Elliott, Lorris 1931–1999
Lorris Elliott 1931–1999
It is always a tragedy when a talented and generous educator is forced to leave his career. This is surely the case for Lorris Elliott, who was forced to leave teaching far too early after Alzheimer’s Disease enveloped first his mind, and then his body. Elliott was a man of many talents. At his death in 1999, he was remembered as an actor, playwright, novelist, educator, amateur musician, and good friend. And just as importantly, Elliott was remembered for having championed the work of numerous black authors and for having introduced their work to the many students who enrolled in the university classes that he taught.
Lorris Elliott was born on December 30, 1931, in Scarborough, in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in the West Indies. He was the eldest of the nine children born to Fitz Stephen Elliott, a school headmaster, and Uris Elliott, a pianist in theatres who accompanied silent films. By the time he was three years old, the young Lorris Elliott was already learning to read, and by the time he was fourteen, he had completed high school. Trinidad and Tobago has a population in excess of a million people and is a city with a strong emphasis on education, where many youths continue their education in secondary schools. Elliott was one of these youths. After high school, he continued his studies at Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad, an all–boys secondary school that provided an additional two years of education. Soon Elliott was teaching at a high school in Tobago and Trinidad, a task he undertook from 1950 to 1959. Elliott was only nineteen when he began teaching, but it was the start of a career that would define his life. Before long, Elliott sought an advanced education and greater opportunities in Canada. As the 1950s drew to a close, Elliott prepared to leave Tobago to begin a new life in Canada.
Elliott emigrated to Canada while in his late twenties and quickly enrolled at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In 1962 he was awarded a B.A. in English and graduated from the university with honors. Elliott continued at the University of British Columbia, enrolling in a graduate program in English and was awarded his Master’s in English in 1965, with an emphasis on twentieth century literature. His next move was to Montreal, Quebec to enroll in the University of Montreal’s doctoral program in English literature. In 1974, Elliott received his Ph.D. in twentieth century literature. His Dissertation, Time, Self, and Narrative: A Study of Wilson Harris’s “Guiana Quartet,” examined a work by a black contemporary poet, Wilson Harris. In the years following graduate school, it would become clear that Elliott’s dissertation work had served as an able predictor of the kinds of work that he would later champion by other authors, as well as write himself.
While still enrolled in his own graduate program, Elliott began teaching at McGill University in Montreal in 1969. Initially, he began at McGill as a lecturer, but in 1990, he became a full professor of literature and creative writing just before retiring due to health difficulties. In an obituary written in July of 1999, Pat Donnelly wrote of Elliott that he had little use for authors such as William Shakespeare, “whom he considered to be overrated and over–produced.” Instead Elliott focused his energy on teaching the poetry,
Born December 30, 1931, in Scarborough, in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago; died on July 14, 1999, in Ottawa, Canada. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A., 1962; University of British Columbia, M.A.; University of Montreal, Ph.D., 1974.
Career; McGill University, lecturer and professor, 1969–90. Author: Coming For to Carry: A Novel in Five Parts; Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada; The Bibliography of Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada; Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada.
Memberships: Black Theatre Workshops, Honorary Board Member, 1976–80.
drama, and narratives of minority poets. While at McGill, Elliott introduced the first course on Caribbean literature to be taught at McGill, and in doing so he opened a completely new world for Canadian university students. While a member of the English department, Elliott also worked to develop a creative writing program at McGill.
In addition to his teaching, Elliott was also an actor, writer, and editor. He wrote several plays, which were produced on stage, although not published. One of Elliott’s plays, How Now Black Man, was produced at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal in 1968. This same play later became the inaugural piece in the founding of the Black Theatre Workshop in 1970. Prior to the creation of the Black Theatre Workshop, there was no forum for the performance of black art and drama. The adoption of Elliott’s work as its inaugural piece was an important honor for the new playwright. More than thirty years later, the Black Theatre Workshop was still providing a venue for black playwrights to present their work, and after that first play, this organization went on to produce another Elliott play, Holding Firm the Centre (“knit one/purl one”). Elliott’s plays focused on the world inhabited by minorities, whether in the Caribbean or Canada. For instance, his play, How Now Black Man, told of the adventures of a West Indian black man, while a later play, The Trial of Marie–Joseph Angelique–Negress and Slave, related the story of the woman who was accused of setting Montreal on fire in 1734. Other plays included A Lil’le Bit o’ Some’ting and Our Heroes. Because Elliott did not publish his plays, there is little information about their production histories, their reception from the audience, or even their content. They are essentially now lost to the public.
