English Language Theatre Criticism

Serious theatre criticism did not begin to emerge in cities such as Toronto and Halifax until the late 1820s because the infrequency of theatrical performances in colonial Canada did not warrant it.
Serious theatre criticism did not begin to emerge in cities such as Toronto and Halifax until the late 1820s because the infrequency of theatrical performances in colonial Canada did not warrant it.

Theatre Criticism, English Language

Serious theatre criticism did not begin to emerge in cities such as Toronto and Halifax until the late 1820s because the infrequency of theatrical performances in colonial Canada did not warrant it. The first newspaper reference to a theatre performance in Halifax was published in the Nova Scotia Gazette and Weekly Chronicle as early as 1773. But since publishers of newspapers in the colonies were heavily dependent on paid advertisements and printing contracts for their survival, editors were reluctant to alienate theatre companies by publishing adverse reviews of their productions. Newspapers frequently praised actors and companies whose advertisements they carried far above their actual merits. Only a few independent-minded newspaper editors who also reviewed theatre performances - such as William Lyon MACKENZIE at the York (Toronto) Colonial Advocate (1826-33) and Joseph HOWE at the Novascotian (1827-40) - broke with this estabished practice of newspaper puffery or inflated critical praise.

By the 1850s the increased population in cities such as Toronto (31 000 in 1851), improved transportation, and telegraph communication with the outside world resulted in permanent resident stock companies and daily newspapers that regularly reviewed performances. Critics such as Daniel Morrison at the Toronto Daily Leader (1854-57) began to exert a measurable influence on theatre in their communities. In his reviews of productions at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Toronto, Morrison assessed the acting abilities of major and secondary actors, the overall directing and interpretation of a dramatic script, the selection of the company's repertoire, stage design and costuming, and criticized the company when these fell below his standards.

The small size of theatre audiences in Canadian cities made the very survival of local professional companies and touring houses uncertain. Critics at the turn of the century, such as E.R. Parkhurst at the Toronto Mail (1876-98) and Toronto Globe (1898-1924), Charles H. Wheeler (Winnipeg Daily Tribune), Charles W. Handscomb (Manitoba Free Press) and Harriet WALKER (Winnipeg Town Topics), felt compelled to act as advocates - as much as critics - of live theatre in order to promote and preserve culture in their communities. This often blunted their criticism of mediocre productions.

By the late 1890s professional touring theatre in North America was largely controlled by the monopolistic Theatrical Syndicate in New York, which virtually eliminated Canadian professional theatre. While Canadian reviewers in cities such as Toronto and Montréal lost their power to influence local theatre production, a few outstanding critics were stimulated to analyze larger cultural, aesthetic and political issues. Hector Charlesworth, writing in publications such as Saturday Night, the Toronto Evening News and Mail and Empire in the 1890s, and B.K. Sandwell in the Montreal Herald (1900-14), championed the modern literary movement and playwrights such as Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde and Pinero. Both saw theatre as a great civilizing influence, opposed stage censorship, criticized the crass profit motive of American theatre and popular culture, and debated the political and cultural implications of the American control over Canadian stages. Their critical acumen and deep knowledge of British, American and European theatre and drama set a standard for other critics such as Samuel Morgan-Powell at the Montreal Star (1907-42).

Articulating a large vision of the role theatre plays in a broad cultural context differentiates the critic from the journalistic reviewer, who is content to focus merely on the merits or demerits of a single production. A critic's perceptions, as the Toronto Star's Gina Mallet has suggested, must be "filtered through a philosophy, a way of looking at the world."

The absence of an existing Canadian professional theatre in the first half of the 20th century forced critics such as Lawrence Mason at the Toronto Globe and Globe and Mail (1924-39), B.K. Sandwell at Saturday Night (1932-51) and Herbert WHITTAKER at the Montreal Gazette (1937-49) to stimulate Canadian amateur theatre companies to improve the artistic quality of their acting, directing, stage design and repertoire and to include Canadian playwrights in their work.

After World War II, the increased professionalism of companies such as Les Compagnons de Saint Laurent in Québec and the New Play Society in Toronto, as well as newly founded professional companies such as the STRATFORD FESTIVAL, CREST THEATRE and the Canadian Players in the 1950s, followed by the emergence of regional theatres across the country beginning in the 1960s, enabled critics to insist on much higher artistic standards than were previously expected of amateur companies. The most influential post-WW II critics were Nathan COHEN (on CBC Radio's CJBC Views the Shows, 1948-56, and in the Toronto Telegram, 1957, and the Toronto Star, 1958-71), Herbert Whittaker (Globe and Mail, 1949-75), and Jaimie Portman (Calgary Herald, 1959-75, and Southam News Service, 1975-87).

Cohen insisted on the central role of the Canadian playwright in the newly emerging professional theatre and on theatre that would throw light both on the human condition and on Canadian society. Such a socially committed viewpoint also characterized Oscar Ryan's reviews for the communist Canadian Tribune, written from 1955 to 1981 under the pseudonym Martin Stone and from then until his death in 1988 under Ryan's own name.

In addition to his theatre criticism, Herbert Whittaker contributed to the development of Canadian theatre as a director, designer and as a member of boards of directors of national arts organizations. Jaimie Portman, at the Calgary Herald, critically stimulated the evolution of theatre in Alberta from semi-professional to professional status. As the national arts correspondent for Southam News, Portman covered the performing arts across the country and became a vocal advocate of government support for culture in the recessionary 1980s.

Substantial boosts in government arts subsidies in the 1970s greatly increased professional theatre production and newspaper coverage of the arts across the country. Critics such as Don Rubin at the Toronto Star (1968-72) and the Canadian Theatre Review (1974-83), Christopher Dafoe and Max Wyman at the Vancouver Sun (1968-75 and 1975-79), and Urjo Kareda at the Toronto Star (1971-75) supported the politically and culturally radical companies emerging from the alternative theatre movement, their stylistic experimentation, and the many new Canadian playwrights they produced. Marianne Ackerman, at the Montreal Gazette (1983-87), continued to call for theatre that was stylistically experimental, socially engaged, and that provided a forum where a community could discuss and relive common experiences.

Some critics, such as Brian Brennan at the Calgary Herald (1975-88), were much more critical of the new work and playwrights emerging from the alternative theatre movement. Gina Mallet at the Toronto Star (1976-84) vociferously opposed cultural nationalism and government subsidies, believing both fostered artistic self-indulgence rather than universal artistic standards and values. She instead championed the free-market discipline of commercial theatre, with New York's Broadway as its model. Ray Conlogue at the Globe and Mail (1978-91) strongly defended government arts subsidies, and instead criticized the increasing corporate sponsorship of productions and corporate influence on artistic boards of directors resulting in non-controversial family entertainment that he called "Capitalist Realism."

Like Conlogue, Kate Taylor, the Globe and Mail's theatre critic since 1995, criticized companies such as the Stratford Festival and the CANADIAN STAGE in Toronto for producing British and American commercial hits to subsidize their seasons. Taylor also critically challenged Canada's biggest commercial producer, Garth DRABINSKY, because of the bloated production values of some Livent productions such as the 1995 Sunset Boulevard. The bankruptcy of Livent Inc 3 years later largely eliminated the Broadway commercial theatre model that Gina Mallet had advocated.

By the end of the 1990s there were few critics of national stature covering the performing arts in either the print or electronic media. Most newspapers and radio stations restricted their theatre critics to covering only local productions and to providing mere consumer reporting rather than encouraging them to examine larger cultural issues on an ongoing basis.

Further Reading

  • Anton Wagner, ed, Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism (1999).