Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000

RIC KNOWLES. The Theatre of Form and the Production of Meaning. Montreal: ECW Press, 1999. 288 pp. $19.95 CDN paper.


Ric Knowles--professor, former Chair of Drama, founding member of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Guelph, editor, director, and dramaturge--brings his considerable experience to bear in this thought-provoking examination of contemporary Canadian dramaturgy. His aim is to examine the role of dramatic form, and of play structures in particular, as material agents in shaping (rather than simply reflecting) both consciousness and social formations. For the most part this book succeeds in fulfilling this admirable objective. This is a much-needed study of the political import and impact of an array of contemporary Canadian theatre. Wisely, Knowles makes no claim to national representation in the choice of theatre he examines, and so the book focuses mainly on theatre produced in Ontario and the Maritimes. There are times when one may think of examples of theatre created in other parts of Canada which would better serve the purposes of his analysis; however, this to me is proof that this project is vital and timely. The Theatre of Form and the Production of Meaning has established a foundation for a materialist analysis of Canadian theatre; thus it illuminates some convincing and inspiring ways in which the dramatic text may impact upon the production, reproduction, negotiation, and reformation of the social order.

Knowles is at his best when analyzing play texts. This study encompasses a wide range of plays from writers such as David French and James Reaney through Margaret Hollingsworth, George F. Walker, and Judith Thompson, to Monique Mojica and John Krizanc. The textual analysis employed is engaging for the purposes of a politicized dramaturgical analysis and, as Knowles points out, the texts covered are usually published, available, and in most cases taught. While the pedagogical aims of this focus are laudable, the final point of Knowles's analysis is an epilogue entitled "Toward a Quantum Dramaturgy"; it is at this point where his emphasis on play texts might be more appropriately placed on an examination of the performance event. Moving from Naturalism, through collectives, environmental theatre, and a variety of other modernist approaches, the book's examination of space and time anticipates the post-structuralist departure in theatrical representation of a quantum dramaturgy, but unfortunately this section's examination of the play structures of John Mighton and John Krizanc never engages in what might be truly revolutionary about the concept of quantum dramaturgy: the indeterminate qualities of the live theatre event are unmarked (to use Peggy Phelan's term), and thereby un(der)valued by the late capitalist hegemonies in which we live.

The book is divided into three parts with an epilogue which acts as a conclusion. Following a chronological development in Canadian theatre since the late 1960s, part one examines the two inherited traditions of contemporary Canadian dramaturgy: Naturalism and Modernism. Knowles masterfully frames this section by identifying the influence of the Bible, Aristotle's Poetics, and the Oedipus myth as inherited aesthetic forms in the plays of David French and Michael Cook, among others. Having outlined how these inherited forms and theatrical traditions reproduce and affirm dominant social forms and values, Knowles then explores various perversions of these traditional forms in the work of George F. Walker and Judith Thompson. In foregrounding the formal 'givens' of these various inherited forms, Knowles demonstrates how theatre may be a medium where the cultural values invested in these forms can be contested, negotiated, and redefined.

Parts two and three examine dramaturgical structures that move beyond Naturalism and Modernism respectively. In part two, Knowles turns his attention to structural experiments in recent Canadian dramaturgy that prioritize theatrical process over product, and can be seen as attempts at exploring the creation of democracy through a revision of history. Cited are a variety of collective and documentary theatre productions, including works by Theatre Passe Muraille and the Mulgrave Road Co-op. Knowles then explores the representation of 'unity in community' as expressed in the Colway-style community play The Spirit of Shivaree, staged in Rockwood, Ontario; followed by a series of 'class acts,' or generally well-known texts by James Reaney, Rick Salutin, and Sally Clark which all reconsider and revise traditional, historical narratives.

Whereas part two focuses on the expansion of dramaturgies based on the development of character and action through time, part three deals with the augmentation of modernist dramaturgies that retreat from the temporal, historical, and social realms into those of (pure, formalist) space. Here is an analysis of how aesthetic space--either theatrical, environmental, or discursive--is anything but stable, static, self-enclosed, or purely formalist. Spanning a political spectrum between the elitism of R. Murray Schafer to the left-wing, post-colonialism of Guillermo Verdecchia, Knowles offers insightful analysis as to how each practitioner structures aesthetic space 'tactically' in their work. Moreover, through the incorporation of work by DNA and Necessary Angel, The Theatre of Form and the Production of Meaning articulates a model of Canadian environmental theatre.

This book is an important contribution to our understanding of Canadian theatre. While its focus on certain regions and its prioritization of play texts limit its scope somewhat, it nevertheless offers an excellent materialist analysis of contemporary theatre in Canadian culture.