My Canada, 89/150: The play’s the thing

I wanted to write about Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald’s terrific play, Goodnight, Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet) and had a simple research question: How many productions of the show have there been? And where does that rank in terms of most-often performed Canadian plays?

In MacDonald’s play, our heroine, Constance Leadbelly, is an overworked and underappreciated junior academic somewhat in the thrall of Professor Claude Night. She has a theory that Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Romeo and Juliet were meant to be comedies: that a source manuscript for both she is trying to decipher would prove each show should have had a “wise fool” character that would have disrupted the tragic action just in time so that the loving couples would live happily ever after, instead of ending in dead heaps by the last act.

She’s too timid to assert her theory and, in despair and frustration, throws her research, her pen and other office acoutrements into a wastepaper basket. That basket, in the literary tradition of the mirror in Alice in Wonderland, turns into a portal that sucks Constance into an up-is-down alternative Shakespeare world where, suddenly she is the wise fool and these two Shakespeare plays turn into comedies at her intervention. And that’s just the first half.

I felt a bit headfirst-into-the-portal-wastebasket myself when trying to figure out what I thought were simple questions about this, and other, Canadian plays’ popularity.

I saw Goodnight, Desdemona in its first production, which originated in Toronto with Nightwood Theatre, toured to several theatres across Canada, and returned to Toronto for a second run. That tour and other productions of this play up to 2007 are catalogued on a website run by the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. It lists 38 productions, including one in 2001 at Toronto’s Canadian Stage I also saw, in which MacDonald herself took on the role of Constance, directed by her now-wife, Alisa Palmer.

Online blurbs say the show has been produced “more than 40” times. Mr. Google coughs up three recent productions at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria (2013), the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa (2013) and Hart House, University of Toronto (2014).

An inquiry to MacDonald’s publisher / publicist is no help: “I apologize that this is not information that we collect or that I have access to. ” The Playwrights Guild of Canada reports that while it’s on their wish list to compile a national list of how many times Canadian plays have been performed, their resources are limited and they do not do this: they do compile an annual list of top plays, but those are best new works produced.

My point had been to prove the fact that it was a remarkable achievement for MacDonald’s Goodnight, Desdemona to have had 40 (or more) distinct productions in nearly 20 years. Since the 1960s and 1970s, new plays about Canadian subjects, or on broader topics penned from a Canadian mindset, have proliferated. What’s been trickier is giving these plays a life beyond their first production. A play, unlike a book or a painting you can keep for centuries, needs to be remounted to remain art its audience can experience.

There have been breakout Canadian success stories. One concrete piece of evidence I found was from the U.S., where American Theatre magazine produces a list of most-produced plays in the U.S. by year and by decade. Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, written in 1999 and winner of a Governor General Literary Award for Drama, made the top 10 list for 2000 to 2010. Add that to the many Canadian and British productions of the show and its promotional boast that it’s one of the “most-produced Canadian plays” holds water. It has a compelling trifecta of ingredients: It involves three actors and one set (i.e., relatively inexpensive to produce); it is both funny and heart-wrenching; and the three characters, two elderly bachelor farmers and a young actor who’s visiting to research their lives, are complex and fascinating.

Like the research-frustrated Constance, I don’t have the proof I want, but I have the observations of many theatre practitioners and observers who I polled about what other Canadian plays are among those produced most frequently. Their choices include:

Peter Colley’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight, a thriller/mystery first produced at Ontario’s Blyth Festival, which has a mandate to produce Canadian-written works. It’s been produced around the world.

The works of playwright Norm Foster, who has written 58 (and counting) plays, including The Melville Boys (1984), The Foursome (1998) and Ned Durango (2011). His website states: “Norm Foster has been the most produced playwright in Canada every year for the past 20 years. His plays receive an average of 150 productions annually making him, by far, the most produced playwright in the history of the country.”  

St. Catharines-Ontario-born Bernard Slade, who moved to the U.S. and worked as a television writer in Hollywood. wrote Same Time Next Year, a hit on Broadway that was later made into a movie for which he received an Oscar best screen adaptation nomination.

Also flagged: plays by David French (Jitters, Saltwater Moon), Judith Thompson (Crackwalker, I am Yours) and Lynda Griffiths (Maggie and Pierre, Age of Arousal).

On the musical side, a top contender is the Charlottetown Festival perennial Anne of Green Gables (book is by Don Harron, music by Norman Campbell, lyrics by Don Harron, Norman Campbell, Elaine Campbell and Mavor Moore) which bills itself as “Canada’s longest-running musical.” More recently, there’s The Drowsy Chaperone, (book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) which started in 1998 in Toronto, eventually landed on Broadway in 2006, won five Tony Awards, had a successful London run, toured North America and, in its second life,  has become enormously popular with high schools, university, and community theatre groups.

There’s also a category of plays I think of as “chef-owner” plays: shows that, at least in their initial runs (and sometimes for all performances) feature the creative team that first launched the show. Here we find Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray, performed frequently by Eric Peterson, billed as “one of Canada’s most successful and enduring musical plays”; 2 Piano 4 Hands, promoted as “one of the most successful Canadian plays ever” written and initially performed by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt; and the seven Walt Wingfield plays, written by Dan Needles and performed since 1986 by actor Rod Beattie.

But back to Constance Leadbelly, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Goodnight Desdemona, itself a Governor General Literary Award for Drama winner. It is fiendishly clever and fun: just what would happen if Juliet and Romeo had lived? In MacDonald’s vision, Juliet is addicted to drama and conflict: married peacefully to Romeo, she is bored to tears. Romeo’s romanticism is made of poetry puff: really, he prefers to play with the boys than a tedious girl.

MacDonald has written other plays, as well as musical lyrics, but she likely is better known for her later novels including The Way the Crow Flies, Fall on Your Knees, and Adult Onset. And while I have read and appreciated all those novels, my heart belongs to our oh-so-Canadian beguiling underdog Constance, who I’m glad is still being brought to life on stages across the country.

Main photo: From left, Alison Sealy-Smith as Desdemona, Juan Chioran as Othello, and Ann-Marie MacDonald as Constance Leadbelly in a 2001 production of Goodnight, Desdemona Good Morning, Juliet, directed by Alisa Palmer. Courtesy Canadian Stage.

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