Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr

Unity

Winner of the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama

Winner of the 2001 Jessie Richardson Award for Large Theatre: Outstanding Artistic Achievement, Original Script

The Spanish Flu literally ravaged the planet from early 1918 to late 1920. Infections were documented from the remote South Pacific Islands to the northern Arctic of Canada. With a mortality rate of up to 20%, some estimates place the number of infected at 500 million and the death toll to be as high as 100 million people – roughly 5% of the world’s population at the time. The global pandemic was exacerbated by the end of World War I. Hundreds of thousands of troops were returning home around the globe and spreading the illness. The difference between this flu and other strains was the fact that healthy young adults were the ones dying from the virus. According to Wikipedia, “Modern research, using virus taken from the bodies of frozen victims, has concluded that the virus kills through a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system). The strong immune reactions of young adults ravaged the body, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and middle-aged adults resulted in fewer deaths among those groups” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic). Unity (1918) is Kevin Kerr’s Governor General Award winning dramatic retelling of the effects of the pandemic on a generic Canadian small-town – in this case, Unity, Saskatchewan.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working on collecting winners of GG for Drama; this book intrigued me much more than most of the other titles I’ve acquired lately from this list. It seemed like an interesting story idea and I had no prejudices or expectations coming in because I had never even heard of the author, other than GG lists. I was very satisfied with Unity (1918) and how it approached the topic.

The play is told in two acts with a total of thirty-five scenes, most of which are under three pages, with the longest coming in at six. Essentially there are four important plot stages: rumors and fear, panic, outbreak, and aftermath. The story largely unfolds as an ensemble piece; the characters include a trio of sisters, a young undertaker, a blind soldier who just returned from the front, two telephone/telegraph operators, and a few other supporting characters from the town. One of the sisters, Beatrice, is the closest thing to a “main character” but in reality this is the story of a town and Unity, Saskatchewan is the focal point.

What is really stunning about Unity (1918) is how timeless of a story this is, particularly how Kerr deals with the panic and hysteria that goes along with serious public health threats like the Spanish Flu. Unity tries quarantines, banning and canceling public gatherings including church services, people are required to wear masks, and, when the flu finally does arrive, scapegoating and blaming. Almost a century later, all you need to do is Google SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu or Ebola and you will come across the same behaviours today.

Kerr uses an interesting method of writing dialog. He uses directional pointers – asterisks and slashes – to intentionally have characters talking over each other and interrupting. Early in the book I found this very disorienting as it is not something that you come across every day, but, as I got used to it, I felt that it really added to panicked feeling permeating the story. The scenes are very short and the vast majority of lines are only a sentence or two. Additionally, there are very minimal stage directions and the directions that the author does include are free of literary indulgences – so the dialogue tells the story.

All-in-all, Unity (1918) is a great historical drama. It is an ageless story but really shines the light on one of the most difficult periods of the 20th century. Kevin Kerr employs inventive literary techniques but leaves a lot of room for theatrical interpretation and staging. Definitely worth the 2 or 3 hours.

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