March 21, 2017 § 2 Comments
Works of literature attempt a twining of lives observed, heard, felt and then joined through leaps of imagination. Le Retour, the play to be performed this summer in Nova Scotia, is no exception.When I first began writing the play, I knew it would be the story of two brothers, one who came home to his village from WWI and one who did not come home. But, how that would shake out, the words that would be spoken, the actions taken, the twists and turns of plot unfolding often came as a surprise.
The solemn face of the young boy appearing above sitting between two other boys is that of my Uncle Felix who becomes Elzéar in the play, the brother who came home. He sits between Henry Amirault and Louis Leblanc in this photo taken around 1912 in front of the Middle East Pubnico School. In December of 1915, he will sign up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He will be 17 years old. He will disembark in England, July 1916. His older brother, Léo, had already left for France and Belgium by November 1915 and was reported missing then killed in action by June 1916. Those were the facts recorded bloodlessly in official documents. The spidery handwriting revealing only dates of embarkation and destination: In Léo case it was Embarkation for France, Reported missing/ After action between 2nd to 5th June, 1916. Now killed in action/Field.” The trajectory of life in the trenches.
I wanted my play to fill in the gaps of those pitiful notations. For that, I wrote a book and researched the war. For that, I wrote a play so that living,breathing actors could fill their lungs and live the parts of those two young men, say the words that “officialdom” could never say.
There is one story embedded in Le Retour that Felix told his oldest son, Francis “Pierre” d’Entremont who died earlier this year, that is dramatized in the play. It is told in an exchange between two characters. I won’t reveal the story now. You’ll need to come and see the play. But the next story is one I will share. It is not in the play but George David d’Entremont, the son from Felix’s second marriage, told me it last night on the phone. It was one his father had told him when he was a boy.
Felix, hardly more than a teenager himself, was on sentry duty in France. One night, a German Officer appeared out of the dark approaching from behind, startling him. There were initial moments of fear but it soon became apparent that the soldier was not threatening, but trying to explain something in German and Felix was responding in English. At some point, they both realized that they both spoke French and the details of surrender were worked out. The German relinquished his sidearm and Felix prepared to walk him back to the authorities. But before he did that, knowing, once in custody, the soldier might be mistreated, Felix took the man’s valuables: his watch, ring , some photos and pinned them for safety under the lapels of the German’s greatcoat so they wouldn’t be taken before turning him over to the Allied position. A moment of decency in that fratricidal war between brothers and cousins who more often than not shared at least one common language between them as well as common borders.
We plan in June of 2018 to bring Le Retour to Ieper, Belgium, the Salient where so many Commonwealth and German soldiers lost their lives. The dialogue in Le Retour is written in le français acadien and English and while in Flanders it will be translated also into Dutch, the translation then projected onto a screen to the side of the stage. This was at the request of our hosts in Belgium. It would be wonderful if the play could be translated into many languages. It’s intent is a universal tongue.
Commencer/To Begin/Le Retour
March 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
To begin, what do I know about my Uncle Léo? He was born November 17th, 1893. At 22, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Regiment, August 21, 1915. He disembarked, November 1915 in Boulogne. He was reported missing then killed in action, Belgium,Ypres, June 5th, 1916. He was 23 years old. Between the arc of those two events, he had his life on this earth.
What else do I know? When he enlisted with the Over-Seas Canadian Expeditionary Force at 22, he put down his trade as Grocer. He was not married. He was described by the examiner as being five feet ten, his chest girth when fully expanded was 37 and 1/2 inches, for distinctive marks he bore a large, circular scar on right leg, his complexion dark, his hair black, his eyes blue grey, his religion, Roman Catholic. What is not reported is that he was the eldest in a family of 11 children. He lived in the small, Acadian fishing village of Pubnico on the south shore of Nova Scotia. He had attended the College Sainté-Anne (now the Université Sainte-Anne) for two years. He was a good student. The one photo I have of him shows him with friends in Meteghan. According to Celestine, writing on the back of the photo, The boy next to me is Leanor, next is Léo d’Entremont,”Ain’t he cute?” He’s got my muff. Next is le petit Robert.
My ghostly Uncle Léo. And why do I care? Many reasons, one being that I am probably the last generation who will remember, even at this remove, a relative who died in the Great War, as we anglais refer to it, and, also, because I’ve spent most of my adult life, up to and including this year of 2017, resisting war. I am drawn to its human story. What it does to families. How we look for and try to find the missing. How we grieve for those who do not come home and for those who do come home. How we calculate what is gained and what is lost. Le Retour as well as its predecessor, A Generation of Leaves, wrestles with these questions.