Vol.18 No.2, 1997, Fall/ Automne



This article contends that through the work of academics committed to recording and discussing the efforts of the alternate theatre movement, the narrative of English Canadian theatre history was subsequently revised. As a result, two suppositions were established which form the implicit basis of much research into contemporary English Canadian theatre history. They are: (1) the significant development of an English Canadian dramatic literature by a movement of professional and postcolonial theatre-makers signaled the theatre's "coming of age", and therefore (2) a specific set of events from 1968 to 1975 constitute the "golden age" of English Canadian theatre history. The narrative as it stands, therefore, clearly and unfairly privileges the achievements of the alternate movement at the expense of numerous other, equally vital historical voices. This article will focus on a particular individual who serves as a prime example of this exclusion; the director and theorist
Roy Mitchell (1884-1944).

L'article suivant défend l'hypothèse que le travail des chercheurs dévoués à la documentation des efforts du mouvement théâtral avant-gardiste a eu pour effet une révision des récits traditionnels de l'histoire théâtrale anglo-canadienne. Par conséquence, deux suppositions furent formulées qui soutiennent une bonne partie de la recherche entreprise dans le même domaine aujourd'hui. Elles sont: (1) le dévelopment important de la dramaturgie anglo-canadienne par un mouvement de praticiens professionels était symbolique d'un certain mûrissement, et par conséquant (2) une série d'événements entre 1968 et 1975 constituaient une «âge d'or» dans l'histoire du théâtre anglo-canadienne. Le récit historique actuel place nettement et abusivement l'accent sur les réalisations du mouvement avant-gardiste au détriment des autres mouvements, des mouvements qui sont aussi important. Cet article présente ceux d'un individu qui servira à illustrer l'exclusion évoquée; le metteur en scène et théoricien Roy Matthews Mitchell (1884-1944).

In his review of Denis W. Johnston's book Up The Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto's Alternative Theatres (1991) in the Fall 1993 issue of Theatre Research In Canada, Tom Hendry writes, "History revises the past into a useful rationalization for the present and a motivation and inspiration for the future" (Hendry 198). It is not surprising that Hendry, a founding member of what is known as the alternate movement,(1) openly advocates this particular attitude towards historiography. He and other theatre-makers associated with this period of English Canadian theatre history rejected their colonial past and any association with the mainstream regional theatre system, opting brashly and successfully to promote a self-generated history which situated their work as the first truly English Canadian theatre, therefore superseding the achievements not only of past theatre-makers, but of those not allied with the movement in their time as well.(2) Earlier in the same review Hendry writes

I remember a 1972 speech to a few of the usual suspects, members of the Playwrights Co-op, wherein, in all seriousness, I compared us to the dead Vietnamese truck driver whose diary, found on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, stated his knowledge that he was part of a generation destined and duty-bound to die for its country. (197)

This brand of conscious myth making -- which, according to Denis Johnston, was "essential to creating a new kind of theatre" (Johnston 251) -- clearly defined the alternates as the new enemies of the mainstream theatre past and present, and the defenders and nurturers of what was, following the centennial year of 1967, an emerging postcolonial consciousness in English Canadian theatre.

Through the work of academics committed to recording and discussing the efforts of this movement and, among other things, its process of self-imaging -- whether or not they intended to validate the accomplishments of the alternates -- English Canadian theatre history as a whole was subsequently revised and narrated as a useful rationalization for the stellar rise of the alternates. As a result, two suppositions were established which form the implicit basis of much research into contemporary English Canadian theatre history. They are: (1) the significant development of an English Canadian dramatic literature by a movement of professional and postcolonial theatre-makers signalled the theatre's 'coming of age,' and therefore (2) a specific set of events from 1968 to 1975(3) constitute the 'golden age' of English Canadian theatre history. "During the struggle for cultural nationalism in the 1970s," writes Alan Filewod, "[this] reading of emerging history was necessary, and it may still be useful" (Filewod 202). Filewod, however, admits a dissatisfaction with this reading, citing "too many unresolved questions and contradictions" (202). In addition, I believe that the narrative as it presently stands clearly and unfairly privileges the achievements of the alternate movement at the expense of numerous other, equally vital historical voices.

As I will illustrate, non-professional individuals and movements not aligned with the postcolonial stance who/which do not directly contribute to the discourse of the narrative (meaning, in this context, to the development of a Canadian dramatic literature) are often included in general surveys of the field such as The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre (1989), and are the subject of essays in such scholarly publications as Canadian Theatre Review, Theatre Research in Canada/ Recherches théâtrales au Canada and Essays In Theatre, among others. However, they are also simultaneously set outside the larger frame of the grand narrative, thereby diffusing their potential contribution to its history. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on a particular individual who serves as a prime example of this exclusion, the director and theorist Roy Mitchell (1884-1944).

