Tributes

David died on December 4, 2010.
The following obituary appeared in the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star:

David Benson French, O.C.
Playwright
1939 – 2010

David 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 Globe and Mail also published a photo retrospective of David’s career, which you can view here.

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.

Hrant Alianak
Playwright/Actor Hrant Alianak

The following tribute from long-time Tarragon staffer Tim Chapman first appeared on the Theatre Ontario website in January of 2011.

David French: An Appreciation

by Tim Chapman, Professional Theatre Coordinator

In the past few months the professional theatre community has been hit with the loss of so many of its invaluable family members: Jackie Burroughs, Tracy Wright, Graham Harley, Gina Wilkinson. ‘Attention should be paid’ to all of them, but I would like to focus particularly on the contribution of David French to Canadian theatre.

David French started in theatre as an actor, but it was not long in his career before he turned to playwriting. In 1971, he saw the Tarragon Theatre’s very first production, David Freeman’s Creeps (starring, among others, Robin Cameron, a young John Candy, Frank Moore and Charles Northcote.) What then transpired became part of Tarragon lore—it’s a story I heard on numerous occasions after I arrived at Tarragon in 1979; Albert Schultz told the story at David’s recent funeral and Hrant Alianak added a note to the story which I had never heard before: apparently after the performance of Creeps, David went to the Tarragon box office and asked for Tarragon Artistic Director, Bill Glassco’s phone number. And they gave it to him! (Something that would never happen after I arrived at the Tarragon, and I would even venture to guess Bill would have stopped that practice quite soon after David’s call.)

In any event, David did call from the Tarragon box office and Bill suggested he send him a draft of the script he was proposing. Soon after, David sent him a first draft and Bill called him in for a meeting. At the meeting Bill told David that, while he liked the play, he also thought David had not realized its full potential. To which David lit into Bill with numerous profanities, grabbed the script, and stormed down the stairs and out of the theatre. Bill then chased after David into the street shouting, “I’m not your enemy, I am your friend.” And so began a creative partnership in which Bill directed all of David’s premiere productions until Bill died in 2004. Mallory Gilbert (who was soon to become Tarragon’s General Manager for over thirty years) said she once asked Bill what would have happened if he had not chased after David that day. Bill said who knew, that it was an impulse, and he could have just as likely let him go.

Of course the script David brought to Bill that day was a draft of Leaving Home. Bill still did not have a show for the last slot of Tarragon’s first season. So Bill directed the premiere production of Leaving Home in the spring in 1972 to astounding acclaim (assisted in no small part by a glowing review from Urjo Kareda in the Toronto Star.) It was such a success that Tarragon revived the production to begin the 1972/73 second season. Bill once told me that, after the initial success of Creeps, the rest of Tarragon’s first season had been box office failures, so Leaving Home quite literally saved the Tarragon that year and allowed him to proceed into a second season. Bill said it is no exaggeration to say that without Leaving Home, there was a distinct possibility Tarragon might have folded after one season.

Leaving Home is a landmark play in Canadian theatre history, going on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre across Canada, the first Canadian play ever to do so. In the Fall 2010 issue of Actors’ Equity Quarterly, Walter Learning, founding Artistic Director of Theatre New Brunswick, is quoted as saying it was the first Canadian play produced at that theatre, “He’s from Newfoundland, as I am. We did the second production of that play. We found a voice that really spoke to our audience. There was an organic feel to his work.”

I first saw Leaving Home in a community theatre production at Kingston’s Domino Theatre in 1974. I can remember it had a real impact on me. Productions of Canadian plays were exceedingly uncommon at that time. Personally, I had seen a touring production of Ten Lost Years, adapted to great success by Toronto Workshop Productions, and I had seen my first show at Tarragon Theatre, the English-language premiere of Michel Tremblay’s great play, Hosanna (directed by Bill starring Richard Monette and Richard Donat) in the spring of 1974. Also I had acted at Queen’s University in a production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe along with Chick Reid and Nancy Palk. But I believe those were the only Canadian plays I was exposed to prior to Leaving Home, a play about the transplanted Mercer family from Newfoundland now living in Toronto and a son who abruptly leaves home for the first time. Maybe I related to the play more as I had recently left home myself, albeit in much more positive circumstances, or maybe because it was a family play set in Toronto where my family had moved in 1964. Anyway I remember for the first time thinking that these characters felt so close. I could relate to them in a way which was more immediate than the characters in the foreign plays which overwhelmingly dominated our stages and publishing prior to the early seventies. I came to the realization that, indeed, we needed to tell Canadian stories in our plays, we needed to build a theatre producing more Canadian playwrights. The impact of David French’s Leaving Home is not to be underestimated in the exponential growth of Canadian theatre in the 1970s.

