Born in 1940, Ken Mitchell grew up on the outskirts of Moose Jaw, and worked in journalism briefly before studying sociology and literature at the University of Regina. He became a teacher of creative writing in 1970, and has taught creative writing and literature ever since, in Banff, Victoria, Scotland, and China, besides Regina where he teaches at present. Since 1972, Mitchell has released over twenty books of fiction, poetry, and drama, over ten of which have been plays. In 1999 he was inducted into the Order of Canada for his contribution to the arts. He co-founded the Saskatchewan Writers Guild in 1969, Grain Magazine in 1973, the Saskatchewan Writers/Artists Colony in 1978, and the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre in 1982. He is the author of Witches and Idiots . [Harbour Publishing 2003]
KEN MITCHELL (1980)
KEN MITCHELL was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1940, The Renaissance Everyman of prairie literature, he edited Horizon: Writings of the Canadian Prairies (1977) but is probably best known for his numerous plays such as Davin: The Politician (1977), Chautaqua Girl (1982), Gone the Burning Sun (1985) and most notably Cruel Tears (1976), a very successful adaptation of Othello as a musical about truckers, His seriously comic fiction includes two novels, Wandering Rafferty (1972) and The Con Man (1979), and his short stories in Everybody Gets Something Here (1977), A traveller to China and Tibet, he has also written poetry such as Through the Nan Da Gate (1986). Ken Mitchell lives in Regina with his family, He was interviewed in 1980.
T: The characters in your plays don't seem to be concerned about the so called search for identity. Do you think people who grow up on the prairies, where there's such strong ethnic presence, are less likely to be navel gazers?
MITCHELL: Yes. The ethnic thing is part of it. But, as in Quebec, there's a strong sense of regional involvement. There's where the strength of prairie writing has come from. I believe prairie people know their identity in the same way that Quebecois people know their identity.
Also, there isn't a process of abstraction going on here, because everybody in the prairies is equally a newcomer. Even the native Cree were originally immigrants from the bush country of the east. When everybody's an immigrant, there's less development of hierarchical standards of privilege. The Depression in the prairies was important, too. Everybody survived a large number of adverse factors together. Anyone who was weak emotionally, physically or culturally simply didn't survive. Those that couldn't hack it simply went elsewhere. That's why prairie people brag about the incredibly difficult conditions. It's a posture that's given them identity.
T: Maybe, as a result, you tend to look more outward in your work than inward. It seems writers in the west are less obsessed with tapping their actual experiences and emotions than writers in the east.
MITCHELL: I think that's generally true. Although I would characterize Canadian writing that way as opposed to American culture. We're less autobiographical, less internalized, less confessional.
Marginally, I do see a difference between east and west but I think it's because the west is more extreme. The further you get from the metropolitan centres -like the centre of the communications industry, which is Toronto, where they tend to imitate British and American models much more the less self-centred it becomes. I believe a natural writer or poet is really somebody who is only a voice for a people or region. Jack Hodgins is a good example. He almost has no identity at all. Obviously he's a very interesting and attractive and clever person. But he's being the voice of Vancouver Island.
T: Jack Hodgins is the perfect example because he's the most physically removed writer from Toronto and he's also the least overtly egocentric.
MITCHELL: I think in the metropolitan, cosmopolitan, cerebral centres people tend to be much too concerned with the rational process and self analysis. If I give you any difficulty in this interview, it's probably because I have a tendency to resist self-analysis. I think, in part, it's unhealthy for a writer to do that.
T: What other conclusions have you drawn about the nature of prairie lit?
MITCHELL: I think that a great deal more literature has come from the prairie than people in Canada have yet to realize. History is slowly realizing that the art which originates from the prairies is stronger, on a per capita basis let's say, than art which originates elsewhere. There's no reason why this physically barren, thinly populated area should turn out any art at all. It goes against most theories of art, which say art comes from metropolitan centres.
That's why, if you look back at the Nellie McClungs and Ralph Connors, then to Frederick Philip Grove and Sinclair Ross, and then finally at the contemporary writers such as Margaret Laurence, you'll find they were almost all unrecognized when their work first appeared. Grove died in virtual neglect and was extremely bitter about his relationship with the Canadian public. Other writers were doing quite well from the urban centres. Yet it's history that makes the final judgment on the value of literature. It's the next generation that judges. Mazo de la Roche is probably not going to last and Frederick Philip Grove and Sinclair Ross probably will.
