Site-specific theatre brings history to life in Bastion Square.
THEATRE HISTORIAN AND PLAYWRIGHT Dr Jennifer Wise has long held a passion for site-specific dramatic performances based on little-known histories. Her works on historical drama have been published in four countries, and she currently teaches courses ranging from Greek and Roman theatre to 19th-century opera at the University of Victoria.
In 2013, her site-specific comedy The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West was first performed in Victoria as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations of Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El, Canada’s oldest synagogue. Later staged at the Toronto Centre for the Arts and elsewhere, it won the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition in 2013.
It was while researching for that play that she stumbled on the little-known story of John Butt, an openly gay man who stood trial in Bastion Square in 1860 on charges of sodomy and rape. Wise was fascinated by the fact that he managed to escape conviction under jury in the mid-19th century. After delving into the archives, she wrote A Queer Trial, based partly on verbatim 1860 police-court transcripts.
“I realized this story would serve as an ideal project for students to learn about site-specific theatre,” says Wise. With funding from UVic’s Office of Community-University Engagement, a course was developed, and, starting last January, students in the class began researching and consulting with members of BC’s Indigenous, LGBTQ2, Jewish, Black and legal communities; and took on all key roles—acting, singing, musical direction, choreography, and costume design—save directing, which was provided by Matthew Payne, artistic producer of Theatre SKAM, a Victoria company acclaimed for its site-specific productions.
How Butt escaped conviction is the big riddle addressed in the play. Says Wise, “Thirty years after the story of John Butt, Oscar Wilde was condemned to hard labour in jail for the same crimes. So, how was it possible that this off-the-beaten-path nowhere city, off in the Pacific Ocean, in the wild west of Vancouver Island, was 30 years more progressive than cosmopolitan London?”
Wise says that what makes Butt’s tale all the more astounding is the fact that he was very open about his sexual life and tastes with the rest of the community, despite the explicit anti-homosexual laws that remained widely enforced.
“He made no secret of it,” Wise says. “He went into butcher shops in downtown Victoria and openly propositioned men by saying, ‘Hey,’ you know, ‘I’d like to have you in bed with me.’”
According to Wise’s research, the trial of Butt itself reached its seemingly unlikely conclusion due to a variety of local factors unique to the City of Victoria in 1860. The local community of the period contained a large African-American population, owing to Governor James Douglas’s promise of residence and full citizenship to the disenfranchised black population of southerly California, along with large numbers of Jews, immigrant Russians, and other minority populations—who found themselves united in distrust of a recent influx of American prospectors. One of the initial jurors in the Butt trial, for example, was Peter Lester, a black Californian cobbler who had taken advantage of Governor Douglas’ immigration program after suffering a prejudice-motivated assault by two members of his former community. Professor Wise theorizes that the general unity of minority populations against a tide of outsiders helped to galvanize the population in favour of their fellow citizen. Whatever the case, a jury which included both Peter Lester and two Jewish members remained hung, at a vote of seven to five in favour of conviction.
“So the whole jury actually spent a night in jail,” explains Wise, “because of these five minority voices for John Butt. So the first jury, because they were hung, they were put back out for deliberation for another day. And they spent an entire day in deliberation, but the stalemate was not broken.”
That jury was dismissed and another appointed. The new jury acquitted John Butt within no more than five minutes. Of the two indictments brought forth, both concerned John Butt’s well-known sexual partner William Williams. The first simply alleged to a sexual encounter between the two men; the second, now generally regarded as a fabrication and lacking any proof, claimed that Butt had raped Williams. Judge David Cameron, a brother-in-law to Governor Douglas, before whom the rambunctious Butt had found himself several times before, and who had a reputation for sympathy to his charges, then made note of a mistake in the dating of the first count of the indictment. With this accusation quashed, the jury was left only with an unprovable count of rape, thus securing Butt’s acquittal. Adding to the sense of community justice that accompanied the public perception of the case was the fact that the plaintiff, Crown Counsel (and Attorney General for Vancouver Island, age 28) George Hunter Cary, was regarded by many as a “drunken madman,” according to Wise.
Wise felt that the expression of the story’s theatrical adaptation in musical form was important, due to the role that music played in the period in which the performance is set.
“In 1860, there wasn’t even a phonograph,” she says. “There was no recorded music in existence. If you wanted music, you had to make it yourself. So to convey the feeling of Victoria in that period, I think music is pretty important. But also, thematically, I wanted to celebrate John Butt. And how do you best celebrate someone’s life? You sing about it.”
Wise says that she also discovered in researching John Butt’s life that he was known for his tenor voice and sung in a choir. “Many of the people who knew him and reminisced and told stories about him—in fact, all of them—remarked on his beautiful singing voice. So, I thought, ‘How can I do justice to this guy if I don’t have music in the play?’”
The staging of the performance in Bastion Square was of particular importance to Wise and her team. “That was part of the concept from the very beginning, that it would be the most moving for an audience to see these events reenacted on the very soil where they took place originally. To have an actor standing in the very place where the original person stood, and speak the very words that that original historical person spoke is so moving to an audience. Obviously it brings history alive, but it moves them on a deeper level than having those events just re-enacted in an ordinary theatre.”
Wise paid especially close attention to her portrayal of the normalized bigotry which played a central role in Victorian society of the time, particularly as scores of American immigrants brought with them less tolerant views than many of those found in Victoria.
“So how do you deal with racism or homophobia? How do you deal with really awful obnoxious views? I think you have to laugh at them,” says Wise. “That’s the only way. So I do have some American characters in the play and some racist and xenophobic and homophobic characters, but we laugh at them. We let them say what they want to say and then we show how absurd and ridiculous those ideas are.”
The nature of satire in the recent work also underscored Dr Wise’s intention to bridge the gap between minority groups who have previously suffered stigma in Victoria’s community, and those who continue to do so today. “Theatre is the most political of the art forms, it’s a public art form. You tell a story in the public sphere. You’re necessarily doing a political act. There’s no real distinction there.”
A Queer Trial was staged in Bastion Square on April 14 to capacity crowds. With the students going their separate ways, there are currently no plans for further productions.
Aaron Stefik loves storytelling and satire, history and fiction. He is a contributing writer with Camosun’s Nexus, where a shorter version of this article appeared in March.