• A Very Very Very Dark Matter

    Published in the Globe and Mail, November 2, 2018

    by Marianne Ackerman

    In the days leading up to the premiere of his new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter at London’s Bridge Theatre, Martin McDonagh kept out of sight. No interviews or personal appearances. The official word was he’d decided to “let the play speak for itself.” After a slew of savage and very funny hit plays, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri publicly declared a strong preference for film over theatre, which he said can never be as edgy in the way he wants it to be.

    As it turns out, disdain for the medium, followed by authorial silence, now looks like a very very very shrewd strategy. Following the opening last month, top London theatre critics tied themselves in knots trying to explain why a play with cardboard characters, haphazard structure and gleefully foul-mouthed dialogue (sometimes delivered by children) may be a work of genius, and what it all means.

    At 85 minutes with no intermission, A Very Very Very Dark Matter is jokey, spooky, wobbly, bloody, downright mystifying. But then, the main character is Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century children’s lit author whose greatest hits include The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    Eschewing his own immense talent for plot and character, McDonagh takes aim at the creative imagination, the whole Western-civ package of mainly male artistic celebrity, which he depicts as rooted in falseness and exploitation, bound to end in violence. The settings are Andersen’s Copenhagen attic and, later, Charles Dickens’s London dining room, where they meet. The two literary icons are presented as, respectively, a cruel bumbler and a grouchy, washed-up womanizer. They’ve farmed out the labour of penning their popular books to a pair of Congolese pygmies (sisters) kept in captivity. Andersen’s ghost writer Mbute Masakele (who he re-names Marjory) is locked in a three-foot cage suspended pendulum style from the attic rafters. Dickens’s scribe has recently died, hence he’s stalled on the ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    Says Andersen, “I change the bits I don’t like and then erase all the rest from history. I’m more like a German theatre director.” Among the bits they argue over are titles: Marjory wanted The Little Black Mermaid. Dickens would have preferred something like Pretty Big Expectations, but caved.

    While Andersen overstays his welcome in London, the attic is invaded by two Belgium time-travelling hit men, Barry and Dirk, who Marjory somehow knows will take part in the slaughter of 10 million Congolese, under instructions from Belgium’s King Leopold II – if she doesn’t stop them. Jim Broadbent as Andersen and Phil Daniels as Dickens are hilarious, although the laughs, even out of their own mouths, are often at their expense. Women are the serious centre; Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory and Elizabeth Berrington as Dickens’s long-suffering wife, Catherine, come off as bitterly wise next to the buffoonery of the men. Rapid dialogue is full of American idioms and invented slang, rendered as a rain of exclamation marks on the page.

    Leaving a matinee performance after joining in polite applause, I wandered out into an unseasonably mild fall afternoon with the queasy feeling that some very big talents were about to suffer an expensive hit to their noble ambitions. Launched last October by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, who over a decade at The National tripled the budget, produced many hits and won a slew of awards, The Bridge is London’s first big new playhouse in decades, and the first commercial venture of its size outside the West End.

    Although London stages are enjoying boom times – sales are up 24 per cent since 2000 and ticket prices are high – venues offering challenging work have devised a myriad of clever pricing schemes as insulation against the fickle rich. I heard talk of an app that offers budget-conscious subscribers cut-rate prices on unsold seats, but they have to promise to dress nicely, stay to the end and applaud. Apparently spies keep watch.

    Reading through the day-after reviews, I found rampant bet hedging, or call it vertiginous empathy. Or, maybe critics rushing into print were sincerely afraid of missing out on this century’s first Waiting for Godot.

    With 50-plus years as a critic under his belt, The Guardian’s Michael Billington dared opine. “Part of McDonagh’s mission, I suspect, is to dismantle the great-man theory of literary history … The link between literary plagiarism and genocidal oppression is a risky one but you see what McDonagh is driving at … He camouflages his argument with a wild inventiveness. … It’s a play you will either like or loathe. For me, it confirms that McDonagh is a genuine original with a talent to disturb.”

