By Jason Sherman
Directed by Richard Rose
A Tarragon Theatre Production. Opened November 14, 2018
Marshall McLuhan was the rage in the 60s¸ when undergraduates latched on to some of his catchiest utterances about media theory, such as “the medium is the message,” “schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” “advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century,” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.” McLuhan had a wide repertoire of slogans and purr words, such as “the global village,” “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” “the mechanical bride,” and “surfing” as he sought to divide media into “hot” and “cool” categories—much to the consternation and displeasure of other intellectuals with less racy zest but heavier gravitas. He was far more popular among youth than the Don of Canadian Literary Criticism, Northrop Frye, a colleague at the University of Toronto and with whom he had a well-publicized feud. McLuhan’s brilliant career was interrupted abruptly when he suffered a massive stroke that rendered him speechless, though he was known to have suffered periodic min-strokes or petit mal seizures prior to this calamity. A brain tumour the size of a golf ball was removed in what was then the longest neurological surgery in history. McLuhan’s legend grew post-operatively: when he awoke an hour after surgery and was asked how he felt, it was reported that he remarked this depended on what was meant by “feeling.” But this bravado aside, he had, in fact, lost loads of memory but acquired a larger hypersensitivity to noise.
I recapitulate all this simply to rehearse what Jason Sherman’s play also rehearses in its own peculiar way, as well as to suggest how the cart can lead the horse on stage—which is what happens in Sherman’s long one-act drama that shows the heavy burden of its background research. Sherman is one of our best-known and most celebrated playwrights. I have admired his trilogy relating to Judaism, and he often displays a scorching wit in a dual sense of satire and intellectual mettle. However, his gifts don’t save The Message, a play that has had a sad history. Meant to open the Tarragon season in 2003, it was met with strenuous objection by the McLuhan estate and was, therefore, shelved. But 2018 is a different era and nobody thinks any longer of McLuhan (or Northrop Frye, for that matter) in quite the same reverential tones as in the 60s and 70s. But this triumph over delay is a Pyrrhic victory because the play tells us practically nothing new about McLuhan. It is also obsessively repetitive and somewhat crude in its strategies, wavering between expressionism and the broadest, most vulgar vaudevillian comedy, indulging in cardboard representations of women (McLuhan’s wife; his secretary at the Centre for Culture and Technology), and running through some of his ideas on media theory like a de rigueur homage.
The play’s structure is self-defeating because it is necessarily fragmented, beginning in literal darkness (a cliché) with the great man’s massive stroke, and moving via flashbacks through a repertoire of puns, wordplay, and wicked wit well beloved by McLuhan fans. R.H. Thomson plays McLuhan as vividly as he can (“Oh, boy!”), though it is mainly vocal virtuosity for he is rooted or situated in a bed or chair for most of the show. The best epigram in the play is, of course, McLuhan’s “It’s just aphasia I’m going through” that is scribbled on a pad, and the best monologue is a post-surgical rambling monologue that resembles something out of Samuel Beckett and is rendered wonderfully by the actor. (The weird scene with student-disciples dressed as sheep is probably another pun: scholar-sheep, anyone?) Patrick McManus plays an ad man, an NBC executive who tries to get McLuhan to boil down his theories for pop appeal, as well as an empathetic Irish priest (McLuhan was Catholic and loved James Joyce’s writing) with all the clichés of those breeds intact, while Peter Hutt first (as decreed by script and director) overplays the role of Feigen, the American business man who helped advance McLuhan’s career, before showing us the real human being later in the play. I confess that in his trope from bum-waggling, crudely roaring clown to serious confidant, Hutt gave me the most pleasure, apart from Thomson. The two actresses in the ensemble, however, afforded almost none. Sarah Orenstein (usually good) is obviously at the mercy of the script as McLuhan’s Texan-born wife, and there is nothing especially interesting in her acting. Nor is there much of real interest or value in Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s pallid university secretary (her lacklustre voice is off-putting), though her cigarette and cigar lady in a topless restaurant offers something to a male gaze, though not much else to anyone’s mind.
Camellia Koo’s set and Charlotte Dean’s costumes don’t add much to anything, though Rebecca Picherak’s lighting does. At one point, McLuhan suggests that the country we belong to is just an hallucination—an idea that appeals to me—though it could also be said that Sherman’s play is a sort of hallucination itself. And a not very engaging one at that because it looks and sounds trite and manages to divorce feeling from idea while attempting to be clever.