'Entirely free of any amateurishness': private training, public taste and the Women's Dramatic Club of University College, Toronto (1905-21).
Professional touring companies from Britain and America dominated Toronto's theatre ecology during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Productions featuring foreign stars which included Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, E. H. Sothern, John Barrymore, Maude Adams, Sarah Bernhardt, Harley Granville Barker, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Canadian ex-patriot Margaret Anglin, as well those arranged by the ubiquitous New York Theatre Syndicate, as Robert B. Scott describes, dominated Toronto's stages. These met largely enthusiastic audiences at seven commercial theatres in the city. These producers, as well as those attached to a variety of other professional groups, brought to Toronto everything from Shakespeare to the jazz musicals of Irving Berlin and Al Jolson, melodramas, musical comedies with chorus girls, and vaudeville and burlesque performances. Though the War greatly depleted the flow of touring companies, several still managed to entertain Torontonians. So pervasive was this foreign domination during these two decades, particularly by the New York Syndicate, that no local professional company or professional training company existed in Toronto at the time. Local theatre practice was amateur theatre practice, and students studying at the city's University played a commanding role. (2)
Whereas professional touring companies were strictly for-profit ventures, groups like the Women's Dramatic Club of University College (WDC) at the University of Toronto, with which this study is concerned, raised money for social causes, including the war effort. The group nurtured ties with the influential Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression and the Toronto Conservatory School of Expression where young women learned elocution skills through the study and performance of dramatic text. From within these institutions the WDC earned attention from the wider community. What follows is a brief discussion of the space of non-professionalizing practices with particular emphasis on the Canadian context, followed by an archive-based analysis of the WDC's training, production and reception record, and conclusions concerning the club's place within the field of cultural production as a producer of public taste in Toronto during the first two decades of the last century.
The space of non-professionalizing practices
Amateur practices are commonly dismissed by historians and practice-based scholars alike as sub-par, clumsy, superficial, imitative, hopelessly cliquish, wanting in talent, self-interested to the point of delusion and, therefore, without 'value' beyond the circles that practise them. Articulated under these terms, amateur theatre is 'an emotional oasis', (3) 'awkward' (4) and even, we are told, 'conjur[es] scenes of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland rummaging through Granny's trunk in the barn, puttin' on a show.' (5) Any traces of remarkable amateur performances--signs of inspired work in, for example, critical reviews or passed-down anecdotes--are often dismissed by the scholar or general public as anomalies, or as hyperbolic or misguided fictions constructed by over-enthusiastic, or even implicated, reviewers. This negative discourse is replicable. There is pleasure in dismissing or deprecating the work of another on the grounds that it is 'amateur', particularly if doing so seems to emphasize one's own professionalism. Today, the label 'amateur' itself is employed as a reductive and essentialising term. It at once reflects upon the practice that is pursued and the personal qualities of those who choose to pursue it.
In addressing this critical phenomenon, Claire Cochrane argues that amateur theatre is often viewed as an 'ersatz theatre' that prompts the professional historian to 'exercis[e] her aesthetic judgment and tur[n] away.' (6) Amateur theatre is undervalued in theatre historiography because scholars view it as a lesser cultural product than its professional counterparts. Scholars are disinclined to be associated with the negative and murky term 'amateur' because scholarship on amateur performance risks being deemed 'amateur' by association. Under this view, the social capital of the object of study reflects upon the social capital of the labour of the scholar. By enacting critical choices grounded in intellectualized aesthetic taste--defined by Pierre Bourdieu as a competition-based 'system of distinctions between groups' (7)--and the relentless appeal of modernity's professionalizing project, the theatre scholar is content to give attention to professionalized practice at the expense of the work done by those who are compelled to express their culture through non-professionalized production. As professional scholars collude with theatre professionals in taking pleasure in dismissing non-professionalizing practices, significant cultural expression by non-specialists is ignored. The phenomenon of dismissal migrated from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada most perniciously during the past century under relentless post-industrial pressures to modernize occupations, including artistic ones, by professionalizing them.
In Canada in particular, the drive to privilege professionalizing work took shape as a series of top-down federal initiatives in the mid-twentieth century--led by the wealthy Canadian philanthropist, anglophile, and eventual governor general Vincent Massey--to nationalize cultural practices in order to build a Canadian culture upon extant British models and in opposition to a commercializing (and highly seductive) American culture. (8) Autonomous union-styled associations eventually emerged by the mid-1970s, as they had in England and America in the early part of the century, in order to protect and augment the ideological space of professionalizing work in the name of improved quality and safer, more predictable working conditions for the career artist. Concurrently, the space of the amateur increasingly became viewed as a negative space in the tripartite sense that it was the locale of less desirable work, that it was a cultural space best shrunk by a burgeoning profession, and that it was redefined as the antithesis of this increasingly definable profession, which was serious, exceptional, important, and spoke for the nation (notably, in Canada, by echoing the British nation via emerging Shakespearean and Shavian festivals). Under this cultural 'progression' during the twentieth century, amateur theatre retained but one acceptable value, that of a pre-professional vehicle for early-career artists.
