Modern Canadian Drama


904 pages
ISBN 0-14-048188-5




Edited by Richard Plant
Reviewed by Renate Usmiani

Renate Usmiani was Professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax.


Anyone who has followed the breathtakingly accelerated evolution of Canadian drama and theatre since the end of World War II can only hail the appearance of this book as a much-needed and long-expected event. As Richard Plant points out in the Introduction, the Penguin anthology indeed represents “the first anthology of contemporary Canadian drama in English brought out by a major publishing house.” This being so, one must point out immediately that the book’s title is an unfortunate and misleading misnomer. To entitle an anthology “Modern Canadian Drama” and then restrict it to plays in English only not only represents a gross injustice to the theatre of French-speaking Canada, it also constitutes an act of provincialism that is hard to understand and difficult to forgive. The addition of the words “Volume One” on the title page may give hope for a second volume on the drama of Quebec to follow, but it in no way alleviates the immediate impact of the title. It can only be considered a Freudian slip, on the part of both editor and publisher, a revealing glimpse into the psychopathology of Canadian intellectual life, with its inherent tendency to schizophrenic withdrawal into one or the other of the two solitudes.

While Richard Plant’s volume concentrates on the drama of the past two decades, Major Plays of the Canadian Theatre, also 1984 (Irwin; edited by Richard Perkyns), covers the “historical” period 1934-1984. Comparing the two volumes sheds an interesting light on the telescopic nature of theatre history in this country, which goes from pioneer to avant-garde efforts in just a few decades. Of the twelve plays in each volume, three are the same (John Coulter’s Riel, John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes, and David French’s Of The Fields, Lately); authors James Reaney, Sharon Pollock, and Gwen Pharis Ringwood are represented in both, albeit with different works. While the Perkyns anthology provides the reader with a better sense of historical evolution, the Plant volume gives a wider spectrum in terms of contemporary, experimental techniques.

Penguin’s Modern Canadian Drama is aimed at an audience not familiar with the field, and it therefore includes a preface, an introduction, biographical sketches, and short notes on production history. Herbert Whittaker, the dean of Canadian theatre criticism and himself an active pioneer in all areas of theatre in Canada, provides the reader with a lively, personal look at authors, actors, and productions in his Preface. Richard Plant’s Introduction is helpful in providing a rationale for the plays and pointing out links between them. The choice of plays, as in any anthology, poses occasional questions — e.g., why include Indian, by George Ryga, rather than his far superior Ecstasy of Rita Joe? (Reasons of space?)

Stylistically and thematically, the selection succeeds in providing the reader with some basic insights into the nature of Canadian drama. It certainly underlies Margaret Atwood’s assertion that all Canadian literature focuses on “victim” situations: from Coulter’s Riel, the “all-Canadian victim,” to Ryga’s Indian, Freeman’s handicapped, Herbert’s delinquents, Reaney’s Donnellys, Hollingsworth’s war brides, Ringwood’s lonely old couple — practically every play in the anthology repeats the same theme. The general view of Canadian society that emerges from these plays is devastatingly negative, whether the style be epic documentary, as in Coulter’s Riel, naturalistic, as in William Fruet’s Wedding in White, experimental, as in Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations and Margaret Hollingsworth’s Ever Loving, or absurdist-satirical, as in George Walker’s The Art of War. On the positive side, the variety of approaches documented in this anthology testifies to the fact that Canadian drama has evolved beyond the ever-present naturalism into a new and exciting aesthetics of the theatre.



“Modern Canadian Drama,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,