Author Tags: Theatre
Born in Ottawa on September 26, 1946 and raised in Truro, Nova Scotia, John Gray came to Vancouver to study theatre after his stints as a rock 'n' roll keyboardist in the Maritimes while attending Mount Allison University. He had also lived briefly in Toronto. He received his M.A. in Theatre from UBC in 1971. He co-founded Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver, directing eight of its early productions, and later joined Toronto's innovative Theatre Passe Muraille in 1975, as a composer and director, a period that resulted in the premiere of his first musical, 18 Wheels, in 1977. Other early musicals included his bittersweet Rock and Roll, first produced in 1981, which became a prize-winning television presentation called The King of Friday Night, and the down-home Don Messer's Jubilee, Gray's tribute to the hokey but popular country music program that had aired for many years on CBC from Halifax. It was first produced in 1985. Gray's less successful Health, The Musical was first produced in 1989. Gray's legendary, second musical called Billy Bishop Goes To War opened on November 3, prior to Remembrance Day, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978. Despite a newspaper strike at the time, it was held over for two weeks. Veterans from both wars came back stage to talk to the on-stage piano player John Gray and the versatile actor Eric Peterson, the show's co-creator who played all 18 roles. An American producer named Lewis Allen, producer of the musical Annie, told the creators the show should go to Broadway. Allen contacted his partner Mike Nichols. The show proceeded to tour across Canada. During a snowstorm in Listowel, Ontario, Mike Nichols saw the show. Eventually a somewhat souped-up version of the play opened in Washington, D.C. in March of 1980. The New York Times and other American critics praised it. The show opened at the Morosco Theatre in New York on May 29, 1980 but partial success wasn't good enough to merit a long run. "Americans don't want to see unknown Canadians perform a play about an unknown Canadian war hero who fought in a war that America did not win," Gray later concluded. The play won a Governor General's Award, the Chalmer's Canadian Play Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award.
A keen and sometimes overly witty social critic, John Gray gradually diversified from theatre. He took more writing gigs, as a syndicated newspaper columnist for the Vancouver Sun (until 2000) and the Globe & Mail, and changed his name to John MacLachlan Gray to avoid confusion with others of the same common name such as the author of Men are Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray contributed 65 satirical pieces for The Journal on CBC Television, wrote many magazine articles and published a book of serious social criticism called Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream, as well as a non-fiction book on tattoos. His collection of three musicals (18 Wheels; Rock and Roll; Don Messer's Jubilee) was published as Local Boy Makes Good. Gray also wrote numerous scripts including the screenplay for the Canadian movie Kootenay Brown (1990), he premiered a new musical about aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1993, and he premiered a new version of Genesis called 'The Tree. The Tower. The Flood.' in 1997. This period of gradual transition from stage to page in the 1990s bore fruit when he was able to launch a new series of historical thrillers for the new Millennium.
In 2000, Gray's agent Helen Heller took 80 pages of a work-in-progress to the Frankfurt Book Fair and managed to sign an international three-book deal for Gray that included republication of Gray's little-noticed second novel, A Gift for the Little Master, a contemporary serial killer thriller set in Vancouver. Gray had published his first novel, Dazzled!, to minimal fanfare in 1984. It was a light but shrewdly critical send-up of the manners and attitudes of Kitsilano during the heydays of hippiedom. Gray had persevered and envisioned a Dickensian thriller, The Fiend in Human, set in London, England in 1852. Its central character was a dissolute tabloid journalist named Edmund Whitty. This opium-addicted muckraker for The Falcon finds himself on the trail of a serial killer who is strangling and mutilating prostitutes with a white silk scarf. "The book is as much about the newspaper world and its moral paradoxes," observed reviewer Ian Dennis in Canadian Literature, "as it is about crime and punishment." Unfortunately this novel appeared in Canada around the time when Vancouver police were charging pig farmer Robert Picton with the multiple murders of women who had disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. But with the lucrative Frankfurt deal, Gray was onto the international fiction stage.
