Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Drama
The 1989 Montreal Massacre was one of those rare moments of violence on a grand scale rarely seen in Canada. As Canadians, we often assume that mass murders such as this are reserved for our neighbours to the south. Fortunately, they are infrequent in Canada but, for this reason, they often have longer lasting legacies and impacts. The December Man, the 2007 play by Anglo-Quebec playwright Colleen Murphy, uses this tragedy as its backdrop. I really really enjoyed this book; many scenes and conversations really hit me hard. With only three characters, you really get pulled into the family dynamic and feel for the young man, Jean, who is the centre of the story.
This Governor General’s award winner is a short play, only 61 pages, but it is very deliberate in its pacing. What this particular play has become known for in the decade since its premiere is its narrative technique – it is told backwards in time with each scene moving a few months in reverse, a la Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with scene one taking place in March 1992 and the final scene unfolding in December 1989. It may sound odd if you haven’t experienced a play or novel like this before, but it provides an interesting dynamic with the characters. The play opens with two parents grieving the death of their son while they gas themselves to death in their living room. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse time that Colleen Murphy uses is really the only way to tell this story and once you finish it, you realize that linear forward time simply wouldn’t work.
The December Man is ultimately a story about what happens at the periphery of these public tragic events; what goes on beyond and outside the view of TV news cameras. Jean is terribly affected by what he experienced and witnessed at Ecole Polytechnique; in 2015 he would be treated with PTSD, no questions asked, but 1989 was a different time. The driving catalyst of Jean’s breakdown is his mother (remember high school chemistry – a catalyst isn’t the cause of a reaction, merely an accelerant). Kate doesn’t understand what her son is experiencing and simply wants him to move on and get over it. She cares deeply but doesn’t know how to properly deal with what has happened. This is very difficult and painful to read because you can so empathize with Jean. At one point, on the one year anniversary of the massacre, Jean admits to his mother that he hasn’t been going to classes; she replies with “If you’d been really smart you’d have skipped classes this exact day last year and saved us all a lot of trouble.”
This is a hard book to review because of the reverse chronology. I can’t say too much without giving away huge spoilers. Not much happens in terms of plot in this play, but it is a masterful combination of psychological and domestic drama where often times silence or a single word speaks huge volumes. I would love to see it staged. This short book can easily be finished in one sitting, but it will haunt you long afterwards. A must read for a fan of Canadian drama, Quebec literature, or anyone who likes to read sad stories.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Plays are often times collected together in a similar way to short stories and published as a multi-work volume. The works can sometimes be related – by setting, characters, themes, etc – but often times are not. Some of these collections have been mainstays in drama libraries and curriculum across the country (The East End Plays by George F Walker for example). Occasionally as well, these books have won the Governor General’s Award for Drama because they are better able to show off a writer’s skill and depth; in fact three of the last eight winners have been collections, including 2013 and 2014. Fault Lines: Three Plays is the first such volume that I have read. Nicolas Billon’s collection, his second published book, contains three plays, 2009’s Greenland, 2012’s Iceland and 2013’s Faroe Islands. This book absolutely blew me away; Fault Lines was one of the best books I have read all year. Full stop. End of statement.
Looking at the titles of the three individual plays, there is an obvious relation – all are northern island nations (and Scandinavian states as Greenland, for now, is still under Danish rule) with small populations and insular cultures. But, the relation of the three plays for the most part ends there. There is no character crossover, no related plot lines, and even thematically, other than some very broad ideas which I’ll get into later, there is only minimal crossover. Each of these plays has its own set of circumstances and fascinating characters. Greenland uses the discovery of a small new island by a glaciologist as a reflector of his disintegrating family situation. Iceland, set in Toronto, uses an Estonian prostitute, a bible thumper, and a greasy real estate agent as an allegory for capitalism and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And Faroe Islands deals with the whale hunt in that country and looks at the hypocrisy often present in the most vocal of activists. Each of these plays has its own writing and staging style, themes, structure, and its own charm.
