Long before there was a concerted push for gender parity in Canadian theatre, there was John Murrell. The Calgary-based playwright and librettist, who died of leukemia on Nov. 11 at the age of 74, played a vital role in bringing women’s stories and female actors to the stage.
Mr. Murrell’s breakthrough play, the wartime homefront drama Waiting for the Parade, owes much of its enduring popularity to its empathetic writing but also to the fact that it filled the stage with five rich and varied female characters. After its premiere in the late 1970s, the joke was that Mr. Murrell had single-handedly created more work for unemployed Canadian actresses than anyone else.
He would follow it with autumnal portraits of female genius, including the international success Memoir, about actress Sarah Bernhardt, and The Faraway Nearby, about painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Later, in the operas Filumena and Lillian Alling, Mr. Murrell turned obscure immigrant women into tragic heroines worthy of Puccini.
“His great gift was in writing female characters,” said Stratford Festival legend Martha Henry, who played her fair share of them, from the restless frontier prostitute in 1982’s Farther West to the brilliant literary professor in 2013’s Taking Shakespeare. “He always gave them agency and wit. He made them complicated, puzzling and sexy. They were forces to be dealt with.”
In a 2016 interview with Calgary theatre critic Stephen Hunt, Mr. Murrell explained that he found women more mysterious and a greater challenge to write about. “There’s more that I have to discover and lots that remains undiscoverable by a male writer,” he said.
“Plus, I love seeing and hearing women perform,” he added. “I find the immediacy of a female actor, generally speaking, blows male actors out of the water.”
Bob White, former artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects, where Mr. Murrell launched his career, suspects the writer also had an affinity with women as outsiders in a patriarchal society. “He always felt that he was the outsider himself, in terms of Canadian playwrights,” added Mr. White, now the head of new-play development at Stratford. “He had an odd sense of his position in the country and where his works stood.”
It’s ironic, given that Mr. Murrell was regarded as a Canadian theatre icon. His work won the big awards, was seen at the Stratford and Shaw festivals and produced on the main stages of the country’s major theatres. As a librettist he wrote, in Filumena, that rare thing: a popular Canadian opera. Among many honours, he was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2003 and received the Governor-General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2008.
In his administrative career, he headed the Canada Council’s theatre section and ran the Banff Centre’s playwriting colony and, later, its theatre arts department. He was a generous and devoted mentor to younger playwrights, Mr. White said, and unfailing in his encouragement.
Perhaps it was his outsider streak that led him, as an established older playwright in the 1990s, to latch onto Calgary’s daring, impudent avant-garde troupe, One Yellow Rabbit. It was a long and loving association that benefited both, even as OYR itself became an established mainstay of the city’s theatre community.
“We were not very reverent with John and he liked that,” said OYR ensemble member Denise Clarke, who became a dear friend. “He loved to frolic with us and be naughty. While he enjoyed being regarded by people as the ‘grand old man,’ it was really not what he was at all.”
Mr. Murrell’s feeling that he was an outsider may have stemmed from his childhood. He was born on Oct. 15, 1945, in Lubbock, Tex., the second son of James and Lona (Forgus) Murrell, and grew up in Portales, N.M. His father, a furniture-store owner, died when John was a small boy and his mother later remarried. By his early teens, he had left home and was living on his own. He later recalled those years as ones of solitary intellectual pursuit, in which he devoured Shakespeare and the classics and listened avidly to opera on the radio.
He went on to study fine arts at Southwestern University in Texas, where he wrote his first plays (including a comedy about the Roman emperor Nero) and met fellow student Cindy Galbreath. They were married in June of 1968 and moved to Canada so that Mr. Murrell could study for an education degree at the University of Calgary. He taught junior high school, first in the small town of Hanna, Alta., and then back in Calgary, where he, Cindy and their two-year-old daughter Meg settled in 1971.
Mr. Murrell had arrived at just the right time. Theatre Calgary, the city’s first professional theatre company, had been founded only a few years previously and a second, Alberta Theatre Projects, would open in 1972. ATP, headquartered in Calgary’s Heritage Park, was dedicated to dramatizing local history and needed plays. Mr. Murrell was ready to write them.