David French went on to write four more plays about the Mercer family.  Of the Fields, Lately premiered at the Tarragon in 1973 and won the Chalmers Award that year. In 1984, Salt-Water Moon premiered at Tarragon to instant success. David had written a beautiful two-hander, a love story set in 1926 between the Mercer parents, which has had hundreds of productions across North America since its original run. I can’t remember if it was during that run or perhaps the run of David’s play The Riddle of the World in 1981 when I first witnessed David’s attendance at every performance in the run of his premiere productions. The final two Mercer plays are 1949, the year Newfoundland joined Confederation. It premiered in 1988 at CentreStage (now Canadian Stage). Finally Soldier’s Heart, set in the First World War, premiered at Tarragon in 2001.

David wrote other plays aside from the Mercer saga, but really only one had much success. And that is Jitters, the backstage comedy, which premiered in 1979 at the Tarragon. It was such a hit during the 1978/79 season that the Tarragon revived the show in the summer at Toronto Workshop Productions (the theatre that is now home to Buddies in Bad Times.) That is where I first saw this hilarious show which starred Charmion King, David Calderisi, Les Carlson, Miles Potter and Jim Mezon. There are many in this country who deem Jitters a better backstage comedy than Noises Off, the 1980s hit by British playwright Michael Frayn. Curiously, Noises Off is said to have played a part in Jitters never reaching Broadway. In 1979/80 Jitters enjoyed a very successful six-month run at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, in a production directed by Bill Glassco. The New York Times critic said: “Jitters is almost a perfect comedy of its kind.” After that there were plans to take the play to Broadway but, after too many delays, Noises Off came along to preclude producing another backstage comedy in New York at the same time.

Beginning in 2007, Soulpepper Theatre remounted four classic David French plays — Leaving HomeOf the Fields, LatelySalt-Water MoonJitters — with great success. These lovely productions, all directed by Ted Dykstra, really showed us again what a wonderful writer David French is. He was critically important in the growth of Canadian theatre and his plays will continue to be a mainstay on our stages. 

Thank you, David. Rest in peace. 

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.

The following article appeared on the CBC website on December 5, 2010:

Playwright David French dies

Canadian playwright and actor David French died in Toronto on Saturday night after a long battle with brain cancer, CBC News has learned. He was 71.

He is best remembered for his tales of the fictitious Mercer family, a Newfoundland family transplanted to Toronto. What became known simply as the Mercer plays included Leaving HomeSalt-Water MoonSoldier’s Heart1949 and Of the Fields, Lately.

French’s plays are considered seminal in part because they centre on the lives of ordinary Canadians.

Leaving Home was presented in 1972 in the first season of then-fledgling Toronto theatre company Tarragon by director Bill Glassco. French, then a struggling actor, had sent the play to Glassco when he heard a new theatre company was starting.

“With Leaving Home, I was a completely unknown writer. I changed the entire course of my life, because I’ve done nothing since then but write plays,” he told CBC News in a 2000 interview.

David French was an officer of the Order of Canada. ((David French website))Leaving Home was a success from the start and went on to be produced by nearly every regional theatre company in Canada as well as studied in high schools. It was named one of the 100 Most Influential Canadian Books by the Literary Review of Canada and one of the 1,000 Most Essential Plays by the Oxford Dictionary of Theatre.

Long association with Tarragon

French had a long association with Glassco and Tarragon, with all of his Mercer plays beginning their run at the Toronto theatre under Glassco’s direction.

Of the Fields, Lately became a CBC Television special and Salt-water Moon, a romance set in 1926, was translated into French and played throughout the U.S.

French was born in the tiny Newfoundland outport of Coley’s Bay on Jan. 18, 1939, one of five boys. His family moved to Toronto to join his father, who had found work as a carpenter, and he grew up amid a community of Newfoundland exiles.

