Saturday, July 31, 2010

David French: A Newfoundland Gem

David French is the best known of a group of playwrights associated with the Tarragon Theatre, one of four "alternative" theaters which revitalized Toronto drama in the early 1970s. While not a technical innovator, French successfully combines convincing Canadian situations with well-made, realistic conventions accessible to a broad audience. The enormous success of his first stage play, Leaving Home, did much to convince a popular audience that Canadian drama could be worthwhile. The working relationship between French and Bill Glassco, artistic director of the Tarragon, has had profound effects on Canadian theater and script development. While playwright/director teams and symbiotic relationships between writers and theater companies are common in countries where theater is well established, such collaborations were quite rare in Canada until French and Glassco demonstrated their worth.
Born in Coley's Point, Newfoundland, to Edgar Garfield and Edith Benson French, the playwright moved to Toronto with his family at the age of seven, experiencing himself the tension between regional and urban values that later became central in two of his plays. In his mid teens, French developed an ambition to write; several of his early short stories appeared in youth magazines, and one was included in an anthology of work by young writers. He began his theatrical career as an actor, training with Al Saxe and Roy Lawler in Toronto and, briefly, at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. French performed in several radio plays produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from 1960 to 1965. In 1962 he wrote his first television play, and during the following ten years he completed many short plays for radio and television; most have been broadcast by the CBC.

What started as a television play became French's first full-length play for the stage. Set in Toronto in the 1950s, Leaving Home explores father-son conflict in a working-class family, intensifying the conflict by contrasting Jacob Mercer's Newfoundland speech and values with those of his two sons, who have been raised in the city. All the characters "leave home," one son, Billy, to marry a girl pregnant by him, and his brother, Ben, to escape their father's oppressive hand. Jacob also "leaves home" as the conflict with Ben forces him to abandon the spiritual values of the Newfoundland fishing village he left behind physically several years previously. While Jacob is proud of Ben's academic achievements, he cannot refrain from mocking Ben's inability to meet the fishing village's measure of a man; when Ben moves on, he leaves Jacob no one to whom he can pass his values.

Leaving Home's premiere (Tarragon Theatre, 16 May 1972) was the beginning of the working relationship between French and Glassco's company: French found the theatrical support he needed, and the Tarragon achieved a commercial success to bolster its shaky first season. The play immediately struck a responsive chord with the popular audience; in the season following its premiere, Leaving Home was produced by thirty-five theaters across Canada, consolidating the reputations of both French and the Tarragon.

French's next play, Of the Fields, Lately (first produced at the Tarragon Theatre, 29 September 1973 and later by The Avion Players of Gander Newfoundland as their 18th entry into The Newfoundland Drama Festival) , is a sequel. Several years after the events depicted in Leaving Home, Ben Mercer (Roderick Brentnall) returns for the funeral of one of his aunts and again attempts to communicate with his father, a few weeks, as it transpires, before Jacob's (Ross Goldsworthy) own death. Father-son conflict is sharpened by the imminence of death. Also in the stage production were veteran James Lewis playing Wiff Roach.Although only her second appearance on a Canadian stage Ruth Simms Ferguson playing the role of Mary Mercer won a much deserved Best Actress award.Many theater goers of the 70's would also agree that the award was a consolation prize for having played Trese Delaney the previous year in Tom Cahills "As loved our fathers" to an exquisite and captivating degree.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.

French redresses the imbalance of Leaving Home, in which the father is responsible for the failure to communicate. Ben has left home but to no great purpose, and on his return, his values are revealed as superficial. He is ashamed of his father's rough manners and working man's appearance. The old is dying, and French questions the validity of that which is replacing it. When Jacob dies, father and son have managed no more than fleeting human contact.

In Of the Fields, Lately, French departs from the conventions of realism through a framing narrative device. In the cinematic structure of his third play, One Crack Out (Tarragon Theatre, 29 May 1975), French goes still further. The play depicts the Toronto demimonde of pool hustlers, conmen, marks, pimps, and prostitutes. In a series of short vignettes, Charlie Evans engineers several scams in a progressively desperate attempt to evade the dire consequences of a bad gambling debt. Unfortunately, the realism of dialogue and situation are incompatible with the short, choppy scenes, and One Crack Out fared badly with critics and audiences alike.

Despondent over the failure of One Crack Out, French attempted to start new plays, without success. Then, at Glassco's urging, and with the assistance of Russian scholar Donna Orwin, he translated Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, joining a growing number of playwrights adapting plays from the international repertoire for Canadian audiences. His confidence restored by the success of The Seagull, produced by Tarragon in 1977, French fulfilled a long-held ambition to write comedy.

Jitters (Tarragon Theatre, 16 February 1979) is set in a small, Toronto alternative theater and employs a play-within-a-play structure to reveal the world of rehearsals and opening nights. In comic scenes ranging from slapstick to witty infighting, French shows the company struggling against everything from jammed doors to personal and artistic insecurity. The play's central conflict concern's Jessica Logan's attempt to make a comeback in a new play, "The Care and Treatment of Roses," while her leading man tries to sabotage the production for fear it might be transferred to New York, exposing him to a more demanding audience.

His next play, The Riddle of the World (first produced at the Tarragon in 1981), was a disappointment. Described by some as a philosophical postsex comedy, the piece concerns a young man whose lover joins a cult that requires celibacy. Most critics thought that the protagonist's attempts to cope with his dilemma and his attempts to persuade a friend not to convert to homosexuality were overly burdened with quotations from psychologists and philosophers and too far removed from the comic confrontations that the script seemed to call for.
French returned to his Coley's Point source with Salt-Water Moon (My personal favourite and first produced at the Tarragon in October 1984). This, his latest play, concludes the so-called Mercer trilogy by returning to the Newfoundland of 1926. Jacob returns to his hometown after a year in Toronto to confront the ghosts and resentments he left behind and to try to win back Mary, who has become engaged to another man. Both previous Mercer plays included anecdotes about the courtship. In the course of this long one-act play, Jacob does win Mary but never quite comes to terms with his past, thus laying the ground, in retrospect, for Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately . Salt-Water Moon makes full use of regional dialect and imagery to achieve its lyrical charm.
French has won several awards and prizes, including the 1973 Chalmers Award for Of the Fields, Lately; the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Of the Fields, Lately in 1974; Canada Council grants in 1974 and 1975; and, for Salt-Water Moon, the Dora Award in 1985, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Critics Award for best play in 1985, and the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for best drama in 1986. He is currently working on a new translation of Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest.

While most of French's plays have proven popular with general audiences, critical response has been divided. Supporters admire his craft; Urjo Kareda, for example, describes him as the most significant Canadian playwright of his time. Detractors, such as Michael Cook, find French's work derivative and dependent on sentiment for its effects.
Michael Cook has never received acclaim outside of Newfoundland.

R Brentnall

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