Thomas Cary’s "Occasional Prologue" and its Contexts

Edited, with an Introduction,
by D.M.R. Bentley


On January 5, 1805, Thomas Cary launched The Quebec Mercury, a newspaper to be "enlivened occasionally," he explained in his opening editorial, by "little pleasantness, in the stile of english papers,…to unbend the muscles, and to relieve…[it] from that dryness for which most american papers are so distinguishable" (1-2). To inaugurate the "Poetry" section of his paper, Cary published in its first issue the "Occasional Prologue" that he had written for "the opening of the Patagonian theatre," where, according to his explanatory headnote, he had not only "spoken" the poem "to exalt the theatre, [and] with a view to its being put on as respectable a footing as possible," but also, "with a few other gentlemen,…performed, a few evenings, for his amusement." If the advertisements in The Quebec Gazette that announce the construction and opening of the Patagonian Theatre on the Rue de la Canoterie in Quebec’s Upper Town are to be trusted, then Cary recited his "Occasional Prologue" on October 9, 1804 before the performance of an opera entitled The Castle of Andalusia and a farce entitled The Family Party.1 As the second known poem by the author of Abram’s Plains (1789), "Occasional Prologue" has interest enough to warrant reprinting,2 and it also deserves to be better appreciated for the light that it sheds on the state of theatre in Lower Canada during the Georgian period and for the promise that it holds of drawing attention to the prologue as a genre that was much used by early Canadian poets.

Modeled on Samuel Johnson’s prologues, particularly his "Prologue, Spoken by Mr. Garrick, at the Opening of the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane, 1747," Cary’s "Occasional Prologue" echoes Johnson’s praise of "immortal Shakespeare" as the avatar of "many-colour’d life," his censure of Restoration dramatists (the "wits of Charles") as the panders of a licentious public, and his conviction that the theatre should be a vehicle for "diffus[ing] virtue" and "truth" (Johnson 1: 23-24). More than Johnson, however, Cary stresses the social usefulness of the theatre both as a source of personal amusement and revitalization and, more important, as a force for communal stability:

Full well the ancients knew the stage’s pow’r
To still the tempest of the troubled hour…

                                                     •      •      •

And moderns nothing of the lesson lose,
That pow’r’s great magic art is to amuse.
Hence discord oft was lull’d to gentle peace,
And civic ire its clamours learn’d to cease:
Of labour’s tasks the toil was render’d light,
And listless torpor rous’d to active might.
                                            (23-24, 27-32)

Very much in accord with Cary’s conservative view of the social value of theatre was the proposal, first mooted in an editorial dated March 21, 1805 in The Quebec Gazette, that a subscription be established for the purposes of erecting a theatre to house performances by the Society of Canadian Gentlemen (Les Messieurs Canadiens) and by "such Gentlemen among the English, as may be inclined to perform in plays written in their own language." "In every country, whose inhabitants have attained to any degree of refinement,"3 argues the editorial,

the Theatre has ever been countenanced and encouraged. The productions of genius and learning, nice discrimination of Character, the eloquence, art, and feeling of the actors are emitted on the stage, and fail not to have a powerful influence on the taste and morals of society. The deformity of vice is presented in the most lively colouring, and its carreer [sic] is generally terminated by a merited degree of punishment.
     The follies and absurdities peculiar to some characters in real life, which may be either hurtful to the individual, or to the Society of which he is a member, are exposed to derision, and other persons are thereby cautioned to avoid them.
                                                                                                 ("Canadian Theatre")

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Cary had a part in shaping this proposal; certainly, its author(s) would have been familiar with his assertion in his "Occasional Prologue" that "a well-order’d stage" can serve to "soften, mend, and refine" a society (1-2).