    Time Out critic Andrzej Lukowski predicted some would find it gratuitously offensive and/or racist, but thought the play was sincere about the evils of colonialism. “I’d be lying if I said all this was crystal clear: the play is indulgent, opaque and messy, and risks coming across as more offensive than it probably is. … It’s difficult to imagine that a playwright of less standing than McDonagh would possibly be able to get something as weird as this off the ground in a theatre the size of The Bridge.”

    Whether McDonagh’s latest rip can pack a three-month run at The Bridge is anybody’s guess. But I won’t hesitate to predict the freshly published text could flourish in smaller, dustier, fringier venues, where actors of far less range than this esteemed crew would have a ball with lines such as, “She’s very self assured for a midget who’s about to be executed” and “Well, it’s just makeuppy, isn’t it? It’s just what I do, I makey-uppy things.” Unless, of course, the London public decides the Emperor’s new clothes are just dandy, in which case the rights will be locked up for ages.

  • Harry Gulkin 1927 – 2018

    Harry Gulkin was a card-carrying member of Montreal’s legendary blvd. St-Lawrence boys, communists, bon vivants, overachievers. His passing on July 23 inspired great emotion in all who knew him, as demonstrated at the Segal Centre memorial on August 5. I was privileged to have Harry at a writers’ workshop Gwyn and I held in La Roque Alric, France, during the summer of 2008. He wrote the following piece, which he intended as a kind of prologue to his memoirs. Reading it now, I only wish he had continued. His stories will be with his audience for as along as we have the wit to remember.

    – Marianne Ackerman

     

    Setting the Record Straight

    By Harry Gulkin,

    August 2008

     

    Saul Bellow had the good fortune to spend his early years a block east of the Main, on St. Dominique Street.  I went him one better.  I grew up above my father’s photo studio, which was ON the Main, a crowded, colourful, tumultuous thoroughfare filled with the sounds of English, French and especially Yiddish, as well as a medley of east European tongues all mingling in heated debate on every street corner.

    The burning issues of the day were the progress of the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, Chamberlain’s sell-out of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and would that bring World War 2 closer? At home: continuing mass unemployment, Duplessis’ Padlock Law, and of course ideological conflicts:  the comparative merits of communism in its Stalinist and Trotskyite modes, Zionism and its many versions.   The air was redolent with sweet smells wafting from east European bakeries, mixed with the acrid odour of sour pickles from brine barrels sitting in front of every delicatessen.

    In his debut novel “The Dangling Man”, Bellow writes that his house on St. Dominique Street near Roy was situated midway between a farmer’s market to the north and a hospital to the south.  In fact, the Farmer’s Market stretched from St. Dominique to the Main.  Mother often took me along when she shopped.  Across from the market was Richstone’s Bakery.  As children we would stand enraptured at the window as tantalising doughnuts came tumbling off a newly installed assembly line. More important in memory, and in my family history:  my mother spent long hours on the picket line in front of Richstone’s in support of bakers who were striking for a living wage and better working conditions.

    The hospital Bellow refers to was not, as he claimed, on ‘his’ street.  I forgive him for moving it two blocks west to serve his story, though I’m disappointed because he refers to the Hebrew Maternity Hospital at 3704 de Bullion Street, which is where I was born, one snow-driven night, November 12, 1927. Although I detest name-dropping, this corrected record shows that I was born in the hospital that was just down the street from Saul Bellow’s house.

     

    Danny Daniels was eighteen and I was twelve.   Why did he decide we should become friends?  I was a “red diaper baby”, the son of committed communists.  I had just graduated from the Young Pioneers (counterpart to the “bosses” Boy Scouts) and had been admitted into the YCL (the Young Communist League).  Danny was a leading, though anarchistically-inclined and occasionally disruptive, member of the YCL. He took me under his wing and introduced me to his acolytes, chief among them Clayton.

