Canadian Identity in David French's "Mercer Plays"

Essay by peejay_meerhedCollege, UndergraduateB+, November 2009

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“The culture of a nation is said to be the expression of the character of that nation. Canadian culture is held to be the mirror that reflects the lives, histories, and identities of Canadians.” (Statistics Canada)Over the course of our country’s existence there has been an ongoing debate of whether or not Canada has its own national identity. Some would argue that it doesn’t, and that its lack of identity is what helps the country to be more welcoming and culturally vast, while others would argue that it is exactly this type of adaptation to other cultures that is distinctly Canadian and therefore a trait of our national identity.“When the word ‘culture’ is combined with the adjective ‘Canadian,’ the problem is compounded. It is made even more difficult when ‘culture’ is combined with ‘identity’ in such phrases as ‘the cultural identity of Canadians.” (Mathews, 7) So what is our identity? What about us makes us distinctly Canadian? We like our beer and our hockey, is that it? According to one playwright from Newfoundland, there’s much more than that.

David French was born in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland in 1939, and moved to Toronto with his family when he was just 6 years old. Even though he moved away at such a young age, the province, town, and the people have a significant impact on his works, especially in the ‘Mercer’ plays. “I remember the first six years of my life vividly” said David French in an article for the Halifax Herald in 1999. He has experienced two different cultures in his lifetime, that of the Newfoundlander, and that of the Torontonian, and those six years greatly influenced French’s work, specifically Leaving Home, Of the Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon, 1949 and Soldier’s Heart. At first glance one might think that the plays revolve around Newfoundland’s nationalism during its pre-Confederation period, but on closer inspection you’ll see that they aren’t just about Newfoundland, but about Canada’s history, and much of what actually makes up the Canadian identity. Each of these plays debuted at the Tarragon theatre in Toronto, under the direction of Bill Glassco. Leaving Home practically saved the Tarragon from financial ruin in its first years of business. Torontonians were drawn to the Tarragon, because anyone who can call themselves Canadian have something to relate to in the Mercer plays. Toronto and Newfoundland may be worlds away from each other, but family is family, war is war, love is love...wherever we are in Canada. David French not only exhibits what it is to be Canadian in all of his Mercer plays, but he also makes his Canadian readers appreciate being from this wonderful country.

Canada is a relatively young country, and has been overwhelmed with the neighbouring, and older, United States, whose national identity is said to dominate us and prevent us from having our own. “Canadian identity lives in a process of tension and argument, a conflict of opposites which often stalemate, often are forced to submit to compromise (mostly to the United States’ standards), but which – so far in our history – have not ended in final resolution.” (Mathews, 1) However, our identity becomes a little clearer as French addresses several things which, although not totally specific to Canadians, can be easily identified with: geography, religion, European heritage, political issues and participation in the wars, as well as cultural traditions and values. In Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately, we see two sides of Canadian identity: Jacob, the strong, surly carpenter from Newfoundland, who still has his accent, is old fashioned, ignorant but sensitive, stubborn and arrogant, and Ben, who is distinctly more urbanized than Jacob, more modern, and less traditional, but still stubborn and arrogant. With these two characters we are introduced to several themes of Canadian identity; changing family values, and the dichotomy between rural and urban, i.e. the differences between Newfoundland and Toronto. In the beginning of Leaving Home, it becomes quite clear that the values which Jacob grew up with are far different from the values which Ben is accustomed to. Jacob grew up in Newfoundland with his father, Esau, whom he both feared and admired: “When I did see him, at last, he looked so small lying there in bed that I wondered to myself how I could’ve been so frightened of him...” (Fields, 65). Ben, however, acts quite differently towards Jacob, whom he resents for trying to force Esau’s old values onto him: “Dad, you don’t want me to be a man, you just want to impress me with how much less of a man I am than you....I still haven’t got hair on my chest, and I’m still not a threat to you.” (Home, 30) What must be remembered about every family in the Mercer plays is that they are working-class families, which this country was more-or-less built on, especially the fishing industry families. French shows us that the working-class family values in Canada changed immensely in 20 years, from World War II to the late 1950’s, that men were no longer adults at age such a young age (“I’m 16 now. A grown man you called me” (Jacob, Soldier, 45), and that somewhere along the line either fathers stopped putting the fear of God into their children, or the children became more rebellious. But despite the differences between father and son we understand that family is a strong value in Canada, both in rural and urban settings, which we’re witness to as the Mercer family moves from Newfoundland to Toronto (even though they are a rather dysfunctional): “We’m still a family. All we got in this world is family...” (Jacob in Home, 101). “I’ve already lost a brother Jacob, I don’t want to lose a son...I didn’t come here tonight just for your mother...” (Esau, Soldier, 65) “We’ve never had anyt’ing to be ashamed of, my sons. We’ve been poor...but we’ve always stuck together” (Mary, Home, 20)Another important factor in French’s take on Canadian identity is the influence which Britain had on Canadians. Canada is a land built on immigration. Much of the population comes from a different country, and around the time of the Mercers, most had roots in Europe, specifically Britain. It wasn’t until after the First World War that Canada started to acquire greater autonomy from Great Britain, and started to make its mark on the map. It is before this time that French writes about in Soldier’s Heart, when Esau discusses how his brother Will hated to be called a ‘Canadian’: “Will set him straight. ‘I’m no bloody Canadian kamerad,’ says Will, ‘I’m one hundred-percent British.” (Soldier, 34) This isn’t the only time that one of the characters claims to be loyal to Britain, as Jerome Mackenzie says almost those exact words decades later, when he talks about being called a Canadian by an English lover: “I’m as British as you!” (1949, 81) Although this kind of talk can be seen as anti-Canadian, I reiterate that this is what makes up Canadian history, specifically Canada’s (and Britain’s) impact on the Great War. “As irony would have it, Newfoundland was not a part of Canada in 1916, so therefore they were British, however one must still value the sacrifice of ancestors of present-day Canadians.” (Forbes 374) The Battles of the Somme is mentioned in almost all of the Mercer plays, both being the day that the Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out, and when Esau’s brother died in No Man’s Land: “The Great Fuck-Up, the soldiers called it. Those that lived, that is.” (Esau, Soldier, 77) Britain also had an effect on the characters’ religions, having Esau and Mary being Church of England, Jacob being Anglican, and any mention of Catholics causes quite the stir, presumably because of Britain’s Protestant dominant standing.

