I will fully admit that I chose this book for its cover.
I had no idea where to start with Canadian drama. As someone who is, at best, a sporadic theatre-goer (in 2016 I believe I saw one play in Calgary and one in New York…) this is not an area in which I’m well-versed. The last play that I read, I’m sure, would have been in high school, so I’m guessing maybe MacBeth? I don’t think that I’ve ever read a play in my entire adult life. And certainly never a Canadian one.
So I grabbed this collection of three plays by David French from the library knowing absolutely nothing about them. I had never heard the phrase “the Mercer plays” previously, and was unaware of their history. The introduction, by Albert Schultz, filled me in on claims about their importance – that they proved in the 1970s that Canadians would see plays written by Canadians and that they are widely taught in high schools (just not, apparently, any high school I know about). This volume, which collects three of the five plays about the Mercer family, seems to be largely motivated to collect the plays that the Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto has re-staged over the past decade; since they haven’t performed Soldier’s Heart and 1949, I didn’t read those.
On the one hand, I was quite proud of the fact that I was in tune with these plays. I read them at the right time in my life. Salt Water Moon, which is set in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland in 1926, makes frequent allusions to the battle of Beaumont Hamel. As I was in St John’s in October, I visited the centennial exhibition commemorating that event at The Rooms, so this is the point in my life that I am probably most aware of that significant cultural moment in the psyche of Newfoundlanders. On the other hand, I learned that I am a horribly inattentive reader of plays. I could not for the life of me figure out the timeline of Leaving Home because I skipped the sentence “The play is set in Toronto on an early November day in the late 1950s”. I thought it was taking place in June in the early-1970s. Seriously. I even mentally corrected a factual error, which, in retrospect, is no error.
I was interested by the way I both did and did not envision actors in these roles. I skipped the casting note for the 2007 Soulpepper version of Leaving Home at first and only realized that Kenneth Welsh played the father afterward. I pictured a very different actor in the role. In fact, I can't even bring myself to see Welsh in the role as I sit here. Yet, I semi-accidentally noted that Eric Peterson played Wiff Roach in Of the Fields, Lately and then ended up reading all of his lines in his distinctive voice, while still retaining generic voices in the place of the other three characters. Picturing Peterson made the second play far funnier than the first and third.
Of the plays, I may have appreciated the third the most, even though it would’ve been the one I’d have been least likely to go see based on the description. I’m told that Leaving Home is widely taught and I’ll believe that if you tell me it’s true. I can see the appeal to teachers of a play with characters that are seventeen and eighteen and who have issues with their parents. Conversely, I’m not sure I’d want to teach a play in a public high school whose themes include teen pregnancy, drunkenness and anti-Catholicism. Maybe that’s just me.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book is: What it meant to go “into collar” on a fishing boat in Newfoundland.