Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Edited by Reavley Gair, with Richard Guerin, Robert Whalen and Henri-Dominique Paratte. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books & Goose Lane Editions, 1985. 286 p, illus., $18.95.


This enterprising collection of essays makes an important contribution to the cultural history of New Brunswick. It includes two chapters of particular interest to theatre historians. One, 'English Drama in New Brunswick,'is by Mary Elizabeth Smith, to whom we are already indebted for her history of the theatre in Saint John, Too Soon the Curtain Fell, as well as several contributions to Theatre History in Canada. Laurent Lavoie contributes 'A Short History of Acadian Theatre in New Brunswick.' Note should also be taken of Reavley Gait's introduction, which launches the book with a discussion of Lescarbot's masque, The Theatre of Neptune in New France, performed in 1606.

Lavoie's article also begins with a discussion of The Theatre of Neptune. The fact that it was performed in what is now Nova Scotia may pose a question about the relevance of provincial boundaries when it comes to the discussion of cultures in Canada. Particularly in the case of Acadian culture, the boundary between the two languages is more important than that between the provinces.

Lavoie observes that colleges and universities have been central to the development of drama and theatre in Acadie. Hence the significance of Collége (now Université) Sainte-Anne, also in Nova Scotia. What he goes on to make clear is that this academic dominance also meant that drama was generally imported, either from France or from Québec. This ought to have led to a discussion of the consequences for the development of Acadian theatre of the French and Québécois traditions and influences, but this is not provided. Surprisingly too, there is scarcely a mention of Antonine Maillet and La Sagouine, and no discussion of that remarkable play's significance inside and outside the province for the development of Acadian theatre. One of the two illustrations accompanying the article is the playbill for Maillet's first play, Entr'acte, entered in the 1957 Dominion Drama Festival, but for more thoughtful observations on Maillet's importance one must turn to Hans Runte's essay on the Acadian novel.

Mary Smith's essay is a more solid and coherent contribution. It recapitulates some of the material which readers of her book on Saint John theatre will no doubt recall, but she also discusses, with due acknowledgement to Mark Blagrave's Ph.D. thesis, a number of plays written in the province, most of which appear to be unactable and were probably never intended for the stage. An omission from what appears to be a very thorough account within its spatial limits of any mention of Sharon Pollock, and particularly of her play Doc, comes as something of a surprise.

More theoretically, I missed an awareness of the extent to which the encouragement of early English-language theatre was part of the anti-American design in the still loyal colonies. This is perhaps not as obvious an aspect of the development of the theatre in New Brunswick as in Nova Scotia, where Charles Stuart Powell was explicitly encouraged by the King's representative; but surely the Sewell brothers were doing more than easing the burden of time lying heavy on their hands when they took part in The Busy Body and Who's the Dupe? in February 1789.

Mary Smith's essay is well illustrated, with a much better reproduction of E.J. Russell's sketch of the opening of the Academy of Music than appeared in Too Soon the Curtain Fell, and of that book's cover photograph, a more legible copy of the playbills of The Busy Body and Gertrude Kellog's benefit in Romeo and Juliet, photographs of John Carleton, 'New Brunswick's most prolific playwright of the nineteenth century,' of Price Webber as Rip Van Winkle, and an intriguing photograph of an Imperial Theatre, described as 'The Finest in Eastern Canada,' but not otherwise identified.

The chief value of the book for theatre historians will be that the articles by Lavoie and Smith set the history of theatre and drama in New Brunswick in a context of literary activity. These are connections which theatre historians have not recently seen as of much importance.

One word of warning: handle this book with care! The pages of my review copy have already parted company with the casing.