The delivery of these works is very different from any play I’ve ever read. All three unfold using monologues. Greenland and Iceland are told through intertwined monologues by three different characters, and Faroe Islands is told by a single character. In a way, Fault Lines closely resembles a series of short stories being relayed to you directly by the characters (not simply a first person POV). There is no back-and-forth dialogue and very few stage directions. Even set design would be very minimalistic; I get the impression that any of these three plays could be staged with nothing but a stool on a stage with maybe a small blank screen to project a few pictures for context. This method allowed Billon to have much more three-dimensional characters than I typically find while reading plays and, oddly enough, the author creates some of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever come across in CanLit.
Iceland was my favorite of the three. Billon uses this monologue structure to bring together three unrelated characters into a very sad and brutal story. These three characters are also the highlight of this collection. Kassandra, the Estonian prostitute, is a very heartrending and sympathetic character – pulled into the world of sex work to help her family in Europe; Halim, the real estate agent, is an absolutely horrible excuse of human and deserves the fate that ultimately befalls him; and Anna, the young lady who is the glue of the play, is a fascinating and tragically ludicrous character. Iceland takes on a lot in only 40 pages, but most interestingly is how it deals with dreams of freedom and the nature of capitalism and capitalists.
Throughout the whole collection, there is a desire to be part of something larger than what exists now. Jonathan in Greenland yearns to be a leader in field of climate change; Kassandra in Iceland wants to live up to her mother’s expectations and take advantage of the promise offered by the revolution at home; and Dara in Faroe Islands literally wants to save the whales. This theme is the glue that holds these plays together. Additionally, as a student of English Literature and a graduate student in Island Studies, I see a lot going in all of these plays that uses the tropes of small island life and literature. Greenland uses notions of isolation and environmental vulnerability as an important part of the story. In Iceland, while no action whatsoever takes place in that country, the island is used as a microcosm of the wider world. And in Faroe Islands the idea of insularity and traditional customs being misunderstood by the outsider is central. I can easily see Fault Lines being added to small island literature courses (I would add it).
This is essential reading accessible to everyone. Even if you don’t want to delve deeply into the highly complex themes, the characters and plot are engrossing to even the most casual reader. Also, since the three plays are done with monologues, it is much more accessible than a lot of drama in that there isn’t that initial shock of confusion with who’s who in the opening scenes. Fault Lines is without question the best book I’ve read from 2013.
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.
Winner of the 1990 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award
Winner of the 1989 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play
Shortlisted for the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Any first year English student knows that in the broadest of senses, there are four genres of literature: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama – and of course each of these has their own endless lists of sub-genres. Drama is one of the most difficult genres to read and, I would imagine, write. The story is essentially conveyed solely by dialogue and it is primarily written to be performed rather than necessarily read. When reading a play, you are thrown right into the middle of the action, often with very little context and it can sometimes be difficult to get an initial grasp on the story and characters, especially with contemporary drama which tends to push the envelope. The average literature student struggles with drama more than other genres and very very few literary blogs review books of drama. With all of that being said, reading a play can be just as rewarding as any novel or volume of poetry. Canada is very lucky to have more than its fair-share of world-class dramatists: Sharon Pollack, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, George Ryga, Catherine Banks and Daniel McIvor just to name a few. I’ve been collecting more Canadian plays lately and I’m planning on adding more of the genre to my reading rotation, starting with this selection.
Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrights and Native writers in general and his works are frequently included in the curriculum of Canadian literature courses. I’ve previously reviewed his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen on my site. His signature work is, without a doubt, his play The Rez Sisters, the story of a group of women on the Wasaychigan Hill reserve going to the world’s biggest bingo. Today’s selection, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is the companion and quasi-sequel to The Rez Sisters and takes place on the same reserve. This play uses hockey to bind several misanthropic characters together in a play that is equal parts comedy and almost unbearably dark tragedy.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Rez Sisters, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. But, after letting it marinate for a few days I have to admit my opinion of Dry Lips is more favorable than it was when I initially finished. It’s difficult to give this book a proper review without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
The play has a few arcs that eventually intersect and burst. We have Zachary who wants to open a bakery to bring some prosperity to the reserve and is worried about his wife finding out about his adultery; we have Big Joey who is trying to connect with his son, Dickie Bird – who suffers from severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Pierre who is ecstatic to be the referee in the women’s hockey game; Spooky who uses pious Christianity as salvation from his wild youth; and Simon, a mysterious character that seems to float from situation to situation. The two acts are very well defined; the first act is very comedy heavy while the second is very tragedy filled and difficult to read in certain spots. Throughout the play, the action takes place under that watchful eye of Nanabush – the Trickster, the Christ-esque creature that is often omnipresent in Native literature.
