David Benson French, O.C. Playwright 1939 – 2010David French was born on Wednesday, January 18, 1939 in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland. It was a snowy, blustery day in the tiny outport, and David’s father arrived home with the doctor in tow to find the baby already nestled in his mother’s arms. David was the third of the five sons born to Edith Benson French and Garfield French; two older boys -- Fred and Don -- came before him, and twin brothers Wallace and Billy followed a year and a half later. David’s first years were spent in Coley’s Point, a place he remembered vividly and held close all of his life. During World War II, Garfield, a carpenter, worked for the Eastern Air Command in Canada, and after the war Edith and the boys joined their father in Ontario. Granny French soon came to live with the family, too, and David, who spent many hours reading the Bible to her, became her particular favourite. In Toronto David attended Rawlinson Public School, where he excelled in sports. He went on to high school at Harbord Collegiate, and completed Grade 13 at Oakwood Collegiate, where he made several lifelong friends. David was initially uninterested in books, but in Grade Eight a teacher made him sit down and read a book as a punishment for talking in class. The volume David happened to pull off the shelf was Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and by the time he finished reading it he not only knew he wanted to be a writer, he knew that he was one. Almost immediately he started to have poetry published in small magazines. In the late 1950s and early 60s, David studied acting, first at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, and later at various Toronto acting studios. He got work as a leading man in several CBC television dramas, but soon turned to writing instead. Throughout the 1960s David wrote many half-hour teleplays for the CBC as well as working on the children’s series Razzle Dazzle. In 1971, David took a draft of a play he was working on to a new theatre in Toronto, the Tarragon, run by Bill Glassco. That play was Leaving Home, which was an enormous success in the Tarragon’s first season and led to a thirty-year collaboration between the two men, with Bill directing each of David’s premiere productions. Leaving Home went on to be produced at every regional theatre in Canada – the first Canadian play to do so. Leaving Home introduced audiences to the Mercers, a family, which, like David’s own, had been transplanted from Newfoundland to Toronto. David wrote four more plays about the Mercer family: Of The Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon, 1949, and Soldier’s Heart. David’s other plays include the popular comedy Jitters, the dramas That Summer, The Riddle of the World, and One Crack Out, the mystery Silver Dagger, plus adaptations of The Seagull, The Forest, and Miss Julie. His work has been produced internationally and throughout North America, including on and off-Broadway runs. In recent years, Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre has staged highly-acclaimed and successful revivals of his work. David was one of the first inductees into the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour. He was a recipient of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, and in 2001 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. David was predeceased by his parents and his brother Fred. He is survived by his partner, Glenda MacFarlane, and their daughter Mary; his son Gareth; former spouse and friend Leslie French; brothers Don, Bill, and Wallace and their spouses, as well as his many nieces and nephews and their families. David also leaves behind a host of dear friends across the country, but especially in Toronto and at Cable Head, PEI, where he spent the past forty summers. A Memorial Service was held on Friday, December 10 at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto. Many thanks to all of David’s friends who helped to celebrate his life and work so beautifully, all of those who came to the memorial, and all those who have sent condolences. Donations to the Writers Trust (90 Richmond Street East, Toronto M5C 1P1) in David’s memory would be greatly appreciated.
***********************************The following tribute appeared in Performers magazine, a publication for members of ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists.) It's written by David's very good friend, playwright and actor Hrant Alianak, and is an abridged version of the moving eulogy he gave at David's memorial service.
DAVID FRENCH 1939 - 2010
I was fortunate enough to have been David's life-long close friend. In the seventies I lived on Bloor Street and he lived on Brunswick Avenue, just a two-minute walk away. David got into the habit of coming over practically every morning for a coffee. He would climb up the rickety fire escape to my apartment every morning like clockwork; the door would be open, he'd come in, we'd have a cup of coffee and we would talk about theatre, films, books and...women. As I remember it, we used to talk a lot more about women than art. Then he'd go back to his place and I'd go back to my desk and we'd write for the rest of the day. That used to be our routine for years.
