Come June 23, Merrill Denison — playwright, historian, raconteur and bon vivant — will turn 81. Suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and paying hacking and wheezing dues to a lifelong smoking habit, the old man today moves even more slowly than before, which was always plodding at best (“I was born in the mechanical age at the very beginning, with the result that I always abhorred walking as a means of locomotion”). Merrill Denison is in failing health, but he’s not about to give up.
“’Til the end of my days,” he says with pride, “I’ll probably go on observing and griping about one thing and another.”
One thing he’ll observe and not gripe about is the current Merrill Denison Renaissance. His plays are being revived and restaged, his radio innovations are being recognized, and two generations who never knew Merrill Denison are being introduced to the maverick wit whose works are now, finally, being credited with the virtual creation of Canadian theatre. For most writers it is satisfaction enough to gain recognition for their works during their lifetimes, some small critical acclaim which provides the warm reassurance that, after all, it was worth it. For Merrill Denison, this is the second time around.
And unless time catches him off guard, and the physical body deserts the desire, Denison just might catch us all on the third time around. At 81, he’s still scheming. “I would like to write a history of Canada,” he said as he sat in front of the massive fireplace in his cottage at Bon Echo, northwest of Kingston, Ontario, “from my point of view.
“I would start with the proposition that first of all, from the geophysical aspect, Canada was an absolutely absurd creation. I would examine the proposition that Champlain shot the wrong Indian. If he’d only chosen an Algonquin chief and gotten mixed up with the Iroquois, the United States might well be French today! Interesting theory . . . but I wouldn’t have the time . . .”
It’s necessary to understand Denison
in a context of time. It’s a double-edged sword: running out on him at the same time as it makes his early writing seem dated, remote and lacking the deep personal involvement we expect from more modern day writers. His work has to beassessed in the context of his era, and only then does the true scope of his talents appear, and his importance become undeniable.
Denison began as a playwright, the first one of stature in Canadian literature, and his beginning was hardly auspicious. Toronto’s Hart House Theatre had scheduled three Canadian plays for April, 1921, but only two — both tragedies — were on hand. A third was desperately needed; only five weeks remained before opening night. Denison, a recent and so far unsuccessful architectural graduate, had come to Hart House as an art director, and that morning was breakfasting with theatre director Roy Mitchell and treasurer Hugh Poynter-Bell, who happened to ask Denison where one might find a “Canadian.” Denison surmised at length that the only untainted Canadians he’d ever known were the backwoodsmen near Bon Echo. “At the end of breakfast,” says Denison, “the two scoundrels locked me in the director’s room and said, ‘Just put it down on paper. If you want to eat remember that the faculty dining room closes at two.’ ”
Four-and-a-quarter hours later Denison emerged with a one-act comedy called Brothers In Arms, featuring as one of its main characters an illiterate woodsman with a deep-felt contempt for authority. The subject matter, the setting, the earthy dialogue so upset the Hart House Theatre committee that it voted to ban its production, but Roy Mitchell threatened to resign unless they allowed him to stage it. Brothers In Arms was a resounding hit; Denison estimates it has been performed some 1,500 times since, and royalty cheques still trickle in each year from such places as Churchill, Manitoba, and St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Denison’s career took off. Many successful plays followed, such as Contract and Marsh Hay, a despairing vision of the younger generation, complete with adolescent sexual hang-ups and selfinduced abortions, which may explain why, though he wrote it in 1923, it wasn’t performed in Canada until 1974.
His career as playwright, however, was short-lived, as he was quickly lured by another medium — radio. It was 1929 and Austin Weir, who was in charge of the CNR network (and who seven years later was instrumental in creating the CBC) approached Denison with an idea for a series of 26 radio dramatizations of important events in Canadian history. And when Denison pro-
tested that he didn’t even own a radio, Weir went out and bought him one.
So, says Denison, “1 set to work reading Canadian history from a new point of view: that of the dramatist or storyteller ... I was interested only in people and their struggles and their triumphs; not in the murky convolutions of political, development.”
