Interview with Patrick Friesen

Though Patrick Friesen is best known for his collections of poetry, over the years he has made significant contributions as a writer for theatrical events. He has written pieces for dance with Stephanie Ballard and Margie Gillis; for the Dance Collective; and for performance for GroundSwell and the late Primus Theatre; and for multi-media collaboration. He has written for radio. Indeed, he has also written lyrics for musical performance.

The following, taken from an email conversation I had with Patrick Friesen in late February and early March, will focus on his work as a playwright. He has written five plays. The Shunning, now a classic of Canadian drama, based on his long poem of the same name, was produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985; The Raft was also produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange, in 1992; and the recently written triptych consisting of A Short History of Crazy Bone, The Sitter, and Non Sequitur, all featuring the same character of Crazy Bone. The Crazy Bone plays have not yet been produced; they are in development. I give a brief introduction to each play before it comes up in our conversation. —Per Brask

The Shunning

The Shunning tells the story of Peter’s shunning after he comes to the conclusion that hell cannot exist and speaks of this publicly. Apart from Peter we meet Helen, his wife, who must deny him after his shunning; his brother Johann who behaves in public but secretly lives outside the rules; and Loewen, the minister who condemns Peter without mercy.

Rhubarb: Many things fascinate me about The Shunning, and one of the most compelling is the matrix of values the four characters exist in: Peter’s needing to be open about his revelation, his conclusion that a loving God could not create hell; Helen’s clinging to her faith, her fear of losing it; Loewen’s insistence on upholding an “official” reading of the Bible and keeping his flock together, keeping the body of the church intact; Johann’s willingness to stay in the flock while bending the rules in secret. The inevitable conflict between the experience and understanding of the individual person and the claims and needs of the community—this struggle probably lies at the heart of all notions of identity and of belonging. So, apart from the fact that if there were an easy solution to the conflict arising from the stances of these characters there wouldn’t be a play (and certainly no suicide), what lies at the heart of Peter’s unwillingness to bend to Loewen’s sense of the church’s/the community’s needs for cohesion? And why is Loewen unable to meet Peter in some ideal middle? Loewen accuses Peter of stubborn pride, which could easily be applied to himself—but then, of course, he has an institution behind him.

Patrick Friesen: I’m answering your question, of course, some quarter century after I wrote the play. As far as I remember, Peter’s situation was the “perfect storm” of his stubborn, proud personality banging into the stubborn, righteous aspect of the Mennonite church I knew. Even surrender within the church was, I thought, stubborn. There were these contradictions, and stubborn surrender would be one. Preaching about “joy” but revealing very little joy was another. I think the church was very much a “northern” church. And, when you run into a character like Peter, his resistance meets the resistance of the church. Neither backs away. One has the forces of scripture, authority, community, and tradition behind it; the other has the force of pride backed against a wall. He has not learned surrender. He will only surrender to his own character, and he does. Most people in the community knew to surrender to the church, that’s how they could remain in existence. Peter had a much deeper pride, an individual pride, not leavened by a sense of the community’s necessity.

Of course Loewen can’t give way. It’s not in his mandate; it’s not in his sense of righteous truth. He doesn’t understand Peter. Peter understands Loewen, though; yet, he won’t give way to a bureaucrat. Pride.

I think it’s Johann who is the more unusual character. The only surrender in him is to reality. Not to ideology or church.

 

Rhubarb: And Johann brings a lot of joy and humour into the play. He has that funny encounter when the minister, Loewen, enters, having been chased by Johann’s dog Brümmer:

Loewen. That dog needs training.

Johann. Oh no, he’s trained.

Loewen. It doesn’t show. That dog chased me all the way from the house to here.

Johann. He didn’t bite, did he?

Loewen. No, but he tore my pant-leg.

Johann. But he didn’t bite. See, he’s trained. When he bites you’ll know he’s forgotten. What can I do for you?

Loewen. First of all keep that dog on a rope when I come.

Johann. But I don’t always know when you’re coming.

Right after this, Loewen catches a scent in the air because Johann was drinking wine, hiding the bottle when he heard Brümmer announce someone was coming. Johann is quick to suggest that it could be because he’s been eating overripe apples.

