David’s Favourite Books

January 20th, 2012 § 4 comments permalink

The only two books in the house when David was growing up were the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He used to read the Bible aloud to his Granny French, who was losing her sight — David said she was particularly fond of “The Song of Solomon.” David often spoke about the beauty of the poetry in the King James version, and you can see the influence of it on his own work.

He discovered fiction when he was in Grade Eight. Before then he’d been far more interested in sports than literature, but one day when he was acting up in class, his exasperated teacher told him to go get a book and to sit down and read it. David happened to pull Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from the shelf…and he was hooked; he loved Twain from that moment forward. A couple of weeks ago I noticed that we have two huge Twain compendiums on our bookshelves! I’m sorry David never got a chance to read the recently released Twain autobiography, which I’m sure he would have been very interested in. Reading Twain really did change his life — he said that before he’d even finished Tom Sawyer, not only did he know he wanted to be a writer, he knew that he was one.

David’s next big literary influence was Jack London. After reading his way through London’s adventure novels, David decided to head out on an adventure of his own. He and a friend hitchhiked to Vancouver, hoping to get work on a tramp steamer. David was seventeen at the time! Unfortunately (or fortunately,) the only job he could manage to land was working on one of the local ferries – and that came to an abrupt end when authorities discovered he’d lied about his age. He made it back home to Toronto in time for school in the fall.

In his 20s, David idolized Hemingway. He finally did make a sea voyage, and spent a month in Paris, where he lived on one meal a day (breakfast, which was included with his accommodation,) and retraced the steps of Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” writers like Fitzgerald, Callaghan, and John Glassco. As a young man David wrote a novel that was much influenced by Hemingway. It’s never been published, but it’s a wonderful bildungsroman about a group of friends who travel from Toronto to Carnaval in Quebec City.

Anton Chekhov

David read plays and books about playwrights, including everything he could get his hands on about Shakespeare’s life and work. When he talked to playwriting students David would ask them which playwrights they admired — and he was frequently irritated when they couldn’t come up with more than one or two names. He used to say that reading good plays was one of the best ways to learn how to write them. Sometimes David would take a break from working and walk to Theatrebooks to buy whatever plays looked new and interesting. He had a comprehensive collection of drama, from Aeschylus to Neil Labute, and everything in between. Chekhov, to whom David is sometimes compared, was a particular favourite.

Stephen King

Stephen King was one of David’s favourite contemporary authors. He liked Salem’s Lot in particular, and bought each new book in hardcover as soon as it appeared. I read the new one (11/22/63) a couple of months ago, and all the while I kept thinking about how he would have enjoyed it. David also loved mysteries, and there are a lot of those on our shelves, too — PD James, Peter Robinson, Giles Blunt, Rennie Airth, and many more. David was working on a mystery set in a small Ontario town before he got sick, and having a lot of fun writing it.

Near the end, David was having trouble with his eyes, so we started reading books aloud together. We finished Faulkner’s Light In August while riding out chemotherapy side effects…and we were about halfway through Treasure Island when he died.

There were, of course, so many other books David loved…the books I love best are the ones that have “David French” on the spine.

Photos From Writing Home

October 24th, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

Here are a few photos from Friday night’s opening at the National Arts Centre. These feature the opening of the “Writing Home: David French” exhibit that took place just prior to the opening of Salt-Water Moon.

Curators Michael Wallace of Theatre Museum Canada & Judi Pearl of the NAC with Glenda and Mary

Some of the exhibit's displays


Map of Canada highlighting SWM productions

The view from above

French family members

The photos from the celebration are by photographer Michel Dozois; the ones of the exhibit alone are by Yannick Beauvalet.

A Night To Remember

October 22nd, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

Last night Mary and I, French family members, and many friends were in Ottawa at the opening of Salt-Water Moon and the “Writing Home: David French” exhibit at the National Arts Centre. It’s a wonderful show, and the exhibit is so beautifully put together! Some tears were shed, and some laughs shared by those of us who knew David; it was an altogether magical night. I’d like to thank the NAC — in particular Peter Hinton, Peter Herrndorf, Nancy Webster, Micheline Chevrier, and cast and crew of the show. I’d also like to thank the amazing Judi Pearl of the NAC, and her colleague Gerry Grace. And of course many thanks to Theatre Museum Canada, Michael Wallace in particular.

I said a few words on behalf of the family at the vernissage, and I think I’ll just share part of that speech here:

I’ve been thinking a lot about David’s work this past year, and I’ve been realizing how much of it has to do with memory. That iconic monologue from the beginning of Of The Fields, Lately, for example — the memory of a baseball game that epitomizes the son’s whole relationship with his father.

The way memories — and the device of remembering – permeate That Summer, one of David’s last plays.  The memories of war that haunt Esau in Soldier’s Heart, and the collective memory of country that flows through the blood of the young lovers in Salt-Water Moon.

In the theatre, the most ephemeral of arts, the latest hit often seems to eclipse the work that came before. I know that David, particularly in the years before Soulpepper Theatre revived the Mercer plays, wondered about how – and if – his work would be remembered. This exhibit — this recognition, this remembrance of the impact his work has had and continues to have — would have meant a very great deal to him. As it means a great deal to us.

