Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

JAMES H. MARSH, Editor-in-Chief The Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, 1985. 3 vols, illus., ind., xxxv, 2089 p. $175.00


It is not necessary for me to add to the many encomiums that greeted the publication of The Canadian Encyclopedia in 1985. The initiative of publisher Mel Hurtig and the organizing skills of editor-in-chief James Marsh have been widely praised by reviewers and readers who have noted the large gap that has been filled in Canadian reference sources by this comprehensive work spanning Canadian life from 'A mari usque ad mare' to 'Zurakowski, Janusz.'

The more than 8,000 entries in between, including some 3,500 biographies, are the work of 250 consultants and ten times that many contributors. The entries cover 1,992 three-column pages of small print and are supplemented at the end of vol 3 by another 100 pages of index for those 3,000 subjects mentioned in the text which do not have their own entries. A formidable achievement that is difficult to assess en masse. Nevertheless, to examine one particular area of interest in such a panorama may suggest the thoroughness and accuracy of the work as a whole. While many of the entries on Canadian drama and theatre are brief and of more use for the general reader than the scholar, an examination of them will enable those passionately interested in our theatre to discover what Canadians will learn of our theatrical history from the most complete reference work now available on Canada.

Judging from the number of entries alone, the editors have been well advised on many of the important figures and topics in Canadian drama and theatre. There are more than 150 entries on drama or drama-related subjects or individuals, including writers like Morley Callaghan and Anne Hébert, whose contributions to the theatre are given little if any recognition. The number of entries on English playwrights and subjects is slightly higher than those on French ones, and there is a wide range of general topics with entries for both languages, including Drama, Radio Drama, Television Drama, and Theatre. Besides, there are entries on Musical Theatre, Multicultural Theatre, Theatre Education, Theatre for Young Audiences, the Little Theatre Movement, Stage and Costume Design, Opera, Dance, and Concert Halls and Opera Houses.

Several well-known scholars from both language groups have contributed, the most prolific being David Gardner and Anton Wagner on English-Canadian drama, André G. Bourassa and Leonard E. Doucette on French-Canadian. The major articles in importance and length are those on 'Drama in English' (six columns) by Richard Plant; 'Drama in French' (five columns) by Lorraine Camerlain, Pierre Lavoie and Gilbert David; 'Theatre, English-Language' (three pages, two columns) by L.W. Conolly and David Gardner; and 'Theatre, French-Language' (two pages, one column) by Leonard E. Doucette. These and several other articles provide a list of readings, though there is no consistency in this throughout the encyclopedia.

For the most part, Canadian drama and theatre are served extremely well by these major articles. They provide a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of our theatre history. There is, however, some unnecessary overlapping among them, which suggests that the editors might have given more direction to the contributors. For example, the entries on both English- and French-Language Theatre speak of Lescarbot's Théâtre de Neptune and other French plays and theatrical activity in the seventeenth century, including the infamous affaire Tartuffe of 1693-94; indeed, the commentary in the English section is more extensive than the French. A more serious problem involves the entry on 'Drama in French,' and again the problem may be lack of direction for the contributors. Presumably the editors had two different things in mind when they commissioned separate entries on Drama and Theatre, the first involving plays and playwrights, the second the history of theatre and plays in performance. Yet 'Drama in French' is mostly a history of modem theatre groups in Quebec after 1948, with little information on the important Quebec playwrights that followed Gélinas and Tit-Coq, and even less on those who preceded them. Gilbert David's comments on 'Theatre of Intervention' are a good summary of the recent committed theatre in Quebec, but here again there is little on who the playwrights are. Doucette's inclusion in 'Drama in French' of sections on French-language theatre in the Maritimes, Ontario and Manitoba is a welcome addition to his carefully written article.