Of all the Mercer plays, 1949 is the most controversial when it comes to Newfoundland being British, and its resistance to joining Canada as the 10th province, but it is also the most heartwarming, with the moral that loving one’s homeland is nothing to be ashamed of. “Just promise me one t’ing, my son. Don’t ever let people...make you ashamed of where you comes from.” (Jacob, 1949, 62) In the play, Jerome Mackenzie is the head of an anti-Confederation newspaper, and Jacob is all for Confederation. There is a wealth of debate over whether or not it is proper to ‘mourn’ Newfoundland by wearing black bands and hanging black flags on the houses, and Jacob finally does so when he hears that Ben was beaten up at school for being a ‘Newfie.’ A very touching phrase said by Jerome Mackenzie could touch the hearts of any person who loves their country: “A country isn’t just contained within its’s contained within its people. It’s what makes us special in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the world. Losing that sense of who we are is a high price to pay...” (1949, 167) But it is Jacob who constantly reassures Jerome that Canada would be a fine place to be a part of: “My two never saw fresh milk or fresh fruit til they come here. Most Newfoundlanders live in the outports...[they] have the lowest standard of living of any place in the English-speaking world...why did I bring my own family here if it wasn’t to find work and a better life for my kids?” (1949, 78)There’s something even more important about Canadian identity: our land. Throughout all of the Mercer plays, there is a plethora of imagery regarding Newfoundland and Toronto. Jacob and Mary talk a lot about Coley’s Point (or P’int, as Jacob would put it) in Salt-Water Moon, and how you have to cross the Klondike to Bay Roberts, filling their words with imagery of the beautiful scenery one might see there. Also Jacob mentions Toronto quite often, talking about getting into a fight on Yonge Street, or going to Timothy Eaton’s store to get her some silk stockings. Sometimes it would seem that French is name dropping so more Canadians can relate to the story and make them feel good about where they live; Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls, Queen Street, St. John’s, Signal Hill, Conception Bay – every place a reminder of what an interesting and beautiful country we live in. And with each of these landmarks comes something else, almost equally as important to the Canadian identity as the aforementioned: alcohol. As I’ve already mentioned, we Canadians love our alcohol, specifically our beer, and French surely knew that when he was writing the Mercer plays. Jacob and Wiff are constantly in the ‘Oakwood,’ their local pub in Toronto, and ‘screech’ plays a fairly massive part in the beginning of Leaving Home, when Jacob forces it upon Ben to prove that he isn’t man enough drink it: “He needs more in his veins than mother’s milk, goddamn it!” (Home, 28) Even at home, there is constantly a bottle of something being passed around, and more often than not it’s whiskey (another thing Canadians are famous for). I’m sure French didn’t put this into his plays to show that Canadians are all a bunch of alcoholics, but more to show that we enjoy taking part in life’s little splendours, especially ones which our land has to offer, like maple syrup, or Canadian Club.

We have strong family values in both urban and rural settings, we fought great wars alongside great allies, and, above all else, and what I’m sure French was trying to get through to his audiences, we accept a multiplicity of different identities. Cultural acceptance is paramount in the happiness of a country, especially in Canada. He wrote a five play story about the lives of a working-class Newfoundland family, who found happiness in moving to Toronto, who love each other despite their differences, who love their land, and it touches our hearts. Whatever people may say about Canadian identity, there’s no denying that David French made me feel just a bit more Canadian, and I doubt I’m alone on that one.

BibliographyConrad, Margaret R. Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making Oxford University Press. 2001Forbes, E.R. The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation. University of Toronto Press Inc. 1993French, David. Leaving Home, Of the Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon, 1949, Soldier’s HeartGwyn, Richard. Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian. McClelland and Stewart publishing. 1995Mathews, Robin. Canadian Identity: major forces shaping the life of a people. Steel Rail Publishing, Ottawa. 1988.

Resnick, Philip. The European Roots of Canadian Identity. Broadview Press Ltd.. 2005Statistics Canada. 1995