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Saturday December 11, 2010

Universal writer gave Newfoundland voice

His 1972 work, Leaving Home, listed among 1,000 essential English-language plays

smartin@globeandmail.com

Sometimes the word iconic is more than a cliché. Case in point: David French's 1972 play Leaving Home, one of the 1,000 essential plays in the English language, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Theatre. Leaving Home happens to be about a particular Newfoundland family called the Mercers who shipped themselves across the water and down the road to Ontario in the 1940s, which was then part of a foreign country called Canada. But the story is also a universal and timeless tale about fathers and sons, the emotional toll of economic migration and the agony that displacement and shame, especially when camouflaged by bluster and bullying, can exert on family dynamics.

Ironically, playwright David French, who died of brain cancer, at 71, on Dec. 4, in Toronto, had to swallow his own pride before he and his play could find a home with Bill Glassco, the co-founder of the Tarragon Theatre, and the man who became French's metaphorical and artistic father. French, who had cobbled together a living as an actor, began writing plays for CBC radio and the fledgling television service in the early 1960s. By chance, French had seen a production of David Freeman's play Creeps at Tarragon in 1971 and thought he could do something similar using his own family lore.

He drafted a 70-page script - about the length and style that had worked for half-hour television dramas - and sent it to Glassco, who called him in for a meeting. That's when fear moved centre stage. As French himself told the story, Glassco said, "I like your play, but you haven't realized its full potential." To which French responded with a litany of expletives and profanities, before grabbing his script and storming down the stairs and out of the theatre. Instead of letting French disappear, as Jacob Mercer does when his son Ben leaves home, Glassco pounded down the stairs after him, put his hand on French's shoulder and said, "I'm not your enemy, I'm your friend."

And so began a collaboration that only ended with Glassco's death in 2004. "Bill was his life blood," says the playwright's older brother, Don French. Leaving Home, which was the hit of Tarragon's 1972 season, is the first in a quintet of plays about the Mercer family - Of The Fields, Lately (1973), Salt-Water Moon (1984), 1949 (1989), and Soldier's Heart (2001), all of them initially directed by Glassco. French also wrote a hilarious comedy, Jitters, about the opening night traumas of a serious play, in which he drew on his own experience as an actor and as a playwright before the premiere of Leaving Home.

The Mercer plays are autobiographical, as French himself frequently said, but that doesn't mean they are factually accurate. French's partner Glenda MacFarlane says, "David was very nervous [about his parents' reaction] but he said they loved the plays and it improved his relationship with his father." According to Don French, "My father and mother went to the plays and whether or not they thought it was them or not, I don't know. Only David could tell you that."

One thing is certain, French was a sponge for stories, especially about Newfoundland, where he was born, but rarely visited after his family moved to Ontario when he was six or seven. "I absorbed [the language] through some process of osmosis," he told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in 1999. "When I was growing up it was like Grand Central Station in my House - Newfoundlanders coming through all the time, sitting around, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. And, of course, my father and mother were great storytellers, and I picked it up from them, too." His family quickly learned that whenever French said, "What did you just say?", the words or story would likely end up in a play.

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