Reviving the ‘Radical’ in Canadian Theatre History

Reviewed in this essay: Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada, by Alan Filewod. Between the Lines, 2011.

Alan Filewod, arguably the most prolific scholar of leftist political theatre in English Canada, has skillfully analyzed the history of radical performance in this country, from the mid-nineteenth century to the most recent G20 demonstrations, in Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada. In order to explain his methodology, he provides a compelling and accurate description of the structure of contemporary Canadian theatre culture. In this country, theatre production is mitigated by an economic hierarchy that places large institutions like the Stratford and Shaw festivals at the apex, and a vast array of amateur/semi-professional ‘fringe’ companies in the crowded, underfunded base. Filewod situates himself in the creative foundation of this structure, describing the evolution of theatre in Canada through a ‘history from below’ that is often ignored in contemporary scholarship. His analysis also considers various performance styles—parades, mock trials and flash mob protests—as part of the oeuvre of Canadian theatre history, which has otherwise been slow to incorporate ‘performance art’ into its scholarly canon.  Filewod believes that fringe companies at the base of theatre’s economic pyramid represent interventionist theatre at its best, because they focus on local issues and repudiate the conventional theatre economy in providing accessible theatre that compels spectatorship through political transgression.

One of the greatest strengths of this work is that it avoids the pitfalls of strict periodization. For instance, Filewod does not examine the ‘worker’s theatre movement’ as a product of the Depression. Rather, he emphasizes the continuity of this type of interventionist theatre by reviving ‘playlets’ written in nineteenth-century labour newspapers and scripts from polemical dramas such as the 1873 play An Unspecific Scandal, wherein Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sings “Prorogation, prorogation, that’s the dodge for the situation.” Similarly, instead of focusing on theatre in the military during wartime, he outlines the transformation of military performances from comedic entertainment in the trenches, to the contemporary military re-enactments that represent a right-wing ploy to glorify the violence of combat and uphold the value of masculinist heroism. In addition, he challenges the widely-held belief that a Canadian theatre of identity politics and multiculturalism was born of the feminist, queer and aboriginal companies and playwrights of the 1980s by highlighting the various Ukranian, Yiddish and Nordic plays, as well as the Mock Parliaments of women suffragists performed in the fringes of Canada’s early twentieth century theatre culture.

For theatre practitioners, Filewod provides useful insight into the nature of Canada’s arts grant programs. His case study of the now-defunct Newfoundland-based Mummers’ Troupe exposes the difficulties radical theatre companies experience in gaining financial backing. Although the Canada Council aims to uphold artistic freedom for grant recipients, companies that operate under a market-driven model that aims to get ‘bums in seats’ are inevitably privileged over those that have to bring seats to bums.

One minor issue with this book is that Filewod valorizes an example of highly provocative radical theatre by noting the piece’s successful tour of southern Ontario, and enthusiastic reviews at the London and Edinburgh Fringe festivals. This qualification, which was unnecessary given his vivid and engaging description of the play itself, is an example of how theatre practitioners are inevitably drawn to a kind of success that is dependent on financial capital. As long as touring productions that are featured in global cultural capitals are valued over one-off pieces in a small-town protest, those in theatre’s creative underbelly will be drawn to the so-called ‘success’ conferred by the financial strength of larger regional theatres that can afford to tour productions yet are, according to Filewod, stripped of political intrigue and radical performance potential. Thus, it is important to remember that in addition to funding structures, our understanding of what defines a ‘successful’ performance must also change in order to for us to continue committing radical theatre.