Albert Schultz on David’s Work

June 12th, 2011 0 comments

For Anansi’s beautiful Three Mercer Plays collection, published in 2009, Albert Schultz wrote an essay about David’s writing and his place in theatre history.  Albert has kindly given me permission to quote this essay here.

Several years ago I summoned the courage to approach David French at a Toronto coffee shop where, for months, I had watched him read the paper over the top of my computer.  He was the eminence grise of Canadian playwrights; I the sophomore artistic director of a new classical theatre company called Soulpepper.  I introduced myself and asked him, “Of all of your plays, which is the one you want most to see revived?”  He answered without a pause, “Leaving Home.”

David French does not make small talk.  He needs only the slightest provocation to let you know what’s on his mind, and he reveals his thoughts in terse staccato sentences.  In this first brief conversation I learned that Leaving Home had not had a Toronto revival since Bill Glassco’s seminal Tarragon Theatre production in 1972.  Glassco, the patrician founder of the Tarragon Theatre was, for thirty years, David French’s alter ego and greatest champion.  It was Glassco who first took a chance on the angry young man, and it was Glassco who, until his death in 2004, helmed every play that David wrote.

French told me that he’d been asking companies to revive Leaving Home for years, but to no avail.  This, despite the fact that the play (his first) had been a colossal hit, cementing not only French’s reputation, but Glassco’s and the Tarragon Theatre’s.  The play had toured across the country, and due to its popularity French had written the 1973 follow-up Of The Fields, Lately, which would have equal success.  A decade later the love-soaked prequel Salt-Water Moon would mark the third installment of the Mercer family saga.  These three plays, plus the subsequent 1949 and Soldier’s Heart (all directed by Glassco), would collectively make up what a recent Toronto Star poll called the most important contribution to English Canadian drama of the twentieth century.

There is a great tradition in modern North American theatre of thinly disguised autobiography serving as fertile dramatic soil.  Think of the Wingfields of Tennessee Williams and the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill.  The Mercer family saga belongs on the top shelf with these plays.  French uses memory with the same skill and poignancy that Williams does in The Glass Menagerie; he uses confession and forgiveness with the same devastating catharsis that O’Neill employs in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but most remarkably he makes us laugh constantly, opening up our emotional capillaries to absorb and calm the pain.  On every page of each play in this volume is love and the writer’s heartbreaking need to communicate that love to the ghosts of his youth.  In this way French is commended not as much for the characters he “creates” as for his ability to observe humanity with a complex and generous compassion.  He reminds us of his hero Anton Chekhov, and it is no accident that French’s English version of The Seagull is considered by many to be unsurpassed.

While French’s characters are richly drawn and a delight to play, it is his notion of place that sets him apart.  French came to Toronto with his family from Newfoundland when he was six years old and he has lived here ever since, yet his plays are saturated with the geography and culture of his birthplace.  At first blush French seems to us a Newfoundland writer.  But his plays — certainly the Mercer plays — thrive on a tension between “here” and “there.”  The tension is between the urban and the rural, the haves and the have-nots, Central Canada and Maritime Canada.  If the plays are set in Toronto (Leaving Home and Of The Fields, Lately) the “there” of Newfoundland is omnipresent — its glories and its shortcomings.  In the Newfoundland of Salt-Water Moon, Toronto is ever-present as possibility and as threat.  This duality makes French so resonant to his audiences of urban Canadians, all of whom, in their own way, share this geographical ambiguity.  It is this that makes David French not only a great Newfoundland playwright but a great Canadian playwright.

Even for those of us who missed those original productions, French’s plays hold a mythic place in Canadian theatre.  I remember vividly the first time that I heard the words “It takes many incidents to build a wall between two men, brick by brick,” the opening lines of Of The Fields, Lately. The year was 1981, and I was a summer student at the Banff Centre for the Arts.  About fifty actors from across Canada were presenting the monologues that had won them a place in the program.  Thirty years later I remember only one of those monologues.  The actor was a young Kevin Bundy, and the story of a squandered opportunity for love between a son and his father — Ben and Jacob Mercer — moved me so much that I have never forgotten it.  I still find the speech achingly difficult to listen to.

Then, I was Ben Mercer’s age and I had a father.  Now, my son is Ben’s age and I am the father.  David French has a way of making plays that belong to us.  They belong to us as artists, they belong to us as Canadians, they belong to us as parents, and they belong to us as children.

Thirty-five years after Leaving Home exploded onto the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, David French’s Mercer saga continues to inspire and enlighten.  In 2007, Soulpepper revived Leaving Home, and it was as adored as it had been a generation earlier.  The play remains raw, deeply funny, and heartbreaking.  David French was right; it was time to see Leaving Home again, and nobody was more thrilled than the playwright.  He attended every single rehearsal and many performances during the run.

In 2008 Soulpepper revived Salt-Water Moon, and as I write this the company is preparing for a revival of Of The Fields, Lately. A new generation of Canadian audiences is revelling in the mastery of David French, and I feel honoured to have played a small part in this revival.  I am also thrilled that a new generation of readers will  have the opportunity to read the three remarkable plays in this volume.

Recently, I told David French that I would be writing this Foreword and asked him for some advice.  In customarily terse fashion he said, “All those plays are about unrequited love.”  That was it.  If you want more you will have to start reading.


Albert Schultz, Artistic Director, Soulpepper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ontario, February 2009

Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz

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