Only two days remained before the première of their revue lampooning Canadian cultural politics. But in Winnipeg last week writer David Arnason and composer Gérard Jean were still working at the Prairie Theatre Exchange piano, frantically revising a song for Welcome to Hard Times: The Cultural Cabaret. By dawn they had finally drafted what would become the rousing finale to their play—one of the first assaults by a major Canadian theatre on current attitudes to the arts. At week’s end, rave reviews of Hard Times confirmed Arnason’s reputation as a daring topical playwright: he is also coauthor of last year’s satirical hit Section 23: The French Language Revue, which is now touring Manitoba’s schools. Of his latest play, which touches on U.S. cultural domination of Canada, he said: “I wrote Hard Times because I do not want to become an American.”
Making last-minute revisions is a radical change of pace for Arnason, who began working in theatre only two years ago. With his slow, deliberate speech and shy manner, the burly University of Manitoba English professor seems an unlikely satirist. An Icelandic-Canadian from Gimli, Man., he has edited 20 literary collections and written two books of short stories and one of poetry. In 1984 Prairie Theatre Exchange artistic director Kim McCaw discovered Arnason’s satiric, inventive stories and asked him to write a comic
drama about Manitoba’s French language debate. The result was Section 23, which Arnason created with Jean and francophone writer Claude Dorge.
The playfulness and experimentation that permeate Section 23 are even more pronounced in Arnason’s newest work. He said that Hard Times began as a protest against last winter’s federal cuts to arts funding, adding, “My friends are writers, artists and theatre people and all of them felt the effects.” Set in 1999, following the triumph of what he calls “Mulreaganism,” Hard Times examines a totalitarian state where the art police demand that art be “shiny” and accessible to the common man. Questioning whether Hard Times itself belongs in the brave new cultural world, they intrude on the action demanding that the cast perform Hamlet. Meanwhile, Hard Times attacks Ottawa’s attempts to shift responsibility for arts funding to private patrons. At one point an impoverished artist sings, “If you show me your private sector, baby, I’ll show you mine.”
Although Arnason plans to try his talent for dark humor in a novel, he says that theatre’s lure is strong. He added: “When you write a book, you can’t go home with the reader to watch him read it. But in the theatre you know right away whether something works—and that is too much fun for me to quit now.”
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