    I admired his style.  He bitched a lot about the leadership and took issue loudly and passionately with policies he considered insufficiently militant.  I followed his leadership enthusiastically to the chagrin of the movement’s leadership who feared that a promising though impressionable young revolutionary was in danger of being politically corrupted.  Danny’s militancy so appealed to my revolutionary ardour that the leadership’s discomfort with him only served to re-enforce my identification with his views.  I looked to Danny as my mentor and was proud to be part of his inner circle.

    Danny wanted to be a writer.   He proclaimed his writerly identity on a calling card, rare in those years, especially in our poverty-stricken circles.  The legend read D. S. Daniels, author and journalist, 3778 City Hall.  There was no telephone number.  His father, who made his living from a newspaper and magazine kiosk at St. Catherine and Bleury, couldn’t afford one.

    He began to get journalism gigs.  One assignment was for Seventeen magazine, an interview with the teen-age daughter of a Central American diplomat.  At the time, I was understudying (reluctantly assisting) my father in his portrait photo studio. I tagged along with Danny via tramway, toting a 5 by 7 view camera and a battery of floodlights, my first photo shoot away from my father.   The story appeared in the magazine under Danny’s by line and a credit for me under a photo of the young lady.

    He published an article in the Toronto Star Weekly explaining that children were born entirely unprejudiced, but picked up their prejudices at home or on the street.

    In 1944, with the war in Europe against fascism in its last phases, both my father (overage) and I (underage) were in the reserve army, but I was anxious to play a more active role.  Danny had become one of the leaders of the Canadian Seaman’s Union and editor of the union paper, The Searchlight.  With his help I became a member of the Canadian Seaman’s Union. I shipped out as a Merchant Mariner on the SS Sunalta Park from Saint John, N.B. with a convoy loaded with of ammunition and bound for Italy.  I soon became deeply enmeshed in union activity.

    Once again ashore, I became a union organiser (patrolman) on the Montreal waterfront.  I boarded ships in port to settle the crew’s grievances, which involved reaching agreement with the Captain and at times organising a job action aboard ship.

    During the great hour day strike that tied up the Great Lakes fleets fort twenty eight days, I functioned as the union’s media liaison, and subsequently became the assistant editor at The  Searchlight.  Like most other union officials I alternated union work ashore with service at sea as a working seaman.

    The 1946 strike was the first of several violent struggles to enmesh the union in the late 1940s. Our battles were about improving conditions for seamen and defending the union from the relentless attacks by the ship owners, strike breakers, police and finally, the government.

     

    Danny got involved in one violent altercation on the Montreal waterfront which ended victoriously for our side, and returned to union headquarters at 438 St. Francois Xavier jubilantly crowing, “The boys are calling me ‘One Punch Daniels’ ”.  Now, he had many admirable qualities, but Danny was neither physically intimidating, nor a brawler. In truth he was rather fragile.  He was courageous, an effective agitator, loved and was loved by the guys who appreciated his devotion to their welfare, but to the best of my knowledge, no one witnessed either this singular display of Danny’s fisticuffs, nor heard anyone referring to Danny as ‘One Punch Daniels’.  When he became editor of The Searchlight, Danny reported himself as being in the centre of the action, perhaps a little too often.

     

    My revolutionary idol and mentor, I was coming to realise, had an incurable Walter Mittyesque urge to keep portraying and redefining himself as the heart and centre of every militant action.  He spent time sharpening, shaping, and polishing his image as a heroic, fearless, uncompromising revolutionary leader. I became aware that some of the union and party leaders did not take his opinions very seriously. With a heavy heart, I had to admit that my friend, despite all his positive qualities, was a self-aggrandizing bullshitter.  A core of disappointment and resentment began to grow in me.

     

    Yet we remained close friends and confidantes.  I asked myself, Why am I so pissed off with him?  The bragging and bullshit were harmless enough, though hardly a credit to his reputation.  But the feeling grew in me that by bullshitting about incidents and events to which I was sometimes witness or played a role, he was in a way betraying me and depriving me of the truth of my own story.