In order to interrogate this received history, I view the relationship between amateur and professional practices as fundamentally complex and intertwined, in turns competitive and mutually beneficial. This dynamic and mutable relationship is traceable over the course of Western history for the practice of theatre. Alan Filewod has productively articulated Canada's 'growth' as the reiterative performance of a 'maturation myth' of the Canadian nation wherein 'Canada' is commonly historicized as growing up from infancy and adolescence as a dominion under the British Empire, to adulthood following its 'coming out' phase after the war years. (9) I agree with Filewod that Canada has used theatre to perform the nation to itself and to the world to anthropomorphize each stage of this maturation and to attempt to construct a recognizable identity in relation to its British 'mother' and American 'cousin.' Furthermore, I argue that because Massey and others transposed the maturation myth onto the construction of a 'national theatre', the maturation myth can be used to explain the ways in which scholars, practitioners, and audiences view a theatre culture's 'growth' into adulthood at the moment it professionalizes. Under the nationalizing project, amateur practices are always already viewed as childlike, imitative, and underdeveloped; professional practices embody one's--and one's nation's--aspirations fully realized. As a nation is nursed through stages to its maturity, so too is its theatre which, in turn, performs this maturation to the public and to the world. The dismissive stance toward amateur practices may be attributed, in large part, to the underlying residue of nationalist projects and cultural identity formations.
In order to begin to account for these assumptions, I focus on the non-professionalizing theatre practices of those women who went on to found English-speaking Canada's second-longest-running theatre company, Alumnae Theatre Company (1918-), during their undergraduate days at the University of Toronto's University College. (10) Alumnae Theatre's early association with the University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre, counted among North America's premiere Little Theatres by the end of the 1920s, quickly drew it into concert with some of the country's most avant-garde and national-minded theatre makers, including Roy Mitchell and Merrill Denison. Here I examine why Alumnae's founding women sought to practise theatre and how this practice, which formed a bridge between the Victorian and the Modern artistic avant-garde, was related to their education, to the growing University and local communities, and to the war effort in the first decades of the twentieth-century. I turn to archive documents held at Alumnae Theatre's current firehall location and at the University of Toronto, with special emphasis on newspaper previews, reviews, and editorials of the day, to examine the WDC's training, reception and steadfast positioning as a women-only group, one that repeatedly countered pressure from campus editorialists urging it to include male students at the height of its popularity.
The WDC: training, acclaim and controversy
Among the few extended studies that detail non-professionalizing theatre practices during the twentieth century is Dorothy Chansky's Composing Ourselves, which outlines connections between women, post-secondary education, and the emergence of the amateur Little Theatre Movement in early twentieth-century America. Chansky observes that, 'Young women could take advantage of the opportunity to become teachers--a respectable endeavor for those of the social class that comprised most college students--while also immersing themselves in the study and practice of drama and theatre.' (11) The eventual prominence of women in theatre education and Little Theatres (both on stage and in the audience) provided evidence of women's increased presence in the public sphere while re-enforcing the binary 'paid/outside/professional/successful (male)' on the one hand, and 'unpaid/local/amateur/inexperienced (female)' on the other. (12) In Canada, as men dominated the public workplace, women found roles as extraordinarily dedicated amateur theatre artists and educators. Their work would be instrumental in introducing theatre to cities across the country, particularly in the regional and national Dominion Drama Festival competitions (1933-70).
Here the nation's cultural maturation is closely tied to the organizational work of amateur, unpaid (though increasingly highly experienced) women, as well as men. So prominent were they that their productions and companies were at times perceived to be competing with the establishment of regional professional theatres in major urban centres from the late-1950s through the 1970s. The complexities of these professionalizing gender dynamics would haunt cultural and artistic expression and its institutionalization under increased drives to professionalize cultural practices, and, concomitantly, to nationalize them.
