Glenn, playwright David Young’s four-hander about Glenn Gould, achieves what many might have imagined impossible: It takes one of the most fascinating figures in Canadian culture and makes him seem dull and irrelevant. At least that’s the impression left by director Diana Leblanc’s trying revival of the 1992 play at Soulpepper.
Glenn features four actors playing the famed pianist at different stages of his life, too neatly encapsulated as follows: the Prodigy (Jeff Lillico), the Performer (Mike Ross), the Perfectionist (Steven Sutcliffe) and the Puritan (Brent Carver).
In a hazily defined stage world, these Goulds dialogue with one another across the years, challenging and goading one another over a series of 32 scenes that hopscotch from the solitude of Lake Simcoe to the madness of Manhattan.
Yes, like François Girard’s 1993 film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Young’s play borrows its dramatic architecture from Bach’s Goldberg Variations – which the pianist famously recorded at the beginning and end of his career.
There must have been something in the water in the early 1990s – but in this case, the structure seems too clever by half.
Theatre can certainly find inspiration from musical compositions – Michel Tremblay’s classic À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou, for instance, was influenced by a Brahms string quartet.
Neither is there anything wrong with slicing up a character and spreading him or her out between actors – see, also, Tremblay and his masterpiece Albertine, en cinq temps.
Glenn, however, shoehorns Gould’s life and legacy into an unsuitable framework, making for a play that is choppy and seems to go on and on pointlessly.
Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations was just over 38 minutes long, while his 1981 version is a relatively languid 51 minutes.
Leblanc’s production of Glenn, meanwhile, stretches to two hours and 40 minutes.
Despite its length, Young’s play is superficial. Those who know little about Gould will leave confused about basic facts about the pianist and his significance. The various Goulds, for instance, consistently talk to an unseen Jessie without Young ever deigning to offer an explanation of who she was (his cousin and confidante), while names such as Barbra Streisand are dropped without explanation or contextualization. (The play seems to accept that it was one of Gould’s “eccentricities” that he might be interested in classical music and also admire artists such as Streisand and Petula Clark – whereas, in that kind of omnivorousness, he was simply ahead of his time.)
Stories from Gould’s life are occasionally told in full – the trauma of being taught to fish at Lake Simcoe; the challenges of playing on a desert-dried piano in Tel Aviv – but here the play lapses into conventional monologues that, lacking a place in narrative arc, come off merely as undigested anecdotes.
Much of the play is taken up by unilluminating metaphysical interactions between the Goulds, playing guessing games with one another or putting on accents to play cab drivers or psychologists.
Certainly, Carver is a compelling presence as the oldest Gould, dubbed the Puritan here – the actor’s trademark hesitant line delivery lining up nicely with Gould’s musical emphasis on the space between notes. But Ross’s Gould (the Performer) has, oddly, the least stage presence of the four, while Lillico is at times cloying incarnating Gould as a child.
The only Gould who really arouses any significant dramatic interest is the Perfectionist – played by Sutcliffe with swagger and a sense of superiority that suggest he’s just looking for a punch in the face. This Gould’s ideas about the intimacy of technology, the close relationship between listener and recording (compared to the distraction and blood sport of live performance) and his championing of the splice seem incredibly forward-thinking.
Because theatre is an art form that still sells itself on an outdated ideology of liveness, however, the Perfectionist comes off as potentially misguided.
But Young does pose interesting questions: Did Gould’s eccentricities as a performer really distract from the music, or did they help to draw more listeners to it? And did he stop performing in concert halls because his ideas about music changed, or did his ideas about performing change because he had to stop touring?
There’s much to admire in Monica Dottor’s elegant choreography, but Leblanc’s staging amid a maze of chairs and benches doesn’t add any cohesiveness to Young’s text.
You can see what she and designer Martha Mann were aiming at – again, Gould’s emphasis on the empty space in between – but that doesn’t stop the set from looking like a foggy yard sale.
Gould is more than a piece of Canadiana from a bygone era – hopefully a new generation of artists will find ways to mine his ongoing relevance.