A neo-Victorian sequel to The Fiend in Human, entitled White Stone Day (Random House, 2005) had been tentatively titled A White Pebble Day. Down on his luck again, owing 500 pounds to a boss criminal, Whitty goes undercover to investigate a quack psychic who claims to receive communications from Whitty's long-dead and disgraced brother. When the psychic is killed, Whitty is on the run as the prime suspect, trying to clear his name while trying to solve the mysteries of his brother's life, or else find the police chief's missing daughter, Eliza. An eccentric Oxford professor who enjoys photographing little girls connects Whitty to a deadly ring of child pornographers.
Billy Bishop Goes to War (Talonbooks, 1982)
Dazzled! (Irwin, 1984)
Local Boy Makes Good (Talonbooks, 1987)
I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo (Key Porter Books, 1994)
Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream (Talonboks, 1994)
A Gift for the Little Master (2000)
The Fiend in Human (Random House, 2003)
White Stone Day (Random House, 2005)
[top right: Eric Peterson stars in Billy Bishop Goes To War in 1978]
[bottom right: John MacLachlan Gray]
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004] "Theatre" "Interview"
John Gray (1979)
John Gray was interviewed in Vancouver in 1979 at the rehearsal space for Tamahnous Theatre.
T: Billy Bishop Goes to War is one of Canada's longest-touring plays. Has its success surprised you?
GRAY: Yes, it has. Originally our attitude was if the Canadians and Americans like it, that's great. If the Canadians like it and the Americans don't like it, that's okay. If the Canadians don't like it and the Americans don't like it, that's a drag. If the Canadians don't like it and the Americans do like it, we're in deep trouble. We had no idea it would go so far.
T: It looks as if success has come rather easily.
GRAY: I know. I've only written two damn shows. Now I'm starting to worry that I'm going to have to start thinking of myself as a writer. When you do that, there's always a danger you'll start thinking that you have to write, whether you have anything to say or not. I think that's an awful thing.
T: So if a stranger walked up to you and asked your profession
GRAY: I'd say I work in the theatre.
T: But without having written 18 Wheels and Billy Bishop, you couldn't pay your bills.
GRAY: I know. But admitting you're a writer is kinda like quitting smoking. The worst thing you can do is start proclaiming you're quitting smoking. You'll fail for sure. Hemingway once said don't put your mouth on anything that looks like it might happen, it'll turn to dust every time. In a way, I guess that has something to do with how I write. The worst stuff I do is always written when I have a good idea what it's about. I do much better if I concentrate on the characters and let the play emerge by itself. Then on the third draft I finally start to observe what it's about.
T: It seems Billy Bishop is only half about Billy Bishop's life. The other half is about how our generation is linked to Canada's military past. Was that intentional?
GRAY: Yes. Those World Wars explain so much about ourselves, about our attitudes as Canadians. The innocence Canada took into that first war was just appalling. When the figures started coming back twenty five thousand men lost at the Somme, for example-people weren't too keen on going, right? That's when conscription started. Then all the French-Canadian resentment against English Canada got started. Then the whole cynicism about government started. All that stuff affects us today. I think the heaviest years of life are around nineteen to twenty-five. Those are really long, big years. They form you. We didn't fight in a war at that age; some of our parents did. They went through an experience that we don't have a clue about. So there's a monstrous gap between generations.
T: What awareness of war did you get growing up in the fifties?
GRAY: I always knew that my father and his best friend had enlisted together. My father got involved in radar and his best friend became a spitfire pilot. This guy's name was John West. When he was shot down during the Battle of Britain, that's when my father vowed he would name his first-born son after his dead friend. I was always aware of that. I always wondered who this guy was that I was named after. I wondered about this heavy experience my father must have gone through to do that. Now he's an insurance executive. A middle-class person with bourgeois values and fundamentalist religious beliefs.
T: A Canadian.
GRAY: Right. So what happened to him to make him do this almost poetic gesture?
T: This is why you wrote Billy Bishop then. To answer that question. GRAY: Yes. And that's why I'm content to perform Billy Bishop for a long time. Because it's about me. I don't know if I can tell you exactly how it's about me...but somehow it is. It's my relationship to the events in Billy Bishop. You can't really say the play is really telling you that much about Billy Bishop himself. I don't know what he was like. I really don't. And 18 Wheels doesn't really tell you much about truckers either. So what is Billy Bishop about anyway?
