Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: (Book) The Harps of God

When Angels Scream
Kent Stetson's 2001 GG-winning play makes for a theatrical reading 
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois (reprinted from Hour Magazine, 2001)

There was a time when plays were meant to be read, and indeed, written to be read.

Henrik Ibsen, for instance, didn't write one of his masterpieces, Peer Gynt, to be played at all (though the sprawling, huge-cast mammoth is mounted often now) - it was published as a piece of poetry, full of crazy-ass impossible-to-stage images. Ibsen was prescient - anticipating the huge advances made in stage technology in the second half of the 20th century - while creating a good read, because Gynt is definitely a good read.

George Bernard Shaw's plays, though meant to be staged, are also excellent reads even for people who never go to the theatre. His stage directions are written like passages of a novel and when he described a setting or a character, he didn't do so in half measures; have a look at his description of Mrs Higgins and her home in Pygmalion, for instance, and you don't really have to see a production of the play to know where this woman is coming from.

But this year's GG winner truly deserves the accolade; it is a terrific read, and theatrically its ambitions are breathtaking.

Then along came the '50s and playwrights who made a reading of their plays almost irritating; stage directions are vague, dialogue is occasionally stream-of-consciousness and dense with obscure symbols, and character development is left to the sometimes-warped control of directors.

Our own Governor General's Awards for literature not only celebrate theatre, but published theatre. Though not all of the plays that have won the prize have been magnificent, they are mostly good reads. (Some to a fault; Carole Fréchette's Les Quatre morts de Marie, Joan MacLeod's Amigo's Blue Guitar and Maryse Pelletier's Duo pour voix obstinées come immediately to mind as examples that work better on the page than on the planks.)

But this year's GG winner truly deserves the accolade; it is a terrific read, and theatrically its ambitions are breathtaking.

To give you an idea of how serious a read Kent Stetson's The Harps of God is, there are two introductions (one by the director of the premiere, one by the artistic director of the company), an afterward by the author, a bibliography, and the ship's log of the SS Fogota.

It's all there to impress on us the hideousness of the real events on which the play is based: in 1914, on the ice fields of Newfoundland, 132 sealers were apparently abandoned on the floes for two days and two nights. Two thirds of their number perished. They might have been saved if it were not for misunderstandings among the sealing ship captains (and the removal of the wirelesses on the ships to save the company money), and if Nature herself had not conspired to destroy the men. (Nature is the unseen character of the play - the work's only female entity. Chillingly, the voice of that entity is the screaming of the harp seal mothers calling for the slaughtered young.)

Stetson does things simply and effectively; he sticks with the men on the ice. We watch them doing their ugly job, and Stetson doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the work. We witness their slow realization that they are out there alone. Then we follow their atrocious days and nights, their deaths and the slipping into madness of the survivors (which is, more likely, an escape into madness).

Stetson researched the place and events extensively. The dialogue has the ring of authenticity. But the author ups the ante twice: by writing the piece in verse (more reminiscent of Christopher Fry than T.S. Eliott) and by making the cast all-male and huge - 14 speaking roles! He pretty much assures that the work will be rarely performed (as even Little Theatre companies and theatre schools - which can handle large casts - want roles for women), but that is not the agenda. Writes Stetson in the afterword, "I had tired of writing five character works. I needed to 'talk big.'" And that he surely does.

The Harps of God flows over you like rich wine. It is excessive, like Gynt, but also heartbreaking and, in its final moments, utterly harrowing.

There are photos in the book from the premiere, which was presented outdoors, in the boondocks, on the edge of the ocean, in the pouring rain, without intermission. Though it sounds like misery, by Christ I wish I had been there.

The Harps of God, by Kent Stetson (Playwrights Canada Press), 136 pp

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