There are certain seminal dramatic works that theatre students read in school which are so iconic that they know they will not have an adequate understanding of the piece until they see it staged in a professional production. Studying Canadian Theatre in Halifax between 2003 and 2006, I was acutely aware of all the performances I had missed seeing, all the premiere performances of plays that would go on to become classics of the Canadian Theatre canon, and all the roles that solidified particular Canadian actors as legends in the national consciousness. So, with all that in mind, I must tell you how incredible it is to have the opportunity to see John Gray and Eric Peterson recreate Billy Bishop Goes to War, their musical which first opened in Vancouver on November 3rd, 1978, went on to embark on a sixteen month National tour, and then made Canadian theatre history when it ran for four months on Broadway. In 1998 Gray and Peterson updated the play to suit their ages, having the old war hero, Bishop, recalling his experiences surrounding The Great War of 1914. In the current production, running until February 27th at Soulpepper Theatre, Eric Peterson is exactly the same age as Billy Bishop was at his death, which gives the play an added layer of urgency and alludes to the finality of this one Canadian hero’s story.
Billy Bishop (February 8th, 1894-September 11th, 1956) was a Canadian pilot during the First World War credited with 72 victories, which makes him the top Canadian ace. Eric Peterson plays Bishop (clad in his pyjamas), along with a slew of other characters and John Gray plays the piano nearly throughout and acts as a narrator and musical director. Together Peterson and Gray tell the story of one (quite ordinary) Canadian whose naive glorification of war was squashed upon becoming entrenched in the mud of battle and his pursuit for survival prompted him to boldly take to the skies to escape the Hell most soldiers faced on the ground. The characterization of Bishop and his interactions with the other characters that weave in and out of his life, brilliantly captures Canada’s uncertain national identity. It has been remarked that Billy Bishop is not at all glorified in this musical, especially not compared to the way that American dramatists tend to immortalize their heroes. Bishop is continually humanized, his accomplishments undercut and his failures, struggles and weaknesses are all exhibited with even more vigour than his 72 victories. Even once Bishop’s success begins to gather momentum, he still finds himself in numerous humbling situations, such as becoming lost at Buckingham Palace on his way to meet the King. He is still a Canadian Every-Man, which, it could be argued, is quite anti-heroic. Also, as Bishop exhibits more skill, ambition and precision one begins to wonder if such bloodthirsty lust for killing, and a hunger for the power that only shooting down planes provides is necessarily a good personality trait for a nice Canadian boy to have. Bishop is also continually manoeuvring from under the large, looming shadow of Great Britain with an inferiority complex which powerful figures in this country still feel the effects of today.
Eric Peterson is incredible as Billy Bishop. He speaks with so much genial, colloquial, wistful charm that the audience might as well be sitting on a carpet in a circle around him, clinging to every syllable of his speech. Peterson throws himself with absolute conviction into each of his characters, and it is clear that they are being imagined from within Bishop’s memory, with all the stereotypes and exaggerations of subjectivity firmly intact. This allows Peterson to thrive in the playing aspect of this show, which he does with such earnest, simple joy. It is also refreshing to see Peterson relishing in his brilliant comedic talents and proving that he is just as proficient in making people laugh as he is commanding the stage in more stoic roles. John Gray played and sang fervidly and provided a nice balance to Peterson’s performance. The songs in the show capture marvellously the flavour of the War Era, while expressing beautifully poetic sentiments about war and a Canadian’s experience within it. My favourite song is an incredible jazzy number called “Nobody Shoots No One in Canada,” which is simultaneously amusing while evoking a poignant sense of homesickness. The musical is directed expertly by Ted Dykstra, who knows how to incorporate the music beautifully into the entire stage experience. He also makes wonderful and creative use of props throughout this piece which captures both the sense of reminiscence and also a striking sense of play, which harkens nicely back to the opening song with the lyrics, “We were off to fight the Hun/And it looked like lots of fun.” Dykstra and Peterson are also not afraid of silences, and the pauses in this show are rich with both tension and hilarity.
The gentleman who sat beside me at this production said something to me at Intermission, which stuck to me throughout the Second Act. He said that he thought that there were aspects of this show which were “too frivolous” and silly in a way that was incongruous with the sombre nature of war. He thought that Peterson’s Bishop should be “scared shitless” throughout the play, not milling about singing, dancing and acquiring absurd accents. It disheartens me to know that comedy is still regarded by some as an inferior expression of humanity. When I was in the seventh grade my English class dedicated an entire unit to poetry, and much of that was centred on war poetry. My favourite of the ones we read was Dulce Et Decourm Est by Wilfred Owen. I will quote it here in full so you can read it:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
At twelve years old, to me, this poem seemed to vividly and horrifically capture the true essence of this sort of warfare, of how terrifying and awful and useless the killing of innocent boys for political means all was. Now, however, I am able to understand that this poem only captures one aspect of War, which is a complex, contradictory experience which conjures intense and conflicting emotions in the human psyche. Certainly these same soldiers performed and watched theatrical performances within their army barracks (as has been recreated in many popular films), sang popular tunes, and clung to any comforts that would keep morale as high as possible amid squalor, misery and death. The music in Billy Bishop Goes to War reflects the hopeful and winsome tone of popular music of the day while beautifully accentuating the disparity between a world where music is becoming increasingly jazzy, where young couples dance together in nightclubs under mirrored balls (which, as I found out, were popular accessories for such clubs even slightly predating 1914) and the image of “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” The reality is that in life, as in Billy Bishop Goes To War, frivolity, laughter, friendship and love exist under even the most horrendous circumstances because they help us to survive. Peterson’s Billy Bishop uses humour to deflect his fear, to deflate the dire urgency of his situation, and as a means of channelling the adrenaline which comes to accompany each of his air fights with the Germans. Peterson is brilliant at switching between his comedic moments and those which are utterly breaking, such as his ode to the fallen British ace, Albert Ball, which is one of the highlights of the show. Eric Peterson plays Billy Bishop with the ultimate in humanity, which I think, is the loveliest way to be immortalized.
Throughout the show Peterson’s Bishop writes letters to his future wife, Margaret. Each one ends simply with “I remain.” Of course this could be short form for “I remain yours (with love),” but I am struck by the literal aspect of those words, “I’m still here.” It seems ardently appropriate for a fighter pilot in World War I to be continually reasserting his continued existence, and in the performances of Gray and Peterson, in this classic of the Canadian Theatre, Billy Bishop lives on in our collective conscience too: he remains.
Billy Bishop Goes to War plays at Soulpepper Theatre (55 Mill Street Building 49) until February 27th, 2010. For tickets or more information please visit www.soulpepper.ca or call 416.866.8666.