A very familiar figure has parked himself on stage these days at Soulpepper’s home in Toronto’s Distillery District: The props department has cleverly produced its own version of the iconic bronze statue of musician Glenn Gould in cap and coat that sits on a bench outside the CBC building on Front Street.
“What’s this made of?” asks playwright David Young as he fingers the statue, discovering that the faux bronze is surprisingly soft to the touch. Whatever the mysterious material may be, he poses amiably with the fake Gould; after all, Gould is an icon that has presided over much of the 68-year-old dramatist’s theatrical career.
Soulpepper is currently reviving Young’s best-known play, Glenn, a 1992 four-hander in which Gould is represented at four different psychological stages of his career. The complex play was an artistic success when it was first mounted by Necessary Angel Theatre, setting a more sophisticated standard for stage biographies than the usual confessional monologues. But, let’s face it, if the script has been performed everywhere from Stratford, Ont., to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands, the continuing international fascination with the eccentric figure of Gould has a lot to do with it.
“He’s an enduring enigma. We understand how singular he was, how astonishing his talent was, and also his modesty, his humility, very Canadian,” Young says. “He’s sort of like that slightly odd uncle that everybody has, who is loved by all, difficult to understand, but somehow he has something we all wish we had. I am not just talking about music talent, but about that ability to commune with the great unknown.”
World-renowned as a pianist but also recognized for his writing on music and technology, Gould was as much a philosopher as anything else, Young believes. He first had the idea for the play – his third of seven to date – when he encountered the mature Gould’s wry dismissal of his youthful recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
“He didn’t identify with the spirit of the person who made that recording and in his very derogatory, dry way, he said, ‘There was an awful lot of piano playing in that recording.’ You know, the blindly fast, beautiful, change-the-world-of-classical music recording. ‘Quite a bit of piano playing.’ The seed [for the script] was: Wouldn’t it be fantastic if he actually met that guy, if he could encounter the soul of that guy he didn’t identify with.”
And so Young wrote a play in which the eccentric perfectionist, who has retreated into the recording studio, can argue with the energetic youth who thrills the concertgoers. Through the years a Who’s Who of Canadian stage actors have assayed the roles, sometimes graduating up through the ages; this time out, Jeff Lillico plays the youthful Prodigy, Mike Ross plays the maturing Performer, Steven Sutcliffe plays the increasingly eccentric Perfectionist and Brent Carver is the late-life Puritan.
“He was a very complicated, interesting animal. … Underneath the great philosophical structure he built up was the man and his issues, his way of connecting with the world,” Young said, noting how Gould developed his prescient theories about recorded music partly to protect himself from the nerve-racking experience of performing concerts.
With four actors playing different facets of one person, a structure based on the Variations themselves and a lot of philosophy to boot, the original script benefited greatly from a long gestation period under director Richard Rose at the Necessary Angel Theatre company. As Soulpepper lavishes resources on it 22 years later, Young feels director Diana Leblanc may be about to give the play its definitive production.
“The big difference is Soulpepper. They have the resources here; you get six weeks of rehearsal. I never get six weeks of rehearsal.”
Long development periods and well-funded revivals are both luxuries in Canadian theatre. Young, whose most recent new play was his 2004 adaptation of the Alistair MacLeod novel No Great Mischief, is sitting on a multimedia piece about the Renaissance painter Caravaggio that is just waiting for a theatre company with the money to develop it. He is also hoping he may some day see a revival of Inexpressible Island, his 1997 play about the scientific arm of the Scott Antarctic expedition that is, after Glenn, his great philosophical drama. In between plays, he was trying to break into television scriptwriting but gave it up as a bad job.
“It’s supposed to be the golden age of television – not in Canada,” he says, bemoaning the green-light process where a writer pours his heart into a script that only a handful of people have read before a TV executive announces: “No, we are going to do the one about doctors.”
Instead, he has turned to literary fiction, retreating to an island on Georgian Bay to work on a project he will only describe as “a novel about the transformative power of art” and “half-cocked.”
He also volunteers with the development charity Dignitas International, a Canadian group that works on AIDS/HIV research and education projects in Malawi. He was there earlier this year, filming a local theatre company performing a play about sexual behaviour, and will return in October to screen the film as part of a pilot project that would use screenings to trigger community discussions about AIDS. He describes his African experience as transformative, confirming his sentiment that what led him to Gould was a shared sense that life is a spiritual quest.
“Gould’s world put an engine in me. … Coming back to the play, I had forgotten how much his thought changed me. It permeates my thinking. … The sense that the task of being a human being is the lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. I guess I feel I am a bit of a seeker myself.”
Glenn runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts from Sept. 2 to Oct. 1 (soulpepper.ca).
The David Young play Inexpressible Island concerned the fate of the scientific arm of the Robert Scott Antarctic expedition, not the Ernest Shackleton expedition as incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this article.