This was a man who knew he wanted to be a playwright when he was in his early teens in the fifties, when no such thing as a Canadian playwright existed. And he was so determined to pursue his dream that he purposely took on dead-end jobs to support himself as he started to write his short dramatic pieces. When Leaving Home was first done, his job at the time was sweeping the floors at Rochdale College.
David was the eternal optimist. He was always so positive about everything and always expected things to work out great. He never missed a single rehearsal of any of his new plays or major remounts. When Soulpepper recently had their revival productions of his four major plays, he was always there. He never interfered with the director's vision, he just enjoyed seeing his plays slowly come to life. Every time I asked him how rehearsals were going, the answer would always be "Great." Until the final dress rehearsal, when he'd have his usual melt-down and overreact and think it was going to be the biggest disaster of his life. Sure enough, after the final dress rehearsal of the recent Soulpepper revival of Jitters, I had gone to pick him up and he was screaming his head off in the car about how the actors hadn't even learned their lines yet and the production would be an unmitigated disaster. And then the next day I picked him up again after the first preview, and it was back to "Great" again as he chuckled all the way home.
I miss this grouch so much already. He has left such a big hole in our hearts. But we have to remember this when the loss becomes too hard to bear: "It's not how long we have them, but how much we love them when they're here." We didn't have David for very long...but we sure loved him.
**********************************The following article appeared in the Toronto Sun on December 6, 2010. It was written by Sun theatre critic John Coulbourn.
David French Dead at 71
His stories made us laugh and they made us cry, even while they helped us realize that Canadian stories were worth telling.
And while his passing will be mourned by the Canadian theatre community, David French's life will be celebrated, in a very real sense, every time one of his plays is produced. Rarely has an autobiography been so beautifully etched for the stage.French's death at 71, reportedly after a battle with brain cancer, was announced this weekend. Born in Newfoundland in 1939, French grew up in Toronto, and while he enjoyed some success as an actor and a writer for television in his early career, he found his real calling it seems in 1971 when he submitted a script to a nascent theatre company being formed by Toronto theatre pioneer Bill Glassco. The theatre, of course, was Tarragon and the play was Leaving Home, which would go on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre across Canada, its story of the troubled Mercer clan -- a clan like so many others of the era, making the transition from the rural life to the urban -- clearly resonating from coast to coast. Leaving Home would soon be joined by two other plays to comprise what became known as the Mercer Trilogy, with Of The Fields, Lately documenting the familial fortunes post-Leaving Home and Salt-Water Moon romanticizing its very beginnings. They were all, French freely admitted, more or less autobiographical and they would cement his reputation as one of Canada's leading theatrical voices. He would go on to write other plays about the Mercer family, none of which enjoyed the success of the original three, as well as several other plays, including a murder thriller titled Silver Dagger. But aside from the Mercer Trilogy, his greatest success would come in his single foray into comedy -- a fictionalized backstage slice of life titled Jitters that has gone on to become one of the best known and most successful Canadian stage comedies of all time. In his later years, French moved away from playwriting and into education, serving as writer-in-residence for a time at both the University of Windsor and the University of Western Ontario and teaching a summer course in playwriting at the University of Prince Edward Island -- the province in which he made a long-time summer home. Though it had been several years since a new French play had been produced, his work found a new audience and new popularity in a series of revivals by Soulpepper Theatre Company where the entire Mercer Trilogy, as well as Jitters have been revived over the last few years, to both critical and audience acclaim. But even though French did a lot of work as an actor, a screenwriter and an educator, his heart was always in his playwriting. "I really consider my real work the work I've done for the theatre," he told me back in 1994. "I've actually made a living. I can't believe I've done that. Not only a living but a damn good one. I never really expected that." French is survived by partner Glenda MacFarlane, son Gareth and daughter Mary -- and by a body of work that is recognized as a Canadian cultural treasure. He probably never expected that either.