Dull Berton tome depresses

The Great Depression

By Pierre Berton

McClelland & Stewart

Pierre Berton has done it again. Unfortunately.

With his new book, The Great Depression, the champion churner of Canadian chronicles has constructed, though a combination of historical research and personal interviews, yet another narrative of Canadian history that is at its best only recreational reading.

The general theme of The Great Depression is continually repeated in Berton’s ten-year span of the Dirty Thirties. The country was tired. Prime Ministers Bennett and Mackenzie King were tired. The boxcar hoboes, the unemployed, the families who scraped and scrimped to get through these lean years were tired. And long before she finally reaches 1939—somewhere on page 477—the reader is thoroughly exhausted.

Berton describes the Depression chronologically, starting with the stock market crash in 1929 and ending with the war fever that his the nation in the autumn of 1939. He writes at the end of his book that a narrative history “in all its manifestations” of the Depression has not been written before, thus providing justification for his task. He also notes, somewhat overconfidently, that “it seems to me that the cumulative effect of a continuing narrative is devastating.” What’s really “devastating,” however, is the style that Berton writes in, which is singularly irritating to the extreme.

He sets out the goal of contrasting the hardships, poverty and intense discrimination and racism that were the key features of the depression years, against the Canadian government’s coldness, stinginess and lack of policies to deal with the situation.

But despite the valiant intent, Berton destroys the credibility of his book by making assumptions and using descriptive language that only detracts from what is trying to demonstrate. For example, in his depiction of Mackenzie King as a rather insecure yet stubborn prime minister, he focuses more on King’s personal idiosyncrasies and mysticisms rather than the policies he enacted (or did not as the case may be).

Berton used the King Diaries intensively as a source, and no doubt they are very entertaining and filled with the stuff that bestsellers are made of. As the major tool for the political analysis of King’s policies, however, they are not enough to adequately present King’s influence on the governmental scene. I don’t want to know about his little dog or his conversations with his dead mother but rather, for example, why his party continued to follow his uncaring and parsimonious policies. Berton is very good at telling a bedtime story but falters in drawing credible historical conclusions.

For example, he spends an entire chapter on Edward VIII’s abdication and King’s dilemma over how to phrase the telegram of congratulations to George VI, forcing the reader to endure such agonizing detail over such a trivial matter.

He [King] tossed in his bed, unable to
sleep. He called for his little dog
Pat to comfort him … It was now 4:30
a.m. The Prime Minister of Canada had
spent more than eight hours trying to
write a one-paragraph message of
congratulation … And thus, having made
obeisance to his new sovereign without
appearing to grovel, the Prime
Minister of his majesty’s loyal but
autonomous dominion toddled off to bed
and tried his best to get some sleep.

Devastating. There’s a reason this book is over 500 pages long.

With his story ode in fine tune, Berton does do a good job of demonstrating how widespread the fear and discrimination were in this decade. These were the years when immigrants, people of colour and above all anyone who showed even the slightest leftist leanings were blacklisted or arrested so they would never be able to find work, and then were made ineligible for the dole. These were the years when freedom of speech was only accorded to rich WASPs, when police were told to break up peaceful protests with guns and tear gas and to throw “communists” in jail without fair trials.

This was the decade when the University of Alberta had a Woman Haters’ Club whose president became student council president in 1935. U of T’s History Club was closed to women students. Birth control was illegal, unions were a communist plot, the Padlock law was enacted in Quebec and Jews escaping Nazi Germany were refused entry into Canada.

Berton also tries to show the courage (or alternatively the desperation of) the common farmers and working class Canadians who underwent tremendous hardships, poverty and starvation as drought and grasshoppers destroyed thousands of hectares of farmland and one fifth of Canada was unemployed. And he hasn’t forgotten anything. It’s easy to see where his sympathies lie with a line such as

The worst victims of hunger were the
million and a half cattle … A surplus
of at least three hundred thousand
would now have to be sold at
bankruptcy prices to meat-packing

This book is for people who love to watch the “historical” mini-series of the type Jane Seymour loves to star in; for people who read Victoria Holt, John James, Little Orphan Annie comic strips. The last paragraph seems to say it all.

