“The Broken ‘Devil’ of Comox Street: Daniel MacIvor, Tennessee Williams and Canadian Biodrama”
Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s play His Greatness (2007) dramatizes the apocryphal stories ofTennessee Williams’s brief stint in Vancouver as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of British Columbia in thefall of 1980. Williams gave lectures in the university’s theatre department, while the city’s Playhouse theatre prepared a revised version of his play The Red Devil Battery Sign, for which he served as ad hoc dramaturg. Both turned out disastrously, or so recall the various stories that have bandied about Canadian theatre circles over the last three decades. His Greatness does not attempt to accurately reproduce the events which apparently took place on the eve and the following day of Red Devil’s Canadian premiere. Instead, it is a philosophical portrait of an artist facing his decline or “brokenness” (i), as MacIvor calls it in his foreword to the play: “How the plays were broken, was how
I was broken, was how we are broken. Suddenly I felt a deep connection with Williams, and I remembered that Vancouver story. … His Greatness is, in its deepest, most flawed and weakest heart, a play about me. And if you are anything like me at all, it is a play about you” (ii-iii).
That “story” MacIvor “continued to hear in different forms and from many people for years” (ii) was “the theatre practitioners’ cautionary tale”: “just the way we like it, sordid and beautiful” (ii). In it, Williams was the drunken and drugged shadow of his former great self, the insatiable predator of young men/boys whom he seduced to return to his hotel room where they read him passages from the Bible wearing only their underwear. Oddly, the story is not meant to bring shame upon Williams, but rather the opposite: to expose the cruelties of a theatre world toward the aging artist, any artist, by forcing him to abide by its aesthetics. Williams, of course, refused to genuflect to the great-god critic and was consequently reduced to a broken man – as he was again in Vancouver – from which he would emerge the following morning steeled by his resolve to complete his life’s work and continue write plays that the critics would hate and the public would not understand. His Greatness is ultimately about Williams’s – and no doubt MacIvor’s – triumph.
This talk is about crossings and transfers from many perspectives. Crossing borders, certainly, between the theatre worlds of New York and Vancouver; transferring eras, as well, between 1980 when the event took place to 2007 when MacIvor’s play premiered. But the crossings and transfers are much more complex and philosophical than these, for they involve the increasing role that fiction has in recording fact in the theatre, especially in the queer theatre, where, as Dirk Gindt has argued, “gossip proves to be a useful tool in the process of rediscovering and preserving a sense of history and thereby help to foster community narrative.” Examining where the facts concerning Williams’s Vancouver escapades transfer into fiction will demonstrate how MacIvor turns discrete fact into universal truth, where his biodrama celebrates the historical value not of what was but what should have been and can now actually be.
John S. Bak is Professeur at the Université de Lorraine in France, where he teaches courses in literary journalism and American drama and theatre. His articles on Williams have appeared in such journals as Theatre Journal, Mississippi Quarterly, Journal of American Drama and Theatre, The Tennessee Williams Literary Journal, American Drama, South Atlantic Review and Studies in Musical Theatre. His edited books include Post/modern Dracula: From Victorian Themes to Postmodern Praxis (2006), New Selected Essays: Where I Live (2009), and (with Bill Reynolds) Literary Journalism across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences (2011). He is the author of the monographs Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Queer Masculinities (2009) and Tennessee Williams: A Literary Life (2013).