One of the nice things about my high school in sleepy Thornhill is that its library stocked lots of your plays. An anthology of your East End plays, a volume of your Suburban Motel series. A few others. I read almost all of them and was entertained and puzzled. The plays’ language was precise in a way that made me feel their author knew exactly what he was up to, but the affect of them, if you can talk about a script’s “affect,” seemed sort of flat. Technical, cool. To my highly discerning 17-year-old judgement (uh…), those plays a) didn’t quite come alive as texts, and also b) impressed me as masterful. I was pretty confused and interested and kept reading them.
A few years later I saw Ken Gass’s taut production of one of them, Tough, and figured it out. Your plays’ language lies low on the page because your dialogue, I think, is pure action. More than any other Canadian playwright that comes to mind, you’re ruthless in the way you strip your language of added literary effect and leave only the words that a character’s immediate need chokes out. Your characters are defined by what they do, and their dialogue is always in service of what they do. There’s an attractive ethic in this: we can judge your characters only by their actions — you don’t usually give us much in the way of bald biographical info, say — and the plays don’t editorialize on them, don’t seem to pass judgment. They evoke an indifferent, amoral universe in which people do what they must to get by.
More to the point: your characters “do what they must” under the conditions of capitalism in big North American cities, and they’re usually white and they’re usually poor or poor-ish. This isn’t exactly a novel genre — call it dirty realism, call it the theatre of grit — but what distinguishes your work, for me, is that it doesn’t feel like a middle class fantasy of the working class. Your plays don’t condescend to their characters or falsely ennoble them (which is the same thing). They feel sympathetic and unsentimental, and they have solid enough structural bones — enough action, conflict, drama; enough dramatic craft — that their success doesn’t hinge on a middle class fetish of the poor (“Oh, aren’t we such empathic people who can feel for the dispossessed!” slash “Aren’t they dirty and horrible! How titillating!”), even if perhaps that fetish does its part to help fill seats.
I thought all these virtues were on display in Dead Metaphor, your latest, now playing at the Panasonic Theatre in association with Mirvish Productions, as part of the Canadian Rep Theatre‘s first season. But I also thought, during its first half, that it was a kind of George Walker play I’d never seen before — a bit less colourful, maybe, but with an extra layer of thematic and emotional nuance. I was compelled by its story of a young sniper who comes home from war and attempts to reintegrate into a society that both pats him on the back for his service and doesn’t know what to do with him. What a great way to look at the conflicting messages our society sends its citizens, especially its young, especially its young men. Be aggressive. But just during office hours. Hone a killer instinct. But be sensitive. Learn a skill. But that skill’s useless. Have a moral foundation. But be pragmatic. Do what it takes. Get by.
I was drawn to this play more than to some of your other work because of the intensity of the moral questions at its heart. Your plays Tough and Moss Park, for example, render their young strivers and misfits with a flinty tenderness, but Dead Metaphor takes that tenderness and your muscular scene-writing and places them in a framework that feels socially broader and more complex. The play’s first scene, in which magnetic Noah Reid as Dean the sniper seeks advice from a mild-mannered, weak-willed career counselor, is loaded with the absurd tension between the banality of work in a big Western city and the ferocity of war. The war makes the banality possible, the city is indebted to the warrior for its security, but it’s also afraid of him and doesn’t know what use to make of him within its walls. One of the basic civic problems. It’s Plato’s Republic. I find it fucking fascinating.
Like George Saunders in his wonderful short story “Home,” you put that problem in compelling human terms. Dean struggles to connect with his parents and pregnant wife, tries to convince them that he’s returned from the war psychologically intact. The scene that ends with Dean’s halting reassurances to his ill father is a gorgeous, subtle piece of character writing, with dialogue that feels emotionally accurate, heavy with subtext. The father’s request that his son euthanize him (by gun) is a clever, poignant dramatic device by which to look at the burden we place on anyone we ask to kill, even for reasons that seem noble. And then there’s the conniving right-wing politician, just this side of caricature, for whom Dean ends up working and who uses Dean for her own political ends — a witty sketch of how the viciousness of war can get sanitized and repurposed as a campaign trail soundbite. In the first half of the play, its style is a detailed enough psychological realism that even this outsize figure feels credible.