As can be predicted from Cary’s hostility to Restoration theatre and its "import[s] from licencious [sic] climes" (3), the plays performed at the Patagonian Theatre during its brief existence in 1804-1805 were mainly drawn, in the case of Les Messieurs Canadiens, from pre-Revolutionary France and, in the case of "Gentlemen among the English," from Georgian Britain.4 On October 25 and November 15, 1804, for example, Les Messieurs Canadiens presented plays by Racine (1639-1699) and Molière (1622-1673), and between August 1804 and March 1805 the English productions at the Patagonian Theatre included, in addition to The Castle of Andalusia (1793) by John O’Keeffe (1747-1833), The Busy Body (c. 1709) by Susannah Centlivre (1667-1723), The Absent Man (1768) by Isaac Bickerstaffe (1733-c.1808), and The Poor Gentleman (1801) by George Colman (the Younger) (1762-1836). An examination of the publication history of these and the other plays and light operas that were performed in English at the Patagonian Theatre suggests that several were drawn from two multi-volume, late eighteenth-century compendia, Bell’s British Theatre (1797) and A Collection of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainments Performed on the British Stage (1792).

It can safely be assumed that, although Cary and "other gentlemen" may have had some say in the selection of the plays that they performed, the choices ultimately lay with the owner-manager of the Patagonian Theatre, Thomas Treadway Odber, a shadowy figure who puts in his first appearance in The Quebec Gazette in November 1795, comes to prominence in September and October 1804 with announcements of the imminent opening of his theatre, and begins a protracted exit from the Quebec scene on December 13 of the same year by giving public notice that T.T. Odber and Co. are "about to close their concerns in this country."5 No doubt the publication of Cary’s "Occasional Prologue" and the appearance of the "Canadian Theatre" proposal in January and March 1805 encouraged Odber to persist in his theatrical enterprise. At any rate, after lying dormant throughout December 1804, the Patagonian Theatre came to life again in January, February, and March of the new year with ambitious programmes in both French and English. There is irony as well as poignancy in the fact that the issue of The Quebec Gazette that carries the same date as the "Canadian Theatre" proposal, March 21, 1805, contains a further notice of Odber’s impending departure and an advertisement for what may well have been intended as the final programme of the Patagonian Theatre, a performance on March 25 of Polly Honeycombe, The Village Lawyer, and The Absent Man. Odber’s hopes if not his fortunes appear to have revived in the spring of 1805, however, for a notice dated May 29 in the May 30 issue of The Quebec Gazette proclaims that "[t]he Patagonian Theatre will be opened in the ensuing month with a Comedy called He Would Be a Soldier, and the musical entertainment of the Padlock" and announces that "[t]he Proprietor intends next Spring to dispose of the present Theatre &c. and immediately after to undertake the construction of a more convenient one, which he expects to complete for sixteen hundred pounds." Advertisements in the August 1 and October 3 issues of The Quebec Gazette indicate that the Patagonian Theatre continued to operate sporadically through the summer and fall of 1805 and probably mounted its final programme—a comedy entitled Raising the Wind and a farce entitled The Contrast—on October 4.6 That subsequent advertisements for the New Theatre that opened on Garden Street in the Upper Town on January 11, 1806 make no mention of Odber7 suggests that by the winter of 1805-1806 he had ceased to be a major force in the world of Quebec theatre, an inference confirmed by the sale of his "stock in trade" in April 1806 and by the sale of his property in 1809 and 1813.8 If he ever found the "larger sphere" (66) for his theatrical activities that Cary envisages in the final lines of his "Occasional Prologue," it must have been elsewhere.

