Witness to a Conga and Other Plays / Harvest and Other Plays

Feb 9, 2016

When I first encountered Canadian theatre, I was told a specific difficulty local practitioners faced was the lack of an “established” status for local playwrights to aspire to. It was explained that “lack of history” was to blame for the permanent condition of the local playwright as an anomaly, a doubtful entity in the public mind.

I had to think about this. Coming from England, it wasn’t as if I’d noticed widespread enthusiasm for playwrights over there. If anything, I thought, there was a greater popular love of theatre in Canada.

But, on reflection, I did have to admit that there is in England at least a sort of zone where playwrights are valued, and where those who have already composed a body of work are regarded as having a kind of legitimacy. Little matter this region may be geographically about the size of a Dodge City cattle pen; within it some of the marvellous beasts of British theatre graze, untroubled by public doubt.It was another matter if this security helped playwrights produce better work. I always attributed what I saw as a greater, wilder variety in Canadian dramatic writing exactly to a lack of complacency.

A few years ago Linda Griffiths, who would possibly have more right than many Canadians to expect some kind of establishment status, spoke about the difficulties of finding a producer willing to do her (to my mind brilliant) play “The Age of Arousal.” “I hate to say this,” she said, “but every time it got rejected it got better.”

Stewart Lemoine’s play “Happy Toes” begins with two men in a coffee shop discussing an odd remark a bank teller had made to one of them earlier in the day. The meticulousness they bestow upon what seems, after all, a commonplace remark, the way they turn it over in their minds, try to tease moral lessons from it, coin epigrams upon it, suggests that the idea of the conversation is not so much to understand the remark as to create a place in the world for cool reflection, to promote judicious discussion: “Do you think a bank can deserve to be struck by lightning?”

Their discussion is broken up by the arrival of a friend, who confesses to feeling troubled, because he believes his wife is having an affair. This could be described as a classic problem with which to kick off the action of a play – except it turns out that it’s her husband she’s having the affair with. She is treating her husband at times as though he is her husband and at times as though he is her illicit lover.

This strikes me as not necessarily a problem at all. It might work itself out. The wife’s behaviour might be explained, or suddenly be seen to require no explanation at all. But to these minds, that have trained themselves to study nuance, tease ambiguity, caress paradox, it seems like rather a rare and special problem, one particularly worthy of study.

The bank teller is approached again, and turns out to be as detached, curious, thoughtful and solitary as the others. That the characters all convene at a recital of obscure, gentle chamber music is in keeping with the rather genteel tone. By “genteel” I mean, I suppose, in this particular instance, great feeling expressed in determinedly small gestures.

The wife is, in fact, in the throes of a great crisis, has lost all control over her feelings, and makes a series of drastic decisions. But she does so on the margins of the action. Two of her three scenes are flashbacks. Mostly what we see in the play is people going to great lengths to maintain their detachment. Even the wife does, perhaps. Finding herself madly in love with one of the characters, after just one brief conversation, she ends up contenting herself with merely imagining the affair, in detail, in the course of 128 letters that she never sends. Everyone who later has the opportunity of reading the letters refrains from doing so, either for reasons of courtesy, or because they don’t trust themselves to be able to manage their response.

I never quite shook off a certain skepticism about the play. The rarefied atmosphere occasionally borders on snobbery, while the way the whole variety of human response is reduced to either complete control or a complete lack of control struck me as a little schematic.

But if my acceptance wasn’t wholehearted, I enjoyed the way the quaint, dance-like working of the story is done so precisely, and thought the scene in which the wife feels an explosion of love deep beneath the surface of a seemingly ordinary conversation is a truly beautiful piece of writing.

The second play in the collection, “The Oculist’s Holiday,” takes place in the same rather rarefied atmosphere – except this time perhaps literally so, for most of the action is in the mountains of Switzerland. An affection for the quaint is evident from the title – “oculist” being an archaic term even in the era in which the play is set, which is the early 1930s. The whiff of snobbery persists in details like the way one of the characters is, gratuitously, a princess (who insists on being addressed informally).

A pair of strangers, both of the kindly, philosophical bent that seems to define decency in these plays, have met the night before in a hotel, accompanied each other out on the town, become drunk, and ended up sleeping together. The play begins as they face each other at breakfast the following day. Much of the amusement comes from the restraint and detachment they bring to bear in deciding whether or no their uncharacteristic behaviour is an illustration of the principle “in vino veritas.”