T: It's about your perceptions of Billy Bishop's relationship to war.
GRAY: Definitely. It's not really about war at all. It uses war to show that old countries use young countries. Old people use young people to fight their wars. In the process of this, youth is lost. Youth is lost in the sense of a country and also for individuals. Britain lost a whole generation. Billy Bishop is about youth and old age.
T: And it refuses to preach about war, right?
T: Many people would regard that as a failing.
GRAY: Yes, I get a lot of that. A certain number of people go to the show with a checklist of things they want said. When they don't get to check off things they came to hear, they feel the show has failed them. They don't appreciate that not preaching allows us to talk to old people, too. Old people are thrilled to see that people of the next generation can recognize that they weren't stupid idiots for going along and fighting. It was so much more complicated than that. Billy Bishop recognizes that their experiences had validity, irrespective of whether the war was good or bad. To say that the play is encouraging war is incomprehensible to me.
T: If Billy Bishop embodies the experiences of a generation then the audience can come and pass judgment by itself.
GRAY: Right. I wanted to give people some conception of what war is like. We have a particular kind of arrogance that comes from the sixties which makes people say not only are wars bad, but people who fought them are stupid. That's unfair. In the First World War those guys were encouraged to fight by their elders. They were victims. Not only did those guys not know what they were fighting for, they didn't even know where they were! Ever! There was no landscape. It was all blown up. There were no trees or hills, nothing. They were simply someplace in France. It was like the moon. You spent three years there until you get wounded or killed. The alienation must have been phenomenal! Surviving in this little vacuum was probably their only real concern. The larger issues of war on an international scale had nothing to do with them.
T: Do you think that's why you audience at Royal Military College even liked the show? Because you didn't overlay history onto Billy Bishop's shoulders?
GRAY: That's partly it. The other reason is simply that those people aren't stupid. You generally think of army guys as being like football players. It really knocked me out to hear the military commandant give this analysis of our show in terms of Canada's history. My jaw was open. It was very perceptive and interesting stuff. To start thinking all those rightwing guys are stupid is naive and destructive to one's own thinking.
T: In the sixties, our generation was so busy formulating some alternate stance of our own that we didn't even try to appreciate what we were defining ourselves against.
GRAY: Yes, that's why Billy Bishop would have been a bomb in the sixties. It would have been a turkey. People would have called it reactionary.
T: How much of your conception of what theatre should be has been formed by associating with Theatre Passe Muraille?
GRAY: Quite a bit. I used to be quite the little elitist. I went to university for seven years. Nothing will hone an elitist like seven years in a university. So I tended to do shows for formalistic reasons. Content really wasn't that important. New theatre forms and staging were just as important to me as what a play said.
Then I saw Passe Muraille do 1837 in Listowel, Ontario. It was very revolutionary, that first Passe Muraille show. All these farmers were yelling and standing up and applauding. And these guys were prosperous right-wing types. It just blew my mind to see how people can relate to content. It made the stuff I was doing seem trivial. Like playing little games. It made me rethink the whole thing.
T: Now there's almost a movement growing out of 1837. Shows like Paper Wheat and The Farm Show.
GRAY: Yeah. In those shows, the event of having a particular audience becomes just as important as what's happening on the stage. It's now like there's a little glass cube around the stage and everybody sits there and admires the work of art on display. T: What specific things did you learn from Passe Muraille?
GRAY: How powerful a monologue can be.
T: Any negative things?
GRAY: Well, I also learned the limitations of having actors play tables and chairs and cows and horses. I've pretty well had it up to here with that stuff. I also reacted against Passe Muraille's tendency to go into a farming community and tell farmers how great they are. I've talked to lots of farmers. They're not dummies. You don't have to flatter them. It's also a bit much when actors go into a community and start telling people what they're like.
T: Yes, it's getting very trendy now for a bunch of middle-class kids to graduate from some university theatre program and suddenly become relevant. So they do some didactic piece on nuclear power.
GRAY: And who's going to come? You just consolidate people's prejudices. I don't think theatre is the place of weighty matters like that mainly because you see a play once. You can reread a novel by Kafka. You can analyze it at your leisure. But theatre's different. Look at Shakespeare, for example. His characters are wonderful I and they mouth human issues very articulately and poetically, but Shakespeare doesn't attempt to change the world.