Before I begin an interrogation of the dominant status of these suppositions and the narrative which engendered them, however, I should state that it is not the intention of this article to thoroughly invalidate the work of the many historians and critics who have contributed to the narrative in question -- if I were in fact able to -- since without their efforts I would obviously be unable to attempt a meaningful critique of a model of English Canadian theatre history, much less in a journal devoted to, among other things, the subject at hand. It is not my opinion that the history with which we are faced at present lacks all merit. I believe, however, that a significant modification of its fundamental suppositions is necessary.

This necessity is prompted, as Chris Johnson notes in a recent essay, by numerous publications concerned with "'ex-centric' writers and theatrical movements, [which] treat their subjects in the manner of the newer criticism" (Johnson 40) which have appeared over the past decade. Such writing complicates studies, such as Denis Johnston's, which have more or less established the narrative. As theory and practice in theatre making and historiography changes, English Canadian theatre history needs to change in response; and I am not sure if the current structure of this particular history is built to incorporate this major shift. I believe that the interest in and the growing influence of ex-centric writers and movements in the stages and university classes of our country over the past decade -- documented and analyzed, for instance, in Contemporary Issues in Canadian Drama (1995), edited by Per Brask -- presents historians of English Canadian theatre history with the greatest challenge to their field since the field itself was first wrought. This change demands not a demolition of, but instead a substantive expansion of the narrow path English Canadian theatre history presently treads. It is not my intention, however, to offer the reader a gleaming upgrade of the current narrative, but to argue, as persuasively as I am able, for a significant widening of its parameters, both past and present -- if at all possible, or even desirable.

Histories, according to Stephen Johnson, are

based on the assemblage and interpretation of documents, which are in turn the eyewitness accounts, essays, records - the general detritus of past events. Historians interpret these documents for readers in an effort to understand past events. They are influenced, because there is no way to avoid it, by the prejudices and insights of both their own culture, and that of the creators of the documents in front of them. They are twice cursed: historians are at the mercy of documents, and documents of historians. (Johnson 86)

Johnson correctly implies here that a kind of cultural chaos dictates in large part what we in the present understand of the past; that a history is constructed with varying amounts of arbitrariness which must be accepted if we are to produce any substantial foundation of understanding, which can then be built upon, or toppled over in order to be re-built. Its provisionality also allows for numerous interpretations of the complex weave of those events, which can then be accepted, rejected, vice versa, or any infinite variation on the two.

The history in question is no exception. Its narrative is built on a set of documents which, as interpreted by its makers, constructs "Canadian culture as something that grows from colonial infantilism to an undefined 'world-class' maturity" (Filewod 207). And as a result it, like all histories, shapes its narrative into a form which accords with this particular thesis. This process entails the inclusion, exclusion, diminishment and highlighting of available past events. While there is no doubt that Canadian theatre has achieved a degree of international attention and acclaim, and that this has a great deal to do with the alternate movement, we must remember that this history, however plausible, remains an interpretation of past events. Its narrative has been consolidated and legitimated through the writing of a variety of academics, perhaps most influentially in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, edited by Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly. The contents for that work were written by the cream of the field's academic crop -- their various prejudices and insights, as a matter of course, coming along for the ride. Not surprisingly, the narrative has its detractors, even among those who wrote for The Companion. Academics such as Alan Filewod and Richard Paul Knowles, who occupy significant positions in the recently institutionalized field of English Canadian theatre history and criticism, have seen their particular interpretation of its events and documents contribute to recent questions concerning its relative veracity.(4)

But what exactly is this alleged grand narrative of English Canadian theatre history? There are, not surprisingly, as many variations, subtle and gross, as there are writers devoted to the subject. I will attempt to outline what I believe to be its primary framework, and from this to illustrate how the narrative in question has interpreted the available material built upon this framework in an effort to reinforce its basic suppositions. I will also admit at this point that any understanding of the past I advance in this essay is as arbitrary and provisional as the constructions I am attempting to disturb -- if not more so -- and is therefore equally vulnerable to deconstruction.

