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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Moira Day
Department of Drama
University of Saskatchewan

The Development of Theatre in "Periclean Canada"

Post-colonial theorists like Ric Knowles and Denis Salter have stressed the impact of the consciously constructed myth of Elizabethan England on the development of arts policy in Canada especially in regards to the founding of the Stratford Festival. However, there is evidence that Canadians as often reached back to the older model of Periclean Athens in trying to revision themselves as an enlightened democracy producing its own body of culture and learning, including, of course, a national drama.

While 19th century Canadian writers, such as Charles Mair and Susannah Moodie, referred (sometimes ironically) to their literary efforts as part of the cultural movement to shape the emerging Canadian nation into the "Athens of the North", the metaphor took on a particular urgency in the 20s and 30s in connection with the work of the Little Theatre movement and the rise of the professional theatre and the Stratford Festival in the 50s.

On one level, one could argue that the late 19th - early 20th century interest in mounting Greek plays as part of an enlightened liberal humanist education at the university level and emulating classical models of movement and dance in reaction to more conventional or commercial forms of performance, was simply part of a larger international trend in the arts. However, especially as associated with Roy Mitchell and Hart House Theatre in Toronto, and, later on, with disciples of his in the Western Canada like Elizabeth Haynes, it also became over the 20s and 30s an expression of rising nationalism: the Canadians being identified with the purer, more spiritually enlightened forces of the Greeks and the Americans being identified with the commercialism and decadence of the Roman Empire.

This climaxed in the 50s with the growing confidence of the postwar era and the increasingly imperial undertones of the theme. In short, what theatre critic Nathan Cohen referred to in slightly tongue-in-cheek manner as "Periclean Canada's" growing determination establish itself as enlightened cultural, political and economic power on the world scene. While the decison to dedicate its first internationally successful professional theatre to the works of William Shakespeare certainly reinforced the connection with Elizabethan England, the architecture of the original Stratford theatre and publicity surrounding the opening years of the festival strongly emphasized its links to the ancient Greek theatre and the imperial power that produced it.

This paper will trace the evolution of the Greek ideal in Canadian theatre practice and theory between the 1920s and the 1950s as an expression of the evolution of Canadian cultural and political aspirations over the same period and discuss the extent to which the metaphor both liberated and limited the development of an indigenous theatrical voice over that period.

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