I said to a couple of friends at intermission that I thought Dead Metaphor was an exciting piece of writing. We chatted about whether its structure and style felt borrowed from TV and if there were anything wrong with that, and one of my friends, an actress/writer/deviser, said that the size of its arguments made it feel to her like theatre. That struck me as a perceptive, accurate take on your play’s first half.
I felt like the arguments got smaller after intermission, when the play’s style turns to farce and the plot fixates on the politician and her husband’s dueling bids to pay Dean to murder the other and maybe their daughter too. This seemed like a different play to me, one that occupies a different moral universe. A theatrical world in which an otherwise non-psychotic woman can order the murder of her husband and daughter, without obvious inner conflict, has moved far beyond realism and, it seems to me, can’t say much that’s specific about real politics. Though just as shrewdly structured as the first half (in a superficial sense, how can the stakes not be high if people are plotting murder?), the play’s latter part seemed to be less concerned with the psychological credibility of its action, and so it became, for me, just an entertainment.
“Just.” Well. Entertainment’s great. Except the first half of your play had been plenty entertaining while also painting a subtle, wry picture of the audience’s own social situation, one in which I could see my own values reflected and challenged, my own hypocrisies skewered. The second half didn’t have this effect on me, because the characters’ blithe consent to spousal assassination didn’t correspond to any emotional reality I could recognize.
Maybe that has to do with my own class background; maybe my instincts are too middle class for me to understand the kind of desperation you’re dramatizing. But even if that’s true (and it probably isn’t), the “bidding war for murder” felt like such a focus-puller that once the play went there, it couldn’t really be about anything else. It became, like some of your earlier plays, a study of what desperate people will do for money when they need it. And, you know, who am I to call that an unworthy theme — but I found it so much less fresh, ambiguous, and complex than what I thought your play was pursuing for its first half. The second half made a few broad, familiar satirical points about the ruthlessness of politicians (or of humans in general) and the terrible pragmatism to which poverty drives people, but it felt like an evasion of the excellent, deeper questions about war and violence and civilization that you’d set up.
I was disappointed, because I feel like you’re one of the few playwrights in our midst, in Canada, with the dramatic craft and political awareness — not to mention the professional credibility, the platform — to get audiences looking at and talking about the assumptions their own lives rest on. You get that the political is about people, the way we live together, not just about politicians and major world conflicts. Your plays aren’t discursive “plays of ideas” in their style, but they evoke ideas. You clearly know what you’re doing.
Fuck Oedipus. We young playwrights, those of us who still think narrative and character and action and language should be knit together and find a place on our stages — we need to acknowledge not just that you’re good but also how you’re good, because you’re our tradition, a major part of it, and the future is facile, the revolution inane, if it’s not built on a critical reckoning with tradition. Canadian theatre does a real shit job of addressing questions of legacy, in my opinion, probably because we exist in such a culture of scarcity: the young are hungry for the jobs and status that the baby boomers hold onto, and the boomers can’t afford too often or too meaningfully to “send the elevator back down,” in Jack Lemmon’s phrase, lest they be gobbled up by their brood and cast upon the embers of a pensionless profession. I say again: Fuck Oedipus. We need you, Mr. Walker. We need your generation’s insight and experience. We need to question you with all the force we’ve got, but not just on our own, in private, and not out of resentment. We need to be in dialogue with you and your peers, with the specifics of your work and how it works or doesn’t, more than we are now. Or so it seems to me.
I hope the run of your play has been a great success, one that’ll encourage the Mirvishes to use their commercial stages more often the way that Broadway stages more often were used in Arthur Miller’s time, as a place to engage a mainstream audience with entertaining drama that provokes conversation on the major questions of the day; and so I remain,
Your friend in a glass house,