The first stream of facts I will examine which inform this narrative are the physical plants and federal government policies produced from two distinct post-Second World War periods of 'awakened' national consciousness. These theatres and policies ideally presented Canadian theatre workers with the circumstances to pursue a full-time professional career exclusively in their country -- as opposed to performance as leisure activity or part-time employment.(5) The first period begins in 1951 with the publication of the report of the Massey Commission, which by the mid-1960s had as a result of its influence largely produced the physical and financial structures of the mainstream theatre in English Canada. The Canada Council (1957-), established out of the recommendations of the report, assisted in the creation and/or the maintenance of such first period theatres as the Festival Stage for the Stratford Festival (1953-) (as well as its later spaces), the Crest Theatre in Toronto (1953-66), the Manitoba Theatre Centre (1958-), the Vancouver Playhouse and the Neptune Theatre in Halifax (1963-), and later the theatre spaces at the National Arts Centre (1969-) and the St. Lawrence Centre (1970-). To begin the history in earnest from 1951, as most histories of English Canadian theatre do, usually following a brief synopsis of activity from first nations or garrison theatre to the suspension of the Dominion Drama Festival in 1939, already diminishes a rich variety of theatre-making which was, in large part, amateur.

The choice of 1951 as a starting point is, of course, no accident. In his epoch-making essay "Creeping Towards a Culture: The Theatre in English Canada Since 1945," Don Rubin informs us that following the release of the seminal commission and the resulting 'edifice complex'

[s]uddenly Canada had a theatre. Suddenly major cities across the country were producing the classic plays from world dramatic literature with professional companies. . . . Suddenly . . . Canadians had an alternative to the innumerable amateur companies which had for so long provided the country with its major claim to indigenous theatre. (Rubin 322)
Perhaps more significant is the endnote to this section. In it Rubin writes
The impact of non-professional companies, and especially the impact of the Dominion Drama Festival during this period [pre-1945] cannot be minimized, but since this essay is primarily concerned with the growth and development of professional theatres, the non-professionals, as important as they are, must be left out. (331)

These 'non-professionals,' not able to claim any significant impact on 'the growth and development of professional [read: the regionals and later the alternates] theatre,' are irrelevant, and their achievements are therefore diminished. However, as Rubin and other critics continue to reassure us, they are important. How exactly is never clearly answered. The peripheral status assigned to amateur theatre-makers implies that, despite the protestation, they are not. The narrative in question, because of the narrow range of its presumptions, is able to present individuals and movements who fail to conform clearly to its suppositions only in terms of what Barbara Drennan calls "affirmative syntax or tentative hyperbole" (Drennan 48).

The movement during this first period towards a professional regional theatre (or 'branch-plant') system, and the creation of an 'arms-length' funding policy to maintain this system, was arguably the material expression of a long-felt need to establish a 'legitimate' Canadian theatre, which had been called for since at least the late nineteenth century. It was in theory (but less so in practice) a theatre for the Canadian actor, designer, director, administrator and audience. A Canadian playwright, also theoretically seeking a professional career, seemed in most cases to be left out of their equation. And although such leading citizens as Vincent Massey had encouraged and supported the development of Canadian playwriting since the 1920s, and a clutch of authors, including Elsie Park Gowan, John Coulter, Gwen Pharis Ringwood, Robertson Davies and Herman Voaden had collectively produced a large body of produced work by the 1950s, the vast majority of plays running on the stages of the first period theatres were (and in many cases continue to be) culled from the Western canon of classic and modern drama from other countries. Nor was any workshop or play development program in place in any of the regional theatres. The Canadian play, then, was also relegated to this system's periphery.(6)

The members of the alternate movement argued that the underlying reasons for this exclusion was the mainstream's hostility to the idea of producing Canadian plays, and their outright suspicion of all things nationalistic. Edward Gilbert, who served as artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre during the fervent post-centennial years, advanced his own particular opinion of Canadian drama and dramatists. On the subject of Canadian plays Gilbert, in a 1967 interview in The Stage in Canada,commented:

I don't see how a play can be Canadian. I mean, what is a Canadian play? . . . The whole issue seems to me to be a total red herring . . . I think the only area of interest in a discussion of this sort is whether the particular play has a particular relevance in the place where it is going to be shown and this is a matter which is quite regardless of the nationality of the author. (Chusid 14)

On Canadian playwrights:

I do not care where [artists] come from or what nationality they have or what race they belong to. If they have something to say, they're welcome in my book. I'm encouraging people to participate--that's the generalization. Inside of that I have no nationalistic interest whatsoever. (Chusid 14)

Regardless of whether Gilbert's ideas hold water or not, and whether his suspicions are justified or whether his feelings were shared by any other artistic director working in English Canada, the mainstream's failure to utilize any significant part of their funding to nurture the growth of a Canadian dramatic literature became the primary charge the alternates brought against them. The regionals' old world attitude, such as their biases towards English culture (especially their taste for English artistic directors like Gilbert), their vision of theatre as "basically a conservative, civilizing art form," which had no place for "innovation and iconoclasm" (Salter 80), as well as their reluctance to encourage and develop the 'Canadian Playwright,' became the alternates' raison d'être. To repudiate all that the mainstream stood for, and to embrace all they opposed, sincerely or otherwise, became an excellent way, in tandem with their myth-making activities, of distinguishing themselves from the mainstream without further reliance on the then avant-garde aesthetics of contemporary American--and to a lesser degree, European--theatre. Writing about the formative years of the Factory Theatre, Denis Johnston states that founding artistic director Ken Gass, originally influenced by the New York theatre Cafe LaMama, "realized that the public profile of his new company would be greatly enhanced by having an identifiable programming policy" (74); in the case of the Factory, their new programming policy, in opposition to the mainstream, was best expressed in its slogan: "Home of the Canadian Playwright." In time, all four leading theatres of the alternate movement attempted, in their own unique fashion, to live up to a similar title.

