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An insider’s look at CIVIL ELEGIES with guest blogger DENNIS LEE

Mike Ross performing Civil Elegies
Mike Ross

The 1972 Governor General’s Award-winning work of poet Dennis Lee is brought to life by Soulpepper Academy graduates Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini, dramatized and set to music in a way that speaks to the heart of what Canada was, is and could be.

December 3 to December 24, 2009

Directed by Albert Schultz
Featuring Mike Ross

Buy tickets; read the rave Toronto Star review; watch a video preview of the show.



If you read the Anansi blog, you’re probably someone who connects with words in a serious way. So let me dive in and talk about the theatrical version of Civil Elegies in that spirit. Not as bumpf, but as reflection on a genuine theatrical achievement.

When Mike Ross approached me about putting the Elegies on stage, I thought he was wonderfully audacious, but also out of his mind. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know why. It consists of 9 longish meditations. The speaker is located in the great square in front of Toronto’s New City Hall. And he’s wrestling with his civil belonging: as a Torontonian, and a Canadian. So there’s a whole lot of internal action—but bugger-all external action. The butler didn’t do it; he isn’t there to begin with, and nothing gets “done” in a conventional sense. How do you make a dramatic show out of that?

Well, Mike did it. With the help of Lorenzo Savoini, his designer pal and partner in crime. And with the resources of the Soulpepper ensemble, notably the director’s eye of Albert Schultz. What I’d like to do here is explore some of the artistic decisions that (for me) make the thing work. And since I have no talent as a dramatist myself, I’m coming to this—surprisingly, since I wrote all the words in the show—as an outsider.

1. The first decision was this: they would not attempt to translate the whole poem into some dramatic equivalent. Instead, they would create a new, quasi-dramatic path through the terrain of the Elegies—one that worked on stage. That may not have been a conscious decision right at the outset, but it’s the approach they found their way to. I’m immensely glad they did.

You can narrow this down to a very technical decision. If you’re trying to “do justice” to the poem that exists on the page (the approach that’s bound to produce a tedious piece of theatre), you start by asking, “What can we leave out, without damaging the original too drastically?” And of course the answer is, You can’t leave anything out. Everything’s there for a poetic reason. That way lies total frustration. So eventually you have to flip the whole approach over—and ask, “What are we going to include, to give us a bracing dramatic movement through the poem’s central concerns?” Anything that doesn’t advance that cause is out.

That’s what they ended up doing. Using carefully chosen passages. they’ve found one possible route through the world of the poem. Is it the only route? Of course not. Is it the best route? Impossible to say. But is it a route that gives us a deepening wrestle with what it means to be part of a community, a “human body of kind”? Definitely. That plucky decision—to respect the integrity of words-on-the-stage, not be hobbled by the (equal) integrity of words-on-the-page—was the key to the whole shebang.

2. The second thing that makes the show work, to my mind, is the artfulness of the music. Mike had been setting poems of mine for almost ten years. These were poems that rhyme and scan: some from the children’s books, but also pieces from The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets, Nicholas Knock, and other books with an older age-range.

There were about 40 of these songs by the time he tackled Civil Elegies, and it was obvious that he could use them as a kind of counterpoint. The passages from the Elegies would be spoken; the songs (since Mike is just as strong a musician as he is an actor) would be sung. And what he did was to zero in on the songs that resonate with particular emotions or hunches in the Elegies. That gives a surprisingly textured feel to the show. When we switch from the poetry to a song, we’re getting a chance to explore a pool of feeling, in a form we can relax into. Some of the connections between song and poem were things I’d never spotted myself, even though I wrote the words in both cases. For me, that was one of the delights of the show—to discover links and cross-hatchings in my own stuff for the first time.

Dennis Lee
Dennis Lee

3. A final element that makes the show work, it seems to me, is the human presence of Mike Ross on the stage. There’s an unusual quality that comes across: of an open heart, a somewhat bruised, wry vulnerability that is still dedicated to exploring the deep dimensions of being human. And that’s something Mike simply conveys as he goes about his work on the stage. It doesn’t strike us as a virtuoso piece of acting; it’s much more immediate and gut-level than that.

I do know that it was Albert Schultz who encouraged Mike to rely on that open immediacy he brings. And to discard anything in the original conception that gussied it up, got in the way. Albert had done Hamlet a few years previously, and his experience with the great soliloquies gave him a sense of how the audience will connect with a character, in the act of discovering what he thinks and feels. He encouraged Mike to treat the Elegies almost as a series of soliloquies, with the intervening “action” silently subtracted. Which cleared the way for Mike to give this resonant, even haunting performance.

Those are three of the elements I’ve seen take shape, as I eavesdropped on the growth of a remarkable show. It’s connecting with audiences in a galvanizing way; and it’s giving me back a poem I started writing more than 40 years ago, in a renewed form.

Thanks Mike, and Lorenzo, and Albert.

Dennis Lee

(Thank you, Dennis, for the lovely and insightful post. Readers — if you haven’t seen the show yet, go on, buy tickets! And if you have seen it, do tell us what you thought! -ed.)

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