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A tuneful taste of Dennis Lee, but, alas, no alligators or pie

Mike Ross appears in Civil Elegies at Soulpepper.

photo by Cylla von Tiedemann/

2.5 out of 4 stars

Civil Elegies

  • Written by Dennis Lee
  • Created by Mike Ross and Lorenzo Savoini
  • Directed by Albert Schultz
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto

Civil Elegies is a musical journey through Dennis Lee's poetry created by actor, singer and songwriter Mike Ross and designer Lorenzo Savoini, both recent graduates of the Soulpepper Academy.

Over the past decade, Ross has been privately setting many of the former Toronto poet laureate's verses to music. In Civil Elegies , he publicly premieres about a dozen of these songs in a solo performance, singing them in a melancholy, but hopeful voice and accompanying himself on the piano.

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In between these tunes (they sound like a Canadian cross of Coldplay and Tom Waits), Ross recites almost the entirety of Lee's long 1968 poem Civil Elegies , in which the poet in his late 20s sits in Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square and bemoans a nation that has traded one empire (British) for another (American), a people that "sells [the]land off even before it has owned it."

Meanwhile, Savoini accompanies with a series of suitably elegiac images projected on a brick cityscape. There are black and white photos of some of Lee's Canadian heroes, the activists who stopped the Spadina Expressway and 1837 rebel William Lyon Mackenzie (championed in Spadina and the ballad 1838 respectively), and a free, floating balloon (for Susie Saw the Blue Balloon ). No alligators or pie, however.

With the help of an overhead video camera, Ross also performs some surprising origami with a Tim Hortons coffee cup, which I won't ruin for you.

In his director's notes, Albert Schultz notes that Civil Elegies "is not, in the conventional sense, a play." Indeed, it sits somewhere between cabaret and poetry recital. I only wish it had embraced its lack of theatricality a bit more.

By restricting Ross's solo performance to Lee's words and trying to find a dramatic arc in the material, the evening ends up feeling like a concert where the band leader refuses to say hello to the crowd. Some context and chatter would have been welcome, with Ross opening up to the audience and talking about these poems and why they appeal to him.

Instead, Ross takes on a character, a mournful modern-day Lee, to recite Civil Elegies , which dominates the evening. Dressed in 2009 clothes, this ends up resituating the perspective of the poem in the present.

But do Lee's words still resonate the same today?

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Ross has excised many of the poem's more urgent references to the Vietnam War - Lee was angry that Canadians were congratulating themselves for keeping out of it, at the same time that they were creating napalm and selling it to the United States.

With the political polemic directed at Paul Martin, Secretary of External Affairs, and the "deft emasculation of a country by the Liberal party of Canada" removed, the poem seems a more generalized lament for a nation, a verse companion to George Grant's. (Indeed, Lee was editing Grant's Technology and Empire as he was revising the poem.)

What seems oddly jarring 40 years on is that Civil Elegies was written at a time of rising Canadian nationalism - the Maple Leaf flag, the centennial celebrations, Expo 67 - and yet it rails at the dearth of a nation. Watching the rebirth of Canada, Lee is like Beckett's gravedigger, down in the hole, putting on the forceps.

It would be wishful thinking on my part to say that Lee's one-sided view of Canada - a perpetual colony, psychically disconnected from the land, digging up its riches and shipping them to the Yankees - is no longer prevalent. But I would argue that you are less likely to find a 28-year-old in Toronto today - Ross is about the age Lee was when he wrote the poem - sitting in Nathan Phillips Square asking "whether Canada will be."

The youth of today don't seem to deny that Canada is, or that Toronto is. They see that there is something wrong with looking at a country or a city and describing it as a void because it is not what you want it to be. And they look south of the border (and east and west of the border) and don't see a drain, but a flow - with Tim Hortons, a company sold to Americans, then repatriated, a fair symbol of that.

Even with Ross's edits, Civil Elegies ultimately feels like a relic of another era - if only this show had taken us to it, instead of trying to bring it to us.

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Civil Elegies runs until Dec. 24.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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