On July 15, Professor David A. Wilson of University of Toronto visited the SALON Team as a special guest in our summer outdoor theatre experience, In Sir John A’s Footsteps. Afterwards, SALON actor, Jesse MacMillan sat down with the Ph.D. to discuss their mutual interest, Irish Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Wilson shares how he became fascinated with D’Arcy McGee, and why.
Check out Part 1 HERE
In PART 2, Dr. Wilson explains how he drew artifacts together to discover Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s personality. In this blog, we also find out what Wilson thinks about SALON Theatre and the collision of history and art.
MacMillan: You can get good glimpse, I found into his brain by reading his poetry.
Wilson: And his speeches. This is where I go to—his speeches—and his sense of humour. I say in the intro to Volume II (or maybe it’s Volume I), that the hardest thing to get at is McGee’s sense of humour, because it’s situational humour. It’s not punch line humour (or occassionally it is). It’s embedded in situations, and it’s satirical humour that can only be fully appreciated if you have a detailed knowledge of the context. If you try to explain a joke, you kill it, so I say in the book…there is only one way you can get [his humour], and it’s to go directly to his speeches, and read them.
He had a very self-deprecating sense of humour…and a very wry sense of humour that came across in his letters… No matter what political position he was taking, he was always good company. I think what one person described as “a sparkling whit” of D’Arcy McGee largely accounts for that.
MacMillan: What I found impressive while reading his speeches was how he would have an idea that he would start talking about, and then he would go on and on, elaborating and pulling from different sources, and some how, within the same super long sentence, those ridiculously long sentences, would tie it up. I would read it and go: Did he just say that…in the room?!
Wilson: There’s a brilliant description by Sanford Fleming, from 1862, He’s in St Laurence Hall in Toronto waiting for McGee to give a speech, and the train is late coming in from Montreal. So the audience is hanging about and then Sanford Fleming (as he describes in a letter to a friend many years latter after McGee’s assassination), this man came in who was shabbily dressed, and he came onto the stage, and Sanford Fleming thought, Oh, it’s a porter or somebody telling us that McGee won’t be coming, and then this man started to talk and it was instantly clear it was D’Arcy McGee, and when he spoke, McGee’s face was transformed and he held the room completely, with this magnetic personality.
Somethinge else… that’s interesting, especially to someone that’s playing the part of D’Arcy McGee, is that…he studied oratory very carefully indeed. His oratorical style was very different from that of most people. Most people had to project, and of course they did because there were no microphones. So it was a very bombastic public style of oratory. But McGee didn’t do that. McGee was almost…unique in that he drew people in. He had great rhythmic variation in his talks, and he could shift moods very quickly…but he was not a shouter or a screamer. He was a conversationalist. He’d hush the room and speak in a conversational tone with no [written] notes. These speeches that he gave, which are quoting sources left, right and centre, and generally quoting them accurately, he did with no notes. So he had a phenomenal memory as well.
MacMillan: I play D’Arcy McGee across Canada on a train, and when I’m talking to people, I’m a pretty friendly person. It’s from the time that they didn’t smile in photos, so it’s hard to get that humour, but I read things and he’s the wild person in the room.
Wilson: Something else that I feel is well worth keeping in mind is that he hated stage Irish stuff. Absolutely hated it. On one occasion, in Montreal, he was invited by the Mechanics Institute…to give a talk. He was preceded by a comedian, who was doing the drunken paddy stuff. Although McGee was a heavy drinker (there’s a bit of irony here), McGee regarded [the comedian’s performance] as an insult to the Irish people. On stage, he berated the organizers for allowing such a thing to happen on stage. So the notion of McGee as a leprechaun he would have found repulsive—which is ironic because sometimes he’s portrayed in that way. There’s a series of painting of McGee, by a very well known Toronto artists from the mid 20th century and they are all stereotypical Irish pictures of McGee. He would not have enjoyed those paintings any more than William Butler Yates would have enjoyed jazz versions of his own poetry.
McMillan: He wrote about a dozen books, and two of them were fiction, have you read them? Or do you know what they’re about?
Wilson: The first book he wrote, Eva Macdonald, was a work of fiction, and he wrote it when he was 17. Perhaps no more need be said. It is a dreadful piece of work— although no less interesting for that. It was situated in the Antrim Coast. Some people I met in Ireland did a lot of genealogical research, and they found out that McGee, before the age of 8, lived up on the Antrim Coast road because his father was in the customs service. This was right by the sea, and there was a customs house right by Garron Point. The description of the scenery and the characters was probably drawn on some of the people he remembered when he was 5-7 years old there.
