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Vol 39  No 15
June 7, 2007


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Address to convocation by

Dr. Chris Brookes

It is a great privilege for me to receive this honorary degree, and be here to share with you in this celebration today. I know I speak for everyone present in wishing each of you receiving degrees in fine arts, science, education, nursing and business every success in the endeavours ahead of you.

I’m particularly pleased to salute those of you graduating in the theatre and visual arts. I stand before you as testament to a time when Newfoundland professional theatre was unheard of, a time when a scruffy bunch of young actors could be taking an original show on a school tour – a radical thing in itself at the time – and could be packing up the gear after a show in Heart’s Content and loading it onto an old grey bus with the help of a couple of senior high students. And one of them said, “So what do ye fellas do?” I said well, we do this. And he said “No, I mean what’s your real job?” And I said well, this is. He said, “You mean, like, you make a living at this?” I said well, it’s kind of hand-to-mouth, but we’re trying to make a living at it, and so far so good, you know. And he paused, and gave me an astonished look, and said: “You know, I never knew that people like you existed.” Look around this convocation. You’ll see thirty people who exist today receiving their degree in theatre.

This is your day, all of you who are graduating. I want to tell you that you’re very fortunate to be heading out from this particular place in the world at this particular time in history into the lives and careers ahead of you. And I want to try and tell you why. If I frame my thoughts in a theatre terminology, you will understand that by theatre I mean not only the performance behind the literal footlights that some of you graduating today will practice, but the wider metaphor that Shakespeare intended when he compared the world to a stage, and the course of human history to a pageant. I address you as actors in that pageant, on the stage of the present moment.

I have another reason for taking this tack, and it is that thanks to the Newfoundland theatre I’ve been practicing the role of honorary doctor for about 30 years, so I know what an honorary doc is supposed to say. At Christmas time I’ve gone round with a group of friends and colleagues bursting into houses and performing the old Newfoundland mummers play, and Christmases when I’ve been lucky enough to get the part of the doctor I say “In comes I the Doctor. I don’t go about like them half re-rafty-sham doctors up to the Health Science Centre, neither kill nor cure. No sir, I goes about for the good of the country, rather kill than cure.” It goes on through another 20 minutes of cheap slapstick and old ritual, but I like the line about going about for the good of the country, and it’s what I want to talk about.

Specifically, about a phone call I received out of the blue a year ago. It was from a theatre student here at Grenfell, and one of the things he asked me was: is it possible today, did I think, to create a socially-relevant theatre like the kind of thing I and some of my colleagues made 30 years ago? Can we create work that contributes to society, work that matters? Or is it just about doing the 9 to 5, having a beer and going home to watch Hockey Night in Canada? It’s the kind of question that is vital to ask not just in the arts, but in any field of endeavour. I think I mumbled something like, “if you’re asking the question I’m sure you’ll find the answer”, but I didn’t feel that the clumsiness of my reply was adequate to the elegance of the question. So I’d like to try and frame a better answer now.

Like all good questions it will never have an adequate answer. But I would have liked, at least, to have quoted him the American historian Arthur Schlesinger who died this winter: “Problems will always torment us,” he wrote, “because all important problems are insoluble; that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.”

Schlesinger understood the study of history as a constant making and remaking of the past intended to revise the present and fashion the future. So in that spirit I would like to jumper-cable my phone caller’s question not to the Newfoundland theatre of 30 years ago, but much further back, to the very root of our theatrical patrimony. The historical record tells us that Newfoundland actors, honorary Christmas doctors among them, were storming into houses to perform as far back as 188 years ago. This is the original Newfoundland theatre, and in fact the written record of it goes even further back, to 1583. Theatre historians point out this predates the Order of Good Cheer in early Acadia by a couple of decades and makes Newfoundland the site of the first recorded theatre performance in Canada. Although considering we’ve been part of Canada for only 58 of those 424 years I’m not sure we should surrender ownership of our Newfoundland theatre patrimony so easily.

I would like to have reminded my caller that our native theatre used to take as a matter of course that it would be relevant to the society of its time. It returned the linguistic embrace of that delicious word “actor,” a term referring not only to an artist in costume and stage makeup behind a proscenium, but to those who act, who take action in their lives, in society, in the world Our native theatre was not a frill, a mindless entertainment, or a cultural curiosity. It rolled up its sleeves and worked outside the proscenium arch, in the streets. By the mid-19th century it was an actor on the stage of Newfoundland history, welded to the forces of politics, economics and social change. Welded so firmly that it frightened those in power, the owner-managers of Newfoundland’s legislative playhouse, and the government decreed that any actors found performing our native theatre would be arrested and thrown in jail. The prohibition against mummering in 1861 meant that it was suppressed for 135 years (the law was repealed only 11 years ago), and although its memory was kept alive underground in the bays and coves of our country for over a century, a theatre of social engagement was officially replaced with polite performances of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas on St. John’s stages. Imagine, I wish I’d said on the phone, imagine a theatre so instrumental in the affairs of its time that it was actually considered dangerous. A theatre that acted in the public drama.

