Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray

Winner of the 1982 Governor-General’s Award for Drama

Winner of the 1982 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award

Winner of the 1981 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award

One of the country’s best known and most produced plays, Billy Bishop Goes to War is something of an aberration in published Canadian drama; it is in fact a musical that is published with lyrics and descriptions of the music. After doing some research I have found that, unlike most musicals, the producers/director of the show are responsible for the music, none is provided when the rights to the play are purchased. With that being said, the lyrics and musical descriptions work very well; they are key plot elements and are often used as turning points in the plot of the play. This book tells the story of legendary Canadian World War I pilot Billy Bishop and his rise to glory from a failing R.M.C. student to the toast of an empire.

Winning a number of awards, most notably the 1983 Governor-General’s Award for Drama, this play rose to prominence because of it’s style and structure, not because of any ground breaking plot or writing. Billy Bishop Goes to War is fundamentally a one-man show with a piano player providing backing vocals. I would think this would be very daunting for an actor, you would basically be responsible for memorizing a 102 page book. The majority of the play is Bishop, or whichever role he assumes, addressing the audience. This is very effective; even while reading the play you get a real sense of intimacy with the characters. When another role is assumed, the actor simply changes his voice or stance somewhat to show that he is taking on another personae. The staging in this production is very creative too; there are no huge elaborate sets or props: there is simply Bishop, a piano, and for the scenes where he is speaking about his time in the air, a model airplane he holds in his hand. In terms of both acting and staging, this play is theatrical minimalism at its best.

A few weeks ago CBC broadcast a new TV production of the play with John Gray and his collaborator Eric Peterson reuniting for the show. Even on the small-screen this was something impressive to watch, simply because of the range that is needed by the lead actor. The music is central to this piece, as I mentioned, it is used to shift the mood and also used as a leitmotif. This play definitely has it’s place in the Canadian dramatic tradition. Billy Bishop Goes to War is among a great renaissance of our national drama that was taking place in the early 80s along with other playwrites like Sharon Pollack, Judith Thompson, and George F. Walker. This book is certainly worth the read.

5 responses

  1. Thanks for the kind words about “Billy Bishop Goes to War” . Unfortunately, you were misinformed regarding the music. There is a 72 page score which is available to the producers when they license the show. The music, composed by John Gray, is a crucial part of the theatre piece.
    Beverlee Gray

    1. Thank you for letting me know. If it was this same music that was used in the recent CBC production it is very powerful and certainly makes the play what it is. I hope that I have an opportunity to see a live production of this sometime.

    2. Who holds the rights to this show? And how to go about acquiring amateur performance rights?

      1. Not sure exactly, but the publisher is Talonbooks. Best bet might be to find their contact info at they can likely point you in the right direction.

  2. You can see a stage production of “Billy Bishop Goes to War” starring Vancouver’s Ryan Biel and Zachary Gray (John Gray’s son) at Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops Jan 27-Feb 5. Or on Feb 1 at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre.

    Check out reviews etc.of this production.


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