These moments shows us a very quick-thinking and humorous fellow, someone who knows how to deal with authority by subterfuge. At the same time he is a very proud Mennonite, which is revealed in his long monologue where he talks about many different kinds of Mennonite. He is aware of human foibles, in himself and in his heritage. So though Peter is the protagonist and we follow his quest to stay true to his conscience, we get with Johann a perspective à la Schweik. Johann’s sense of humour is one I, as an outsider, have come to associate with Mennonites. It may be dry but it’s always delivered with a twinkle in the eye. It’s participatory, in a way. The twinkle invites you in. The joke is only on you if you don’t accept the invitation. It’s a very humane way of diffusing inequalities in status. Which, of course, is impossible for Loewen to accept, but Johann does give him chances to laugh along with him. In his monologue Johann also expresses how Mennonites have changed over time and in different circumstances. Is it this larger view that makes him able to stay in the fold and “secretly” bend the rules at the same time—and indeed to see the “funny” side of life?

Friesen: I based Johann, partially, on my grandfather Sawatzky. He had the same kind of humorous take on the world, on existence. Not ha-ha humour, not intellectual humour, but a gentle, unjudging humour, seeing the flaws and foibles of human beings, especially when they behaved pretentiously. In a way, Johann has an instinctively larger view of his existence than the others, at the same time as he knows the details of his daily life. Humour brings them together. He both believes (non-intellectually) and shrugs his shoulders. It’s not that he doubts the church in terms of the basic truths it propounds, but he has no use for rigidity. It’s not something he’s carefully thought out; it’s instinctive. A survivor. Again, my grandfather had that air about him. He didn’t judge, he never said anyone was wrong, or unChristian. He was born into something, and he accepted that. Within that structure he quietly lived a compassionate, non-ideological life.

Johann knows only basic historical details of Menno life, but some of those details seem to him somewhat unreal. There they are, apparent facts, but how does one live in one’s daily life? I created Johann as a foil to both Loewen and Peter, who were engaged in a battle that had nothing to do with Johann (except for the fact his brother was in trouble). But he has an edge in that scene with Loewen. There is an implied distaste for Loewen and his approach to things. Subterfuge is the only way for a man to live in a community that is ideological, rigid.

I knew a man in my hometown who had gone to university and received a decent education. He was an intelligent man who thought beyond the borders of the town, of the church’s teachings, and the community’s possibilities. I used to visit him, with my friend Ralph. This guy had a decent library. I used to borrow books from him. It’s where I first encountered Paul Tillich and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both these writers had an impact on me at the time. Anyway, this guy was still a member of the church I’d grown up in. I asked him once how he could possibly live within that church, given what he knew and had learned. He replied that the community was very important to him; he had to be a member of a community. So, he said, he shut his mouth sometimes so as not to disturb the community or to put his own place in the community at risk. I totally disagreed with this stance, but I’ve never quit thinking about it. Johann is based on this man’s stance as well as on my grandfather’s approach.

 

Rhubarb: Then there’s Helen’s approach. She follows the rules and accepts the shunning of Peter, though she is none too pleased with being unable to share her bed with him, and she prays for him. She doesn’t want to lose her faith, saying, “I don’t want to lose Christ.” Neither does she want to lose Peter. Her sense of identity as having so much to do with her faith is one shared by many, perhaps most. She’s in an impossible bind, between staying true to who she is and her commitment to her life with Peter. I suppose her staying with the church could be seen as a capitulation, but she is portrayed as an incredibly strong woman. What’s the source of such strength in her case?

 

Friesen: Yes, Helen is a strong person, but she is caught between her belief and her love. She can’t quite accept that the church/Loewen could be wrong. Yet, her husband stands against them. You are taught that God comes first, before your wife or husband, and she is somewhat caught in that. At moments she doubts the church, but she can’t go all the way with that. Not yet. If Peter hadn’t committed suicide, and had kept his fight going, perhaps she would have come around to him. That is possible. In fact, I thought of writing a new play, at the time, based on Helen’s life after “the shunning.” I made her a strong character, but I also made her a realistic woman of that time, in that place. It’s as far as she can go, and she is utterly bewildered.

