First of all, when I read Claude Gauvreau’s play The Charge of the Expormidable Moose, I couldn’t help but think about the late Robin Williams in the role of Mycroft Mixeudeim. No other actor better represents the tension between laughter and the dark personal pain that is portrayed in this avante-garde play written in 1956.
As I read these Montreal plays this summer, the temptation for me is to read everything through the lens of ‘dramaturging place.’ I have this hypothesis, I want to test it through this blogging exercise, and then interpret it to fit nicely into my point of view. Claude Gauvreau’s play, however, demands that it should be taken on its own terms. I have to throw all my preconceptions out the window—probably this is for the best. I can understand why Erin Hurley of McGill University shared that she opens her Québec theatre course with it every year “just to blow the students’ minds.” If you’re looking for some mind-blowing plays to read this summer, I’d check this one out. It did take me a while to work through it as I was busy dramaturging at Great Plains Theatre Conference, as every time I sat down to read it, I would want to get sucked down into the vortex of this play, but then get pulled away. The play demands that one takes a journey down the vortex.
In the English translation I read by Ray Ellenwood, there was a note contextualizing this play and I’ll share with you a few details that were helpful for my understanding. Claude Gauvreau was a Montreal poet who was part of the avante-garde Automatist movement. When he wrote this play in 1956, his beloved muse the actress Muriel Guilbault had committed suicide, sending Claude into a series of battles with mental depression and anxiety, leading him to become hospitalized. In the institution, he felt victimized like his protagonist Mycroft Mixeudiem.
During his lifetime, this play of his was not well-received or understood. Thanks to this Translator’s Note, I have a clear picture in my mind of the 1970 first production of the play with “sixteen people in the audience and, after intermission, four of the eight actors refused to continue the performance.” But after the death of the playwright in 1971, it received a series of popular revivals that resonated with Québec audiences, in particular the Theatre du Nouveau Monde’s 1974 production, followed by the Theatre de Quat’Sous production in 1989, and even a televised production of the play. I’m sure as my fellow dramaturg contributor to this blog Alison Bowie will illuminate, whatever happened historically in Quebec after the playwright’s death in 1971 and 1974 when this play was heartily embraced, the mood had shifted like the protagonist Mycroft Mixeudeim shifts to a different course meal. Suddenly, it seems, Quebecois theatre was hungry for the dish of theatrical truth Claude Gauvreau wanted to serve them.
Also according to the translator Ray Ellenwood, Gauvreau did not want his play to have a broader, social context, as he was writing while receiving the intense psychological treatments of his day. But there are certainly many lines that strike my ear as resonating with meaning, such as the sadistic torturer Letasse-Cromagnon’s insistence that Mycroft Mixeudeim “has no rights” and therefore deserves this treatment. And when Mycroft Mixeudiem is on the brink of death, he has a moment of clarity:
“We must exhibit acts of such complete audacity, even those who suppress them will have to admit that an inch of freedom has been won for the whole world.” (pg. 146)
But on the other hand, Mycroft Mixeudiem is being tortured because he’s a poet and a so-called masochist. In the first three acts, a small group of torturers led him through a series of false alarms as he runs to the rescue of a supposed damsel in distress. The theatricality of this play is fantastic. There are five doors, one of which is massively larger than the others. The torturers put Mycroft through a series of tests that have him charging through the doors like a moose because of his skill of head-butting the doors with an unusual show of strength. There are also moments of shadow-play and puppetry behind the doors so that the torturers are always manipulating the space to trick Mycroft into believing something dangerous is happening on the other side of the door.
Yet it takes the true sadistic character of Latasse Cromanin, who only enters the play in Act Four, to finally wear Mycroft Mixeudiem down. It might be overly simplistic to say that the plot of the play is a bit like ‘the boy who cried wolf’ where the torturers keep crying wolf and then when Mycroft really needs to come to the rescue, he’s so desensitized to these games that he allows Latasse Cromagnon to murder the one (mostly) innocent girl in this place. Because we’re in this highly metaphorical, abstract world, it’s hard not to want to unpack every symbol in this play as a sign of a culture feeling extremely alienated and a part of someone else’s sadistic experiment.
If you have a chance to read this one, or if you know it already, I would definitely appreciate your comments. There’s a lot to discuss with this play.
Finally, I would recommend that as a theatre educator, if you teach a class with Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Marie Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman on your syllabus, to consider adding it to your classroom discourse, as it might pair well with those plays. I also took note that Act Two has a dinner table scene that would be a great exercise for undergraduate actors. In this scene the protagonist’s food is drugged four times, leading to four mood swings that emotionally disconnects the protagonist from his grief over his dead lover, the daughter of Ebenezer Mopp. Even without the cultural context, this way this scene dramatizes depression & grief provides an actor with a unique tour de force scene, which is why my first impression of it was to imagine the late Robin Williams in the role.—H.H., dramaturg