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  • Title: The Message
  • Written by: Jason Sherman
  • Genre: Comedy-Drama
  • Director: Richard Rose
  • Actors: R.H. Thomson, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Sarah Orenstein, Peter Hutt, Patrick McManus
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre
  • Venue: Tarragon Theatre Mainspace
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs until Dec. 16

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R.H. Thomson as Marshall McLuhan in The Message.

Cylla von Tiedemann

A little over halfway through The Message, playwright Jason Sherman’s dense and searching head trip into the manic mind of Marshall McLuhan, a slick San Francisco ad man named Gerry Feigen who had helped make the Canadian communications guru a household name pays him a mournful visit. McLuhan has suffered a stroke that has left him ailing and mute, and Feigen, formerly bawdy and brazen when they worked together in the mid-1960s, is now regretful. He wonders if he had overpromised the deliverance McLuhan could offer those souls who had grown disenchanted by the rapid changes in society. “We made you out to be The One,” he says. “But you never said you had the answer, Mac. All you ever said you had was the question.”

There may be a similar burden of expectation hovering over The Message, which marks Sherman’s return to playwriting after years in the mines of TV and other electronic media. It has been 15 years, after all, since the threat of a lawsuit by the McLuhan family halted the play’s production mere months before its scheduled world premiere. If it had something to tell us in 2003 – that is, before the iPhone and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and YouTube were born and then proceeded to swallow us like Jonah’s whale – then surely the message of The Message has grown ever more urgent. By returning to a man who foresaw the pains of our transitional moment, could we claw our way out of this fix?

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So: Enter cautiously. Because, sure, McLuhan famously said “time has ceased … we now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening.” But while The Message is chronologically fractured, do not expect specific references to our own era, or social media, or even the existence of the internet. Its focus remains on McLuhan’s life, which ended on Dec. 31, 1980, at age 69.

We open 15 months earlier, in the hours after McLuhan’s stroke in September, 1979. In an extended blackout scene, a woman calling herself Mary explains that “Father” is angry with McLuhan – who converted to Catholicism at age 26 – for failing to deliver a message to the world. “That’s why he’s done this, Professor – taken your words.” She adds: “Father says you can’t come unless you deliver the message.”

How is he to do that now, left with only groans and guttural utterances as he labours fruitlessly to dictate to his long-time assistant, Margaret (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), while his wife Corrine (Sarah Orenstein) pleads with him to rest? “Boy, oh boy,” is all he can muster, repeatedly – though, in R.H. Thomson’s line readings, those two words can sing a symphony of intent, from boyish enthusiasm to jealousy, shame, paranoia, crippling anxiety, and confusion.

And then we jump back in time, to the moments before the stroke, as McLuhan is spitting out new ideas and aphorisms for his latest book, even as he despairs he has lost his audience. “At the speed of light, the planet is not much bigger than this room we’re in – got that?” he barks to Margaret, as she transcribes. It must have seemed bonkers in the 1960s and 70s; today it’s a commonplace.

We return to this scene multiple times, like a jazz musician riffing on a theme – McLuhan loved repetition – intercut with frequent jumps further back in time to key moments in his life: Feigen (Peter Hutt) bursting into McLuhan’s office to woo him to the United States, spouting rude jokes and wordplay like a vulgar vaudevillian, accompanied by his business partner, Howard Gossage (Patrick McManus); a brusque, bullying NBC executive exhorting McLuhan to boil down his theories so they can be applied like a tincture to the network’s dismal ratings; a New York doctor plucking a golf-ball-sized tumour from his brain during surgery in 1967.

In fact, it’s a real golf ball up there onstage, one of many absurdist moments imagined by Sherman, a brainy trickster who shares McLuhan’s love of wordplay and puns: Stripped of speech by the stroke, McLuhan scrawls on a pad: “It’s just aphasia I’m going through.” After his surgery – which left the real McLuhan with frustrating cognitive deficits – he delivers a playful, rambling monologue that calls to mind Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot.

If Beckett is an unnamed influence, James Joyce hovers consciously over the proceedings, with his shimmering, intentionally difficult Finnegans Wake serving as a talisman for McLuhan, who notes that the writer’s words only come fully to life when they are read aloud. (Ideally, he adds, in a brogue.) Joyce refused to make things simple; so does McLuhan, who says to do so would go against everything he is trying to achieve. If Sherman takes that as a cue – like a McLuhan lecture, The Message is perhaps overstuffed with ideas, leaving little room for it to earn the emotional salvation it desires – he also recognizes that prophets who cannot attract disciples, who cannot make themselves understood, are just madmen. Playwrights too.

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