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Giving Up the Toy Plane for the Cane
by Jerry Wasserman

Staring out from the front cover of Talonbooks' published playtext of Billy Bishop Goes to War is a photo from the original 1978 production: a slim, young Eric Peterson stands before a Union Jack. Resplendent in his First World War Royal Flying Corps uniform and sporting a full head of wavy hair, he gazes into the distance with a half-smile on his face and his right arm outstretched, his hand open as if to grab the coveted prize.

This is Billy Bishop as the once bumbling, small-town Canadian kid in the process of becoming a national hero and international celebrity. Shooting down seventy-two German planes, winning the Victoria Cross, finding himself, in the lyrics of an Act Two song, "Breakfasting/With Queens and Kings,/Dining with Lords and Earls", this Bishop manages to suppress the few misgivings he might have. His own role as an instrument of colonial Britain and his transformation into an efficient killing machine give him brief pause. So do the deaths of many friends and a few foe, and the imminence of a second great war so soon after the first. At the play's end, he can still enthusiastically affirm, with barely a hint of irony, that "it was a hell of a time!"

This is also Eric Peterson, on behalf of Canada, about to conquer the international theatre world. With playwright and director John Gray accompanying on piano, Billy Bishop Goes to War emerged from the obscurity of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, a converted neighbourhood church, to be discovered by Mike Nichols, open on Broadway, and play Washington, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, and London to rave reviews and numerous awards. (Among Peterson's honours was the prestigious Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Male Actor in New York, won previously by George C. Scott and Gene Hackman.) No longer "a modest little show," John Gray wrote, "suddenly we were an international property with Canada's theatrical self-esteem in our care." In 1982, they came back to Canada, disillusioned but triumphant, surfing the last wave of post-Centennial nationalism. Despite lasting only a week on Broadway, they had temporarily quenched Canadian theatre's long thirst for world-class status. "Billy Bishop lands safely", ran the headline in The Globe and Mail.


I can't believe

How young we were back then

One thing's for sure,

We'll never be that young again.

Billy Bishop Goes to War and its creators returned to Vancouver last November, the second stop on their current national tour, which began in September in Toronto and will continue on to Winnipeg and London, Ontario, before finishing its run in Ottawa in May. The play opened at the upscale Playhouse twenty years to the month after their premiere at the modest Cultch. Much has changed since that first opening night when Donna Summer's disco version of "MacArthur Park" was number one, and Peterson and Gray were in their early thirties. Reconceiving the play for this remount, they realized that they were the same age now as Bishop was at the end of the original play when he addresses the troops on the eve of World War II. So they decided to have Peterson play Bishop as a fifty-year-old and present the play in flashback.

Once again the Union Jack fills the cyclorama. But this time, the uniform hangs on a coat stand. The middle-aged man who once wore it now wears a suit, topcoat, and homburg. Entering what looks vaguely like a Legion hall, nervously rehearsing his speech to the new recruits, he could be the after-dinner speaker at a Kiwanis roast. When Peterson-Bishop removes his hat, the slicked-back hair is thinner. The dapper little moustache looks the same, but the cheeks are more jowly and he's carrying some baggage under his eyes. Later, when he puts on the uniform jacket, it refuses to button across his waist. As he pours a scotch for himself and one for Gray at the piano, the melancholy, minor key notes of the opening song begin to play. The downbeat music belies the upbeat lyric, the flat rhyme underlining the tragic naiveté of a generation:

We were off to fight the Hun,

And it looked like lots of fun.

Somehow it didn't seem like war at all, at all, at all.

Somehow it didn't seem like war at all.

In the original version, Peterson's Bishop was all wide-eyed enthusiasm, experiencing everything with the intensity of wartime youthfulness in a kind of perpetual present, his thin voice almost cracking with amazement. Peterson set Bishop's internal energy level very high, as if he might at any moment take off without the aid of a plane. He could be wryly self-deprecating and had a keen eye for the absurd, but he was almost never introspective. After all, as he observes in what may be the show's strongest musical number, the chilling cabaret of "The Lovely Hélène", the key to survival is not to think or feel too much: "Remember, war's not the place for deep emotion,/And maybe you'll get a little older."

In the new version, having successfully gotten older, Peterson's Bishop is physically and vocally weightier and more measured, as though gravity had caught up with him. Having survived the war, he bears the ambivalence of retrospection, the relief and guilt of having lived when so many didn't.

Friends ain't s'posed to die 'til they're old

And friends ain't s'posed to die in pain.

No one should die alone when he is twenty-one,

And living shouldn't make you feel ashamed.