T: You're saying the function of theatre is to reflect life, not comment on it.
GRAY: I guess so. Accuracy over opinion. The best reaction you get out of theatre is recognition. Maybe with a novel it's different. But in theatre I know I'm never going to be a person who writes of weighty matters. By that I mean I'm not going to write anything just to give the world my opinions.
T: Did you always want to be a playwright?
GRAY: Not at all. I was very, very bored in school. I was so bad they kept testing me for deafness. I was right down there with the special class types. As a result I was a loner most of the time. That's why I was always known for being musical. It helped excuse me for being such a lousy student. I got most of my acceptance from people out of music, out of playing. When I finally joined a rock n' roll band it was great. I had a Hammond organ. It wasn't like playing the organ; it was like driving a car.
T: Unfortunately most of us have a totally commercialized preconception of what a popular song should sound like.
GRAY: And that's a great shame. There's a whole tradition of songwriting where the songs are more complex. Kurt Weill, for example, is my favorite songwriter. And Sondheim is good, too. His songs fit into a show.
T: Your songs definitely aren't written to be covered some day by Frank Sinatra. It seems you're trying hard to fit them into the flow of a play, too.
GRAY: Sure. It's very American to write a scene around a song. I tend to write the other way round. When I get to a point in the script where something needs to be said that a character can't really say, I can say it in a song.
T: One eastern Canadian critic thought your singing detracted from Billy Bishop. For me it was very important that your authenticity on stage could act as a foil to Eric Peterson's exuberance. He plays eighteen characters at once, so it adds a sense of balance if you play yourself.
GRAY: I know. I'm glad you said that. It's the emotions that people go though that are important. If a great singer sang with Eric, he'd have to do things stylistically different than what the scenes require. It would become schizophrenic. God knows I'd never try and become a singer and have people love me for the quality of my voice. But I sing the songs in Billy Bishop because I can sing them in the context as well as anybody can. Again you get people coming to the show with a checklist, for Chrissake. When somebody sings a song, they've already decided what it's supposed to sound like. Well, Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to deal with that?
T: Do you have songwriting ambitions that go beyond the theatre?
GRAY: I used to. I had a brief romance with United Artists. I did a few demos and United Artists wanted to make a single out of one. But it was just ludicrous. I mean, there's nothing quite like being rejected by some fifty-year-old bozo with a Beatle hairdo and a medallion on his chest. It's such a sleazy industry. You get offered a deal that says you sing with us and we get all your songs forever and ever. And if you're really lucky, they'll make a lot of money. It's a very humiliating setup. I just didn't want to be part of it. In Canada it's a branch plant system so you're constantly up against people who can say no but not yes. You're constantly being humiliated just because of the other person's powerlessness. And that person won't admit his powerlessness. There's nothing in it for those labels to promote Canadian artists. Why should they? They've got lots of American artists they can promote up here anyway.
T: What's your new play about?
GRAY: My rock n' roll band.
T: Another totally male world.
GRAY: I know. I don't have any women in my shows at all. I don't know why. I guess I don't really know much about them. I can't get into a woman's head. I only have male visions of women. It's weird.
T: People will invariably compare any new play against the success of Billy Bishop.
GRAY: I know. I'm quite reconciled to a turkey. There will be a turkey on the horizon. Then they'll say, well, he wrote two good shows and that was it.
T: People will want nothing less than a follow-up to Billy Bishop, using the same format with Eric Peterson.
