David French was born in the tiny Newfoundland outport of Coley’s Point on January 18, 1939, the middle child in a family of five boys. His father, Garfield French, was a carpenter, and during World War II worked for the Eastern Air Command in Canada. After the war, David’s mother, Edith, came to Ontario with the boys to join their father, and the family settled in Toronto amidst a thriving community of Newfoundland exiles.
David attended Rawlinson Public School, Harbord Collegiate, and Oakwood Collegiate. He was indifferent to books until Grade 8, when his English teacher, to punish him for talking in class, told French to sit down and read a book. The book David happened to pull off the shelf was Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. French says that by the time he finished reading it, he not only knew that he wanted to be a writer – he knew that he was one. Almost immediately he began to publish original stories and poems.
Acting and Writing for Television
After high school, David trained as an actor. He spent a summer at the Pasadena Playhouse, and studied at various acting studios in Toronto. In the early 1960s, he played roles on stage and in CBC television dramas. Then he began writing dramas for television. Over the next several years he wrote many half-hour teleplays, including The Tender Branch, A Ring for Florie, Beckons the Dark River, Sparrow on a Monday Morning, and The Willow Harp. He also wrote episodes of the popular children’s program “Razzle Dazzle.”
Leaving Home and the Mercer Plays
In 1971, David heard about a new theatre, the Tarragon, that was producing a play called Creeps. After seeing the play, David was so impressed that he called up the director, Bill Glassco, and asked him to read a play he’d been working on. Glassco said yes, read the play – Leaving Home – and produced it in the final slot in the Tarragon’s first season. It was the beginning of a collaboration between the two men which was to last for over thirty years, with Glassco directing each of French’s premiere productions.
Leaving Home is a landmark play in Canadian theatre history. After its very successful run in Toronto in 1972, Leaving Home went on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre in the country – the first Canadian play ever to do so. It also received many international productions, including an off-Broadway run. Today Leaving Home is taught in high schools and universities across Canada, and is one of the most familiar and best-loved of Canadian plays. It was recently named one of the “100 Most Influential Canadian Books” (Literary Review of Canada) and one of the “1,000 Essential Plays in the English Language” (Oxford Dictionary of Theatre). Leaving Home introduced audiences to the Mercer family, who would come to figure largely in David’s work. The Mercers, like the Frenches, were a Newfoundland family transplanted to Toronto.
In 1973, David’s sequel to Leaving Home was produced at the Tarragon. “I wrote it because people kept asking me what happened to the Mercers after Ben leaves home,” said French. Of The Fields, Lately was also a runaway success. It won a Chalmers Award, was adapted as a CBC television special, was produced across Canada and abroad — including a critically acclaimed run in Argentina in Spanish translation and a production on Broadway.
In total, French wrote five plays about the Mercer family. In the mid-80s he wrote Salt-Water Moon, a poetic drama about the courtship of the parents, set in Newfoundland in 1926. Salt-Water Moon has had hundreds of productions over the past three decades – in every region of Canada (including an annual outdoor production in Newfoundland); at American theatres such as the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California; tours of Britain and of Ireland, as well as productions in London and at the Edinburgh Festival. The French language version, translated by Antonine Maillet, has been produced across Canada. Salt-Water Moon won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Drama, the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play, and the Hollywood Drama-Logue Critics’ Award.
1949, a fond look at the extended Mercer clan as Newfoundland prepares to join Confederation, premiered at CentreStage (now Canadian Stage) in 1988. And Soldier’s Heart, which explores the effect of the First World War on two generations of Mercers, was produced at the Tarragon in 2001. In recent years, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre has staged acclaimed revivals of Leaving Home, Salt-Water Moon, and Of The Fields, Lately.
Plays and Adaptations
In addition to the Mercer cycle, David wrote the immensely popular backstage comedy Jitters (1979), which has had countless productions across the country and around the world, including a six-month run at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Soulpepper included a brilliant production of Jitters in its 2010 season.
French’s other works include the memory play That Summer (1999), which opened the Blyth Festival’s 25th Anniversary Season; the mystery-thriller Silver Dagger (1993), a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award; One Crack Out (1975) a pool-hall drama produced in Toronto and off-Broadway, and the comedy The Riddle of the World (1981). All of his plays have been published and are in print. (Talonbooks and Anansi).
David also penned adaptations of Miss Julie (Strindberg), The Forest (Ostrovsky), and a very highly regarded version of Chekhov’s The Seagull (which was produced on Broadway starring Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke, Jon Voight, and Tyne Daley).
Teaching and Mentoring
As a senior playwright, David mentored many aspiring writers. He was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Western Ontario (2002/03), Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor (2008/09) and did a short-term residency at Trent University. He taught an annual short summer course in playwriting for the PEI Conservatory. He also gave Canada Council-sponsored readings from coast to coast, and often visited high schools and universities that were studying his plays. David’s work has proved to be consistently popular with community theatre groups across North America, and he was frequently invited to amateur productions to meet the players and talk about the plays.
David French was one of the first inductees into the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour. He received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, and was presented with a Lifetime Membership in the Playwrights Guild of Canada. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.
David died on December 4, 2010, after a fifteen-month battle with brain cancer.
Below is a link to an interview David did with RH Thomson for Theatre Museum Canada, in the spring of 2010. During this wide-ranging conversation, David speaks about many incidents in his life and career.