QUEER WORLDS

Adam (Nick Hern Books) is a play based on the true story of a young trans-gender Egyptian who has to contend with various pressures, hostilities, and sanctions (domestic, political, sexual). Adam begins as a girl from a traditional Mid-Eastern family that is fundamentally paternalistic. Called “princess,” she struggles with the conflict between her outer biology and inner feelings to be a male, eventually defying her parents (to the point of creating a rift with her chauvinistic father, and being cast out of her home as a result), surviving physical and psychological abuse at work and by the local police, and eventually being forced to seek asylum (as Adam) in Scotland. The playwright renders two Adams (an Egyptian and a Glasgow one), at different ages, who also play other roles as well: the title character’s parents, a Manager, a Stranger, a Home Office Representative, a GP, a translator, a Mental-Health Nurse, et cetera. First performed by the National Theatre of Scotland in August 2017, it is vivid theatre, highly charged, witty in parts, and deeply affecting.

For one thing, it is a stark reminder of forces that come to bear oppressively on any group that must defend its sexual identity as anything other than an illness, a sin, or crime. But where some such groups (gay or lesbian) resort to a hostile or inappropriate superciliousness, transgendered groups do not—at least on the available evidence to date in theatre—Adam refuses this tone. Instead, it stays rooted in its own time and place, indulging in amusing references to pop culture (especially the Lord of the Rings, Sex and the City, and Alien movies), tracing the psychological burdens of enforced evasion, where the deeply troubled protagonist is pressured to lie about his true feelings, but who, eventually, as a 19-year old courageously refuses to subscribe to any guilt about what he has done to his body. Adam may be physically and psychologically scarred at the end, but he proudly repeats to his mother her own dictum: “a beautiful thing is not perfect.”

Adam plays a palpable role in changing the boundaries of theatre when it comes to sexuality because its transgender theme is destabilizing, especially following the earlier sociological issue of bisexuality in gender identification and practice. If bisexuals are often accused of wanting to have it both ways (of being greedy, in witty parlance), transgender people are even more of a condemned muddle to proponents of fixed sexual identity. The play also implicitly raises the tension between essentialist and social constructionist ideologies. The former asserting gender and sexuality as biologically determined traits; the latter arguing for a redefinition of sexuality in different cultures and eras. After having survived (just barely) abuse, assault, exile, hunger, and condemnation in his native country and abroad (with their own respective oppressions of religious decree, family custom, and sexual politics), Adam finally feels more secure, more natural in his reconstructed gender because to him, the new gender is the real thing, his essence.

Turning to Queers (Nick Hern Books) the British anthology of eight monologues performed on the BBC and skilfully curated (with succinct introductory commentary) by Mark Gatiss, we find a celebration of evolving mores and political milestones in British gay history. Among the eight characters who deliver monologues are a young soldier on a railway platform who recounts seeing a devastated Oscar Wilde on his way to prison; a young tranny who appears to be a “perfect gentleman;” a woman married to a gay man; a young actor confronting sexual stereotypes and a lover infected with AIDS; and a man who celebrates the advent of legalized gay marriage. This is range enough, but it is extended by monologues spoken by a gay black man on the fringes of sub-culture; an older waspish, hilariously camp gay; and a teenager commemorating his first full gay experience after the House of Commons lowered the legal age for gay sex to 18.

What is especially fascinating about all these monologues, beside their superb evocations of character and tone, is their settings in time. They were all curated for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in Britain, and each of them marks points on a locus of British gay history, starting in 1917 (“The Man on the Platform”) when a law was crafted to ensnare “indecent” males; passing to 1929 (“The Perfect Gentleman”) and a back story involving a real-life woman living as a man; moving into the forties and an entrée into a queer black demi-monde (“Safest Spot in Town”); and then the later fifties (“Missing Alice”) and a middle-class wife’s discovery and acceptance of her husband’s gay side. The textures change, as well, evoking a little Rattigan in “Missing Alice” and more than a touch of camp sophistication in “I Miss the War.” The 80s and 90s bring out an eerie gravity under the billowing shadow of AIDS, with gay characters (a young actor in “More Anger” and a young teenager in “A Grand Day Out”) battling clichés, health crises, legal injunctions, and societal prejudices, culminating in “Something Borrowed,” a colourful monologue by a man, joyous over his impending gay marriage and its sliver of legal liberation.

There is no weak monologue in the collection but some pieces go deeper and more vividly into their subjects. What unalloyed pleasure there is to be had in the sheer language and character-sketches! Some of the monologues are guaranteed to affect different readers in various ways. I was especially touched by Mark Gatiss’s young soldier on the railway platform who experiences the ugly and the beautiful all in a single day, his heart beating to the different vibrations, just as I revelled in the sheer style of Matthew Baldwin’s camp 60-year old Jack, with his bawdy humour and momentary flips into polari (London slang). The English certainly have a way with words, and even their didacticism can have a cachet, as in the final monologue—Gareth McLean’s romantic “Something Borrowed” that revives the memory of Oscar Wilde through a brief quotation while exultantly making its case for authoring one’s own life to the damnably futile consternation of straight society. Of course, it should be duly noted that these monologues were devised for television rather than the stage, so this accounts for their literary weight.

