Impolite Companies

Political theatre’s rich, neglected history

What, if anything, comes to mind in response to the words “Canadian political theatre”? Could it be George Luscombe and Toronto Workshop Productions? Or 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt? Paper Wheat? How about the work of Chris Brookes and the Newfoundland Mummers? Or a Vancouver production of Lysistrata in the run-up to the Iraq war? All reasonable suggestions. But did anyone propose Eight Men Speak?

Performed in its entirety only once, on December 4, 1933, for an audience of 1,500 at the Standard Theatre on Spadina Avenue in Toronto (later the Victory Burlesque), Eight Men Speak combined all the ingredients to make it the epitome of political interventionist theatre. It was conceived and mounted as a galvanizing contribution to a campaign with a very specific goal: the release of communist leader Tim Buck and his seven comrades from the Kingston Penitentiary, where, it was alleged, there had been an attempt on Buck’s life by an anonymous guard. It was written and performed by members of a group called the Workers’ Theatre with close ties to the Communist Party. With four authors contributing various components of a script in several quite disparate dramatic modes, it was the very model of the ill-made play, although a kind of inadvertent postmodernist sophistication may be claimed for it in retrospect. Coming at a time of social and political ferment, it immediately attracted the attention of the police and was banned from further performance.

Theatre seldom gets the chance to be so provocatively of its moment. A play written and performed in Montreal in October 1970, by a company with ties to the FLQ, to demand the release of the 400 people held without charge under the War Measures Act, could hardly have been more inflammatory. (There was no such play, by the way.)

Eight Men Speak was, as Alan Filewod claims in Committing Theatre: Theatre Radicalism and Political Intervention in Canada, “a key moment in the ‘other history’ of Canadian theatre.” This other history, which has been ignored, erased, forgotten in the formation of the consensus-canonical history of Canadian theatre, is what his hugely informative book undertakes to recuperate and re-legitimize. It also documents and celebrates the extraordinary proliferation of theatre work being committed to this day outside the enclosures of buildings called theatres.

What has been the accepted history of (English) Canadian theatre, to which Filewod’s narrative is the other? Essentially it says that the current plenitude of thousands of Canadian plays, by hundreds of playwrights, performed by hundreds of companies, employing thousands of actors, designers and technicians, reviewed by scores of critics, published and studied and taught in dozens of universities across the land, had its birth in the 1960s. Prior to that time there was a more or less barren landscape as far as the (culture hungry, bourgeois, anglo) eye could see. Yes, there had been Merrill Denison and Gwen Pharis Ringwood and Herman Voaden. Yes, there was the Little Theatre movement and the Dominion Drama Festival and CBC Radio and Robertson Davies, and of course Stratford from 1953 … but precious little else. Not until Vincent Massey’s report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences generated the Canada Council for the Arts and the establishment of the regional theatres, with their offspring, the “alternatives,” around 1970, could “going to the theatre” become a regular item on the menu of cultural consumption.

In this version, going to the theatre means, essentially, paying to sit in a seat in a purpose-built or adapted building to watch the rehearsed performance of a literary script in hopes of entertainment and, occasionally, edification. Sometimes this edification might be loosely termed political. Left-progressive intellectuals like nothing better than to be made uncomfortable by plays, often British, that explore the political contradictions and compromises of left-progressive intellectuals. But such work remains an excursion by theatre makers into the terrain of politics. What Filewod has to tell about, and theorize, and champion, are the excursions into theatre making by people whose primary commitment is to social and political change. Depending on the context, he variously terms these excursions “activist,” “interventionist,” “radical” and even “combat” theatre.

Filewod touches on pageants, parades, demonstrations and picket-line skits, to be sure, but much more central to his study is performance by troupes formed specifically to propagate a critical awareness of perceived injustice and oppression, and to agitate for their elimination, whether in an immediate local manifestation or more broadly as a political program. Reverse the order of these aims and abbreviate the terms, and of course you have agitprop. Originally a tool for political education in the USSR and easily dismissed as a crude form of propaganda, in the pejorative sense of the word, agitprop remains for Filewod one of the unifying terms of choice for performance aimed at effecting change. His account of it is not so much a history of products as it is of practices that, as he emphasizes, have often left relatively little trace compared to the mainstream theatre of companies and seasons and published scripts.