This policy also played well with a federal government aware of the lingering post-centennial buzz of its citizenry. Its involvement with the growing alternate movement -- via the direct assistance of the Council and the accidental help of general O.F.Y. (Opportunities For Youth) and L.I.P. (Local Initiative Programs) grants -- afforded the spaces and created the conditions for the growth of theatres across Canada from the late sixties to the mid seventies, and as a result brought about the second, and, according to the narrative, most important period of professionalization. "What [the Canada Council] evolved through trial and error," writes Alan Filewod, "was a model that placed the alternates as satellites to the regional theatre . . . [I]n the centre the regional theatre would act as a catalyst to validate the alternates. The model was dynamic and admitted controversy. What could be better?" (Filewod 203). At its peak, when the theatre workers of the alternate movement, with their activities heavily funded by all three tiers of government, took on the task of developing Canadian playwrights and plays full-time, they in effect became professional alternates -- that is, full-time and fully-funded -- who, as locked into funding categories as the mainstream, produced in opposition to it.

Out of the hundreds of plays staged by the alternates, a handful of playwrights assumed prominence. The leading dramatists during the height of the alternate movement (among them Carol Bolt, David Freeman, David French and Sharon Pollock) enjoyed numerous productions, public and critical acclaim, and publication. In other words, the alternate movement allowed a homegrown playwright, seemingly shut out of the regional system, to pursue ( if not attain) a professional career. Critics and academics interpreted the growing professionalism of these playwrights (reinforced by the establishment of the Playwrights Co-Op, later the Playwrights Union of Canada, in 1971) as a signal that a full-blooded Canadian dramatic literature, and consequently a true Canadian theatre, was at last coming into its own.

As I have contended above, this narrative has constructed Canadian culture -- specifically, its theatre -- as growing from "colonial infantilism to an undefined 'world-class' maturity" (Filewod 207). A necessary condition of this maturity included such things as professional artists creating Canadian theatre, academics studying the creations, and published collections offering the results for public reading consumption; in other words, signs of an emerging postcolonial culture rising from the quagmire of amateur colonialists. And the work of these 'colonialists' have been diminished accordingly. Some of their achievements have been interpreted as important, but relatively unconnected to the professionalization and the particular politics of the post-centennial theatre.

Nationalist and postcolonial sentiments expressed by both the alternate movement and pre-centennial critics and artists, also provided crucial material for the development of the narrative and for the canonical imperative.(7) The historical facts which flow through the postcolonial stream are those documented events which both lead to and were inspired by the attempt to reflect Canada's artistic and historical independence from both British and American culture through a nurturing of its own identity. While some historians such as Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly seem to regard postcolonialism as a natural outgrowth of twentieth-century nationalism, Denis Johnston in contrast arguably views it as a way of thinking exclusive to the members of the alternate movement which developed in opposition to the imperialist nationalism of the mainstream and the previous generation. Regardless of these differing viewpoints, both camps appear to agree that postcolonialism in large part informed the political positioning of the alternate movement. An oft-cited postcolonial milestone during this period is Theatre Passe Muraille's production of The Farm Show in 1972. "With [The Farm Show]" write Benson and Conolly in their English Canadian Theatre (1987)

it was clear that TPM under [Paul] Thompson had moved away from the internationalism represented by its earlier production of [American playwright Rochelle Owens'] Futz to indigenous material that would enable the company to incorporate local speech, customs, and traditions into plays that attempted to create a Canadian mythology and retell Canada's history. (Benson, Conolly 87)

This shift from internationalism to 'indigenousness,' to attempt to 'retell Canadian history,' are as important to the narrative in question as was the shift from amateurism to professionalism. This critical and box-office success, as well as others (such as James Reaney's Donnelly Trilogy Sticks and Stones [1973], St. Nicholas Hotel [1974] and Handcuffs [1975]) popularized and legitimized a postcolonial mythology which defiantly proclaimed that Canadian stories were as valid as, if not of greater importance than those imported onto the stage of the regional theatres, and that it was crucial to stage these stories since, until they were, Canada would remain a child of the Empire and a poor relative of America, unable to fully come into its own.