 

Rhubarb: Thinking about the characters in this play, it seems there’s some tribal form of identity at the base of how you describe your grandfather and the educated man you and Ralph visited—they related to church and community—“yes,” “no,” or “to a certain extent.” I think it’s probably true of all of us that whatever we may have lapsed from, we’ve probably ended with some other tribal definition, at least partly, of who we are. Nowadays, through a lifetime we may even go through a series of such tribal identifications. In the case of the characters in The Shunning, being outside the church, the community is the same as non-existence—so Peter kills himself. In key areas the claims and the needs of the individual come a distant second. I guess this is how relatively small faith groups have survived over the centuries. The Reformation brought about a certain new personal freedom: you could read scripture yourself and have your own relationship to it, but you also had to agree to stay within certain parameters of allowable interpretation—or you were out, and being out seemed like no being at all. This inevitable conflict between the individual and the authority of the group (and its representatives) is so clearly delineated in The Shunning one gets the sense that this struggle is very familiar to you. Is that so?

Friesen: Yes, that struggle is very familiar to me. It’s the struggle not only within the definition of “individualism” in the Protestant church (and Anabaptist churches), but as a matter of character. Peter goes further with his individual stance than most people in his situation would because of his character. He’s a maverick within his community. And he has the pride to take it a long ways. So, his struggle is theological and, probably more deeply, personal. If that makes sense.

It’s interesting, in answering these questions, to realize the distance between then and now. How, despite some apparently permanent threads, the tapestry has changed a lot. I have to use my imagination in tandem with memory to recall what I was a quarter century ago, in my life and in my writing. I think Peter has moved into the background while Johann has come to the fore. There is a connection, it seems to me, between Johann, Imma, and Crazy Bone. A gradual shifting. Crazy Bone is definitely inherent in Imma, and perhaps in Johann as well. I’ve moved from the direct, earnest, idealistic stance of Peter toward deflection, humour with a bite, and a kind of loose carelessness. As if it doesn’t matter anymore. But, I recognize this kind of character among Mennonites. The maverick, the “crazy” one.

The Raft

In The Raft we meet Frank, a young man of twenty-five, who has come to the country seeking answers to his troubled inner life, something to hold on to, from his grandmother. His grandmother Imma knows the history of violence that haunts Frank’s background, but she resists telling him about his grandfather and his father. Anna, a woman in her fifties, lives with Imma; she “knows things,” has encounters with people who don’t seem to be there, who saw what happened when she was little.

Rhubarb: For Frank in The Raft pursuit of a self-understanding, of identity, means getting to the story behind his father’s anger, an anger he has inherited. His father hated him, he says. His father beat him, and he is troubled himself. Now his wife is pregnant, which scares him. He also suffers from depression and has attempted suicide. He hides the cuts on his wrist from his grandmother by keeping his shirt sleeves down—until they are revealed at the end of the first act. Frank feels that he’s drowning in roiling forces that he hopes will dissipate by his coming to understand his father’s childhood, his father’s relationship to Frank’s grandfather, the source as he sees it. He says that it “felt like I was suspended in some strange story, his story . . . floating there, no idea who I was in the whole frigging mess.” Later on he says, “my old man died haunted. I won’t. not a bloody chance. I’ve got to find where I fit . . .” This search is less about community, of course, than it is about history, about getting the story right. Frank has discarded therapy because, as he says, “knowing doesn’t help. you can know everything, have it all lined up and logical in your brain but if the spring’s missing inside there’s no action, nothing changes . . .” So, the story he’s looking for is one that makes sense of his own anger at a deeper level.

 

Friesen: Frank has lived with family deceit. He’s tired of it and wants to break out of it. His anger is about the fact he’s had to live with the shadow of his father. He hasn’t been able to live his own, true life, and he’s determined to do that. He blames it on his father, but also on the very concept of family, which he sees as a web of deceit, a foggy unreal reality. If I remember correctly he calls it a “fucking fog in a bog” at one point. Or, words to that effect. His experience has been like that, wandering in a foggy bog, wondering how he got there and how he can get out. He finally zeroes in on his grandmother to uncover the source. She, of course, deflects him as much as she can without lying. She’s protecting her son and their family. But she understands that he’s got to know eventually.

How can Frank become a full-fledged man when his model, his father, is a shadow?