The positives of Dry Lips were all related to Highway’s unflinching and unromanticised depiction of life on the reserve and the inherent problems that go along with it. Violence, alcoholism, poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, and cultural decay are all taken on in a brutally unforgiving way. This is punctuated with a particularly disturbing scene between Dickie Bird and Patsy. At the end of the play, you are left with neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic feeling. Instead, Dry Lips leaves the reader with a sense of realism. Life on the reserve is ugly and there are no easy solutions.
The negatives are a little harder to put your finger on. The action of the play is very frantic and scattered at times. Obviously this can make the plot and forward momentum difficult to follow, especially since a few of the main characters are essentially reflectors and interchangeable. Also, the stage directions are very detailed and more than are typical in contemporary drama; I think this would likely leave little room for a director to leave their stamp on a production.
All in all, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a good, and ultimately, important play. It takes on difficult themes, it uses language creatively, it does interesting things with the Trickster character, and it completes a mythology started in The Rez Sisters. This may not be a play for the casual reader or even a good introduction to Canadian drama. But, for the advanced CanLit reader, for someone interested in Native lit, or for someone with a deep interest in Canadian drama, it is a worthwhile, if not essential, read.
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.
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.
On the Job is a not one of Canada’s best known plays but it does occasionally creep its way into the odd Canadian Drama class here and there. I found a copy of this at a local used book store and after reading a few random pages I figured it was worth the $2. David Fennario is well known in the theatre community but not as well known in the general literary community. The Anglophone from Montreal’s most prominent moment likely came in 1990 with the production of his infamous The Death of René Lévesque at his home theatre, The Centaur. On the Job was his first play, produced in 1975, starring Hollywood mainstay Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, I, Robot, Dinner for Schmucks), opening to rave reviews and eventually being produced on CBC.
This play moves very fast as a written work; you could likely get through the 110 pages in 2 hours. One thing that I found very strange about the written text was the lack of stage directions. Contemporary playwrights are prone to give very detailed directions to aid in their original vision coming to life. On the Job seems to take more minimalistic approach primarily only using entrances and exits for directions. This requires you, as either a reader or director, to really use your imagination. The dialog is very punchy and has a heavy staccato rhythm. Lines are rarely longer than 10 or so words.
Now for the actual story; the play is set in the shipping room of a dress factory on Christmas Eve in 1970. Thanks to a new manger, the crew is upset because they are not going to have the afternoon off like they have every other year. This eventually escalates into a druken wildcat strike with lots of laughs along the way. On the Job is ultimately a play looking at Canadian class structures of the time. You have the lower level workers, middle management, upper management, and the ownership. Each of these characters are written as their archetypal class representations and done so rather effectively.
One comment I do have is that as a play to be produced for live theatre it has not aged well. If I were a producer I would need to do quite a bit of updating; a young audience member would likely have no idea what Eaton’s is for instance. As a piece of literature capturing the mood at the tail end of the Sixties it is very effective. By turns funny, rhapsodic, sad, and brutally honest; On the Job is definitely worth the read but I would never produce it or see it live.
Winner of the 1984 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Canadian drama has always been something of an enigma. We have world class writers like Sharon Pollack, Michael Healey, Kent Stetson, George F. Walker, and the list goes on but it seems that our theatrical literature does not get the same attention as the great American and European dramatists. This is certainly not for lack of quality. On the plus side though over the past number of years more and more universities have been including Canadian Drama courses in their CanLit rotations and in 1981 the Canada Council for the Arts took the huge step of recognizing drama’s unique place in our literary culture by separating the Governor General’s Award for poetry and drama into their own categories.
