Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000


Sherrill Grace
University of British Columbia

Drawing upon work presented at the 1999 ACTR meetings and situated within a decades-old debate about Canadian theatre, these four essays explore representations of the North in plays by southern and northern playwrights and theatre companies. The authors explore the history of Yukon's Nakai theatre, Quebec's "myth of the North," a popular play by a now forgotten prairie playwright, and images of the Inuit in plays by Inuit and non-Inuit.

D'après le travail présenté a l'asemblée de l'ARCT en 1999, et situés dans un débat continue sur le théâtre canadien, ces quatres articles examinent les représentations du Nord dans des oeuvres théâtrales d'écrivains et de troupes venant du nord et du sud. Les auteurs examinent l'histoire du Théâtre Nakai du Yukon, le "mythe du nord" au Québec, une pièce populaire d'un auteur maintenant oublié et, finalement, des représentations de l'Inuit dans des pièces créées par des Inuits et des non-Inuits.

This collection of essays is not the first occasion on which Canadian critics have come together to discuss the possibilities, pitfalls, and challenges of writing and staging plays that take the North as their subject. One might say, with some justification, that Canadian debate on this general subject is as old as Merrill Denison and Herman Voaden (in the late 1920s), and as new as Jim Betts's play Colours in the Storm (2000). In the Denison camp were those who questioned the very idea of a distinctively Canadian theatre and the plausibility of staging an essentially "unheroic" North; in the Voaden camp were those who believed, often against great odds, that a Canadian theatre was desirable, possible, and only needed to turn to Canadian subjects for a wealth of material. The North, as far as Voaden was concerned, was the key inspiration for a national theatre and a Canadian identity.

Canadian theatre has come a long way since 1930, when Voaden published Six Canadian Plays (each set in the North), and Canadian understanding of what is meant by the North has become nuanced and highly complex. North, for example, can no longer be assumed to be synonymous with Algonquin Park or the Lac St Jean region of Quebec; the North can no longer be viewed as an empty space full of natural resources merely waiting for development and exploitation by southern Canadians--or, as Diefenbaker put it in his 1959 campaign, as "the road to riches." More importantly for the theatre, economic and technological advancements have made certain kinds of staging, which Voaden could only hope to transplant from Europe, a reality. Putting a northern setting on stage today can be as simple or sophisticated as resources permit. What is more, a perceived Canadian "lack of ghosts," as Earle Birney described it (and thus of dramatic stories to tell), has turned into its own misperception. With haunting tenacity, Canadians go north every summer to search for the most seductive ghost--Sir John Franklin; another team is up there (August 2000) as I sit in my Vancouver office writing these words. And Franklin's is only one among many northern stories: there is Hornby; Albert Johnson; the mad trapper; Leonidas Hubbard; who starved to death in Labrador (or Mina Benson Hubbard, who didn't), and always Tom Thomson, the subject of Betts's new play.

Some of these stories have begun to be explored in recent work on the theatre. Beast of the Land, a special issue of Canadian Theatre Review 73 (1992), edited by Cindy Cowan and Natalie Rewa, was the first publication to draw wide public attention to the fact that theatre was not simply a creation of southern Canadian cities. But this single volume did much more because it published, for the first time, plays written by Inuit, interviews, critical discussions, and other northern material. Finally, it seemed, southern Canada had wakened to the fact that theatre was happening North of Sixty and that the variety and richness of this theatre activity opened new possibilities for plays and productions. Also published in 1992, Aboriginal Voices: Amerindian, Inuit, and Sami Theatre, edited by Per Brask and William Morgan, presented work by indigenous northerners in comparative critical contexts and included an important reflection on watching these plays by Alan Filewod. As these two publications made very clear, seven years before Nunavut, drama in Canada's territories was alive and well and acting out of a north that was home instead of a road to the riches of oil and gas.

The essays gathered here pick up, in a sense, where the 1999 collection of twelve plays called Staging the North left off. That volume provided the texts of a set of plays, but it could not provide the kind of discussion and debate that the plays deserve. These essays are a step in that direction, but they deliberately and necessarily leave more questions unanswered than answered, and they raise new questions that await consideration. Three of these articles (D'Aeth, Forsyth, and Grace) originate from a panel at the June 1999 meeting of the Association of Canadian Theatre Research in Lennoxville; a fourth (Skinner) has been added to these three to provide another perspective on the parameters of our subject. However, we have no illusions that we have exhausted the subject of Canadian theatre in and about the North. Instead, we offer glimpses of what is there and of what might still be done by way of critical and historical research.

Eve D'Aeth, a long-time resident of Whitehorse with considerable knowledge about Nakai, provides a historical introduction to what is, perhaps, northern Canada's most innovative regional theatre. Louise Forsyth, a specialist in Quebec theatre, explores the "myth of the North" in Quebec drama and popular culture, reminding readers that the North is by no means the preserve of Anglophone Canadians or of Franco-Canadiens hors de Québec. I have focused my attention on the representation of the Inuit in a set of plays by non-Inuit and Inuit writers in an effort to show how varied and complex these representations can be. And Ches Skinner provides an introduction to Willard Mack, a forgotten writer who was once called Canada's best playwright, and to his play, Tiger Rose, a melodrama set in a northern Alberta fur-trading post. Our methodologies and theoretical approaches differ greatly, as they must, because we are mapping the coordinates of shifting terrain. Therefore, our work is, by turns, analytical, historical, and specifically recuperative. What we try to do is to highlight some of the less familiar but interesting work coming out of and written about Canada's North--not Judith Thompson's Sled or Jim Betts's vision of Tom Thomson in Colours in the Storm, each of which takes place in Algonquin Park and Toronto and warrants sustained critical attention--and to point towards new areas for research.

Our articles are unified by their focus on northern issues, to be sure, but more importantly they contribute individually and collectively to an ec-centric cultural analysis of Canada, analysis from beyond the geo-political centre, through and in the theatre. The North is an ideal topos for such an analysis because it has always been seen as what distinguishes Canadians from others and because it is no longer confined, in the Canadian imagination, to south-central Canada. In the past, the "true North strong and free" was highly selective and located just north of Montreal and Toronto. Today that North has moved north and west to include anyone who wishes to be Canadian, as the citizens of Yukon and Nunavut do. If we are to see ourselves in the broadest cultural sense, then what better place to look than on our stages and with our plays . . . by going North.