Merrill Denison was one of the group of Canadian writers who, in the 1920’s, first attempted to dramatize the uniquely Canadian aspects of their national experience. If this were his only achievement, he would be a provincial writer of interest only to his immediate contemporaries and to theater historians. It is his unique attitude to the Canadian experience that marks his contribution to dramatic literature and gives it enduring value.
Three aspects of Denison’s dramatic writings distinguish his work. His plays are first and foremost realistic, based entirely on personal experience and observation and written with careful attention to believable dialogue, setting, action, and characterization. Second, he is both antiheroic and antiromantic, dedicated to debunking the false image of Canada as the home of Mounties and noble, simple hunters—natural heroes of the virgin wilderness. Finally, he brings to his writing a sense of comedy tempered with commitment to justice—a commitment that leads him to explore social problems objectively and in defiance of contemporary morality. The result is a group of plays that have not become dated with the passage of time.
From Their Own Place
In his short comedies, Denison uses character types, two-dimensional creations that function within a limited plot line. The plays turn on a single narrative device, usually a reversal. In From Their Own Place, city dweller Larry Stedman turns the tables on the backwoodsmen who have attempted to sell him the furs from illegally trapped animals for an inflated price (while arguing over who is the rightful owner of the furs) by calling in the game warden to witness all three men deny ownership. The tricksters are tricked into parting with the furs, and the naïve city dweller pays only for the cost of the trapping license.
Even within the limitations of the one-act structure, Denison creates evocative and well-crafted explorations of life in the northern areas of Ontario. His attention to language demonstrates the fine ear of a raconteur adept at mimicry. The ungrammatical utterances of the locals might offend university committees, but this language provides authenticity and a rich comic texture. Denison does not use foul language, but he still manages to capture the flavor of backwoods speech. When Alec, one of the tricksters, swears that half of the furs are his, he vows, “If they aint will the Lord strike me down right here where I’m stanin and send me to burnin hell for ten thousand years wiv a cup of cold water just beyond my lips and me not able to reach it.”
Denison does not incorporate these vivid colloquialisms for mere comic effect; language is always tied to the characters and to their social environment. Sandy, caretaker for the Stedmans, and Cline, who habitually sells them worthless objects, debate the relative morality of their positions: Sandy attacks first, saying, “You’ve sold him enough trash now to satisfy anybody but a MacUnch.” Cline indignantly defends his family name with “That’s a fine thing for you to say, and you married to a MacUnch yourself and had three children by her. And the hull of you half starved till you got a job from the old lad. It aint everyone can get a job caretakin and not have nothin to do.” Sandy retorts, “No, there aint but one can get it and that’s me and it wouldn’t matter if Emmy had twelve children and all of them twins, I wouldn’t be like yous MacUnches trying to sponge off’n the only friend the backwoods has.” Buried in this amusing exchange is the presentation of a serious socioeconomic situation. The duplicity of Sandy and Cline evolves into a hilarious farce of entrance and exit, lie and counterlie, as they conspire to cheat Stedman and then betray each other, but their convoluted relationship also points to a condition of inbreeding that Denison had observed and on which he had commented in his letters and articles, and their actions are motivated by a poverty that is tragic. “It’s a hopeless country to try and make a living in. Even if it is the most beautiful spot in the world,” comments Harriet Stedman, in an effort to excuse the stealing and lying of Sandy, Cline, and Alec.
Brothers in Arms
Brothers in Arms, like From Their Own Place, features two-dimensional characters, simple plot devices, comic exchanges, and serious social commentary. J. Altrus Browne, a businessman, and his wife, Dorothea, have ventured to a hunting camp in the backwoods. Dorothea exhibits all of the romanticism of an outsiders’ view of Canada; she wants to meet a coureur de bois (a French or half-breed trapper), one of the romantic figures of whom she had read in books or seen in movies about Canada. Her husband is presented even less sympathetically, as an impatient, insensitive, and pompous fool. Having received word of a business deal worth twenty-five thousand dollars, he is determined to catch the next train to Toronto but must wait for Charlie to drive them out in the only car. Dorothea views her environment through a glaze of romanticism: “I think your camp is adorable. It’s so simple, and direct. So natural.” Browne judges by a different standard: “I should never have come up into this God-forsaken hole at all.” Syd, an authentic coureur de bois, unrecognized by Dorothea, and a fellow veteran (a brother-in-arms), unrecognized by Browne, sees his surroundings with the clear vision of a man who is resigned to the reality of survival in a “wild, virgin country,” where there are a few deer left, although most have been scared off by the neighbor’s hounds. Although Syd lives far from civilization, that “keeps folks outa here in the summer. City folks is a kinda bother. . . . They’s always tryin to get a feller to work. One way and another they figger they’s doin a feller a favour to let him work for em.” Dorothea tries to fit Syd into her preconceived notions, suggesting to him that he wants to be left alone to lead his own simple life, but Syd defies romanticism. His relaxed manner and unconventional attitudes might entice audience sympathy, but Denison undercuts this by also presenting his laziness and destructive shortsightedness. The hunters tear up the floorboards rather than split firewood, so the abandoned farmhouse they use for their camp is slowly being destroyed.
Denison has some pointed comments to make about the army. Syd and Browne were both soldiers, but their experiences in the war were quite different. Syd’s view of “their war” is “they wasn’t no sense to it to my way of thinkin.” Syd’s version of sentry duty—“They wasn’t a German this side of the ocean and they wasn’t no sense hangin around in the cold. So I went in and went to bed”—horrifies Browne but arouses in Dorothea continued romanticism: “Don’t you love his sturdy independence? It’s so Canadian.” Denison tempers this satire with a bitter image when Syd voices his most pointed criticism of officers and businessmen: “Perhaps you ain’t used to listenin much in your business. We got a feller up here that got his eyes blew out in France can hear most a mile away.” Finally, Denison, having created a vehicle for his satiric portrait of romanticism and the army, ends the piece with the comic reversal. Charlie arrives at last, only to inform...
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