I believe the audience’s enjoyment is enhanced by the way we are permitted to see, well in advance of the characters, that they do, indeed, belong together. So we’re granted the pleasure of watching two clever people struggle toward a conclusion we have already reached.

Their investigations are thrown into sharp, uncomfortable relief by an encounter with another couple, whose ability to make reasonable decisions deteriorates according, really, to the amount they drink. A long scene at the heart of the play, in which the two couples meet over after-dinner drinks at the hotel, offers a beautifully modulated account of this second couple’s descent from a kind of affable thoughtlessness into a raving, manic, grasping frenzy.

Once again I was impressed by the sheer craft of the writing. But this second play extends the palette of the first, in that not all the characters are equally pleasant and worthy. This time, as well, the aspects of order and chaos, reason and impulse, control and lack of control, Apollo and Dionysus are plaited together in a more intricate and ambitious design. This play has a genuinely complex, original construction that is superbly executed.

My reservations about it are to do with a certain emotional stillness, a whiff of foregone conclusion, at the heart. The good people simply remain good. Even when they make mistakes they come to no harm. Their integrity, curiosity and natural courtesy mean they simply learn more. By contrast, the others, the less-than-good, can seem to find no way out of their state. The more they struggle, the more they hurt themselves, so that the final touches, when the good not only forgive the less-than-good, but rescue them with gifts – free medical advice in one case, a free sandwich in the other – almost seem cruel.

It’s a gently merciless moral argument. The conclusion it leads to, that in the hands of people with integrity a night of alcoholic blackout can actually be a useful thing, is not completely convincing.

The third play, “Witness to a Conga,” speaks directly to my qualms about the first two. It begins just as the lead character is asked by his fiancée whether he’d like the band at their wedding to play a conga. The setting is present-day Vancouver. He’s appalled at the prospect. She sympathizes. It seems they both prize a certain detachment and delicacy in their approach to life.

A conga isn’t nuanced. Although there may, in some parts of the world, be people able to bring a particular grace to the dance, at a wedding in the suburbs, it’s likely to be nothing but a shuffling line of cheerful twits, performing the least demanding of steps, while holding each other in a manner on the borderline between politeness and intimacy. A conga is not about getting things right. It’s about joining in, being a part of things. Getting married is too. So it seems a hopeful sign that they can’t completely dismiss the conga.

The play describes how the potential groom, in preparation for marriage, steps out of his seclusion, leaves that quiet mental arbour he’s constructed for himself, where right is right and wrong is wrong, and slips into the tide of life.

Very soon, we learn he has an imaginary orchestra in his head, presumably to comment upon and mediate his experience of life. Amusingly, we are the imaginary audience he’s had parked in his mind on a more or less permanent basis.

There is never a single doubt that he loves his fiancée and is going to get married. When she appears he remarks, rather charmingly, to us on how delightful she is. The orchestra shuts up when she is present.

We discover he’s been so much of a loner that he’d be quite happy to invite no one to his wedding. Even when pressed, he can think of no more than three whose presence he could abide. These are his father, his dead mother’s partner, and a woman he’s never mentioned to his fiancée before, who is not an old flame.

His mother, who died a couple of years earlier, was a successful concert pianist, forced by arthritis to retire early. He still speaks to her. Even in death she’s without malice, but infuriatingly self-involved.

Her final partner, Claire, is the person he’s closest to. The scene, in flashback, that describes how she breaches his defences soon after they first meet, when he is an awkward, vulnerable teenager, resentful about the breakup of his parents’ marriage, is another example of the writer’s way with a brilliant, set-piece scene. But it’s also an example of intelligent long-term planning regarding the overall construction of the piece. Claire is the only person who confidently knows our hero. Her warm and level-headed approval of him allows us to feel that behind his elaborate defences, despite his cluttered imagination, he is sound, capable of forming relationships, that he will enjoy being a husband.

The mysterious woman who was not an old flame turns out to have been the teacher who first ac-knowledged his talent for literary analysis, and encouraged him into his current career. Although nothing untoward happened between them, when he thinks of her, the orchestra in his head swells. It’s clear an important part of his growing toward maturity will entail putting aside an idealized, almost romantic version of her. This he does, in a way that is surprising and satisfying.

