Merrill Denison: the political and modernist writer at 120.
Denison Our Contemporary
As is the case for many writers, Denison's early experiences influenced the themes in his writing. He was born in the United States because his mother, Flora MacDonald Denison (nee Merrill, 1867-1921), was a staunch anti-monarchist. (4) Unwilling to have her child born under the British crown, she travelled to Detroit, Michigan, to give birth. The family returned to Toronto when Denison was six months old. Denison meditated on his dual citizenship throughout his career. As he suggested while addressing the Empire Club of Canada in 1949, he did not feel the need to choose between his Canadian and American roots:
In general, I find myself somewhat more belligerently Canadian when in the United States than when in Canada and more determinedly American when in Canada than when in the United States. The reason, I suppose, is because I was born a child of protest and have gone on protesting ever since--against ignorance and intolerance and provincialism. If the truth could be determined, it would probably be discovered that I am wholly North American. ("That Inferiority Complex")
In other words, it would be erroneous to position Denison as a Canadian writer without acknowledging how the border between Canada and the United States shaped his understanding of himself and his antipathy for unquestioned allegiances. Scholars interested in borderland issues related to transnational citizenship will find that Denison's observations illuminate the complexities that accompany multiple homelands and compound national identities.
Denison's self-characterization as a "child of protest" extended beyond his citizenship. His mother wrote pro-womens suffrage articles, represented the Dominion at international suffrage conferences and served as the president of the Canadian Suffrage Association (CSA) from 1911 until 1914. As a young man, Denison accompanied her to conventions in Europe, often addressing crowds from the rally platforms in his capacity as the founder of the University of Toronto's Mens League for Women's Suffrage.
His commitment to women's equality was undoubtedly the major influence on his most ambitious and solemn play--a fulllength naturalistic tragedy, Marsh Hay (1923), which depicts the Serangs, a desperately poor family living in rural Ontario. (5) When the youngest daughter, Sarilin, reveals she is pregnant, her father, John, insists she get married. Her mother, Lena, stands up to John after meeting a city woman who encourages her to reject the social stigma attached to unwed pregnancies. Lena's optimism is thwarted, however, when Sarilin has an "accident" and miscarries. Happiness is abandoned--aborted--by the family as it sinks deeper into despair as the play ends. Written at a time in Canada when pregnancies outside of wedlock were censured and the wilful termination of pregnancies was illegal, Marsh Hay defiantly offered an alternative "script" for dealing with teenaged motherhood, while emphasizing the bleak cycle of misery that would continue if narrow social attitudes and the poverty that trapped countless families were not addressed. Marsh Hay remains an invaluable source of attitudes towards rural poverty and women's reproductive rights in the 1920s; and Denison's progressive gender politics invite more scholarly consideration of men's contributions to first-wave feminism.
Marsh Hay is also notable because the play made an important contribution to Canadian modernism: it was one of the first theatrical experiments to transpose the character motivations of environment and heredity, which define European naturalism, to fit a Canadian subject. In this way, Marsh Hay helped to position Denison as a leading playwright of the Little Theatre Movement in Canada, though his association with the flourishing of noncommercial community theatres had started in 1920 when he was hired as the Art Director at Hart House Theatre in Toronto. (6)
Denison maintained that he became a playwright after being gently coerced by Hart House's artistic director, Roy Mitchell. In 1921, Mitchell organized an evening of new Canadian plays. Needing one more play, Mitchell allegedly locked Denison in a room and told him that he could not leave until he had written a one-act comedy. Denison missed lunch, but finished the play by tea (whether this story is apocryphal remains uncertain). In any case, Denison's first play, Brothers in Arms, was a success. In it, Denison tells the story of J. Altrus Browne, and his dotty wife, Dorothea, who are vacationing in the backwoods. On receiving a message that Browne needs to return to the city immediately to deal with a business transaction, the couple wait for a ride to the train station. Browne, a former Major in the Army Service Corps, is impatient to leave; Dorothea, besotted with the romantic stereotypes of the wilds of Canada replete with coureurs du bois and strapping hunters, blithely chatters about her passion for frontier heroes much to the annoyance of her husband. Their companion as they wait is Syd White, a local and a former Private in the army, which makes him and Browne--opposites in every other way--"brothers in arms" The play ends with Browne, his patience depleted, realizing that Syd could have driven them to the train station, if only they had asked. Even in this early play, Denison's satire undercuts the sentimentality underpinning many popular Hollywood and pulp fiction depictions of Canada; and Syd and Browne's terse exchanges offer a subtle critique of class tensions.
