It’s not easy putting Canada on stage – The Centennial Play

By Théo Martin

A little over 50 years ago, Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies co‑wrote The Centennial Play to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1967. In 1965, with financial support from Canada’s Centennial Commission, Davies began writing the bilingual play featuring Canada’s history with four other renowned Canadian writers: W.O. Mitchell, Arthur L. Murphy, Eric Nicol and Yves Thériault.

A black-and-white photograph of a man smiling while holding a cat near his shoulder.

Robertson Davies and a cat, 1954. Photo: Walter Curtin. Walter Curtin fonds (MIKAN 3959842)

The play was divided into many scenes depicting the regions and provinces of Canada and involving fictional characters and dancers representative of Canada’s diverse linguistic and cultural communities. The play was accompanied by an original score written by Canadian composer Keith Bissell.

Handwritten page with drawings in red ink.

Handwritten draft of the cover page of a draft version of The Centennial Play, with drawings by Robertson Davies, circa 1965 (MIKAN 128551)

Typewritten text with annotations in red ink.

Typescript of The Centennial Play annotated by Robertson Davies, circa 1966 (MIKAN 128551)

A typewritten page with the title of the play and the authors’ names.

Title page from The Centennial Play. Marian Wilson fonds (R9113) (MIKAN 4220582)

A page showing the title and the composers of the musical score for The Centennial Play.

Cover page of the piano score for The Centennial Play, written by Keith Bissel (AMICUS 12281880)

Originally, the writers wanted to create the play for Canadian amateur theatre companies so that it could be produced across the country as part of the the Dominion Drama Festival competition. There was also talk that the production would be directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie and presented on Parliament Hill during the Centennial festivities in August 1967. A plan produced by Public Works Canada provided for the construction of a circular stage that could accommodate between 6,000 and 7,500 spectators. For a year and a half, the team of writers wrote several versions of the play before offering it to theatre companies across Canada.

A stage plan showing the stage area.

Traced stage plan for The Centennial Play in front of the Centre Block in Ottawa, circa 1966. Public Works Canada, Robertson Davies fonds (MIKAN 128551)

A colour photograph of actors in costume on a stage.

A scene from The Centennial Play in Lindsay, Ontario, October 1966. Centennial Commission fonds, R1004 (MIKAN 3408592)

Typed document with a photograph in the centre with the title, date and location.

Show program from The Centennial Play, Lindsay, Ontario, 1966. Robertson Davies fonds (MIKAN 3819285)

There was a preview of the play in Lindsay, Ontario, in October 1966. The first production of the show, directed by Peter Boretsky, was performed at the Ottawa Little Theatre on January 11, 1967, before the Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson and the Governor General’s wife, Mrs. Pauline Vanier. However, there was much criticism. Times Magazine said that the play was too busy, calling it a “bouillabaisse that bombed.” Robertson Davies himself was very disappointed and unhappy with how the production turned out.

After mixed reactions from the public, the production never took off. There was no show on Parliament Hill, and what should have been a resounding success was quickly forgotten.

A two-page typewritten letter with text and dates.

Official invitation from Secretary of State Judy Lamarsh to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, dated November 24, 1966. Lester B. Pearson fonds R7581 (MIKAN 2615992)

A letter typed and signed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Response letter from Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, dated December 2, 1966, to the invitation to attend the opening of The Centennial Play in Ottawa. Lester B. Pearson fonds R7581 (MIKAN 2615992)

Typed document with the title, location and date.

Cover page and program from Peter Boretski’s production at the Ottawa Little Theatre in January 1967 (AMICUS 3904701)

Although there were mixed reviews, the efforts of the writers, who had attempted to present a somewhat nuanced impression of Canada’s past, for that time, were recognized. It goes without saying that many of today’s historical debates and questions were not included in the play’s storyline.

Several other shows and tours were funded by the Centennial Commission in the 1960s, including Anne of Green Gables, Les Feux Follets, and the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, among others. The Centennial Play was part of a widespread artistic and literary movement that emerged between 1964 and 1967, driven by Canadian artists who expressed their new vision of Canada, particularly with regard to linguistic duality in Canada and the development of a true “Canadian” identity.

For more information:

  • The Robertson Davies fonds R4939 (MG30-D363) includes files full of research notes, drawings, stage and work plans, as well as drafts of The Centennial Play.
  • The Canada’s Centennial Commission fonds RG69 includes files related to the various programs offered by the Commission and the many projects undertaken between 1957 and 1967.
  • The Marian Wilson fonds R9113 (MG31 D48) includes many research files on theatre in Canada between 1945 and 1972.

Théo Martin is an archivist for performing arts archives at the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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