Historical epic drama by Sharon Pollock, premiered at Stratford Festival, July 10 to August 28, 1993 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, with Janet Wright as the Loyalist matriarch, Joan Roberts, Kristina Nicoll as Annie Roberts, Philippa Domville as Eddie Roberts, Michael Hogan as George Roberts, David Ferry as Major Abijah Williams, Ted Dykstra as Daniel Wilson, Wayne Best as Major John Anderson, and Tyrone Benskin as Wullie. Fair Liberty’s Call was directed by Guy Sprung, with lighting design by Kevin Fraser, costume design by Marys Bienvenu, and music by R. Bill Gagnon and Genevieve Maufette.
The play is set in maritime Canada in 1784 when New Brunswick was established as an autonomous province after a massive influx of sixteen thousand Loyalists to Nova Scotia from the United States. Although they are now under British rule, the Loyalists carry the same social and personal baggage that fueled the American Revolution, and the struggle between independence and authority is replayed. Pollock shows how in one family are enacted the conflicts of the War of Independence, which was more like a civil war than a struggle against external authority, since it took place within each state, and even within families. There were no clearly established borders for the conflict: sons fought against fathers, brothers against brothers, and often individuals or families would change sides to survive. Some subscribed to the ideals of independence, but abhorred the rule of the mob. Inevitably, however, all were forced to choose a side. In Fair Liberty’s Call, these divided loyalties are evident in the Roberts family: the father, George, whose name ironically alludes to the British monarch, has attempted to survive by playing both sides, changing his allegiance as the situation warrants, but his loyalty is primarily to his own material interests, and his concern in his new country is for the acquisition of property—the land promised by the British to exiled Loyalists. As he unfurls the British flag in the first scene, he makes clear his version of the story—and reveals his primary concern for property and power, for which he has sacrificed his own children. He is a “buyer and a sell” who will “sell his soul” to get want he wants. Moreover, he assumes that his family “will do whatever is required” to protect his interests.
His eldest son, Richard, has rebelled against these “values” and joined the Patriots. He served under Benedict Arnold in the siege of Quebec, and then was killed in action under the same turncoat at Saratoga. In Pollock’s play, the historic ironies multiply, as allegiances are changed and borders crossed. Facts are indeed stranger than fiction. The second son, Edward, chose the side of the British, and joined the Loyalist regiment that was involved in the slaughter of civilians at Cherry Valley. Unable to live with this horror, he shoots himself in his own home. His place is taken by his twin sister, Emily, who assumes the name “Eddie” and a male persona. She has chosen to cross this gender border in order to empower herself, rejecting the victim role that is forced on most women, like her mother. She is also aware that in doing so, she protects her father’s interests, since one son has fought on each side. Eddie is also involved in horrific massacres—at Waxhaus, South Carolina under Lt. Col Tarleton, when Rebel troops were slaughtered after they surrendered, and at Cowpens, when the tables were turned. From having lived through these experiences, she is fully aware of the cruel ironies, but she begins to question the reasons for the war when she sees that the injustices against which she fought are being replicated in New Brunswick.
Cycles of bloody reprisals run through the play: everything goes round and round. The boots of a dead Rebel are taken by a Loyalist soldier, and in turn taken by another Rebel. One slaughter is used to justify another: blood begets blood—even after the war is over and a new political border established. Pollock ruthlessly dismantles the Loyalist myth of heroes in exile, perpetuated in song and story. Fair Liberty’s Call is a post-colonial response to patriotic melodrama.
Joan Roberts, the mother, has been driven mad by the horrors of war—the loss of two sons and of her home. Like Brecht’s Mother Courage, she appears in the first scene with the remnants of her family, dragging a cart with their belongings into unknown territory. But she lacks Mother Courage’s aggressive acquisitiveness, and doubts that the land to which they have come will ever become their home; her footprints leave no mark in the soil.
The play opens with a verbal montage, the voices of three women—the mother and two daughters, Annie and Emily/Eddie—telling their story and the story of how “the heartbeat of a country [comes] into bein.” As the Rebel antagonist, Major Anderson, observes, the way a story is told depends on the perspective, on who is telling it. Pollock tells the story through the different perspective of the family members, and of their Loyalist acquaintances who are visiting for a reunion of Tarleton’s British Legion—Daniel Wilson, a soldier with a limited political awareness but a sense that things tend to come around in the end, and Major Abijah Williams, who is highly politically motivated. Through Williams, Pollock voices the authoritarian beliefs of the establishment, concerned with protecting its interests in the formation of the new province, the preservation of Empire, “worth and class,” and the acquisition of as much property and power as possible, since “land is money” in New Brunswick. He supports the position of the “Family of 55” which is attempting to establish its authority in New Brunswick, replaying the scenario across the border that incited the rebellion they have fled.
Another social injustice is also perpetuated across the border—the enslavement of the Blacks. They have no more rights in New Brunswick than they did in America: if they had been slaves and fought for the British, then they were granted their freedom, but if they had been Loyalist slaves, then they remained so. Three thousand “free” Blacks immigrated to Nova Scotia, but racial borders were immediately established: they were segregated in the settlement of Birchtown, six miles outside of prosperous Shelburne, and expected to work in subservient jobs as labourers and servants. In the play, Wully, who has fought with Eddie in Tarleton’s Rangers, is denied his freedom and his land allotment, and scapegoated for murder by Major Williams.
Wullie is supported and Abijah Williams is opposed by the “rebellious” loyalist Eddie, who believes that democratic rights for which she has fought in America should now prevail in her new country. Each individual should “exercise freedom of choice” or be “a party to [his] own oppression.”
Ironically, each Loyalist is forced into making a decision based on his or her personal and political values by a Rebel soldier, John Anderson. He has crossed the border seeking justice for the butchering of his fourteen-year-old brother at Waxhaws. If they do not decide which one is accountable, he will shoot Annie. By recounting her own story of compromised loyalty, the betrayal of a Rebel soldier she had loved to the British, Annie persuades Anderson that justice can never be effected through revenge, and that compassion is the only way to end the cycle of bloody reprisals. She believes the best way to serve our brothers and sisters is to build a better world for our children.
Finally, after Anderson’s sudden and mysterious departure, the mother is able to see her footprints in the “virgin” soil, and beings to believe that a new home is possible. There is also the suggestion of harmonious integration with the indigenous native peoples, as Joan tells how an Indian woman has offered her a bowl of earth which she takes into her hands and swallows. This native woman is first evoked by Joan at the beginning of the play, accompanied by bird sounds, but her role remains ambiguous, and decidedly unhistorical, since the Micmacs and Malecites were dispossessed with the arrival of the Loyalists. There was no harmonious integration. Racial and social borders were imposed as the Loyalists acquired property and power.
Pollock provokes her audience into a re-examination of our perspectives on Canadian history. Her historiography is subversive and iconoclastic.
Commentary by Anne Nothof, excerpted from her essay, “Crossing Borders: Sharon Pollock’s Revisitation of Canadian Frontiers,” in Modern Drama XXXVIII. No. 4 (Winter 1995): 475-487.
Last updated 2016-08-05