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Chapter XV



(From the correspondence of Samuel Marchbanks)

To Apollo Fishhorn, Esq.,

Dear Mr. Fishhorn:--

You want to be a Canadian playright, and ask me for advice as to how to set about it. Well, Fishhorn, the first thing you had better acquaint yourself with is the physical conditions of the Canadian theatre. Every great drama, as you know, has been shaped by its playhouse. The Greek drama gained grandeur from its marble outdoor theatres; the Elizabethan drama was given fluidity by the extreme adaptability of the Elizabethan playhouse stage; French classical drama took its formal tone from its equisite, candle-lit theatres. You see what I mean.

Now what is the Canadian playhouse? Nine times out of ten, Fishhorn, it is a school hall, smelling of chalk and kids, and decorated in the Early Concrete style. The stage is a small, raised room at one end. And I mean room. If you step into the wings suddenly you will fracture your nose against the wall. There is no place for storing scenery, no place for the actors to dress, and the lighting is designed to warm the stage but not to illuminate it.

Write your plays, then, for such a stage. Do not demand any procession of elephants, or dances by the maidens of the Caliph's harem. Keep away from sunsets and storms at sea. Place as many scenes as you can in cellars and kindred spots. And don't have more than three characters on the stage at one time, or the weakest of them is sure to be nudged into the audience. Farewell, and good luck to you.

March 4, 1950.

S. Marchbanks.1

1. We think it appropriate first to pay tribute to the many thoughtful and scholarly briefs on drama which we have received reminding us of the eminent place which the drama has held in the long history of the arts, and of its relation to the sister arts of poetry, music and the dance which not infrequently reach their final perfection when associated in dramatic performances. Indeed, the tragic drama of Fifth Century Athens demanded and concentrated for its needs the full cultural resources of a highly gifted people, in poetry, in music, in the dance, and in philosophic and religious thought; from the tragic theatre and its supernal


themes stemmed the arts of the Athenian sculptor, the painter, the architect, in a manner to be repeated only once again at the second flowering of the human spirit in Renaissance Italy. The drama has been in the past, and may be again, not only the most striking symbol of a nation's culture, but the central structure enshrining much that is finest in a nation's spiritual and artistic greatness.

2. The point need not be laboured: many of man's greatest artistic achievements, from Aeschylus to Bach and from Euripides to Wagner, have been cast in a dramatic mould. This great heritage is largely unknown to the people of Canada for whom the theatre, where it maintains a precarious existence, is restricted to sporadic visits in four or five cities by companies from beyond our borders, to the laudable but overworked and ill-supported efforts of our few repertory theatres, and to the amateur companies which have done remarkable work against remarkable odds, largely for their own private pleasure. In Canada there is nothing comparable, whether in play-production or in writing for the theatre, to what is going on in other countries with which we should like to claim intellectual kinship and cultural equality.

3. Although it is quite evident from the representations made to us across the country that there are considerable regional differences in the prosperity and effectiveness of the theatre in Canada, and although there are many evidences of a lively interest in the theatre, we have found fairly general agreement throughout the country on the following critical points:

(a) Canada is not deficient in theatrical talent, whether in writing for the stage, in producing or in acting; but this talent at present finds little encouragement and no outlet apart from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which provides at the moment the greatest and the almost unique stimulus to Canadian drama. The C.B.C. drama, however, is an inadequate substitute for a living theatre.

(b) Facilities for advanced training in the arts of the theatre are non-existent in Canada. As a consequence, our talented young actors, producers and technicians, revealed through the excellent work of the Dominion Drama Festival, must leave the country for advanced training, and only rarely return.

(c) Except in the few largest centres, the professional theatre is moribund in Canada, and amateur companies are grievously handicapped, through lack of suitable or of any playhouses.

(d) There is no National Theatre in Canada and nothing at present to indicate that there will be one. Although witnesses and other authorities on this matter differed in their conception of what a


National Theatre should be and of how it should be brought about, there was wide agreement that it should be one of our cultural resources.

