The odd man out in Canadian theatre

Jane O’Hara March 8 1982

The odd man out in Canadian theatre

Jane O’Hara March 8 1982

The odd man out in Canadian theatre



Jane O’Hara

On the morning of the Dora Mayor Moore Awards for Canadian

drama two months ago, Toronto playwright George F.

Walker—whose play Theatre of the Film Noir had been nominated for five prizes—stood in his living room trying to pick out a suitable tie for the event.

Walker, who primarily chooses his clothes on the basis of which ones are clean, held three ties to the light. All of them were borrowed—since, let’s face it, no real artiste owns a tie— and all of them were spectacularly tacky. The playwright was in one of his irreverent moods, a state that tends to rearrange his usually angelic altar-boy face into the mask of a mad monk. Walker does not believe in awards ceremonies— “I’m only going for the food”—moreover, he was not above registering a subtle gesture of contempt toward the theatre establishment that had shunned his work for so long. His green eyes lit up as he chose a fat, pale-yellow tie embla-

zoned with a garish duck-hunting scene. Explained Walker: “It’s very Canadian.”

At 34, Walker has never courted celebrity, which is just as well since, for most of his career, celebrity hasn’t been too keen on him, either. His early plays, featuring acts of rape, incest and dismemberment and characters one wouldn’t particularly want to invite home, delighted a small cult of Toronto theatregoers, but they never flew in Moose Jaw. Even in Toronto, actor Jim Henshaw says: “One night when we were doing Ramona and the White Slaves [1976] there were so few people in the audience that instead of doing a curtain call we went out and shook their hands.” Walker shrugs: “Who can take fame seriously in the age of People magazine?”

The 1977 production of Zastrozzi, his first commercial and critical success, marked the beginning of a more popular and accessible strain in his plays, which nonetheless enjoyed more suc-

cess in the United States, England and Australia than they did at home. Last year, however, he scored a second smash hit with Theatre of the Film Noir which he wrote and directed for the Toronto Theatre Festival. Film Noir, a black comedy set in postwar France which features more kinky sexual liaisons than there are animal acts in a three-ring circus and a sympathetic hero who is also a homosexual murderer, won four “Doras” and a Chalmers Award for outstanding new play of 1981. Film Noir had a successful four-week run in Vancouver this year, and plans are in the works for a threecity European tour and a Chicago run.

Walker’s star rose even higher this year when he became the first Canadian-resident playwright to be produced by New York’s Joseph Papp (producer of A Chorus Line and The Pirates of Penzance, both million-dollar Broadway successes) at the Public Theatre in New York. Papp, who has nurtured such prominent American play-

wrights as David Rabe and Sam Shepard, also appointed Walker a writer-inresidence at the Public Theatre and supplied the $10,000 that enabled him to watch over the production of Zastrozzi. While most playwrights would mortgage their mothers for two seats on the aisle of their own New York premiere, Walker was nowhere in sight when the curtain rose in January. Explained Walker: “I wanted to be as far away as possible. I would have gone to Tibet if I’d been able.”

But since he was not able, he opted instead for home— a second-storey walk-up apartment with a large bay window that overlooks Carlton Street in Toronto’s east end. There, he sat alone at a harvest table in his living room cluttered with books, antique curios and a washing machine, working on his 15th play, Science and Madness. True, Walker was not pleased with the sombre New York production of Zastrozzi, but his leave-taking was not a case of artistic pique, simply one

of having work to do. Since his arrival last autumn in New York—a city he terms conducive only to “artists and criminals”—Walker had not

written a word. “Apart from all that,” he said, “after three months, I was beginning to talk back to the loonies on the street. It was time to leave.” Walker’s personal history is littered with similar examples of enigmatic entrances and exits. In the early ’70s he materialized from nowhere onto the Toronto alternate theatre scene when he submitted Prince of Naples to Factory Theatre Lab after reading a flyer on a lamppost requesting scripts. At the time he was driving a cab, but unlike most long-haired cabbies of the era he did not have a doctorate in some obscure discipline. Although an avid reader and an occasional writer of poetry, he didn’t even have a university degree. Married at the age of 18, Walker was a father to a daughter, Renata, before he had even seen a play. The first play he ever saw was Henry IV at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, the

second was his own Prince of Naples. Walker grew up in a solid working-class family where playwrighting was considered highbrow and effete. He idolizes his father, a retired laborer with the City of Toronto who rode the rails in the Depression and once fought an Ontario boxing championship with a broken hand. Says Walker: “I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t work as hard as my parents had to, that I don’t have to work ; nine-to-five shifts.”

