Theatre of Social Protest

September 4, 2020

Winnipeg Jews and the Theatre of Social Protest

Over the years, activists who have articulated and fought for a just and egalitarian society have fashioned various instruments to educate people and mobilize consensus. The most obvious have been political parties and trade unions. But it has also been essential that the cultural realm be incorporated in extolling their cause. This has become one of the principal axioms of their modus operandi in so far as culture constitutes a terrain of competing political and ideological values. The struggle to create a just society is in part based on the premise that the world of ideas, the imagination, and the ensemble of artistic and creative arts are indispensable elements in shaping critical consciousness and injecting social activism with sound ethical and moral precepts.

In the 1930s, theatre became an important form of cultural expression for the struggle against injustice. Winnipeg Jews were at the forefront of adapting institutions of civil society as vehicles for educating the populace about the debilitating and injurious effects of economic inequality, political oppression, antisemitism and racism.

The history of theatre as an ingredient of Winnipeg’s leftist, progressive movements of the 1930s is indissolubly linked to two groups – the Progressive Arts Club and the Winnipeg New Theatre. While neither one of these was distinctly Jewish in membership, their development would not have been possible without the involvement of progressive Winnipeg Jews whose broad concept of social justice entailed the amalgamation of values and beliefs inherent to political, economic and cultural struggles.

Mildred Gutkin noted that involvement in the theatre of social protest was an indication of the increasing acculturation/adaptation of Winnipeg Jewry to Canadian life. Nurtured in the richness and vitality of the progressive ideals of secular Judaism which included a rich Yiddish theatre scene, young Jews “were turning their creative energies into ‘agitprop’ plays, the theatre of social protest, side by side with their non-Jewish peers.” (Gutkin, p. 200).

The Progressive Arts Club (PAC), created in Toronto in 1932, under the aegis of the Canadian Communist Party, was to become a part of Winnipeg’s cultural landscape, and a point of reference for leftist activists. Fred Narvey, active in Winnipeg Jewish leftist circles, noted that the club “was a refuge and an outlet for outrage against a system where hundreds and thousands of people were unemployed, where people lacked proper housing and died prematurely due to the lack of sufficient food and medical care.” (Narvey, p.83). The guiding light of the Progressive Arts Club was lawyer Joe Zuken, a key figure in Winnipeg leftist circles, Jewish communal affairs and known for his sharp intellect and erudition. Zuken’s indefatigable spirit and commitment to social justice was instrumental in crafting a multidimensional organization that included speakers’ forums, small- scale productions and skits. According to Zuken, for a while the PAC had no headquarters, as it used various working-class halls to rehearse and stage productions. Finally, it was able to settle in a basement on Burrows avenue. By virtue of its dynamic presence as a theatrical repertory company and voice for social change and consciousness raising it was able to attract many individuals who saw it as a novel and unorthodox form of cultural expression.

According to Doug Smith, the Canadian Communist Party, in the wake of rising fascism and its adaptation of a less sectarian approach to political action, decided to put an end to the PAC. Communists were encouraged to create alliances with liberals, socialists and social democrats, once reviled as “social fascists.” The PAC was transformed into the Winnipeg New Theatre (based out of 980 ½ Main street), with Zuken playing a key role in its formation. Soon, non-communist leftists, including Jewish activists Saul and Sybil Cherniack were to enter the fold, laying the groundwork for bold, sophisticated and elaborate productions. In the words of Doug Smith, it “provided a common ground for radicals to meet and thrash out staging and political strategy.” (Smith, p.60). In the words of Joe Zuken, the Winnipeg New Theatre “was an ecumenical meeting place for people of various shades of the left.” (Smith, p.60). For Saul Cherniack, it meant that “some of us non-communists were glad to be involved in a theatre that did work of social significance. It was our opportunity to try and give a message to people about what we believed and what was going on in the world.” (Smith, p. 60).

With an unbridled spirit and elan, the Winnipeg New Theatre brought to the fore important political and social issues through the crystallization of the artistic, intellectual and creative impulses of progressive Winnipeggers, Jews and non-Jews alike. In the late 1930s and early ‘40s it staged plays such as Clifford Odets’s vignettes depicting labour strife and union organizing in the taxi industry titled Waiting for Lefty, Irwin Shaw’s, anti-war Bury the Dead and John Loftus’s Waiting at Madrid, which dealt with the Spanish Civil War, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, which told of the ascendancy of a fascist to the American presidency, Albert Maltz’s Rehearsal, based on the true story of a strike at the Ford Motor Company, and Volpone , Ben Jonson’s searing condemnation of greed and avarice. Rehearsal took first place at the 1939 Manitoba Drama Festival, which gave the Winnipeg New Theatre the right to compete at the Dominion Festival in London, Ontario, where it won the top prize for one-act play in the English language. In his review of Rehearsal, Winnipeg Free Press writer Frank Morriss highlighted the performance of Frances Goffman, who as Frances Bay was to carve out a successful career in motion pictures and television.

The Winnipeg New Theatre was caught up with the maelstrom unleashed by the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The Canadian Communist party supported Moscow’s opposition to entering World War II. Many members left the party in protest. Other leftists were committed to opposing Nazism and fascism. This caused dissension and strife within the company which were to some degree resolved after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and the communists supported the war effort.

The Winnipeg New Theatre’s final production was Friedrich Wolf’s Professor Mamlock which told the story of a Jewish surgeon driven to suicide following Hitler’s ascent to power. The cast included future Manitoba attorney general Roland Penner and Leon Mitchell who became a labour lawyer and union organizer.

By the mid-1940s, the Winnipeg New Theatre had ceased to operate. Irene Karasick noted that many of its members dispersed to join the war effort to “engage in another, and more immediate fight for survival (Karasick, Agitprop Drama in Winnipeg, Saul Cherniack Collection). The last word goes to Winnipeg Free Press writer Frank Morriss. Hardly a leftist by any stretch of the imagination, in 1940 Morriss wrote: “Athough you can disagree heartily with much of the work that is presented by the Winnipeg New Theatre, the fact is that this organization is by far the greatest force on Winnipeg’s theatrical horizon.” (Morriss quoted in Irene Karasick, Agitprop Drama in Winnipeg, Saul Cherniack Collection).

Suggested reading

Gutkin, Mildred. ‘Early Jewish Theatre in Winnipeg.’ In A Sharing of Diversities: Proceedings of the

   Jewish Mennonite Ukrainian Conference “Building Bridges” edited by Fred Stambrook, 191-201.

   Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1999.

Karasick ,Irene. Agitprop Drama in Winnipeg. Saul Cherniack Collection.

Narvey, Fred. ‘Personal Perspectives on Theatre.’ In Jewish Life and Times, Volume VIII: Jewish

   Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960 edited by Daniel Stone, 82-86. Winnipeg: Jewish Heritage Centre

   Of Western Canada, 2003.

Ryan, Toby Gordon. Stage Left: Canadian Theatre in the Thirties. Toronto: CTR Publications, 1981.

Saul Cherniack Collection. The Winnipeg New Theatre 1939-1940. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western


Smith, Doug. Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1990.