4. In spite, however, of these many difficulties and obstacles the picture of drama in Canada is not at all one of unrelieved gloom. There still remain in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver active theatre companies which have been able, consistently or periodically, to maintain professional levels of production and to preserve at least a limited public taste for the living theatre. In the person of Gratian Gélinas we have in Canada a man of the theatre who with rare vigour combines with equal distinction the qualities of the playwright, the producer and the actor. Les Compagnons de St-Laurent, maintaining both a school of dramatic art and a professional company of which any country might be proud, are well known not only in the Eastern parts of Canada but in the United States. The Western Stage Society, a professional non-profit company centred in Saskatoon, has shown that an enterprising company can do much even with very limited facilities for drama; in its first eighteen months this Society twice toured Saskatchewan and played in 140 cities, towns, villages and hamlets in whatever quarters could be found. The Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa produces a play a week throughout the season, giving great pleasure to its supporters and saving Ottawa from the dubious distinction of being the only important capital city without a theatre. There are other professional or semi-professional companies, notably in Toronto, which appear from time to time, and there are, of course, many hundreds of amateur groups, some of them of genuine distinction.

5. Probably the most encouraging aspect of the drama in Canada is the work of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has fully demonstrated that we suffer from no lack of playwrights, of producers or of actors where opportunity exists for their abilities. Throughout Canada we have heard, from drama groups and from persons competent to speak on these matters, warm tributes to the freedom, the imagination and the artistic integrity of the C.B.C. productions. We were told in Vancouver, for example, that the Canadian actor would not find it possible to continue were it not for the C.B.C., and in Montreal that the C.B.C. has created a renaissance of dramatic art in Canada. It is possible that our Canadian society will always produce more young people of talent in the arts, letters and sciences than we are capable of absorbing; but it is apparent that, at the moment, for our young playwrights and actors who are eager to remain in Canada if they can make even a meagre living, the C.B C. almost alone offers any opportunity.

6. There is undoubtedly in Canada a widespread interest in the theatre. We have mentioned earlier the astonishing number of amateur dramatic


societies; and even indifferent plays presented by visiting companies of no great distinction from abroad have been sold out weeks in advance. A first-rate company of players could probably maintain themselves profitably in Canada for as long as they wished to stay. From the evidence of the many briefs presented to us, and from the accounts we have heard of packed theatres in any centre where a play, whether amateur or professional, has been presented after the long absence of the living theatre, it seems apparent that there is in Canada a genuine desire for the drama.

7. Nothing in Canada has done so much for the amateur theatre as the Dominion Drama Festivals which, apart from the war years, have been held since 1933. This nation-wide movement has created and has sustained interest in the theatre and has been directly responsible for the appearance of hundreds of theatre groups; it has also been a powerful agency in bringing together, in understanding and in the sharing of common purposes, companies of players from all parts of Canada who differ, it may be, in language, in background and in resources, but who are joined in the strongest of unions, an enthusiasm for a common and a pleasurable objective. We have been impressed by the warmth and the extent of evidence agreeing that the Dominion Drama Festival is now established as an important national movement and as a valuable unifying force in our cultural life.

8. To make its work fully effective, however, the Dominion Drama Festival needs help in meeting recurring and increasing deficits (now borne by private donations), and in extending its activities. The Festival decided in 1950, as an act of faith to put itself on a full-time basis and to engage a staff to work throughout the year on Festival activities; but there are urgent needs for a central office with a library of plays, for trained organizers and directors, and for assistance in securing adequate theatres. Drama groups throughout Canada, moreover, have pointed out to us the almost impossible financial problem involved in sending a company of players over great distances to compete at the Festival. Last year (1950) the Festival was held in Calgary; only two groups in Nova Scotia expressed any interest in it, and no company east of Quebec City was in fact represented. We are informed that many local dramatic societies are now reluctant to enter the Festival since if they win their regional festival they cannot attend the national competition; some local companies of amateurs also feel that they cannot compete on equal terms with companies of professional actors; and although the Festival undoubtedly reveals each year the best dramatic work in Canada, it has grown somewhat remote from the smaller dramatic societies many of which originally it helped to bring into being. Other societies husband their resources by restricting their local productions in order to travel to the Dominion Festival, if successful; as a consequence, it becomes an indirect cause


of curtailing productions in certain areas. We found widespread agreement that it would be a serious setback to our national understanding if for financial or other reasons acting groups in Canada are compelled to abandon the Festival, or if it must restrict its further development.

9. In Canada the writing of plays, in spite of the few vigorous creative writers who have found encouragement in the C.B.C., has lagged far behind the other literary arts. We have been informed that there is little writing for the theatre in Canada because of our penury of theatrical companies; these are few in number for lack of playhouses for which there is no demand since our people, addicted to the cinema, have rarely the opportunity to know the pleasure of live drama professionally presented. It has been universally true that the play-writer must have a vigorous, living theatre for which to work; for this, radio drama is no substitute and indeed, we are told, habitual writing of scripts for radio broadcasting purposes, though a skill in itself, may ruin a writer for the theatre where the dramatist must know how to use movement, gesture and stage-craft in composing his work.

