Written by Jason Sherman
Directed by Richard Rose
Set design by Camellia Koo
Featuring: R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein, Peter Hutt, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Patrick McManus
The Message is a bio-play about the late communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, written by Jason Sherman. As a drama, it is at once necessary and redundant. It is necessary because we need to be reminded from time to time what it was to be a Canadian academic in a major institution during that post WWII period when the world was suffering from great tension and anxiety that today we might call collective post-traumatic stress disorder.
The play is redundant because The Message concentrates too much on what we don’t really need to know and too little on what we really do need to know. In other words, the medium (theatre) is very good but the message is just nowhere to be found.
With a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge (his dissertation was on the playwright and poet, Thomas Nashe), Marshall McLuhan accepted an appointment to teach courses in English literature at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in 1946. He had hopes of one day carving out an academic career as a Shakespearean scholar and critic but soon learned that another young colleague named Northrop Frye was already beginning to map out that terrain with great confidence.
At the U of T, McLuhan was surrounded by a significant number of cognate developments in science, the arts and the humanities, that would all contribute to building the University’s reputation as “the Harvard of the North” during the next two decades. Besides Frye, there was the political economist, Harold Innis (upon whom McLuhan leaned heavily in his own work); Ursula Franklin, the German physicist, peace activist and feminist who had survived the Holocaust and come to the U of T on a Lady Davis post doctoral fellowship in 1949, later accepting a professorial appointment in the department of engineering; John Polanyi began lecturing in the chemistry department in 1956 and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in that subject thirty years later. This is to name just a few of McLuhan’s academic colleagues during his tenure.
The first scene of The Message begins in the dark, with verbal utterances that don’t make a lot of sense. Having not read the script beforehand, I don’t know if this call is directorial or if it is called for in the playwright’s stage directions, but it gives us the feeling that someone is timidly putting their toe into the water before calling “lights up”. When that happens we learn that the teaser of unintelligible verbal foreplay was actually McLuhan himself who is recovering from a stroke. R.H. Thomson plays the futurist McLuhan (who remains seated centre stage throughout the play) with great insight and no little amount of aplomb. The obvious nod to McLuhan’s love for James Joyce allows playwright Sherman to construct some free flow Joycean-like stream of consciousness speeches that Thomson delivers with great panache. Sarah Orenstein plays his faithful, loving wife, Corrine.
The framing of the storyline, such as it is, sees McLuhan at the height of his fame in the 1960s and owes much to Tom Wolfe’s 1965 New York Herald Tribune piece later republished in his collection of essays contained in The Pumphouse Gang. In it, Wolfe describes how McLuhan is approached by a San Francisco advertising executive (played by Peter Hutt) and a U.S. television network executive (Patrick McManus) who see great possibilities in monetizing this quirky Canadian’s narrative and making some money on the lecture circuit while boosting a television network’s falling ratings. They recruit McLuhan to an elaborate press conference in San Francisco to introduce him to the hipsters, the poets and the intellectuals who were making the scene at the bookstores and the bars of North Beach.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster plays multiple supporting roles including McLuhan’s graduate assistant and a topless San Francisco waitress who has more insight than the men she waits upon.
Marshall McLuhan died in 1980 and for a time the future of his research centre at the University of Toronto looked doubtful. It was only after the eruption of protests when it was announced the University would close the facility, that the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology got a new lease on life. Today it survives and indeed thrives with programming around themes such as “Black Technoscience Here” and “Transnational Feminism in a Time of Digital Islamophobia.” (www.mcluhancentre.ca)
Before the advent of IT, the personal computer and social media, McLuhan was on to something and he knew it. Eloquently (and prophetically) he observed, “The same thing is happening all over the world. The world is growing into a huge tribe, a global village, in a seamless web of electronics.”
The Medium plays through December 16th.