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100 PLAYS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS

Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama (for Topdog/Underdog), and many of her other plays have also been honoured with awards. She is nothing if not enterprising: she wrote a play a day for an entire year (365 Days/365 Plays), so the one under review (published in 2018) is hardly a stretch for her. However, for all the hyperbolic puffery about its dislocation of stage devices, fiercely original intelligence, and mature craft, 100 Plays for the First 100 Days (Theatre Communications Group, $22.95) is a disappointment. Composed as a radical reaction to the first hundred days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is a political work, hugely but baldly sardonic. There is almost no subtlety evident in its frontal or even slant satire, and certainly none of the wit that we often catch on Saturday Night Live, especially that show’s parodies of Trump, Sessions, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, and Huckabee-Sanders, those rancid incarnations of hypocrisy, mendacity, and worse.

Each “play” is no more than a mere vignette or skit, often involving anonymous figures (named X, Y, M, N, O) or generalized commoners called Hank or Joe or even Jack and Jill. When real-life politicians turn up (Elizabeth Warren, Mitch McConnell, Jason Chaffetz, Jeff Sessions, or the damnable 45th himself), the playwright is content to have them mouth their own deplorable quotations familiar to anyone who watches CNN or reads the dailies, without much follow-up by way of counterpoint or critical detonation. And even the actions (such as Trump’s chronic pleasure in signing things that he has often not bothered to read carefully or some of the period media gushing over the most claptrap things in American politics) are reduced to literalized actions, e.g. “The 45th keeps signing things. It’s grim” or this emblematic section:

Jack: What’s the subject of the play?

Jill: How shit rises. How mediocre behavior and lame efforts are rewarded. How intelligent folks gush over fair-to-midlin shit.

News Anchors: Gush gush gush gush gush.

Any rational person should know the culpability of mass media in helping Trump rather than the far more competent Hillary, but this is not playwriting, it is typing. And Suzan-Lori Parks seems to anticipate loud objections about the nature of this work, as in this brief exchange (actually, there are only brief exchanges throughout the script):

Y: But it’s not a play,

X: Why not?

Y: Because it doesn’t have a beginning middle and end.

X: So what?

Y: It doesn’t have an arc of development.

X: So what?

Y: The characters, if any, don’t change. There aren’t any beats, it’s just a writer copying the news, just regurgitating the vomit.

Exactly, even though in her Epilogue, Parks defends her work: “This is a play in the sense that all the world is a stage, this is something real that’s happening…” Well, this explains everything and nothing. It is really a special pleading for a work that has been tossed off easily, and even while I unite with Suzan-Lori Parks in a vehemently passionate resistance to Trump’s Derangement Syndrome (this is what Fox News conveniently gets wrong; it is the faux-president and his rancid deplorables and enablers who are deranged, rather than his critics), I find this “play” deplorably simplistic—something that Suzan-Lori Parks probably anticipates by this internal evidence:

The 45th:  Another lousy play.

Jack:  Another lousy president.

Correct on both counts, alas. Parks has forgotten that the best corrosive satire needs controlled sophistication even when it seeks to make its points by exaggeration or irony, as in the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Osborne, and Kushner. Anger, depression, dejection, resistance, outrage can be justifiable passions in the Age of Trump, where the perverse Electoral College (a relic of white slave-owners with outlandish privilege) was able to install the distant second-place finisher in the White House, and where truth (as Kooky Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne (the Mistress of Misinformation) Conway, Sarah the Huckster Sanders, Mike (the Pompously Inept) Pompeo, Donald Jr. (Dumbo Junior), Mitch McConnell (Toad of Repubican Toad’s Hall), et al. vividly demonstrate) is perverted into Orwellian double-speak, and where moral turpitude, ineptitude, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia are justified on the grounds of Divine Providence by the Religious Right, which is really a cult that Jesus would never recognize as his own. But Parks’s play is a hot mess as art by virtually any standard. What a sorry result for a playwright I have praised for Topdog/Underdog and Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3).

TWO PLAYS WITH GHOSTS

Two plays, haunted by a ghost apiece, yet neither ghost is gothic in the traditional sense (as in the black romanticism of The Phantom of the Opera) or even in the sense of a theatrical past (as in Follies). Each ghost has a very different circumstance, texture, and function. The one in Dear Evan Hansen (Theatre Communications Group, $23.95) is that of a teenage bully with psychological issues, whereas the one in For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday (TCG, $23.95) issues out of its playwright’s playfulness and dedication to the magic of theatre.

Dear Evan Hansen speaks to the collaborative nature of a Broadway musical where a group of creators conspire to create a seamless whole of music, lyric, and characterization that could engage a modern audience with a yen for something edgy, grainy, provocative. The Tony-award musical is, like Ruhl’s play, about family but as commentary couched in cyber-hectic times. The ghost in this story is a functionary ficelle, but less flimsy than a mere string or thread would normally be. This ghost haunts the eponymous teen protagonist, the extremely shy, lonely son of a single mom (a nurse’s aide scrambling to pay bills while taking night classes to become a paralegal). Evan Hansen eats lunch in the school cafeteria alone because he is a sad misfit, though at the centre of a loose narrative that is flows out of a lie that he has helped create. A letter written to himself as part of a self-awareness pep talk assignment from his therapist ends up creating even more stress than he had bargained for. The letter ends up in the hands of a perverse bully (Connor Murphy), who later kills himself.