In Canada the early 1930s are illuminated as a brief but shining hour when exuberant, radical left-wing agitprop was in its element. But the legendary performance of Eight Men Speak by the Workers’ Theatre group, which marked its peak achievement and the beginning of the end, does not get its due treatment until more than a third of the way into Filewod’s study. Earlier chapters have gathered together in the elastic folds of “political theatre” such diverse manifestations as the mock parliaments staged by the women’s suffrage movement, Ukrainian-language productions, notably in Winnipeg in the 1910s and ’20s, of politically indignant melodrama—led by, among others, Matthew Popovich who would later be one of the Eight Men—and (somewhat incongruously) William Aberhart’s blend of evangelical Christianity and Social Credit, propagated via radio and public performance. As Filewod notes wryly, in Canada “agitprop emerged … from the right.”

That the Workers’ Theatre, which was never quite as substantial a movement as it liked to imagine, did not long survive the success of Eight Men Speak was owing to a convulsive shift in political strategy dictated from Moscow. In a very short time agitprop, which had been a weapon in the class warfare of the early 1930s, was replaced by socialist realism as the prescribed style of the Popular Front. In Toronto the resurgent Theatre of Action, under the imported American director David Pressman, took to producing mainly American plays such as the world-wide hit Waiting for Lefty and Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead (recently given a celebrity reading at Toronto’s Lula Lounge as an anti–Iraq war event). This retreat, for ideological reasons, from avant-garde experimentalism to a more consumable, conventional kind of theatrical fare, highlights one of the perennial dilemmas faced by the makers of activist theatre: must political radicalism always trump aesthetic radicalism in the interests of broader accessibility?

After the war, during which, as Filewod documents, a lot of organized theatrical energy was channelled into entertainment for the armed forces and patriotic mobilization, the “other history” of theatre in Canada continued to evolve. Pioneers from the 1930s, notably one of his heroes, Toby Gordon Ryan, attempted to revive something of a left-progressive theatre tradition, in the face of the red-baiting climate of the times. Her Toronto-based group, the Play Actors, under the aegis of the banned Communist Party’s successor, the Labour-Progressive Party, flourished briefly in the early 1950s, until the god that was failing took a couple of damaging wounds in 1956 with the revelation of Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Into the gap, and often mentioned as a kind of afterthought, came George Luscombe. People bally-hooing the emergence around 1970 of the four alternatives in Toronto—Passe Muraille, Factory, Tarragon and the Toronto Free Theatre—often have to remind themselves that, oh yes, of course Luscombe’s Toronto Workshop Productions had been running since 1959.

Filewod himself seems to feel some ambivalence about George Luscombe. The book, which pointedly denies Paul Thompson and Ken Gass even a single mention, honours him among others in the dedication and gives a substantial account of his nearly 30-year run, mainly at the theatre on Alexander Street in downtown Toronto, now home to Buddies in Bad Times. His programming was unapologetically “political,” in an old-fashioned CCF sort of way. And while hugely theatrical and vaudevillian, it was distinctly unhip: no nudity, vampires or intercourse with pigs. At shows such as Mister Bones, Chicago ’70—of which a very good film exists—You Can’t Get There From Here, Ten Lost Years, The Mac-Paps and The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, you could often run into left-leaning council members and union activists, and you might well be asked to sign something on the way out. The posters looked as if they had been designed and printed in East Germany. What more could be asked of a committed theatre? But Toronto Workshop Productions had a building and subscribers and seasons of highly professional plays. Luscombe had a place inside the system. And he was tyrannical, “masculinist”—which Filewod is uncomfortable with—and notoriously “difficult.” He generated mounting antagonism and was accused of becoming repetitious and doctrinaire. He was eventually turfed by his own board.

Committing Theatre really gets to where it is going when the dawn of the 1970s allows Filewod to celebrate the coming of a new “Generation Agitprop,” as the chapter title proclaims. As the alternative to the alternatives, which were already becoming mainstream—what were they ever alternative to?—militant outsiders such as the Vancouver Street Theatre, the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa (militant back then anyway) and the saintly David Anderson’s Clay and Paper in Toronto are just his cup of tea. Taking theatre to picket line and park, with puppets and Punch and Judy shows and provocation, these valiantly activist troupes are positioned as the true inheritors of the spirit of Eight Men Speak. They have their triumphs and their moments of glory, no less than their crises and internal conflicts.

