Lately it seems a commonplace of water cooler chat to lament the state of book publishing in Canada, the news being punctuated with reports of Canadian presses closing or being gobbled up by international conglomerates. Recent years have witnessed the demise of Key Porter books, the absorption of McClelland & Stewart by Random House, and, last October, the bankruptcy filing by Douglas & MacIntyre (Barber). And still in this context, the CTR book review mailbox regularly sees new books about Canadian drama, theatre, and performance from Canadian publishers. Recent Views and Reviews sections of Canadian Theatre Review have been replete with book reviews and still they pile up on my desk. (I once read about Martin Levin, the esteemed former Globe and Mail book review editor, who had so many review copies, he stored them in the oven.) And herewith to clear this backlog (at least temporarily), this issue of Views and Reviews is devoted to book reviews.
One of the striking details about the quartet of books reviewed here is that they come from four different publishers, each with a distinct publishing personality. University of Toronto Press bills itself as Canada’s leading scholarly publisher and occupies a spot in the top rank of North American presses; University of Alberta Press takes a narrower approach to publishing focusing on, “culturally significant works” with a particular interest in regional topics (http://www.uap.ualberta.ca); Ronsdale Press located in Vancouver is a literary publisher with a distinctive national bent, printing “books of ideas about Canada” (http://ronsdalepress.com/about); Playwrights Canada Press, conceived in 1984 as the publishing arm of the professional association of Canadian playwrights (then Playwrights Union of Canada), has in the last decade started to branch out beyond plays into more scholarly work. These four represent a diversity of aims and interests which attest to a diversity of audiences of these books.
Talking casually to Playwrights Canada publisher Annie Gibson about the press’ entry into publishing works of criticism and history, she characterized the press’ mission in this regard as “bringing more people into the understanding of theatre” (Personal Interview). Interestingly, the website for the University of Alberta Press also positions itself in the same language, touting “books for understanding” as its motto. Struck by this synchronicity of verbiage, I wondered what exactly is intended in this somewhat ordinary but expectant word. It is a terrible cliché to dig out a dictionary entry by way of explication (my apologies) but the word understanding has an intriguing (and irresistible) etymology. Breaking it down into its roots, there are two parts—under and standan. Under here takes its meaning not from “beneath” but rather from an Old English root *nter – unter/under but also inter, meaning between or among. Douglas Harper, in his online etymology dictionary, notes that perhaps the ultimate sense of this prefix is “to be close to.” So we arrive at something like “I stand close to it,” an etymology which expresses its kinship with the Greek epistamai and the German verstehen (literally, “I stand before”). The intention then of understanding is to put the reader in the midst of the work, creating an immersive experience of the material being presented.
It was the Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English series, launched in 2005, that initiated Playwrights Canada Press into the realm of scholarly publishing. With the conclusion of that retrospective reprint series six years later, series editor Ric Knowles and Playwrights Canada shifted their view toward publishing collections of new essays on heretofore omitted topics of contemporary interest. The latest entry in this series is New Canadian Realisms edited by Kim Solga and Roberta Barker. Reviewer Chris Megson, co-editor with Alison Forsyth of Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present (Palgrave 2009), finds this collection acutely relevant to contemporary performative concerns. As he notes, “the [volume’s] contributors demonstrate that realism is not an antiquated or monolithic genre that, through its reification of extant conditions and causalities, closes down speculative enquiry; rather, realism is conceived as a series or aggregation of performative modalities that produce Barthesian ‘reality effects’ for specific and strategic purposes, often in critically reflexive forms.”
“Standing between” is exactly...