PROFILE

Coming home from Billy Bishop’s war

Truro boy John Gray is back from Broadway with a new show rooted solidly in Nova Scotia

Ian Anderson March 16 1981
PROFILE

Coming home from Billy Bishop’s war

Truro boy John Gray is back from Broadway with a new show rooted solidly in Nova Scotia

Ian Anderson March 16 1981

Coming home from Billy Bishop’s war

PROFILE

JOHN CRAY

Truro boy John Gray is back from Broadway with a new show rooted solidly in Nova Scotia

Ian Anderson

"You know”—John Gray is loosening up after the day’s rehearsals—“I can really understand why a lot of great Irish writers lived in France. It really does help you see your country clearer by being out of it.” Gray knows it now. In his first 33 years, this flowering playwright seldom ventured over the border. Then all hell broke loose in the unlikely form of Billy Bishop Goes to War, a lyric epic to the First World War flying ace that he wrote and starred in with his best friend, Eric Peterson. Beneath the élan, they are both a bit dazed by the wild success of it all. “No matter how good the reviews are, you always feel it’s just a matter of time before they’ll see through us,” Peterson says. “Even with Bishop.” No one has. Last year meant best-play and best-actor awards in Los Angeles, raves at the Edinburgh Festival, a Broadway opening with the estimable Mike Nichols toasting Gray’s talents; big-money offers from Hollywood and an opening next month in London. It also meant discovering that insidious colonial spirit, which infects so much that Canadians do, when he realized the lights burn no brighter in New York than at home. In charmless hotel rooms between Halifax and Los Angeles he worked out Rock and Roll, a dry-eyed musical about growing up and out of his home town, Truro, N.S. It opens next Monday at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. Truro? Nova Scotia? After the acclaim of Bishopl Even with the flash and flare of Gray’s songs and music, would anyone in the States pay attention? Would they be interested? Gray doesn’t much care. There is a certain Zen detachment he cultivates in himself. He’s a showman, an entertainer, but still loath to lose “my amateur status. I’m writing things because I mean them. Even if I never went to Broadway again, it wouldn’t bother me all that much. I’m quite convinced my audience is Canadian. I’m quite happy with that.”

Don ’t let on you don ’t know what you ’re doing, /This could be the night....

—from Rock and Roll

This was a chubby, shy, musical boy whose family came from Hopewell, N.S. (population 100, mostly relatives). There was no record player at home.

His father, Howard, played five instruments and bred three professional musicians. In a town noted for little more than clean streets and Stanfield’s underwear, John Gray found blessed freedom playing organ and trumpet for The Lincolns, a rock band hooked on Wilson Pickett, fast cars and a hellraising image. They were the kings of Friday night, the biggest dance band from Moncton to Halifax. And in the way a big band did to a small town, they

breathed a Friday-night spirit into the kids, gave life to a town with no gym, no music in school, no one to look up to, no relevance. “Boy, did I get beat up in Stellarton!” Gray is telling band stories. “Whooo! Some guy from the Trenton steel mill got his hands on me. All I probably did was step on his toe. But we were all from Truro, and that’s enough!”

At 17, Gray fled down the Trans-Canada Highway, over the New Brunswick border to a world of relevance and black turtlenecks at Mount Allison University. Still with The Lincolns in person, in spirit he was drifting away. Gazing back over half his lifetime, the writer can see his themes rising out of that time: the band splitting up as the Beatles hit their peak; ambitions ex-

ceeding talents; Truro seeming like a “cultural leftover” to people wanting wealth and fame; players putting down their instruments because they couldn’t be the Stones, the Byrds, the Airplane.

His emotions remained unresolved for a decade, until the band held a reunion. They played two nights in 1978 before 3,000 excited fans. People returned from all over the country, older certainly, maybe more settled. They danced on tables, drank from mickies.

They say it was insanity. “It was the first time I was in Truro when nobody wanted to be anyplace other than Truro,” Gray recalls. “It was the first time I felt I came from a place that has a meaning to it, that this was not just a pale imitation and if I’d been luckier I might have been from Toronto.”

Something had clicked. The Bishop songs touched on this “colonial mentality,” but not like the new show that grew from the experience. As he wrote Rock and Roll on tour with Peterson, Gray was seeing his life in a new light. What he calls the “demystification process” was under way, bonded by the success of Billy Bishop. People in New York, Washington and L.A. were applauding a Canadian First World War hero—of all things. “It made John more confident about being a Canadian artist,” Peterson feels. “Being down there,” Gray says, “I started to see Canada in a totally different way. As having a bona fide existence, as having a lot of interesting people.”

