A few pearls of forgotten dramatic works at Library and Archives Canada

By Théo Martin

In its published documents collection, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has several old dramatic works in French by authors unfamiliar to new generations of Canadians. Although these plays are clearly inspired by the melodramas and vaudeville shows of Europe, they nevertheless represent the beginnings of French-Canadian dramaturgy. These plays include copies of printed works by French‑Canadian authors from the Ottawa–Gatineau (formerly Ottawa–Hull) region who enjoyed both local and national success from 1886 to 1935.

One example is the play Exil et Patrie by Jesuit priest Édouard Hamon (1841–1904). Although this work was not created by an Outaouais writer, it was one of the first plays presented in 1884 by the Cercle d’art dramatique de Hull, one of the first theatre companies in Hull, Quebec. This play deals with a very topical theme of the era: the exodus of French‑Canadians to the United States in the late 19th century. LAC holds a very rare copy of this work.

A colour image of the cover of a book entitled Exil et Patrie and bearing the title and the names of the author and the publisher, all printed in black on yellowed paper.

Exil et Patrie by Édouard Hamon, circa 1882 (AMICUS 12504589)

The LAC collection also includes plays by Hull prothonotary Horace Kearney (1848–1940), who wrote and produced La Revanche de Frésimus in 1886. This play, which combines vaudeville and satire, was one of the most performed plays in the Outaouais, eastern Quebec and even the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Other plays by Kearney are preserved at LAC as well, including Amour, Guerre et Patrie (1919).

Two-page image, side by side: on the left is the cover with a black-and-white photograph of the playwright, and on the right is the first page of the first act.

La Revanche de Frésimus by Horace Kearney, 1886 (AMICUS 2767145)

There are also several plays, melodramas, comedies and vaudeville acts by Ottawa author Régis Roy (1864–1945), including La tête de Martin (1900), Nous divorçons! (1897), L’auberge du numéro trois (1899) and Consultations gratuites (1924). Roy had a career as a public servant in the federal Department of Agriculture and the Department of Naval Service.

A black-and-white picture of an older man wearing a bow tie and glasses.

Régis Roy, photographed by Jules Alexandre Castonguay, circa 1930 (MIKAN 3229816)

Rare copies of plays by another Hull playwright, Antonin Proulx (1881–1950), can also be found in the LAC collection, including Le coeur est le maître (1930), L’enjôleuse. Dévotion et l’amour à la poste (1916) and De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! (1930). Proulx worked as a library curator and journalist during his career.

Cover of a play showing the title, author’s name and price of 25 cents, in black print on yellowed white paper.

De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! by Antonin Proulx, circa 1930 (AMICUS 11378035)

After the 1930s, the authors of these plays, after several decades of success, seem to have been forgotten. Fortunately, LAC holds a few copies of their works, for the great enjoyment of theatre lovers of today and tomorrow!


Théo Martin is a literature, music and performing arts archivist with the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

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)

Continue reading

Subscribe to the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season

At the turn of the 19th century, the theatre scene was languishing in Canada. Some plays were a huge success, such as Colas et Colinette, which was performed between 1790 and 1807 and was written by Joseph Quesnel, one of the first playwrights in the country. However, it was often too expensive to maintain theatre companies on a permanent basis. Moreover, the companies faced the disapproval of the Church, which did not like these types of performances.

Most often, it was theatre lovers—members of the social elite composed of French Canadians, military members and British merchants—who arranged venues and presented shows. American actors on tour also entertained audiences in major Canadian cities. When the Theatre Royal opened in Montreal in November 1825, the dramatic arts in Lower Canada were given a new boost.

This watercolour painting of a street scene depicts a four-storey neoclassical building. In the distance, more modest buildings can be seen.

Mansion House Hotel (Theatre Royal), St. Paul Street, Montreal, by Henry Bunnett (1888). (MIKAN 2878039)

Support for the Society of Young Artists

Under these circumstances, shortly after the War of 1812, a company called the Society of Young Artists was formed. Driven by the revival of the theatre scene and the English Theatre’s move to the United States, it launched its first season in fall 1815, performing shows mostly in Montreal. The company promoted its season by printing a bilingual leaflet advertising its first play, Voltaire’s The Death of Caesar.

The leaflet’s main goal was to seek funding from the public through subscribers who committed to paying for tickets each month. For its part, the company promised to give four performances a month, under the best possible conditions, from November 15, 1815, to May 15, 1816. The ticket price was set at one dollar, for a monthly total of one louis (or one Halifax pound).

The Canadian newspapers at that time, such as the Spectateur Canadien dated November 20, 1815 (in French only), also promoted the Society’s shows.

Text printed in French explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in French for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814815)

Text printed in English explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in English for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814828)

An intriguing list

Interesting fact: a list of items was written on the back of the English leaflet. Valued at 25 pounds (Halifax rating), these items could have been used either on stage or to meet the Society’s needs. The list is very difficult to read, but the following items can be identified: millwork, cloth, a pulley, rope, green flannel, white iron and costumes—in short, the items needed for the company’s activities.

A list of items written in ink that is very difficult to read.

List of items on the back of the English subscription for the 1815-1816 theatre season (MIKAN 4814828)

Repertoire: Molière, Shakespeare and company

Unfortunately, we do not know all the plays performed by the Society of Young Artists. However, in his book L’activité théâtrale au Québec (1765-1825), Baudoin Burger gives us an idea of the repertoire on the French stage at that time. From 1814 to 1819, the Montreal and Quebec City audiences could enjoy the plays of Molière, Beaumarchais, Voltaire, Regnard, Bruyes and Dancourt. On the English stage, the artists performed Molière, James Kenney, and of course Shakespeare, who remained the most popular.

A unique record

Very few archival records remain that document the beginnings of Canadian theatre under the English regime. The leaflets from the Society of Young Artists are therefore important and even unique records of our theatre heritage. They also show the love of art that pushed the Society to take the stage despite financial difficulties and varying levels of attendance. These people are, in a way, pioneers who believed in artistic development in Canada.

 

Spotlight on theatre posters

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extraordinary collection of posters promoting theatre in Canada from the 19th century to the present day. These posters are found in a wide variety of private and public archives and collections, including those of Vittorio, Theo Dimson, Guy Lalumière et Associés Inc., Normand Hudon and Robert Stacey.

Theatre posters also feature in the archives of such Canadian personalities as Marshall MacLuhan and Sydney Newman, and even in collections of old documents—for example, the theatre playbills printed on board the ships in the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin (around 1850-1853).

In addition, we must mention the archives of various theatre and stage artists and professionals (Gratien Gélinas, Jean Roberts and Marigold Charlesworth, John Hirsch and others), and of artistic and cultural institutions such as the National Arts Centre, Theatre Canada, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, the Globe Theatre and the Stratford Festival.

But the real treasure trove of theatre posters can be found in the “Posters” series of the performing arts collection, which comprises about 750 posters and programs, and in the miscellaneous poster collection, which includes about 3,170 posters.

You might say that theatre posters play a starring role at LAC!

For sample posters, please see our Flickr album.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!