A Vision of Canada
Herman Voaden’s Dramatic Works
Ed. Anton Wagner
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life,
Review by: Kerry Riley
The first thing that must be said about this book is that it’s definitely not for everyone. If, however, the phrase “symphonic expressionism in early Canadian theatre” does not instantaneously squelch your interest, you may want to learn more.
Herman Voaden (1903-1991) was one of a handful of influential playwrights (including Robertson Davies) who were active in the Canadian theatre scene earlier in this century. According to theatre historian Anton Wagner, the book’s editor, Voaden’s work was distinguished by its dedication to the idea of a distinct Canadian culture. He celebrated the uniqueness of the Canadian temperament which, he insisted, was quite different from our immigrant forefathers’ or our American neighbours’.
In his plays, Herman Voaden examines the mysterious power of the Canadian wilderness and its effect on our collective psyche. Influenced by the Spanish philosopher Santayana, he believed that we all experience, at certain times in our lives, moments of pure illumination, or identification with some fundamental truth about our existence–so called “glimpses of perfection.” The theatre, he felt, should provide its patrons with a conduit to these experiences and he set out to create a writing/directing style which, often operating on a subconscious level, would do just that. The result was “symphonic expressionism,” a unique blend of dramatic lighting, colour, sound and music, ritualized dance, recitative, and minimalistic stage sets, all manipulated to heighten viewers’ perceptions of a play’s themes.
Mr. Voaden used, for much of his inspiration, experiences garnered from visits to central Ontario. In particular, two of his later plays, Hill-Land and Murder Pattern, are set in Haliburton–specifically, the South Lake area near Minden, which he first visited in 1927.
As a collection of Voaden’s plays, the book runs into an obvious difficulty–works whose psychological impact relies heavily on the immediacy of light, colour and sound, do not translate well to print. Unadorned with these synergistic stage effects, the plays’ dialogue sometimes seems dated and repetitive. Interspersed are lengthy, intricate and technical stage instructions–a simple reading can require some dedication. However, the many photo stills from actual productions (even in black and white) attest to a visually powerful experience. With such added dimensions as colour, sound and rhythmic dance, I suspect that these works, were indeed, something to see. Commenting on their impact, based only on a reading of the text, would be a perilous undertaking.
As a glimpse into a bygone era in the Canadian arts scene, the book has a more general appeal. Anton Wagner’s introductory essay and play-by-play commentary from the writer himself (despite Mr. Voaden’s unsettling tendency to refer to himself in the third-person) provide a readable “slice of life” account of our culturally formative years. As well, for many of us whose families pioneered in the Haliburton area, these plays provide an interpretation (albeit highly individualistic) of our grandparents’ experiences.
If you are a Canadian theatre buff, if you find the psychology of the pioneer experience fascinating, or harbour an interest in regional Ontario history, this book will be a worthwhile acquisition.