Four Burning Questions for IPLAI Artist in Residence Kent Stetson

The Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) at McGill is pleased to welcome its inaugural Artist in Residence, the accomplished dramatist and novelist, Kent Stetson, best known for his award-winning play The Harps of God, about the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914. On Friday, Feb. 8, at 7:30pm, IPLAI will present a staged reading of The Harps of God at Tanna Schulich Hall.
Kent Stetson will be IPLAI's inaugural Artist in Residence from January to April 2013. / Photo courtesy of Kent Stetson.

By McGill Reporter Staff

The Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) at McGill is pleased to welcome its inaugural Artist in Residence, the accomplished dramatist and novelist, Kent Stetson, best known for his award-winning play The Harps of God, about the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914. The play, commissioned by the Rising Tide Theatre Company of Trinity, Nfld., premiered on the ruined foundations of a 19th century whaling station in Maggoty Cove 40 miles from the site of the actual disaster. Harps went on to win the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2001, the inaugural Canadian Authors Association Carol Bolt Award, and represented Canada in the prestigious Canada/France, Banff/Montpellier translation exchange.

Among other endeavours, Stetson recently completed the novel, Meat Cove, which he co-authored with his brother Paul, a retired RCMP officer. Meat Cove was published serially online.

Stetson will be in residence from January to April 2013. On Friday, Feb. 8, at 7:30pm, IPLAI will present a staged reading of The Harps of God at Tanna Schulich Hall. The thirteen man cast will be composed of five of Montreal’s finest professional actors and talented members of the McGill student body and faculty. Learn more here. On March 23-24, Stetson will host a weekend Character Generated Story Workshop (March 23-24) for McGill staff and students. Learn more here.

What is it about the century-old tragedy that inspired The Harps of God that people find so compelling?

Harps is about survival. In 1914, 132 sealers were ordered to march five miles across shifting ice from the icebound, wooden-walled SS Newfoundland to the steel-hulled steamship Stephano.

This is 40 miles off the north coast of Newfoundland, in open North Atlantic water. So we’re not speaking of a Sunday stroll across the smooth surface of a frozen inland lake here. This is treacherous territory. North Atlantic wind, tides and currents drive massive ice flows into and over each other. Monumental icebergs migrating south from Greenland slice though slabs or ‘rafters’ of ice six feet thick. The men, all poor indentured fishermen earning the only cash they’ll ever see, are dressed for a hard day’s work killing and pelting seals on a warm day in early spring. Sweaters and caps, perhaps a light wool jacket. Certainly not protected from the rain, then snow, then the arctic blizzard that descends, its high winds and plummeting temperatures turning men and boys into statues of ice.

Seventy-eight men died after the three-day, two-night ordeal. Many more were gravely injured.

It amazes me that 55 men and boys lived to tell their story. Where does one find the will to carry on under such horrific, ‘man-murdering’ conditions? How deep must one dig to stay alive?

Is there something uniquely Canadian about the story of the sealers, and about the genesis and success of the play itself?

Absolutely. Cold and snow are the ice-blood of our big, Nordic hearts. Canada as a nation couldn’t exist without the rigors imposed by winter, any more than Pi could have survived without Richard Parker, the magnificent tiger in Yann Martel’s wonderful novel, and Ang Lee’s equally superb film.

Winter shaped our nation. It was our forefathers’ — and in this I include our First Nations ancestors — greatest ally in repelling three American invasions of what became the true north strong and smug!

What is more compelling than the compassion stirred by the possibility of a friend or neighbour freezing to death in the dark? This chilly embrace of winter is, to my mind, at the heart of what it means to be Canadian. Our mutual survival is the root of our social democracy.

So it’s not by accident that the central image of the play is taken from the actual event. Levi Templeman and his two sons, Simon and Andrew, were found standing, frozen solid, the father supporting his boys, all three with their heads up facing into the wind. This is how they were lifted from the ice flow after the storm, how they were lowered by sling from the deck of the rescue ship to the dock in St. John’s, while 10,000 townspeople gathered seeking news of friends and relatives, watched.

