Canadian Identity in David French's "Mercer Plays"

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“The culture of a nation is said to be the expression of the character of that nation. Canadian culture is held to be the mirror that reflects the lives, histories, and identities of Canadians.” (Statistics Canada)Over the course of our country’s existence there has been an ongoing debate of whether or not Canada has its own national identity. Some would argue that it doesn’t, and that its lack of identity is what helps the country to be more welcoming and culturally vast, while others would argue that it is exactly this type of adaptation to other cultures that is distinctly Canadian and therefore a trait of our national identity.“When the word ‘culture’ is combined with the adjective ‘Canadian,’ the problem is compounded. It is made even more difficult when ‘culture’ is combined with ‘identity’ in such phrases as ‘the cultural identity of Canadians.” (Mathews, 7) So what is our identity? What about us makes us distinctly Canadian? We like our beer and our hockey, is that it? According to one playwright from Newfoundland, there’s much more than that. David French was born in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland in 1939, and moved to Toronto with his family when he was just 6 years old. Even though he moved away at such a young age, the province, town, and the people have a significant impact on his works, especially in the ‘Mercer’ plays. “I remember the first six years of my life vividly” said David French in an article for the Halifax Herald in 1999. He has experienced two different cultures in his lifetime, that of the Newfoundlander, and that of the Torontonian, and those six years greatly influenced French’s work, specifically Leaving Home, Of the Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon, 1949 and Soldier’s Heart. At first glance one might think that the plays revolve around Newfoundland’s nationalism during its pre-Confederation period, but on closer inspection you’ll see that they aren’t just about Newfoundland, but about Canada’s history, and much of what actually makes up the Canadian identity. Each of these plays debuted at the Tarragon theatre in Toronto, under the direction of Bill Glassco. Leaving Home practically saved the Tarragon from financial ruin in its first years of business. Torontonians were drawn to the Tarragon, because anyone who can call themselves Canadian have something to relate to in the Mercer plays. Toronto and Newfoundland may be worlds away from each other, but family is family, war is war, love is love...wherever we are in Canada. David French not only exhibits what it is to be Canadian in all of his Mercer plays, but he also makes his Canadian readers appreciate being from this wonderful country.

Canada is a relatively young country, and has been overwhelmed with the neighbouring, and older, United States, whose national identity is said to dominate us and prevent us from having our own. “Canadian identity lives in a process of tension and argument, a conflict of opposites which often stalemate, often are forced to submit to compromise (mostly to the United States’ standards), but which – so far in our history – have not ended in final resolution.” (Mathews, 1) However, our identity becomes a little clearer as French addresses several things which, although not totally specific to Canadians, can be easily identified with: geography, religion, European heritage, political issues and participation in the wars, as well as cultural traditions and values. In Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately, we see two sides of Canadian identity: Jacob, the strong, surly carpenter from Newfoundland, who still has his accent, is old fashioned, ignorant but sensitive, stubborn and arrogant, and Ben, who is distinctly more urbanized than Jacob, more modern, and less traditional, but still stubborn and arrogant. With these two characters we are introduced to several themes of Canadian identity; changing family values, and the dichotomy between rural and urban, i.e. the differences between Newfoundland and Toronto. In...
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