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Post-WWII Theatre Recognized Or Yes Virginia, there was theatre in Canada before 1967
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Bruno Gerussi and Muriel Ontkean in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire from Totem Theatre, April 1952 (Arngrim Collection).

Photo courtesy of Ronsdale Press

Had Charles Dickens reviewed The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945–1953 , by Susan McNicoll, he may have written: it was the best of books, it was the worst of books, it was pages of belief, it was phrases of incredulity, it was a book of hope, it was a book of despair. But seeing as Dickens is no longer alive—taking his flair for linguistic magic with him—let the review begin this way: I was both delighted and frustrated by this book.

Let’s start with the delight. A book of this type is long overdue, one that gathers valuable material from an overlooked period of Canadian theatre in one place, conceived and written with the curious but casual reader in mind. This volume contains thirteen chapters that span this wide country, from the travails of Everyman Theatre in the west through to the creation of the Stratford Festival in the east and many little known theatrical activities inbetween. Radio drama in Canada—a much ignored area—is featured here along with at least twenty-one theatre companies, festivals, and summer stock theatres. The book also considers French drama of the period and examines the theatrical work of stars like Gratien Gélinas, who gained fame by creating the comic character Fridolin for his annual revue Fridolinades (1938–1946). It documents—through new interviews and recollections and photographs—the memories of countless actors and directors, some who went on to become Canadian legends, like Joy Coghill and Amelia Hall; some who went on to achieve international star status, like Christopher Plummer and William Shatner; and some who didn’t become famous and whose names you likely haven’t heard and risk being lost to history … like Floyd Caza. The stories are wonderfully amusing; for example, Arthur Hill and Peggy Hassard from Everyman Theatre remember travelling to a show in B.C.’s Fraser Valley in January 1947, when the bus broke down at a place ominously called Hell’s Gate. The company needed to make curtain in a few hours, so they flagged down a passing vehicle and asked for a ride, journeying to the show in the back of a garbage truck. Or the night a Straw Hat Players actor stepped on a tack during a crucial scene; or how a truck filled with set pieces rolled down a hill and crashed into a police car. These memories help the productions become human, rich, and colourful; they place “flesh on the skeleton.” The tales bring post—WWII Canadian theatre to life for readers, and provide a jumping-off point for Canadian theatre researchers; for “as the pronarrative philosopher of history Louis Mink said in the early 1960s: ‘Where scientists … note each other’s results, historians … read each other’s books’” (qtd. in Munslow 2).

Back to radio drama for a moment, because this subject is of particular interest to me. There is little serious research about this subject even though it played a vital role in Canadian dramatic history. It is a nearly untapped area of research and the importance of radio is being acknowledged worldwide. On 13 February 2013, UNESCO initiated the inaugural World Radio Day, and the Groupe de Recherches et d’Études sur la Radio has proclaimed that new research into radio is urgent and should be supported. McNicoll points out that it was as early as 1920 that the first private station began broadcasting in Canada, XWA in Montreal (92). She goes on to say that less than ten years later, there were at least sixty other stations in the country, programming in English, French, and some aboriginal languages. This post—WWII period for CBC Radio Drama was particularly important, largely because of the presence of legendary director/producer Andrew Allan. This time at the CBC was known as the Golden Age of Drama, so named because the drama department won so many international awards. Although McNicoll doesn’t go in depth, she does provide some introductory information and first-hand tales, like one...

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