In addition to providing a window onto a fraught moment in Lower Canadian theatre, Cary’s "Occasional Prologue" is a Canadian instance of a genre whose origins lie in Euripides and whose practitioners, besides Johnson, include many of the most prominent dramatists, actors, and poets of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Somewhat ironically, given Cary’s antipathy to the "unbridled times" of Charles II, the Restoration period was the golden age of the prologue, though arguably the genre came to its maturity in England in the hands of Johnson, Pope, Garrick and other Augustan writers. In Canada, it approaches the long poem in popularity as a poetic vehicle for social observation and commentary, and, not surprisingly, several authors of long poems also, like Cary, wrote prologues—two other well-known examples being Oliver Goldsmith and Levi Adams.9 Prologues regularly grace the pages of early nineteenth-century Canadian newspapers, particularly and predictably The Quebec Mercury. (As a matter of fact, the February 25, 1805 issue of Cary’s paper contains a prologue that was written for a charitable performance of two farces and a musical interlude in Montreal earlier that month.) If there was a golden age of the prologue in Lower Canada, however, it was probably the eighteen twenties, a period in which Byronic wit, economic prosperity, and the presence of British garrisons and support personnel in and around Quebec and Montreal created a climate that was highly congenial to local theatre. Especially in the early-to-mid ’twenties, prologues were a staple feature of Lower Canadian newspapers, not least The Quebec Mercury; indeed, anyone wishing to study the prologue as a genre in Canadian poetry could do much worse than by beginning with the examples that enlivened the pages of Cary’s paper on December 19, 1820, January 13, 1824, and December 6, 1825.

In the following transcription of "Occasional Prologue" three emendations have been made: "powr’s" to "pow’r’s" (line 28): "fllame" to "flame" (line 35); and "stage." to "stage," (line 64).




  1. When first announced in The Quebec Gazette of September 20, 1804, the programme included The Absent Man rather that The Family Party. [back]

  2. Cary’s "Occasional Prologue" was first brought to light during research on the Canadian Poetry Press edition of Abram’s Plains by Michael Williams and Carolyn Quick, who placed it on view in "A Second Poem by Thomas Cary" in Canadian Notes and Queries 36 (Autumn, 1986): 9-10. [back]

  3. The argument here runs parallel to that which accompanied the construction of Georgian buildings in Quebec City at this time; see D.M.R Bentley, Mimic Fires 76-77. [back]

  4. These generalizations and the examples that follow are based on advertisements and announcements in The Quebec Gazette between September 20, 1804 and October 3, 1805. [back]

  5. The notice is printed in supplements 2077 and 2079 of The Quebec Gazette and includes announcements of the sale of a house and "a general assortment of Dry Goods." [back]

  6. The advertisement of August 1 states that the theatre is being used "[b]y Permission" for a programme that demands to be given here in full: "the Italian Fontoccina, Recitations, Songs, and Masterly Feats of Activity. In the course of the evening, Mr. Robertson will perform Antipolean Whirlegigs, and the Imitation of Birds, in a manner peculiar to himself only." [back]

  7. See The Quebec Gazette, January 9 and 30, March 6 and 20, April 17, etc. and The Quebec Mercury, January 6, 20, and 2, February 17, etc.. Evidently, the opening programme of the New Theatre included an "occasional prologue" (Quebec Mercury, January 6) which did not find its way into print, perhaps because in the early weeks of 1806 the newspapers were glutted with material concerning Lord Nelson and the Napoleonic War. Among those associated with the New Theatre were Mr. and Mrs. Ormsby, two actors who had presented various plays in Quebec City in the summer of 1804 and, in the fall of that year, briefly ran the Brobdignag Theatre (a name chosen, according to an announcement in September 27, 1804 issue of The Quebec Gazette "[t]o distinguish...[it] from the Patagonian Theatre"). See also The Quebec Gazette, June 14, August 2, and October 10, 1804. [back]

  8. See supplements 2086 and 2087 of The Quebec Gazette. [back]

  9. See Goldsmith 41, Bentley, "Oliver Goldsmith" 29, and Tracy Ware xxiii. [back]


Occasional Prologue


Written and spoken by Thomas Cary, the editor of this paper, at the opening of the Patagonian theatre; where, with some other gentlemen, he performed, a few evenings, for his amusement. The great object of this prologue was to exalt the theatre, with a view to its being put on as respectable a footing as possible.