Rhubarb: Imma’s deflection of Frank’s pursuit is at the same time a way of pointing him to what is now and toward the future, to forget the miseries of his past and move on, to make things better with his wife and the child that is on the way. Of course, she also wants to keep secret what happened with her and the farmhand in the river, which led to the birth of Frank’s father; and Frank’s grandfather’s suicide by burning while floating on a door over the very spot where the farmhand had “taken” Imma. Though Frank’s grandfather may have arranged the rape of Imma in order to produce a child (which he was unable to do), he eventually hated that child. Frank’s father drank himself to death. Those three men, Grandfather, Father, and Frank, all rejected life. Imma expresses some very perceptive insights into men. At one point she says, “there is something in men so light they could float away . . . they don’t plant themselves . . . only their rage keeps them there . . . Martin almost disappeared . . . I could have blown him away like dandelion . . .” She says this just before giving up the secrets. Is this also a warning?

Friesen: Imma knows people, and she knows Frank. She can see how vulnerable he is even though it’s his anger we see mostly. She knows this, probably, because of what she witnessed in her son. She has seen things being passed on. She wants Frank to live in the present. She doesn’t think, at first, that learning the whole story will be helpful. He’ll be better off not knowing. As the play progresses she understands how deeply this gnaws at him, preventing him from living his life. I think you’re right, she is warning Frank about the dangers of not being “planted.” But Frank can’t plant himself. Once she understands that, she can release the story. I think at first she thought he’d be “blown away” if he knew the story. Later, she sees he is “blown away,” and will remain so, if he doesn’t know the story. The development is inevitable; she only delays the inevitable until things are clear to her.

The story is told numerous times, in various ways, between Imma and Annie. It’s told in allusions, quotes, images, bits of story, and in physical actions (Annie with her sexual gestures). It’s the interweaving of stories, Annie telling it at a slant, with metaphor, outbursts, dreams, and general nuttiness; alluding to it, and gradually narrating it.

Annie is not a trickster, she’s a co-storyteller, and she’s traumatized and a bit crazy. Imma has some of the trickster in her, but it shows mainly in her humour.

 

Rhubarb: Imma shares a great insight with Johann in The Shunning about how humour can undermine authority when she says that “laughter is the best thing for big shots. they don’t know what to do with it 
. . . makes them ordinary . . .” And Annie, though perhaps not consciously funny, provides a good deal of comic relief with her malapropisms, such as when she’s talking about a man who wants to marry her but whose mother won’t let him because she still needs him: “he hasn’t cut the biblical cord yet, and I sure don’t want to be a mother at my age.” Humour plays a significant part in all your plays.

Crazy Bone Plays

The Crazy Bone plays, A Short History of Crazy Bone, The Sitter, and Non Sequitur, form a trilogy focusing on the character of Crazy Bone. Crazy Bone is an outsider, seen by others as crazy, although she merely sees things differently. In the first play she is described as being in her late fifties/early sixties. She’s the same, around sixty, in the second play, and between sixty and seventy in the third play. Certain features persist throughout the plays: Crazy Bone cites poetry and children’s verse, she makes dance steps like a butoh or flamenco dancer, and her thinking is mainly associative.

The first play is a monologue addressed variously to herself, the audience, and her absent daughter. Crazy Bone has just left a psych ward and has come to a place with a telephone box, waiting for a call from her daughter, who, we learn, signed her into the ward. Crazy Bone has been given electroshock therapy, and she’s attempting to gather memories of who she is, using, among other things, maps and photos and bits and pieces of images arising in her mind.

In the second play, Crazy Bone sits in a hospital room while a middle-aged real estate developer, Verschlucht, is dying in the bed (The German phrase “Hast du dich verschluckt?” means, “Have you swallowed the wrong way?”). Verschlucht has built himself up into a wealthy and important man in contrast to Crazy Bone, who is poor and “almost nothing.” They do not know each other, but Crazy Bone has taken on the task of sitting with dying people who have no one else in their lives.

In the third play, Crazy Bone is in a nursing home with three other people—Anne, a goodhearted woman of the same age as Crazy Bone; Walt, a conventional man of the same age, a former businessman and politician; and Torres, an eccentric man, younger than them, originally from Barcelona.