Brothers in Arms was followed by a succession of plays that secured Denison's reputation. In From Their Own Place, produced by The Arts and Letters Club Players in Toronto in 1922, three trappers try to swindle urbanites. In The Weather Breeder (1923), another play produced by Hart House Theatre, John, a cantankerous farmer, claims that a storm is approaching, despite the clear sky. Denison ultimately leaves John's character ambiguous, so audience members must decide if the character is a curmudgeonly, but harmless, man or, if his intimidating personality is a commentary on patriarchal authority.
These plays, which were published in The Unheroic North (1923), one of the first drama anthologies devoted to Canadian subjects, demonstrate that the Little Theatre Movement in Canada could accommodate both serious and comic critiques of localized issues. (7) In this way, Denison's early work could aptly facilitate a consideration of the interface between genre and political content in the plays written during the prime years of the Little Theatre Movement. (8)
Denison's interest in backwoods characters and narratives was undoubtedly affected by his mother's decision in 1910 to purchase the Bon Echo resort on Lake Mazinaw in Ontario, which she transformed into a retreat for artists, Theosophists and disciples of Walt Whitman. (9) After his mother died, Denison inherited the property. In 1927, Denison published Boobs in the Woods, a collection of vignettes based on his experiences running Bon Echo. Whether describing his first and ill-fated attempt to ski ("I was delighted to find that I had come half way down the hill unassisted, and almost half of that distance on skis," 23-24) or recounting the challenges of the annual masquerade and water carnival at his resort ("[A] tired business man who has but a week-end of holidays during the summer will question the need of dressing as Julius Caesar to be dumped out of a canoe [...]" 39), Denison always cast himself, his guests and the locals as a bumbling, but good-natured, motley crew. Yet, detectable beneath the gleefulness are hints of gender tensions and the frustrations of dealing with difficult employees as well as a prose reiteration of his early plays' critique of the suspicions and misperceptions city dwellers and their rural counterparts often expressed when they encountered one another.
Bon Echo not only provided Denison with humorous subject matter, but also fostered his deep passion for the backwoods of Ontario. In 1959 Denison donated the Bon Echo property to the Ontario Government. The Bon Echo Provincial Park officially opened on July 21, 1965. The gift was the culmination of Denison's longstanding dedication to conservationism, which had been the frequent subject of the many newspaper and magazine articles he had been commissioned to write. His repeated calls for the preservation and prudent management of Canada's wilderness regions provide insight into the environmental concerns and pro-conservationist arguments present in Canada during the early and mid-twentieth century. For these reasons, eco-critics might wish to consult the opinion pieces Denison wrote. (10)
In the next major phase of his career, Denison became one of the first and most successful writers of radio drama. Prior to the 1930s, radio programs broadcast from the United States dominated Canadian airwaves. Therefore, it was a bold initiative when, in 1930, E. Austin Weir, the Director of Radio for the Canadian National Railways (CNR), commissioned Denison to write scripts for Romance of Canada, a series of twenty-five radio plays dramatizing early Canadian history in honour of the CNR's sixteen station coast-to-coast radio network. (11) The British director, Tyrone Guthrie, directed the first season. With few precedents to follow, Denison, Guthrie and their production team not only recreated scenes from Canadian history, but made radio history on a weekly basis.
