The professional theatre critic in Canada is a relatively new invention.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was typically the case that whoever was free on the night of the opening would go and "review" the work. He (as it was usually a man) would comment on anything from who was attending, what they were wearing, and sometimes even on the play itself. It must be noted, however, that sometimes this writing is of interest for the portrait it renders of a time, as in this case from a Winnipeg reporter in 1872 who, describing a performance of Poor Pillicoddy at the Garrison Theatre (really a large army hut), wrote "...the only drawback [was] an evident desire on the part of one or two of the stage people to 'wing it' in the neighbourhood of the prompter's box." The same reporter, writing about another play at the Garrison, astutely remarked that no person in Winnipeg would go out "in fields or other outdoor places without a hat."
As the calibre of theatre, both touring and local, improved, it was clear that critical opinions also became more informed. In Winnipeg, some two decades later, C.H. Wheeler of the magazine Town Topics announced, "One is sick and tired of listening to amateur would-be's if they could!"
By the 1900s, however, several papers were beginning to hire specialists. The debate then turned from one about who should write to one about what they should write (a debate that exists to this day): should critics be critics or boosters of the struggling art form of a nation? Jean Béraud, critic of Montreal's La Presse from 1931 to 1965, wrote, "We should be doing something about making things easier for actors to earn a living, so that they will not be faced with the prospect of running after any kind of work they can get. Then we could afford to be more critical." The concern of many critics, both anglophone and francophone, was to create an indigenous theatre, and many were prepared to sit through hundreds of hours of bad theatre to discover the buried gems. Critics were in the interesting position of co-creating a national drama, even if what they acclaimed would not be considered for production now. Some, like Nathan Cohen, championed Canadian theatre even as he applied a comparison to high European production standards. Others were less prescient. Martial Dassylva, one of the most read critics during his time at La Presse, admitted in 1973 that his original attacks on the language of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs were perhaps, in hindsight, wrong: "Having been brought up in an environment where the emphasis was on the French classics, I was unable to conceive, either physically or intellectually, that we would go as far!"
Critics were beginning to consider their role in the culture of the nation, and some, like Cohen, considered criticism itself an art form.
With the production of alternative and experimental theatre in the 1950s, alternative critical voices also were heard. The university papers began to be invited to opening nights. Already, by this time, there was a large and high-spirited academic community debating Canadian theatre in Jeu magazine in Quebec and Canadian Theatre Review in Ontario, as well as critics-in-training who wrote in the weeklies at schools all over the country. Moreover, the entertainment weeklies in the larger cities were noticing that theatre in Canada did not just mean the Stratford Festival.
Nevertheless, the debate about boosterism vs. criticism was still active. In an article on criticism in 1985, the esteemed Herbert Whittaker wrote, "Even today, the Canadian theatre critic must gird himself or herself to do battle for cultural survival, for the theatre's expansion and freedom." Other critics would revolt at the thought, some even claiming that it is just such coddling of Canadian theatre artists that kept audiences away from theatre, such is their mistrust of critical opinion.
One accusation (probably an offshoot of the boosterism vs. criticism debate) is that of some critics being too harsh. Perhaps the perfect symbol of this is Robert Lévesque, late of Montreal's Le Devoir, who antagonized much of Montreal's theatre community with his often biting but nevertheless deeply felt and passionate reviews. The rancour reached such a point that artists began to boycott the annual critics' awards (and then went off and formed their own prize given out each year at the Masques Awards).
Another debate, a heated one in Quebec, is one of the critic's experience. With the continued popularity of radio and the preponderance of fly-by-night small papers, the rise of cable television and the internet, it sometimes seems anyone with a ticket can call him or herself a critic. Michel Tremblay, in a very public battle in Montreal, attacked the often very young critics on television in Montreal who may have ten times the viewership to readership ratio of even the most intelligent and erudite print critics. Tremblay believed that TV critics were chosen for their good looks, and it was horrifying to him that they should have so much power over a particular play. He even went on to snipe at such critics in his play, En circuit fermé.
Some would suggest that it is not just the uninformed neophytes in the critical community who are the problem; one need only read the intellectual stasis evident in the critical writing in many of the country's dailies to posit that perhaps part of the problem is the over-informed fogey. Critical reaction to Brad Fraser's The Ugly Man, Jean-Frédéric Messier's Oestrus or Morris Panych's Vigil would suggest that mainstream criticism is caught somewhere between Confederation and 1950. This is when the alternative press (like Montreal's Voir, Toronto's Eye or Vancouver's Georgia Straight) is key. Moreover, the critics in these papers are often part of the community about which they write. The discussions of subjective v.s. objective criticism become moot when critics make as personal an investment in their writing as do the artists in the creations being critiqued. That critics be asked to define themselves (as often do the artists whom they criticize) may prove to be one of the most interesting evolutions in critical writing in Canada, especially since more writers in the country are revealing more of themselves in their work; i.e., Daniel MacIvor and Robert Lepage. Insofar as critical writing is by its definition a personal opinion, it is probably germane to any discussion that one knows who the person is who is doing the critical writing.
Meanwhile, despite the higher emotional stakes, battles between critic and artist rage on. In a single season in Montreal (1997-98) skirmishes were fought between Gaetan Charlebois and Espace Go and Centaur Theatre; between Boulanger and Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui; and (continuing from nearly a decade before) between Lévesque and Théâtre de la Veillée.
Another bomb in the war exploded in 2001 when it was revealed that Robert Lepage had cancelled a rare press conference, to discuss his participation in the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques (now Festival TransAmériques), because three critics he had blacklisted (among them Boulanger and Lévesque) would be in attendance. Many would suggest that such debates are what keeps the theatre current.
Several critics organizations exist in Canada, including l'Association Québécois des Critiques de Théâtre, the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, and the Montreal English Critics Circle.
In the 21st century, theatre criticism has been disappearing from the arts pages of Canada's newspapers, as circulation wanes. However, with the omnipresence of the internet in this century, everyone can be a critic -- on Facebook, websites, blogs, challenging the status of critics as tastemakers and cultural authorities. While some lament the death of expert and informed critical analysis, others celebrate the democratization of critical response, which may challenge entrenched assumptions about artistic merit.
See the profiles of: Marianne Ackerman, Audrey Ashley, Robin Breon, Hector Willoughby Charlesworth, Mira Friedlander, Northrop Frye, Ric Knowles, Lawrence Mason, Liz Nicholls, Richard Ouzounian, Malcolm Page, Edwin Rodie Parkhurst , Alvina Ruprecht, Bernard Keeble Sandwell, Kate Taylor, and Jerry Wasserman.
Readings: Anton Wagner, ed. Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999; Canadian Theatre Review 168 (Fall 2016): Theatre Criticism. Eds Karen Fricker and Michelle MacArthur. U of Toronto Press.
Profile by Gaetan Charlebois
Last updated 2020-11-18