- Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Works
In the mid-seventies, when I did my PhD on Canadian drama, we seemed on the cusp of a renaissance, in both the drama and the criticism of it. It seemed to us that playwrights such as Carol Bolt and David Freeman would soon be as well known as Margaret Laurence and Mordecai Richler. There would be books and books on the drama and the dramatists. It was all just a matter of time.
Well, it has not worked out that way. Today it would be ridiculous to claim any playwright has the stature of a Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje. There are a few who are quite well known, such as Brad Fraser and Judith Thompson, but I would argue even they are not recognized the way John Gray and David French were back in the day. If there is an exception, it might be Tomson Highway.
We speak so often about Canada's failures to deal with First Nations that it is interesting that a Native playwright should have such prominence. There could be many explanations, but one might be that Native theatre made its big push almost two decades after that renaissance of Canadian theatre. The faces are fresher. Besides Highway, other playwrights who came to the fore include Daniel David Moses and Drew Hayden Taylor.
The latter is best known as a humorist. In an interview included in this volume he admits that he is often called the Neil Simon of Native playwrights. I would rather call him the Alan Ayckbourn. Taylor offers a constant ironic take on the foibles of Native life, on and off the reserve. Like Ayckbourn, when at his worst, Taylor can be facile. Stephen Leacock said that he could spot a joke at twenty paces and Taylor can fire at the joke instead of searching for meaning. However, again like Ayckbourn, the best work by Taylor represents real people who self-consciously ironize their existence. Taylor puts on stage not just 'alterNatives,' as in the title of one of Taylor's best plays, but 'real Indians,' full of the contorted mirroring that such an inevitably scare-quote identity produces for any intelligent human being. In the interview he speaks of discovering that a play with six characters should not work through humour but through 'six different senses of humour.'
Robert Nunn, the editor of the present collection, is another name worth noting. While the academic criticism of Canadian drama has not developed as we would have liked, certain soldiers have continued to fight the good fight. Nunn is exemplary of this group. Whether as editor or author of numerous articles, he has maintained his focus on [End Page 539] what Canadian dramatists have accomplished. I of course have no idea how this book was added to the Guernica Writers Series, but it is worthy of note that Taylor is the first playwright to be included. I suspect this volume represents some careful promotion on Nunn's part.
But what of the book itself? Well, like most such collections, it is uneven. I doubt that there is anything here that anyone will find essential. Like most modern 'realist' drama, the part of Taylor's work that is not obvious is hard to reach for a critic. Many resort to the usual identification of trickster elements but I personally found nothing in these analyses that goes beyond just that - the usual. Jonathan Dewar's piece is interesting but more as a comment on the problem of the critic than on Taylor's work. Robert Appleford offers a general but insightful look at how humour works, with particular attention to Taylor.
On the whole, I am more interested in what the book represents: a professional response to a professional playwright. Might Canadian drama be coming of age yet again?
Terry Goldie, Department of English, York University