R.I.P. David French

December 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Canadian theatre has lost one of its giants. Playwright David French, author of the Mercer trilogy (Leaving Home; Of the Fields, Lately; Salt-Water Moon) as well as Jitters, Silver Dagger, and others, has died at age 71, reportedly from brain cancer. The Globe and Mail quotes Albert Schultz, artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, as saying: “French made us laugh constantly, opening up our emotional capillaries to absorb and calm the pain. Every page was drenched in love and David’s heartbreaking need to communicate that love to the ghosts of his youth.”

In 2009, House of Anansi Press released the Mercer triliogy in a new edition, to which Schultz contributed the foreword. He wrote, in part:

At first blush French seems to us a Newfoundland writer. But his plays – certainly his Mercer plays – thrive on a tension between “here” and “there.” The tension is between the urban and the rural, the haves and the have-nots, Central Canada and Maritime Canada. If the plays are set in Toronto (Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately) the “there” of Newfoundland is omnipresent – its glories and its shortcomings. In the Newfoundland of Salt-Water Moon, Toronto is ever-present as possibility and as threat. This duality makes French so resonant to his audiences of urban Canadians, all of whom, in their own way, share this geographical ambiguity. It is this that makes David French not only a great Newfoundland playwright, but a great Canadian playwright.

The Literary Review of Canada named Leaving Home one of Canada’s 100 most influential books, and the Oxford Dictionary of Theatre included it as one of the 1,000 most essential plays in the English language. French was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.

I left here this morning and went to the cemetery and picked out a plot, two plots, one for each of us, and I stood there with me breath blowing, looking at the white ground and all the headstones round about, and suddenly it went t’rough me like a cold wind: Dot’s dead. I don’t t’ink it had really sunk in before, that fact, even when I bent over her casket last night and kissed her cold lips. Not even then for some reason. Perhaps because she was there in body if not in spirit. Not until that moment in the cemetery did it strike me: Dot’s dead. Dead. The word itself was like a nail in me own coffin. Tomorrow, I said to myself, she’ll be under the snow forever in a bronze box and I’ll never see her face again, even in death. In time I’d forget what she even looked like … So I had a good cry right there in the cemetery, as much for myself as for her, I suppose, the first tears I shed since she died … And then I got in the car and drove home.

Of the Fields, Lately