Vol.19, No. 1, 1998, Spring/ Printemps

PER BRASK. Contemporary Issues in Canadian Drama. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1995. 249 pp. $19.95 paper.


Contemporary Issues in Canadian Drama is a collection of fifteen essays, each of them thematizing one specific facet of the recent development of the theatrical scene in Canada. The editor of the book has been a successful dramaturge for many years, and the articles were written by some of "Canada's most progressive academics and professionals." The volume covers a wide spectrum of issues and can serve as a springboard for an extensive discussion of theatre in Canada.

Someone like myself--who was asked to review Per Brask's stimulating collection as an outsider looking in--will necessarily approach the book's contents from his non-Canadian angle, i.e. find out to what extent the essays assembled in the collection can help both academics and professionals in European theatres to familiarize themselves with contemporary Canadian drama. Most of the articles will give undergraduate students over here valuable insights into a field that is beginning to establish itself as a domain in our English, French or Theatre Departments.

Chris Johnson's comprehensive and insightful article on "Canonicity and Canadian Drama" expatiates on the question as to whether or not there should be a list of canonical plays that no one interested in Canadian drama can do without. The author warns one not to confine oneself to anthologized plays, and, discussing the general problem of canonicity, asks if Canadian drama "has been around long enough to allow canonization." (46) His essay provides a host of information, and its thorough critical assessments of diverse views in the debate about canonicity are valuable, if not indispensable, reading particularly for those who are doing research on Canadian drama outside Canada.

The fifteen articles could be allocated to the following topics: text, performance and theatre; specific kinds of plays such as radio and community plays; plays which have come out of different geographical and cultural contexts; and plays from what used to be marginal but are now constructive pockets of Canadian society.

Recent theatrical developments are reflected in three of the fifteen articles. Sarah B. Hood ("Theatre of Images: New Dramaturgies") deals with a very exciting area of Canadian theatre, which, deviating from text-based patterns, combines stage-acting with music, dance and video. Susan Bennett ("Text as Performance") problematizes the differences and similarities between the acts of reading and viewing with special reference to Djanet Sears' Africa Solo. Edward Little and Richard Paul Knowles, in their essay, illustrate the different styles--puppetry being only one of them--used in The Spirit of Shivaree, a community play written for and about a community in Southern Ontario, Eramosa. This, like Hood's and Bennett's contributions, can trigger new initiatives uninhibited by tradition. Ann Jansen's article on the radio play, an integral part of Canadian drama since its beginnings, is of additional interest to German theatregoers because one of the two radio plays discussed is Banuta Rubess' No. Here Comes Ulrike Meinhof.

Plays by Native authors in Canada have increasingly gained in popularity in my country since Tomson Highway, Daniel David Moses, Drew Hayden Taylor, Shirley Cheechoo and others came here, read and acted out scenes from their plays and then discussed them with German audiences. Agnes Grant's essay on Native drama contains useful information about the myths and lifestyles of Native people and touches on the "voice appropriation" debate. It will help to de-romanticise images of Indians and transcend stereotypical thinking. "South Asian Canadian Theatre" is the topic of Uma Parameswaran's article which introduces readers to a facet of ethnicity in Canadian drama so far unknown in European countries. What is missing, however, in this collection, is an essay on Japanese and Sino-Canadian plays in Canada. Sexuality as a political issue is thematized in Robert Wallace's contribution "Theorizing a Queer Theatre: Buddies in Bad Times," and sexual abuse as a reflection of a society in crisis is the topic of Ann Wilson's contrastive analysis of three Canadian plays, one of them being another Rubess play, This Is For You, Anna. The titular character here is Marianne Bachmaier's seven-year-old daughter who was raped and murdered by a man who, when standing trial, was killed by Bachmaier in the courtroom, in Lübeck, Germany.

Further essays are about the works of playwrights and theatrical activities in various Canadian regions--British Columbia (Denis Johnston), the Prairies (Diane Bessai), Ontario (Alan Filewod), Québec (Denis Salter) and Atlantic Canada (Denyse Lynde). Filewod's perceptive analysis of Michael Hollingsworth's dramatic treatment of Canadian history, Salter's lucid explanations of "Spiritual Resistance/Spiritual Healing" as reflected in the works of four prominent French-Canadian playwrights and Johnston's and Lynde's critical surveys, which reflect their intimate knowledge of Canadian theatre in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada respectively, lend themselves well to more detailed research.

All in all, the essays in Per Brask's collection are highly stimulating and knowledgeable contributions to a description of the status quo and of tendencies in contemporary Canadian theatre. They will prove to be useful also for readers outside Canada--not for beginners, but certainly for those who have an inkling of what Canadian theatre generally is all about. They can learn a lot and will appreciate that they get it straight from the horse's mouth.