The last, most daunting barrier between himself and a full enjoyment of life is his anger toward his father, who is genial and charismatic, but ridiculously thoughtless and self-involved. The last major scene describes the confrontation between father and son on the occasion of the in-person delivery of the wedding invitation. Even as Dad shows a hunger to be on good terms, his attempt to accept culpability is disappointingly half-hearted, almost sloppy. The triumph of the scene belongs to the son, and comes from the way he accepts at last that while his father is far from perfect, he is his father: “Dad, I don’t know you very well … But I’m quite certain I want you to have this.” (204)

I’m amused by the way I seem to be unable to shake off the idea this play is autobiographical. Really, this is a tribute to the quality of the writing. The story is as full of surprises and anomalies as real life, and the tone is relaxed and warm and witty.

I like the way that, whereas the structure of “The Oculist’s Holiday” is complicated and showy, the hard work of putting together “Witness to a Conga” has gone into hiding the construction, making it seem as if the story just comes out the way it naturally ought.

Most important of all, the story is emotionally true. I get the message: no matter how special and indescribable our woes are, we all have to join the conga at some time.

I found it a completely satisfying play.

I felt the same about “Harvest” by Ken Cameron, which leads off the collection of the same name. This is avowedly autobiographical. Otherwise, It’s difficult to imagine a greater contrast in tone. Gone are the detached, withdrawn intellectuals, leaning back and considering nuance. Now we are in Canadian farm country. Everything is very “front foot,” brisk, cheerful, warm and blunt.

The story is that Cameron’s parents, Charlotte and Allan, sold their farm, but not the farmhouse, and moved to a condo in the city when they reached retirement age. Unwilling to let go of the old place entirely, they rented the farmhouse out.

Cameron has his parents tell the story. Obviously it’s not actually them, but a couple of actors, who also play all the other characters. The story is told not only from their point of view, but in their manner of telling. They fuss. They correct one another, keep interrupting, wander off topic, crack jokes, try to settle old scores.

Having them play all the other parts strikes me as a quietly brilliant idea. I once heard an English farmer say, “With a shilling and a piece of string a farmer can get anywhere!” This stuck in my mind because it seemed to express the way farmers are routinely faced with the need to extemporize solutions to a wide variety of challenges, how they’re daily called upon to be flexible and inventive, often with simple means, how they don’t deal with perfection, expense, sophistication, let alone, heaven help us, nuance, but have to just get things done, solve problems, be effective. The stage directions are quite specific about the simplicity of means the actors must use to “be” the different characters. The performance is not meant to be virtuosic, or convincing. It’s meant to be effective, to get the point across. A few actor’s tricks and some very basic props become the actors’ equivalent of a shilling and a piece of string. In order to tell the story, the actors have to make like farmers, be busy, work hard, solve problems, have hope.

Watching them like this cleverly manoeuvres us into appreciating their perspective. Allan makes a lame joke. We don’t laugh. Charlotte doesn’t laugh. We feel closer to her. The first half rolls along in this jokey, informal, occasionally hokey way, describing how they dither over their decision, feel like hicks in the presence of a big-city real estate man; how, even when they’ve moved, they pine for the old place. But beneath the cheery surface, the story is being developed in a more serious di-rection.

For example, the way the neighbouring farmer who buys the farm still mangles his English, over fifty years after he arrived from Hungary, furnishes a few scenes with a fairly broad-seeming comedy. But embedded in this is an important message about the narrowness of their world. If we think about it we might understand this farmer to have done what other people in small communities have, developed his means of expression enough to make himself understood to the twenty or so people he has to deal with in his life, and then stopped there. In a middle-sized city he would have come across many strangers, and would have had incentives to improve. For here, he’s done enough. His English is effective. Why get it right?

Making us so easily begin to accept the narrowness of the world sets us up for the frisson of comic confusion that follows when they mistakenly believe their tenant is gay, which in turn sets us up effectively for the final image of the first act, when they finally return to their old home and find the door has been smashed in, that there is no furniture throughout, and the walls are covered in a horrible black fungus. The tenant has been using the house to grow drugs. This time they really have come up against something from outside that might destroy their world.

