Tag Archives: historical drama

Unity (1918) by Kevin Kerr


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.


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.

The Harps of God by Kent Stetson

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.

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