Free of the need for emotional self-containment but with the warrior's survival reflex still partly intact, he allows himself a slightly wider range of expression. It emerges mostly as residual bitterness. With each verse of the lovely Hélène's caustic lesson ("And he never got out alive,/No,/He didn't survive"), Peterson kicks over one of the empty chairs that occupy most of stage right and are otherwise unacknowledged during the play (Bishop's ghostly audience?). His recitation of "The Dying of Albert Ball", the Robert Service-style paean to the greatest of the British flyers, builds to a cynical, powerful conclusion. And now when he ends the play, "it was a hell of a time" is inflected with memories that have haunted him for two decades.

One thing that hasn't changed is the brilliance of Eric Peterson's performance. His timing is exquisite; he works pauses like a jazz musician ("Did you ever have to eat a spider?" pause "In public?"). And he still moves seamlessly among the eighteen characters he plays without costume changes or any effects other than voice, posture, a twist of the mouth or cast of the eye. His upper-class British twit caricatures are screamingly funny: the hapless Sir Hugh interviewing Bishop for the RFC ("we must see to it that all candidates possess the necessary qualifications, should the War Office ever decide what those qualification are"); the condescending Lady St. Helier offering her Cowardesque rap on Bishop's "colonial mentality" ("Why don't you grow up,/Before I throw up?").

John Gray at the piano remains stalwart in support. His sound effects are especially dynamic, from the terrifying ping! ping! of an incoming torpedo, to the exhilarating dragonfly motif of the scout fighter that makes Bishop want to soar up out of the mud, to the horrific idea of what men falling from a plane would sound like when they hit the ground. Gray's voice has lost some of his upper range, but to criticize it would be as pointless as criticizing Leonard Cohen's.

Gray's script has lost none of its range, but some of its meanings have shifted perceptibly. Bishop's exploitation by an imperial power no longer resonates the way it did in 1978 when Canadian theatre was at the cutting edge of a still potent cultural nationalism. At that time, the play presented itself as revisionist history in the style of Theatre Passe Muraille, with which Gray and Peterson had most recently worked. Today, those elements of the play seem to function rather as comic relief for the more serious and more interesting themes involving a young man coming of age and losing his innocence in war. (The nationalist baggage the play carries may be reflected in the Playhouse Theatre's bizarre ad for the show: a cartoon biplane featuring a co-pilot who looks remarkably like Brian Mulroney.)

Billy Bishop's theme of war also has a different feel. When the play first appeared, Vietnam was still a very fresh wound. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now were the big movies of 1978-79. Gray complained that people would ignore him when he insisted that the play was not about whether war was a good or bad thing. What stands out in the new production is the Catch-22 absurdity, the kind that makes "military intelligence" seem like an oxymoron, along with an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy. Bishop's first taste of blood, like Hamlet's, turns him into a prolific killer. The nihilistic tango of "The Empire Soirée" ("We'll all dance the dance of history") echoes Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." The meanings of the play are embodied in the figures of Bishop and the Piano Player: two old soldiers drinking at the Legion; the embarrassing old uncle at a wedding who gets a little pissed, makes a spectacle of himself on the dance floor, and insists on telling his (groan) war stories again. But unlike the wedding guest, these guys give us access to the history they are full of, and to the heroism, and the pain, and the shame.

Not everything about the show thrilled me. The 800-seat Playhouse with its large proscenium stage seemed too big. Even sitting relatively close, I lost some of the wonderful subtleties of Peterson's face when he played scenes far upstage. Billy Bishop remains, in Gray's words, "a modest little show", and it would be better served by a more intimate space. One of the most memorable elements of the original production was the way Bishop enacted his first solo flight and first kill using a hand-held toy plane. No longer appropriate for the middle-aged Bishop, that device has been scrapped in this production in favour of a cane that he balances for the solo flight and a flag he unfurls like wings for the kill. While interesting, neither seems as perfect a visual and personal metaphor as the original. My least favourite new idea is a harness-like device that drops down from the flies on bungie cords and lifts Peterson into the air for Bishop's solo raid on the aerodrome. This is the only moment in the show that uses the machinery of Big Theatre. It's not quite the chandelier falling in The Phantom, but I'd have preferred something more imaginatively simple.

On the other hand, the slides of unbearably young men in uniform accompanying the show's most poignant song, "Friends Ain't S'posed to Die", was also a new effect. The slides came from Eaton's Honour Roll, Gray told me, a commemoration of their employees who were killed in World War One. It made for one of the most moving experiences I've had in the theatre this decade.


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