Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

The Tragedy of “Guenevere”

cradle to stage advert

A number of months ago I had another of my surprising little career changes.  On a whim, I had submitted an old manuscript I had kicking around to the Walterdale Theatre’s Cradle to Stage Festival. To my surprise, my play, Guenevere, was selected for development alongside Tessa Simpson’s Portrait of a Family Dinner.  It seems I’d become a playwright.

My Guenevere is a play of an old-fashioned sort. Its structure is that of a Greek Tragedy.  It’s story is the story of the last moments of Camelot seen through the eyes of its Queen, Guenevere. This is her tragedy. Not Arthur’s. Not Camelot’s. This is not a manly, gritty, bloody King Arthur. This play is at the hearth, where the warming fire of home is about to flicker out once more.

Guenevere’s tragedy arises from the inevitably accumulated baggage of social responsibility that in the end prevents us from following our heart’s desire.  And Guenevere’s redemption comes in her willing embrace of her transformation into myth. Guenevere’s story is the story of every human who ages as a social animal. Only the solitary hermit or anchoress can escape the ever increasing calls for us to discharge our social duties at the expense of our dreams of simply following our bliss.

But the hermit and anchoress long ago gave up on worldly bliss.

As Guenevere has progressed through the Walterdale’s Cradle to Stage process, I have often referred to the play as an “artifact”.  I wrote this play three decades ago with little expectation of ever seeing it performed.  I thought that maybe, long after my death, if might be discovered in a drawer or old box and staged as a curiosity.  For me, as I wrote it, it was an exercise in poetic structure, an attempt to squeeze the English language and a traditional British theme into the form and structure of an Aeschylean drama.

Guenevere developed at a time I was steeped in Arthurian stories, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and in the Classics.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses were much on my mind.  Guenevere also grew out of my reading of Robert Graves’ odd book of poetic theory, The White Goddess.  And my study of the theories of Milman Parry and his students had at some point instilled in me a desire to develop a personal technique of extemporaneous verse composition. That desire resulted in a form based in part on the traditional ballad stanza of four lines alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter but with some deeper roots in the rhythm of the Old Germanic hemistiched alliterative line. The verse of Guenevere is one result of this practice. There’s even a bit of Old English toward the end.

The play was written quickly – days and weeks rather than months and years – and the words you hear on stage are almost entirely as they were first written down.  Guenevere emerged fully formed, the perhaps inevitable product of a long conscious and unconscious gestation.

At the suggestion of Brian Dooley, Guenevere’s Cradle to Stage dramaturge, I made a few hesitant cuts to a few passages for the Walterdale production, but far fewer than he had suggested. When the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company put Guenevere on its feet in a dramaturgical workshop, it was clear to me, and I think to Brian, that while cuts may make the action move along a little more quickly, there might still be some reasons to linger in Camelot.

I wrote Guenevere without stage directions.  I left no indication of how many made up the Chorus. Throughout the Cradle to Stage process, I have tried – and it took very little effort — to step aside and leave this artifact of my youth in the capable hands of Director Eric Smith and the dedicated group of actors assembled around him.  They have found so much in my text that I never knew was there and they have my great gratitude.
When I see Guenevere on the stage today, half a lifetime removed from its composition, I am startled by the ideas and emotions my younger self’s pen captured, and flabbergasted by the way art and life mirror – not imitate – each other. The youngster, twenty-something in the 80s, reading Aeschylus and Ovid, digging Roman dirt and waiting on Italian train platforms, planning future paintings and composing Guenevere — that youngster has been, to crib Wordsworth, a remarkable, wise, and sensitive father to the aging man I have become, a man able now to just manage that accumulated baggage of responsibility, and maybe, just maybe, allowed to spend a moment in Camelot with his heart’s desire, before taking ship to Avalon.

Guenevere and Portrait of a Family Dinner will be on the stage at the Walterdale playhouse May 15th to 20th, 2017. After the performance on the 17th there will be a talkback session in which I will be included.

A Note to a U.S. Voter

Dear neighbour:

I’ve been a little troubled  — a very little as it’s not my country — by some of the sounds I’ve been hearing from down there since your Election Night.  The gloating on one side and the wailing and gnashing of teeth and calls for impeachment on the other are unseemly, I think. And there are stories being told. I have a few questions to ask you about . . . The Truth.

1) Would you like the Truth to be that Mitt Romney is a cult-zombie, Mexican-born, corporate capitalist who hates dogs, women and poor people (when he can manage to make up his mind about anything) who tried to steal the election but even screwed that up?

2) Would you like the Truth to be that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Black Panther America-hating apology-tour making diplomat-killer who stole the election?

3) Would you like the Truth to be that 9-11 was an inside job of some sort?

4) Would you like the Truth to be that aliens crash landed at Roswell?

5) Would you like the Truth to be that King Arthur really lived and had a Round Table and knights and so on?

If you answered “Yes!” to any of the above questions then I’d like to tell you gently that the Truth very, very likely lies somewhere else.  If you want something to be true, you need to examine all apparent evidence in favour of that hypothesis infinitely more carefully than evidence for something in which you have no interest.  It’s called “Confirmation Bias”.  Confirmation Bias is a Truth.  I wish it weren’t, but as much as I would like a different Truth . . . you see where I’m headed.

There’s been a lot of confirmation bias flying around down there.  It sometimes seems to be a national pass-time.  Do you want that whole Roswell thing to be about aliens and government coverups?  If you want that then, you should probably proceed on the assumption it was all a balloon-borne Mylar radar target.  That would certainly explain the reports of “tin-foil” that “unfolded itself”.  You want King Arthur and his Round Table to be historical? You should probably assume that the stories are all whimsical elaborations on those few brief mentions in Gildas and the Easter Annals.  You want Obama to be Kenyan? You should probably assume he’s Hawaiian.  You want Romney to be Mexican?  Assume he’s from Michigan.  And, as much as I’d like to think Dick Cheney took down the Twin Towers with his evil laser vision, I’m going to assume it was a dozen and a half young men, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

It’s a Mylar radar target until the little grey bodies are displayed. There have been a lot of calls for birth certificates to be produced, but it seems to me there haven’t been enough.  Where are the calls for the Birthers to produce a Kenyan birth certificate for your President?  Where is Mitt Romney’s Mexican birth certificate?

Again, if you want it to be true, it probably isn’t.  Calm down, for goodness sake!

P.S. For the record:

1) and 2) I don’t really care much about the truths of Obama and Romney, including their birth places.  Their birthplaces shouldn’t matter.  Everyone knows my country’s head of state was born in some foreign country.  Hell, Her Majesty still lives there!

3) see above about Dick Cheney’s laser vision

4) I think it would be kind of cool if aliens had landed at Roswell.  But wariness of Confirmation Bias makes me think they probably didn’t.

5) Yes, I would like it if the Arthurian tales in spite of their inconsistency, were historically accurate.  But liking the idea doesn’t make it true, and all the evidence suggests there isn’t much history in Camelot.