The first play in the series, The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson, aired in January 1931. In the final scene, the titular character is cast adrift in the Arctic waters with his young son and seven companions by the mutinous crew of the Discovery. As his life ebbs away in a starved delirium, Denison's protagonist relives the optimistic opening scene when his ship sailed confidently away from its English port. In this way, Denison poignantly recasts a controversial man in tragic and human terms, and uses drama to give voice to a missing narrative--Hudson's perspective. Denison's theatricalization of Hudson, in which historical documentation is secondary to dramatic conflict, provides an important key to understanding his portrayals of other historical figures.
The response from the public was ecstatic. Sir Robert Borden, the former Prime Minister of Canada, telephoned to congratulate the network on the success of the Henry Hudson episode (Weir 61). In addition, approximately 180 descendants of the settlers of the Selkirk area gathered at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to listen to the broadcast of The Battle of Seven Oaks, the story of the 1816 bloody skirmish between Metis settlers and Red River colonists (62). The popularity of the series led to the 1931 publication of six of Denison's scripts as Henry Hudson and Other Plays, the first anthology of Canadian radio plays.
The Romance of Canada series proved influential. It provided a successful model for subsequent radio dramas in both Canada and the United States. During the first half of the 1930s, for instance, Denison was commissioned by NBC to write for Great Moments in History, a US version of the Canadian series. It also converted Denison into an ardent champion of the "air play" which he claimed "appeals directly to the imagination unhampered by the objective limitations of the proscenium arch or the aperture of the camera's lens" (qtd. in MacDonald 101). (12) Although an examination of Denison's radio dramas within the context of Benedict Anderson's much-referenced "imagined communities" seems like a logical starting point for an investigation of the playwright's importance to the convergence of Canadian history, radio technology and national identities, this topic has not yet been pursued.
Denison's work in radio convinced him of the inherent drama to be found in Canadian history. As he later told his biographer, Dick MacDonald, "Repeated plaints about Canadian dullness, dourness and conservatism seem no more than worn-out stereotypes. In point of historic fact, Canada, in its history, can boast of having as many gorgeously colorful and flamboyant characters as have trod any stage in history" (qtd. in MacDonald 73-74).
Denison could speak with authority about the dramatic potential of Canadian historical figures. In 1943, he published Klondike Mike: An Alaskan Odyssey, a biography of Mike Ambrose Mahoney, a Canadian who travelled to the North in 1897 in search of gold and adventure. In Klondike Mike--a popular "Book of the Month Club" choice--Denison uses imagined omnipotent disclosures of his subject's thoughts to enrich his writing with a sense of immediacy. In episodic scenes, readers accompany Mahoney through mishaps and adversity: Mahoney hauling a piano on his back up the Chilkoot Pass so that the Sunny Samson Sisters Sextette can get to Dawson to make their fortunes entertaining prospectors; or Mahoney setting a record with his team of dogs as they race across the frozen North from Dawson to Skagway in only fourteen days. The dramatic tension inherent in each of these adventures provides Klondike Mike with a surging narrative pulse and pace--a clever evocation of gold rush fever. In these ways, Klondike Mike demonstrates that Denison should be considered an early innovator of the genre now known as creative non-fiction.
After the success of Klondike Mike, Denison turned his attention to other historical topics and soon gained a reputation as a prolific writer of popularized corporate histories. Canada, Our Dominion Neighbor (1944), a short history of Canada commissioned by the Foreign Policy Association in New York was followed by C.C.M., The Story of the First Fifty Years (1946) about the Canada Cycle & Motor Company Limited; and Bristles and Brushes: A Footnote to the Story of American War Production (1949), a history extolling the industrial wartime uses of brushes. His 1948 book, Harvest Triumphant, examines the Massey-Harris Company, an innovator of agricultural technology and design, and one of Canada's first multinational corporations. In 1956, he published The Power to Go, the story of the automobile industry. The People's Power (1960) is a history of Ontario Hydro. The most ambitious of Denison's corporate histories is Canada's First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal, a two-volume chronicle published in 1966 and 1967. The project was commissioned for the country's centenary and to celebrate the bank's 150th anniversary. Over 900 pages long, it was Denison's last major publication.