Rhubarb: Crazy Bone is such a theatrical character, with trickster features, though she doesn’t actually mean to trick anyone or clown around. She sees things from a slanted angle and opens up new and surprising meanings. She has much in common that way with Johann and with Imma, and some with Annie. Could a key to her, and to these plays, be when in The Sitter she says to Verschlucht (such a great name, by the way), “You’re making your way through a poem”? Might she be implying that life lived in pursuit of a heroic story (that is, in pursuit of a grand goal, with a beginning, middle, and end—like Verschlucht’s life, which is ending with no one around him, except for Crazy Bone) is less rich than a life lived as a poem, associatively?

Friesen: Yes, exactly. The heroic life (meaning all kinds of lives, including the wealthy corporate CEOs, prime ministers, preachers, etc.—as you say, lives that are planned with a known beginning, middle, and end) is a half-life, at best, for Crazy Bone. She knows only life lived as a poem. Associatively, as you suggest. Moment to moment, jumping sometimes, turning, slanting sideways. Not plodding ahead with the pre-written story. It’s a life that doesn’t accept the usual borders, those between reason and imagination, between reality and unreality, and so on. The life of spirit and the life of the body interweave. Humour can be sacred and sometimes the sacred is funny. The definitions of things are not so certain. Often the opposite of what you think you think is suddenly true, and then it might shift back again. Crazy flows with it, and I think she finds people who are rigid of spirit and thought a little strange.

There is this strong line from Johann, through Imma, to Crazy Bone. And I’m mulling over the relationship of these characters (their eccentricities, their deflections and humour and, at heart, a touch of anarchy) to the community around them (which is clearly Mennonite in The Shunning, little less clearly so in The Raft, and by the time of the Crazy Bone triptych much more generic), and to the writing of theatre. I am not interested in an overall narrative arc, but I used to think that’s what you were supposed to do in a play. The Shunning had an obvious arc. No problem. The Raft had an arc, but a little less so. Increasingly, the plays hold bits of story, sometimes followed for a while, other times dropped, and anecdotes interweaving. But, as in poetry, each story, each small anecdote or image, builds a whole theatre poem.

I think, on occasion, Crazy tries intentionally to throw people off for a moment. I see it as jazz where the performer suddenly takes a new direction (or hits a wrong note) to see where it will lead. Maybe there’ll be a new song. I think she even does it to herself. It’s how she lives.

Rhubarb: Spain figures significantly for Crazy Bone in all three plays. She talks about her time there, recites bits of poetry, and talks about the civil war, the struggle of the anarchists against the forces of tyranny. What is it about the social and literary landscape of Spain and her sojourn there that so marked her thinking? Why do these images and thoughts keep coming back to her?

Friesen: A couple of reasons for Crazy’s interest in Spain: she reaches out beyond her small town, and reaches quite far; Spain represents a colour, a culture, a religion, a poetry that is almost at an opposite end to what she’s grown up with, and still lives with. It allows her to dance flamenco, a dramatic, sensuous dance, again in contrast with what’s around her. And, yet, she is not totally familiar with Spain, so there’s an awkwardness to her which is important. Someone between cultures. Liminal. Flawed. And she hasn’t stayed in Spain; she wishes she had, but she returned to nothing really, nothing other than familiarity. Also, a recurring image/metaphor is cave paintings. While she is specific about Lascaux, in France, Spain is close enough, and Spain has numerous such caves as well. So, Spain as alternate, and Spain/France/Lascaux as origin. She is curious about beginnings, origins, as they place her in a much larger context than the other character in The Sitter, and the several others in Non Sequitur.She is going “bigger” than anyone around her, and she is no simple tourist. She wants to go into the depths of Lascaux, the earth, and she wants that sensuous poetry, music, and dance of Spain. She pursues the darkness, which can be frightening and exhilarating, and is necessary.

Spain offers a backdrop to her “associative” way of thinking. It is paralleled by Spanish poetry, but also by the other poetry she quotes. She jumps, leaps, backs up, drops out, re-enters, abruptly but almost always returning. A continuity within this associative way of thinking. Crazy Bone walks between reality and 
the unreal. She lives there, thinks there. She easily steps back and forth over a border she doesn’t acknowledge.

