Long, long ago when I first arrived in Ottawa as a young public servant I discovered a tremendously valuable guidebook to the byways of the nation’s capital and the political specimens to be found therein. My bible was the British satirical series Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister. Political science treatises were offered to viewers disguised as witty banter, but the simple truth was that the show did indeed show how politics worked.
So it is with the opening show of the season for the Great Canadian Theatre Company with Proud by Michael Healey. For the political junkie in me, the characters’ explanations of sometimes savage political truths is like mother’s milk – and I suspect this is true for quite a large number of audience members at GCTC as well. The piece is clearly fiction and clearly satire, so I’m frankly puzzled by the tempest in Toronto last year in which the Tarragon Theatre declined to produce the show. If anything, in many respects the play offers a sympathetic portrayal of an all-controlling but unnamed Prime Minister Stephen Harper (played by Healey himself).
Unlike Yes, Prime Minister, in which the crafty bureaucrats run rings around the slightly dotty PM, in Healey’s play it’s the PM who lectures to a newly elected backbencher. Jenny Young offers a tour-de-force performance as the dotty Jisbella Lyth who echoes George W. Bush in challenging and surprising those who “misunderestimate” her.
There are plenty of winking nods to contemporary Canadian politics that earned hoots of laughter from the audience, but these will become obscure as time goes by. But the characters’ analyses of why they do the things they do are timeless and I’d heartily recommend them as a worthy complement to Yes, Prime Minister to the next generation of public servants for study.
As faithful readers know, I’ve been working on a new play about a Quebec ancestor of mine, Ezekiel Hart, at the Thousand Island Playhouse. The topic is certainly interesting to me (obviously) but because it’s a historical piece I’ve had no reason to think it would enjoy any unusual contemporary resonance besides being (I hope) a good play.
It seems I was mistaken.
The Quebec government’s recent proposal for a “Charter of Values” has been in the news lately, not least because it would forbid employees in the public sector from wearing anything expressing their religious beliefs, including for example the kippah that observant Jewish men customarily wear.
The proposal is controversial for any number of reasons and has fueled charges of a Québécois intolerance of an “other” that is different from the traditional roots of the province’s culture (which includes, among other things, the crucifix that continues to be displayed in the legislature).
I noticed an op-ed piece in today’s National Post that argues for a history of antisemitic intolerance in Quebec and was intrigued to see that the author makes a point of referring to Hart, who in 1807 became the first Jew elected to public office in the British Empire – but who was denied his seat because he was Jewish and would not take his oath on the New Testament. I then learned that another op-ed about Quebec a week ago in the same paper also cites the Hart case as an early example of how the local population treated their Jewish neighbors some two hundred years ago.
It’s debatable whether Hart was prevented from taking his seat because of antisemitic prejudice on the part of the English ruling class or on the part of the French politicians who were trying to maintain what we now call a “distinct society,” and indeed this is one of the points my play explores at some length. But as a historian of my acquaintance points out to me, the proposed Charter is going to generate a lot of debate about how open Quebec society is to the “other,” and Hart provides a good early historical example for each side of the debate to lay claim to.
And a play of mine about a nineteenth-century first cousin five times removed is suddenly very relevant.
I’ve got a reunion coming up in a few weeks at Harvard, where I spent my undergraduate years, and I’m looking forward with some curiosity to seeing what my classmates from that long-ago time are up to these days. I’m not aware of others who’ve undergone quite the same transition as my own from physics to play writing, but I am nonetheless astonished at the breadth of accomplishment that I read about in the class notes.
One of the more interesting elements of the reunion that the organizers have planned is a “literary coffeehouse” featuring readings from some of the work our class has produced – fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as well as some play excerpts. As I have a handy 10-minute play available from last year’s Extremely Short Play Festival, my contribution to the event will be Late. With its characters’ focus on middle age and their reminiscences – albeit unhappy ones – about younger days, it seems a fitting choice for the occasion. Two classmates, working actors both, will be doing the piece and I’m very excited to see what they and the director come up with.
I don’t know much about the rest of the program, but I was quite tickled to discover that one of the other participating writers, the talented novelist Lewis DeSimone, wrote a lovely essay a few years back about Auntie Mame – both the 1958 film with Rosalind Russell and the character herself. What it would have been like, he wonders, to have been raised by her as young Patrick is in the story. In many ways it’s a very corny story, but I was happy to discover a comrade in Lewis who shared the fascination of my younger self for a character who dared to live unconventionally and damn the consequences. I’m secretly hoping he and I might find some time at the reunion to sneak off and watch the DVD together.
There’s one line of Mame’s that struck a chord with Lewis and the funny thing is that it clearly struck a chord with me back when I first saw the movie as well, because I quote it in Galatea: “Your Auntie Mame is going to open doors for you, Patrick — doors you never even dreamed existed!”
Opening doors, of course, is a powerful motif. It’s really why writers do what they do, whatever their medium or genre. Show the reader (or the audience) something new, move them, inspire them. I can’t wait to see what doors Lewis and my other classmates will open for me at the coffeehouse later this month.