When Connor’s grieving parents find this letter, they mistake it for their son’s suicide note, inviting Evan into their family while mistaking him for their son’s true, sympathetic friend. Evan could, of course, correct this misreading, but he is touched by the Murphys, and gratified that they are helping him make a connection with a world outside his insecure, troubled self. Alas, as is the custom with contemporary high school kids with a deep-seated fascination with cyberspace gossip in Facebook or YouTube, things get blown out of all proportion and accuracy, with the radical lie begetting others.

This is a strong musical for contemporary teenagers because Evan is the very incarnation of the neurotic high school misfit who has immense trouble articulating anything coherent when he feels compelled to interact socially on rare occasions. He can’t even make small talk with a pizza delivery guy, but he is affecting. He has his left arm in a sling that serves as an emblem of his “broken” or “injured” self, but he does have compassion for others. Trouble is that the too much of the libretto and characterization is skin-deep, rooted in the virtually demotic. The plot encompasses such familiar things as a teen “crush” (Evan’s for Connor’s sister, Zoe), rivalries, gossip, fake friendships, viral movements, existential desolation, and suicide. But these issues, which could be lofty when given proper scale, seem glib, and, the music and lyrics of Pasek and Paul sometimes sound disappointingly repetitive and flat. Though nicely woven into the texture of the narrative, the majority of these are softly reflective, only gently melodic, and too many go on for far too long, straining for intensity. Among the best are “Waving Through a Window,” “Sincerely Me,” and “You Will Be Found,” the last being a soaring anthem that ends the First Act.

Naturally, the story of a teen suicide and the pain that this causes to a family is moving to anyone with a real heart, but apart from the title character and a few songs, Dear Evan Hansen does not ever have the compass or the depth of, let us say, Fun Home. Though not a sugary confection, Dear Evan Hansen has sugar in its optimistic ending, and this is apparently what the Broadway and American Zeitgeist cannot resist.

There is more than one ghost in Sarah Ruhl’s nostalgically droll, elegiacal homage to her mother and Peter Pan. The first ghost is the playwright’s grandfather who died in his 80s, but who is brought back on stage, after his five children gather around the kitchen table of their childhood, sharing whisky and memories. The eldest is Ann, Ruhl’s teacher/actress/director mother (retired but still living) who played Peter Pan as an adolescent in Davenport, Iowa (when Mary Martin was recruited backstage for a publicity photo with the teenager). A second ghost is J.M. Barrie, but this is a literary one because, as Ruhl explains in her Preface, after she learned that Barrie wrote Peter Pan “by rubbing five people he loved together,” she decided to compose her play by rubbing five figures from her own family together. But there are other ghosts that are just as important in the scheme of things.  One such is Noh drama, that the playwright honours by borrowing the Japanese genre’s tripartite structure for her deployment of her grandfather’s ghost:  “The protagonist meets the ghost, then recognizes the ghost, then dances with or embraces the ghost.” To which I could add a few extra, crucial ghosts in the sense of childhood and the magic of theatre.

In a brilliant Foreword to the play, critic John Lahr calls the work “a mourning and a celebration, a ghost story and a love story, a meditation on death and an assertion of the triumph of imagination over time.” True enough, but Lahr goes much farther in his praise by making a larger claim for the play that he says “calls out the culture’s psychic numbness.” While it is easy to agree that the United States (misruled at present by a narcissistic, incompetent ignoramus) is, indeed, too often terrorized and relatively benumbed by Trump and his Republican soulless enablers, Ruhl’s play is much too slight a piece of whimsy to bear Lahr’s extravagant assertion. It demonstrates palpable wit, genuine sentiment (rather than sentimentality), some slapstick, political passion, and is evidently written with genuine affection for its characters (all of whom display anomalies of temperament) as it deals with growing up, growing old, growing consciousness about life and death. However, it may be that the playwright’s tone could be considered too subjectively precious for some audiences and readers. In other words, I liked it but my admiration was narrower than Lahr’s.

PARADISE LOST

By Erin Shields
Playwrights Canada Press
147 pages, $17.95
ISBN 978-1-7709-933-4

Erin Shields’s five-act play (a re-imagining or re-configuring of John Milton’s epical poem) is nothing if not audacious. It does not contest the prevailing critical view that Milton’s poem is magnificent because (in the words of Harold Bloom) “it is persuasively tragic as well as epic it is the tragedy of the fall of Lucifer into Satan, though it declines to show us Lucifer, light-bearer and son of the morning, chief of the stars that will fall. We see only the fallen Satan, though we behold Adam and Eve before, at the very moment of, and after the fall.” It recognizes that its Miltonic source is (along with the Bible, the Iliad, and Shakespeare’s plays) one of “the building blocks of our Western literary inheritance.” Shields takes the Miltonic source seriously, for her script is preceded by Paul Stevens’s essay “Freedom and the Fall,” that begins by calling Milton’s poem “the greatest single poem in the English language” and which has a massive influence that can be felt from old novels (Frankenstein and Moby Dick) to modern movies (Blade Runner and The Fall). (Stevens was once Shields’s professor at the University of Toronto, and she acknowledges his inspiration and encouragement.)

