Fuck tha queen.” Neither original, nor eloquent. But put the line in the mouth of Thibault, the bicycle delivery boy of indeterminate age, whose brain functions along unique not to say mysterious lines. Put him in a play, drunk, on a back balcony in working-class Point St. Charles in the seventies, after neighbourhood francophones and anglophones have thrown a party at which superficial friendship slips seamlessly into buried enmity. Have Thibault shout the line at the English-speakers with false bravado as he cowers behind Paquette, bigger and drunker, a francophone factory worker who will soon lose his job. Now, “Fuck tha Queen” can bring the house down.
This was David Fennario’s play Balconville in 1979 at the Centaur, Montreal’s premier English-language theatre—and I was its director. Quite ironic that David’s most successful work should have originated in the former Montreal Stock Exchange building, built in the days when the scions of Westmount—David’s sworn enemies—were the centre of wealth and power in Canada. A socialist message in a bourgeois theatre? The sweet-and-sour theatrical tang was box office boffo. Go figure. With newspaper, magazine and television profiles, national and even international tours of his plays, the Bard from Balconville gave the young Centaur what little artistic credibility it had.
This past September, a celebration of David’s contribution to Montreal theatre was held at the Centaur to raise funds for the ailing playwright. Over $16,000 was collected. Fennario felt as if he were at his own funeral. “But what I liked was that all the contradictions survived, it wasn’t just nostalgia.” He also enjoyed the cash influx.
For the past year, Fennario has been suffering from chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP. It has taken away his ability to move his muscles, especially in the legs and arms. He stoically claims he is getting better: “Last May I was in my wet noodle stage. Today it is more like I’m al dente.” This is Fennario’s way of saying he can actually get to the kitchen a couple of times a day on his own. He just finished dictating the first draft of Dead Letters, a sixty-thousand-word murder mystery. “I’m going after my usual, Old Westmount. It’s my pension plan.”
The evening reminded me how little politics we have in our theatres today. How hard we have to work at making ourselves presentable to potential sponsors. We are afraid to challenge anymore, instead pretending we can outwit money and power by smiling and watering down the content of what we are thinking.
Actor Jean Archambault—who created the role of Thibault for that first performance twenty-three years ago—spoke his “Fuck tha Queen” line again on a bare stage before the packed audience. It brought the house down again.
“It works,” as we say in theatre. Fennario has the Irish gift of storytelling, an ear for how people speak. His characters and their words ring true. In rehearsal, he would listen closely to the actors at work. Not just with his ears: his body would tell him when an actor’s delivery was not working for the character. Dialogue for Fennario is a template for action—not intended to be evaluated on the page, but massaged into a living entity: to “behave” is to “have being.”
David’s first play, On The Job, opened at the Centaur in 1975. A gaggle of boys from Point St. Charles (“the Point”) stage a wildcat strike in a garment factory during the office Christmas party, trashing the joint. The audience was so keyed up they almost cheered at every local reference. It’s hard to imagine, now, the frisson of liberation that spectators experienced watching a play about themselves. In those days, theatres across Canada remained loci of colonization: British artistic directors, British writers, British plays and British values. Fennario changed all that. With Nothing to Lose, Balconville, and Moving, David Fennario in the seventies and early eighties was the most celebrated Canadian playwright around.
Fennario trims, rewrites. With Balconville, he was revising right up to the dress rehearsal. Rewrites were handed out on the spot or the next morning. Peter MacNeill, who played Johnny, was close to ballistic. As director, I would weigh the advantage of the new lines against the tension and insecurity changes to the script would evoke in the cast. Sometimes I would let the rewriting go on longer than the actors wanted to help create a spontaneous atmosphere, a reality on stage. I also cut David off when needed.
This rewriting was not just an author’s fanaticism to get the words right, but a respect for the actor. He wouldn’t let an actor hang himself out to dry for the sake of the writer’s words.
When we took Balconville on tour through the British Isles, we reopened the Royal Opera House in Belfast, which had been bombed during the worst days of the violence. Balconville, a fable about bumpy relations between working-class Catholics and Protestants, setting the tone for a newly renovated beacon of English culture! On opening night, when Archambault opened his mouth to say “Fuck tha Queen,” he choked. At the Old Vic in London, I remember a well-known expatriate Irish playwright coming out of the theatre with stars in his eyes. He had recognized the Irish sensibility transplanted to the New World. “Sean O’Casey has been reborn and lives in Montreal.” He grinned with admiration.
The Death of René Lévesque was the last full-length play by Fennario to premiere at the Centaur, in 1991. Static, declamatory, very relevant, but of marginal interest to traditional Centaur audiences. David faulted the Parti Québécois and its untouchable icon, René Lévesque, for throwing socialism overboard on its voyage to independence. By daring to challenge Quebec’s rather fragile and vulnerable nationalism, Fennario lost his status as Friendly Marxist Anglo. Reviews in the French-language papers were scathing. Of the francophone actors in this play, Le Devoir wrote, in essence: if they can act, they do—and if they can’t, they take roles as francophones at the Centaur. David’s politics had evolved and he had lost interest in his early writing style. By leaving naturalist storytelling behind for a rather transparent agit-prop, he had gone further than his Centaur audience and critics would follow. He lost his home base.
Fennario produced plays elsewhere—co-founding the Black Rock Community Group in Verdun—but small, left-wing theatre groups don’t get mainstream media attention, audiences or financial support from arts councils. It’s difficult to support a family on community theatre. With Gargoyles and Banana Boots, David tried the one-man show format. He proved conclusively that the best actor to play “David Fennario” with a mumbled, dry, side-of-the-mouth wit was David Fennario himself. In these plays, his storytelling—both as a writer and as a performer—had a unique charm. But in the nineties in Montreal, he was easily marginalized.
The most successful English theatre artist in Quebec has not been heard from in a significant way for over a decade. But not because he lost his edge—or his politics. Last time I saw him on the street, he was selling his Socialist Worker newspaper, the organ of the Trotskyite Inter-national Socialist party. Even after being hit by the CIDP virus, he continues to walk the walk. He supports Paul Cliché and the idea of the Union des forces progressives. He is even interested in running for Parliament in the next election in Verdun.
At the end of last fall’s benefit, David had the best line, quickly cutting through any sentimental peanut butter from his wheelchair. “At least I am doing better than the pope.” Then he invited everyone present to a party in the Point, when he gets stronger. One of those parties where you can’t tell if people are “fucking or fighting.”
Maurice Podbrey, the founding artistic director of the Centaur who carefully guided David’s initial playwriting career, could not attend the celebration in person (he lives in his native South Africa), but sent a clever, funny video. At the end of the video, with a rather sanctimonious seriousness, Maurice referred to the immense pillars that form the Centaur street façade, columns that reek of money and Establishment impregnability: “David, one of those pillars belongs to you.” Actually, considerably more belongs to Fennario. Now if we can get enough friends and some jackhammers together, we can help him collect …
The Centaur should offer Fennario something concrete. Say, commission a new play? Fennario may or may not accept, but with the proceeds from Mambo Italiano, the Centaur’s current box-office hit, the theatre can afford a commissioning fee. Perhaps David’s sweet-and-sour mouthful of Marxist politics in a bourgeois setting could once again be box office boffo.