 

Rhubarb: As you mention, Crazy Bone dances flamenco. She also makes butoh moves. Butoh having its origin in the Japanese avant-garde and flamenco having an ancient Arab/gypsy/Spanish origin, they certainly provide stark contrast to her everyday life. They also both pursue a kind of trance-like performance and reception, called duende in flamenco. In fact, Ohno Kazuo, one of the founders of butoh, is said to have been partly inspired by La Argentina, a flamenco dancer he saw perform in the 1920s. Both forms aspire to a kind of radical transformation. Is that what they mean to Crazy Bone, this desire for transformation, metamorphosis, getting in touch with something closer to the earth, something, perhaps, primordial, similar to her interest in caves and origins?

 

Friesen: Yes, Crazy desires transformation, and deeply. In one of these plays she says she’d like to be anything but what she is—a goat, perhaps, a tree. She wants to get closer to the earth. She wishes she’d been that person, breathing, in Lascaux, and painting those bulls. She doesn’t mention the handprints, but she would love to place her hand on a rock face and let her hand find its way through that stone to the other side where the gods reside. So far, I don’t have her literally saying that as I try to have her express herself as often as possible at angles, with misdirection. That notion that you cannot say some things directly. This ties in with the teacher aspect of Crazy. She wishes for transformation, but on her way there she is a teacher, and she teaches by keeping secrets, sometimes revealing half a secret, or maybe a full one; she teaches by withholding, but this is natural to her, not a learned teaching technique. She’s a natural teacher. Not everyone can “see,” so you don’t open up the secret to them. You might unlock a door, but you leave it closed; that other person has to actually go and open the door. The caves, the cave drawings, relate to this.

Butoh has sometimes been called “the dance of darkness.” I believe a dark earth principle is at work in butoh, and this connects it with flamenco and duende. It also connects it with the caves and the drawings. Ohno Kazuo was still dancing as he neared a hundred years of age. He was exceptionally beautiful and he sometimes presented himself as a woman in performance. The feminine within butoh. I’m interested in how one can transform that way in performance. Crazy has layers of clothes and in A Short History takes off layers to become something a little different, and then puts on a dress she finds on a line in some backyard in order to marry herself. Transformation.

Also, Crazy drinks in all three plays—in the Dionysian tradition, not as an alcoholic (though Walter in the third play sees this drinking as a health problem; another example of humans these days reducing everything to handleable issues of correctness). Transformation, again. A deranging of the senses. Crazy is not part of our contemporary world of insane “zero tolerance” correctness. I don’t know how we came to be this way, but for me Crazy Bone stands against all that. She is the sane one. She’s the one who holds some kind of continuity with the cave dwellers and drawers deep in the earth. She is on the continuous line through Rimbaud back through Dionysus. And, there is a strand in her connecting with some of the forgotten, sometimes killed, book-burned, “Christians” of the first century. Those who are so far from what Christianity became. Of course, Jesus wasn’t a beginning; he came out of Judaism, and he incorporated other philosophies in his teaching (like certain ideas from the Cynics). Crazy Bone might have felt very at home in that century. She refers to Christ, and she’s knowledgeable about that concept (not as a name, which was applied to Jesus years after he died), about the divine spark within each being.

For me the core of these Crazy Bone plays is that the associative thinking, the motion toward transformation, is inherent within the structure of the play. I don’t want characters to talk about it. I want them to live it, to be going through it. It’s a similar thing I do in my poetry, where I don’t talk much about motion, but I try to have the poems be motion.

Rhubarb: In all the plays death is near, and when death is near the question of how one has lived or is to live may follow. It seems to me that the question(ing) of right living can be felt as an especially urgent current underneath all your plays. Do you think this is something you may have carried forward from your family and cultural background?

 

Friesen: I think these plays get a double whammy of that death current. First, you’re right, it’s something I carry out of my family and cultural background, and secondly, this is an aspect of duende, death’s presence. One could say it’s a Menno thing and a Spanish thing. Flamenco singing, or cante jondo as Lorca called it, always has death nearby. Leap over to bullfighting and, of course, it’s all about a representative of the people facing death, in the form of the bull, for them. The Spanish have always had that closeness to darkness, to death. And, in their different ways, so have the Mennos I grew up with. Death stories all the time. Deathbed scenes. Kind of like the skull English writers used to have on their desks to remind them of their mortality.

Lorca did say that a performer worked with duende only when death’s presence was near, when there was darkness.