Where Milton used 12 massive books, all ranging from about 600-1,000 lines apiece, to engage readers who wanted to understand the complexity of evil, Shields’s play is less massive and less epical than that poem (also less Shakespearean and Biblical), though its five-act structure incorporates a deliciously satiric and parodic play-within-a-play and its action occurs in Hell, Heaven, and on Earth, and “everywhere in between,” with Time encompassing Biblical time, the seventeenth century, and the present. Shields nods to medieval passion plays by using allegorical figures of Sin and Death, but most of her dramatis personae play dual roles. For instance, Gabriel is also Beelzebub; Urania is a Stage Manager in the play-within-a-play; Zephon is also Satan; Ithuriel is God the Son; and Raphael serves as Narrator and God the Father.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Shields’s play is its own transgressive literary audacity. I am not referring to the sinewy modern diction and turns of phrase, streaked at times with brief quotations directly from Milton. Nor am I referencing contemporary imagery (waterboarding, the Internet, subway bombs, gas chambers). Nor am I referring to her very amusing parody of actors and theatre (though if her representation is a parody of the proto-typical amateur production, it can’t help being the first professional production as well). Her audacity does include characterization of God the Father that cancels omniscience, replacing it with some incertitude—indeed several instances of a theology that is inconsistent with scholastic philosophy. It also extends to a depiction of God the Son as a figure of reasonable compassion, a figure who acknowledges the need for punishing transgression while also espousing forgiveness. There are striking larger-than-life sketches: Moloch as war-monger, Belial as his antithesis; Raphael as a self-recriminating sort of 17th century Horace who seeks to inform and delight as playwright of the play-within-a-play. Adam and Eve are, at best, the embodiment of a modern relationship. They always speak in the third person, and this diminishes their credibility as human creatures, though their duologue has appeal for its poetic braiding. It is only after the Fall that they throb (pun intended) with ardour and yearning. What I do appreciate is Shields’s focus on sexual arousal and lust as results of eating the forbidden fruit. I have always read that fable as an allegory of both invidious epistemological and sexual temptation, and Adam’s new sexual charge rises to a parody of orgasm.

But all these characters pale beside her greatest character—Satan. Her play exploits the fact (again articulated by Bloom) that “the most Shakespearean of all literary characters, after Shakespeare’s own creations is Milton’s Satan, who is the heir of the great hero-villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth—and of the darker aspects of Hamlet.” Shields’s Satan is female, one who is inherently and radically dramatic, light-heartedly irreverent, sly, witty (some of her wisecracks are priceless), flamboyant to the nth degree, self-consecrated as a heroine in a struggle to defeat God and his heavenly creatures, and distinguished by a cold-eyed, cold-hearted clarity about 21st century greed and corruption.

Satan opens and closes the play, and her “bookend” monologues are stunning. She emerges out of pandemonium (darkness, screams of pain and horror) and speaks in vivid terms and with vivid imagery: “I woke up in a lake of fire. /Darkness visible was all I could see/as I writhed in the stench of burning sulfur,/charred flesh, singed hair, and melted wings.” Her arrogance is splendid: “I liberated you from the banality of bliss./I released you from the beigeness of contentment./I freed you from blind obedience/to a psychopathic dictator,/to a deranged monarch,/to a bloodthirsty general,/a bully,/a thug:/you’re welcome.” She boasts, she exults, she demands human gratitude. Her ego is as monstrous as her evil, as she proclaims herself “a freedom fighter,/a champion of the underdog,/liberator of the persecuted,” topping off this self-promotion by personifying herself as a combination of Moses, Gandhi, Mandela, Malala, and Dr. King. Her final monologue is even more demonic, not simply because it represents her defeat as victory but because it represents the ultimate in nihilism. She rebukes mankind, concluding with a prediction of horror and terror for future mankind.

However, she also represents a major problem with the play. Her language, while not consistently grand, offsets that of the other characters who often sound flat or disappointingly rudimentary in speech, as in this example from Eve: “I love you, fruit./I love you, tree./I love that I found you and set your taste free/in my mouth, on my tongue that wants more,/and I feel the knowledge bulging in my head.” This is not the flattest example but it does indicate how the language of the script often fails to match the dramatic energy and power inherent in the characters and action. Imagine what a Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton would have done with the language, but, perhaps, this is being unfair to Erin Shields, who feminist retelling remains wickedly smart as it (as the back-cover blurb phrases it) “questions the reasons of the universe, the slow process of evolution and the freedom of knowledge.” Substantial enough achievement, especially in a Canadian landscape dominated by illustrated academic lectures, half-assed parodies, pop documentaries and ethnically-defined or gender-bent revelations of social and political relevance passed off as finished plays.

