As Canada turns 150, theatre companies across the land are featuring historical Canadian dramatic offerings to help promote the anniversary theme. Stratford Festival productions include The Breathing Hole and The Komagata Maru Incident, and at Shaw, we have 1837: The Farmers' Revolt plus 1979 about former P.M., Joe Clark
An usher at Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille's 1837: The Farmers' Revolt warned me that "you either love this play or hate it" and that many patrons had walked out. I loved it - for a variety of reasons, and a St. Catharines connection, John-Luke Addison, the Music Director, played a large part in its success.
Addison has worked for Garden City Productions and is Associate Conductor of Chorus Niagara. On his website, he says that "As a conductor, I am particularly interested in theatrical music, as I specialize in conveying emotion through each ensemble I direct. Music and drama are kaleidoscopic landscapes of emotion, cultural expressions of diversity, and use their quiet magnitude to transcend the human condition. I am an artist and creative being by eliciting organic emotional responses, and expressing my inner portmanteau of sentiment and feeling."
An artist indeed. His sound and music are employed for great effect in the tiny Court House Theatre from beginning to end. In fact the play brilliantly directed by Philip Akin, can be summarized as Stomp meets William Lyon Mackenzie, the later fleeing to Navy Island with a small band of his rebels after their Toronto defeat. The immigrant farmers had been struggling for years to turn Upper Canada's forests into farmland, and their land allotted to government cronies, the desperate men and women march down Toronto's Yonge Street with Mackenzie as their leader.
The action dramatically opens with the talented and mixed racial ensemble (Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo, and Jeremiah Sparks) singing and chanting with foot stomping, hand slapping and chest thumping amidst a minimalist Norval Morrisseau-like set that features trees, logs and stumps, the hefty items that immigrant farmers must clear to engender success in Upper Canada.
Monologues, petite scenes, and group songs ensue and Ric Reid provides the necessary exposition, describing the all-powerful Family Compact that controls and frustrates the early citizens so much so that they finally rebel by taking up arms. Rachel Forbes' set and costume design advances the action. Wearing unisex clothing, the talented ensemble plays multiple roles and both sexes as they present vivid vignettes of Canadian history.
Throughout the play, there are humorous comparisons of our settlers with citizens in the U.S.A. with whom the Brits tangled earlier in the War of 1812. A scene in which a farmer travels to Detroit suggests the many attributes of the U.S., but their Civil War was only a few years away - from 1861 to 1865.
Lighting designer Steve Lucas adds to the effect, but it is the movement design by Esie Mensah
that creatively maximizes the small, sparse set, utilizing the nimbleness of the ensemble's younger cast members who race and somersault about to perform multiple roles.
This was a unique and creative experience all around, the story of an uprising that paved the way for our nationhood. All that was missing was George Armstrong, indigenous captain of the 67' Leafs accepting the Stanley Cup from league president, the Waspy Clarence Campbell.
1837: The Farmers' Revolt plays at the
Court House Theatre (26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake) to October 8.
Rebel Rabble: The Rebellion of 1837 as explained by Big Red
Democracy from Rebellion
History of Canada
The Rebel Theatrics of 1837: The Farmers' Revolt
by Alan Filewod
"Everything here looks squally." So wrote a Hamilton merchant to a fellow radical reformer in the fall of 1837. Like many in Upper Canada (roughly today's Southern Ontario), he was an American settler who chafed against the arbitrary power of the British colonial system. That squall of dissent soon erupted into armed rebellions that set the Canadian colonies on the road to Confederation. But for a series of tactical blunders, we might not be marking the sesquicentennial of the modern Canadian nation; instead we might have been celebrating the 180th anniversary of the Republic of Canada. It is a particularly Canadian irony that the nation is founded on a failed revolution.
For a brief moment, that republic did indeed exist, although as republics go, it was a catastrophe. Gathered under its flag (two white stars on a field of blue over the word "Liberty") were the last of the rebels who had marched on Toronto in a failed attempt to overthrow the colonial government in December of 1837. They held out on Navy Island, upstream from Niagara Falls, for a month but dispersed when supplies ran out. The uprising continued to flare over the ensuing year in border skirmishes, abetted by American sympathizers. It climaxed in a nominating convention in Cleveland, where it elected the one and only President of Canada. The republic faded away. No statues commemorate
President Abram Smith.