And, in the play’s climax, the survivors find the strength to endure, as did the Innu – and a recent, extraordinary Governor General of Canada – in the raw heart of a freshly sacrificed seal.

What could be more Canadian than that, except, perhaps a mid-winter trip to Florida?

You are the inaugural Artist in Residence at the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas – an artist among academics. What attracted you to the residency?

I taught play writing at McGill in the early 1990s. Every time I walked through the Roddick Gates I felt my IQ rise by five or six points. I loved the feeling and wanted more. So when the application notice appeared, I was on it like a duck on a June bug.

Speaking personally, McGill holds an important place in the Marshfield, Prince Edward Island, Stetson’s psyches. I’m the first in the family of farmers to receive a university education. The remarkable junior college I attended, Prince of Wales College, before it was amalgamated with Saint Dunstan’s University to form The University of Prince Edward Island in the early seventies, streamed Islanders showing early promise toward either Dalhousie or McGill.

My late father showed promise in the sciences, especially biology, and was headed for McGill when WWII broke out. So I feel I’m completing a circle in an important way. And Harps is very much a play about fathers and sons. Which is why it felt natural and right to dedicate it to him. I’m deeply honoured that IPLAI has chosen to inaugurate the residency with a staged reading of the play.

There’s something ancient and deeply familiar about IPLAI, though it’s only three or four years old. It’s interesting to note that the first institutions my Presbyterian emigrant forbearers built on the Island were not churches but schools, coming as they had from Scotland, the first country in the world to develop universal education in, I think, the 1760s. Our imported — or should I say transported – Scottish enlightenment values, were expanded and reinforced at Prince of Wales by the turmoil of the late 1960s.

We were introduced to 20th Century humanist values by brilliant post-colonial Canadian scholars ‘from away’ (mostly Toronto and Montreal), and great American thinkers fleeing the Vietnam war and its implications, all attracted to a rarefied academic atmosphere and the simpler life the Island had to offer. My Prince of Wales College education, based on humanist principles and interdisciplinary inquiry conducted in small seminars, continues to unfold like a banner as I progress as an artist and grow as a citizen.

I was blessed with a great education at Prince of Wales. It was a golden time. So I feel very much at home at IPLAI, which espouses similar enlightened principles. I welcome the opportunity to reassess, to expand and elevate what time and effort have written on the wind. And to share the fruits of four decades of artistry with the academy and the public IPLAI so honourably and ably strives to unite.

You’ve said that you intend to devote the bulk of your residency to the development of a new play, Shackled. What is it about?

Shackled is a play about humiliation. A good friend from Lebanon became a Canadian citizen weeks before he was frog-marched shackled and cuffed from an Amtrak train at the American border in 2010. He’d left Montreal’s Gare Central for his first visit to the United States, specifically New York City then Harvard, where his godfather, an eminent Lebanese architect was teaching. He was roughly interrogated over a 12-hour period, dropped on the Canadian side of the border well after midnight on a cold October night and told to make his way back to Montreal. No explanation was given. No real assistance has come from the Canadian government in redressing this affront. In the play, as in real life, an innocent man struggles, as his career advances and travel to the USA becomes necessary, to clear his name and gain assurance from the Kafkaesque Department of Homeland Security that he will not be detained and brutalized again.

Shackled (a 90 minute, one act play for two men) rises with more gravitas from the same impulse that resulted in my most recent play, Excess: A Post 911 Comedy about Sex, Shopping and War! Excess is, at heart, a play about invasion, specifically Canada’s tricky relationships with the United States and Cuba. Its elements of satire and farce are meant to encourage the audience to step back from the tensions of the early part of the past decade, relax at the absurdity of it all and have a good laugh. Shackled will do the opposite. I hope the audience will lean forward, elbows on knees and think ‘How the hell did we come to this?’

For more on Stetson’s work and his plans for his time at the Institute, visit his page on the IPLAI site, here.