T: Which do you think has had a greater influence on prairie writers, landscape or history?
MITCHELL: You're trying to separate oranges and apples there, I think. Because I believe that landscape deeply affects history and politics. The thing that makes the prairies a unique and strong source of art is that the landscape is one of extreme openness. There are no natural barriers immediately obvious to the eye. That has quite an unconscious influence. It's a very freaky experience for people to come here who are not accustomed to seeing that much sky and openness. Plus the climate is as extreme as the openness of the landscape.
The extremes of temperature and openness make you feel like you are the only thing around. But at the same time you are dwarfed by the enormity of it all. You see the universe around you all the time. You're not allowed to live in a little microcosm. When you can see the stars all the time you are constantly reminded of the insignificance of your being. So there's this kind of tension that develops. Extreme significance and extreme insignificance. You're the only erect thing in the landscape. I believe, in a subconscious way, this brings artists down to very fundamental observations of life. They are close to the roots of existence. Ultimately their work is going to mean more to people than the reproduction of social manners, which is where urban writing tends to be located. People in cities are often too obsessed with the artefacts of pop culture rather than the basic realities of life. Consequently prairie art may not be popular, but it does last.
T: The effect of that openness is certainly reflected in your work. The protagonists in your novels seem to have an almost obsessive urge to travel. Is that something you felt growing up in the prairies, a need to explore all that openness?
MITCHELL: I guess so. I like to travel a lot. But I couldn't say for sure whether people generally like to travel in that part of the world.
After a while you tend to see the whole prairie as a kind of community. You may know the same number of people as someone who lives in a city, but the people you know are spread over a million square miles. My social life tends to exist in an inter-city way, not a neighbourhood way. But obviously that's a result of modern technology so it can't be interpreted as a reflection of how people have felt in the prairies historically.
T: In the short stories in Everybody Gets Something Here you use humour as an antidote to pain, but in the novels it seems travelling takes the place of humour.
MITCHELL: That's a really interesting idea. I'd never thought of that before. But it makes sense. Those are two ways of blunting the painfulness of reality.
T: And it seems there's been a progression in your work from dealing with how individuals "blunt" reality to treating alienation on a much broader scale. Do you think your writing might be becoming more overtly political?
MITCHELL: No. But I do believe that fundamentally I'm quite a political writer. Maybe more than most. I have a political sense of what I'm doing.
However there isn't much parliamentary politics or debate that happens in my work. Politics is much larger than the House of Commons. It's only when people realize that politics is a much deeper force than electing somebody and sending them off to Ottawa to engage in legalistic debate that only they can understand, that people will develop a sense of control of the political direction of their own country. Of Canadian unity.
T: How did you come to write The Great Cultural Revolution, a play about the Chinese Cultural Revolution?
MITCHELL: A friend who directed Cruel Tears showed me a play he'd come across called Haijsi"s Dismissal. This is a play of great historical significance because it ignited the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. He had the idea of presenting it to North American audiences, but it was in traditional Peking Opera style. We eventually decided on a fictitious staging of this play in Peking in 1966, at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
One of the things my play is about is the dominant role or influence of culture in political movements. You can see that clearly in China. The Cultural Revolution was very important in deciding whether art was for the people or for the elite. So my play is not so much about China as about the relationship between art specifically theatre-and politics. It's a question which should engage us here in Canada.
T: Is this play correlative to the cultural scene in Canada?
MITCHELL: Inevitably. There aren't direct references to the Canada Councilor the Secretary of State. But we all know that the distinction between art and propaganda is sometimes difficult to define. I think it's a definition that's needed. So much of the art in Canada is clearly heavily influenced by government policies. It's time for artists to take a fairly critical look at their role in society.
T: Canadian theater is very healthy and active these days. do you think that's because so many of our playwrights are dealing with the problems of underdogs and we see ourselves as underdogs beside the US?
MITCHELL: Yes, that's true. There certainly isn't a tendency in Canadian theatre at the moment to write domestic drawing room comedies. I think that part of the excitement of Canadian theatre is that it's almost approaching epic theatre. There's a strong sense of Canadian plays being oriented not to the miniature "room" metaphor that I believe most British and American plays concentrate on, but rather on the large-scale sweep of history and landscape. That's more consistent with our culture. And I believe, yes, that means there's probably a greater sympathy for Everyman.
