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Peterson, Len

CTE photo
Len Peterson

Playwright Leonard Byron Peterson was born in Regina, Saskatchewan 15 March 1917, died 28 February 2008 in Toronto. He spearheaded the formation of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and the Playwrights Co-op, now Playwrights Guild of Canada.

He first began to work at the CBC in the 1940s with producer Andrew Allan, writing plays for the Stage Sunday night drama series, and co-producing CBC Wednesday Night, a weekly broadcast of new Canadian and international plays.

Radio plays, broadcast live to air, include They are all Afraid (1944), which exposes office bullying of a black worker, and the circumscription of freedom in a democratic country. The more recent radio play, Harvest: Jim McCaw's Farm 1917 (1988), attacks British imperialism and the atrocity of war. In the 1940s and 50s audiences were actively listening, and as Peterson recalled, "You could get them on your tail as much as the mad trapper did." Their reactions might be expressed through howls of protest in parliament, and there were concerted efforts to suppress Peterson's more "controversial" plays.

Peterson believed strongly that the CBC has a national responsibility, and must never cater to the "hucksters." The broadcasting system should function like the railroad, holding the country together. It was thought of at one time as one of the main contributors to culture and education, but by the 1960s he believed that both had fallen by the wayside.

From the start he showed versatility - able to work in radio, TV, film, and theatre. His concern about social issues is reflected in stage plays like the absurdist Burlap Bags (1946); the mythical The Great Hunger (Toronto Arts Theatre 1960); the feminist Women in the Attic (Globe Theatre 1971, dir. Ken Kramer); and The Workingman (Toronto Workshop Productions/TWP, 1972) which celebrated the centenary of the labour movement in Canada.

He also wrote for young audiences: Almighty Voice (1970) and Billy Bishop and the Red Baron (1975) were performed at the Young People’s Theatre.

He produced over 1200 works and was awarded several ACTRA awards and a John Drainie Award for distinguished contribution to broadcasting (1974) "in a land friendlier to ragweed than to indigenous drama" (Peterson, quoted in Globe and Mail 8 Mar 2008).

His works are characterized by a their irony and strong opinion. They provoked both rage and admiration.

Further Reading: Anne Nothof. "Canadian Radio Drama in English: Prick up your Ears." Theatre History in Canada 11.1:59-70.

Profile by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2014-10-24