Tuesday December 7, 12:15pm
Neptune Theatre, Fountain Hall foyer
Port Royal, 1606. The settlers were restless. Even the natives were restless. Poutrincourt and Champlain, the leaders had been away almost 3 months exploring the eastern seaboard. In the only ship, the settler’s only link to France. The previous two winters, more than half the settlers had died of scurvy, and now, a new winter was upon them.
Marc Lescarbot - the settlement’s historian, a disillusioned lawyer and passionate writer, had a brainstorm. Let’s put on a play: a surprise reception for the ship’s return. A morale booster. The rehearsals and set production would keep everyone occupied.
Thus, November 14th, 1606, the history of theatre in Canada began. Marc Lescarbot’s Le Theatre de Neptune en la Nouvelle France / The Theatre of Neptune in New France was mounted, welcoming Poutrincourt. It was the first written, first performed play in Canada and in the continental North America, north of the Spanish settlements in Mexico. A signature moment.
The play was an aqua masque, an ocean spectacular with special effects, cannon fire, multicoloured smoke bombs, banners, flags, trumpets, costumes, war canoes, barques. Characters included Neptune, God of the sea, tritons, Indians and a mysterious Companion and Host. Lescarbot may have played Neptune and the Mi’kmaq may have played Indians and tritons. Membertou, the grand chief was in the audience. Mathieu Da Costa - the first Black person in Canada may have been there.
The script was witty for the times - the same year Shakespeare produced King Lear and the Scottish play, with mixed mythological elements and scenes from the settler’s life, like the French’s relationship with the Mi’kmaq. It was quite an event for its time and especially in this new and foreign land. After the show there was a great feast and this led to the Order of Good Cheer - the famous dinner club. Another morale booster.
Canadian theatre has achieved much. Great plays like Michel Trembaly’s “Les Belle Soeur” and John Gray’s “Billy Bishop goes to War”. Theatre critics like Nathan Cohen and Gina Mallet. Directors, John Hirsch, Robert LePage. World-class producers Garth Drabinsky, David and Ed Mirvish. Stratford and Shaw festivals are the biggest of their kind in the world. Canada’s 22 city Fringe circuit is the largest in the world and draws a million people a year. Toronto is the third biggest theatre market in the world after New York and London. However Canadian Theatre’s greatest achievement is it’s actors from Raymond Massey to Kate Reid to Christopher Plummer, William Shatner and even Keanu Reeves.
Plans are afoot to commemorate and celebrate this 400th anniversary of Canadian theatre. THEATRE 400 has proposed birthday projects including a commemorative stamp, a declaration of the Year of Theatre, and a musical about the Order of Good Cheer. The two premiere projects: a national conference taking stock of theatre on its birthday and a re-enactment. The Theatre of Neptune in New France was largely forgotten in modern times until the Champlain Society “rediscovered” it. The last full re-enactment was in 1956 with 100 actors and audience of 2500. Neptune Theatre in Halifax is named after this first Canadian play. Ken Pinto is director of THEATRE 400 and the Atlantic Fringe Festival - celebrating its 15th year in 2005.