Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000

YASHDIP S. BAINS. English Canadian Theatre, 1765-1826. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 244 pp. $44.95 American.


In order to provide details of the early history of Canadian theatre, Dr. Yashdip Bains travelled widely for over a decade beginning in the mid-1970s to consult early Canadian newspapers held in libraries and archives in Canada, England, and the United States. The research task the author set for himself was formidable, and remains worthy of our admiration for the time and effort that went into his ambitious undertaking. As a result of that research, Dr. Bains published eleven articles in various journals between 1975 and 1985 that contributed to our knowledge of the development of theatre in Canada during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In English Canadian Theatre, 1765-1826, Dr. Bains has reworked those articles to provide a one volume "account of the development of theatricals from the beginnings of amateur and touring companies to the building of Canada's first commercial house in Montreal in 1825." It is good to have these material brought together in one work.

This intriguing and valuable book, however, is not without flaws. Most of this research was completed over a decade ago, and, as a result, one finds little in the way of new facts or understandings. Although Dr. Bains could be forgiven for not consulting such primary sources as travel books, playbills, letters, diaries, journals, and American newspaper accounts in his original papers, his failure to incorporate such materials in this book greatly weakens this reworking. His claim that this is "the first study which is based on a thorough search of primary sources" is undermined by a bibliography which lists only three works written between 1765 and 1826. Would not his description of the Halifax New Grand Theatre be enriched by the 18 December 1789 letter from James Maxtone of the 57th Regiment, to his sister Helen, describing the opening night of the second season, to augment the description in Dyott's diary, 1781-1845?

[W]e have fitted up a very handsome little Theatre the Scenes all Painted by Officers of the Garrison very elegantly done, the first Play is to be the Recruiting Officer and none but Officers of the Navy and army are allowed to act; the Youngest and most handsome of both are chosen to be the Ladys; there has already been two Rehearsals and we flatter ourselves we shall come off with a good deal of Eclat.

Would his discussion of Henry Giffard and his wife, who performed in Halifax with the American Company of Comedians in August of 1768, be different had he consulted the February 1783 Playbill from Kingston, Jamaica, that noted that it was their "first appearance here these 15 Years?" If we can trust the arithmetic, this would mean that the Giffards were in Jamaica immediately prior to or following their performances in Halifax in 1768. Were they with Mills in South Carolina prior to Halifax? Mr. Platt, another member of the company, was certainly not--he was acting with Verling's Virginia Company of Comedians in Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Virginia Gazette, 19 May 1768). One might also quibble with his assertion that company performed at the Pontac Inn--a stronger case can be made for the performances to have occurred at Rider's Wolfe's Inn. A thorough search of primary documents would raise questions concerning a number of his conclusions throughout the book.

The more serious flaw in the book, however, is the author's failure to grasp fully the impact of recent secondary scholarship upon his previously published work and to incorporate that research into this study. Although David Gardner's thesis, "An Analytic History of the Theatre in Canada: the European Beginnings to 1760," and his article "British Garrison Theatre in Canada during the French Regime" are both listed in the bibliography, Dr. Bains contends that amateur theatrical groups emerged in Quebec earlier than in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, and dates the beginning of English language theatre to Quebec in 1765. Dr. Gardner's research clearly indicates that Paul Mascarene, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, translated Molière's La Misanthrope and then staged at least two productions of the work during the winter of 1743-1744. The second performance on 20 January, 1744 had also coincided with celebrations in the colony to mark the birthday of Frederick, Prince of Wales. The text of the first three acts is contained in the Mascarene papers, British Library. Although evidence of other productions is scarce, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it was the tradition at Fort Anne, Nova Scotia, to produce a play in honour of the Prince of Wales's birthday. Prior to the Mascarene production, the Boston Gazette (4-11 June, 1733) reported that George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer was produced on Saturday, 20 January, 1733 by the officers of the garrison to mark the Prince's birthday. And four years after the Mascarene production, on 20 January, 1748, Major Phillips and Captain Floyer also produced a play in honour of the Prince's birthday. Unfortunately, the Boston News Letter (3 March, 1748) fails to indicate the title of the play. It does reveal, however, that the same play was staged a second time on 2 February, 1748, at the request of Captain Winslow, after the colony received the news of Admiral Edward Hawke's success in a battle against the French fleet under Admiral de l'Etenduére, in October of 1747. Undoubtedly, the Annapolis Basin in Nova Scotia served as the cradle for both French and English language theatre in Canada.

Nevertheless, it would be a pity if the criticism above should put prospective readers off English Canadian Theatre, 1765-1826. Professor Bains has covered his subject more fully than anyone else in the past, and many elements in the book will render it indispensable to anyone seeking basic information about the rise of English language theatre in Canada.