Editing Modernism in Canada


January 24, 2011

Eight Men (Still) Speak(ing)

This is my  first foray into the EMiC blogworld.  I’m a little at sea on the social networking technology, but I’m a theatre person, and theatre was one of the first instruments of social networking. It is still the only one that is polyphonic, somatic, tactile and hormonally interactive. That means theatre operates on every level of human communication. For me, a blog is still a one-dimensional substitute for  a performance and an after-show pint at a cheery pub.

It is now 77 years and two weeks after the last known performance moment of Eight Men Speak, the text — or the textual remains — of which I am preparing in a critical edition for EMIC. By performance moment, I mean that we only know that after the play was banned (following its single full staging on December 4, 1933), sequences of it were staged at a protest rally in Toronto in January 1934.. At that rally, Rev. A.E. Smith, the leader of the Canadian Labour Defence League (one of the legal organs through which the outlawed Communist Party acted) accused Prime Minister Bennett of ordering the ban. He then addressed the facts behind the play, which had been staged as an indictment of the federal government’s arrest of eight communists — including Tim Buck– under Section 98 of the Criminal Code, the red-busting law that gave the government wide power to arrest anyone for “unlawful association.”  (Today we’re more civilized; we call it a ‘security certificate.”) The CLDL had staged the play as part of its national campaign to have the law repealed and the men freed. While in prison, Buck had been the subject of what seemed to have been an assassination attempt when guards fired rifle bullets into his cell during a prison riot. Smith told the crowd that Bennett had ordered Tim Buck shot, and was the next morning himself arrested for sedition. That led to the one of the most important and volatile political trials in Canadian history. In March 1934 Smith was acquitted and 500,000 Canadians signed CLDL petitions to repeal the law. Tim Buck was released later that year.

It sounds like a victory for democracy and civil rights, but as I immerse myself in the world of the play I find that its histories still resonate. The play was produced by the Workers Theatre of the Progressive Arts Club, who had developed their skill in agitprop in short agitational performances in public places. One of their favoured venues was Queen’s Park, were they were frequently beaten and run out by the Toronto Police “red squad”.  (As Clifford Odets has a communist recruiter say to an unemployed actor when she hands him a copy of the Communist Manifesto in Waiting for Lefty, “Read while you run…” ) In 1933, the Toronto Police allocated a handful of men to the job of suppressing free speech at Queen’s Park. In 2011, they put more than 10,000 on the streets for the G20 for the same purpose. Amongst the many hundreds who were arrested, brutalized and encaged without food, water or toilet facilities were young activists who had gone to Queen’s park to perform street theatre.

Eight men are still speaking, but they remain silenced by federal and police authorities. In my next post, I’ll describe how, almost 80 years after the fact, the federal government is still fighting to prevent the release of archival documents about the banning of the play.

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