Table of Contents
2. National Identity and the Canadian Stage: A Historical Overview
3. Canadian – American relations in Jitters
3.1 Characters in Jitters
3.2 Jessica Logan
3.3 Patrick Flanagan
5. Works Cited
David French is one of Canada’s most renowned playwrights of the 20th century. With his play Jitters, which he wrote in 1979, French turned away from his more serious plays to create his first comedy. The plot is set in the theatrical world of a small Toronto theater, the Leicester Street Playhouse, and takes place shortly before, during, and after the performance of the play-within-the-play, The Care and Treatment of Roses. French uses the characters in his work to illustrate the contradictory attitudes regarding the clash of Canadian and American culture, in this case from the point of view of actors, producers and henchmen of the stage. And even though the play revolves around the institution of theater, French’s depiction of its characters also aims at the Canadian people as such. In Jitters he gives an insight into the weak Canadian self esteem and the attempt of forming a Canadian identity in competition against the more dominant American culture.
Thus in this term paper, I would like to elaborate on Canadian – American relations in French’s play. In a first step, I will give an overview about the historical development of theater in Canada and to what extent it is intertwined with the question of national identity in that country. With this theoretical knowledge as a basis, I will further go on with an analysis of the people in Jitters itself. I will begin that part of the term paper by looking at the minor characters in the play and will then go on characterizing the two protagonists, namely Jessica Logan and Patrick Flanagan. These two are used by French as the strongest opposing forces when it comes to different attitudes regarding the relations between the two north American nations. My analyses will be made against the background of the images which are created of Canada and the United States and the relations between these two countries respectively.
2. National Identity and the Canadian Stage: A Historical Overview
Professional theater in Canada is not older than about fifty years. The wish to establish this art form, however, reaches back to the early days of colonization by European settlers. Back then, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the theater was dominated by the French language which was because north America had become the battlefield of French and English interests. Thus, the development of a national theater was closely connected to the political and military situation in the young country. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Seven Years’ War came to an end and affected the dominance in Canada. As a result, Britain’s influence grew, and with it came the English-speaking theater that gradually spread even across those regions that had been French before. The first acts took place in so-called “Garrison Theatres”. These were theaters run by the army with British soldiers and officers performing as amateur actors (cf. Schreyer: 29-31).
A new spate of American immigrants, refugees that is, after the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783 led to a rapid growth of urban areas and a cultural enrichment of the theatrical world. And yet in the century that followed, the form of the Canadian theater developed strictly in the style of the British theater. Plays were sent to the north American country from Europe and performed there by amateur actors, mostly in buildings that did not primarily serve theatrical purposes. Low funds and the lack of professional actors prevented the birth of a true Canadian theater with specifically Canadian themes. Instead, the influence of the British stage grew. Vagrant actors who would come from the United States and travel all around the civilized parts of Canada, brought with them the influence of the young and fast-growing American theater (cf. Schreyer: 31 f. and Banham: 146).
Finally, in the 20th century, Canada’s military contribution to the allied victories in World Wars I and II led to a greater political acknowledgment of the country on an international level. Its newfound status after decades of relative insignificance brought forward the desire to overcome those feelings of inferiority by dissociating itself from external influences as posed by the United States and Great Britain. Parallel political change, such as the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which gave Canada a governmental autonomy from England, helped the country experience a cultural boom that also provided a basis for the development of a professional national theater. As a result, the centuries-old amateur theaters gradually disappeared in the course of the 1950s and made room for more professional productions (cf. Schreyer: 47-53).
The year 1967, with the centennial, marked another turning point in the cultural history of Canada. Until then, international issues had been of greater importance than Canadian ideas, concepts and products which were considered second-class. Instead, the young professional theater would now finally begin to preferentially deal with truly Canadian topics (cf. Webster: 27).
But what were the formative elements of Canadian mentality which slowly shaped its newfound national identity and with it the national theater? First of all, one must have in mind that national identity as such is not only a matter of the self-consciousness of a country but that it is also determined by the differentiation from the other, i.e. values or mannerisms of another nation that are not shared or even refused. In the case of Canada, this becomes evident in the complex balancing act between the moral values of British society that had been traditionally incorporated into Canadian culture and – on the other hand – the mostly depreciative attitude towards the American neighbor who itself had exerted a major influence on Canadian culture until the mid 20th century and even further (cf. Schreyer: 74 f.).
Schreyer gives a number of examples of those “Canadian elements” whereof some will be briefly presented here with respect to their relevance for the analysis of French’s Jitters in the following chapters. According to the British North America Act of 1867 and in contrast to their southern neighbors, Canadians consider liberty to be less important than the preservation of the valid, current political and social system. The “pursuit of happiness” as one of the basic concepts in American society is not as vital as “the pursuit of peace and security” in Canada (Berton: 24). A certain obedience to existing laws and institutions is therefore thought of as a typical Canadian trait which can be seen as a result of the country’s long-lasting colonial connection to Great Britain. This mannerism is often sniggered at by Americans whose history of independence and autonomy from Europe poses one of the major pillars that US society has traditionally been built upon. Americans smile at their law-abiding Canadian neighbors who – as they think – rather feel the need to be obedient to their government than to their own individualism. In Jitters, David French ironically seizes this contrast in the character of stage manager Nick whose constant complaints about the actors not signing his call board or following the stage rules become a continuing joke (cf. Schreyer: 73 f. and French: 81 ff., 150, 165).
As another example, Schreyer mentions the comparison between the Canadian and American economic systems. According to her analyses, most Canadians feel that the economic and social structures in the United States are more materialist and competitive than the structures in their own country. But despite these hardships, they also acknowledge the various possibilities that the citizens of the United States theoretically have to become successful; chances that Canadians feel they could never enjoy in their own country. Thus and with their lack of a solid national identity, Canadians put much emphasis on the opinions of others, as Schreyer explains (cf. Schreyer: 75 f.). This is especially true for the world of theater, as a quotation from deceased Toronto professor and critic Brown expresses: “The praise of a couple of New York reviewers will outweigh the unanimous enthusiasm of Canadian journals from coast to coast” (Brown: 155 f.). These two issues also appear as two of the major themes that French uses in Jitters. In fact, it is this very question of fame and success that divides the two protagonists Jessica and Patrick into two parties, as will be shown in the next chapter.