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  • Evicted in—and from—Toronto:Walker's Beautiful City at Factory Theatre
  • J. Chris Westgate

Defined as a "pivotal year" in the career of George F. Walker, 1982 marks a noteworthy shift in Walker's dramaturgy.1 During the 1970s, Walker's plays occurred in two phases: the early, absurdist-inspired works (The Prince of Naples and Ambush at Tether's End), followed by the later works that borrowed from and interrogated popular culture (Sacktown Rag, Bagdad Saloon, and Beyond Mozambique).2 The plays of both phases were marked by existential and ontological questioning, and were seemingly intended to sow confusion and anxiety in audiences. In 1982, though, Walker workshopped at Cornell University an early version of Better Living, a play that would become the first of The East End Plays and inaugurate Walker's next phase. Ultimately six plays, including the major successes Criminals in Love (1984) and Love and Anger (1989), this collection marks a shift in subject and style in his dramaturgy. As Chris Johnson notes, "In these plays, Walker turns for material to the working-class Toronto East End of his boyhood and adolescence, material which he had previously explored only in Sacktown Rag, and there only somewhat tentatively."3 Walker characterizes his plays from this phase, when he was writing directly about Toronto during the 1980s, as becoming increasingly "generous," a term that suggests the growing accessibility of The East End Plays, all of which approach realism, if somewhat uncomfortably. Likewise, the generosity of his plays suggests something about a vision of the future. As Johnson argues, these plays do something rather un-Walker-like: they introduce not hope, "but what he has called 'possibility.'"4

Importantly, this shift toward the last phase corresponds with an implicit reassessment of responsibility within Walker's dramaturgy. Before The East End Plays, his plays were mostly polemical: that is, they shook the [End Page 221] foundations of beliefs, values, and assumptions in order to highlight the anxiety that Walker believed was everywhere in Canadian society. Probably the defining concern for Walker regardless of phase, anxiety—which is at once psychological, cultural, and existential—comes from "the question posed again and again by Walker's plays," as Johnson maintains: "Who controls the future?"5 During the early phases, Walker's dramaturgy sought to induce this anxiety in audiences without advocating any means of confronting or overcoming it: the result was pure polemicism. Because of this, no doubt, Johnson concludes that "it's impossible to contain Walker's political views neatly within any political doctrine."6 Johnson is certainly correct insofar as Walker cannot be pigeonholed through the traditional "isms" used to designate political drama—liberalism and conservatism, Marxism and feminism. Nevertheless, The East End Plays demonstrate an increasing awareness of the limits of polemicism: of the agitation that serves no end beyond itself and, paradoxically, may reinforce the status quo by foreclosing the possibility of praxis. More notably, these plays advocate a particular future, though, again, not in ways that would define them under any specific ideology. In other words, The East End Plays denote a shift in Walker's dramaturgy from the polemical to the political: by this, I mean that they advocate a future "beyond" anxiety, even though they remain skeptical of how easily that future can be realized. While this shift typifies many of the six plays that comprise The East End Plays, my argument addresses Beautiful City, the third of the plays to be produced, for two reasons. First, it best demonstrates how Walker's political concerns were distinctly spatialized at the time; second, the spatialized concerns evident in Beautiful City suggest the exigency of the shift from polemicism to politics: Toronto during the 1980s.

Interviewed in 1987, the year that Beautiful City debuted, Walker defines the nature of this anxious future in relation to the loss of his Toronto home: "It was like being evicted—from the city. Our house, the house my family and I were renting, was sold."7 Kept from buying the house because of rising property values, Walker relocated his family to New Brunswick, feeling that Toronto's "soul" had been given over, Faust-like, to developers for "glamor and...