Postcolonialism, then, became the second necessary condition of a mature, world-class Canadian theatre. The writing and production of Canadian plays became a critical element of this condition. This element was nurtured by theatres assuming the postcolonial stance (read: the alternates), and was primarily maintained and expanded on by government funding. It was also a condition accorded historical priority by academics convinced of its necessity. Canada's colonial infantilism included its unflinching devotion to Mother Britannia as well as its amateur status, and were deemed to be one and the same. According to the narrative, as theatre in Canada became professionalised, the postcolonialists suddenly became aware of the potential of its independence. Plays explored allegedly 'national themes' or told stories deemed to be distinctly Canadian in 'style' or 'tone' (as did many pre-centennial, 'amateur,' plays) and many of these appeared in the inevitable play collections, which asserted that they definitively represented the range of Canadian drama. In addition, the postcolonial members of the alternate theatre eventually took over many influential positions in English Canadian theatre, thereby affording their particular stance greater influence. The history was written by the winners.

Here we stand, then, on a narrow path of English Canadian theatre history. Peripheral status is accorded to those theatre-makers who to varying degrees do not satisfy the necessary conditions. Again, this is not to say that they are denied access; they tend, however, to appear briefly as introductory passages in a history which privileges a period said to have single-handedly brought about the coming of age of English Canadian theatre. A case in point is the work--the 'history'-- of Roy Mitchell, whose presence poses a challenge to the narrative in question.

Roy Matthews Mitchell was born to Canadian parents in Fort Gartiot, Michigan in 1884, and died in Canaan, Connecticut in 1944 in a lodge he had designed himself. In the forty years of his professional life, of which half (1908-1927) was spent in Toronto, he produced a wide-ranging body of work. He authored several critically acclaimed books on theatre production and theory (including his best known work, Creative Theatre [1929]), on Theosophy and related occult subjects, and had amassed enough research over time to write several more. He taught drama at New York University, produced theatre at the Arts and Letters Club (1908-1916) and Hart House Theatre (1919-1921) in Toronto, and toured Ontario and British Columbia lecturing on his Theosophical beliefs and theatrical methods. In the last years of his life he developed a system of phonetic singing which enabled an ensemble of choral singers under his direction to perform a repertoire of over 600 folk songs from around the world in their original languages. His energy throughout his life was focused mainly on his vision of what he called his 'creative theatre.' His vision, however, did not fully come to pass in his lifetime, nor did it subsequently.(8)

His appearance in a history is always brief but notable in the lavish praise he receives from contemporary historians. In Benson and Conolly's English Canadian Theatre he is hailed as the "driving force" behind the Arts and Letters Club, and Creative Theatre is deemed "influential" (Benson, Conolly 45). However, his role in English Canadian theatre history, according to them, was to serve primarily as an inspiration for another American-born Canadian writer, Merrill Denision, to whom they ascribe a greater historical significance. In the Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre Mitchell is deemed "Canada's first significant director" (Lane 139) and "the most prophetic voice in Canadian theatre history" (Usmiani 343). In a section entitled 'Drama in English' his book Creative Theatre is called "inspirational" (Plant 155), and in a section on "Little Theatre and Amateur Theatre," Mitchell is hailed as "Canada's prophet of theatrical change" and Creative Theatre is described as a "brilliant analytical treatise" (Gardner 303). Despite these impressive accolades, however, his work has received limited academic attention. He is a fragmented historical figure who cannot easily be incorporated into the prevalent narrative, but as the 'tentative hyperbole' and 'affirmative syntax' above illustrates, his appeal and the marginal historical importance of his work -- i.e. his position as director at Hart House -- seems to necessitate an honourable mention in the narrative which in turn tests and reveals the weaknesses in its structural integrity.

Over approximately the past quarter century, two essays on Roy Mitchell have been published: the extremely brief "Canada's Great Theatre Prophet: Roy Who?" by Mavor Moore in the premiere issue of Canadian Theatre Review in 1974, and the more substantial "Roy Mitchell: Prophet in our Past" by Renate Usmiani in the fall 1987 issue of Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du théâtre au Canada (later Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada). The titles of both essays are quite suggestive in their unapologetically reverential use of the term prophet. In using this term Moore and Usmiani are retroactively assigning a notion of lost significance onto Mitchell. It is through this tricky strategy of situating him as the neglected visionary of English Canadian theatre that both authors hope to avoid the obstacles presented by the narrative's suppositions and install him in his rightful place as a seminal force in the history. "As a theorist of the theatre," writes Usmiani, "Roy Mitchell merits serious study. His books deserve Canadian, not just American, reeditions [sic], and a place on the syllabi of our university courses in Canadian studies, Canadian literature, and most important, Canadian theatre history" (Usmiani 165). While I more or less agree with Usmiani, the method which she and Moore employ in order to win Mitchell these re-editions and that seminal place only serve to confirm his isolation from it.