I wish I’d said that on the phone. I wish I’d said that it’s not too shabby to have that for our theatrical ancestry. Not shabby – unless we forget it or misconstrue it, or imagine instead that our theatre was just a colonial attempt to ape the fashions of the chattering classes of imperial London, New York or later, Toronto.

How fortunate are we to have that in our artistic gene pool – as we have also the other DNA strand of Newfoundland performance art: comedy (that archetypal laugh-getter, the custard pie-in-the-face gag, reportedly having been invented in a small Newfoundland town in 1899 by a local cook and a traveling medicine show.)

I wish, too, I’d pointed out that heritage and history – that the past – doesn’t exist. All that exists is the stories we tell ourselves about what happened. And while you will carpenter our future with new nails, with power tools instead of pit saws, you will perforce work with the lumber of the past. Those slow-growing and exceedingly sturdy rings of identity that make up the tree of our unique history in this unique place. It is a means rather than an end, a tool with which to imagine the future.

You are taking up your tools at an exciting time, when modern forms of communication are transforming the ways we imagine that future as radically as did the printing press before Shakespeare’s time. Computers, cell phones, instant messaging and Internet are changing the ways we tell the stories that explain us to ourselves. Montage grapples with narrative to uncouple cause and effect. Yet in the world – as on the stage – one thing does lead to another, if there is a pistol on the wall in the first act it will be fired by the third, and it will be your job to settle the wilderness of our experience with the fence posts of a beginning, middle and end. Actions lead to consequences. Equally important: your failure to act will have consequences also.

To borrow a coastal metaphor from the authors of the 2003 provincial Royal Commission: It’s exceedingly difficult to row a boat keeping your eyes on your destination. The trick to rowing where you want to go is to fix your eyes on the spot on the shore where you came from, and navigate from there.

Some of you will choose a destination in this province; others will navigate away from Newfoundland and Labrador. Whichever you do, I can tell you this particular shore is a very handy place to be from.

Those of you who row far will find that your Newfoundland compass can serve you well abroad. You come from a country not itself a superpower, but which sleeps next door to one. This tends to make us keen observers, a quality that some say explains why Canadians make such good documentary makers. Moreover, your roots lie in a place more in touch with the unvarnished truths of survival than with the pretentious banalities of big-city consumerism. As a war correspondent in El Salvador 20 years ago I noticed some of my colleagues from New York and California seemed stunned to find themselves observing a country so alien to their eyes that it had an unheard-of unemployment rate of 20 percent. To a Newfoundlander, this was a more familiar state of affairs. And where they saw only high-contrast ideological confrontation, a Newfoundland compass could deflect towards the subtler colours of economic injustice and cultural indignation most guerrilla fighters carried along with their AK-47s. And I was grateful to the Newfoundland playwright who told me that although you may take the man out of the bay, you can’t take the bay out of the man.

Those of you who employ your talents here will act on our home stage at a critical time in our history, when the cod fishery which has been the soul of our culture for half a millennium has been sabotaged and destroyed, and when we need the arts like never before to give us meaning, identity, worth and vision. We will need all your skill and inspiration to row our boat through that kind of a lop. Do not hesitate to wet your oars outside of art galleries and dinner theatres.

Keep clear of sunkers. The old one to port – well marked on the charts – used to be called “elitist art.” On modern charts it’s named “mindless entertainment.” It’s the one with the sirens on it, singing to you perhaps about a big career in show business upalong.

As well, there’s the cluster of sunkers to starboard. They too have been renamed on the latest Newfoundland charts. They were called “the arts”; now they’re known as “the cultural industries.” If you wind up aground on them, be careful not to spend so much of your time explaining us to visitors that you neglect to explain us to ourselves.

And while I’m knee-deep in the metaphor, permit me to remind you that standing up and rocking a boat may not be safe but is sometimes very necessary. Journalism has just given us an example. Canadian reporters in Afghanistan have mostly been embedded with the Canadian military, writing politely about the war from inside the military perimeter. Two weeks ago a Globe and Mail reporter courageously stood up in the Canadian journalistic boat, went outside the perimeter and found former Afghan prisoners who told him our troops had given them over to torturers. His valuable work may help turn the Canadian ship of state away from the reefs of international human rights infringement.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead put it this way: “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So ends my catechism, and now to get offstage. I leave you with the exit line that our long-suppressed tradition has provided for honorary mummer doctors. Regarding the performer in front of him – a performer lying still, but about to come to life and act – the doctor must say: “I do here apply the wonderful white drops of life: one drop to your temples, and one to the crackbone of your hearts. Rise up bold champions, go forth and play thy parts.”

Thank you for letting me share this day with you.

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