10. Although the field of formal education lies outside the competence of this Commission, we have noted with interest that increasingly drama is recognized in the school curricula of most provinces, notably in Western Canada, as a valuable means for attaining some of the objectives of general education. Throughout the country, too, drama and the arts of the theatre are receiving increased attention from educational authorities and voluntary organizations concerned with adult education. A few Canadian universities have full-time departments of drama, and in such summer schools as the Banff School of Fine Arts much excellent work is being done. But nowhere in Canada does there exist advanced training for the playwright, the producer, the technician or the actor; nor does it seem rational to advocate the creation of suitable schools of dramatic art in Canada when present prospects for the employment in Canada of the graduates seem so unfavourable.

11. We mentioned the lack of playhouses in Canada and on this subject we have heard much throughout the country. We are told that amateur companies are severely restricted in their activities by the almost insurmountable difficulty of finding adequate rehearsal quarters and suitable theatres for their productions; only five or six amateur companies in Canada have a permanent house of their own with reasonably adequate lighting and other stage equipment. Professional companies seldom venture to go on tour because the few remaining legitimate theatres in Canada are so widely separated that the costs of travelling are prohibitive. For a variety of reasons, economic, sociological and aesthetic, the legitimate theatre which thirty years ago flourished throughout Canada has disappeared. (In passing it should be noted that


the varied companies who appeared in the innumerable Canadian "Opera Houses" of the last generation included everything from distinguished acting to burlesque and vaudeville, and that few of them were indigenous to Canada). The local theatres could not compete with the moving-picture, and after standing vacant for longer or shorter periods were taken over by the great motion picture companies which not infrequently found it necessary to demolish the theatre stages in their plans for conversion. We have been repeatedly informed that the theatre could be revived if only federal subsidies could be secured for the erection of suitable playhouses throughout Canada and for part of the travelling expenses of Canadian professional companies. We have also been told that a chain of legitimate theatres throughout Canada would make possible tours of competent professional companies from abroad, thus providing a stimulus to Canadian actors and playwrights and a useful example of the wide gulf separating the interested amateur from the competent professional who has been thoroughly trained and apprenticed, learning his craft under the goad of sternly skilful direction and of ruthless competition. There is no doubt that the expenditure of adequate sums of money could restore suitable and numerous playhouses, but whether this would mean a renaissance of the theatre in Canada has been sharply questioned. Les Compagnons de St-Laurent agreed with the Western Stage Society that the construction of theatres and halls on a grand scale is not necessary or advisable but that much could be done to make existing accommodation more suitable for theatrical performances if competent advice on this matter were available from a central agency.

12. Repeatedly at our sessions throughout Canada the question of a National Theatre was discussed. Almost invariably the view was expressed that a National Theatre should consist not in an elaborate structure built in Ottawa or elsewhere, but rather in a company or companies of players who would present the living drama in even the more remote communities of Canada and who would in addition give professional advice to local amateur dramatic societies, a procedure which, we understand, has been made effective in the Union of South Africa where the problems were essentially similar to our own. The permanent company would be principally engaged in bringing the theatre to all communities in Canada where facilities for presentation exist. It has also been suggested that many Canadian cities and towns now lacking an adequate playhouse would find it practicable and desirable to make suitable provision for the regular appearance of the national company of players. These would not only present plays of a high professional level of performance but would give counsel to local dramatic societies in acting and in stagecraft. It would no doubt be desirable for gifted amateur actors of local societies to appear in minor or even in major roles with the professionals, to the great advantage and pleasure both of themselves and of their community.


The members of the permanent company would also be available, in the theatre off-season, as directors of summer theatres or as instructors at summer schools of the theatre; and the permanent company could appropriately represent Canada at international festivals of the theatre. The brief of the Governors of the Dominion Drama Festival adds that such a permanent company would also "encourage writing for the Canadian theatre and provide an opportunity for presentation of Canadian plays".2

13. If there were such an outlet and such a goal for young Canadians gifted in the arts of the theatre, it has been suggested to us that it would be advisable and necessary to make provision in Canada for the more advanced training of young artists discovered by the Dominion Drama Festival and by other amateur and professional organizations. Such an advanced school, if established, should be closely associated, we were told, with one of the Canadian universities so that students could conveniently receive both the specialized training in the theatre and the general training in language and in the liberal arts essential to their careers; and the advanced school should give instruction in the kindred arts of opera and ballet.