The WDC, a predecessor to today's co-ed University College Players Guild (1923-), was founded as an offshoot of the University College Women's Literary Society (1891-1930s) to bring off the page the drama studied in literature classes at the University of Toronto. (13) [Plate 2] Between 1905 and 1921 the WDC presented one major production a year, including eight Shakespearean comedies and two comedies by Sheridan. (14) At its core were consecutive cohorts of dedicated women undergraduates who acted in WDC's productions and served on its executive committee, often for two, three or four years in succession. As the group described itself in the 1908 U. of T. yearbook,
The Dramatic Club expresses the wish of the women of University College to develop the outward expression of their education, rather than to allow it to remain within, or to be badly expressed. The primary aim of the Club is voice culture, with the physical poise which attends it; while the secondary, if not equal, aim is dramatic expression. (15)
Despite it being the WDC's stated 'secondary' aim, print references to the club suggest that its dramatic expression repeatedly received public approval of some significance. In 1915 the Varsity student newspaper referred to the WDC as one of the best 'amateur societies' in the city (16) and in 1917 as comprised of 'players [...] competing almost with those of professional companies.' (17) Its members were often singled out in reviews for their outstanding performances, as when Margaret Tytler's Mrs. Candour was called 'ebulliently vivacious' (18) and her Dogberry 'a triumph [as she] kept the audience in roars of laughter with her torrents of eloquence'; (19) or when Mary Smart's Charles 'was interpreted with vigour and yet admirable restraint.' (20) With these commendations, the WDC 'still [held] allegiance to her mother [literary] society' (21) insomuch as members belonged to the club so that they could extend their interest in literature to outward expression. (22)
In order to pursue its interests in its primary aim of public speaking and poise, the WDC in its early years found fruitful connections with the nearby Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression and the Eaton School's founding instructor Mrs. Emma Scott Raff. Since 1903, Scott Raff had been offering classes to the Women's Literary Society. (23) By 1908, the WDC was holding early evening meetings once a week at the Eaton School under Scott Raff's direction starting in October each year, a couple of weeks into the school year. (24) The women would meet, study and rehearse a play with Scott Raff before it was, as explained in a posted notice to interested U. C. women, 'given at the end of the term [to show] the progress made in the study of voice culture and dramatic technique.' (25)
These one-night performances regularly attracted the attention of not only the Varsity--which, early on, remarked on 'the efficient and sympathetic training of Mrs. Scott-Raff' (26)--but also Toronto's daily newspapers, while filling the Eaton School's Greek Theatre 'to overflowing', (27) even turning people away. (28) The performances were announced to the public as 'open meeting[s]' in order to frame them as public presentations of otherwise private training. (29) Interdisciplinary as the training was, the theatrical performances were occasionally concluded with an original Greek dance. (30) Audiences came not only from the families of the young women attending U. C. and the Eaton School, but also the Toronto elite whose names frequented the dailies' society pages in notices about the plays.
The skills offered by the Eaton School were deeply resonant with the intentions of amateur theatre practice, particularly those of the Little Theatres. The relationship between the WDC's early drama-related inclinations on the one hand, and the Eaton School's aims of developing women in oratory and poise on the other, began in 1905 and was probably fairly complex. As Heather Murray's study of the Eaton School suggests, it may be listed alongside the Arts and Letters Club and Hart House as a Toronto institution that 'sustained interest in and promot[ed] national theatre movements [which] helped to develop a conceptual base for the "nativist" English-Canadian theatre to follow.' (31) Its early focus as 'a dramatic and literary academy' contributed to 'creating the preconditions for both the actors and audiences of the little theatre movement' by way of its own Associate Players and its auditorium, the Greek Theatre. (32) Murray also credits the Eaton School with
help[ing] to generate that sense of the 'modern' through which the productions of the little theatre movement would be produced and received [and as part of modernization] the assertion and creation of women's place in the theatrical world at a time when their participation was often discouraged and even denounced. (33)
For Murray, Scott Raff's ideals at the Eaton School provide important links between 'the avant-garde and experimental art movements of the late nineteenth century' and the modern era on the one hand, and between Victorian classicism and women's education on the other. (34) Certainly, these links were reflected in the aspirations of the undergraduate women involved, and in modernizing redefinitions of 'amateur theatre' at the outset of the new century.
The notoriety that the WDC built up under Scott Raff is worth closer scrutiny. By 1911, her last year with the group until after the War, the Telegram could write with some bravado that,
The Women's Dramatic Club of University College is a growing institution. Their annual performance [...] showed a development in the art of those taking part over last year's work. The play was most thoroughly enjoyed by an audience that filled every available foot of space in the theatre. (35)
For a daily paper to call a seven year old campus club an 'institution', as the campus Varsity would echo the following year, suggests that just a few years into existence the WDC was becoming more than the sum of its parts. It meant something to the university that every year a group of undergraduate women could not only improve their public speaking training but that they could present their theatre work to a public (and the dailies' critics) 'who filled every available foot of space in the theatre.' Several years later, in its review of A Midsummer Night's Dream (February 1915), the Varsity went so far as to commend the WDC members on their ability to manage their student schedules: 'When the fact is considered that those taking part were all amateurs and busy college women with many demands upon their time, too much appreciation cannot be expressed for their work and for an enjoyable evening.' (36) By devoting the proceeds from its productions to 'patriotic purposes', for example the University battalion and the Franco-British Aid Society, the women of the WDC were preparing themselves (and being prepared) for a public life outside of the traditional domestic sphere (even as they pursued this public life to accomplish charitable work, which was often viewed as part of a woman's private domestic role), a fact that would become increasingly important during and after the war years.