“I absorbed (the language) through some process of osmosis, through my family,” he said in a 1999 interview with the Halifax Herald.

“When I was growing up, it was like Grand Central Station in my house — Newfoundlanders coming through all the time, sitting around, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. And, of course, my father and mother were great storytellers, and I picked it up from them, too. I remember the first six years of my life vividly.”

It gave him the fabric of the Mercer plays, which centre on several generations of a Newfoundland family, both on the Rock and after they are transplanted to Toronto.

Influential as mentor

After high school, French trained as an actor and acted on stage and in CBC Television dramas before he began to write.

He also wrote the popular comedy, Jitters, the thriller Silver Dagger and the dramas That Summer and One Crack Out, which played off-Broadway in New York.

French’s translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull was performed on Broadway starring Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke and Jon Voight.

He has been influential as a mentor to other Canadian playwrights and often spoke to amateur theatre groups and high schools where his work was studied.

French is a winner of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.

He is survived by his partner, Glenda MacFarlane, a son, Gareth and a daughter, Mary.

The following tribute appeared on the PlayAnon website in December 2010.

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving HomeSaltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.

David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.

In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Click for a video interview with David on the PlayAnon blog.

The Paquette family of Woodstock, Ontario, has a deep connection to David’s work. The following is a letter I received from Jennifer Paquette.

“Life Does Indeed Imitate Art”  
A Love Letter to David French  
David French Born, January 18, 1939 – Died, December 5, 2010

This is our family’s story;

In the spring of 1991, I learned that I was being offered my directorial debut with a small community theatre in Woodstock, Ontario. The show was David French’s Salt-Water Moon.  I was a 29 year old single mom who had lived and breathed theatre since I was a girl, and Mr. French’s plays had figured prominently in my development as an actor, director and writer.  I had toured Ontario schools with a repertory theatre in the early 80’s and Leaving Home was in our line-up and was one of our most requested productions.

I was excited and nervous to finally have the opportunity to share my vision of one of a series of plays about the Mercer family, written by the man who was and remains Canada’s most important English speaking playwright.

I met my husband Jason when he auditioned for the role of Jacob Mercer.  Obviously, he got the part, and, well, the rest as they say…

Our modest production of Salt-Water Moon ran in February, 1992 and surprised us by going on to win the coveted Best Production award at the Theatre Ontario festival in Sault St Marie that spring.

Jason and I were married in 1994.  In May of 1995, Jason and I learned that we were expecting a child.  We had been raising my two little girls together and I think we both knew instinctively that we were having a boy.  We didn’t even need to discuss what his name would be.  The day before I gave birth, my husband telephoned Mr. French and told him our story.  He explained how our own love had blossomed while telling the love story in Salt-Water Moon.  Then Mr. French and my husband spoke of the thrill of becoming a parent.

Jacob Anderson Paquette was born the following day, on February 1, 1996.  Three days later, after returning from the hospital with our beautiful new bundle, a package arrived in the mail.  We opened it to find a copy of Salt-Water Moon with this inscription:

Jan 31/96 (this was the night I went into labour)

To Jason & Jennifer,
who are proof positive that life does indeed imitate art.
– David French

We treasure this generous gift.  But the story doesn’t end there.

In February of 2013, our son will play his namesake, Jacob Mercer in a production of Soldier’s Heart.  His dad will play Jacob’s father, Esau.  In July 2012, Jacob, Jason and I traveled to Newfoundland where Jacob stood at Coley’s Point, was officially “screeched in” and did a first read-thru of Soldier’s Heart with his dad on the steps of the old railway station in Bay Roberts.  And so continues our connection with the Mercer family.  It is as if these characters are our kin.

Jason and I have been fortunate to share our love of storytelling with our children. We believe that our stories are our most cherished inheritances.  We are reminded of this every time we hear our now adult children recall to their friends their favourite story about a play called Salt-Water Moon, and of how their parents met and fell in love.

With gratitude,
Jennifer Paquette

Jacob and Jason Paquette, reading Soldier’s Heart on the steps of the train station in Bay Roberts, NL, where the play is set.

Click here for a link to a YouTube video about the Paquette family, with an excerpt from a rehearsal of Soldier’s Heart.

Comments are closed.