14. As part of the school of the National Theatre it has been proposed to us that there should be a well-designed and adequately-equipped theatre which would include suitable studios for advanced instruction and experimentation in stage-craft, costuming, make-up, lighting, and in other technical skills. It would, of course, be disastrous to conceive of the National Theatre merely as a playhouse erected in the capital or in one of the larger centres; but it seems apparent that the national company of players would require a base for their operations and that the advanced school should have adequate quarters for instructional purposes and for performances. The playhouse of the national company would no doubt serve as a model for communities throughout Canada proposing to construct theatres as municipal enterprises, and its staff would be competent to advise dramatic societies throughout Canada on all theatrical matters.

15. A National Theatre has been strongly advocated as the logical and essential sequel to the progressive scheme of development which has been created through the work of voluntary organizations but which at present leads nowhere. Such a theatre, it has been argued, would provide a goal and an outlet for the young persons of first-rate ability who each year are trained in the amateur or professional groups, in universities and summer theatres, or who have won distinction at the Canadian Drama Festival and who now, apart from the very few who can find work with the C.B.C. or with a repertory company, must leave Canada or abandon the theatre as their life work.

16. We must not, however, give the impression that the views of those Canadians competent to speak on the drama in Canada are unanimously


in favour of the immediate establishment by one means or another of a National Theatre. Indeed, the dangers inherent in attempting to establish and to operate an agency for the advancement of national culture directly under government control have been expressed to us wittily and with force in the Special Study on "The Theatre in Canada" which was prepared at our request by a well-known Canadian writer and actor. By this authority on the Canadian theatre, and by others who share his views, it was suggested to us that the Government of Canada at the moment should do no more than make possible for Canadian companies of players easier and less expensive means of travelling throughout our vast distances. The suggestion was made, too, that the Federal Government, in the course of one of the Federal-Provincial Conferences, might suggest to the Provinces that they consider the possibility of relieving non-profit dramatic companies of the amusement tax which the provinces now levy. The point was made to us, in general, that the burdens now pressing upon drama in Canada should be lessened, but that there should be for Canadian drama no direct contribution of public money.

17. The argument went on to suggest that government patronage of the arts, unless it operates under special safeguards, can become severely repressive in its influence; if a governmental scheme for a National Theatre, for example, were set at work in this country within the next five years, at every election when economies are advanced the National Theatre would automatically come under fire. Dependence upon government support, in this view, would give only a precarious existence to a National Theatre in Canada and would make first-rate work impossible. This argument adds that there may come a time when a Canadian theatrical company will have unmistakably earned the right to be called a National Theatre. By that time it will have its traditions, its methods of work, its individual style and its faithful and appreciative public. If at that time the nation chooses to offer support to it, it can then accept this support upon honourable terms, insisting, however, that it be allowed to conduct its own business in complete independence.

18. As we have observed, to many people the words "National Theatre" mean a building, probably in Ottawa; but unless such a building is a centre from which travelling companies go on tours throughout the length and breadth of Canada, it would be a foolish extravagance. If the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, we were told, could be transplanted bodily from Stratford-on-Avon to Ottawa-on-the-Rideau, with all its equipment, we would still be without a National Theatre; but, "if we can develop even one company, acting in a tent or in school halls, which can move Canadians to tears and laughter with the great plays of the past, and with great plays of the present (including perhaps a few of their own), we have the heart of a National theatre".3


19. We have come to share the conviction, expressed to us by representative drama groups throughout the country and with particular force and clarity during our sessions in Vancouver, that the theatre has now reached a critical point in its development in Canada. We were pleasantly and appropriately reminded of the tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, and it was demonstrated to us with skill and knowledge that we are now witnessing in Canada a full-flowing tide of interest in the theatre. There is great activity on the part of local drama clubs and societies; drama festivals, in spite of many difficulties, culminating in the Dominion Drama Festival are flourishing; training and experience in the theatre are now given in schools and universities throughout Canada; our few repertory companies have held the pass; the C.B.C. has revealed something of our native talent in the arts of the theatre, and it may be expected that the still unknown potentialities of television will provide great opportunities for our playwrights, actors and producers.

20. It seems to us that the time is now opportune for the provision in Canada of the modest help from federal sources which will permit these varied activities of the drama in Canada to find their logical outcome and their fulfilment. The manner in which we believe this help can properly and effectively be given we shall propose in Part II of this Report.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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