Vol.18 No.1, 1997, Spring/ Printemps

GORDON RALPH. Boneman: An Anthology of Canadian Plays. St. John's: Jesperson Publishing Ltd., 1995. 345 pp. illus. paper.


Reviewing an anthology is too easily a function of how much a reviewer enjoys the material, in this case, the plays, that go to make up the anthology. Yet, ultimately, the success of an anthology of plays is determined by the choice of plays. To that end, this review will begin with a consideration of each play in the anthology for its merit and for its suitability to secondary language arts and/or drama classes.

The second part of this review will assess the ancillary support materials included with the plays. These materials include study questions, introductions to each of the plays, and suggestions for 'animating' or acting out all or part of each play.

The nine plays in the anthology are grouped under five thematic or unit headings. The first unit, Indigenous People, contains two plays about native Canadians and an excerpt from "Shanadithit," a poem by Al Pittman. Both plays are stylistically and theatrically challenging, each containing multiple short scenes moving rapidly from place to place.

The title play, Boneman by Louis Byrne, a teacher from the Innu community of Davis Inlet, leads off the anthology. It is a political, episodic, angry play that tries to present the value of the native traditions. In doing so, the play presents the white 'intruders' in such a demeaning, stereotypical fashion as to nearly invalidate the message of the play. Perhaps whites are perceived in stereotypical terms in Davis Inlet, much as, unfortunately, Native Canadians are perceived in other communities. Yet, since this anthology is intended for a national audience, the choice of this play as the lead play, and the title play, is unfortunate. This play does not lead to reasoned, insightful debate.

The second play of the unit an excerpt from Michael Cook's play, On the Rim of the Curve. This play, too, is expressionistic in style with two playing areas--one for Europeans and one for the Native peoples. The cast is very large with many extras, but the result is that there is no time for character development and growth in the play. The characters occupy their own little niche and there they stay. As in Boneman, the Europeans are barely human.

The second unit, Two Absolutes, has just one play: a long excerpt from Ron Chudley's After Abraham, the story of Wolfe's attack on Québec. Again, this play has many characters, too many to get to know them in the space of a one-act play. Further, like the first two plays, there are many short scenes moving from place to place, even from time to time. As a result, there is constant interruption in the flow of the play.

None of the first three plays in the anthology is a 'typical' one-act: few characters, simple staging, straight-forward plot, conflict, and climax. One wonders about the students who are encountering the genre for the first time, whether they would be able to follow what was happening in these plays and make any sense out of them at all.

The unit on Immigration and Identity is a misnomer. The unit contains only one play, Mavor Moore's Customs, an excellent play about identity and coming to terms with the various personae we use in our dealings with others. However, the play has nothing to do with the issue of immigration, other than one of the characters is an immigration officer at an airport.

Moore's play is a good example of the traditional one-act play structure. There are not too many characters and the flow of the play is not interrupted by too many scene breaks. Further, the main character, Henry Mungo, is a different man at the end of the play than he was at the beginning, allowing students to follow the development of his character.

The fourth unit is also misnamed: Comedy from Sea to Sea. Granted, the first play, Newfoundland writer Glen Rockwood's play The Second Coming is a successful comedy with quirky characters and lots of black humour about street people and the urban poor. Yet the second play, The Song of the Serpent by Betty Lambert is not a comedy. The editor, in the notes and questions, does not call it a comedy. It is a melodrama of the gold rush days in the Cariboo country of British Columbia. Further, it is replete with vicious stereotypes and racist terms of serious disrespect. Frankly, I am surprised the publishers allowed the play's inclusion in the anthology. Granted, the people portrayed used such terms, but the way this author incorporates them into the play is gratuitous, sensationalistic, and unjustifiable. There are better melodramas in Canadian dramatic literature that do not offend. There is even more than one real comedy from sea to sea.

The last unit contains three plays, including one written by the editor, Gordon Ralph, which seems somewhat self-serving, at least to me. The unit, Contemporary Problems, is an eclectic one. There is a play about adoption of children, a play on reproductive technology, specifically cloning, and a play on ageism. The play about adoption, Moon People by Aviva Ravel and the play about old age, Old Boots by Carol Sinclair, are the two best plays in the anthology. Old Boots, particularly, is laugh-out-loud funny and throws stereotypes about the elderly right out the window. One wishes the rest of the plays had treated other stereotypes in so cavalier a manner, rather than wallowing in them and seeking, albeit indirectly, to perpetuate them.

In summing up the play selections for this anthology, I find the choices on the whole to be weak. There are better Canadian plays. Yet, on the other hand, the anthology has value because of its inclusion of Sinclair's Old Boots and Ravel's Moon People.

The support materials the editor includes are equally uneven. Some of his questions and exercises are excellent, providing stimulation and challenge for English students and drama students alike. Yet other questions and activities seem pointless and even absurd.

The preface presents Ralph's organizational structure for the support materials. "Category A questions deal with reading/comprehension, Category B questions entice the student to expand the ideas in the plays toward more universal application, and Category C questions are suggestions for students and teachers who wish to animate (act out) the material."

The comprehension questions are generally straight-forward. There is an effective mix of lower-level recall and higher-level analysis and synthesis questions. Similarly, Category C questions are on the whole practical, challenging, and useful for drama students. Category B questions seem to be the least well thought out. Perhaps because their purpose is less-defined than the other two, the questions seem random and often irrelevant to the play.

To sum up, I did not find this anthology particularly exciting or useful to my teaching. Too many of the plays are second-rate, overly-political, or, simply not entertaining. In order to bring about change, the theatre must never forget its dual purpose to entertain and to educate. If the heart is not engaged, the head is unlikely to be engaged. For this reason, Customs, Old Boots and Moon People succeed while the other plays fall short.