THREE BY TANNAHILL

LATE COMPANY
by Jordan Tannahill
Playwrights Canada Press
108 pages, $ 17.95

by Jordan Tannahill
Playwrights Canada Press
212 pages, 18.95

Jordan Tannahill is currently the rage among Canadian male playwrights, and one reason is his fearlessly transgressive theatrical mode that, while not unique in terms of world theatre, is certainly fizzy, provocative, daringly entrenched in a gay sensibility, and unafraid of tackling history, sociology, and sexuality, all through a “queer” lens. He is now in the top rung of Canadian playwrights, and it has been a spectacularly speedy ascent, beginning, perhaps, with his winning the 2013 Herman Voaden Playwriting Competition, continuing with his Toronto theatre company, Suburban Beast, his alternative Videofag run out of his own home, and so on. He has even published a book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, that argues for theatre “predicated on artistic risk and unafraid of the possibility of failure” (according to Production Dramaturg Kirsten Bowen in her Introduction to the double-play collection cited above). But is Tannahill’s bold “queerness” the real reason for his successes, just as blackness, brownness, transgenderism, or whatever the dominant label is currently celebrated in the country? Canada is currently caught up in a syndrome that celebrates “difference,” without proper regard for aesthetic achievement. And yet, again, fashion becomes a prevailing norm. It is very fashionable now to be labelled black, brown, queer, Asian, et cetera because such categories entrench difference. Of course, there is a historical reason for such a wave of fashion: prejudice (of all stripes) has too long defined Canadian society and the arts. It is time for the new, whether it is better or worse than what has come before.

Too many groups in the Canadian mosaic have been long ignored. (I, for one, belong to a group that cuts across East and West, though its differences are hardly the stuff of popular fashion.) Tannahill is a gay writer, and every gay writer of whatever country, of whatever earlier period has had to deal with either stunning indifference or outright bias. As Edmund White has noted, homosexuals have long been shrugged off as “minor retainers at life’s banquet.” No more. In Canadian theatre, we have had Sky Gilbert and Brad Fraser leading the way to alternative “queer” banquets, and now with Tannahill these banquets have been receiving their fair share of praise. Tannahill is not simply militaristic, didactic, or doctrinaire, but he does not present a hostile or inappropriate superciliousness. He knows, as anyone with a brain and a modicum of experience would, that gay lives are different from straight ones. But he seeks to uncover layers of flawed humanity in characters of the past and present in a way that entertains while simultaneously interrogating history, current events, and sexuality. Instead of gay “sickness” he offers queer authenticity, exploring not simply explosive and whimsical appeals of gay sex, but more meaningful affinities such as shared but conflicted interests and lifestyles (Late Company) or terrorising historical records, albeit wildly re-shaped and re-told (Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom) with their particular “queerness” turned inside-out.

Late Company is not a major work; it is an apprentice piece in a meaningful sense, nicely set up and thickened by passion, but its debts to Edward Albee and Yazmin Reza are palpable. This is not cited to downgrade it, but to clarify its quality. The set-up is clear: a year after the suicide of their teenage son Joel, who was bullied to his death, Debora and Michael Shaun-Hastings invite the parents and their bully-son to dinner. Each character is succinctly defined, though Michael’s smart-aleck remarks and pretentious phraseology do become irritating. Tannahill shows wit (“Sleeping with Leonard Cohen does not make her an artist”), and What is meant to lead to closure turns into a heated exchange of intentions and passions. The bourgeois setting and its lifestyle is neat, though facile satire on pretentious politesse, but there is ample reason to celebrate the young playwright’s acute ear for dialogue at the outset. But too soon does Tannahill fall into an Albee-trap of worked-up but vague symbolism (“Why do you never hear it? It always sounds like someone’s upstairs.”) Echoes of the unspecific terror that infiltrates the living room in A Delicate Balance. The play falters a bit this way, but seems to find its way again—to the heart of grief, guilt, recrimination, and forgiveness. And the playwright well understands the emotional impact of minimal dialogue and silence at appropriate moments—as when the grieving mother of the dead son cries in the kitchen and away from the “bloodbath” in the dining room. Tannahill ends the drama with a terse but powerful image that I don’t wish to divulge, but which, while seeming melodramatically forced, reveals his acute sense of theatrical effect.

Tannahill extends his range in the dual play collection. The shorter piece, Sunday in Sodom, is (in Tannahill’s own words) “a feminist retelling of the mythic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as told by Lot’s wife; a story recounted in the holy books of all three Abrahamic  faiths.” First exposed to the biblical version as a young boy, Tannahill now tries to imagine what went through her mind “as she decided to disobey god and turn back to behold his wrath.” Called Edith, she is turned into wife and mother situated in an American town that is both mythically Biblical and contemporary. Lot is old and incontinent, forever summoning her on his cellphone to run errands. Edith is compassionate towards young Isaac, traumatized and mentally unsettle by his father Abraham’s cruel murderous intent. She recounts how Lot welcomed two American soldiers into their house, the fury unleashed in town, and the chain of events leading up to the fateful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But apart from some wry irony and satire in a modern mode, the most effective twist is in Edith’s long, final monologue with its searing emotional ending.