William Lyon Mackenzie, the Scottish-born agitator and journalist who was the principal
mobilizer of the rebellion, did not begin with the idea of a republic in mind. The reformers were driven by the lack of justice and equality in the administration of an ineptly run province that was expanding rapidly. The population of Upper Canada had swelled in the years after the War of 1812, from 75,000 settlers in 1806 to 400,000 thirty years later. They poured into the province from Britain and Ireland, from the Maritimes and Lower Canada (today's Quebec), and they came from America, looking for land. Upper Canada was a land speculator's dream, and the biggest speculator of them all was the government, which sold public land to its own corporation for resale to the unending influx of settlers. They brought their religions and their political creeds. Some came for land; others came to escape slavery and poverty. Some came for religious freedom. In the course of claiming land they dispossessed others, buying, swindling and stealing millions of acres of reserve lands and devastating First Nations communities.
Settlers arriving in Upper Canada found a colony that was growing faster than its infrastructure could accommodate. Roads were bad and schools were few. The economy was stagnant, and the rotating succession of British governors relied on the advice of a hand
picked cabinet who oversaw an oligarchic kleptocracy. This was the governing clique that was famously reviled as the Family Compact, and Mackenzie's savage tirade against its nepotistic knot of government, judiciary and business remains a classic of political
invective. Mackenzie was a difficult and volatile character, but with the spur of his combative rhetoric, reform groups across the province took to informal drill practice with old muskets, pikes and farm implements. Things were squally indeed.
When tensions boiled over in Quebec in the summer of 1837, the Toronto reformers called for a Congress of the two Canadas; in November, Mackenzie upped the ante by publishing the "Constitution of the State of Upper Canada." The influence of American frontier democracy was strongly felt, particularly in the western part of the colony. Though we can only guess at the direction the great State of Upper Canada might have taken had the rebellion succeeded, perhaps the history of another rebel republic on the periphery of the
United States provides a clue: might Ontario have become another Texas?
In 1837: The Farmers' Revolt we see this moment of political revolution through the eyes of a later generation of theatrical rebels. It is one of the most durable plays that came out of what was known in the early 1970s as the alternative theatre. At the fore of that movement was the upstart Theatre Passe Muraille, which in 1972 changed the tenor of the emergent boomer theatre culture by quite literally going back to the land to create an improvised documentary play based on taped conversations with farm families in the rural Ontario
community of Clinton.
Premiering in an auction barn, The Farm Show was a game changer. It offered a template for a new type of play that could be whipped up by untrained actors in a very short time, stitching shows together with monologues, songs and comic sketches for local audiences. Dozens of pop-up troupes across Canada applied that template to their own communities: actors wrote their own material and turned themselves into playwrights; troupes landed grants and organized themselves as theatre companies. A bootstrap theatre culture rebelled against the perceived colonialism of a professional theatre community that still spoke in British accents.
With 1837, as the play was titled when it opened in 1973, director Paul Thompson brought a writer into the collective process. Rick Salutin was then at the beginning of an eminent career as a political columnist whose writings, although more temperate and reflective than Mackenzie's, follow in his tradition of gadfly radicalism. In his diary of the difficult, often frustrating, creative process (published as the preface to the play text) Salutin described himself as "the writer on - but not of - 1837." Drawing on his deep knowledge of radical history, he interpreted the rebellion as proof of a continuous tradition of anti-imperialist resistance in Canada. The corollary was that the theatrical rebels who staged 1837 as a challenge to the anglophile theatre establishment were the militant heirs of the Upper Canadian insurgents.
We can now see that the soft nationalism of that moment was blind to its own complicity in colonial relations and failed to realize how it was effacing the plural identities of the multicultural nation. Like the Upper Canadian reformers before them, the ensemble that created 1837 saw the history of the rebellion through the lens of male experience. And that male experience was very white. Neither the rebels nor their theatrical heirs could acknowledge the historical role of minority cultures, especially the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations, who had staked their future on an alliance with the British in 1812, only to see their lands diminish, and Black colonists who had their own reasons to resist the rhetoric of American republicanism. Both communities mobilized to support the government.
If 1837 can be critiqued because of these absences, it restores them in its ensemble structure. The durability of 1837 results from its intrinsic adaptability; it can be performed
by any number of actors, in any combination (and for this reason it remains very popular with high schools). In the original production, an ensemble of six actors played dozens of
characters as needed to tell the story: women shouldered arms as men, and men played as women. Today, adapting to changing boundaries of race and culture, 1837 endures as a defiant call-out of who we are as a nation and as a theatre culture.
Alan Filewod is a professor of theatre studies at the University of Guelph and a specialist in Canadian theatre history. His books include Committing Theatre: theatre radicalism and political intervention in Canada (2011).