Interview / John MacLachlan Gray
April 07th, 2008
John Gray was interviewed in Vancouver in 1979 at the rehearsal space for Tamahnous Theatre.
T: Billy Bishop Goes to War is one of Canada's longest-touring plays. Has its success surprised you?
GRAY: Yes, information pills it has. Originally our attitude was if the Canadians and Americans like it, healing that's great. If the Canadians like it and the Americans don't like it, that's okay. If the Canadians don't like it and the Americans don't like it, that's a drag. If the Canadians don't like it and the Americans do like it, we're in deep trouble. We had no idea it would go so far.
T: It looks as if success has come rather easily.
GRAY: I know. I've only written two damn shows. Now I'm starting to worry that I'm going to have to start thinking of myself as a writer. When you do that, there's always a danger you'll start thinking that you have to write, whether you have anything to say or not. I think that's an awful thing.
T: So if a stranger walked up to you and asked your profession
GRAY: I'd say I work in the theatre.
T: But without having written 18 Wheels and Billy Bishop, you couldn't pay your bills.
GRAY: I know. But admitting you're a writer is kinda like quitting smoking. The worst thing you can do is start proclaiming you're quitting smoking. You'll fail for sure. Hemingway once said don't put your mouth on anything that looks like it might happen, it'll turn to dust every time. In a way, I guess that has something to do with how I write. The worst stuff I do is always written when I have a good idea what it's about. I do much better if I concentrate on the characters and let the play emerge by itself. Then on the third draft I finally start to observe what it's about.
T: It seems Billy Bishop is only half about Billy Bishop's life. The other half is about how our generation is linked to Canada's military past. Was that intentional?
GRAY: Yes. Those World Wars explain so much about ourselves, about our attitudes as Canadians. The innocence Canada took into that first war was just appalling. When the figures started coming back twenty five thousand men lost at the Somme, for example-people weren't too keen on going, right? That's when conscription started. Then all the French-Canadian resentment against English Canada got started. Then the whole cynicism about government started. All that stuff affects us today. I think the heaviest years of life are around nineteen to twenty-five. Those are really long, big years. They form you. We didn't fight in a war at that age; some of our parents did. They went through an experience that we don't have a clue about. So there's a monstrous gap between generations.
T: What awareness of war did you get growing up in the fifties?
GRAY: I always knew that my father and his best friend had enlisted together. My father got involved in radar and his best friend became a spitfire pilot. This guy's name was John West. When he was shot down during the Battle of Britain, that's when my father vowed he would name his first-born son after his dead friend. I was always aware of that. I always wondered who this guy was that I was named after. I wondered about this heavy experience my father must have gone through to do that. Now he's an insurance executive. A middle-class person with bourgeois values and fundamentalist religious beliefs.
T: A Canadian.
GRAY: Right. So what happened to him to make him do this almost poetic gesture?
T: This is why you wrote Billy Bishop then. To answer that question. GRAY: Yes. And that's why I'm content to perform Billy Bishop for a long time. Because it's about me. I don't know if I can tell you exactly how it's about me…but somehow it is. It's my relationship to the events in Billy Bishop. You can't really say the play is really telling you that much about Billy Bishop himself. I don't know what he was like. I really don't. And 18 Wheels doesn't really tell you much about truckers either. So what is Billy Bishop about anyway?
T: It's about your perceptions of Billy Bishop's relationship to war.
GRAY: Definitely. It's not really about war at all. It uses war to show that old countries use young countries. Old people use young people to fight their wars. In the process of this, youth is lost. Youth is lost in the sense of a country and also for individuals. Britain lost a whole generation. Billy Bishop is about youth and old age.
T: And it refuses to preach about war, right?
T: Many people would regard that as a failing.
GRAY: Yes, I get a lot of that. A certain number of people go to the show with a checklist of things they want said. When they don't get to check off things they came to hear, they feel the show has failed them. They don't appreciate that not preaching allows us to talk to old people, too. Old people are thrilled to see that people of the next generation can recognize that they weren't stupid idiots for going along and fighting. It was so much more complicated than that. Billy Bishop recognizes that their experiences had validity, irrespective of whether the war was good or bad. To say that the play is encouraging war is incomprehensible to me.
T: If Billy Bishop embodies the experiences of a generation then the audience can come and pass judgment by itself.
GRAY: Right. I wanted to give people some conception of what war is like. We have a particular kind of arrogance that comes from the sixties which makes people say not only are wars bad, but people who fought them are stupid. That's unfair. In the First World War those guys were encouraged to fight by their elders. They were victims. Not only did those guys not know what they were fighting for, they didn't even know where they were! Ever! There was no landscape. It was all blown up. There were no trees or hills, nothing. They were simply someplace in France. It was like the moon. You spent three years there until you get wounded or killed. The alienation must have been phenomenal! Surviving in this little vacuum was probably their only real concern. The larger issues of war on an international scale had nothing to do with them.
T: Do you think that's why you audience at Royal Military College even liked the show? Because you didn't overlay history onto Billy Bishop's shoulders?
GRAY: That's partly it. The other reason is simply that those people aren't stupid. You generally think of army guys as being like football players. It really knocked me out to hear the military commandant give this analysis of our show in terms of Canada's history. My jaw was open. It was very perceptive and interesting stuff. To start thinking all those rightwing guys are stupid is naive and destructive to one's own thinking.
T: In the sixties, our generation was so busy formulating some alternate stance of our own that we didn't even try to appreciate what we were defining ourselves against.
GRAY: Yes, that's why Billy Bishop would have been a bomb in the sixties. It would have been a turkey. People would have called it reactionary.