It was over and done with—the Great
Depression that had brought so much
heartache and despair but had changed
the political face of the nation. It
had scarred an entire generation. Now
it was history.

The Depression of the thirties might be history. The Great Depression of the nineties most definitely isn’t.

Celebrating our marginality

Producing Marginality: Theatre and Criticism in Canada

Essays by Robert Wallace

Fifth House Publishers

253 pages

We can deny that marginality is
negative. We can claim it as a

—Rick Salutin

In a protracted introduction to this series of essay concerning the state of Canadian theatre, Robert Wallace dedicates his collection to all the small theatre companies that are currently defying the odds, struggling in the face of adversity, and proudly “producing marginality.”

His dedication is a hopeful gesture that takes on an ironic face after one reads most of what Wallace has to say. The York University professor spends much of his book bemoaning the poor financial and artistic state of the Canadian theatre industry and the criticism that surrounds and constructs it. Ultimately, he predicts its imminent demise. Yet his prediction is a half-hearted one, going hand in hand as it does with a clarion call to Canadian artists to continue producing the alternative theatre that is their raison d’etre.

It is difficult to exactly pin down the central thesis here, for Producing Marginality is more a broad survey of what Wallace feels are the vital and salient aspects of Canadian theatre, than a single concerted argument about where the industry should head.

Yet it would not be doing Wallace a disservice, or those about whom he writes, to note that his opinions are firmly rooted in a tradition of marginalism. His belief, strongly supported by endlessly cross-referenced research, is a compelling one: it is only from the social and economic margins, and in opposition to the commercial products of the homogenous, generic mainstream, that Canadians in general, and theatre professionals in specific, can continue to define themselves.

What is horrifying about Wallace’s assertions is the underlying implication that, while there may be no “Canadian identity” per se (this is a post-Meech book in the intellectual, if not literal, sense), there is still something unique about Canada, and that it can only be preserved and cultivated through indigenous theatre. Unless we contine to define ourselves against British political and American cultural influences, we may as well drop the curtain now on our country’s future.

At times, Producing Marginality reads like a depressing litany of social and economic ills befalling the Canadian theatre. The stories are all too common of renowned artistic directors living on less than $1,000 per month, and the lack of recognition faced by the majority of people working in the field (one cultural literacy survey showed that most Canadians think internationally produced playwright Michel Tremblay is a hockey player).

There are valuable lessons in self-definition here for both Montreal and Toronto theatre professional, and an interesting thesis on why Quebec may, in fact, be considered distinct in the cultural landscape of Canada.

Missing from Wallace’s argument, in his rush to valorize anything indigenous, is the acknowledgement that there is, in fact, bad theatre being produced in Canada, and that it may deserve to die a graceless death. Also unobserved is that, while theatre may go through its boom and bust periods much like the economy (a comparison that Wallace, with his wariness for anything that parallels theatre with business, would probably abhor), the need to produce indigenous theatrical expressions can’t help but continue.

Nevertheless, Producing Marginality is an important work, if only because it renews the urgency of the call for indigenous theatre in Canada. That the essays offer a challenging argument is to state the obvious; to accept that their rigorous approach and almost irrefutable conclusions demand attention is to acknowledge that the idea of Canada itself is inextricably bound up in the fate of our theatre.

The academic tone of the essays — including the one originally published in 1980, which is a valuable touchstone of expectations against which we can measure the advances and declines of Canadian theatre in the past ten years — makes the book a perfect complement with which to contextualize any university course on modern drama, Canadian or otherwise. Without understanding the dubious promise of our future, the study of our past and present will prove to be but an irrelevant venture.