 

Botticelli in the Fire is the more daring of the two plays, its motive being to rescue a gay hero from remaining a mere footnote in an art-history textbook. But it will certainly shock art aficionados to think of the artist as a mere footnote, though Tannahill means that official histories of the artist fail to locate him at the centre of an alternative history, one that the playwright dares to write in a vividly compelling manner. In Tannahill’s rendition, Sandro Botticelli is an irrepressible libertine, renowned as much for his weekend-long orgies as for his early Renaissance masterpieces. A rampant sodomite, he has a sexual relationship with a young assistant, Leonardo da Vinci (itself a crime punishable by burning at the pyre) but he complicates matters further by an affair with Claire, wife of Lorenzo de Medici, while painting her in the guise of Venus (“The Birth of Venus”). Alas, the adultery is uncovered (in a strikingly sensual and literal fashion), and Botticelli eventually has to consign all his heretical, immoral books, nude paintings, musical instruments, et cetera to Girolamo Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities in order to save his own life. However, Botticelli does save his most famous (and notorious) painting (the afore-mentioned “The Birth of Venus”) by disguising it rudely. Tannihill poses two ineluctable questions in this drama: Why did Botticelli participate in the horrendous bonfire, and why did he save the single painting?

In language that is rife with modern vulgarisms (“fucking” as an all-purpose word; “shitstorm”; “sit your ass down,” et cetera) and 21st century technology (cellphones, microphones, television talk shows) and media references (karaoke, Cyndi Lauper), with characters broadly sketched but pulsing with stage life, and with flagrant sexuality often on naked display, the play is a crowd-pleaser. What thickens its relevance are the frequent connections made with current events, especially in the U.S.A. of the ultra-right Republican Party and its arch demagogue, Trump. Savonarola is easily represented as a Renaissance Trump for “mostly speaking to the souls of the illiterate and ignorant…where most of his base seems to be.” Facile, perhaps, but necessary when virtually half of the U.S. seems to be impervious to truth and ethics. I enjoyed the play on the whole, while questioning some of its meta-reflexiveness and finding the alternative ending to be a case of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The collection includes the Playwright’s Note, as well as Kirsten Bowen’s essay, “Re-Imagining History,” both of which are interesting, though limited. Bowen, for instance, links questions posed by Botticelli in the Fire to the 21st century: “Why have pleasure and sexuality been so readily scapegoated for political ends in both of these eras? How does a seemingly progressive, liberal society allow a demagogue to rise in power? What is the artist’s obligation to their community versus their art? If called to sacrifice, which is of greater value—our art or our people?” The answers to the first two seem ordinary enough: it is society that scapegoats for its own selfish ends, and it is the basest among us that permit a demagogue to flourish virtually uninhibited. The third and fourth questions are pricklier. The artist’s prime obligation, it seems to me, is to his art and only secondarily to his community. In the fourth case, who decides the valorization and the sacrifice? If it is the artist, then it is art that is of greater value for it is only through art that “our people” are memorialized and extra value attached to them.

BAWTREE MEMOIRS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


AS FAR AS I REMEMBER
(Coming of Age in Post-War England)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
374 pages, $24.95 (paper)

THE BEST FOOLING
(Adventures in Canadian Theatre)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
366 pages, $25 (paper)

One of the salient things in the two Michael Bawtree’s memoirs under review (there is a third volume yet to come) is a sense of fortuitous “accident” and self-fashioning.  Bawtree (who has had a long career as playwright, director, journalist, educator, and actor) conducts us down a long memory lane with many twists and turns, without in any sense wearing out his welcome because his writing is eloquent, amusing in an understated way, and instructive. Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1937, to an English father (Raymond) and an Australian mother (Kathleen), he grew up in England, when it was deep in its rather rancid class-consciousness. Bawtree’s father ran a gamut of professions (bookkeeper, failed pig farmer, country hotel proprietor of sorts with his resourceful wife, and the creator of a failed farm service operation), and his father’s ancestors came from a superior artisan class, with some being Dissenters (and, therefore, ineligible for entry to Oxford or Cambridge). No one before his father’s generation had university degrees, and of his five uncles, only two received higher education that led in their cases to ordination in the Church of Scotland.

However, although dissent is in his family history, Bawtree doesn’t really register as a maverick except when (in The Best Fooling) he espouses a middle-class anarchism (by way of academia) and a weird, self-defeating ideology of “un-led theatre” in his career as director and artistic director in Vancouver and Ottawa. Both volumes of his memoirs reveal how he transcended his family working-class background and how England and, eventually, Canada made him. Bawtree’s fine way with language gives his writing a sheen that speaks to his boyhood in boarding schools, and education at Radley College and Oxford (where his talents for languages, photography, and music came to the fore). Distinguished names (Peter Cook, Laurence Olivier, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Ricks, Bill Glassco, et al) are dropped into the narrative—sometimes too briefly—but never simply for snob value, although many of these names would probably be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with English cultural history of Bawtree’s youth and early adulthood. Glassco, however, should be on the mind of any Canadian familiar with the Alternative Theatre Movement, and Glassco becomes a crucially important figure in the second volume that carries us into Bawtree’s occasionally turbulent involvement with Canadian theatre.

It was the three years at Oxford that gave Bawtree a chance to decide whether he and his peers would be “loners or bons viveurs, idle or industrious, self-deprecating or arrogant, showy or reserved, respectful or contemptuous.” The university was “a pressure cooker of activity” because of the shortness of the three terms (8 weeks each), and the standard of scholarship was far higher than that found in North America: an undergraduate degree could be earned only after a candidate’s successfully writing nine three-hour papers in four and a half days, covering the entire gamut of English, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to 1910. The cut-off year, however, betrayed an endemic snobbery, a condition once described by Anthony Burgess as “a tradition of wariness of approach to the study of contemporary letters…It is in the European academic tradition to stick to the safe past, and the past is a couple of days before yesterday.” It was a snobbery that also tainted such venerable Canadian institutions as McGill and the University of Toronto for the longest time.

