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As the new playwright-in-residence here at GCTC, developing a new work which centers on the famed Franklin Expedition, it was with just a wee bit of excitement that I turned on the news a few weeks ago to learn that one of the lost ships had in fact been discovered on the cold seabed of the Northwest Passage. As a playwright whose previous works have focused on obscure but pivotal moments in human history, it’s rewarding to learn that the subject of my fascination has just entered the realm of national relevance.
But it’s also a bit melancholy to hear news of the discovery, if only for the fact that mysteries are much more mysterious when they’re deeply submerged.
There’s been a considerable amount of controversy over the Franklin story, especially since the recent discovery. How the discovery is just one more incident of the Inuit being ignored when it comes to Franklin. How Stephen Harper took centre-stage credit for the discovery, in lieu of the critical scientists whose budgets continue to be slashed, and whose right to speak freely is under siege. How the much-ballyhooed search for Franklin may have been a cover for something far more politically-motivated. And even whether or not the entire Franklin saga deserves to be considered a part of Canadian mythology.
At the very least, there’s plenty for this playwright to get excited about.
For those of you who don’t know me or my work (that’s likely all of you), I write historical-political dramas which often inter-weave storylines from two different but connected eras. My first play RE:UNION takes place in 1965, where a young Quaker named Norman Morrison takes his own life as a political protest. The play also takes place in 2001, as his daughter Emily revisits the scene of his death to figure out what happened. I worked along similar patterns for my second play EXCEPT IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT OF WAR. I enjoy doing this for several reasons. First, I love the idea of mining history for contemporary resonance. Second, I have a tendency to make things over-complicated. There’s a long list of people who can confirm this. If anything, it keeps the audience on its toes.
With this new play, tentatively called GLACIER, I’m revisiting this pattern. But which eras to choose? For the contemporary era, it’s more a question of which modern story do I wish to inter-weave. But for the long-ago era?
I’m not as interested in depicting the actual fated journey of Lord Franklin and his men. Not because I don’t find their story compelling, but because I don’t find what they were looking for to be so dramatic. They were looking for the Northwest Passage.
I’m much more intrigued by the men and ships and governments and social magnates that set off in search of the lost Franklin expedition, always holding out hope of discovery of their lost heroes, who grew in mythical stature with each passing year and failed search. That’s dramatically interesting. Add onto this the fact that onboard these ice-locked ships they performed in something called the Royal Arctic Theatre, and presented the most northern-ever production of Hamlet, and that they may or may not have been aware of reports of cannibalism, and that ghosts may or may not exist but often do in the theatre, and I’m hooked. It sounds downright mythical.
You can follow me on Twitter @devinesean