In many ways, Walker has always been an outsider. As the youngest child in his family, with a gap of 13 years separating him from the closest of his three sisters, he once asked his mother: “Who are these women running around the house?” As a kid at school, he was never one of the gang and played the role of “observer.” When Walker started writing plays, at age 23, he knew nothing of dramatic structure. This explains the incoherence of some of his work but it also had a liberating effect on his imagination. “I just tried to fill a space with pictures and words,” said Walker, who, unlike many playwrights, never maps out the structure of a play before writing it. “I am a speculative writer. I don’t want to write about what I know. I want to write about what I don’t know and follow the characters on their journey.”

The journey has taken him to exotic locales—a Hong Kong brothel in Ramona, a jungle retreat in Beyond Mozambique— far from the self-conscious Canadiana and kitchen-sink naturalism that dominated theatre in the ’70s. Walker drew on his cosmopolitan eastend Toronto background, combined it with mass-media images of Dragnet, Bmovies and the Marx Brothers, his eclectic reading of French absurdists and existential philosophers and let the whole mess warp through the wind tunnels of his mind. What surfaced was sometimes incomprehensible to the most hip audience, an often bleak theatrical landscape colored only by bloodblack humor. Even his more accessible plays such as Zastrozzi, a campy melodrama that treats favorite Walker themes of good vs. evil and the threat of global destruction in a 19th-century Gothic setting, is not exactly crystal clear. Walker maintains he does not set out to be obscure and even wishes he had a larger audience. For one thing, it would mean he would earn more than $12,000 a year. “And that’s a good year, for George,” says his agent Ralph Zimmerman. “There have been more bad than good years.” But Walker would rather remain penniless than compromise his vision, which he realizes might never make it to Broadway. Says David Bolt, the actor who brilliantly portrays the hopelessly demented Bernard in Film Noir. “Walker writes about things

that people don’t want to think about and then he makes fun of it. He writes in powerful images for the quickest of audiences, and people usually have to catch them on the fly.”

All too often, however, critics have preferred not to “catch them.” Walker says it doesn’t bother him: “I expect the worst, so I’m never disappointed.” But the negative New York reviews of Zastrozzi brought producer Papp running to Walker’s defence: “George is literate and he has ideas and an interesting style. He’s addressing himself to issues at a time when few other playwrights

are.” Former Toronto Star critic Urjo Kareda, who once described Beyond Mozambique as a “subversive report to the Canada Council,” has been gradually lured into Walker’s camp. “I don’t think George has ever written a play that I’d call clear, but his recent work is very confident. He sounds less like a ventriloquist and is speaking now with his own voice and mind.”

Last year, the playwright played a particularly Walkeresque joke on Canadian critics when he duped them briefly into thinking that his play, Film Noir, had been written by a long-dead-and-

forgotten post-existentialist Frenchman named Henri Bernard Berger. Walker, who often uses humor as a form of intellectual sabotage, gave Berger a life of his own complete with a photograph (in reality a picture of Toronto actor Bob White’s grandfather) and a history (Berger was killed in a bicycle accident by a Citroen); Walker even went to the trouble of sticking a false index card in the files of the Metropolitan Toronto library in case anyone wanted to check Berger’s references.

Because of capers like this and the occasionally perverse humor of his plays, a sinister mythology has sprung up around Walker, who is, in person, a gentle, amiable man with a low-key sense of humor. Says his second wife, actress Susan Purdy, who starred in Film Noir. “People seem to think he wears white suits and carries a whip. George really leads a very quiet life. He reads and goes for long walks. A big outing for us is going to Murray’s restaurant and reading the papers.” In the early ’70s Walker had a reputation as a

recluse, “the Greta Garbo of the alternate theatre scene,” says Zimmerman. “He’s a purist. He thinks his work should speak for itself.” Two years ago, when Gossip premiered in San Francisco, the Canadian Consulate offered to fly Walker down for the opening. He declined when he learned that the diplomats expected him to attend cocktail parties and talk to people. He drove instead. He has even described the process of directing his own plays as “socially embarrassing.”

Walker has grown more comfortable with the limelight—his appearance in the goofy tie testifies to that—but he will never fit the theatrical mould. A block away from the Public Theatre, in a New York pub, he contemplated his reputation as one of Canada’s least known, least understood playwrights. Sipping a beer and biting the corks of the Canadian cigarettes he smokes, he said: “Look, basically, I’m just a guy who writes plays. I’m not in the theatre, I’m in the theatre. Sometimes I do it well and sometimes I don’t.”