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literature

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Canadian Literature in English  
 
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Drama

A significant contribution to Anglophone gay drama was the work of Michel Tremblay, especially after the first production of Hosanna in 1967. English translations of many of Tremblay's plays have been produced and directed by the influential gay director, Bill Glassco, and they have now achieved a respectable place within the repertoire of the leading theater in the country, the Stratford Festival.

Drama is probably the easiest of the genres to identify and deal with in Canadian Anglophone gay writing. Thanks to the critical work of Robert Wallace, there are both a recent anthology of plays by gay men (Making, Out, 1993) and a number of articles and interviews on gay theater in English. The Fall 1976 issue of Canadian Theatre Review, edited by Wallace, is a benchmark in gay Canadian drama and contains Ken Gass's The Boy Bishop.

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Written by a playwright who is not gay identified, The Boy Bishop nonetheless contains what Gass calls "fragments of oneself" that include homosexuality. Certainly the Boy of the title is very homoerotic, and his speech about a future free of prejudice where "the world will discover more colours" is of a piece with much post-Stonewall literature.

It is also a sort of allegory, however, of the French-English problem that was vexing the country as a whole at that time. And, in spite of the play's indebtedness to much Anglo-Canadian theater of the period, it also employs a liturgical kind of performance that is more characteristic of the Francophone tradition.

The Boy Bishop is one of a number of gay plays, written by gay or bisexual men, that were produced in a largely heterosexual Anglo-Canadian theater in the early 1970s. All of them contain gay themes or characters or situations, but what many have in common is a preliberation bleakness: Tom Hendry's How Are Things With the Walking Wounded? (1970) and The Missionary Position (1971); Louis Del Grande's So Who's Goldberg? (1975); Larry Fineberg's Hope (1972) and Human Remains (1975); Michael Hollingsworth's Strawberry Fields (1972); Larry Kardish's Brussels Sprouts (1972); Martin Kinch's Me? (1973); and John Palmer's A Touch of God in the Golden Age (1971) and The End (1972).

As founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Toronto Free Theatre, and the influential publishing house Playwright's Co-op, which has published a number of gay authors, Tom Hendry brings a high profile to the relatively few gay plays he has written. The Walking Wounded, however, is both uneven and very talky.

Hendry's plays have the advantage of comprehensible narrative and credible dialogue, but their manner is strongly derivative from Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward. Of the rest, however, only Del Grande's Pinteresque play, So Who's Goldberg?, betrays more than clichéd characterization or situation. Where Hollingsworth is grimly Beckettian, Kardish and Fineberg drift off into a Goreyesque fantasy world where the chief action consists of talking.

Kinch's Me? and Palmer's A Touch of God both treat the impossibility of love, but though Palmer's play is more persuasive, its surreal "no exit" quality is a long way from gay liberation.

Even Palmer's nearly contemporary play, The End, though often funny, betrays hasty creation in its frenzied dialogue and characterization. Palmer, who bridges the gap between the two generations of Anglo-Canadian gay theater, points to the establishment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) as the moment when Canadian society "embarked on a complete change in how it operates and how it views itself" and hence made real gay theater possible.

Others point to the 1969 same-sex amendment of the federal criminal law or the inclusion of sexual orientation in the human rights codes of many of the provinces in the 1980s as equally significant. The gradual impact of the AIDS crisis and the organizations formed to fight it constitutes another significant watershed. Whatever the reason, the 1980s was a decisive decade in Anglophone gay Canada.

Most of the plays of the early 1970s are in the realist mode with surrealist touches. Palmer's more recent A Day at the Beach (1987) was written in the wake of what one of his characters calls "the holocaust," that is, AIDS. In each half of this two-part play, gay and straight characters, respectively, confront love, definition, and acceptance in a way that is far less simply zany than in many of the play's predecessors.

Of all the theatrical developments in the 1980s, however, the establishment of the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto and the various festivals associated with it was probably the most substantial. Publicly supported and given its own theater by the City of Toronto, Buddies has been enormously successful both within and outside the gay community and has had a considerable influence on mainstream theater.

Since its inception, Buddies has provided a venue for new gay plays, not least by its founder, Sky Gilbert. Gilbert's extensive repertoire is impressive, especially his early AIDS play, The Dressing Gown (1984). But Gilbert's plays, like many produced at Buddies, are frequently the plays of one idea--a gay historical situation or character (Cavafy, Pasolini, Capote)--or dress-up spectaculars of the sort parodied in Peter McGehee's novel, Boys Like Us.

Audrey Butler, herself the author of plays first produced at Buddies, has observed that "an author is only as good as her rewrites": a sentiment that one wishes were more widely believed at Buddies.

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