     

    In 1949, the historic worldwide CSU deepsea strike took place, an attempt to save our fleet from being sold from under us and protect our hard won conditions.  I had been despatched to Halifax somewhat earlier as East Coast waterfront communist party organiser.  When East Coast union leader Bert Meade and Halifax Port Agent Gus Genitis were arrested, I took over as charge hand for the strike.  The strike went badly. Weeks and months passed without settlement. Goons were imported by the St. Laurent government and, led by the notorious Hal Banks, broke through our picket line in Halifax, fired shots that wounded eight of the striking seamen. I returned to Montreal.

     

    What followed was that strange incident of life imitating not art but bullshit.  The Federal election of 1949 was underway.  Leon Crestohl was the Liberal candidate in the Federal constituency of Cartier and Lester Pearson had come to town to support his candidacy. The meeting was to be held at the Grenadier Guards Armoury at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Rachel Street, facing Mount Royal, Montreal’s mountain park.  When we learned that Lester Pearson was scheduled to speak, we decided it was time to call the Liberal government to account. Some dozen strikers made their way to the meeting and took their seats in close proximity to each other.

     

    About a minute after Pearson started speaking, I stood up and shouted, “Mr. Pearson, what about the seamen’s strike?”  Pearson did not respond. The meetings’ security detail led by the boxing Shulman brothers moved towards me to eject me from the hall.  The meeting erupted into pandemonium.  There were cries of “throw him out”.  But I was on home turf and some in the audience knew my family.  One man cried out in Yiddish, “Leave him alone, it’s Gulkin’s boy”.

     

    As the security squad got menacingly closer, the seaman closed ranks and, hoisting me up on their shoulders, formed a close phalanx which the security guards did not challenge. I was carried triumphantly out of the hall to a chorus of catcalls and cheers.

     

    The following morning, a local newscast reported that Dan Daniels had disrupted a Liberal election meeting while Lester Pearson was speaking and was spirited out of the hall on the shoulders of striking seamen.

     

    I was very proud of my leadership of what finally was a rather pointless militant action.  Danny did say to me, “Too bad they didn’t know you”, but he did nothing to deflect the hearty congratulations that came his way for leading the action.

     

    The strike was lost and the union smashed.  Over the next few years, the remaining agreements with Great Lakes ship owners lapsed or were simply disregarded by ship owners. We had to redirect our revolutionary energies.  During a downturn in the economy in 1950, unemployment rose sharply, and as was our wont, we expected and in fact welcomed a major depression (it’s coming! it’s coming!) and with it, revolution and the downfall of the capitalist system.

     

    The (Communist) Party quickly set up two organisations for the unemployed in Montreal.  For reasons long since expunged from memory, Danny, (who was married), was charged with the organisation of the single unemployed, while I, (who was single), was charged with the organisation of the married.

     

    The announced depression didn’t materialise and we went on to other things.  I became the Quebec correspondent and business manager of the Canadian Tribune, the communist weekly.  Danny turned more and more to writing and had a very hard time making a living.  A short television drama of his was broadcast on Montreal CBC’s Shoestring Theatre.

     

    He went back to school and gained admission to a post secondary program at York University which did not require a high school diploma.  He earned a master’s degree for a dissertation on dystopia, an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be.  He returned to Montreal and assured all and sundry that he had changed, that his tendency to exaggerate was a thing of the past.  For a time at least, that held true.  I don’t remember how long.

     

    In the winter of 1954, six homes were raided in Montreal by Duplessis’ red squad led by Paul Benoit and the Montreal Red Squad led by John Boyczum.  Danny’s house and mine were among them. Danny phoned to warn us after the cops left his house, so we were expecting them.  I opened the door to my apartment and they marched in without removing their snow and mud covered boots. But my wife Ruth – all of five feet one – wasn’t having any of it.  She ordered them to take off their boots, and to my surprise they obeyed.

     

    The cops rounded up what they considered subversive books.   This of course meant Marxist and other revolutionary literature.  One of the books they scooped up from my house was poet Earl Birney’s volume of poetry Trial of a City, probably because it had a red cover.