To soften care, mend, and refine the age,
Are the great ends of a well-order’d stage.
Not such a stage as, in unbridled times,
Our Charles imported from licencious climes,
When decency of wit became the sport,                           5
And Comus revel’d in a british court;
But such as suits a George and Charlotte’s days,
When all that’s decorous the scepter sways;
When the chaste buskin and the decent sock
By grandeur’s worn, and greatness feels no shock;         10
Peeress and peer with genius fill the scene,
Convinc’d that talents cannot rank demean.
The colledge soph feels the dramatic rage,
And struts his hour upon a public stage.

     If, to turn back a retrospective eye;                           15
We stately Rome and learned Greece descry,
There, for the drama, taste, with lib’ral hand,
Bids colums soar, and the rich pile expand;
Sculpture, well-pleas’d, exhausts its plastic art,
And breathing marble aids the scenic part:                      20
If palaces and temples proudly rise,
With each the theatre in splendor vies.
Full well the ancients knew the stage’s pow’r
To still the tempest of the troubled hour:
For, to familiarize the useful tale,                                     25
’Twas the charm’d tub they threw out to the whale;
And moderns nothing of the lesson lose,
That pow’r’s great magic art is to amuse.
Hence discord oft was lull’d to gentle peace,
And civic ire its clamours learn’d to cease:                      30
Of labour’s task the toil was render’d light,
And listless stupor rous’d to active might.

     Where-ever Rome her conqu’ring armies led,
The taste the same, there the same passion spread;
Asia and Afric caught the gen’rous flame,                      35
And of barbarians cast behind the name.
Wider and wider spread the drama’s light,
’Till gothic age sunk excellence in night.
There lost, for centuries, it dormant lay,
’Till, with the press, again it saw the day.                        40
Nor barely saw—for, in a sudden blaze,
The drama’s sun shot forth resplendent rays.
Thick as had been the gloomy veil of night
Lo! Shakespear rose, and all again was light.
Shakespear! whose eye look’d varied nature through,    45
Whose magic pen her motley image drew.
Hence the mind, form, and feature of the age,
Are, in nice tints, reflected from the stage.
Guilt, torn by all the horrors of remorse,
There sees the air-drawn dagger in his course;                50
Whilst, by a slender thread, o’er hangs his fate,
Which sure descends, in vengeance, soon or late.
Tyrants, knaves, fools of ev’ry shape and hue,
Are, in terrorem, there hung up to view.

     Not that such scenes can any here appal,                   55
No, heav’n be prais’d, they are european all.
Unless some doughty Quixote of the quill,
Of fame ambitious, to display his skill,
Some little local foible should descry,
And view it with a microscopic eye,                               60
The mole-hill for a giant mountain take,
And form some horrid plot on a mistake;
And, to conclude, our manager engage
To bring’t to light upon his monstrous stage,
Who hopes, in time, if you the wish approve,                  65
Within a somewhat larger sphere to move;
Meanwhile, for all our studies, toil and pains,
We count your plaudits as our richest gains.


Explanatory Notes



Our Charles… On his return to England from exile in Europe in 1660, Charles II (1630-1685) lifted the ban on theatres that had existed during the Commonwealth (1649-1660), thus inaugurating a revival of drama and preparing the way for the heroic dramas and witty comedies that characterized the Restoration Age. Among the "imports from licencious climes" that Cary may have had in mind were the Spanish-style comedies of intrigue by Aphra Benn, the Italianate stage settings of Thomas Killigrew, and the Frenchified Shakespearean productions of Sir William Davenant.


Comus First performed (privately) in 1634 and published (anonymously) in 1637, the Maske by John Milton to which Cary refers was not given the title Comus (after its protagonist, a pagan god of Milton’s invention) until it was reprinted in a version adapted for the stage in 1738. When it was performed in London in 1750, it was graced with a "Prologue; Spoken by Mr. Garrick" and written by Samuel Johnson (see Works 1: 115-15).


George and Charlotte’s days George III (1738-1820), who reigned form 1760 to 1820, and Queen Charlotte (Princess Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Sterlitz), who married him in 1761 and died in 1818.


