Playwriting is a hazardous business and I suppose at my age I should know better than to mess with it. There is, however, much truth in the old saw, “Too soon old, too late smart”. When I speak of playwriting I mean for the stage, not for TV. Not that there is anything wrong with writing drama for TV. I had actually done quite a bit of that before ever getting, as they say, on the boards. (Do they still say that? Sounds more like a skiing term.)
Even as I write this I have a full length stage play going into rehearsal and already we’ve shifted the date a couple of times and the director has acquired brain concussion thanks to his predilection for playing hockey. It’s actually got two directors now, which should be stimulating.
The upcoming offering is scheduled for the modest Nexicom Studio in the bowels of Peterborough’s excellent Showplace Performance Centre. The play’s full title is, The Orator — the involuntary resurrection of Col. Ingersoll.
Long titles are more popular now than they used to be. My first professionally produced play had a one word title — Wu-feng (the hero being Chinese). The play was mounted on the main stage of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. During the final week of rehearsal I was ordered home by my doctor and returned (minus a lumbar spinal disc and a piece of vertebrae) just in time for opening night to find that the open stage (basically a bare stage) for which I had written had been adorned with a bamboo mountain and that the final few lines of dialogue, which summed up the whole point of the play, had been deleted by the director because they offended his religious sensibilities. But I had been bombed into euphoria by medically prescribed painkillers and figured all was well. Reviewer McKenzie Porter didn’t agree that all was well, saying that the director had “blurred the intellectual edge” of my dialogue. He also opined that we had both “over-reached”.
Well shucks. What’s theatre for if its practitioners don’t occasionally over-reach. Maybe we’ll do it this time. With enthusiasm. I’ve always agreed with Alexander Pope that “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a heaven for?” And I am all for directors cutting lines that don’t work but, as with a surgeon wielding a scalpel, I trust them to be selectively judicious.
Fortunately Nexicom Studio cannot accommodate a bamboo mountain but, in its initial advertising on the web, Showplace has already made an injudicious cut by omitting half the title — the involuntary resurrection of Col. Ingersoll. Unlike the Wu-feng cut I expect this was accidental and not out of religious sensitivities. However, the Colonel Ingersoll of the title — Robert Ingersoll, “Bob”to the public — was a very real 19th century American lawyer who in his own time had been heralded across the continent, on both sides of the border, not only as a great orator but as “The Great Agnostic”. He could hold large paying audiences quite spellbound for several hours at a time as he expounded upon his favourite subject, Religion, which he defined as Superstition. (I suppose there are some who may not wholly approve of his current resurrection.)
Although Ingersoll had earned the title “Colonel” while serving quite heroically on behalf of the North during the Civil War, it continued to fit him well because he devoted much of his life to another kind of war. “As long as I live,” he said (and says) “I expect now and then to say my say against the religious bigotry and cruelty of the world. As long as the smallest coal is red in hell I am going to keep on.”
The Colonel was more or less forgotten during the 20th century and the philosophy of freethinking that he embodied was swamped, particularly in the good old USA, by religious fundamentalism, a virus that has also been spreading in the Canadian body politic.
However, my friend Col. Ingersoll (he of this resurrection) does not claim to be an atheist. Quite the contrary. “There may be a God for all I know,” he says (and said). “There may be thousands of them. But the idea of an infinite Being outside and independent of nature is inconceivable.”
The Colonel was, and is, an erudite man who enjoyed theatre and revered Shakespeare. He was, and is, not kind in comparing the pulpit and the stage. ” There is this difference: The stage — the honesty of pretence. The pulpit — the pretence of honesty.”
I say ” was” and ” is” because although the fleshly Col. Robert Ingersoll is long dead (1899) his words live on. His words embody his thoughts. Surely thoughts are the essence of a man?
As a playwright I found that having “resurrected” a real man via his own words and then letting him become aware of a vast gulf of time between himself and his audience it was not illogical for both of us to become somewhat bemused by reincarnation:
INGERSOLL: My opinion of immortality is this: First — I live, or did live, and that of itself is, was, infinitely wonderful. Second –There was a time when I was not, and after I was not, I was. (to the professor) Madam, this verbal straddling of a real past and a hypothetical present creates a sizeable linguistic exercise. Anyway — (to the audience) Third — Now that I am, or was, I may be again; and it is no more wonderful that I may be again, if I have been, which I was, than that I am, which I’m not, having once been nothing.
Speaking of the living man, an English reporter wrote in 1894 that “A more interesting personality it would be hard to find, and those who know even a little of him will tell you that a bigger-hearted man probably does not live.”
Anyway, for a stage play that isn’t quite a drama but is, in essence, an oratorical exploration of two questions: What is Oratory? What is Religion? and for a play with two directors and a time frame that embraces both the present and the 19th century, running concurrently, I firmly believe there is something there to challenge, and thereby entertain, an audience.
Plays are not created overnight. This one has been knocking around, digitally, in my PC and my head for more than three years. It has been work shopped twice in Toronto with actor Rick Miller (Bigger Than Jesus, MacHomer) reading as Ingersoll. Both sessions took place in the sanctuary of Toronto’s Westhill United Church, thanks to Westhill’s atheist pastor Gretta Vosper (author: With or Without God and Amen). It was Rev.Gretta who introduced me to the Colonel away back when I first wrote an item called The Great Betrayal — later appearing in this blog under the title United Church Challenge. And, marvellous to say, Gretta has agreed to act as facilitator for the traditional Q & A session that will follow the Friday evening performance. (Some of the Questions may call for Answers beyond the expertise of we mere theatre folk.)
This may be my final kick at the theatrical can and if so it seems somehow fitting that where Wu-feng featured a Confucian philosopher attempting to prevent Taiwanese head hunters from taking a head in the name of their religion, in The Orator— the involuntary resurrection of Col. Ingersoll, the protagonist is interested in preventing minds from being taken by the same affliction.
For the brave at heart the time and place is the Nexicom Studio of Showplace Performance Centre, Peterborough, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 14th & 15th, at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee Saturday at 2:00.
At the moment, with ice all around, I almost hesitate to give directing and acting credits for fear of more concussions, but the title role is being courageously tackled by Matt Gilbert, supported by Sarah McNeilly and Andrew Rook. The co-directors are Esther Vincent and Ray Henderson.