     

    Danny complained that they had taken the one and only copy of his novel.   Some of us who were close to him were surprised since he had never mentioned he’d been working on a novel.  His lamentations for this lost manuscript continued to echo down the fifty odd years that were left to him.  He continued to write over the next half century, but his ambition to write a novel apparently died with the seizure of his first manuscript.  He never told me what that first novel was about.

     

    About twenty years ago, some thirty years after the event, he wrote and published an account of the 1954 police raid at his house.  He called it Boots, and kept referring to his horror and disgust at the cops’ dirty boots as they tramped through his house.  I don’t doubt that he was deeply offended.  But am I paranoid, or is it possible that he was influenced by the story of Ruth’s reaction to the boots?  After all, we were very close at the time and we talked about it a lot because of Ruth’s audacity.

     

    In 1956 Nikita Kruschev’s “secret report” to the 20th Congress of the CPSU detailed Stalin’s crimes and exposed the nature of Soviet society.  The Soviet Union had been our model for the society we wished to build.  We had worshipped Stalin and hung on his every word as holy writ.  Major cracks were showing in the satellite societies.  In Poland, students rioted.  The underpinnings of our beliefs were destroyed.

    At a stormy meeting with top party leader Tim Buck and leader Joe Salsberg, both of whom had attended the 20th CPSU Congress, Buck denied the existence of the Kruschev report.  Salsberg affirmed its existence and confirmed the horrific nature of its contents.  That very night, Provincial committee s leader Gui Caron, Arnold Issenman, Ken Perry, Pierre Gelinas, Norman Nerenberg, Harry Gulkin and militant Charles MacDonald decided to leave the Party without delay.  Party leader Gui Caron prepared a letter of resignation and I, the Canadian Tribune’s Quebec correspondent, arranged for its publication in the Montreal Gazette through Gazette journalist Frank Collier. We left and were followed shortly by a mass of Party members, somewhat later by others who had stayed on in the hope that the Party could somehow be reformed.  Danny was part of this latter group.

    Some years ago in an exchange that Charlie MacDonald and I had with Danny’s wife Ann-Marie, we learned that Danny’s story was that it was he who left first, that it was he who led the exodus from the Party.  Not terribly important, but why, I asked myself?

    In the years prior to his death, Danny suffered from many ailments. One day, about fifty years after the strikes of the late forties, Charlie MacDonald, Stan Wingfield and I paid Danny a visit.  As was invariably the case when we were together, talk would turn to strike reminiscences.  Danny offered that at one point he was being hounded by the police and the strike breakers.  Not surprising.  But then he went on to say that he had been carrying a gun to defend himself if necessary.  Carrying firearms was a real no-no for us, although we were not averse to breaking the law when necessary.

    “Danny,” I remonstrated, “We told each other everything in those days and you never said anything about a gun to me.”  He did not acknowledge my comment.  Unfazed, he continued his account of personal courage in the face of adversity as if nothing had been said.

    Ten or fifteen years ago, a conference of history professors was held in Montreal to discuss the radical ferment here in the thirties and forties.  Montreal after all was the starting point for Norman Bethune’s radical humanist odyssey.  It was a Montreal constituency that elected the first communist MP. The program included a walkabout of the district visiting sites such as the old Montreal Arena where Bethune spoke on his return from the Spanish Civil war, thirties soup kitchens, and factories where there had been major strikes.

    The morning after the walkabout Danny and Montreal writer Merrily Weisbord were interviewed on radio.  At one point Danny was explaining that even though the police were looking for him, he managed to participate in demonstrations and avoid capture.  The interviewer asked Danny how he managed to do that.  There was a lengthy pause as Danny reflected and then offered, “I wore a disguise”.

    “What kind of disguise?” the interviewer asked. There followed a prolonged on-air silence as Danny considered this very complex question and finally blurted out:  “A moustache.  I wore a moustache.”