In the fall of 1911, the WDC moved from under Scott Raff's supervision at the Eaton School to that of Dr. Frank Home Kirkpatrick at the Toronto Conservatory School of Expression, where Kirkpatrick was Principal (1905-19). During the winter terms of 1912 through 1916, the WDC presented an annual Shakespearean comedy under Kirkpatrick's direction at Convocation Hall, followed by two Sheridan comedies in 1917 and 1918 at the Hall of the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Murray suggests that Scott Raff's 'increasing duties at the School' may have made it impossible for her to continue working with WDC and others at the time. (37) But a preview piece in the Varsity provides further details on the move. On the day of the WDC's first performance under Kirkpatrick's supervision, the Varsity explained that
Previously, the Women's Dramatic Club has delivered all its productions in the Margaret Eaton School of Expression where they have restricted it to a semi-private affair. But this year, the club decided to make itself more of a University Institution, with a broader field, and the outcome is to-night's presentation. The ladies [...] have had a competent man [Kirkpatrick] in charge, and the result is that the production will be entirely free of any amateurishness. The past activities, indeed, have been characterized by the finished quality of the work, and this year, even better is anticipated. [This is] [t]heir first offering to the University in general. (38)
In separating out Kirkpatrick as a 'competent man' whose work with the WDC necessarily 'will be entirely free of any amateurishness,' the Varsity infers that perhaps without Kirkpatrick, and even under Scott Raff's expert leadership, amateurishness may have been present and that now, 'better is anticipated'. We are reminded here of the binary articulated by Chansky in which theatre work during the early twentieth-century grouped 'amateur' with women and 'professional' with men. The Varsity's inference here was consistent with much of its subsequent editorializing with respect to the WDC as a student institution (as discussed further on). In more general terms, if it is true that the WDC was starting to widen its scope to represent, and present to, the University at large, the move to work under Kirkpatrick and to present at the University of Toronto's own Convocation Hall can be read as a moment of initiative (and self-promotion) on the part of the WDC's members to redefine the value of their organization to their present circumstances. They made the change of venue and supervisor appear to the university community to be a positive one. With some collegial flourish, their followers began referring to the group as the 'Women's Dramatic Club of the University of Toronto', (39) not just 'of University College.'
The next morning the Globe wrote that the WDC's production of Much Ado about Nothing 'was wonderfully well staged, and the University feels pride in the efforts of the ladies to make the dramatic art popular in undergraduate circles.' (40) One unnamed WDC supporter (possibly a member) commented the following year that the location change was made 'to make the play more of a University event, and also to accommodate the large audience.' (41) She (or he) went on to say that, 'it was said by many of our professors and by dramatic critics to have been the best amateur performance they had ever witnessed.' She (or he) gave the attendance for that one evening's showing of Much Ado about Nothing in March 1912 at Convocation Hall as 1,200.
Under Kirkpatrick, the Conservatory's aims were comparable to those of the Eaton School, focusing on the study and preparation for teaching of 'Public Reading and Interpretation of Literature, The Concert Platform, Public Speaking, Dramatic Work, Physical Culture' and additionally, 'Classical, Folk and National Dancing.' (42) As under Scott Raff, the WDC's annual public performances were highly anticipated and well-attended. And occurring as they did during the War, they were occasionally remounted by request at other venues, such as Guild Hall and the Technical School Hall, raising 'a substantial sum [for] patriotic purposes.' (43) It was during their seven years under Kirkpatrick that the women of the WDC comprised at the very least 'the dominant dramatic group on campus.' (44)
The WDC's emerging public duty was lost neither on its members, nor their parents, nor the local dignitaries whose names were listed, as was the practice of the time, in the daily papers and the Varsity before or after WDC performances. University of Toronto President Robert Falconer and his wife Mrs. Falconer were noted to have attended their productions, as did Lady Margaret Eaton and famed Casa Loma resident Mrs. Pellatt, (45) certain professors and their wives, and the actresses' family members, including patronesses Mrs. John Squair, Mrs. W. Barnett Cooper, Mrs. D. R. Keys, Mrs. Tytler, and Mrs. Boyle. These names reflected the fiscal ecology of non-commercialized, non-professionalized theatre in early twentieth-century Toronto. Theatre was produced in non-professionalized capacities not simply as a public sign of social capital and private economic capital, but as a public event that raised large sums of money for social and patriotic purposes.
Though the War had reduced the number of men available to campus theatre clubs, (46) the fact that the University's most prominent theatre group was a women-only affair sparked a public debate that re-inscribed gender divisions on campus. In a front-page preview of the WDC's 1916 production of Much Ado about Nothing, the Varsity wrote that
[The WDC's] productions have always been distinguished by splendid acting, thoughtful presentation, and evidence of careful training. But, with such superlative talent and such opportunities for excellent supervision, it has always seemed to us a pity that, in a co-educational University, a society of this kind should be confined exclusively to women.[...] The acting as [sic] women as men or vice versa is, after all, at best only a remarkable tour de force [despite] the extraordinarily clever work [of the WDC members].
