On Monday, Canada’s Conservative government exercised the power of their majority and prevented Green Party leader Elizabeth May from rising in the House to pay tribute to the late Václav Havel. Havel, the playwright and dissident who led the “Velvet Revolution” that facilited Czechoslovakia’s peaceful exit from the Soviet Union in 1989 and thereafter became the country’s president, died on December 18th of last year. I knew little of Havel before his death, but in the week that followed I became fascinated with the “director of a play that changed history” who famously said:
Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible … but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.
Had I known something of Havel’s remarkable synthesis of artistic and political activity a year ago, I might have been better equipped to explain my growing enthusiasm for politically engaged theatre to my puzzled friends. But no matter. I’m a devotee now, especially after having read his 1984 play Largo Desolato (in its English translation by Tom Stoppard) — a wry, semi-autobiographical tale of a disaffected philosopher who locks himself in his apartment, beseiged by friends, admirers, lovers and government thugs concerned about the political implications of his latest ontological treatise.
Havel was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2004 in recognition of his “unwavering belief in democratic ideals” — a belief solidified by years he spent in prison for acts of dissent against the Soviet regime. Ironic, then, that the Conservatives chose to forestall May’s brief tribute to a champion of free speech for no apparent reason other than that they could.
Also ironic to consider the events of last week, when noted Canadian playwright Michael Healey announced that he was leaving his position as artist in residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. At issue was Healey’s new play, Proud, which revolves around a Stephen Harper stand-in known simply as “Prime Minister”. In an interview on CBC’s The Current, Healey described the proposition of his play:
I want to ask a couple of questions about the nature of a national government’s responsibility to the nation. … [In] the last election, the Conservative [party] won a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. That’s a fact, but it’s also a fact that the majority of people that cast votes in the last election voted for some party other than the Conservatives… [The] question the play asks — very gently, I might add — is “Do those people that didn’t necessarily vote for the Conservatives have to stand around for five or ten years or however long that they’re in power and say, ‘That’s not my government’?”
A fair question, given our antiquated electoral system and the representative distortions that it tends to create. Yet Tarragon’s artistic director expressed concerns that the “Prime Minister” could be grounds for a libel case. Healey had already hired a libel lawyer on his own initiative and been assured that there would be no problem with his script. In fact, Healey suggested, anyone going into the play “hoping for a diatribe against the current government” would be “severely disappointed, and probably bored.” Regardless, Healey felt that Tarragon’s response to the play — based not on its artistic merits, but on a presumed reaction by the Conservative government — was a sign that he should end his partnership with Tarragon and take his work elsewhere.
Healey believes that there is a growing tendency towards self-censorship in Canada’s arts community in the face of government actions within recent years. He made note in particular of the controversy surrounding Homegrown — a play about one of the “Toronto eighteen” terror suspects that premiered at the Summerworks Festival in 2010 and was condemned by a spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office as having made use of public funds in order to “glorify terrorism”. Summerworks’ federal funding was eliminated in 2011, with Heritage Minister James Moore suggesting that anyone who drew a line between this funding decision and the previous year’s controversy was formulating “conspiracy theories”. I participated in a Montréal reading of Homegrown last summer to raise money towards Summerworks’ budget shortfall; the play may be many things, but a glorification of terrorism it is not. And what’s more, no one in the Conservative government seems to have read it — the Prime Minister, the Heritage Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office spokesperson who made the initial statement all admitted as much, in spite of their having leapt to conclusions regarding its content.
This leaves us — and by us I mean anyone working (or hoping to work) in the arts in Canada — in an interesting predicament. Do we believe the Heritage Minister when he chastizes CBC’s Anna-Maria Tremonte for “pushing [her] guests into [her] thesis, which is completely false”? Do we believe Michael Healey, when he suggests that “not even dissent, but anything off-message” is likely to be frozen out by the Conservative government?
I think I know the answer. Last April, just before the federal election, I was at Mainline Theatre on St-Laurent for Montréal’s staging of the Wrecking Ball — a cross-country evening of political theatre that has taken place at regular intervals since 2004. Two candidates made their appearance: New Democrat Tyrone Benskin, now MP for Jeanne-Le-Ber, and Conservative Neil Drabkin, who was (unsuccessfully) challenging Liberal incumbent Marc Garneau in Westmount-Ville Marie. When it came his turn to speak, Drabkin thanked the organizers for the invitation, acknowledged that it wasn’t really his crowd, reminded us that Conservatives “didn’t want this election” (there was a laugh at that one) and congratulated us all on our engagement with the democratic process. Then, halfway through the first piece — a broad satire focused on the relationship between the Prime Minister and his personal stylist — Drabkin arose from his front row seat and walked out.
In my view, criticism comes with the territory of electoral politics, and that criticism can and should take many forms — including artistic activity. If one accepts the premise that we are guaranteed freedom of speech under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and one believes that the government should support cultural activity, then there’s no place for government to implicitly or explicitly differentiate between topics that are and are not acceptable. To do so would be — and is — a betrayal of the ideals of democratic society. I don’t think Václav Havel would have been very impressed by the events of the past week. Neither am I.