||Reign of Death and Gallows Humour
by Keith Garebian
Because it has won the 2002 Governor General's Award for Drama, Unity (1918) cannot be simply praised for its merits as a tapestry of the flu epidemic that strikes the small town of Unity, Saskatchewan, during the last year of World War I. By honoring it as the best published play of the season, the GG jurors have pushed it to the forefront of Canadian drama for critical assessment. There is always a danger in treating a play as if it were simply a literary text and not also a living, breathing theatre experience that can grow in the imagination through a marvelous director, designer, or actor, but the advantage of a private reading is that it allows the reader time and space in which to test certain things that are not necessarily the first order of a newspaper theatre critic's business. Now, I do not think that Kevin Kerr's play has been unreasonably praised by the nation's newspaper critics. But I do not believe that it has been rigorously scrutinized in terms of its own intent and scope.
Where many contemporary playwrights have engaged themselves with AIDS as a compelling dramatic subject, Kerr has selected a less widely-known epidemicłthe Spanish flu that killed 80 million people worldwide, especially soldiers in European trenches during the Great War. But Kerr's aesthetic problems are no different from those of any playwright dealing with the topic of AIDS. After all, the Spanish flu, like AIDS in our time, has its own determining narrative beyond literature or theatre, and metaphors or chronicles could hardly do full justice to its attendant agony. Nevertheless, a phenomenon that caused such a havoc could hardly be left to silence. But where Tony Kushner in Angels In America, for instance, fashions an epic and feverish gay fantasia which looks into the heart and soul of America to identify the murderousness of this society, Unity (1918) never attains Kushner's richness, vitality, colour, or moral depth. It does, however, face the same aesthetic problems as Angelsłat least in the matter of illness as metaphor and agent of drama.
Torment and survival constitute two tensions in a continual existential dialectic, though it is commonly a metaphor of war that serves the dramatic design of such conflict. War occasions the deformities, contortions, and mutilations of humans. It becomes not merely an instrument of death but (especially if you are a terrorist, an American or an imperialist of any sort) an adoration of destruction. Yet, war has identifiable sources and definable icons. But what explains or serves the design of biological illness? The wartime flu, even when taken as metaphor, is unable to be foreseen. It certainly has no identifiable source, other than a virus which develops monstrously yet invisibly. It is devastating but remains abstract as a dramatic forcełunlike a military dictator or a tyrannical villain or a megalomaniac or a metaphysical evil power.
Kevin Kerr is evidently aware of the intrinsic difficulties of his subject because he attaches no morality, no ideas of heroism to the Spanish influenza itself. Whatever nobility of spirit there is in the play comes from small characters who are always haunted by death. Although the Prologue is the diarist-narrator's memory of her 21st birthday, the main action starts with the double death of people who are represented only as corpses. One victim (Ardell) is the wife of an inefficient farmer; the other, in a peculiar irony, is the local undertaker himself (Mr. Thorson). The trains that stop at the town bring young soldiers already infected with the flu. The young farmhand Michael's flu-ravaged body is dumped just outside the town. It is not for nothing that Sissy darkly predicts the end of the world or that Doris and Rose, the chattering switchboard gossips, serve as a homespun chorus of the dying or dead or that a Ukrainian funeral song resonates in the background of some scenes. Death is greedy and indiscriminating, and bodies mount with disconcerting speedłfrom Michael, the charismatic farmhand, to Sissy, the sensual girl who lusts after him; from Doris, one of a duo of gossiping switchboard operators, to Mary, the girl who yearns for the homecoming of her soldier-boyfriend. Even Bea, the diarist-narrator for most of the play, falls victim! And when paranoia grips Unity, the town itself is quarantined, as mail is piled outside the limits, only to be burned later. Some of the fatalities are accidental: the last boy of a family is beheaded by a mowing machine, and Hart recounts how his brother perished in the Halifax explosion. But the play saves itself from becoming merely a catalogue or dance of death by its own black comedy. It skillfully orchestrates shifts between gloom and incongruous laughter. Hart's joke about a runaway funeral carriage shows that gallows humour is never far from the action. In the very first scene (set in a funeral chapel), young Sunna Thorson, the teenaged Icelandic immigrant, ruminates naively on death as she applies mortician's makeup to her dead uncle's face. In another memorable scene, as grief-stricken Stan pushes a wheelbarrow holding his dead wife's shrouded body, he suddenly lurches, tipping the barrow and jettisoning the body, upon which he himself falls in a parody of sexual coupling. A further layer of humour is in the dead woman's odour of flatulence. In a later scene, there is a celebratory V-Day Dance, during which waltzing partners are grimly warned by the MC to remain a yard apart. And in an unforgettably cathartic moment, the blind war-hero Hart stumbles in a dark mortuary, bumping into furniture and smashing glass while desperately concocting a story to explain the chaos.
An undeniable merit in Kerr's play is the series of connections made between the malady and his characters, between illness and human intimacy. Bea, who knits socks for the soldiers overseas, describes the charismatic young farmhand Michael as a positive contagion: "You caught Michael just by being near him." In another instance, she articulates her own unease in the form of a global infection: "For some time now, I've had the awful sense of being spread across the world. My thoughts and feelings stretched across the ocean."
Unity (1918) is evidently the work of a playwright who has a finger on the pulse of loneliness and heartache. So many of the characters yearn to be loved, and so many are foiled. Yet they struggle on with their individual burdens, demonstrating a sturdy though desperate humour. This is why the play is compelling to read and watch, and why it has succeeded in making its small characters (many of whom have no more than a single attribute or identifying trait) seem noble. However, there are intractable deficiencies. Bea, the most articulate of the lot and one with a poetic sensitivity, is reduced in her role as explicator, and she is given an almost impossible bit of narration where she attempts an heroic representation of a dead soldier but produces only comic bathos: "I prayed for his soul and Mary prayed he would watch over Unity and protect us from the flu, which struck me as odd, because it appears that the flu is what killed him. Like Michael, or others in town already. The difference being he died with a uniform on far away. Far enough away to imagine him carrying a flag as he coughed and sneezed his way across enemy lines."
The truth is that while the epidemic and paranoia generated from the epidemic infiltrate the setting widely indeed, the play itself is narrow, both in its characterization and emotional range. This may well be because of the very brief scenes, though I suspect the larger reason is Kerr's rigorous focus on the body. The evidence is abundant: the smelly corpse of Ardell; Hart's blindness (the cause of which is linked to both poison gas as well as an overpoweringly transcendent sexual vision); Sissy's wooden dildo and intense sexuality; and Sunna's undressing of her cousin Stan in concert with her explanation of anatomical patterns of the human body.
While Kerr gains certain nuances from such a focus, he also loses others that could have expanded the play. Unity (1918) is emotionally affecting as it deals with the loss of illusions and dreams, but it generates only inchoate vibrations in other significant areas. There is one brief moment late in the play, after many dreams have evaporated, when young Sunna voices her own isolation and emptiness as an immigrant: "ąmaybe [Canada is] just big and empty and full of people trying to make believe they're somewhere that they're not. And having children who grow up never knowing what this place really is or what the place was that their parents pretend it to be. And more and more lost they are until the emptiness is all they know of home." Sunna's somewhat bitter reflection could have lead to a meditation on Canada. But it never does. Her words die in the prairie, and so I truly wonder if Unity (1918) matters enough to become part of a collective culture and consciousness.