The Resonance of the Past

Reviewed by Alexandre Gauthier

Chantal Bilodeau’s Forward is the second play of The Arctic Cycle. In this project, Bilodeau wishes to write eight plays about the effects of global warming on countries within the Arctic Circle, such as Canada, Finland, and Russia. In Forward, Bilodeau tells the story of Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who reached the North Pole in 1893 and “opened up the Arctic for development.” In doing so, Nansen wanted to give Norway its rightful place within the concert of nations and to help his country gain independence from Sweden. If there is no doubt that Nansen’s project was motivated by personal ambition, stubbornness, and pride, it did encourage Norway to pursue exploration of the Arctic and—from the early-twentieth-century era of industrial revolution to the era after the Second World War—to undertake a quest for industrialization, for urbanization, and later for oil that would once and for all secure Norway’s future.

In her play, Bilodeau offers an original treatment of time as she intertwines the narrative of Nansen’s three-year expedition with that of Norwegian society. In his quest for the North Pole, Nansen did everything he could to keep going forward, and so did his society. But although Bilodeau tells Nansen’s story chronologically, she tells Norway’s story by starting from a recent point in time and going backwards. The past and the present are in dialogue, showing that humankind’s determination to dominate nature is at the origin of its downfall. Nature can be seductive, as Bilodeau’s characterization of Ice shows. She is a character who, like a mermaid, sings to and wheedles at explorers such as Nansen, who are clouded by their own pride and will. It is an old image, not that original perhaps, but powerful nonetheless, as it clearly shows that this endeavour will lead him to his death. But Forward is not moralizing or apocalyptic. There is hope. Even if change is inevitable and global warming a real issue, Forward suggests that we could use the same determination and willpower not to dominate nature, but to dominate ourselves and, by making the appropriate changes, to gain control.

Like Forward, which uses historical fact to expose a very contemporary issue, Sean Devine’s Daisy, set during the Vietnam War, tells the story of an advertisement that would have huge consequences for American politics and the power of media in our society. In September 1964, a political ad that was televised only once would secure Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in the election to become president of the United States. This ad, called “Daisy,” featured a little girl picking the petals from a daisy and counting to ten. At one point, her voice is replaced by a man’s voice counting down, and the image of the girl in the field becomes an image of the mushroom cloud that follows a nuclear explosion. Devine’s play follows the creative team behind the ad and their interrogations of media, manipulation, and the power (or weaponization) of communication.

It is a challenge to put on stage real characters and facts, but Devine’s exhaustive research and interviews allow him to succeed in recreating what it was like inside that think tank. He also offers an original point of view by including a woman and a Black man in the team, which helps to anchor the piece in its period, and talks about issues relevant to the post-Kennedy era (and still relevant today, of course). The play is centred around the character of Lou Brown, a talented copywriter whose personal ambitions, and position as a woman in a man’s world, outweigh her own convictions. The play also focuses on Tony Schwartz, an agoraphobic sound engineer and communication specialist who believes that the message is already in the audience. Instead of telling the audience its message, the ad simply needed to activate the message already there. While the authorship of the ad is certainly unclear, Schwartz’s role in creating “Daisy” and its impact on political advertising are unquestionable. The play is a discourse on the power of media, and, in a world marked by the rise of Donald Trump and alternative facts, it has a resounding contemporaneity.

Unlike Bilodeau and Devine, Rahul Varma offers a fictional story set in a context that is, unfortunately, not fictional at all. Truth and Treason is set in Iraq in 2007, with US military officers and government officials on one side, and fundamentalists on the other. The assassination by a US soldier of a little girl who went looking for her father changes Captain Edward Alston’s perspective on his mission. While the Army is trying to hide it and make it look like an accident, Alston can hardly cope with the manipulation and dishonesty. On the other side, the little girl’s mother, Nahla Ahad, changes her perspective on war after her daughter’s death. She does everything she can to free her husband, Omar, an accused and imprisoned terrorist, and to seek refuge in Canada. Meanwhile, Omar and the Sheik want to make the little girl a martyr, and the Sheik calls a fatwa against Captain Alston. The manipulation of facts exists on both sides, and while Alston seeks justice and wants to free himself from guilt by making amends, Nahla wants to free herself from a country that is taking everything from her, and to find peace. Omar refuses, since his allegiance to Iraq is greater than everything. What is interesting about the play is that it uses the Iraqi conflict to reflect on war from a more personal and inner perspective, centring on such private issues as relationships, family, love, honesty, and doubt.

With their subject matter, but even more so with their original, insightful, and personal treatments of history and memory, the authors of these plays succeed in creating necessary and powerful works which shed light on our society and our own relation to truth.

This review “The Resonance of the Past” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 117-119.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.