History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Canadian Pre-WWII

The Little Theatre, Bon Echo, Ontario, Canada, 1930s

Merrill Denison

Merrill Denison described the effects of poverty on young love, 1945

Canadian theatre first raised expectations with "Marsh hay" (1923) by Merrill Denison (1893-1975).

"Marsh hay" “is a powerful and harrowing portrayal of the tragic futility of [backwoods] people’s lives and the brutalizing effect of poverty upon them. In its bleakness and uncompromising view of human relations, ‘Marsh hay’ bears comparison with John Millington Synge’s Well of the Saints...While there is uncertain psychology in the character of the mother- especially in her attitude to the pregnant Sarilin- ‘Marsh hay’ is distinguished by an uncommon honesty of vision, authenticity of speech, and a command of dramatic structure" (Benson and Conolly, 1987 p 47).

"Marsh hay"

Poling Marsh hay yields poor rewards

Time: 1920s. Place: Backwoods Ontario, Canada

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After fathering twelve children, five of them dead, four remaining at the farm, but seeing his daughter, Tessie, recently leave to marry a neighbor he hates, John Serang, a backwoods farmer, has every reason to feel dispirited. "Twenty years of a man's life gone into working fifty acres of grey stone, cutting marsh hay to keep a couple of cows and a half dead horse alive, cutting marsh hay because the land won't raise enough fodder to winter a rat!" he exclaims. At night, with everyone in bed, his remaining daughter, 15-year-old Sarilin, sneaks off for the night with the brother of Tessie's lover, Walt. Sarilin eventually becomes pregnant, but since Walt refuses to marry her, he must stand trial for having sexual relations with an underage girl. A neighbor of the Serangs, the local storekeeper, Tad, and Thompson, a lawyer, are amazed to see Sarilin's mother, Lena, behave as if she were proud of her daughter's plight after talking to a stranger stopping by in a car. "I ain't goin' to have her hate her baby like I've hated mine," she tells John. Tad suggests that John should have shot Walt instead of having the matter come to trial. A hearing is held before a justice of the peace. When three of his friends falsely declare also having had sexual relations with the girl, Walt is cleared of any criminal charge. After learning of the verdict, Tad subserviently offers Walt a cigar and even lights it for him. Sarilin suffers a miscarriage, but, being let off household chores and given gifts by her mother, does not inform her family of this for several weeks. Meanwhile, John insists that Walt should marry her and also give him monetary compensation at least to cover the costs of his daughter's pregnancy. Walt refuses until Thompson informs him that the trial before a justice of the peace is insufficient and that he must appear before a regular judge to face a criminal charge that may send him for up to twenty years in prison. Despite their extreme poverty, Lena interferes with this agreement by refusing Walt's marriage proposal as well as the money. Eventually, Sarilin's real condition is revealed after she pretends to fall. As a result of Lena's gifts added to their former debts, Tad will no longer give credit to the Serangs, and so they face starvation. At night, with everyone in bed, Sarilin sneaks off yet again with Walt.

Léon Petitjean and Henri Rollin


On the French side of pre-WWII Canadian theatre, Léon Petitjean (1869-1922) and Henri Rollin (1887-1942) combined effectively in a domestic and courtroom drama, "Aurore, l'enfant martyr" (Aurora, the child martyr, 1921) based on the 1920 Aurore Gagnon affair of a battered child.

"Aurora, the child martyr"

Aurora is chronically mistreated by her stepmother and her father fails to defend her. Photograph of a child dressed in rags by Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931)

Time: 1920s. Place: Fortierville, Quebec, Canada.

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Aurora's stepmother asks her to fetch eggs for her father's breakfast. In rags and in bed, Aurora responds that she is too sick to do it, but gets up when her father, Telesphore, asks her to. Telesphore notices what looks like burnmarks on his daughter's head, but his wife dismisses this as the result of the child's untidiness and says that no medicine is needed. With him away, she hits the child and then forces her to touch a burning firebrand. A neighbor, Catherine, suspecting the child to be mistreated, interrogates Aurora about her parents. She discovers the truth of her mistreatment and promises to reveal it to the curate. When the stepmother guesses that Aurora complained to the neighbor, she punishes her by forcing her to put her hand on the heated stove. After speaking to Catherine, the curate comes over to advise the parents to call for a doctor, but they ignore his advice. To punish her for an imagined misdeed, Telesphore sends her off to sleep in the garret where rats scamper about. After a considerable delay, the doctor shows up only to declare that the child will surely die. When she does, both parents are arrested on suspicion of murder. During the trial, Catherine's husband, Abraham, testifies that he saw Aurora beaten by her father till the blood ran. The curate next testifies that he observed headwounds on the child and recommended to a neighbor that he should inform the judicial authorities of this. However, the neighbor did nothing because he lacked first-hand knowledge of abusive mistreatment. Catherine testifies that the stepmother told her she sometimes beat the child with an axe-handle. The stepmother's own child testifies against her to the effect that Aurora was beaten every day, sometimes several times a day. His two younger brothers once tied a rope around her neck and pulled in different directions. He reported nothing of this in fear of being beaten himself. While the jury deliberates the case, the parents' defense lawyer suggests that their only hope is the insanity plea. Telesphore blames his present troubles on his wife's constant tendency of lying. The insanity plea is rejected so that both parents are condemned to be hanged.