Cameron states in his interesting introduction that the play for him is about his parents’ abiding love. I’ve no argument with that, but for me, not knowing Allan and Charlotte, the play becomes about the love rural Canadians have for their community.

When, at the beginning of the second act, the couple meet another comic local character, in a delightfully unfocused policeman who can’t stop trying to figure out how many degrees of separation there are between his family and them, the tone is similar, but the tension different. For now they really need his help. A question starts to hover over the action: is their community attentive enough to respond to a threat?

The way this policeman is distracted sets up nicely the problem that the Camerons’ insurance man is actually an old school friend, whose father was a friend of Allan’s father. This means that when he’s told his claim is not valid he feels personally betrayed. In retaliation, Charlotte mobilizes friends to shun the insurance company.

It seems the community we’ve been so subtly inducted into might be beginning to tear itself apart. At this point I’m conscious of feeling transported farther than I expected to be by a play.

Allen and the insurance man meet by chance (in the churchyard, as they are visiting their parents’ graves). The insurance man informs Allan that the decision was out of his hands. Although his firm retains the veneer of a little, local business, “These days all insurance is run out of three or four big companies in Ontario.” He’s not even allowed, he says, to change the colour of his sign. For a moment it looks as though the community that’s bound them together all these years no longer even really exists.

Then an extraordinary thing happens. The two men speak in a way befitting people who, while never being particularly friends, have known each other all their lives, and had to find a way of living alongside each other. Allen accepts that nothing will come of the retaliatory campaign except more pain, and offers to call it off. In return, the insurance man makes a friendly suggestion that turns out to save the day.

At more or less the same time, Charlotte runs into the former tenant. She doesn’t phone the police, but she does give him a piece of her mind, pointing out he’ll always be on the run if he doesn’t get honest.

Suddenly, Charlotte and Allan seem invincible, almost flourishing. They’ve said their piece, and made their peace. They have no enemies, no debts. No matter how the world changes, it seems, Canadians will be free if they preserve their core values, of humaneness, humility and hard work.

If I were running Blyth Festival theatre, I wouldn’t hesitate to put “Harvest” in the season. It’s funny, cheap to mount, and lavishly honours the community it describes. It’s a play so bright and shiny that the only criticism that could be levelled at it is that it fulfils its purpose so well that it fails to exert the fascination a play like “Twelfth Night” does, for its strange little fractures and inconsistencies.

The second play in this collection, “My Morocco,” has a radically different tone. This time the atmosphere is one of submission, confusion, melancholy and regret.

Once again, the subject matter is autobiographical. This time the playwright is the protagonist. It’s a monologue. I don’t think it would make sense for anyone other than Cameron to perform it. He tells the story of how, while seeking inspiration for a new project, he went on holiday to Morocco with his girlfriend. While there, he received news that his sister had died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, aged forty-one. Immediately, he tells us, he lost interest in Morocco and in plays, and even found it difficult to maintain communication with his girlfriend. In a way, this is not a play so much as a set of notes about why a play didn’t happen.

It is a play in that it is well written. Everything is clear, feels as if it’s in the right order. It’s informative and funny, when occasion permits. It’s clearly intended to be performed with serious intent. The lines should be learned, all of them should be said, and nobody else should be speaking in the room while it’s being performed.

What makes it seem like something other than a play is that the autobiographical content has some-how more authority than the art. For example, Cameron’s father makes a cameo appearance. This time he’s not called “Allan,” as he is in “Harvest” – but then Cameron’s father’s name is not actually Allan, but Allister. Naming him “Allan” was just a way of releasing the character from the obligation of sticking to the facts, turning him into fiction, licensing him to do just what best served the story. This time, the facts have more authority than aesthetic considerations.

All in, it’s a bit of a riddle, a one-off, a hybrid. Meditations there are in it about what makes a play, and what plays are for. But I feel that if I were to attempt to engage with them I’d be entertaining intellectual ideas, whereas he is just reacting to a sudden, shocking blow.

But if I don’t feel in a position to criticize it, I can certainly recommend it. In the process of writing this I’ve read it several times. Each time, I’ve enjoyed it. Each time I’ve noticed something new to like. It’s unique, and unmistakably good.

