Vol.16 No. 1-2, 1995, Spring and Fall/ Printemps et Automne

MICHAEL HOLLINGSWORTH. The History of the Village of the Small Huts. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1995. 372 pp. $19.95 paper.

ALAN FILEWOD

Reading the collected plays that comprise The History of the Village of the Small Huts leads me to an ironic reflection-that while these plays have generated a cult audience because of the startling and novel mise-en-scène which Hollingsworth the director brings to his own works, they provide me with more pleasure in the reading than they have done in the theatre. This may be a common observation in arch bardology, which measures production against some unattainable ideal, but it is unusual when applied to a body of work which claims its originating theatrical production as its primary text.

As productions, these plays have been a fascinating reconstitution of national discourse in the arena of the avant-garde. Hollingsworth himself has described the production technique most evocatively:

... scores of grotesque characters, hyperbolic costumes, 200 lighting cues an hour. The Histories are performed in a "black box" that is precisely perforated for light, and hinged for invisible wings. Nothing but the precise frame or sculptured space for each scene is visible-a close-up on a hand or face, the flicker of two heads conspiring, the tension of a triangle, the monumental solo with crowds at the edge of the light. Characters simply appear and vanish, fleet and insubstantial as memory, haunting as history. 1

As literary texts they offer an even more fascinating realm of possibilities, because in the reading these fleet and insubstantial memories invite-and reward---closer examination. The notion that a play may be better on paper than on the stage is a heresy, the more so when the plays are commonly perceived as only the record of ground-breaking mise-en-scène. But such is the case with this volume.

The publication of these eight plays, written between 1984 and 1995, in one volume shows that while the individual productions may express a decade of theatrical development, the plays interlock into one vast text. As a national drama, its nearest theatrical relative is Karl Kraus' The Last Days of Mankind, a similarly vast epic constructed from reportage, anecdote and fantasy, mixing the private and public spheres to argue a passionate polemic of history. Comparison might also be made with Hardy's The Dynasts, which, attempts to stage the entire Napoleonic wars in a theatre of the mind.

The several productions I have seen from the Small Huts cycle have all attracted me with of their in-your-face theatrical audacity, and have left me unsatisfied because of it. The parade of leering caricatures overwhelms the written text by replacing nuance with coarse gesture, and while many of those gestures are astonishing to watch, they soon pale. To watch a dazzling sequence of several hundred deftly choreographed tableaux can be breathtaking indeed but at some point the verbal games fade into background noise as the eye races to fix on the next novelty. The very brilliance of Hollingsworth's stagecraft punishes his dramatic language. His theatre is a latter-day Grand Guignol, with all the luridity and lack of nuance that implies.

As a national drama, Hollingsworth's counter-history reflects the historiography of the liberal tradition in which Canada is the site of ruthless economic expansion mediated by the contesting forces of federalism and Québécois nationalism. This bipolarity runs through the whole sequence, and its effect is an erasure of the competing narratives of historical transformation. Just as federal elections are decided when the polls close in Ontario, so The Village of the Small Huts rarely travels west of Lake Superior (or, for that matter, east of Québec City). Trudeau liberalism marginalized Western Canada as an extension of the Ontario-based anglophone pole of the federalist crisis; so, uncritically, does Hollingsworth.

His scheme is more convincing in the depiction of the rulers than the ruled. This is not history from below, but from an angry aside. Hollingsworth seems most fascinated by the two Prime Ministers who shaped the political discourse of modern Canada, Laurier and Mackenzie King. Laurier he presents as a proto-Trudeau, aloof, aristocratic, obsessed with his amour-propre and his vision of a federal union:

Laurier: In this election we change the nature of the Constitution. MacDonald's vision of Canada, one big central government that makes all the decisions about everything, dies. And the beauty of it all is that the electorate are not aware that they are radically altering the constitution of this country. They are completely oblivious, therefore there is harmony.
Emilie: Brilliant
Laurier: The electors. And what do they do. They all moo together. (240)

In contrast, he depicts King as a canny but befuddled dupe whose hunger for acceptance blinds him to the threat of fascism:

Ribbentrop: We are building special recreation camps. We will name one after Canada. We will call it Kanada Hausen
King: I can not tell you how happy I am. I ... I feel at home here. Perhaps one day you will come and visit Canada
Ribbentrop: Perhaps one day we will. (317-318)

Here we see Hollingsworth's technique in minature: the simple, declarative dialogue, reminiscent both of the puppet theatre and the pageant, the clever reference to historical arcana (in this case the fact that the doomed inmates of Auschwitz called the warehouses in which the SS piled their loot "Kanada" because of its wealth), the concealment of his own inflection of that information (with the suggestion that the Nazis themselves produced the term), innuendo (the suggestion of King's own incipient fascism) and the snappy punchline that caps the scene.

Against these parodies of historical figures, Hollingsworth creates in each of his plays exemplary "ordinary" citizens, such as Sgt. Fraser in The British, who instructs his men on the proper usage of "Colonel Cundum's wonderful new invention":

I'm only going to put it on once, so I want you to watch me close. You know there are only three women for every hundred men, I'm trying to help you. God knows you all deserve a big pulcerous chancre on your John Thomas, and you'll get it too. But you won't be able to say I didn't try to help you. Now laddies, pass me the sheepskin. (59)

In the later plays, Hollingsworth develops these ordinary Joes in more developed inner plots; a typical example is Joe Slovkovski, who plays out the grass roots voyage of the proletariat from the Winnipeg General Strike to the ramparts of Spain in The Life and Times of Mackenzie King. These invented characters are the human ground on which history is enacted; the meat for the sausage factory (as General Currie calls the western front in The Great War) that is Canadian history. But they are less convincing than his depictions of the corporate pirates, political whores and mass-murderers who run the factory.

Hollingsworth is at his best when he lampoons received history. His text is an astonishing anthology of documents, memoirs, invention, gossip and legend, all given equal weight and never differentiated. The historical dramatist is free of the historian's obligation to substantiate, at liberty instead to play with history as a game. This creates delightful anachronisms, when Hollingsworth superimposes his rewriting of historical speeches on bits of old propaganda and apocrypha. The problem is that they are all given equal credence as historical material, with no attention to the ideological conditions that produced them. A striking example is the recurrence in The Great War of the "Crucified Canadian," one of the most invidious, because widely believed, examples of anti-German propaganda generated by the allied war effort. Hollingsworth recirculates this historical calumny as one more instance of the "typical" Canadian as sacrificial victim. He is drawn to the lurid melodrama of the story, rather than to its even more fascinating history as state-deployed representation.

It is hard to escape the suspicion that Hollingsworth has fashioned his text out of all the set pieces and neat bits that delighted him in his wide reading. At times I wish he had gone further beyond that reading, to the point of proposing a new historical narrative. As it is, The Village of the Small Huts comprises a superb if disingenuous critique of the writing of Canadian history.

NOTES

1. Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor, "Video Cabaret Chronology," Canadian Theatre Review 70 (Spring 1992): 43-44.
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