Canadian playwright David French has died in Toronto. French, who was originally from Coley's Point, was 71 years old. According to the CBC, his passing Saturday night was an ending to a long-fought battle with brain cancer.
French is highly recognized in Canadian theatre for his translations of famous titles such as "Miss Julie" by August Strindberg. However, he is best known for his original Mercer family series.
The five plays on the Mercer family are set in Newfoundland and Labrador, between 1924 and the early 1960s. In the summer of 2009, the plays were performed in their entirety for the first time back-to-back, in a special season of the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cow Head.
"The whole company - from the ushers to the directors - were all in awe. I mean, this is a man of greatness in our presence," Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador's Gaylene Buckle recalled thinking at the time. "And he was just so down to Earth and so easy going and put everyone at ease."
More than 40 people were involved in the season of French, including Jerry Etienne, the actor who played the role of Jacob Mercer.
"What a lovely, gracious, wonderful man," Etienne said. "The Gros Morne Theatre Festival doesn't have the bells and whistles that he may have seen in other productions of his plays, but he was certainly very, very gracious."
As for French's writing, Etienne said the character of Jacob Mercer was simply "a fantastic character" and that French's writing provided extensive creative flexibility.
"His plays were really quite open to interpretation, and from the stories that David told while he was in Gros Morne, they have been interpreted in many different ways," he said with a laugh. "He told some very funny stories about productions that he'd seen of his plays that might have been a bit surprising to him."
Newfoundland actress and writer Ruth Lawrence said she started out her career using selections from French's plays as audition pieces, before landing the role of Nina in a production of French's translation of Anton Chekov's "The Seagull" (the translation was later used for a Broadway production starring Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke and Jon Voight).
"A couple of years later, I performed 'Salt-Water Moon' with Mark Critch for Rising Tide Theatre for three years. I was proud of that show. That's also when I realized that structurally, it is a perfect play," Lawrence said. "He was a great writer. He told great stories."
Lawrence said she ran into the playwright at another mounting of "Salt-Water Moon" a few years later, this time with "Republic of Doyle" star Krystin Pellerin in her role. Part of French's achievement was in the popularity of his plays, in the fact they were launched time and again for audiences across the country. The play "Leaving Home" premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in 1972. Within a year, the play had had 35 productions nationwide.
Since French's death, Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian has referred to him as "one of the major playwrights in modern Canadian theatre," while a notice put out by the Toronto Sun called him "one of the largest figures in Canadian theatre."
He was a member of the Order of Canada and also awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal. He was named to the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council's Hall of Honour in 1988.
He is survived by his partner, Glenda MacFarlane, his son Gareth and his daughter Mary.