In the initial phase of these projects, Denison engaged in primary research and, because he often had been commissioned by the companies he wrote about, was usually the first writer to gain full access to in-house records and archives. Yet, Denison was not a trained historian and the lack of documentation of his sources and the effusive, celebratory tone of his writing, which unabashedly championed his subjects' accomplishments without any attempt at objectivity or serious critique, strictly limits the scholarly value of his histories.
Nevertheless, Denison's talent as a playwright meant that he always placed people at the heart of his writing. In short, while Denison's corporate histories lack scholarly rigour, his belief that personal narratives were the way into analyzing historical events parallels the microhistory assertion that macrohistory methodologies cannot adequately account for all individuals' lived experiences. (13) In 1955, for instance, Denison published The Barley and the Stream, in which he chronicled the development of the Molson's brewery. As with most of his other corporate histories (and, again in sync with microhistory aims), Denison was careful to position his subject within a larger sociopolitical context. In Denison's estimation, the story of John Molson and his success as a brewer was also the story of the interconnected relationship between the industrialization of manufacturing and the creation of transportation systems for the distribution of Molson's beer within Canada and internationally. According to Denison, the rise and fall of sales statistics for the company were best understood in relation to colonial conflicts, immigration patterns and epidemics. Yet, Denison never strayed too far from the human interest story. In the opening pages of The Barley and the Stream, he included a statement that articulated his approach: "Perhaps the answer to the riddle of Canadian survival should be sought in personal experience rather than in general economic trends; in particular case-histories, rather than statistical abstractions" (8).
A Birthday Wish
After years of failing health, Denison died in San Diego on June 12, 1975. (14) The significance of his oeuvre is considerable. Denison's early work in the theatre discloses a sharp distaste for romanticization of the Canadian backwoods. Yet, as his radio plays and historical publications attest, he was also a passionate champion of North American history, which he interpreted with a playwright's flare for dramatic tension. The historical figures he portrayed were cast as heroes; their struggles, of epic proportions. Thus, during his career, Denison both rejected and generated national mythologies while testing the possibilities of new theatrical and literary forms.
Denison should also be remembered as a prolific and talented stylist who was comfortable working in a wide range of genres. His ability to expose hypocrisy with mirth and gentle mockery suggests that his main instincts were those of a satirist while his keen sense of the ridiculous and his ability to expose the foibles of humanity remained free of corrosive cynicism. Notably, Denison did not exempt himself from his humorous barbs. In his publications, he cultivated a persona that was often the butt of ill-fated adventures--a portly man from the city, awkward and naive in the backwoods. Yet, behind the jovial self-deprecation was a disciplined and talented writer who diligently crafted witty observations of the people he met, dramatized the feats of national pioneers, argued for environmental conservation, and conveyed the passion and toil underpinning corporate success.
During his life, Denison was one of Canada's most successful writers. At 120 years of age, he remains topical, yet largely ignored. Although the Shaw Festival staged Marsh Hay in 1996, which was followed by a production of Brothers in Arms in 1998, and students might encounter Denison in courses devoted to Canadian theatre history, relatively few scholars have focused on his political commentary or modernist contributions in their research. (15) This omission arguably reveals our inability to comprehend his ongoing relevance more than it illuminates the limitations of his work. Indeed, in his assessment of Canadians' apathy towards their country's history, Denison claimed the following: "The trouble is not so much with Canadians or their past, but with the interpreters of both" (qtd. in MacDonald 75). We would be wise to reflect upon his words.
Chapman, Geoff. "Brutish "20s Come Alive." Toronto Star 25 August 1996, late ed.: B3. Print.
Denison, Merrill. The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story, a Footnote to Canadian History. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955. Print.
