Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Romulus and Ritual in the Beverly Swamp: A Freemason Dreams of Theatre in Pre-Confederation Ontario

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Romulus and Ritual in the Beverly Swamp: A Freemason Dreams of Theatre in Pre-Confederation Ontario

Article excerpt

Prologue: "... promised to erect a first-class theatre ..." (2)

In the mid-1890s, the poet and local historian R. K. Kemaghan traveled the rural township of Beverly, half-way between Hamilton and Guelph in Southern Ontario, gathering local stories and legends. These included the tale of Henry Lamb, who during the early part of the nineteenth century mapped out a city he intended to build on his uncleared 2,000 acre property. According to local legend, he advertised in Britain for a ready-made immigrant population to embark on this great adventure in urban planning, which he called Romulus. Kernaghan writes:

   He promised [all settlers] a house and lot and firewood free and
   immunity from taxes for 25 years. He promised them plenty of game
   and fish. He gave a free site for a Church of England cathedral at
   the west end of the town and another site for the bishop's palace
   and Roman Catholic cathedral in the east end, and free sites and
   building material for churches of all other denominations. He gave
   a market square, a cricket ground, a race course; promised to erect
   a first-class theater, concert hall and ballroom, and even
   advertised for an efficient chief of police. (119)

Kernaghan reports that this venture was a significant failure, and then takes readers on a tour of the ruins of Lamb's house, tavern, and gristmill. He describes the hubris of someone who would plan such a place in Beverly--most famous for its swampland--and expresses nostalgia for a time when "there were giants" in the land (118). So fully conceived was the plan for Romulus that local residents still referred to "the site of the proposed Catholic cathedral" some seventy years later (123). Clearly Henry Lamb had left a mark on the community, though there were no architectural traces.

What did it mean to plan for and promise to build a "first-class theatre" in the middle of an old growth forest, in an area known primarily for its swamp, wolves, and rattlesnakes? Those two words--"first-class" and "theatre"--seem out of place in this environment, connoting a venue for professional touring performers, and a literate audience with a taste for narrative drama eager to fill a purpose-built venue. Can that have been thought possible at this time and in this place? Or did these words have a different meaning for prospective settlers in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign? Why would the idea of building a "first-class theatre" arise at all?

In this essay, I will first assess the documents recording this minor episode in Ontario's history: accounts of settlers identifying the location for un-built cathedrals, written by memory into the landscape; a description of a comically exaggerated town plan, laid out on a stump, a bullet weighting it against the wind; and the newspaper advertisement quoted above, promising the impossible. The story of Henry Lamb and Romulus may seem at first to be an example of foolhardy over-reaching by an impractical dreamer. I suggest that this is a misreading of documents taken out of their original context, and that they are more trustworthy than they seem at first glance. Lamb's scheme, indeed, is not out of place within the broader history of settlement in Ontario, illustrated in this essay by comparison with his neighbour and fellow "founder" John Galt. Admittedly, the inclusion of a theatrical venue in a town plan was unusual for the time and region; this essay will examine the prospect that the plans for Romulus were informed by Lamb's devotion to the secretive --and theatre-friendly--freemasonic movement, first in its role as purveyor of enlightenment radicalism and social reform, and then as a bastion of British imperialism. It encouraged Lamb not only to build a prosperous life as a self-made man in a hostile environment, but also to dream of building an "enlightened" city in the wilderness. And finally, this essay will explore the prospect that freemasonry was among the reasons for Lamb's failure as a town planner, because through it he misjudged his community--settlers more at ease with and in need of a popular performance culture, of outdoor rituals and kitchen parties, tavern songs and mechanics hall meetings, and not (or not yet) a theatre. …

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