Here again we see gender bias in the pages of the Varsity. For much of the 1910s, the paper's male editors strongly and repeatedly expressed the sentiment that co-educational theatre practice would be preferable to the prominent women-only groups and their apparently unsustainable male-only counterparts at the University. As early as February 1913, just before the construction of Hart House Theatre was arrested by the War, and the year after the WDC began working with Kirkpatrick and performing at Convocation Hall, a Varsity editorial mused that though the University had 'a great many comparatively inefficient dramatic associations [...] composed of women exclusively [and without] co-operation between them', there was none that deserved to inhabit the future Hart House Theatre, none that could be 'a credit to our university.' (47)
A week later, and two days before the opening, the Varsity printed a letter in defense of the WDC against what the unnamed writer called 'a most unjust, unfair, and uncalled-for comment' when describing these groups as 'inefficient' and not 'a credit to our university.' (48) Providing evidence that was internal to the WDC, she asked 'why the men are unsuccessful in organizing a dramatic association among themselves; and secondly, why so many men's organizations have a deficit [whereas the WDC does not].' The writer noted that 'about eighteen girls each year' run the WDC without backing from the Students' Parliament or other 'outside support', despite the 'heavy expenses' of 'tuition fees and costumes.' As 'the only ones who try to keep us familiar with Shakespeare', the writer argued, the WDC deserved encouragement, not deprecation.
In the same issue, the editors apologized 'with all our hearts' and clarified that the phrase 'will be a credit' referred to any co-ed dramatic club that would produce 'plays written by Toronto graduates' [my emphasis]. There was no mention of playwrights in the original editorial. The apology concluded:
In our opinion, the drama will never become a great institution in Toronto University while the men and women remain clannishly on opposite sides of the campus. There must be co-operation. And as it would obviously be unfair to the Women's Dramatic Club to ask it to co-operate with any of the embryonic men's dramatic clubs, we can only call upon said men's dramatic clubs to show some signs of life. (49)
Read in this light, Varsity's often enthusiastic reviews of the WDC's annual productions may not only reflect the high quality of the productions themselves, but also express a sentiment among some U. of T. students of the day that the men's theatre clubs might be shamed, by way of praise of the women's accomplishments, into improving their own work. (50)
As a growing, non-professionalizing institution under Kirkpatrick during the War, the WDC went a long way in defining the impact that its members' emerging talents could have in the public sphere. Arguably, they would not have had the confidence and acumen to contribute to future Alumnae Association fundraising projects by way of the stage, and elsewhere, had they not trained as actors under Scott Raff and Kirkpatrick in annual public view in the heart of the country's largest urban centre. During the WDC's decade-and-a-half, its members were prominent and held in high esteem for the type and quality of training they received and the performances they gave. Their on-campus leadership set an example for other women's amateur theatre clubs that began to form during the War years, particularly at Victoria and St. Hilda's colleges. (51)
In his occasional Varsity column, 'The Bystander', Art Editor Merrill Denison, who would gain national renown as a playwright at Hart House Theatre a decade later, took pause from reviewing professional shows at the Princess and Royal Alexandra theatres in February 1914 to wax eloquently about the WDC and its production of As You Like It at Convocation Hall:
In conclusion, the Bystander cannot resist adding a few words of admiration for this organization known as the Women's Dramatic Club, under whose auspices the production was staged. The play was characterized by the absence of stars and the presence of all round competency in an unostentatious setting. What better than this could be offered to the support and encouragement of the intelligent playgoer? If the Dramatic Club continues its good work in other universities and centres of art and drama their name will ever be called to mind at the mention of Toronto University, and they will be recognized in their own Alma Mater as the greatest influence for the encouragement and cultivation of art and the drama. (52)
'Good work' and public taste
It would be a challenge to reconcile the philanthropic circumstances under which the Women's Dramatic Club of University College performed with the rhetoric associated with the reasons for producing theatre today. For amateur theatre practitioners at the time, the combination of familiar programming--particularly Shakespeare and Sheridan--and societal patronage in a drama-in-education setting could draw hundreds of scholars, students, and patrons to a night of theatre while contributing meaningfully to social causes. The sort of theatre the WDC, and later Alumnae Theatre Company, practised was 'amateur' in the sense that it did not primarily aim to strengthen an emerging profession, or to create employment for consecrated (and consecrating) artists, or to generate personal income. It was done because society desired the intellectual and social rewards these groups offered. Inspired by nationalist rhetoric, when Denison wrote of his hope that the WDC 'continues its good work', he referred to philanthropy and the perpetuation of homegrown theatrical literacy. These were the locations at which the politics of private and public production were set into relief by an all-female campus club; and they were, as they are today, questions of intellectualized aesthetic taste.
