal, back in Ireland, to join the secret terrorist society of the Whitefeet. He and his family are labelled Blackfeet, and the taunt follows them to the new world. The Donnellys are marked out as special: the first play begins with the crippled Will Donnelly being put through a catechism in the forest by his mother - 'Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders can be received only once because they imprint on the soul - a spiritual mark, called a character, which lasts forever' (p 37). Later his priest tells him, 'your lameness is God's marking you for His own' (p 66). Finally we are told that 'the sacraments that can be received only once' are not Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders but 'Your mother, your father, your brothers' (p 143).

Throughout the plays the Donnellys are associated with the fertility of the land and of the crops, especially in the recurring Barleycorn ballad. The barley grain is, like the Donnellys, cut down - 'But, when I got into the jug / I was the strongest man' (p 36). Mr Donnelly taunts one of his enemies: 'Having myself seven sons and a girl I ask you what children have you? What have you got between your legs, Cassleigh - a knife?' (p 152). They are hard to kill. In the ceremonies that follow the massacre the bodies of the victims are represented by stones placed on the stage; but the characters themselves are represented by living actors who accompany the symbolic corpses - a device that allows the surviving daughter Jenny to have a last dance with the ghost of her mother. Finally, though their house is destroyed, a great wheat field grows around it, suggesting their immortality. The Donnelly house is also a centre of love, in a community full of hatred and prejudice. Besides the affection that binds them together, they provide a haven for children from the loveless homes of their neighbours. Most important, they have vital imaginations in a community that is often grimly material, as represented by one of their neighbours who uses an old sword as a turnip knife and does not notice there is writing on it. Like some of Davies' characters, they are poets in a hostile environment: the difference is that they embrace their fate with a kind of joy. A speech from the end of Sticks and Stones tells us what it means to be a Donnelly:

Because from the courts of Heaven when you're there you will see that however the ladders and sticks and stones caught you and bruised you and smashed you, and the bakers and brewers forced you to work for them for nothing, from the eye of God in which you will someday walk you will see ... that once, long before you were born, ... you chose to be a Donnelly and laughed at what it would mean, the proud woman put to milking cows, the genius trotting around with a stallion, the old sword rusted into a turnip knife. You laughed and lay down with your fate like a bride, even the miserable fire of it. So that I am proud to be a Donnelly against all the contempt of the world. (p 154)

The conscious theatrical make-believe of the plays is connected with this vision of the Donnellys as immortal figures of myth; as characters in Reaney's play they can discuss their own lives and deaths with the detachment of those who are beyond life. As Mrs Donnelly advises one of her sons to 'look straight ahead past this stupid life and death they've fastened on you' (St Nicholas Hotel, p 152)14 so Mr Donnelly declares 'I'm not in Hell for I'm in a play' (p 49). Finally, like the hero of Murder Pattern, they are absorbed into the world around them: 'look we are everywhere / In the clouds, in the treebranch, in the puddle, / There. Here. In your fork. In your minds. / Your lungs are filled with us, we are the air you breathe' (Handcuffs p 133). 15

Reaney has taken the hard facts of rural pioneer life and turned them into poetry. For him they are sources not of frustration but of imaginative nourishment. He has also succeeded where Voaden failed in dramatizing man's involvement with nature. He succeeds because he never loses sight of the human drama, and his language is concrete and economical where Voaden's is simply overloaded. There are no disembodied Earth Voices here; nature wears a fully human face. The Donnellys acquire mythic dimensions - but like all good myths they are ultimately concrete and particular, and they have their roots in human reality. They also have their roots in the rural life of Canada. When that life was all we knew, we were unable to make any satisfactory drama out of it except a drama of frustration. Now that we are free of it artists like Reaney and the creators of The Farm Show can return to it with that balance of engagement and detachment that the artist needs in order to shape his material properly. The Donnelly trilogy takes the rural life that seemed for so many years to deny the possibility of drama, and succeeds in making drama not in spite of it, or in reaction against it, but through it, and of it. Reaney's achievement is a sign - one of many - that Canadian drama itself has come of age.



Alexander M. Leggatt

1 'Nationalism and Drama', quoted from William H. New, ed. Dramatists in Canada: Selected Essays Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1972, p 65.
Return to article

2 EUGENE BENSON has discussed the place of this theme in Canadian drama in the introduction to his anthology Encounter: Canadian Drama in Four Media Toronto: Methuen, 1973, pp 3-4.
Return to article

3 MERRILL DENISON Marsh Hay Toronto: Simon and Pierre, n.d. All references to the play are to this edition.
Return to article

4 The production (in which the author of this article played a small part) was sponsored by the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama and directed by Richard Plant.
Return to article

5 All references to Murder Pattern are to the text in Canadian Theatre Review, no 5 (1975).
Return to article

6 See CHAD EVANS, 'Herman Voaden and the Symphonic Theatre', Canadian Theatre Review no 5 (1975), p 37.
Return to article

7 All references to Hope Deferred are to the text in ROBERTSON DAVIES Eros at Breakfast and Other Plays Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1949.
Return to article

8 ROBERTSON DAVIES At My Heart's Core and Overlaid Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966. All references to these two plays are to this edition.
Return to article

9 Ibid
Return to article

10 PATRICIA MORLEY Robertson Davies Toronto: Gage, 1977, p 22
Return to article

11 ROBERTSON DAVIES Question Time Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975, p 39
Return to article

12 Theatre Passe Muraille, The Farm Show Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1976, All references to the play are to this edition.
Return to article

13 JAMES REANEY The Donnellys, Part One: Sticks and Stones Erin: Press Porcepic, 1976. All references to the play are to this edition, and all references to The Donnellys are to Sticks and Stones, unless otherwise specified.
Return to article

14 JAMES REANEY The Donnellys, Part Two; St Nicholas Hotel, Wm. Donnelly Prop, Erin: Press Porcepic, 1976
Return to article

15 JAMES REANEY The Donnellys, Part Three: Handcuffs Erin: Press Porcepic, 1977
Return to article