Over many decades, groups “committing theatre” have repeatedly had to reinvent solutions to the aesthetic and organizational challenges of operating outside the bums-in-seats model of theatre. Inherently unstable, they have been plagued by conflicts of ideological position and artistic ambition. Groups have fragmented, imploded, re‑formed and lived to fight again, leaving a history of heroically embattled and sometimes self-sabotaging endeavour. One of Filewod’s most interesting chapters recounts the turbulent saga of Chris Brookes’s Mummers troupe in Newfoundland—a group he was personally involved with for a while—as a prime case of a company wracked by the contradictions endemic to the assertion of oppositional independence while trying to accede to the funding requirements of the Canada Council.

And here is yet another complication that, for better or worse, the Workers’ Theatre never had to wrestle with. Far from running the risk of being banned, the activist theatre of the 1980s faced the prospect of being bought. When, at another “key moment” in 1981, a festival in Thunder Bay launched the Canadian Popular Theatre Alliance, a tenet in the Statement of Principles—which Filewod himself helped to draft—declared that “we particularly attempt to seek out, develop and serve audiences whose social reality is not normally reflected on the Canadian stage.” The little word “serve” signals a shift from the oppositional–provocative mode into something more like the role of a helping profession. Filewod calls it “the process of making theatre with communities in struggle, in partnership with activist organizations.”

At this point the name of Brazilian Augusto Boal comes into the picture, as the proponent of an application of theatre that invites members
of variously oppressed or dysfunctional communities to “rehearse the revolution.” Boal originally meant this quite literally when working in the barrios of South American cities. He used to tell the story of an occasion when a guerrilla group took him at this word and offered his company guns and the chance to join them. He ruefully declined. In its European and North American incarnations, however, “Theatre of the Oppressed” has come to address whatever small, even personal, “revolutions” the participants need to effect in their immediate situations. Its most common model is Forum Theatre, which encourages “spect-actors” (Boal’s coinage) to suggest, and even act out, solutions to an oppressive reality that has been performed for them by a troupe trained in the practice.

Some of this work is really admirable, and Filewod pays due tribute to the tireless creativity of Toronto groups such as Company of Sirens and Nightwood and Vancouver’s Headlines in helping to empower marginalized and oppressed groups to see the politics of their situations and pursue solutions. Some of the best work, like Nightwood’s quite postmodernist This Is for You, Anna about violence against women and created for performance in women’s shelters, was expanded and remounted for the public stage. But an inherent danger lies in the readiness of relatively benign governments, and even private sector companies, to commission applied theatre groups to help solve social problems such as drugs and gangs in schools, or bullying and racism in the workplace. Hard to say no to such prospects of stable funding for a useful cause, but there is a constant risk of co-option by the powers-that-be. Until, that is, a right-wing regime like that of Mike Harris’s in 1990s Ontario takes away all the money again.

One group in particular that stands out is Théâtre Parminou in Victoriaville in Quebec, partly for its long-standing success, but partly for being just about the only Québécois example of activist theatre to which Filewod gives significant attention. Whether because such theatre has been a rarity in that province or because he simply could not undertake to address it adequately, its absence from the book only reinforces a sense of two theatrical solitudes. Théâtre Parminou’s distinction is to have persisted as a professional company doing “issue-themed commissioned work for client organizations” since 1973, sustained by grants from Quebec’s Conseil des arts that groups in Ontario or British Columbia could only dream about.

Committing Theatre must have been an arduous book to write. Along with his painstakingly assembled mass of historical documentation, Filewod’s unpacking of the theoretical distinctions and paradoxes of performance theory can make it an arduous read at times too, however leavened with anecdote and personal reminiscence. His final chapter on some of the directions in which activist performance may be headed now, as it explores hybridities and convergences with digital media, is a bit daunting. But it is an absolutely essential book in its field—fuelled by a passion for theatre that makes a difference—and will permanently change the way in which theatre in Canada is understood.