    Later, in discussing the interview with Merrily Weisbord, I ventured that there was quite a lot of bullshit.

    “ Yes,” she replied, “some bullshit but lots of fun”.

    After leaving the Party, Danny devoted most of his energy to writing and organising in the writing and playwriting milieu.  He was one of the founders of the Montreal Drama Workshop.  He organised and hosted the St. Urbain Street Writer’s Workshop for several years.  He was loved and respected there, although some said he was notoriously resistant to criticism of his own work.

    He became a devotee of the spoken word.  He was an organiser and regular participant in storytelling evenings at a Mile End restaurant, and part of a group of story tellers who toured Montreal schools for a couple of years.  He reported that he was so popular with the kids that they had taken to calling him Dan the Story Man.  Was this a later, though gentler, version of One Punch Daniels?

    He was a hard worker.  He wrote a 500-page autobiography.  He asked me to read it and recommend it to a publisher friend.   I found much of it interesting, but yet again I was bothered and troubled.  The old self-aggrandizing bullshit was there.  After all, as a close friend and colleague, I had been at the scene a lot of the time.  There was, however, one notable addition to the tall stories.  He remembered that as longshoreman on the Toronto waterfront he had demonstrated superhuman strength by lifting and manipulating an incredibly weighty load by himself.

    In the interest of retaining our friendship, I had never questioned the veracity of Danny’s stories.  And I wasn’t about to start.  I simply suggested that no publisher would consider taking it on without some authentication, such as press clippings or references to witnesses who could confirm some of the claims and I would therefore not feel comfortable recommending it.

    Dan Daniels was a good comrade and friend. He achieved much that was admirable in his life.  But I was simply unable to swallow the Walter Mitty side of his persona which I felt tarnished his story, as well as mine.

    When he died a few years ago I attended his funeral with my friend Charlie MacDonald.  Many there who knew me as a long time friend, comrade and colleague of Danny’s expected me to say a few words.  I really didn’t want to speak, so I asked Charlie what he thought.  Charlie, who also knew Danny as well as me, said Don’t, and I didn’t.   But I still feel guilty despite it all, that I could not get beyond my irritation and resentment to share a public farewell with a mentor of my youth and a long-time friend and colleague.  I feel as D.H. Lawrence once did when he wrote   … and I have something to expiate, a pettiness.

    My relationship with Danny was not the most important in my life.  But writing about it, about the feelings it awakened in me, brings me nose to nose with myself. It imposes a responsibility to tell my story with as much candour as I can muster, with an overriding respect for the facts that memory, research, and witnesses can muster.  I hope I succeed.

    Written by Harry Gulkin at the Writer’s Workshop in La Roque Alric, France. Summer, 2008.

  • Rooftop Eden Reading April 23

    A stellar cast has assembled for the staged reading of Rooftop Eden, act one, scheduled for Monday April 23, 2018 @ La P’tite Grenouille, 3435 boul. St. Laurent. 5 à 7 pm.

    Howard Rosenstein, Donovan Reiter, Karl Graboshas, Anna Fuerstenberg, Alison Louder, Brett Watson, Alexandra Petrachuk, Leni Parker. Paul Van Dyck directs. Don’t miss the debut of this sequel to Triplex Nervosa. Free event # 9 at the Blue Metropolis literary festival. Produced in collaboration with Playwrights Workshop Montreal.

  • Launch & Reading

    | @ BLUE METROPOLIS Literary Festival – 20th Edition|

    Presentation of Blue Sky followed by  staged reading of Rooftop Eden, sequel to the hit comedy Triplex Nervosa, by Marianne Ackerman. Featuring cast members from the original Centaur Theatre production, in collaboration with Playwrights Workshop Montreal. Don’t miss the inaugural event of a new arts venture. www.bluesky-ma.ca (complete site coming soon).

    Monday 23 April, 2018  5 – 7 pm

    La P’tite Grenouille – 3435 boul. St-Laurent, corner of Sherbrooke St.