GRAY: We already thought of that. We'll call the sequel Billy Bishop Goes to Seed. Eric and I will sit on stage and drink for two hours.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] "Interview"
The Fiend in Human (Random House $34.95)
from [Spring 2003 BCBW]
With Vancouver hosting the trial of a pig farmer accused for serial-killing more people than anyone else in Canadian history, the spring of 2003 was either the best of times to write a novel about the serial murder of prostitutes—-or the worst of times. Using London in 1852 as his setting, John Gray used his range as a dramatist to introduce a spectrum of characters including the tabloid writer Edmund Whitty who, on a rare occasion when he’s wasn't drunk, provided London with a name for the serial murderer who was killing prostitutes with a white scarf: Chokee Bill. In the novel, fear paralyses and tantalizes London. A suspect named William Ryan is arrested, but the white scarf killings continue. On his never-ending quest for drinking money and sensational new copy, Whitty turns detective to track down the real Chokee Bill. The Fiend in Human, as the odd title suggests, isn’t always an easy read. It’s a performance as much as it’s a mystery. Gray has given free rein to his cleverness in a style that will doubtless be dubbed neo-Dickensian. There are highly evocative and frequently brilliant descriptions of mid-19th century London. 0-679-31173-4
Billy Bishop Goes To War (Talonbooks $17.95)
from John Gray
Easily one of the most successful original plays in Canadian theatre history, John Gray and Eric Peterson’s two-hander Billy Bishop Goes To War, about a World War One fighter pilot, premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978.
Billy Bishop won the 1981 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award, the 1982 Chalmers Canadian Play Award, the 1983 Governor General’s Award for drama and an ACTRA award for best television program with a CBC/BBC co-production.
The play has been produced over 400 times, including a presentation for German TV (West Deutschland Rundfunk) as Billy Bishop Stieg Auf. The play was the most-produced show in America for 4 years in the early 1980s according to the League of Regional Theatres.
With Gray doubling as narrator and on-stage pianist, Soulpepper Theatre of Toronto revived the play in 2009 to sold-out audiences with Eric Peterson once more playing Bishop, as well as 17 other characters ranging from King George V to The Lovely Helene.
Here John Gray explains why he chose to re-think and re-write the musical in 1998, adding a new song and presenting events through the eyes of an older Bishop recalling his wartime experiences.
Two combined versions of the play are newly available as Billy Bishop Goes To War (Talonbooks $17.95).
Like all developments in the thirty-three-year-and-counting evolution of Billy Bishop Goes to War, the opportunity to mount a new production in 2009 came from out of the blue.
Albert Schultz, artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, had a problem: three days before the 2009 season was to be announced (website going up, press releases e-mailed, pamphlets at the printers, technicians signed, buckets of money spent), an actor had abruptly cancelled his contract—and not just any actor, but the star of a one-man show with piano accompaniment.
“Could you and Eric possibly do Billy Bishop?” came the enquiry from Schultz. “Please say yes.” (I didn’t know you could hear a man sweat over the phone.)
Unthinking as always, we said yes, then worried about it later.
The trickiest question we faced was how to make sense of this radical re-casting of the principal role, in which an actor of sixty-two portrays Billy Bishop, who died in Florida (essentially of old age) at the age of, well, sixty-two.
Mind you, the script was never cast in stone. Hundreds of performances in North America and Great Britain, and never did we stop tinkering with the thing, going so far as to replace an entire song in 1998.
Theatre isn’t literature, it’s performance. Shakespeare’s “plays” are really recordings of specific performances of a script that no doubt changed over time, depending on who was playing the lead and what themes seemed current.
In the case of Billy Bishop, the storyteller defines the story. When we performed the piece in 1998 at age 52, our man was a prosperous businessman about to urge young men to join up in the Second World War.
This time, however, the whole central theme—survival and its ironies—was about to shift. There is a world of difference between a man telling a story of survival at the age of 30, and a man telling his story when he is all too aware that, in the end, nobody survives.
Using the same words, we found we were talking about something quite different. As Eric put it, “Before, when Bishop sang about survival I took it as a romantic thing to do with the war. But now it’s become a metaphor for life. The price of survival is that you experience the death of your friends.”
Of course the difference between war and “normal life” is that war is way faster and more compressed. A young man barely out of his teens experiences in six months what the rest of us, if we’re lucky and wise, process and understand by the time we’re collecting our pensions—that, whether you’re young or old, survival takes courage.
The new Talonbooks edition of the play is therefore two scripts, depending on the age of the storyteller. Differences appear as explanatory notes and stage directions, while the dialogue and the songs are the same (with the usual tweaking and that new song from 1998).
The two endings are entirely different, except for the final line: “All in all I’d have to say, it was a hell of a time.”