Usmiani begins her essay by agreeing with Mitchell's colleague Claude Bragdon when he wrote to Mitchell that "[Creative Theatre] is a book for and of the future." She writes

Subsequent developments in theatre history, Canadian as well as American, have established the validity of Mitchell's ideas: the alternative theatre movement of the sixties and seventies, in particular, followed many of the principles of Mitchell's revolutionary theatre aesthetics - mostly in total ignorance of the fact that these 'original' and 'innovative' ideas had been formulated some fifty years earlier! (147)
As I have mentioned previously (see note two) this 'total ignorance' may have been a result of the alternates' conscious rejection of the past in favour of highlighting their own accomplishments. The fact, however, is that Mitchell died approximately twenty years before the rise of postcolonial sentiments in English Canada, and was not involved in the nationalist discourse of his time; therefore he is excluded by way of time and politics from the narrative. Yet Creative Theatre, according to some historians, remains an 'inspirational' and 'influential' footnote in English Canadian theatre history. But inspirational and influential to whom? No one can or will say exactly. To claim that his theories were precursors to the activities of the alternate theatre movement, then, does not succeed in bridging this gap.

In addition, his 'revolutionary theatre aesthetics' focused mainly on a type of performance based on Mitchell's concepts of motion; although he produced a number of Canadian plays over the course of his tenure at Hart House, he was not interested in developing a dramatic literature, Canadian or otherwise. His interests rested instead in uncovering universal aspects of art and religion. In this way he also fails to meet the criteria for full inclusion. How then, is Mitchell a prophet of the alternate theatre? I believe he is not. Roy Mitchell was very much a theatre-maker of his time. He drew inspiration from the little theatre movement, the influence of which peaked before the second World War. Theosophy, the belief system he devoted his adult life to promoting and developing, enjoyed a peak of popularity during the '20s and '30s, but decreased in influence following the war. With the significant loss of members in both camps Mitchell himself declined in popularity. Nevertheless, he continued to carry out his research in solitude until his death, and Creative Theatre, republished privately twenty-eight years ago, continues to fascinate a handful of people. And he persistently appears on the fringes of the history which, according to its suppositions, would have an easier time of it without his presence.

The reasons which account for Mitchell's awkward inclusion in and almost complete exclusion from the prevalent narrative poses an interesting problem. It is, simply put, this: to present his work to any degree other than in brief and occasionally hyperbolic summaries is I believe to raise the question of the history's validity. Yet if the work of a theatre-maker, who in strict terms of its necessary conditions offers little or no significance for the narrative in question as it stands, can still be dubbed 'Canada's prophet of theatrical change' in what is purported by many to be the most definitive survey of Canadian theatre available, isn't at least an attempt to bring a more involved study of his theories and productions into the narrative in fact called for? I am not suggesting, however, that such a study would bring the walls of English Canadian theatre history crumbling down. Histories are complex monsters which feed well on the chaos that gave them life. It might, however, provoke a much-needed debate on what exactly this narrative has left out, and for what reason.

As I have stated above, I believe that the achievements of post-Second World War professional and postcolonial theatre-makers, specifically those aligned with the alternate movement, have been unfairly accorded the status of the jewels of English Canadian theatre history. I say unfair because, as I have tried to illustrate, the conditions which I believe dictate inclusion in the narrative are unnecessarily narrow and as a result diffuse the contribution of far too many theatre-makers. Yet perhaps it was inevitable. By rejecting the history of the colonial mainstream outright, the alternates were forced to justify their work through other means. "In a way we're behaving like people kept out of golf clubs," Tom Hendry commented in 1976. "We're building our own" (qtd. in Johnston 4). And the academics of that generation, sensing a change in the weather, followed suit. I propose that historians begin to rethink this history, and in so doing reconsider the merits of the golf club it has built for its golden age. It has the advantage of youth in its favour in that it is still wide open to possibilities. This debate might prove uncomfortable or seem ridiculous to some. Discomfort and hesitation, however, are inevitable in a period of change, and I believe the time for change is at hand. A serious reassessment of how the narrative of English Canadian theatre history is presently constructed is required in order to allow not only the work of Roy Mitchell, but of a wide variety of ex-centric theatre-makers, a greater role in the story of what English Canadian theatre was and will be. To deny them this is to severely diminish the potential abundance and diversity of this story.


