Who wants to listen to two old men tell stories and sing songs about family and WWI?
Alice Munro once called David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree “about the best prose to come out of this country for my money.”
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Danger Tree and the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, when the Newfoundland regiment was nearly wiped out. In The Door You Came In, David Macfarlane reinvents and reflects on the text of his memoir along with musician, composer, and songwriter Douglas Cameron.
The performance is “more play than reading, more duet than monologue, more concert than text” – and at the heart is the Goodyears, and in particular, Macfarlane’s vivacious and vociferous Newfoundlander of a mother (who, moving to Hamilton, “never got used to the weather” – “wouldn’t that just rot your socks?”).
The tale begins after the publication of The Danger Tree, as Macfarlane goes to read the book to her as she drifts out of consciousness – to return the stories of his family he grew up with to their source. “It was the only time she didn’t say to me, ‘Be sure to leave by the door you came in,’” a common refrain in Newfoundland for ensuring one didn’t “take the luck out of the house.”
Macfarlane’s stories are interweaved with Cameron’s music and singing, incorporating Newfoundland folk songs, soldier songs (“songs boys make up to keep the fears at bay”), and the popular tunes that populate a familial home into the cultural body of the narrative.
The Door You Came In overflows with voices – from Cameron’s demure tones in quoting Macfarlane’s mother, to the grandfather who (according to a linguistic professor at the University of Toronto) talked with the cadence of Long John Silver, to the voices Macfarlane dreams up when he first learned to read in his head.
“That voice could be who I wasn’t…. [It could be] the voice of all the voices of my Newfoundland memories.” Voice, making character tangible; orality, making stories come full circle – sharing our words is at the heart of the performance (unsurprising for a show about Newfoundlanders).
“In Newfoundland… knowing the stories is why you ask for them,” and stories have their own interconnectivity and movement: “the purpose of a story … was to introduce another story.”
But “even people who liked to talk, didn’t like to talk about the war.”
“The First World War is always there – you can still hear it if you want.” Cataclysmic events echo, and we feel them even as they are dimmed and distorted, as “once the present isn’t the present anymore, there’s a part of it we can’t find.”
The lacuna of The Door You Came In is sense – Macfarlane points out that veterans, while there were still some left to talk to, “were as puzzled by the past as anyone.” The war, the casualties, and the loss that permeates a family is not a tragedy – tragedy presupposes initial intent on the part of the individual – this was and is a fateful and terrible accident. ‘Intentions’ came from strategic authoritarians, but even those lose the thread of sense.
Macfarlane says of his mother, that she regretted not talking to her older relatives more about their lives during and around WWI, but “by the time she was curious, they were gone.” Macfarlane himself repeats the sentiment – “I could have asked them so much.”
Why should you listen to two old men tell stories and sing songs about family and WWI? Because this is the only currency we have in even attempting understanding our past and our present. Macfarlane’s final story of the Goodyears chronicles “a woman’s anger and passion, which is as potent and necessary now as it was a hundred years ago.”
The stories and songs of The Door You Came In blend into a mosaic of war’s essentially human element, as Cameron’s songs “tell stories” (Macfarlane) in the same mode as Macfarlane’s prose – the two performers “draw people in with rhythm,” with voice, and with the absence that resounds in a silence.
The Door You Came In is not a historical register – it is a presence, just as how “when you walk down a street, you exist in all sorts of time frames at once”: the past is ever “woven into the present.”
You can catch The Door You Came In today (Nov. 21) at The Theatre On King (159 King St.) at 2 pm and 8 pm, $15 at the door.