--. Boobs in the Woods: Sixteen Sketches by One of Them. Ottawa: Graphic, 1927. Print.
--. Bristles and Brushes: A Footnote to the Story of American War Production. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1949. Print.
--. C.C.M., The Story of the First Fifty Years. Toronto: n.p., 1946. Print.
--. Canada, Our Dominion Neighbor. New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1944. Print.
--. Canada's First Bank: A History of the Bank of Montreal. 2 vols. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1966-1967. Print.
--. "Editorial Policies of Broadcasting Companies." The Public Opinion Quarterly I (January 1937): 64-82. Print.
--. "Freedom, Radio, and the FCC." Harper's Monthly Magazine 178 (May 1939): 629-40. Print.
--. Harvest Triumphant: The Story of Massey-Harris, a Footnote to
Canadian History. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1948. Print.
--. Haven of the Spirit. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1939. Print.
--. Henry Hudson and Other Plays: Six Plays for the Microphone from the "Romance of Canada" Series of Radio Broadcasts. Toronto: Ryerson, 1931. Print.
--. Klondike Mike: An Alaskan Odyssey. New York: Morrow, 1943. Print.
--. On Christmas Night. New York: Samuel French, 1934. Print.
--. The People's Power: The History of Ontario Hydro. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1960. Print.
--. The Power to Go: The Story of the Automotive Industry. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956. Print.
--. The Prizewinner. New York: Appleton, 1928. Print.
--. Robinson Crusoe in Blackouts: Fourteen Revue Sketches. Ed. Marjorie Rice Levis. New York: Samuel French, 1932. Print.
--. "That Inferiority Complex." Box 45, File "Empire Club of Canada," Merrill Denison Fonds, Queen's University Archives, Kingston, ontario.
--. The U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony: Play in One Act. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1941. Print.
--. The Unheroic North. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1923. Print. [Contains Brothers in Arms, From Their Own Place, The Weather Breeder and Marsh Hay]
--. "Why Isn't Radio Better?" Harper's Monthly Magazine 168 (April 1934): 576-86. Print.
Filewod, Alan. "American Mug, Canadian Wump: Merrill Denison and Marsh Hay" Canadian Theatre Review 89 (Winter 1996): 70-74. Print.
Goldie, Terence W. "A National Drama and a National Dramatist: The First Attempt." Canadian Drama/LArt dramatique canadien 3.1 (Spring 1977): 9-19. Print.
Gorham, Deborah. "English Militancy and the Canadian Suffrage Movement." Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal/Journal d'etudes sur la femme 1 (1975): 83-112. Print.
--. "Flora MacDonald Denison: Canadian Feminist." A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s. Ed. Linda Kealey. Toronto: Womens P, 1979. 47-70. Print.
Harris, Lawren. "Winning a Canadian Background." Canadian Bookman (February 1923). Rpt. in Canada's Lost Plays. Ed. Anton Wagner. Vol. 3. Toronto: Canadian Theatre Review Publications, 1980. 43-44. Print.
Iggers, George. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan UP, published by UP of New England, 1997. Print.
Isaacs, Edith J.R. "A Little Theatre Playwright." Theatre Arts Monthly 8.9 (September 1924): 647. Print.
Johnson, Chris. "Merrill Denison." Canadian Writers, 1890-1920. Ed. W.H. New. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. 77-81. Print.
Kapica, Jack. "Merrill Denison, Playwright and Novelist: at 81, a Renaissance for the Mugwump." The Montreal Gazette 8 June 1974: 47. Print.
Knowles, Ric. "Drama," The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. Eva-Marie Kroller. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. 115-34. Print.
Leggatt, Alexander M. "Playwrights in a Landscape: The Changing Image of Rural Ontario." Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du theatre au Canada 1.2 (1980): 135-48. Print.