When all that’s decorous… Owing in large measure to the power of dramatic censorship that was given to the Lord Chamberlain by the Licensing Act (1737), dramas and performances were indeed relatively "chaste" and "decent" during the reign of George III.


buskin A high, thick-soled boot worn in ancient times by actors in tragedy.


sock A light shoe worn by Roman actors of comedy.


soph Abbreviation of sophister: a student in second or third year at Cambridge University.


struts his hour upon the public stage See Shakespeare, Macbeth, V. v. 24-26: "Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more…."


pile Large building.


breathing Life-like; realistic.


the ancients The authors of classical Greece and Rome.


tale…tub…whale… In the Preface to A Tale of a Tub (1704), Jonathan Swift attributes the title of his satire to the practice to which Cary refers: "Sea-men have a Custom, when they meet a Whale, to fling him out an empty Tub by way of Amusement, to divert him from laying violent Hands upon the Ship."


Where-ever Rome…gothic age…all again was light Cf. William Cowper’s account of the eclipse and re-emergence of the creative and civilizing power that produced the epics of Homer, Virgil and Milton in "Table Talk" (1782), 560-65:

Thus genius rose and set at ordered times,
And shot a day-spring into distant climes;
Ennobling every region that he chose,
He sunk in Greece, in Italy he rose,
And, tedious years of Gothic darkness past,
Emerged all splendid in our isle at last.


the press The printing-press.


Shakespear! whose eye… Cf., in conjunction with the preceding lines, Johnson, "Prologue, Spoken by Mr. Garrick, at the Opening of the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane, 1747" 1-4:

When learning’s triumph o’er her barb’rous foes
First rear’d the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose;
Each change of many-colour’d life he drew,
Exhausted worlds, and then imagin’d new....


motley many-coloured, with a possible reference to the costume (motley) worn by jesters.


 Guilt…air-drawn dagger…. Cary is referring to the soliloquy in Macbeth II. i.33-64 where Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Duncan, imagines that he sees "a dagger…before [him], / The handle toward [his] hand"


in terrorem As a warning. See the quotation from "Canadian Theatre" in the Introduction, above.


some doughty Quixote of the quill A brave writer of lofty but unrealizable ideals like those of the hero of Cervantes Don Quixote (1605, 1615).


microscopic eye See Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1733-34) 1: 193-96:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.
Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,
T’ inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n?



our manager Thomas Treadway Odber (see Introduction, above).


his monstrous stage The Patagonian Theatre, the Patagonians being a south American people whose size was greatly exaggerated by European travellers.


 plaudits Praises; applause.


Works Cited in the Introduction and Explanatory Notes


Bentley, D.M.R. Mimic Fires: Accounts of Early Long Poems on Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994.

——. "Oliver Goldsmith and The Rising Village," Studies in Canadian Literature 5.1 (1990): 21-61.

Bell, John, ed. Bell’s British Theatre. 34 vols. London: G. Cawthorn, 1797.

"Canadian Theatre." Quebec Gazette Supplement 2085. 1.

A Collection of the Most Esteemed Farces and Entertainment Performed on the British Stage. 6 vols. Edinburgh: S. Doig, 1792.

Cowper, William. Poems. Ed. J.C. Bailey. London: Methuen, 1905.

Goldsmith, Oliver. Autobiography of Oliver Goldsmith: a Chapter in Canada’s Literary History. Ed. Wilfrid Myatt. 1943. 2nd ed. Hansport, N.S.: Lancelot, 1985.

Johnson, Samuel. Works. 1825. 11 vols. New York: AMS, 1970.

Pope, Alexander. Poems. Ed. John Butt. London: Methuen, 1963.

Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Ed. G.B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1948.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub, with Other Early Works, 1696-1707. Ed. Herbert Davis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1938.

Ware, Tracy. Introduction. Jean Baptiste: a Poetic Olio, in II Cantos. By Levi Adams. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1996. ix-xxv.

Williams, Michael, and Carolyn Quick. "A Second Poem by Thomas Cary." Canadian Notes and Queries 36 (Autumn, 1986): 9-10.