Worthy Canadian Theatre
Memorial Day marks different things for different people. For some, a time to remember the fallen. For many, an opportunity (weather permitting) to gather far-flung family for the ritual opening of the grilling season. For my wife and I, it’s the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We’ll be heading up to Ontario later this weekend, but already my thoughts are turning north.
I’ll have much more to say about the Festival once I’ve actually seen some of this year’s productions – I’m very curious to see how Stratford handles the whole “original practices” thing, and will no doubt have specific thoughts on that subject in addition to my reflections on the plays. But in the meantime, I thought I’d say a few words about a production of a very different bit of Canadian theatre that recently passed through New York (unfortunately, I caught the show almost at the end of its run).
Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, recently mounted by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble at Soho Playhouse, is a three-character comic drama about a Toronto-based actor “embedded” on a farm in rural Ontario doing research for a collective theatre project about the farming life. The scenario is based on a reality – the 1972 production, The Farm Show, which was created in much the manner described in The Drawer Boy, with Toronto actors heading out into the countryside, living among the farmers, and creating a theatre piece based on their experiences.
It doesn’t sound like a particularly portentous topic, but the 1970s was the decade that birthed the first real expression of Canadian nationalism, and that nationalism expressed itself in the arts as an effort to identify authentic and distinctive Canadian experience. To write, in the late-1990s, a play about an initiative like that means, inevitably, to grapple with those forces, and with what they might mean to us now, at a very different moment in Canadian history (not to mention a very different period in the history of the theatre).
It’s striking to me, therefore, that The Drawer Boy doesn’t turn out really to be about the clash of cultures between actor and farmer, or between city and country. Nor does it really turn out to be about the quest for an authentic national spirit in the arts. Rather, it reveals something essential about the Canadian national spirit almost inadvertently, even as it explicitly sets out to make an apology for the power of art in a very contemporary spirit.
You see, the farm our actor has embedded himself in is not managed by entirely ordinary characters, but by a distinctly theatrical pair. Morgan, an emotionally closed-in farmer (played by Brad Fryman), could pass for typical, were it not for the presence of his farm hand, Angus (William Laney), who has a curious mental incapacity: he appears to have no short-term memory (and his long-term memory isn’t so great either). Morgan’s affection for Angus is obvious from the first, as is the sadness with which that affection is mixed. The actor, Miles (based loosely on actor/director Miles Potter, and played in this production by Alex Fast), is immediately fascinated by the dynamic between these two farmers, and tries to worm his way into Angus’s confidence and pry loose the secret of his disability. While he does learn something about the farm life (though his purportedly avant-garde theatre group seems nonplussed by his first-person account of a cow desperately trying to produce enough milk to avoid selection for slaughter, exactly the sort of thing I would expect a 1970s-era theatrical collective would have loved), it’s plain that the human drama is what really piques his interest.
One night, he hears Morgan telling Angus a story under the stars, a story of two boys who went to war. In London, they both fell in love. One of the boys got injured, and lost his memory. He recovered, somewhat, and both his friend and his love stood by him. The four of them came back to Canada, had a double wedding, and built a pair of joined houses for the two families to live in. And then the two women were killed in a car crash, and buried together on a hill, the highest point in the county. This is Angus and Morgan’s story, and Angus asks Morgan to tell it to him every night, because he can never remember it properly.
Until Miles steals the story for his show, and plays Morgan on stage. This has an electrifying effect on Angus, who is suddenly able to remember all sorts of things forgotten – indeed, at one point he behaves as if he were still in London with Morgan during the war. And it quietly enrages Morgan, who tries to throw Miles off the property until Angus objects. And when Angus realizes that he’s never seen his wife’s grave (or doesn’t remember ever seeing it), and wanders off in search of it, it’s clear that something has permanently changed around the farm.
Eventually Angus comes back, the truth comes out about what really happened, because Angus demands to know it. And, surprisingly, much of the story turns out to be true. Morgan bears some personal guilt for Angus’s injury, because he got hurt while running an errand for his friend, and, more to the point, because Morgan convinced Angus to join up in the first place, when Angus could have gone to university instead. But otherwise the wartime story was pretty accurate. They did fall in love, with two English girls, just as Morgan described. Angus was injured in pretty much the way he was told. And their loves did follow them back to Canada, but Angus’s disability was too much for his own girl to stand after a while, particularly when it made Angus belligerent. After one-too-many incidents, the two women returned home, leaving Angus under Morgan’s care, and Morgan bereft of his own love. Angus was distraught at losing his girl, and couldn’t understand what had happened (because he couldn’t remember), and so Morgan cooked up the car accident story to calm him down. And so their life settled in to its permanent pattern. Now, it will return to that pattern again, but every night he will tell Angus the truth, the whole truth.
On the surface, as I say, this is a story about the power of art. The story Morgan tells has the power to pacify, even tranquilize Angus, and the play Miles makes of the story has the power to excite and agitate him. Art enables us to tell ourselves lies that make sense of our lives, and art forces us to confront and expose those lies. But that all felt quite conventional to me, almost pat.
What struck me most (apart from the winning performances on all parts, and the charmingly wry humor of the piece) was the Canadian-ness of this story. If this were an American play, I assure you, the big revelation wouldn’t be: I told you your fiancee died because it calmed you down. The big secret Morgan is hiding from himself is how angry he is at Angus for causing him to lose his own love, an anger he can’t let himself feel because he feels so guilty for being the cause of the injury in the first place. That’s a very real and human emotion – but if this were an American story I rather think Angus’s actions would be a bit more operatic.
Why write this play, about this seminal moment in Canadian theatre history? The play’s answer, it seems to me, relates to this quest for a Canadian truth. The truth, up north, is just the facts, a negation of stories taken from elsewhere – cliched stage cows we’ve seen a hundred times before, as Miles rants at one point, but also the American self-creation myth of Gatsby, or the British myth of a world-girdling empire. But the facts, faced head-on, don’t offer much comfort – nor, indeed, much catharsis. The cows need to produce milk, or they’ll be slaughtered. Some English girls can only take so much for the sake of love, while some Canadian farmers do much more for the sake of duty.