T: Let's talk a little about your play Booze.
MITCHELL: Actually it's more of a show than a play.
T: Written by a non-drinker.
MITCHELL: Wait a minute. Let me nail this down right now. I've drunk heavily in my life. Like, I've been there. I've wallowed in the gutters with the lowest of the low, I've won drinking contests and all the rest of it. I'm not particularly ashamed of that, although I am ashamed of things that I did at the time. But I don't have a moral attitude towards the consumption of alcohol at all. I just try to restrict my own consumption of alcohol to the best champagne that I can find on opening nights of my plays.
T: But every time a Ken Mitchell character is offered a drink, you know he's going to fall flat on his face in the next scene or the next page. It's like when Lucy offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown.
MITCHELL: I didn't realize that. It's not a conscious thing.
T: I think it's consistent throughout your work.
MITCHELL: I'm sure there are exceptions. I'll have to try and find a couple of exceptions! However, I think that that's generally true. I use alcohol as a kind of metaphor for social poison. It's an escape from reality which is used quite consistently by exploiters to exploit the exploitable. Drinking is a habit that has really become quite a destructive pattern of behaviour in our culture. Booze is designed to give that awareness to people, to show that alcohol as a drug has a much more pervasive and sinister influence on their lives than is generally believed.
T: If you're writing to communicate an idea, don't you think you might get more mileage by working in an electronic medium like film or television?
MITCHELL: Yes, that whole relationship between television and a writer needs a lot more examination. I don't think artists can afford to be so contemptuous of the medium as they have been. If you don't accept the challenge and try to use television in some realistic way, then the challenge might disappear for good. Technologically speaking, especially with the development of cable systems, television could conceivably be the greatest educational tool ever put in the hands of civilization. For artists to back away from that is an abrogation of responsibility.
You have to allow for the possibility that MacLuhan is right. That after four hundred years, the world of Gutenberg and movable type is becoming obsolete. That writers who can't learn to tell stories visually are as doomed as the dinosaur. Writing novels takes up a great deal of concentration and energy. I'm not sure it's always worth it, because other media might be more productive.
T: Do you agree with the character in The Con Man who maintains the whole world is a con?
MITCHELL: He's a cynic.
T: And he's not Ken Mitchell
MITCHELL: I don't think so.
T: I got the same message from that novel as we get from Brecht's Three Penny Opera. Criminals are merely the people who get caught.
MITCHELL: And that accounts for the cynicism of that character in prison. It also accounts for the cynicism of someone like Richard Nixon. Politics is a con game and Nixon was as good a practitioner as any. He just got to believe it too much, until it destroyed him.
The worlds of advertising and professional sport are other facades for con games. These con games are designed to expropriate money from the pockets of working people and put that money in the pockets of the people who live on their backs.
T: But your con man doesn't deliberately con people. He just gets into situations where people want to con themselves.
MITCHELL: Exactly. That's very perceptive.
T: It's as if you're saying Canadians so desperately want to assuage their small town, inferiority-complexed lives that we fall victims to ourselves.
MITCHELL: That's the central dramatic point. I'm really pleased somebody is able to refine that because it's not stated. The Con Man is an innocent who is really exploited by other people's gullibility. No professional con man could operate in a world where people don't want to get everything for nothing. I've kind of reversed the formula and created a number of worlds where people desperately want something for nothing so badly that they'll create a con man to perform illusions for them. Basically he's a victim of everyone else's greed. He ends up spending his entire life in prison because a con man is needed everywhere!
T: The con man is innocent and suffers. But all the other characters who understand how the world works have to also suffer, because they become jaded and invulnerable. Isn't there any middle ground?
MITCHELL: Yes, there is. I personally believe there is a large middle ground that most of us occupy. All children occupy it, for example. We have to work harder at expanding that ground to make a better world. That's why I teach. I want to show there is space between the exploiter and the exploited for people to exist and grow.
T: Has it ever occurred to you that writing can be seen as another con game? Where you manipulate people's reactions to make readers think a certain way?
MITCHELL: It's not only occurred to me, it's a basic philosophical principle upon which I operate! People love fantasies. They like to be taken away from the brutal reality, if you want to call it, of their everyday life. So writing is the essence of con artistry. Writing a novel like The Con Man is a con game where you try to draw people in to perceive a reality they don't normally see. And to make them think that they're getting something for nothing. Or for only $8.95.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] “Interview”