How big was Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s? The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed the University of Toronto professor “the hottest academic property around,” and the line “Marshall McLuhan, whatcha doin'?” was featured on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, delivered by a giggling Goldie Hawn.
Here’s the thing about McLuhan that nobody likes to talk about, though: In 1967, at age 56, he underwent surgery for the removal of a benign growth in his head. The operation – described by McLuhan biographer Douglas Coupland as a "gross insult to the brain” – extended his life, but may have cost him some of his genius.
Recently I came across a story about the time McLuhan met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Canada in 1969. For an interview organized by the CBC, the eccentric communications theorist talked to the rock-star couple about their "War is Over” media campaign. He was intrigued not by the duo’s peace message but the medium that carried it: Billboards.
McLuhan seemed a bit off his game. “I just sort of wonder how the ‘War is Over,’ the wording, the whole thinking,” McLuhan began the interview, stumbling from the get-go. “What happened?” Lennon answered that the basic idea was Ono’s, and that they had an idea for Christmas that was a “bit too vast,” but that something would happen, “maybe,” in the following year.
And so it went – a real egghead fandango. McLuhan, the darling of the elbow-patch-and-turtleneck set, wasn’t going to get to the bottom of the ideas held by Lennon and Ono. In his absent-minded state, he sometimes had a tough enough time getting to the bottom of his own. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say," McLuhan once said. He was, jokes a character in a curious new play by Jason Sherman, "a man of a thousand ideas, three of them completed.”
The Message – the title is taken from McLuhan’s oft-quoted maxim, “the medium is the message” – opens on Nov. 14 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The play has a long and controversial history. Fifteen years ago, The Message was scheduled to kick off Tarragon’s 2003-04 season. But after reading a draft of the play, McLuhan’s eldest son Eric and the estate’s literary agent, Matie Molinaro, objected to some of the content and threatened to sue Sherman.
As a result, The Message was put on the shelf. Sherman, a Governor-General’s Literary Award winner, busied himself with other projects. For the last decade, he’s concentrated on writing for radio and television. But, earlier this year, out of the blue, it was announced that Sherman had returned to Tarragon as its playwright-in-residence and that The Message was being dusted off for its long-awaited world premiere. Questions abounded: What took so long? Why now? What about the lawsuit? In short, whatcha doin', Jason Sherman?
Initially, Sherman wasn’t interested in giving answers. The Message had undergone significant alterations since its contentious beginnings 15 years earlier, I was told by Tarragon Theatre, and Sherman didn’t want to talk about the play just yet. Fair enough. I interviewed him for a short feature about his return to writing for the stage with the understanding that we’d talk about The Message closer to its premiere.
A couple of weeks before The Message was set to open, however, I was informed by Tarragon that Sherman was game to talk about the play but not too interested in revisiting the past lawsuit and original objections of the McLuhan estate. That is his prerogative, of course, so I turned my attention to the McLuhan estate. Turns out the three main objectors to Sherman’s play back in 2003 – son Eric, literary agent Molinaro and McLuhan’s wife Corinne – are all dead now. I called his son Michael, the estate’s executor.
“I wouldn’t pay to see it,” said the son, with a laugh, speaking from his farm near Owen Sound, Ont. “I don’t care enough. This play will be gone long before my dad’s memory.”
Michael McLuhan wasn’t involved in the dust-up 15 years ago. He couldn’t really remember what upset his family so much back then, except that his mother was “appalled” at the way her husband was portrayed. “I’m not interested in having a lily-white picture,” he told me. “But we should have a true picture of that person.”
After speaking with Michael McLuhan, I rang Sherman. He wasn’t much help on the matter either. “I definitely recall a very terse phone call from Eric McLuhan,” said Sherman, speaking about the original dispute, “in which he threw a number of adjectives at the play.”
“He told me his father never swore,” said Sherman. “That goes to his character, so I revised that."
Asked what else he’d changed about the play, Sherman said the structure had stayed the same, but that he’d developed a deeper understanding of McLuhan’s theories over the years. “I’m not out to make anyone look foolish,” said the playwright. “[That would be] an awful waste of everyone’s time.”
Eric McLuhan, an academic and author who followed in his father’s footprints, died earlier this year but he was still alive when Sherman first decided to resurrect The Message a year ago. Sherman, though, wasn’t about to contact him about the revised play. “It was clear he didn’t want anything to do with me after he read the original version of the play,” said the playwright.
After speaking with Sherman and Michael McLuhan, I took in a preview performance of The Message last week. The play’s tone is crisp and surreal. The McLuhan played by R.H. Thomson is erratic and forgetful. The play takes place in the last year of the media guru’s life, after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1979. The story is told through flashbacks, in which McLuhan is quite clearly not at the height of his intellectual power. And while it is natural that the estate wouldn’t be pleased with this portrait, there’s no reason to think that Sherman’s conjectured image of McLuhan isn’t based in fact, or that it is arrived at maliciously or recklessly.
So, where does this leave Sherman with the McLuhans? Probably nowhere. The playwright is not interested in dealing with the estate. “I made one approach to the family,” Sherman said, referring to the 2003 version of The Message. “It didn’t turn out too well.”
Michael McLuhan, for his part, is chill. “I’m more relaxed about these things than mum was,” he said. “Nobody’s offered, but sure, I’d be interested in taking a read through the new script.”
Who knows. Perhaps the war is over.