As Far As I Remember encompasses its narrator’s family vacations to the seashore, wanderlust, and two years of British military service, when he came face to face with British imperial politics and experienced some of the civil war in Cyprus. But as amusing or as instructive as these sections are in his chronicle, an equally serious undercurrent in the narrative is what he calls his “secret malaise,” first recognized in adolescence and then deepened in youth. This is the love that he hardly dares to name explicitly, but one that is felt as something dangerous yet essential to his real nature. Bawtree’s fleeting encounters with a few women end in disappointment, as he maintains a protracted, secret battle between his two selves. The “malaise” gets more explicitly exposed in The Best Fooling, a more “Canadian” narrative because it settles questions for Bawtree about life and career in his adopted country where he is free to fashion himself more definitively than in post-war England.

How Bawtree came to Canada marks one of the most significant happy “accidents” in the second memoir, that is, possibly, less charmingly nostalgic than its predecessor but far more pungent. He and Bill Glassco (“extremely modest, even diffident in his manner”) were part of the Worcester Buskins at Oxford, where Glassco dazzled Bawtree and others as a pianist and composer. In the early 60s, Glassco excited Bawtree with a glowing report on the burgeoning radical changes in Canadian culture and theatre through such things as the CBC, National Film Board, the Crest Theatre, and the Stratford Festival. Bawtree was seduced, gratefully accepted Glassco and his wife’s generous hospitality, and gained entry to a circle of influential cultural figures, such as Robert Weaver and Esse Jungh. It also helped that Glassco’s father was wealthy and was able to hire Bawtree as an editor for the Royal Commission report he was preparing on the CBC.

Other happy accidents occur in the course of the second volume. Bawtree befriends actress Helen Burns, who was married to Michael Langham, and this leads to Langham’s appointing Bawtree as dramaturge, and later commissioning him to write a new play (The Last of the Tsars) after Langham’s deep dissatisfaction with Nicholas Romanoff by American writer William Kinsolving.  Later, Jean Gascon offers him the position of literary manager at Stratford, but Tom Hendry decides to remain rather than leave his post, so Bawtree seems to be completely out of luck until Gascon gets Hamilton Southam (Director General of the National Arts Centre) to hire Bawtree as artistic director of the experimental Studio Theatre, where Bawtree fails with his risky selection of a decidedly non-Canadian subject for his maiden play: the Spanish-American War of 1898 in Cuba!

The Best Fooling (with its very title drawn from Shakespeare) provides important insights into attitudes and practices concerning Canadian theatre. This volume substantiates some of the principal complaints of our ultra-nationalists about colonial romanticism—the syndrome that infects any colonial society that looks to Colonial Headquarters for approval. The Stratford Festival is summarized as an institution devoted to “the world of the classics—to the old English culture that had been nurtured in me from my schooldays.” This honesty extends to Bawtree’s depictions of Langham as “the consummate Englishman in his manner and clothes” and of Helen Burns (actress and Langham’s wife at the time) as someone “capable of spouting off some fairly arrogant comments about the parochial place she found herself in.” Such arrogance is, of course, resented by the likes of John Colicos and Douglas Rain in particular. Langham is acknowledged, of course, as a brilliant director, but Bawtree identifies a major flaw in him and other British guest directors: “The fact is that Stratford had been run for years by directors (including Michael Langham) who had a faintly colonial attitude towards their Canadian company, and [who] did not particularly expect or encourage creative participation on the part of their actors.” An ironic fact is that Bawtree’s most successful artistic ventures at the festival came with British designers (Leslie Hurry, Desmond Heeley) and casts (Tony van Bridge, Jane Casson, Nicholas Pennell, Pat Galloway, Barry MacGregor, Carole Shelley, and Mary Savidge) mainly in Restoration and 18th century comedies, so while his generalization may well be accurate, it omits another point of view: the plain fact is that without these “fairly colonial” Langhams and others, there would have been no Stratford, and Canada would still be mired in retrograde nostalgia for a cultural nationalism devoted to documentary plays and collective collaborations, performed in basements or backspaces. Moreover, an astute observer would well note that Canada today is far more open to the neo-colonial influence of the United States than to the older ways of England.

Cultural icons appear in the narrative, some serving as heroes (John Hayes, William Hutt, and Gabriel Charpentier), some as villains (notably William Wylie and Robin Phillips). Bawtree records his admiration for John Hirsch, a talented man who, to me, was always a contradiction of artist and hack, cultural commissar and sinister politician—a devious figure who fattened himself off the foment of nationalism. Robin Phillips, on the other hand, is summarized as “that cold, elegant angel-fish,” who manages (in Bawtree’s account) to “charm” his way with the acting company, intimidate the Board, and skilfully sabotage Bawtree’s tenure at the festival by a sort of benign neglect. Bawtree is certainly within his rights to colour his memoir by his own perspective on things, and Phillips is no longer around to contradict him. What is more important to the general reader than any “villains” or personality clashes is Bawtree’s rather loose aesthetic. He recounts how he became radicalized by a visit to Colombia where he witnessed “dangerous” political theatre, and subsequently dreamed of “a ‘dangerous’ Canadian theatre.” The rest of his memoir gives an account of his flirtations and eventual disillusionment with this dream that could, perhaps, never be realized, given that it had no real plot, no story, no shape.

