by Judith Claire Thompson
On New Year's Day, dark fruitcake in one hand, sparkling wine in the other, I had a surprising conversation with one of Canada's most brilliant actors. When he learned that I was writing a serious review of John Mighton's play, Half Life, he laughed loudly, declaring dramatic texts to be like blueprints or musical scores, incomplete without a production.
I concede that all plays are written to be produced, but a dramatic text is not a "half-play", just as the elderly characters in John Mighton's drama are not living half-lives, simply because they do not have all their faculties. I am confident that a well-written play without a production is not any less a full text than a novel or a book of poetry. When the production closes, it is the play that remains. Certainly in the case of Half Life, it is the play that will be interpreted by theatre professionals, students, and academics all over the world for many years to come.
I was mesmerized by Daniel Brook's 2005 production of John Mighton's masterpiece at the Tarragon Theatre. I found it spare, elegant, humorous, painfully insightful, compassionate, and intricate: I barely breathed for the duration. When the play was over I left the theatre walking on air-inspired, full of hope, and overflowing with compassion for my fellow human beings. I was almost looking forward to old age and incontinence. When I read the play, however, my experience was more cerebral; I felt as though I was reading a book of Eastern philosophy, expressed simply through a parable about an elderly couple falling in love. I didn't laugh nearly as raucously as I did in the theatre, but I lingered on the more striking, searingly poetic, and philosophical passages, and was better able to think them through in a new way.
Half Life is, on the surface, the story of two octogenarian nursing home residents who fall in love,
perhaps for the second time, and find happiness. Clara is unable to look after herself and may have Alzheimer's disease, and Patrick is a cranky alcoholic who was a code breaker in WWII, a talent that proves useful to him in the nursing home. They encounter one another when a miserable Patrick is moved into the home, and they fall deeply, unwaveringly in love. It is slowly revealed that they may have known and loved one another 65 years before, their romance cut short when Patrick was called to serve in WWII. Their relationship is acutely distressing to Clara's son, Donald, who clearly needs to be the centre of her diminished life, and feels eclipsed and embarrassed by her unseemly passion. Donald is horrified when Patrick tells him, "[W]e made love-she asked me to . . . I straightened her out on the bed and . . . I'm the only person she's ever loved." Clara is a saintly woman who has love enough for everyone, and inspires all around her to find beauty and joy in their lives. She is John Mighton's gift to a cynical audience.
However, Half Life, which won the 2005 Governor-General's Award for drama, is as much a sophisticated philosophical meditation on the collision of joy, suffering, and memory, as it is a humorous and subversive story about the triumph of love over age, imprisonment, and uptight adult children. I doubt John Mighton would be satisfied by writing a simple, sweet love story for seniors. The title alone suggests a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be fully alive.
Mighton's meditation on human memory begins in the opening moments of the play, when Clara's son Donald is speaking to Patrick's daughter Anna in the common room of a nursing home:
Donald: I was telling a story once, about my father's experiences during the war-he spent four years in a prisoner of war camp-and right in the middle of my story, a man walked up and handed the woman I was talking to a drink. The man only spoke to the woman for a moment, but while they were talking it occurred to me that she might have already forgotten my story. So when the man left, just to see what would happen, I started to talk about something else.
Anna: Did she remember your story?
Donald: No. So now, at parties, as an experiment, I won't continue telling a story when I'm interrupted, and sixty percent of the time the person I'm talking to will forget that I was telling a story.
The listener has not truly forgotten that Donald was telling a story of course; rather, she or he has chosen to forget for the moment, either because the story was boring, or embarrassing, or because the auditor wants to go to the bathroom or get a drink or go flirt with someone else. Mighton begins his play by suggesting that we choose to forget for our own reasons, usually unknown to us.
It is an axiom in the theatre that if you want the audience to understand something, a fact or an idea, you need to repeat it three times. Mighton cleverly repeats his assertion that we can be defined by what we choose to forget, as well as what we choose to remember, in the second scene.
Donald works with scientists creating computers that simulate human thought; in this scene he is trying to guess whether the voice he speaks to is a human or a machine. He knows it is a machine when it remembers a phone number he gave it at the beginning of their interview:
Donald: Our brains evolved to forget phone numbers for a reason. I'm afraid we'll never be able to simulate human thought until we can simulate forgetting. The way information is lost is as important as the way it is retained.
At the end of the play there is a moment in which Patrick and Clara clearly remember their short time together before the war.
Patrick: I'm sorry, for everything
Clara: I forgive you. Now we can start over.
Then Patrick is removed from Clara's room, and she is tucked in, and falls asleep happily remembering a childhood walk with her father, along the railroad tracks.
The play ends with Clara's clear memory of a sing-song earlier that day, which indicates that the joy of finding her beloved Patrick, and remembering their time together, has temporarily brought her a clarity of mind she has not had for a long time.
Does John Mighton believe that the ravages of age mean that we are living a half life? He answers the question poignantly, midway through the play. Donald is talking with Anna, telling her about the blissful but heartbreaking experience of watching his daughter and her friends dive into the lake. Shouting the names of their dives, he says, "[T]hey will never be happier. I cried for that, because it was so simple and so hard to reproduce-because it would never happen again . . . People should be put to death at age ten. . . What purpose does growing old serve?"
Anna answers: "Maybe the purpose of life isn't ultimately to be happy or to suffer, but to do both at the same time. Children can never experience the incredible bittersweetness of joy and pain at the same time, of life lived in retrospect, the awareness of things passing-for that you need memory-you need to grow old." ò