One of our leading dramatists is without a doubt Judith Thompson. A two time winner of the GGs, countless Dora Awards, the Toronto Arts Award, a Canadian Authors Association Award, several Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Awards, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and Ms. Thompson was the first Canadian to receive the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Needless to say her resume is quite impressive. About a year ago I went through great trouble to obtain a copy of her second play White Biting Dog; eventually tracking it down on AbeBooks from a vendor in Vancouver. I finished the book about a week ago and this was the first book in a long time that after finishing the only thing I could think was “what just happened?” This is not a common thought for an English major who specialized in Canadian literature and loves drama.
Like most of Thompson’s plays White Biting Dog relies heavily on mystical realism and theatrical metaphor to drive the action. The play has five characters. Cape, the central figure, is a young former lawyer who is suicidal; the play gets rolling with him reflecting on his attempt to end his life and how he is saved by a white dog that sends him a message. The dog’s owner, Pony, ends up at Cape’s house (how, I am still not sure), a romance ensues and helps serve as the catalyst for the plays central conflicts. Cape lives with his father , Glidden, who is close to death from some kind of disease brought on by his addiction to rolling around in peat moss. Cape believes (according to the message from the dog) that if he reunites his parents, his father will live. Cape’s mother, Lomia, and her much younger boyfriend, Pascal, arrive at Glidden’s home after their apartment burns down. What ensues is a very fast paced web of lies built by Cape to bring his parents back together. It would be almost impossible to divulge anymore details without ruining the book for you.
This play examines a lot in a 104 page book or 2 hour stage production. By turns the play takes on the symbolism and meaning of death, love, suicide, sex, homosexuality, and the eternal bond that two people share no matter what circumstances have been dealt to them. White Biting Dog, probably more than any other Canadian book I have ever read, really explores the existentialism of human interactions and relationships. Now all this being said; this is an incredibly difficult book to read. Like a lot of plays it is written more so to be used as a script and production map, as opposed to a piece of literature to be read; the sentence structures and vernacular that is used is meant to guide the actors in their performances. There will be times you need re-read a page or monologue because you will sit there and shake your head wondering what’s going on.
White Biting Dog is Judith Thompson at her best. I hope that I one day have the opportunity to see a staged production of this piece. For those of you who wouldn’t know a Canadian playwright from a hole in the ground, well, you now know where to start.
Welcome to my new book review blog on Canadian Literature. As the Canadian radio legend Jian Ghomeshi put it a few years ago, as Canadians we “love our beer, we love our hockey, and we love our arts.” It can be argued that literature is at the forefront of Canada’s artistic scene. Over the last 50 years there has been a great proliferation of Canadian literature (aka CanLit); I attribute this to two things. First, the emergence of the great triumvirate of contemporary CanLit: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje; and secondly, and more recently, CBC Radio’s annual Canada Reads debates on the book that every Canadian should read.
Canadian writing can be traced back to the mid-late 1700s and narrative tales from the likes of Saukamapee, David Thompson, and Samuel Hearne and story writers like John Richardson and Frances Brooke. These visionaries planted the seeds for people like Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who in turn planted the seeds for everyone from Sir Charles G.D. Roberts through Marina Endicott. Literature, like any other art, evolves, sometimes violently, but deep in its core CanLit has remained the same; themes of survival and isolation prevail. The detractors of Atwood and Frye will be up in arms with this assertion but I challenge you to name one piece of Canadian writing that these themes do not apply.
One of the biggest things I love about great writing is how small it makes you feel. When you read someone like Mordecai Richler or Leonard Cohen there is one thing, among many, you should feel, that’s jealousy. When I put down a great piece I feel jealous of the talent these men and women have that I will never posses. This is one of the most humbling yet inspiring feelings I have felt, and its what keeps me reaching for that next title on my bookshelf.
As some of you may know my previous blog, at http://www.thebookblog.net, focused on Canadian literature with the periodic interruption by an international piece, this review will be no different. I encourage you to read the books I review and comment on here or write to me; tell me what you think, I encourage you to disagree with me. So sit back and enjoy the ride.