Although it seems clear now that Elliott was always destined to be an educator scholar, and writer, that was not how his life had been planned. According to Elliott’s sister, their father had other plans for his oldest son. She told Bourdon that Elliott had been “pressured to excel by his father.” Elliott was expected to win scholarships and the expectation was that he would become a doctor. But Elliott’s interests did not lie in the direction of science; instead he was drawn to the arts. In addition to literature, Elliott also loved music. Elliott’s sister suggested that music “gave him a bit of freedom from his books and studies.” As an adult, Elliott continued as a musician, finding an expression for his love of music in both the piano and the bass. While at the University of British Columbia, Elliott played bass with the Canadian Jazz Trio. Later, he frequently played the piano at the Faculty Club at McGill. After his death, memories of Elliott’s musical talent were recalled in his obituary. In one case, a childhood friend, Steve Blizzard, related that, “One of the things that stuck in my mind was going to a party in Montreal. Lorris played the Beatles’ tune, Yesterday. I have never heard it played like that before or since. He was a great musician and teacher.”
Elliot was not the first person from the Caribbean to find opportunity in Canada. There was a long history of immigration for young blacks from the Caribbean to Montreal. By the 1930s, one half of Montreal’s black population was from the Caribbean, and as living conditions for blacks improved, immigration increased steadily. Eventually, many of these young immigrants entered the university system, as did Elliott. The new black community became a center for art, for poetry and drama, and for music. These were also the things that drew Elliott, and many of them grew and changed under his tutelage. Some evidence of this focus on artistic endeavors can be seen in the many cultural and art festivals that are held to celebrate the black community’s dual heritage in the Caribbean and Canada. Still more evidence of these artistic endeavors is the Black Theatre Workshop, in which Elliott was involved. He served as an Honorary Board Member from 1976 to 1980. In service to Montreal’s black community, Elliott was also active in the National Black Coalition of Canada from 1979 to 1981. He organized an important new conference, The Black Artist in the Canadian Milieu, at McGill. He was also active in the Black Literacy Society of Montreal from 1983 to 1990.
Elliot strove in his plays to give a voice to the Caribbean man in a mainly European culture. He furthered this endeavor with his novel, Coming For to Carry: A Novel in Five Parts (1982), which was self–published. Similar to his other works, this novel centered on the life of a black man from Trinidad and Tobago, who confronted racism and loneliness in his life. Elliott also wrote non–fiction books, and he was perhaps better known for those works than for his plays or his novel. Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada, 1985, is an anthology of poems and short stories by writers from Canada’s black community. Elliott’s work as a scholar was most directly seen in the bibliography that he compiled and edited, The Bibliography of Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada, 1986. Elliott’s final non–fiction work was Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada: A Preliminary Survey, 1988. At the time of his death, his sister, Aura Elliott Vaucrosson, told journalist Buzz Bourdon that her brother “was very interested in promoting black literature. People weren’t getting published and recognized [and] he had the means of helping [them] because of his position at McGill.” With the publication of his non–fiction anthology and bibliography, Elliott became an advocate for Canada’s black writers, thus making their works more accessible to a more extensive audience. Elliott died July 14, 1999 in Ottawa, in a home for the aged. He was 68 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for nine years.
Coming For to Carry: A Novel in Five Parts, William–Wallace, 1982.
Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada, Willaims–Wallace, 1985.
The Bibliography of Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada, Williams–Wallace, 1986.
Literary Writings by Blacks in Canada, Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, 1988.
The Gazette (Montreal), July 24, 1999, p. F9.
The Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 1999, p. D9.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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