The related articles on 'Radio Drama,' while short on plays and playwrights, show how different the history of this drama has been in the two languages, the more independent French experience contrasting with the almost total dependence of English drama on the CBC. Different approaches are taken in the two articles on 'Television Drama,' the English emphasizing the genre itself rather than the history of performance, and the article on French drama giving an historical perspective with insights into the value of competition between the two networks in Quebec. Jeniva Berger's short article on 'Multicultural Theatre' is a useful survey of several national theatre traditions in Canada, but does not aim for thoroughness: in speaking of Irish theatre groups, for example, she mentions only Calgary's Shamrock Players and The Irish Newfoundland Society, while there are at least three others at present in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto, and a defunct group in Montreal. 'Theatre Education' is an informed survey of theatre training in universities and private theatre schools though, like many another academic, Gordon Peacock has inserted an unsolicited article ('the') in the name of Toronto's Graduate Centre for Study of Drama. Joyce Doolittle's 'Theatre for Young Audiences' emphasizes the large number of children's theatre troupes but says little about Canadian plays and playwrights for young people.

Space limitation has led to unfortunate condensation in some articles. Thus, in David Gardner's otherwise comprehensive account of the 'Little Theatre Movement,' he says the Dominion Drama Festival was 'launched in 1933,' and later 'created in 1932.' More space would have allowed him to explain that the meeting at Rideau Hall which established the DDF was held in October 1932, while the finals of the First Competition were held in Ottawa in April, 1933. Gardner's article on contemporary English-language theatre compensates for some of the omissions among entries on individuals in the encyclopedia. He speaks of a second wave of dramatists in the 1970s, and gives a list of eighteen who would be on most people's list of leading playwrights, Yet only one - Carol Bolt - is given her own entry.

It would be an interesting exercise to draw up a list of sports figures and organizations in the three volumes and place them beside a list of drama and theatre entries. Editor Marsh's keen interest in sports is evidenced by the number of articles he contributed on such subjects as Wayne Gretzky, Maurice Richard, and the National Hockey League. There are entries on all Canadian teams in the NHL and on every team in the Canadian Football League, but not on all regional and other important theatres and theatre festivals in Canada. There is a reasonable representation of actors and directors, past and present, though no separate article on the National Theatre School, which marked its 25th anniversary in 1985. And while some significant journals and periodicals are given entries, no theatre journal earns this distinction.

In a work of such scope and scholarship, readers might expect accuracy in details as well as broad vision. For the most part the entries are scrupulously written and proof-read, yet there is room for improvement in The Canadian Encyclopedia if we are to judge from the select area under review. In the article on 'Musical Theatre' we read, 'Canadians excelled at writing reviews,' but the remainder of the paragraph describes various 'revues' of recent memory. The article on the city of Ottawa speaks of the Great Canada [sic] Theatre Company, and the one on Saskatchewan says nothing on theatre though there is a separate entry on the 25th Street Playhouse in Saskatoon. Rex Deverell and Alison Cranmer-Byng get their proper names misspelt (typos) in 'Drama in English,' although Deverell's is right in the index. The same article indicates an entry on John Reeves, but the 'John Reeves' article in the encyclopedia is on a judge who died in London, England, in 1829; and Alden Nowlan is mentioned without the upper-case letters that would refer the reader to an article on him. The title of Peter Colley's I'll Be Back Before Midnight is colloquial enough without adding 'for you' in the middle in the two articles that refer to it, though these words were part of the original title of the play. Finally, there is inconsistency in the number of accents in the word 'Québécois': let us hope the second edition of The Canadian Encyclopedia, to be published in 1988, has it correct throughout. Small items in such a large work, but surely we have reached a stage where we can expect attention to the little as well as the great.

Returning to the great achievement that is The Canadian Encyclopedia, theatre historians can rejoice at the prominence and scholarship of the entries on drama and theatre. Space is always a problem in such a work, and committed readers can make a case that this special interest should be better represented. Indeed, the brevity of many of the articles (100-150 words) makes them seem almost token. While we regret this here, we can look forward to the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, in which the shortcomings of the encyclopedia should not be repeated. Until then, we should be thankful for what we have received in The Canadian Encyclopedia.