The field of cultural production within which the WDC and, later, Alumnae Theatre produced theatre echoes Denison's description of the WDC's As You Like It, 'characterized by the absence of stars and the presence of all round competency in an unostentatious setting' best supported by 'the intelligent playgoer'. However embryonic (to return to the anthropomorphic maturation rhetoric) or antithetical to the for-profit professional ventures of the day, the WDC emerged from a world of patronage, patriotism, publicly performed acts of charity, and personal edification, as well as a world of growing institutional support, influence, and recruitment into all of these loci of activity. Such activities were held together by legitimating dynamics inculcated at the university and the finishing school, then represented in performance by the students of the WDC in the wider academic and public fora of the Conservatory and Convocation halls.
Shakespeare and Sheridan were particularly well suited to the people and the purpose, drawn as they were from the women's undergraduate classes. As signs of higher learning, they were the suitable domain of the burgeoning institutions of the university and the finishing school. As signs of public taste, they befitted the WDC women in their dual rank of actor-organizer. This programming served to educate audiences and to reify British culture in the Dominion; to borrow from Bourdieu, this was 'history reproduced by education', (53) then performed to society. Decades before critics and practitioners aggressively pitted Canada's alternative theatres of the 1970s against the institutionalized Stratford Festival of Canada (1953-present), the early twentieth-century roots of Canadian theatre are found entangled among the already-legitimated canonical works of Shakespeare and Sheridan, as performed at the University by its Women's Dramatic Club.
Within Toronto's theatre ecology, productions like these offered by educational institutions shared some audiences with productions offered by the commercial theatres (notably students and some faculty and cultural elite), but they were hardly competitors with each other, as evident in the enthusiasm among undergraduates for annual University Theatre Nights at the Princess or the Royal Alexandra. These were different sorts of theatre that mutually defined the other in the field of exchanged symbolic goods where the amateurs, as a rule, produced 'high' intellectual art and the professionals 'low' popular fare. As practitioners of non-professional theatre, WDC members produced in order to gain, and to avoid losing out on, social recognition by way of educational and institutional capital. Practising and patronizing non-professionalized theatre was a sign of educated and socialized taste that consecrated and legitimized the classics and supported local theatre. The WDC's productions were, in part, acts of homage that rehearsed the performance of a redefined transatlantic cultural relationship. Texts read by the WDC's student members inspired them to set them to 'life' in performance. Encouraged by Scott Raff and Kirkpatrick, they were aware that their club could offer Toronto an alternative to the available professional fare. This position-taking toward their city's theatre offerings, and savvy interest in addressing programming gaps, was a remarkable trait that would become fundamental to Alumnae Theatre in the coming years.
Performances organized by non-specialists like the WDC are signs that the practice of theatre is important to a wider public as a direct cultural self-expression, one that is not left to an authorized professional voice. The label 'amateur' too often belies diverse practices that it means to reduce and contain. The theatre scholar would do well to recognize that 'amateur' may be viewed as a system of complex intentions, schedules, routines, innovations, and practices that may be contradictory to, imitative of, or inspirational for, professional practices. There is significance in the non-specialist's compulsion to engage with the immense effort required to produce a play. This view of non-professionalizing practices has nearly been lost to the professional scholar during the age of professionalization; emerging scholarship seeks to reverse this long-perpetuated oversight. (54)
UTA = University of Toronto Archives
(1) For example, see Paula Sperdakos, Dora Mavor Moore: Pioneer of the Canadian Theatre (ECW, 1995). Dora Mavor Moore in fact trained under Emma Scott Raff, concurrent with several members of the Women's Dramatic Club.
(2) For an extended discussion of these professional touring companies and the Toronto venues they visited, see Robert B. Scott, 'Professional Performers and Companies', in Ann Saddlemyer and Richard Plant (eds), Later Stages: Essays on Ontario Theatre from the First World War to the 1970s (Toronto, 1997), pp. 13-120; pp. 15-16.
(3) Jan Cohen-Cruz, Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States (Piscataway, NJ, 2005), p. 7.
(4) Peter Burton and John Lane, New Directions: Ways of Advance for the Amateur Theatre (London, 1970), p. 21.
(5) Sonya Kuftinec, Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater (Carbondale, Ill., 2003), p. 23.
(6) Claire Cochrane, 'The Pervasiveness of the Commonplace: The Historian and Amateur Theatre', Theatre Research International, 26:3 (2001), 233-42; p. 234.
(7) Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. and intro. Randal Johnson, trans. Richard Nice (New York, 1993), p. 108.
(8) I refer primarily to the ubiquitous Report compiled by the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts Letters and Sciences (1949-51), chaired by Vincent Massey. As listed under its prefatory 'Commission of Appointment', the Report charged that, 'it is in the national interest to give encouragement to institutions which express national feeling, promote common understanding and add to the variety and richness of Canadian life, rural as well as urban.' In a collection of essays and special studies on artistic and scholarly fields deemed to be of national importance, the Report laid groundwork for persistent national institutions that include the Canada Council for the Arts, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and Canada's professional regional theatres.