I’ll let David have the last word. Near the end of his play That Summer, the Narrator says, “Henry James thought the two most beautiful words in the English language were ‘summer afternoon.’ For me, the most beautiful have always been ‘I remember.’”

Culture Days & “Writing Home”

October 1st, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

It’s Culture Days weekend — and that means that the joint National Arts Centre and Theatre Museum Canada exhibit about David’s career is live online!

Here’s the link: http://www.artsalive.ca/en/eth/playwright/david-french/

If you’re not able to come to Ottawa to see the installed exhibit, this online version is the next best thing. Mary and I are very proud and happy to see David’s work honoured so beautifully. Many thanks to Judi Pearl and Gerry Grace and colleagues at the NAC, and to Michael Wallace of TMC.

Writing Home Exhibit

September 3rd, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

A couple of weeks ago I had a visit from Michael Wallace of Theatre Museum Canada. Michael and Judi Pearl and Gerry Grace from the National Arts Centre are putting together an Ottawa exhibit about David that will coincide with the upcoming NAC production of Salt-Water Moon.

Here’s the beautiful poster image for that show:

The display is titled “David French: Writing Home” and it’s going to feature information about David’s career along with memorabilia from Salt-Water Moon and the other Mercer plays.  It’s being mounted as part of the nationwide Culture Days celebration.

Before Michael arrived I found a few things that I thought he and his NAC co-curators might be interested in and gathered them together. Well!  It turns out I had underestimated both the scope of the exhibit and the zeal of the curators. After a couple of hours at our apartment, Michael exited carrying boxes filled with clippings and photos and objects of interest – even the French family Bible!  (This was the book that introduced David to literature. When he was a boy his granny French, who had gone blind, would ask him to read passages to her.  David said she was very fond of “Song of Solomon.”)

The incredibly knowledgeable Michael (who, by the way, stage-managed the premiere production of That Summer at the Blyth Festival,) is doing a great job of preserving our theatrical past.  Click here for a link to Theatre Museum Canada to find out more about the museum — and to view interviews with legends of the Canadian theatre, including RH Thomson’s interview with David, taped last year. (The button to choose David’s interview is located about halfway down the page, on the lefthand side.)

I’m very excited about “David French: Writing Home,” and I hope many of you will have a chance to see it.  The exhibit will be available for viewing from September 30 through November, which includes the run of Salt-Water Moon at the NAC (October 18 – November 5.) Click here to link to the NAC site.  I’ll be travelling to Ottawa for the official vernissage and show opening on October 21st.

There will also be an online version of the exhibit, so I’ll keep you posted about that.

PS. While on the subject of museums, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Victoria LOL #3 Museum and Playhouse in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, which houses David’s old Smith-Corona typewriter, along with many other items of interest.  You can find a link to this wonderful local museum, operated by Jerry and Brenda Mercer, here.

Albert Schultz on David’s Work

June 12th, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

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

David on Playwriting

March 17th, 2011 § 0 comments permalink

Every year for several years, I coordinated a course for the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Department. It was really named “Dramatic Writing I,” but we used to call it “The All-Star Playwriting Class,” because I invited a different guest each week to talk about an aspect of playwriting. It was fun for the students to meet different playwrights and find out how each approached his or her work, and it was great fun for me, too. Perhaps the main lesson we all took away is that there are many ways to write plays, and one has to carve out one’s own particular way.

David, of course, was always one of the guests, sometimes on his own, and sometimes with Hrant Alianak. (The two of them had worked out an entertaining lecture that encompassed a bit of Canadian theatre history, a few hilarious theatre stories, and some how-to instructions, peppered with readings from their plays.) David got awfully nervous about doing those sort of things, but he was really very good at it.

The other day I was getting ready to go to the class I now teach when I found some notes I took one night when David was speaking at the All-Star course. I will quote some of them here, as I think the things he had to say are incredibly clear and helpful.

Some advice from David French:

You are a playwright. You build a play. It’s a craft. Like an iceberg, most of the play (the structure) is invisible.

A play is about a protagonist (only one) who wants something badly, and wants it soon. The climax of the play is when the protagonist either gets or doesn’t get what he wants. The other characters in the play either help or hinder the protagonist in his quest. The more conflict, the better. People are either literally or metaphorically fighting for their lives. The antagonist(s) should have as much at stake as the protagonist.

A play begins long before the curtain rises. The play should open with a catalyst to trigger action. Often a protagonist is at a turning point in his life; he has just made or makes a decision.

A play, like a shark, must move forward, or die.

Characters should not talk about what they feel. This is expressed through what they want and how they go about getting it. Always dramatize rather than tell. Don’t tell us that the character is jealous; show him climbing a tree to spy on his girlfriend.

Plot has to arise organically from character.

When characters exit or enter a scene, they must have a legitimate reason for doing so. In fact, make sure each character has a legitimate reason for being in the play in the first place.

Don’t overwrite — the audience is ahead of you. They’re smarter than you are; they already know.

Every good play has suspense — what will happen next?

Don’t be afraid to cut scenes or dialogue if they don’t move the action ahead.

Be careful not to write lines that are impossible for actors to say.

David often used to talk, too, about how writing was really rewriting. He worked hard to get each scene right, each line, each word. He was also adamant about owning the play you wrote — that you can listen to good advice from directors or actors, but that ultimately, it is your name that’s on the play, and you must be true to your own vision.

David was always true to his.