T: How much of your conception of what theatre should be has been formed by associating with Theatre Passe Muraille?
GRAY: Quite a bit. I used to be quite the little elitist. I went to university for seven years. Nothing will hone an elitist like seven years in a university. So I tended to do shows for formalistic reasons. Content really wasn't that important. New theatre forms and staging were just as important to me as what a play said.
Then I saw Passe Muraille do 1837 in Listowel, Ontario. It was very revolutionary, that first Passe Muraille show. All these farmers were yelling and standing up and applauding. And these guys were prosperous right-wing types. It just blew my mind to see how people can relate to content. It made the stuff I was doing seem trivial. Like playing little games. It made me rethink the whole thing.
T: Now there's almost a movement growing out of 1837. Shows like Paper Wheat and The Farm Show.
GRAY: Yeah. In those shows, the event of having a particular audience becomes just as important as what's happening on the stage. It's now like there's a little glass cube around the stage and everybody sits there and admires the work of art on display. T: What specific things did you learn from Passe Muraille?
GRAY: How powerful a monologue can be.
T: Any negative things?
GRAY: Well, I also learned the limitations of having actors play tables and chairs and cows and horses. I've pretty well had it up to here with that stuff. I also reacted against Passe Muraille's tendency to go into a farming community and tell farmers how great they are. I've talked to lots of farmers. They're not dummies. You don't have to flatter them. It's also a bit much when actors go into a community and start telling people what they're like.
T: Yes, it's getting very trendy now for a bunch of middle-class kids to graduate from some university theatre program and suddenly become relevant. So they do some didactic piece on nuclear power.
GRAY: And who's going to come? You just consolidate people's prejudices. I don't think theatre is the place of weighty matters like that mainly because you see a play once. You can reread a novel by Kafka. You can analyze it at your leisure. But theatre's different. Look at Shakespeare, for example. His characters are wonderful I and they mouth human issues very articulately and poetically, but Shakespeare doesn't attempt to change the world.
T: You're saying the function of theatre is to reflect life, not comment on it.
GRAY: I guess so. Accuracy over opinion. The best reaction you get out of theatre is recognition. Maybe with a novel it's different. But in theatre I know I'm never going to be a person who writes of weighty matters. By that I mean I'm not going to write anything just to give the world my opinions.
T: Did you always want to be a playwright?
GRAY: Not at all. I was very, very bored in school. I was so bad they kept testing me for deafness. I was right down there with the special class types. As a result I was a loner most of the time. That's why I was always known for being musical. It helped excuse me for being such a lousy student. I got most of my acceptance from people out of music, out of playing. When I finally joined a rock n' roll band it was great. I had a Hammond organ. It wasn't like playing the organ; it was like driving a car.
T: Unfortunately most of us have a totally commercialized preconception of what a popular song should sound like.
GRAY: And that's a great shame. There's a whole tradition of songwriting where the songs are more complex. Kurt Weill, for example, is my favorite songwriter. And Sondheim is good, too. His songs fit into a show.
T: Your songs definitely aren't written to be covered some day by Frank Sinatra. It seems you're trying hard to fit them into the flow of a play, too.
GRAY: Sure. It's very American to write a scene around a song. I tend to write the other way round. When I get to a point in the script where something needs to be said that a character can't really say, I can say it in a song.
T: One eastern Canadian critic thought your singing detracted from Billy Bishop. For me it was very important that your authenticity on stage could act as a foil to Eric Peterson's exuberance. He plays eighteen characters at once, so it adds a sense of balance if you play yourself.
GRAY: I know. I'm glad you said that. It's the emotions that people go though that are important. If a great singer sang with Eric, he'd have to do things stylistically different than what the scenes require. It would become schizophrenic. God knows I'd never try and become a singer and have people love me for the quality of my voice. But I sing the songs in Billy Bishop because I can sing them in the context as well as anybody can. Again you get people coming to the show with a checklist, for Chrissake. When somebody sings a song, they've already decided what it's supposed to sound like. Well, Jesus Christ, how am I supposed to deal with that?
T: Do you have songwriting ambitions that go beyond the theatre?
GRAY: I used to. I had a brief romance with United Artists. I did a few demos and United Artists wanted to make a single out of one. But it was just ludicrous. I mean, there's nothing quite like being rejected by some fifty-year-old bozo with a Beatle hairdo and a medallion on his chest. It's such a sleazy industry. You get offered a deal that says you sing with us and we get all your songs forever and ever. And if you're really lucky, they'll make a lot of money. It's a very humiliating setup. I just didn't want to be part of it. In Canada it's a branch plant system so you're constantly up against people who can say no but not yes. You're constantly being humiliated just because of the other person's powerlessness. And that person won't admit his powerlessness. There's nothing in it for those labels to promote Canadian artists. Why should they? They've got lots of American artists they can promote up here anyway.
T: What's your new play about?
GRAY: My rock n' roll band.
T: Another totally male world.
GRAY: I know. I don't have any women in my shows at all. I don't know why. I guess I don't really know much about them. I can't get into a woman's head. I only have male visions of women. It's weird.
T: People will invariably compare any new play against the success of Billy Bishop.
GRAY: I know. I'm quite reconciled to a turkey. There will be a turkey on the horizon. Then they'll say, well, he wrote two good shows and that was it.
T: People will want nothing less than a follow-up to Billy Bishop, using the same format with Eric Peterson.
GRAY: We already thought of that. We'll call the sequel Billy Bishop Goes to Seed. Eric and I will sit on stage and drink for two hours.
Essay Date: 1979