Called the Romance Of Canada, Denison’s series became the model for similar radio historical dramatizations throughout North America. Also, it introduced to Canada a man who was to have an equally profound effect upon our culture — Tyrone Guthrie. (Denison, who had heard of Guthrie’s work with the BBC in England, had obtained in New York two 15-minute radio plays Guthrie had written. “1 read them riding up town on top of a 5th Avenue bus,” Denison recalls. “And long before I reached 52nd Street 1 knew that I had made a great discovery. I had found a man who had completely mastered radio as a dramatic medium.”) The two worked together on the series, and it was during this time that Guthrie began to dream of someday establishing a Shakespearean festival theatre. Eventually, his dream came true in Stratford, Ontario.
So vastly successful was the Romance Of Canada that Denison was commissioned to do a similar project in the United States, where he was born.
His 40-week series. Great Moments In History, launched Denison on a radio career in the United States that continued through World War II.
Yet though his greatest recognition came in the United States, his greatest love remained in Canada, and each year he would regularly retreat for three months to his beloved Bon Echo, a 5,000-acre retreat amid the pines, clear water and granite cliffs of the Canadian Shield. And it was here, during these leisure months, that he met and got to know over a number of summers an old man called Mike Mahoney, who turned out to be one of the legendary figures of the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes, and who had served as a model for much of the heroic fiction of both Robert Service and Jack London. His full story, however, had never been told. But in 1943, Denison published Klondike Mike, a complete biography; it became an immediate best seller.
That was the height of Merrill Denison’s success. He had established himself as one of North America’s foremost radio dramatists and he had written a critically acclaimed best seller. His plays were still being produced, and his legacy was awakening Canadian literature to itself. He had, in fact, somewhat awakened Canada to itself, in his own sardonic and biting manner. It was Denison who gave birth to the cliché that we are a
people suffering a national inferiority complex. (“I expected,” he said much later, “that the impeachment would be promptly challenged and denied. I never expected that it would become part of the national folklore.”)
But soon after Klondike Mike, Merrill Denison began to fade away, into the obscurity of corporate histories, far from the literary mainstream. It paid handsomely (it is estimated that the two-volume history he did on the Bank of Montreal cost the bank half a million dollars) and his income was guaranteed, since public sales had no bearing. He bridles still at any suggestion he was selling out, arguing that the growth of Canadian companies provides a much truer picture of our history than predominantly political issues. Besides, he adds, “I write with all the objectivity I can bring to bear.” And his works — the bank history, the history of the Molson family, of Massey-Harris and Ontario Hydro — were highly acclaimed.
But there can nevertheless be no doubt that money did influence his decision. Bon Echo was eating away at his wallet. Denison’s suffragette mother, Flora MacDonald, had purchased the property in 1910, with hopes of turning it into a retreat for writers, artists and philosophers. So taken was she by one of these, the American poet Walt Whitman, that she had a tribute to him carved into the massive, 400-foot rock face that overlooks the lake at Bon Echo. But her dream by the mid-1940s had become Denison’s nightmare.
He was finally able to dispose of the land in 1959, when the Ontario government accepted it as a gift to be used as a park. Denison reserved only a small corner of the property, that facing the Whitman rock, for the use of himself and his second wife, Liza. (Denison’s first wife, Muriel Goggin, who was the author of the popular Susannah books, died in 1954.)
Merrill Denison, at 81, has not given up. There is much to be written. Time, however, will probably have a say in the matter. Merrill Denison is not well. He can’t move quickly and he tires easily. Somedays it’s just easier to sit back and listen to the pines move in the wind which sweeps across Bon Echo’s Lake Mazinaw, and look long at the big rock and the salute to Walt Whitman, which year by year looks more and more like the summation of Merrill Denison’s own life.
“My foothold is tenon’d and mortised in granite,” the two-foot high letters read. “I laugh at what you call dissolution, and I know the amplitude of
Adapted from Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story by Dick MacDonald, published by Content Press.
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