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David French: a playwright of complex and generous compassion

Several years ago, I summoned the courage to approach David French at a Toronto coffee shop where, for months, I had secretly watched him read his morning paper. He was the éminence grise of Canadian playwrights; I, the sophomore artistic director of a new classical theatre company called Soulpepper. I introduced myself and asked: "Which of your plays would you most want to see revived?" He answered without a pause: " Leaving Home."

David French needed only the slightest provocation to let you know what was on his mind, and he revealed his thoughts in terse staccato sentences. In this first brief conversation, I learned that Leaving Home had not had a Toronto revival since Bill Glassco's seminal Tarragon Theatre production in 1972. Glassco, the patrician founder of the Tarragon Theatre, was, for 30 years, French's alter ego and greatest champion. It was Glassco who first took a chance on the angry young man, and it was Glassco who, until his death in 2004, helmed every play that David wrote.

French told me that he had been asking companies to revive Leaving Home for years, but to no avail. This, despite the fact that the play (his first) had been a colossal hit, cementing not only French's reputation, but Glassco's and the Tarragon Theatre's. The play had toured across the country, and due to its popularity, French had written the 1973 follow-up Of the Fields, Lately, which would have equal success. A decade later, he wrote the love-soaked prequel Salt-Water Moon, the third instalment of the Mercer family saga. These three plays, plus the subsequent 1949 and Soldier's Heart (all directed by Glassco), would collectively make up what a recent Toronto Star poll called the most important contribution to English Canadian drama of the 20th century.

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There is a great autobiographical tradition in 20th-century North American theatre. Think of Tennessee Williams's Wingfield family and the Tyrones of Eugene O'Neill. The Mercer family saga belongs on the top shelf with these plays. French used memory with the same skill and poignancy that Williams did in The Glass Menagerie; he used confession and forgiveness with the same devastating catharsis that O'Neill employed in Long Day's Journey Into Night; but most remarkably he made us laugh constantly, opening up our emotional capillaries to absorb and calm the pain. On every page is love and the writer's heartbreaking need to communicate that love to the ghosts of his youth. French is to be celebrated not as much for the characters he "created" as for his ability to observe an extant humanity with a complex and generous compassion. In this he reminds us of his hero Anton Chekhov, and it is no accident that French's version of The Seagull is considered by many to be unsurpassed.

French came to Toronto from Newfoundland when he was six years old and lived in the city until his death, yet his plays are saturated with the geography and culture of his birthplace. At first blush, French seems to be a Newfoundland writer. But his plays thrive on a tension between "here" and "there." When the plays are set in Toronto ( Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately) the "there" of Newfoundland is omnipresent - its glories and its challenges. In the Newfoundland of Salt-Water Moon, Toronto is ever-present - as possibility and as threat. This made French resonate with audiences of urban Canadians, so many of whom share this geographical ambiguity. In this way French was not only a great Newfoundland playwright but a great Canadian playwright.

French had a way of making very personal plays that belong to all of us. I vividly remember the first time that I heard the words, "It takes many incidents to build a wall between two men, brick by brick," the opening lines of Of the Fields, Lately as spoken by Ben Mercer, French's dramatic self. The year was 1981 and the story of a squandered opportunity for love between a son and his father moved me so much that I have never forgotten it. I still find it achingly difficult to listen to. Then, I was Ben Mercer's age and I had a father. Now, my son is Ben's age and I am the father. David's plays belong to us as artists, they belong to us as Canadians and they belong to us as fathers and sons.

Thirty-five years after Leaving Home exploded onto the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, Soulpepper made French's wish a reality and remounted the play, which was as adored and celebrated as it had been a generation earlier. French was right; it was time to see Leaving Home again, and nobody was more thrilled than the playwright, who attended every single rehearsal and most performances.

In the last few years, Soulpepper has revived Of the Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon and David's masterful backstage comedy Jitters as a new generation of Canadian audiences discovered and celebrated the mastery of David French.

Although we will miss him terribly, we can take some comfort in knowing that David leaves behind - for all Canadians and for the world - a body of work of astonishing breadth and depth that will keep him very much alive for generations to come.

Albert Schultz is the founding artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company.

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