After winning the University of Alberta’s Clifford E. Lee Award for his evangelist drama Power in the Blood, ATP hired him in 1975 to be its playwright-in-residence. His first play for ATP was a work about Bible-thumping Alberta premier William Aberhart called A Great Noise, A Great Light. It made no great impression. But the second play was a different matter.
Assigned to craft a local piece on the Second World War, Mr. Murrell found himself drawn, not to the veterans’ stories, but to those of the women who kept the home fires burning. He interviewed them with the help of co-researcher Gail Blackhall, then wove their memories of the war years into Waiting for the Parade. It premiered in 1977 and, although initial critical response was lukewarm, it touched a chord with audiences. Theatres across Canada picked it up, a 1979 production at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre toured the country, and versions were broadcast by the CBC both on radio and television.
Even as that play was taking off nationally, Mr. Murrell was enjoying an unexpected triumph abroad. Memoir, his lyrical, gently humorous play about the dying Sarah Bernhardt, had become a vehicle for celebrated actors, including Ireland’s Siobhan McKenna, who played the role in Dublin and London, and France’s Delphine Seyrig, who starred in a French-language version that ran for three years in Paris.
Back home, Mr. Murrell caused a stir with the 1982 Theatre Calgary premiere of the sweeping, violent Farther West. After it came the biting Chekhovian comedy New World and a succession of famous-artist dramas in the Memoir vein: October (about Eleanora Duse and Isadora Duncan), The Faraway Nearby, and Democracy. The latter, his only all-male play, imagined a meeting between poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson during the U.S. Civil War. An elegy for dying youth, it premiered in 1991 and was perceived as Mr. Murrell’s historical means of addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Between his own plays, the erudite playwright carried on a busy sideline as a translator. His long list of adaptations ranged from Sophocles to Chekhov to contemporary Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette. Most recently, his English version of Eduardo De Filippo’s Napoli Milionaria! premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2018.
Mr. Murrell’s lifelong love of opera, combined with his passion for western Canadian history, finally collided gloriously in late career. Filumena, written with composer John Estacio, was based on the true story of the only woman hanged for murder in Alberta, an Italian bootlegger’s wife named Florence Lassandro (born Filumena Costanzo). Mr. Murrell brought to it his vast knowledge of opera, but worked in equal and harmonious partnership with the younger composer.
“We never once argued,” Mr. Estacio said. “It was such a joy to work with someone who was so sensitive to the art form.” After Filumena’s acclaimed premiere at the Calgary Opera in 2003, the pair would go on to write two more operas, Frobisher and Lillian Alling, and become close friends.
The operas gave Mr. Murrell a creative second wind. So, too, his association with One Yellow Rabbit. The company brought out the actor in him that had seldom emerged during his professional career. Ms. Clarke said she convinced him to perform the lead role of Prof in his 2012 comedy Taking Shakespeare – his first new play in 12 years. That experience encouraged him to write and star in another work, Fat Jack Falstaff’s Last Hour, in which he embodied Shakespeare’s beloved, vice-ridden knight.
If not quite Falstaffian, Mr. Murrell was most definitely a bon vivant, a lover of good food, good wine, and endless, wide-ranging conversation. A lunch meeting with Mr. Murrell could stretch into a long, pleasurable afternoon. Yet, when writing, he emulated one of his literary heroes, Marcel Proust, and hid from society. His version of Proust’s fabled cork-lined apartment was a condo in the tiny Alberta hamlet of Dead Man’s Flats – an ominous name that he delighted in.
While writing Fat Jack Falstaff in 2016, Mr. Murrell had already been battling leukemia for some time and seemed to regard the play as a swan song. Yet he rallied and, between chemotherapy sessions, continued to work nonstop. In early 2019, he teamed with OYR again to create and perform in Live Your Prime, with Damien Frost. “He was an incredible example,” Ms. Clarke said. “He was taking the stage magnificently and writing well right up to the end.”
While the Falstaff play was his theatrical farewell, Mr. Murrell also wrote his own epitaph. It came at the end of The Real Place, a National Film Board short made in honour of his lifetime Governor General’s Award. As he summed up his long creative journey, Mr. Murrell said simply, “I have lived the luckiest life.”
He leaves his wife, Cindy; daughter, Meg Murrell-Peloquin; son-in-law, André Peloquin; and siblings, Jim Murrell, Mary Canning and Frank Hughey.