Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

More Dangerous Than Many a Pamphlet or Propaganda Book: The Ukrainian Canadian Left, Theatre, and Propaganda in the 1920s

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

More Dangerous Than Many a Pamphlet or Propaganda Book: The Ukrainian Canadian Left, Theatre, and Propaganda in the 1920s

Article excerpt

ON 25 NOVEMBER 1922, the Winnipeg branch of the Ukrainian Labour Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA) performed Yak Svit Povernuvsya Dorohy Nohamy (How the world went upside down), a play based on the Bolshevik Revolution. In the crowd, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) agent watched closely, committing to memory both the contents of the play and the reactions of the crowd. Afterwards, in a report to R. S. Knight, commanding officer of the Manitoba District, he conveyed his deep malaise over the night's proceedings. The officer was concerned with the play's final act, which displayed a post-revolutionary, Soviet society. Priests and noblemen had been demoted to drudges, ordinary citizens were giving orders, and red flag-waving children had abandoned school to sing "The Internationale" in the streets.

The officer was also troubled by the play's overwhelmingly positive reception and requests from the crowd to repeat the show across the country. "The above show, although a comedy," wrote the officer, "was a very revolutionary propaganda show. I consider [it] more dangerous than many a pamphlet or propaganda book, because the latter appeals to the mind, and the former to the eye. When the mind cannot agree quickly with the idea of a book," he mused, "the eye appeals sooner." Despite the officer's unease, there was a silver lining: the play had been performed in Ukrainian. "If the play was performed in different languages," he warned, "it would not be long before we would have here in Canada the establishment of the Proletarian Dictature." (1)

This article examines the theatre of the Ukrainian Canadian left in the 1920s and, in particular, its use as a vehicle for both political propaganda and ethno-cultural instruction. Largely focused on ULFTA headquarters in Winnipeg, I show how theatre was instrumentalized to attract, entertain, and educate. By relying on RCMP reports produced by officers and informants on the ground, this article offers unique insight into the actual efficacy of the organization's objectives. Unlike sources produced by the ULFTA (newspapers, correspondence, and scripts), which are marred by the organization's predispositions and desires to galvanize its constituents, surveillance reports serve as participatory accounts and detailed windows into the context and execution of theatrical productions. While these sources can themselves be problematic, they nevertheless offer the most comprehensive lens into the propagandistic value of the organization's activities in the cultural sphere. In fact, without the constant surveillance of the RCMP, much of the nuance or the quotidian experiences of the theatre would remain unknown--an irony not lost on those who study the intimate relationship between the surveillance state and the left. (2)

For Ukrainian Canadian leftists, the 1920s represented a golden age of domestic cultural production. The strict hierarchy that constituted the communist movement in the 1930s was not yet extant and the realm of possibilities was limited only by the imagination of the organization itself. As such, the period produced a wide array of theatrical productions that were neither crass agitprop nor cheap melodrama. Rather, they were bottom-up expressions of proletarian high culture and organic reflections of the social, economic, and political realities that constituted the Ukrainian experience in Canada.

By allocating the 1920s as a unique time in the history of Canadian leftist theatre, this article intervenes in a well-established historiography that sees the origins of leftist theatre in the 1930s and, in particular, the Third Period. Whereas the 1930s are often portrayed as the high point of revolutionary theatre, the Ukrainian case points to the 1920s as a much more fruitful era for the performing arts of the left. This is not to suggest that the Ukrainian case overturns the established narrative. Instead, I submit that for ethnic radicals, who navigated the waters of the Comintern differently than Anglo-Canadians, the Third Period precipitated a return to the latent chauvinism that Lenin had warned against. …

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