Of present relevance, the Report's discussion of theatre was creatively ambiguous when it came to relationships between professional and amateur practices. As writer Robertson Davies quipped in his contribution to the Report's special study on theatre, by way of his fictional character Lovewit, 'In Canada, the amateurs are so much better off than the professionals.' Lovewit and his interlocutor, Trueman, are careful in their remarks about how federal support for professional theatre should be administered. Argues the playwright Trueman, 'I oppose giving artists money from the public purse except under the most unusual circumstances: lessen their burdens, but give them no cash.' Lovewit agrees: 'the artist who gets nothing from his Government is not under his Government's thumb.' Despite such warnings, during the next two decades the federal government and its arms length agencies, particularly the Canada Council, implemented top-down professionalization of theatre practices in Canada under the banner of cultural nationalism. See Report: Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences 1949-1951 (Ottawa, 1951), p. xvii. And Robertson Davies, 'The Theatre: A Dialogue on the State of Canadian Theatre in Canada', in Royal Commission Studies: A Selection of Essays Prepared for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Ottawa, 1951), pp. 369-92, pp. 376 and 384.
(9) See Alan Filewod, 'Erect Sons and Dutiful Daughters: Imperialism, Empires and Canadian Theatre', in J. Ellen Gainor (ed) Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre, Drama and Performance (London, 1995), pp. 56-70; and Alan Filewod, Performing Canada: The Nation Enacted in the Imagined Theatre. Textual Studies in Canada 15 (Kamloops, BC, 2002).
(10) I use the name 'Alumnae Theatre' throughout for consistency. Although this name has been used publically only since the mid-1980s, the company has adopted a number of names since women graduates of University College founded it in 1918. It was variously known as the Dramatic Club of the University College Alumnae Association (1918-45); the University Alumnae Dramatic Club, or 'UADC' (1946-mid-1980s); and, during this same period, the Coach House Theatre (1958-71) and the Firehall Theatre (1971-mid-1970s) after a succession of venues. Ottawa Little Theatre (1913-) is English-speaking Canada's longest-running theatre company.
(11) Dorothy Chansky, Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience (Carbondale, Ill, 2004), p. 151.
(12) Ibid., p. 152.
(13) According to Robert Barry Scott, the U. C. Women's Literary Society 'was one of the first university organizations on the continent linking a formal drama course with theatrical activities.' Robert Barry Scott, 'A Study of Amateur Theatre in Toronto: 1900-1930' (Ph.D dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 1966), p. 68.
(14) These productions included Shakespeare's As You Like It (February 1908, February 1911, February 1914), Twelfth Night (January 1909, February 1913), Much Ado about Nothing (March 1912, February 1916), and Midsummer Nights Dream (February 1915); Sheridan's A School for Scandal (January 1917) and The Rivals (January 1918); and W. S. Gilbert's Pygmalian and Galatea (March 1907), J. M. Barry's Quality Street (March 1919), Harley Granville Barker and Lawrence Housman's Prunella (March 1920), and Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (March 1921). These same plays were produced elsewhere by female-only student groups. For example, Prunella was performed at Royal Holloway College (now Royal Holloway, University of London) in 1913, Twelfth Night in 1910 and 1916 and A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1909.
(15) 'Women's Dramatic Club', Torontonensis 1908 (University of Toronto Yearbook), p. 329. UTA.
(16) 'Drama in the University,' Varsity, 22 January 1915, p. 2. The Varsity listed just two other dramatic groups at the University: the Players Club, which produced 'modern' plays and would become the resident company at Hart House Theatre when it reformed after the War, and the Faculty of Education Dramatic Association, which 'ranges at will through the fields of drama.' Apparently these (and others) produced sporadically because the following year the Varsity called the WDC 'the only dramatic organization existing at present' ('Much Ado about Nothing presented by Women's Dramatic Club', Varsity, 14 February 1916. UTA).
(17) 'A review of the dramatic situation', Varsity, 5 March 1917, p. 2. Because there were no professional theatre groups in Toronto at the time, the Varsity was probably referring to foreign professional touring companies.
(18) 'The School for Scandal: Presented by the Women's Dramatic Club,' Varsity, 22 January 1917, p. 1.
(19) 'Much Ado', Varsity, 1916.
(20) 'School', Varsity.
(21) 'Women's Dramatic Club', Torontonensis 1908, p. 329.
(22) Throughout the 1910s, reviews of WDC productions in the Varsity were consistent in their praise. One review in the Varsity began, 'the production of The School for Scandal [Jan 1917] by the Women's Dramatic Club proved that this epoch-making play is more than merely a comedy of wit with conventional types. Its charm is, indeed, in the lights and shades of human nature.' It concluded that the Club 'merits indeed the gratitude of all students of literature for reviving one of the most elaborate comedies of all time' ('School', Varsity).