More accidents, more failure. At newly-founded Simon Fraser University (where he is appointed professor), his gamble with the Centralia Incident proves to be “unfinished business” that is never really finished. Ultimately, even his tenure at this university (where John Juliani and other radicals hold sway) ends in fatigue and disillusionment. There is a savage god at work, indeed, as there is in his long, turbulent relationship with Colin Bernhardt (the love of his life), and Bawtree does not scant on his emotional pain and confusion about this somewhat Shakespearean drama. Yet, once again, there are happy “accidents”: a creative friendship with Maureen Forrester that helps with Bawtree’s founding of Comus Music Theatre; and American generosity south of the border that cannot be matched in Canada where artists are prone to encounter grudging recognition, minus pleasure in “ambitious energy.” The contemporary case of Robert Lepage and the whole absurd controversy over cultural appropriation can be entered into evidence.

The ending of The Best Fooling is tinted with pathos but leads to a new beginning. Bawtree discovers painfully how theatre politics can break your heart in more ways than one. He loses his status, job, and home in Stratford, and anticipates losing his lover, Colin, long bedevilled by various psychological distresses. But in 1977, Bawtree is on his way for the first time to the Banff Centre, where he will play a major role in the following decade. And then, we know from his biography that Nova Scotia beckons as well. That fortune awaits us in his third (as yet unfinished) volume.

JEFF ROUND REVIEWS ‘WILLIAM HUTT: SOLDIER ACTOR’ ON GOODREADS, JULY 24, 2018

William Hutt: Soldier Actor 
by

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Jeffrey Round‘s review

Jul 24, 2018
it was amazing

 

WILLAM HUTT SOLDIER ACTOR by Keith Garebian (Guernica) reviewed by Jeffrey Round

Critic Keith Garebian has illumined the life and career of William Hutt, in print, since his 1988 William Hutt: a Theatre Portrait, followed in 1995 by a collection of essays written by Hutt’s colleagues, Masks and Faces, and now with William Hutt: Soldier Actor.

Garebian’s assertion is that, despite maintaining a career anchored in Canada for more than five decades, Hutt was one of the greatest actors of his time and comparable to the likes of Laurence Olivier (Garebian’s favourite thespian.) Indeed, the consensus of both critics and colleagues is that Hutt was a man too big for his time and place, but who went on to enlarge the scope of both with his considerable talents.

As a biography, Soldier Actor is more than comprehensive, with a dazzling array of photographs and personal documents, including letters and notes on Hutt’s craft, some of which Garebian calls “unprinted ramblings” made available only after Hutt’s death in 2007 at the age of 82.

As evidenced in many ways in this book, Hutt the man was an individual of notable personal integrity. As a soldier, he went to war and earned a medal of honour without firing a shot. (He was in the medical corps, where his bravery was considered exemplary.) What the war taught him, Hutt contended years later, was “the inestimable value of a single human being.”

He was also actively homosexual in a time when being openly gay was difficult, if not downright dangerous. His integrity, however, demanded honesty in this as with other regards, and Garebian does not shy away from revealing details of Hutt’s personal life.

The body of the book, of course, deals with Hutt’s career, from his beginnings as an unschooled actor who went on to work on some of the world’s most famous stages alongside many of the most acclaimed actors of his time. The text fairly sparkles with names and anecdotes, but this is not a tell-all exposé. Rather, it is a recounting of the life of a remarkable actor as it unfolded alongside Canada’s nascent theatrical scene.

Hutt worked during the debut season of Stratford and was there for many seasons. He was said to have giggled on first hearing that Shakespeare was to be presented in small-town Canada. At the time, Stratford was so small that Hutt had to find a map to locate it, having “heard rumours that it was in Ontario, but that was all I knew.”

His colleagues at that auspicious beginning included people like Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, William Shatner, and Tyrone Guthrie, one of the founding lights of Stratford. The names are impressive and the list grows as Hutt’s career flourished and his creative genius expanded with each role he took on. Yet somehow he remained indelibly Canadian and famously never gave up his Canadian accent, even while performing Shakespeare, a revelation in its time.

In what lay his genius? Garebian calls it Hutt’s “rare ability to absorb audiences within his circle of illusion,” painting a clear picture of how Hutt not only thought as an actor but also how he appeared onstage. Garebian minutely examines Hutt’s ability to mine roles for depth and a fresh approach, whether it be in giving Hamlet’s Polonius more respect than is often accorded him or in giving Long Day’s Journey into Night’s James Tyrone a more sympathetic turn as a man brought down by his failures as a human being. It is at this point, Garebian writes, that “acting ceases to look like acting.”

On meeting the author, and learning he was writing a book on Hutt, actor Sigourney Weaver told Garebian that he “couldn’t have a better a subject.” She might just as easily have said that Hutt couldn’t have had a better biographer.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author. His latest book is The God Game (Dundurn).