1. There has been a great deal of reflection and debate on the relative merit of the term 'alternate' from its first use in this particular context. I align myself with such critics as Alan Filewod who have called for a substantial rethinking of this problematic term "by which the recent history of Canadian theatre has been constructed" (Filewod 201). The theatres chiefly associated with this movement, which, depending on the source you cite, began between 1968 and 1970, and ended sometime during 1975 to 1977, were: Factory Theatre Lab (1969-), Tarragon Theatre (1971-), Theatre Passe Muraille (1968-) and Toronto Free Theatre (1972-1994). According to Filewod, they are historically characterized as

[N]ationalistic, committed to Canadian playwrights, young, radical, and self-consciously experimental . . . [T]hey began as expressions of the familiar American concept of radical theatre, and evolved a nationalist ideology; the weak faded away and the strong survived; they legitimized playwriting as a profession in this country; they spawned a generation of new actors, designers, and directors, and eventually they ate the mainstream. (202)

Denis Johnston contends that these theatres, thanks in large part to these above-mentioned characteristics, were alternate "to existing forms of professional theatre in Canada, to the highly developed bureaucracy of the Stratford Festival and to the well-heeled respectability of the regional theatres" (Johnston 5). Above all, to be alternate in this movement was arguably to be young (that is, to be of the 'boom' generation) and radical (to reject mainstream conceptions of play production largely in favour of variations on contemporary American avant-garde practice); being experimental--or alternate--in both life and in theatre seemed to inevitably follow. An ideological battle developed soon after the rise of the alternates which pitted, according to Filewod, "mainstream (which means big [and traditional])" against "alternative (which means small [and radical])," the terms of which "accorded with a bourgeois model that understands culture in terms of its polarities: high/low, establishment/avant-garde, commercial/experimental" (Filewod 203). Like others which attempt to streamline a complex weave of interactions, this historical model fails to entirely conceal the many contradictions which might place the validity of such a model in question. This polarized dialectic is complicated, for example, by the fact that Tom Hendry, who directed for Theatre Passe Muraille and Factory Theatre and co-founded the Toronto Free Theatre, played an important role in the development of the much hated mainstream, having also co-founded The Manitoba Theatre Centre (1958-) with John Hirsch, which became the model for regional theatres across North America. He was also, among many other things, the first literary manager of the Stratford Festival. In bringing up Hendry's work prior to his important role in the development of the alternate movement I am not implying that someone who worked within the mainstream could not as a rule ever 'be alternate' to it; in fact, Hendry was arguably the most alternate of the members since he possessed the clearest understanding of what the movement was in fact being alternate to. I am suggesting that the establishment managerial and financial background he brought to the alternate movement significantly contributed to their eventual eating of the mainstream. Despite this, and clearly to the benefit of the movement, who he was--for example, a man then in his forties, among other things--prevented him from being wholly alternate in the sense I believe was publicly affirmed by its members.