If it’s good enough for England/Then it ’s good enough for us/And the Colonial boys are linin’ up . . . for war

—from Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop was born of boredom. In Ottawa doing repertory theatre, Peterson bought Bishop’s autobiography, Winged Warfare. Caught up by the “cracking good story,” he passed the book along to his friend—and Gray loved it. “I had had it up to here with Canadian tragic heroes,” Gray grimaces. “Louis Riel and all those cats— I’m really sick of that. It really appealed

that this wasn’t a tragic story in any sense. He won, he was a winner. Canadian history loves to portray us as losers.” Over drinks and pool tables, the two men talked. A two-man show would be great—for the joy and freedom of mounting it with no hassles. Gray read Bishop’s letters in the Military Archives and they visited a replica of the ace’s old Nieuport biplane—all wire and canvas. Then Peterson fled to the Caribbean, “fed up with acting and with Canada.” When he returned three months later, Gray had the first draft done. Gray would play piano and sing a bit. Peterson got Bishop—plus 16 other parts, as well as the sound effects of a Lewis gun and biplane motor.

Bishop hit a nerve somewhere in the Canadian psyche. Peterson sensed the

audiences were relieved to have the country’s war experience recognized and honored after the tarring all soldiers took after Vietnam. His own ’60s generation had scoffed at the single greatest experience in the life of many of their fathers. In Peterson’s words, Billy Bishop depicted youths who went to war “because good in the end can be accomplished, or at least bad can be defeated. Or just because they were stupid or bad.” Gray had his own reason to cut through the war experience. In his briefcase he still carries an old letter from the mother of one John West, thanking Howard Gray for naming his first son John, in memory of their dead son, a Hurricane pilot from Hopewell, N.S., killed in the Battle of Britain. John West was Howard’s best friend. “What was it that moved my father to do that?” Gray wonders. “He’s not the sort of guy you expect the large poetic gesture from. Who is? It wasn’t until I got into Bishop that I realized I hadn’t touched on what the experience must have been to bring him to do that.”

No one should die alone when he is twenty-one/And living shouldn’t make you feel ashamed. . ..

—from Billy Bishop Goes to War

Neither Gray nor Peterson had ever worked longer than eight weeks on a show. For whatever reasons, they had chosen to stay in Canada. Bishop was conceived as two months’ work. They had been on tour nearly a year when New York producers Mike Nichols and

Lewis Allen showed an interest. “That had ceased to be a goal in my professional life, to hit it big in the States,” Peterson says. “It’s part and parcel of doing plays about Canadians. Working here, you gave up the idea of graduating to the so-called big time.” That mythic goal soon dissipated in the smog and venality of New York. When Beverlee Larsen, Gray’s companion of a year, chatters on about the leafy estates and inch-thick towels of the New York producers, Gray idly tries to dump a spoonful of chocolate ice cream into her wine. He will not have it believed he was impressed by anyone, anything on Broadway, even Mike Nichols. “Take A Chorus Line,” he demands. “It means nothing. It’s a bubble with nothing inside. Even Lew Allen will tell you Annie means nothing, and he produced it. The challenge of one of those shows is simply to keep the bubble up. Now the New York techniques for keeping that bubble up are tremendously sophisticated. They will spare no expense. But if you ask anyone who comes out what it means, it means nothing.”

Eric Peterson calls his friend “a late bloomer—if you can call 34 a late bloomer.” It was not until age 30 that he wrote his first play, 18 Wheels, and only now, with Rock and Roll, his third, that he feels confident enough to write authentic dialogue and draw from his own experience. The flowering of his talent surprises even those closest to him, who knew him as that talented director in Vancouver who had to help start a theatre to get work. This was the same guy who composed songs on guitar for his friends and dabbled in transcendental meditation and Rolphing and any other wave of “human potential” therapy that washed over the West Coast. The same one who fled Vancouver to exorcise a marriage breakup. He just kept on growing. One can understand, then, the sense of frustration he feels for a national tendency “to identify with anyone other than ourselves.” For him, Truro becomes a microcosm. What Toronto means for Truro, Broadway means for Toronto. Colonial attitudes. It’s Maritime musicians leaving home to “make it” in Toronto. It’s Toronto film-makers importing American “stars” so Canadians will accept their films. It’s actors leaving Canada because their stock will rise at home the moment they leave home behind. John Gray is waxing philosophical again. “Somehow it’s being able to accept yourself, where you are and who you are, that enables you to face the future with courage. If you’re constantly battling your regrets, you can never be courageous about the future, because all you are doing by living is collecting more regrets. It’s a terribly defeatist attitude.”