Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Drama
Winner of the 2001 Canadian Author’s Association’s Carol Bolt Award
I bought this book last year when I was working on collecting some of the plays that have won the Governor-General’s Award for Drama; I had no idea what it was about or anything about the author. I wanted to read another play this week and when I was going through my shelves the front cover caught my eye: a group of fisherman standing on an ice shelf. When I read the back of the cover and did some research this play really gained my interest; it is the true story of a group of sealers in 1914 who were stuck for 2 nights out on the open ice during a fierce snow storm. Kent Stetson, to my surprise, is a PEI-born dramatist who for a period of time ran the Charlottetown independent film company Points East Productions and did extensive work for the National Film Board. The Harps of God is, again, to my surprise, a verse drama. The is an incredible piece of dramatic art that really pushes the boundaries and experiments with both dialog and staging.
The play opens with a group of Newfoundland sealers on the ice in a hard blowing storm. We soon learn that the two ships that are in the area both think the other has picked up the men but they cannot confirm with each other as one ship has had its wireless transmitter removed to save money. As the story progresses their situation deteriorates more and more as the members of the crew start dropping like flies. These sealers circumstances force them to face a lot and naturally brings up and explores a variety of themes. Faith is the most important of these in my opinion; this idea of faith takes two different avenues: God and family. During the time on the ice when things seem to be at their worst the men start questioning their faith, the existence of something bigger, and why this could happen. Family is examined earlier in the play when there is some conflict amongst fathers and sons and the family tradition of sealing. The idea of breaking this tradition is seen almost as blasphemous as turning your back on God.
The dialog in this play is authentically Newfie. While it does take a few pages when you sit down to read this to fully assimilate the language, it really does make this piece what it is. It has all of the characteristics that you would expect of the Newfoundland fisherman: the letter H is often missing, the word ye instead of you, and just all around unorganized sentences. In addition to the speech the other element Stetson uses that makes this play unique is the actual staging of it. The set that would be used for this would consist of at least a two level, extremely wide, ice float. There would have to be a lot of work put into the sound department because of the unique wind noises that would be needed and fire would also be needed on the stage as well. Done right, on a large stage for instance, it would very impressive looking but I do not think this play would work well on a small stage community theatre. One of the earliest premiers of this play was actually done outdoors on a beach during a foggy and misty evening.
I have read a fair bit of Canadian drama but I haven’t ever really read a piece that blew me away. This play definitely did. The language and writing was poetic; molding a verse drama is a very big risk in contemporary theatre but the rhythm this creates combined with the dialog creates a play for the ages. The themes are eternal: faith, human survival, capitalism, and class divisions. The staging is experimental and incredibly vivid. I love literature of the north and The Harps of God will without a doubt take its place in that canon. Reading this play was an experience and I hope, at some point, that I will have the pleasure of seeing this produced.