Here’s an idea for a drama: A playwright writes a play about a famously controlling prime minister with a reputation for punishing people who cross him, only to have the play refused by producers who fear being punished by the famously controlling prime minister.
This is one interpretation of what’s been going on lately in the life of Michael Healey, the award-winning playwright who resigned a few months ago from Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre after 11 years as a playwright-in-residence. In January, Healey took an early draft of his latest work, Proud, the third in a trilogy of dramas about “Canadian societal virtues,” to Richard Rose, the artistic director of Tarragon and a professional collaborator of Healey’s for nearly 20 years. The play features an unnamed character called “the Prime Minister.”
“I’m using the Prime Minister and this government to discuss the things I want to discuss,” Healey says, “Which are: What do we want out of our politicians? What kind of relationship do we want to have with each other as citizens, expressed through our politics?” Proud is a comic work, but it has serious intentions. “My entire focus was to get as close to understanding Stephen Harper’s behaviour as possible, and to actually create a sympathetic character. Because I just don’t think it’s interesting to present a demonized version of somebody who I believe cares deeply about the job he’s doing.”
To Healey’s surprise, however, a retired lawyer and long-time member of the Tarragon board named John McKellar (he’s also the father of actor/writer/director Don McKellar) raised concerns about the play: It was potentially libellous and possibly defamatory to Stephen Harper. Healey immediately obtained an independent legal opinion from Peter Jacobsen, a libel specialist (he also advises The Globe and Mail on libel issues). Jacobsen assured him the play was clearly satire and therefore fair comment.
The play did not defame Stephen Harper, he said: “He’d have to be able to prove that the reasonable man, or person, could really think the character was really him, the Prime Minister.”
Rose still chose not to take on the play. So Healey resigned and went public with his story, asserting that the Tarragon was intimidated by the prospect of losing federal-government funding.
“They’re extremely good at controlling the message,” Healey says of the Prime Minister’s Office. “I think they’re so good at controlling the message, they have the board of Tarragon doing it for them.”
Rose has publicly denied that he turned down Healey’s play for fear of losing funding. The rest of the arts community has been wary, however, since the Toronto SummerWorks Festival saw its federal funding cut last year after it produced Homegrown – a play that, the PMO said, “glorified terrorism.”
Beyond his decision to drop the play, Rose refuses to talk about the “unfortunate situation,” on the grounds, he explains in a letter, that “the artists at the theatre rely on my confidentiality for us to have meaningful ongoing working relationships.”
Nevertheless, his silence raises the possibility that Rose felt Healey’s play was not good or commercial enough to stage – implications John McKellar will neither confirm nor dispel. “This is all part of a larger question,” McKellar says. “Should the play be put on?” Asked if he thinks Proud is a good or even funny play, the lawyer replies: “a very interesting question.”
To let readers make up their own minds, The Globe hereby presents an excerpt from Proud. A public reading of the entire play will be staged Monday, at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Healey hopes to use the publicity – he admits the controversy stokes it – to raise money for the theatre. Theatre Passe Muraille has lost a month's worth of income since Mary Walsh, who was scheduled to do a one-woman show, fell ill with pneumonia.
Proud begins shortly after the 2011 federal election, under fictionalized circumstances: Instead of the NDP winning 59 seats in Quebec, those seats have gone to the Conservatives, giving them a truly massive majority.
The action revolves around three main characters: the Prime Minister (clearly Stephen Harper), a fictional chief of staff named Cary and a newly elected first-time Conservative backbencher from Quebec, Jisbella Lyth. (“Call me Jis if you want,” she tells the PM, to which he replies “I most certainly will not.”)
Editor's Note: The performance slated for Monday will raise money for Theatre Passe Muraille. Incorrect information appeared in Saturday's article.