(23) Heather Murray, 'Making the Modern: Twenty-Five Years of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression', Essays in Theatre/ Etudes theatrales 10.1 (1991), 39-57; p. 43.
(24) In 1908, for example, their first class with Scott Raff began Monday 21 October at 4:30 p.m.
(25) 'Dramatic club begins its labours', Varsity, 16 October 1908, p. 1.
(26) 'Women's Dramatic Club', Torontonensis 1908, p. 329.
(27) 'Twelfth Night is decided success', Varsity, 15 January 1909, p. 1.
(28) 'The Women's Literary Society... ', Mail [Toronto], 16 March 1907.
(30) 'Women's Dramatic Club', Torontonensis 1908, p. 329.
(31) Murray, p. 40.
(33) Ibid., pp. 40-41.
(34) Ibid., p. 40.
(35) 'Women's Dramatic Club... ', Telegram [Toronto], 3 February 1911. UTA.
(36) 'A Midsummer Night's Dream at Convocation Hall', Varsity, 8 February 1915.
(37) Ibid., p. 43.
(38) 'Much Ado about Nothing', Varsity, 8 March 1912, p. 1.
(39) 'Oh the women!', Varsity, 19 February 1913, p. 2.
(40) 'Last night in Convocation Hall... ', Globe [Toronto], 9 March 1912.
(41) 1T3, Varsity.
(42) Toronto Conservatory of Music Thirty-Second Year Book (Toronto, 1918-19), p. 68.
(43) Edna R. Bach, 'Women's Dramatic Club', Torontonensis 1917, p. 178. UTA.
(44) Harold A. Averill, Dramatis Personae: An Exhibition of Amateur Theatre at the University of Toronto 1879-1939, Governing Council, University of Toronto, 1992, p. 6.
(45) Casa Loma is Toronto's landmark 'castle', completed for Sir Henry Pellatt in 1914. Pellatt was a known philanthropist and benefactor to Toronto's Trinity College; Mrs. Pellatt was the first Commissioner of the Girl Guides of Canada.
(46) Indeed, the only male campus theatre club of note, the Players Club, ceased production for the War after just two seasons (having produced the modern plays An Enemy of the People by Ibsen, The Pigeon by Galsworthy and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by Shaw). See Averill, 'Dramatis Personae', pp. 5-6. Martin L. Friedman notes that during World War I 'The number of male students on the campus kept dropping, though female enrolment stayed about the same.' At Victoria College, for example, though men outnumbered women three-to-one at the outset of the War, by the end of it women outnumbered the men. He goes on to enumerate that 'Over 6000 persons connected with the University--graduate, undergraduate, and staff--served in the active service' and that about 10 per cent of this number died. (Martin L. Friedman, The University of Toronto: A History (Toronto, 2002), pp. 254-55.)
(47) 'Dramatic association for University?' Varsity, 12 February 1913, p. 2.
(48) 1T3, Varsity.
(49) The editorial responded to the question of why there were no sustainable male dramatic organizations at U. of T. with this provocative statement: 'There is one answer, which may or may not bear weight. Just possibly a woman makes a better fist at playing a male role than does a man who attempts a female part' ('Truly, it's a great world for pleasure', Varsity, 19 February 1913, p. 2.).
(50) The topic was not yet concluded. As late as 1919 the WDC's production of J. M. Barry's Quality Street (March 1919) gave occasion to the Varsity to note that another production of Quality Street at the same time in New Brunswick, NJ included both men and women. The Varsity urged more men at U. of T. to do plays, and to do them with women ('Co-operation of both men and women urged in production of plays', Varsity, 21 March 1919, p. 1). The WDC did not include men onstage until it produced what would be its last production, Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, when director Roy Mitchell cast two men from Hart House's new resident company, the all-male Players Club ('Ralph Roister Doister... ', Varsity, 17 March 1921, p. 2).
(51) Averill, Dramatis, p. 4.
(52) 'The Bystander', Varsity, 2 March 1914, p. 2. Denison would later go on to write a number of influential early plays for Hart House Theatre under Roy Mitchell.
(53) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA, 1984), p. 4.
(54) I gratefully acknowledge the generous assistant of Catherine Spence for granting me access to documents held by Alumnae Theatre Company, and Harold Averill and Loryl MacDonald at the University of Toronto Archives for directing me to holdings relevant to this research. I am indebted to feedback received for earlier versions of this article when I presented them at three conferences in the spring of 2011: 'What Signifies a Theatre? 2' at Royal Holloway, University of London, June 2011; the Canadian Association for Theatre Research at the Congress of the Humanities at the University of New Brunswick / St. Thomas University, May 2011; and the Northeast Modern Language Association at New Brunswick, NJ, April 2011.
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|Author:||Whittaker, Robin C.|
|Publication:||Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2011|
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