Lindgren, Allana. "In the Family Way: The Politicization of Motherhood in Merrill Denison's Marsh Hay (1923)," Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches theatrales au Canada 27.1 (Spring 2006): 3155. Print.
MacDonald, Dick. Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story. Montreal: Content Publishing, 1973. Print.
Portman, Jamie. "Grim Shaw Festival Revival Highlights Ottawa Valley "Peasant' Culture." The Ottawa Citizen 24 August 1996, late ed.: E16. Print.
Savigny, Mary. Bon Echo: The Denison Years. Toronto: Dundurn, 1997. Print.
Taylor, Kate. "Marsh Hay Flourishes at Shaw." The Globe and Mail 26 August 1996: C1. Print.
--. "Shaw Serves Up of Lunch of Domestic Dilemmas." The Globe and Mail 13 July 1998: C2. Print.
Wagner, Anton. "The Developing Mosaic: English-Canadian Drama to Mid-Century: An Introduction." Canada's Lost Plays. Vol. 3. Toronto: Canadian Theatre Review Publications, 1980: 4-39. Print.
Weir, E. Austin. The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965. Print.
(1) I would like to thank Denis Salter and Karis Shearer for the editorial guidance they provided for an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank Marlis Schweitzer for her editorial encouragement.
(2) Denison's papers are located in the Merrill Denison Fonds at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Copies of the scripts for the Romance in Canada series are located in the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Flora MacDonald Denison's papers are maintained at the University of Toronto and contain numerous documents related to her son. (See Merrill Denison Fonds, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada [http://archives.queensu.ca/] and Flora MacDonald Denison Fonds, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada [www/library. utoronto.ca/fisher/collections/findaids/Denison.pdf].)
(3) Although there has not been much recent research that addresses Denison's work, there are important examples of earlier scholarship. For example, see Goldie; Johnson; Knowles; Leggatt; and Wagner.
(4) For more information about Flora MacDonald Denison, see Gorham 1975 and 1979.
(5) For a more detailed examination of the feminism underpinning Marsh Hay, see Lindgren 2006.
(6) Marsh Hay was not produced until 1974. For further details, see Kapica.
(7) For examples of contemporary critical responses to Denison's early plays, see Harris and Isaacs.
(8) Denison's oeuvre as a playwright extends beyond the plays mentioned here. For example, see the following publications for further examples: The Prizewinner (1928), Robinson Crusoe (1932), On Christmas Night (1934), Haven of the Spirit (1939) and The U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony: Play in One Act (1941).
(9) For more information about Bon Echo, see Savigny.
(10) See the Merrill Denison Fonds at Queen's University in Kingston for numerous clippings written by Denison about Bon Echo and issues related to the management of regional resources.
(11) For an in-depth account of the Romance of Canada series by the man who hired Denison, see Weir.
(12) Any researcher interested in Denison's radio plays should also consult his commentary on the radio broadcasting industry. For example, see Denison's articles "Why Isn't Radio Better?" (1934), "Editorial Policies of Broadcasting Companies" (1937) and "Freedom, Radio, and the FCC" (1939).
(13) For helpful discussions about the points of convergence and divergence between microhistory and macrohistory, see Chapter Nine, "From Macro-to Microhistory: The History of Everyday Life" in Iggers.
(14) I would like to thank the County Clerk for the State of California for locating Denison's death certificate in order to verify the exact day Denison died.
(15) For examples of critical and scholarly reception of these productions, see Chapman; Filewod; Portman; Taylor (1996); and Taylor (1998).
ALLANA C. LINDGREN is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. Her articles have appeared in a variety of journals and edited books, including American Journal of Dance Therapy, CTR, Dance Research Journal, Dance Chronicle, Circuit: musiques contemporaines, Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices and Theatre Research in Canada. She is the author of From Automatism to Modern Dance (2003) and the co-editor of Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s (2012). She is also the Dance Editor for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism (forthcoming).
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|Author:||Lindgren, Allana C.|
|Publication:||Theatre Research in Canada|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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