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Shaw Festival’s 1837 returns with new perspective on Canadian history

Rick Salutin’s 1837: The Farmers' Revolt, a 1973 work about about the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie against the Family Compact in Upper Canada, will open at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., next week.

David Cooper

For anyone steeped in their Canadian theatre history, one particular show on this year's playbill at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., will stand out like a Tim Hortons double-double at an English high tea.

1837: The Farmers' Revolt, Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille's 1973 collective creation about the rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie against the Family Compact in Upper Canada, will open next week at the repertory theatre in the colonial-era town alongside three British plays: Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw; Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III; and a West End musical from the 1930s called Me and My Girl.

It's not only the Canadian subject matter that makes Salutin's play noteworthy, however – but its history as part of an attempted revolution itself against the Shaw Festival and other theatrical institutions that were, at the time, run by Englishmen and produced mostly English plays.

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That 1837 has shown up at the Shaw in the first season of new artistic director Tim Carroll – an Englishman himself, whose appointment a couple of years ago was greeted with mixed reactions – shows how the battle lines that seemed so clear at the height of nationalism in 1970s Canada have become blurred since.

"I think it's a universal thing, isn't it, that today's act of rebellion becomes tomorrow's classic?" says Carroll, who discovered what he calls the playful, vaudevillian history play while boning up on local dramatic literature.

The initial creation of 1837: The Farmers' Revolt is delightfully well documented in Salutin's production diaries of the time – which appeared, along with a historical essay Shavian in its length, when the script was published after it had toured the country and been broadcast on CBC Television.

Early in the rehearsals in 1973, Salutin and director Paul Thompson gave the actors who helped create the script "anger exercises" to try to get them into the mindset of the 19th-century farmers who took up arms against the oligarchic colonial elite with the intention of declaring a republic. One actor, Neil Vipond, found his rage by drawing on his experience working in Canadian theatre at the time, roaring: "Nobody is going to make me speak with an English accent!"

"Theatre is one of the few areas left in Canada where the main imperial oppressor remains England and not the U.S.," Salutin wrote at the time. "They run every regional theatre in the country; Englishmen waft over and drown in role offers."

More than 40 years later, Salutin is a well-known novelist and journalist – who, among other things, wrote for this newspaper for 20 years. Over a coffee in Toronto, he recalled the atmosphere at nationalist companies such as Theatre Passe Muraille, Factory Theatre and the (now defunct) Toronto Workshop Productions in the 1970s, run by artists such as Thompson who were trying to remedy the fact that the theatre companies set up in postwar Canada paid little attention to Canadian repertoire.

"There was a sense of a kind of historic mission and it was great to have an enemy: Stratford and Shaw," Salutin says now, noting how during rehearsals, English actor Paxton Whitehead, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival at the time, was jokingly compared to Francis Bond Head, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada at the time of Mackenzie's rebellion.

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While Salutin is pleased that the Shaw Festival is producing 1837 now, he doesn't see it as any sort of vindication. The victory of the nationalist cause was only partial: While Canadians run almost every major theatre in the country now, it's still the case that Canadian plays remain outnumbered by American and British fare at most of the biggest ones. And yet, Salutin does looks back on the politics of the 1970s from a different perspective now.

"Nationalism is in one of its ugly phases at the moment, globally," he says, referencing Trumpism and Little Englandism. "We were proudly nationalist – cultural nationalists, political nationalists – and I found myself thinking [recently] it was good fortune that we didn't succeed any more than we did."

Ever since Carroll was announced as the new leader of the Shaw Festival, there has been debate over whether his appointment was a sign of a lingering colonial mindset – or of an internationalist open-mindedness. But it's been much milder than, for instance, the controversy that erupted in 1976 when British director Robin Phillips was appointed to run the Stratford Festival and director John Juliani challenged him to a duel.

"I mostly feel like it's conversation about Canadian theatre – and that I don't really have anything to add to it," Carroll says. "I don't take it personally, because I trust it isn't personal."

It was a canny decision of Carroll's to ask Philip Akin – who directed last season's extraordinary production of "Master Harold …" and the Boys – to tackle 1837, as the veteran theatre artist has his own perspective on the battle between the anglophilic institutions and the feisty nationalist "alternative theatres" in the 1970s.

Now artistic director of Toronto's Obsidian Theatre, one of Canada's leading culturally diverse theatre companies, Akin was at Ryerson Theatre School at the time Theatre Passe Muraille was producing its famed collective creations in the 1970s.

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"I had nothing to do with them: They were doing white shows about white people," says Akin, who did, however, perform in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Shaw Festival straight out of theatre school. "I ignored them as they ignored me."

For Akin, it was a whole other stream of Canadian theatre that really faced an uphill battle at the time: Companies such as Black Theatre Canada and the culturally diverse Theatre Fountainhead that, unlike the surviving – if enduringly scrappy – Passe Muraille and Factory theatres, eventually shut down.

"Because they were not perceived to be doing Canadian stories, they kind of fell off the funding stream and ended up disappearing," Akin says.

Reading 1837: The Farmers' Revolt in 2017, it's definitely clear what voices Salutin and his Theatre Passe Muraille collaborators of the time omitted in their telling of this crucial slice of Canadian history – which Akin sees as an important step toward Confederation.

An early scene where a farmer has the land he's spent two years clearing taken away by a colonial magistrate would now lead an audience member to ask: Okay, but who did the farmer take the land from?

Similarly, the collectively created play has nothing to say about the hundreds of black Loyalists who volunteered to fight against Mackenzie's rebels.

Akin says his production tackles some of these gaps in perspective – Rachel Forbes's design making it apparent that the story is taking place on top of other untold ones, and a mixed group of actors of all ages (the original cast was all young and white) bringing a different flavour to the story.

"I think there's a real broadening of who these people could be," Akin says. "We have an older artist playing an ingénue, women playing men, a black woman playing a white Scot …"

Salutin has no qualms about admitting that there were blindspots in 1837's very 1973 take on Canadian history. "It never occurred to us that there were these other components," he says.

"I think that's just what happens in history – you think you're as far out on the cutting edge as anybody could ever get, and then a generation or two passes and there's another perspective entirely," Salutin adds, sagely.

Indeed, that's true of the history of Canada – and the history of Canadian theatre, too.

1837: The Farmers' Revolt opens May 27 and runs to Oct. 8 at the Shaw Festival's Court House Theatre (shawfest.com).

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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