Showing West: Three Prairie Docu-Dramas


259 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-920316-60-3





Photos by Diane Bessai and Don Kerr
Reviewed by


Showing West records a familiar but rarely printed kind of Canadian play, the historical docu-drama. The three plays here are all based on real occurrences and, as far as possible, on real persons. As well, these are mainly collective productions, which raises an interesting situation; as with anything designed by a committee, the plays seem often to lack the distinctive vision of the individual artist. One is impressed by a sameness of tone and of conception, an overriding desire to make the play familiar by mirroring the people in the audience in the typical characters on stage — characters which, for all their folksiness, are never developed very deeply. However, when the form is well done, as in Medicare! the docu-drama can succeed admirably.

The West Show, a production of Theatre Passe Muraille, presents vignettes from Prairie history and stereotypical images of Prairie settlers. Among the scenes there are, of course, those which feature the story of Louis Riel. The obviously Brechtian treatment — Mother Courage is the model here — attempts to make a popular epic, but the development is too cursory to succeed fully. A further glimpse of the mistreatment of the Metis is given in the tale of native social worker Janet Rietz (whose name is spelled “Reitz” several times). Rudy Wiebe’s story of “The Vietnam Call of Samuel U. Reimer” from The Blue Mountains of China represents the Mennonites in a particularly banal way, which must have been painful to watch.

Far As the Eye Can See shows Wiebe again, this time in full collaboration with Passe Muraille. The story centres on flower-child Caroline, who arrives to live with hard-boiled Polish grandpa Anton at the time of the dispute between Alberta farmers and Calgary Power over expropriation proceedings for a coal pit. Stock characters interact as you would expect, while the figures of the “Regal Dead” from Alberta’s past — Chief Crowfoot, Princess Louise, and William Aberhart — intervene unnecessarily. The real dramatic interest in the farmer-coal company conflict is only dissipated by historical mythologizing, and the play is not raised to the proportion of Greek choral drama, as intended.

Finally, we have Medicare! by Rex Deverell, which shows the strengths of single authorship. Deverell calls his production a “one-man collective,” and similarities exist with the other plays in the use of short scenes, historical incident, and political propagandizing. But Medicare! allows the intrinsic drama to be played out naturally. We get our history lesson and some first-rate theatre at the same time. The publication of this play helps make Showing West more than a literary curiosity.

There is an excellent general introduction by the editors (who could have insisted on better proof-reading of the galleys), useful bibliographies, forewords to each play by the playwrights, and interesting photographs and drawings of the productions. These docu-dramas deserve to be read and enjoyed, and Showing West should have a place in Canadian libraries of all kinds.



“Showing West: Three Prairie Docu-Dramas,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024,