Another example of the heterogeneity of this scene is Bill Glassco and the Tarragon Theatre. Glassco also preceded the boomers in age by close to a decade, and the theatre he co-founded after parting ways with Ken Gass and the Factory Lab in many ways resembled, and still resembles a mainstream theatre in English Canada, if not in size and funding, then in policy and atmosphere. I do not believe it is facetious to note that while the other 'big four' theatres were clearly aligning themselves in name to the contemporary American, and to a lesser degree European, avant-garde zeitgeist ('Factory Lab,' Theatre 'Beyond Walls' and the 'Free' Theatre), Glassco named his theatre after his favourite herb. He was no doubt alternate in terms of his commitment to the development of Canadian plays and playwrights; however, the kinds of plays the Tarragon favoured (mostly in the genres of naturalism and realism) and the way in which they were produced (on a permanent proscenium stage) could be considered quite conventional, perhaps even commercial in form. Despite its problems, however, this is, by and large, through these broad characterizations and general model, how the alternate movement is presently understood in historical terms.
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2. I am more or less in agreement with Denis Johnston's interpretation of the particular attitude of the alternates. He writes "It was in the interest of these companies to depict Canada's theatre as a vast wasteland awaiting its first spring, even though most of their young leaders were trained and encouraged by the country's various theatrical establishments" (Johnston 8). He is also correct in his contention that this rejection of what they would consider past and present mainstream theatre-makers "reflected their desire to rewrite history according to their own priorities in order to minimize the importance of that which came before" (8).
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3. The generally accepted timeframe of the alternate movement.
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4. In particular see Filewod, "Erasing," and Knowles, Richard Paul, "Voices (off): Deconstructing the Modern English-Canadian Dramatic Canon." Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value. Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 91-111. See also Drennan, "Theatre-History Telling."
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5. The career of Tom Hendry, well documented in Johnston's Up The Mainstream, is a clear example of the success of these theatres and policies in the first period in terms of creating conditions for a career.
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6. It is problematic, however, to cast the regional theatre system as the cackling, mustache-twirling nemesis in this instance. There were arguably numerous conditions which prevented the full integration of English Canadian drama into the system's repertoire. One of the most crucial of these was the audience's horizon of expectation for what a regional theatre produces. At the time they may have questioned the placement of Ringwood alongside Shakespeare, or Voaden followed by Shaw. They may have even found a Canadian partnership with one of the Western World's lesser literary lights somewhat disturbing. Much of this may have had to do with the playwright's association with mainly amateur companies or events. It was also, ironically, contemporary notions of nationalism which influenced these expectations concerning the production of plays in these theatres, despite misgivings many artistic directors--mainly foreign--had about the hand of nationalism in practical theatre-making affairs.
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7. I distinguish the nationalist stream from the postcolonial by the time frames in which they occur and their overall influence. While nationalist sentiments have surged, waned and adjusted in English Canada over the course of a century, significant postcolonial convictions arguably arose only following the centennial celebrations of 1967 (important exceptions being the Québécois and First Nations, whose notions of independence arose at different times and for significantly different reasons). The ever-changing tenets of nationalism profoundly inform all aspects of this narrative, especially in the first period of 'awakened' national consciousness, as well as its heir apparent, postcolonialism. This pre-centennial nationalism situated Canada at the heart of and as the rightful heir to the British Empire, and as a result embraced British culture at the expense of developing a national culture. This attitude was arguably in large part responsible for the underdevelopment of a Canadian dramatic literature.
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8. This brief biography is a slight variation on others which have appeared in one form or another in the handful of publications by or about Mitchell. Others include his early years in journalism and his one year appointment to the Department of Information in Ottawa as Director of Motion Pictures. There are many other tantalizing facts, such as his listing as a possible advisor to the American Federal Theatre Project in 1935, which are added and omitted, depending on the subject of the publication and the whim of the particular author. For a more detailed examination of Mitchell's life and work, refer to Duchesne, Scott. "A Problem of Presence: Roy Mitchell in/and English Canadian theatre history." M.A. Thesis. U of Guelph, 1996.
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Benson, Eugene, and Conolly, L.W. English-Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987.

---. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

Chusid, Harvey. "Nationalistic Labels Stifle Development." The Stage In Canada. La Scène au Canada 3.3 (1967): 9-18.

Drennan, Barbara. "Theatre History-Telling: New Historiography, Logic and the other Canadian Tradition." Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada 13.1-2 (1992): 46-62.

Duchesne, Scott. "A Problem of Presence: Roy Mitchell in/and English Canadian Theatre History." MA Thesis. U of Guelph, 1996.

Filewod, Alan. "Erasing Historical Difference: The Alternative Orthodoxy in Canadian Theatre." Theatre Journal 41.2 (1989): 201-10.

Gardner, David. "Little Theatre and Amateur Theatre." Benson and Conolly, Oxford Companion. 301-309.

Hendry, Tom. Rev. of Up The Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto's Alternative Theatres 1968-1975, by Denis W. Johnston. Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théâtrales au Canada 14.2 (1993): 196-198.

Johnson, Chris. "'Wisdome Under a Ragged Coate': Canonicity and Canadian Drama." Contemporary Issues in Canadian Drama. Ed. Per Brask. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1995. 26-49.

Johnson, Stephen. Rev. of Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. Ed. Don Rubin. Canadian Theatre Review 90 (1997): 86-88.

Johnston, Denis W. Up The Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto's Alternative Theatres. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

Knowles, Richard Paul. "Voices (off): Deconstructing the Modern English-Canadian Dramatic Canon." Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value. Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 91-111.

Lane, Harry. "Directing (English Canada)." Benson and Conolly, Oxford Companion. 139-41.

Leggatt, Alexander. Rev. of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, Ed. Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly. Essays in Theatre 9.1 (1990): 83-86.

Moore, Mavor. "Canada's Great Theatre Prophet: Roy Who?" Canadian Theatre Review 1.1 (1974): 69-71.

Plant, Richard. "Drama in English." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Benson and Conolly, Oxford Companion. 149-169.

Rubin, Don. "Creeping Toward A Culture: The Theatre in English Canada Since 1945." Canadian Theatre History: Selected Readings. Ed. Don Rubin. Mississauga: Copp Clark, 1996. 318-331.

Salter, Denis. "The Idea of a National Theatre." Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value. Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 71-90.

Usmiani, Renate. "Roy Mitchell: Prophet in our Past." Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du théâtre au Canada 8.2 (1987): 147-168.

---. "Roy Mitchell." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Benson and Conolly, Oxford Companion. 343.