The third and final play in this volume, “My One And Only,” seems very definitely not autobiographical. The main character, Scout, is the son of a whisky-drinking town whore. His father is long gone. The play tells a story about the time Marilyn Monroe came to Banff to make a movie, “River of No Return.” The movie is real. It was shot in 1953. Part of the action of the play involves the fifteen-year-old Scout having a brief sexual relationship with Marilyn.

In his “note on staging,” Cameron says, “Marilyn Monroe is a modern icon” (150). I have some limited understanding of what the word “icon” means in the context of the Orthodox Church, but none, really, when it’s used in connection with well-known people. Mostly, it strikes me as just a way of lending a specious air of importance to whatever’s being said. When he goes on to explain Marilyn’s picture is “as important and pervasive to us as images of the goddess were to cultures in ages past” (150), I know he’s talking nonsense. When he concludes, “Even those who take little interest in her life cannot escape her extensive influence” (150), I can think of nothing to say, except perhaps, echoing Allan in “Harvest,” “Yep, yep, yep.”

I cannot tell what difference Marilyn’s iconic status is meant to make to the way we interpret her having sex with a fifteen-year-old. Does it make her less culpable? Is it tragic like her drug use? (Do drugs affect icons differently?) Is it more sad than if a non-icon did it? Was it fated? Are we somehow to blame? Did we expect too much? Did she die for our sins? Your sins? Someone’s sins other than her own? I honestly don’t know.

There’s another thread about the way his father’s watch stopped at the moment the first atom bomb went off. When his mother refers to this moment as the time “the earth moved” she’s using an expression I always thought came from the novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” where it’s used to indicate a female orgasm. She doesn’t credit Hemingway. But it does seem maybe she mistook the aftershock of the bomb for a unique, memorable bodily response. At the same time, the expression seems to be current among the town’s teenagers. So maybe it was just a common figure of speech in those days.

Anyway, a consideration of time is important in this play. Scout, having in his possession the watch that stopped when the bomb went off, seems to have some feeling time is more negotiable than hitherto believed. This means each moment lives, in some sense, forever, and can be repeated. There’s an eternal recurrence. At least, I think there may be an eternal recurrence. The more I think about this play, the more confused I grow.

This may then be a good point to draw back from close examination. In his introduction to the play (145-148), Cameron mentions an inspiration was the way his mind can snap from a intense recollection of the way he treated a long-lost romantic partner to a realization that he is halfway through washing the day’s dishes. Elsewhere, he says the play is primarily about the difficulty of becoming a man. These things I can easily understand. If I concentrate on the things I feel in common with the play I can find much to enjoy. The individual scenes are well written. I’m mindful that reading a play is not to experience it as it is intended to be experienced, and, by this point, have acquired enough confidence in Cameron’s craft to keep open the possibility that his argument about time may be a lot more compelling when seen on stage.

If I had the chance I’d go and see any of the six plays in these two volumes. As an actor, I’d relish the chance to be in them. As a playwright I feel I can learn from them. While I blanch a little to think of how long I’ve lingered over this essay, I’ve enjoyed the time spent getting to know these scripts and trying to figure out what they mean to me.

I can think of no sense of the word “playwright” that does not apply to these writers.

Linda Griffiths, I think, used to have an expression, “lifer,” to denote a person who is bound by their very nature to be a writer of the kind they are. It may come into her play “Alien Creature,” where it would be put into the mouth of Gwendolyn MacEwan. You write some stuff that goes well, gets you attention, opens doors. When the good times fade away, though, there’s no longer necessarily an obvious call to go on working in the same vein. At this point, some will stop, and others discover themselves to be “lifers.”

The Canadian Prairies are not necessarily an easy place for playwrights to make careers. But something about the combination of difficulty and opportunity apparently works. These two handsomely bound, beautifully presented books are volumes 28 and 29 of a “Prairie Play Series.” ♦

Alan Williams is a playwright, actor, and director living and working in London, England. His most recent one man show, “The Girl With Two Voices” (a play cycle) was performed in Winnipeg last January. He is currently working at the National Theatre in London.

Witness to a Conga and Other Plays
by Stewart Lemoine
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1-897126-86-8, 212 pp., $19.95 paper.
Buy Witness to a Conga and Other Plays at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Harvest and Other Plays
by Ken Cameron
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-897126-67-7, 212 pp., $19.95 paper.
Buy Harvest and Other Plays at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Share Post