It's hard to shock a theatre critic. Dinner parties descending into the worst insults and slurs imaginable? Shrug, seen it a million times. Incestuous plot twists? A yawn since Sophocles.
Nevertheless, in 2013, this theatregoer's jaw did literally drop during one show, a "staged conversation" called Winners and Losers produced by a trio of brilliant Canadian theatre companies: Theatre Replacement, Neworld Theatre and Crow's Theatre. Its co-creators James Long and Marcus Youssef stood in front of audiences across the country (and in Europe) and broke the two taboos that still seem to exist in Western society.
If you have any children around, perhaps cover their eyes.
Ready? Long revealed exactly how much money he makes a year, while Youssef outlined how much money he stands to inherit.
Details of personal finances – especially for those of us living below the 1 per cent, but above the poverty level – have long been a no-fly zone in Canadian conversation, information reserved strictly for spouses and the closest of family members.
But as wealth inequality becomes a pressing issue in the Western world – particularly the growing gap between generations – it seems like artists are increasingly interested in talking actual numbers.
In Winners and Losers, Long and Youssef play a game where they name people, places or things (such as Pamela Anderson, Mexico and microwave ovens), then debate whether these people, places or things are #winning or #losing. Eventually, the subject turns to whether the two friends and artists are winners or losers themselves – and that's where the subject of income and inheritance comes up.
Both artists are Vancouverites in their 40s, caught in the generational crossfire between the millennials and the baby boomers; both have household incomes of around $100,000 (with wives who make the bulk of it); and both have two kids.
But there is a difference that divides them: Long comes from a poor background, while Youssef's father was a vice-president of a Canadian bank and he stands to inherit a million dollars one day. And so one is struggling to pay the mortgage on a condo in an overheated housing market and stresses about the future, while the other had help with a downpayment on a house and has a sense of financial security that allows him to pursue his artistic career without fear.
What ensues once these facts are revealed is an astonishingly honest conversation – full of petulance, provocation and resentment – about class in Canada that highlights how tough social mobility is becoming in the country.
Of course, having parents who can help out with a mortgage can be a mixed blessing, as another theatrical production that premiered this year made clear. In Steve Galluccio's The St. Leonard Chronicles – which extended multiple times at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal this fall – twentysomethings Terry and Robert fight with their parents after they reveal that they are planning to move out of the old neighbourhood and to the suburbs in order to live in a bigger house.
Many of the barbs traded over dinner and drinks are typical of the theatrical genre of family feuds over food, but what makes it clear Galluccio's play is set in the present is when the two sets of offended baby-boomer parents retaliate against their Gen-Y offspring by demanding back the down payment they gave them.
"You want to leave St. Leonard? Go! But you gimme my hundred thousand dollars back," yells Dante, Robert's father.
Galluccio's play may not dig terribly deep into the generational battle between millennials and baby boomers that has captured headlines, but it is one of few I've seen that reflects it. The young characters have greater education and more aspirational career plans than the older ones, but somehow it's the parents who still hold the economic cards. Is this because Gen Y spends more freely than their parents did (as Dante and his wife argue in the play)? Or is it that the cost of living – and housing in particular – has gone up? (It's a debate, but as this newspaper's Rob Carrick pointed out last month, incomes have gone up by 2.6 per cent a year over the past 17 years, while the costs of houses has risen at 5.4 per cent a year.)
It was refreshing to have a comedy that not only reflected – but rested on – the economic realities of the moment.
In truth, the question of how wealth passes (or doesn't) between generations wasn't always unusual subject matter on the stage. The British playwrights of the Victorian and Edwardian era who take centre stage at Ontario's Shaw Festival each year are always talking about this – with precise dollar figures attached as per Galluccio, Long and Youssef. In Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw's 1905 masterpiece revived memorably at the Shaw by artistic director Jackie Maxwell this summer, family matriarch Lady Britomart pragmatically discusses exactly what kind of income her daughter Sarah will need – £800 a year until her husband comes into his property.
As the class system that Shaw was writing about life within disappeared, however, playwrights stopped discussing these things in such blunt terms. Is the re-emergence of these themes a sign that we're headed back that way?
If so, it's not just in Canada, but internationally. Testament, a show by German performance company She She Pop that played in Vancouver's PuSh Festival and Toronto's World Stage in 2013, used Shakespeare's King Lear (the ultimate drama about inheritance) as its framework. As with Winners and Losers, it featured performers talking about their economic situations on stage, this time featuring daughters on stage with their actual fathers.
While here the idea of "inheritance" was given a wide definition, it is again most shocking to witness finances discussed openly. "Your generation still benefits from huge retirement pensions and from the intergenerational contract, while we earn less and still have to put money aside for our old age," one of the daughters rants to her father. "We will be poor when we're old, unless we inherit a lot of money from you, even though we might consider it morally, socially and politically wrong."
As another year ends in economic paradox – our federal government proudly claims that Canadians are wealthier than ever, even as we've never been more in debt individually – I can't help but think that an intergenerational storm over the country's wealth is only beginning to brew on the heath.
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck (@nestruck) asked his followers across the country to name the best productions they saw in 2013, and compiled the most frequent responses. Here are the results.
Twitter pick for new Canadian play: The God That Comes
Rocker Hawksley Workman's one-man musical adaptation of The Bacchae toured to Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Ottawa and the Yukon this year. And everywhere it went, director Christian Barry's production won fans with its Dionysian energy and cheeky songs, such as Ukelady Boy.
Endorsers: @nancykenny, @keelinjack, @lacouvee
Runner-up: This is War by Hannah Moscovitch (Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, and Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg)
Twitter pick for new international play: Venus in Fur
American playwright David Ives' S&M-themed two-hander about an actress auditioning for a director had several productions in Canada this year, but the one at Manitoba Theatre Centre this fall (starring Allison Brennan and Matthew Edison) was flagged the most by theatregoers on Twitter.
Endorsers: @BaleyBlue, @seriffed, @kinverarity, @paulswinnipeg
Runner-up: Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl (Convergence Theatre, Sheep No Wool, Outside the March, Toronto)
Twitter pick for revival of a play written after Confederation: Angels in America
Tony Kushner's two-part AIDS-crisis epic returned to Toronto at Soulpepper Theatre Company this summer, and audiences responded to Albert Schultz's production and strong performances by Damien Atkins, Nancy Palk, Gregory Prest and Diego Matamoros. (Winnipeg Jewish Theatre also completed a two-year exploration of the plays this fall, getting a vote or two.)
Endorsers: @michaelmurphy, @squideye, @ineedkyletime
Runner-up: Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde (Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake)
Twitter pick for revival of a play written before Confederation: Mary Stuart
Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play was the sell-out hit of the summer at Stratford. Antoni Cimolino's sure-footed production – anchored by two powerful performances by Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock as Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots – was the perfect note on which to start an artistic directorship.
Endorsers: @Cox2go, @pauln_murphy, @DebBennett
Runner-up: William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Bard on the Beach, Vancouver)
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misnamed the 1905 play that Jackie Maxwell directed at the Shaw Festival this summer. It was Major Barbara, not Mrs. Warren's Profession. This version has been corrected.