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Blowfish by Edmonton playwright Vern Thiessen was commissioned by Workshop West Theatre in 1995. It was given public workshops at Workshop West’s Springboards Festival in February 1996, Alberta Theatre ProjectsPlayRites Festival in March 1996, and the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre’s Spring Festival of New Plays in May 1996. It was further developed and co-produced by Northern Light Theatre in Edmonton and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and opened on November 6, 1996 at the Commerce Place in downtown Edmonton, with a banquet for the audience, directed by DD Kugler, designed by Bretta Gerecke, with John Kirkpatrick as Lumiere, and cellist Christine Hanson.

Blowfish explores the possibility of lived humanist values through an extended philosophical monologue, spoken by a caterer named Lumiere. He traces his life in Alberta from his experiences in the mortuary where he assisted his father, the death of his twin brother in a car accident and the deaths of his parents in the Edmonton tornado of 1988. He describes his conversion to a right-wing political agenda, and finally enacts his own death as a ritualistic celebration. Lumiere’s life unfolds as a series of disasters that test his beliefs, but which finally inform his beliefs. He formulates a philosophy of dying, which is integral to his philosophy of living, and he takes his cue from Socrates – whose dying provided the opportunity for one last symposium with his followers. The implication is, then, that a humanist philosophy that values rationality and self-determination is defined through interrogation and debate, not through fixed systems or ideologies. As playwright John Murrell recognizes in his introduction to the published text of Blowfish (Playwrights Canada 1996), this inquiry is one of the most important responsibilities of drama, and the creation of theatre is essentially a humanist enterprise: “to flash an intense and individual reflection of human existence in our eyes, so that its beauty can illuminate us before its anguish causes us to look away.”

In Blowfish Lumiere’s vision of Socrates is much like that of John Ralston Saul: Socrates was primarily motivated by the idea of a disinterested public good. To this end he applied a mode of inquiry that activated and energized doubt and irony. Thiessen’s play employs a similar process, pitting the chaotic, irrational forces of a tornado against the positive constructive elements of family as a microcosm of human society.

Thiessen’s protagonist is also engaged in a political and social debate when he is seduced into the fold of the Conservative Party through his infatuation with Mila Mulroney. Her advice to him is that he “serve others and others will serve [him]” (11). From an unemployed philosophy grad, Lumiere transforms into “a Young Conservative: independent, ambitious, responsible, debt-free, entrepreneurial, driven” (11). He “progresses” through a number of jobs from security guard to writing for an organization called Canadians For a Better Canada, “whose more radical members were accused of beating a man into unconsciousness” (11). When the radicals are convicted, he is out of a job, and relocates to the U.S., where he meets up with an even more radical group. His experience with an American anarchist attempting the destruction of civilized public society south of the border convinces him that the appropriate response to irrational human violence is to eradicate it.

While preparing for his final curtain, Lumiere presents the “four things that link us as human beings”:

Number one: Food. We all have to eat.

Number two: Death. We all have to die.

Number three: The Weather....

A fulmination.

And number four: Politics.

. . .

Politics is people. People like you and me. People converging in groups: families, churches, governments, unions, and political parties. The farmer, the weatherman, the undertaker (7-8).

Lumiere contends that what we all need is “Someone to watch, to witness, to honour, to . . . to remember,” and he stages his own death as a ritualistic celebration shared by the audience in an emulation of Socrates’ death by Hemlock. The theatre, then, provides the place and occasion for such rituals of sharing and celebrating life’s mysteries.

Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2015-06-19