The second book, had no title, but [McGee] described it to Charles Tupper and an Irish American novel based on his experiences in the United States as a young man in the 1840s, before the famine. I searched long and hard for that manuscript, and spoke to some of the most knowledgeable people in the book world in Britain and Ireland and North America, and nobody has ever found it. I’ve spoken to McGee’s descendants, some of whom I’m on very good terms with, and no idea what happened to an Irish American Tale.
MacMillan: It’ll be the one piece…
Wilson: I hope his fiction improved over the course of his life. It probably did.
MacMillan: One last quick question. We’ve toyed around with the idea in his murder case, that Patrick James Whalen was the murder. [You and I] both feel that maybe there was some tampering with that. Now in a murder case, the last person to see the victim is usually the first suspect. And was that John A. Macdonald?
Wilson: No, the last person to see McGee before the person(s) who shot him (whether he was shot by one or two people, we don’t know), was a guy called Robert McFarland who was a fellow MP. They were sharing a cigar. Also John Buckley, who was a suspect, and two other people. McFarland and Buckley and the others continued to walk southwards, McGee pealed off down Spark Street.
John Buckley called out to McGee, “Good Night, Mr. McGee.” [McGee] replied “Good Morning! It’s morning now.” Those were the last words he spoke.
MacMillan: They had their story, and they got to walk off.
Wilson: Yes. I followed up on that one. They seem like the most obvious suspects, but there’s no reason why Robert McFarland would ever have done that, and he was never under suspicion. Both John Buckley and John A. Macdonald’s coachman [Patrick Buckley] [were] suspects.
An excellent account of McGee’s assassination by Dr. Wilson can be found in Thomas D’Arcy McGee Volume I
At SALON, we take the relationship between art and history seriously. Our Guest Hosts are all leaders and experts in their respective fields. Their expertise is valuable to share with the audiences of In Sir John A’s Footsteps, but they are also valuable sources for the SALON team to make sure that what we do is both entertaining and educational.
MacMillan: So you’ve now seen a lot of SALON’s work, you’ve watched some videos and you saw our show. I wouldn’t mind getting some more of your thoughts on what we’re doing.
Wilson: I’m not kidding when I say I think you’re all extraordinarily talented and you’re great singers and great musicians. You convey issues, themes in mid-late 19th century Canadian politics/history very effectively. And street theatre can be very hokey, but this is not. I like the use of humour, I like the playfulness—the joie de vivre—that the cast has.
I really had no idea what to expect. As I was watching the first time, I was thinking to myself: What would John A. Macdonald have thought of this? What would George Brown have thought of this? Well, George Brown didn’t have much of a sense of humour, so who knows. What would McGee have thought? What would Hugh Allen have thought of this? I think they would have been amused to see themselves present in that way. I don’t think they would have been offended or have said, “It wasn’t like that.” I think they would have taken…as theatre.
I mean, let’s face it, Macdonald didn’t suddenly arrive in Charlottetown and say, “Hey guys! I’m here. Let’s talk about Confederation.” It was George Brown who actually got Confederation going. John A. Macdonald was opposed to it in the 60’s, he was one of the three people who voted against confederation in 1864 before he realized which way the cookie was going to crumble, and then changed his mind. Things like that, you can’t really get into your show…but it doesn’t matter because it framed in this humourous way so you know it’s not trying to replicate exactly what happened. It’s giving you broad brush strokes and it’s giving you something that is intrinsically interesting to the point at which, anyone who’s willing to learn more about it can do so. And there will be quite a few people who will [be interested in learning more] as a result of what you’re doing. So more power to you, is what I say. Keep up the good work.
MacMillan: We like to think that if we can spark a conversation. One of our mandates is to engage people to then go in and learn more. We offer it in the most accessible way and the fun way. We found that the more we dug into the real facts, and trying to put a lot of information in… it becomes too silly. We imagine, if we were hired to do a show about Steven Harper, imagine if we were able to do it in this way. He’d love it if he came and saw a show where were lampooning him a little bit.
Wilson: Actually he might not, but…
MacMillan: Yeah, we’d probably get arrested for terrorism and deported. But yeah…Last quick question, what do you think our next big project should be?
Wilson: I mentioned a couple of ideas that I think would be great. One with some local colour: the story of Ogle Gowan. Talk about a villain of the peace. But a villain who does wind up, because of his careerism I think, breaking with the more extreme elements in the Orange Order. Careerism can have its good side. If you have to choose between someone who was corrupt and someone who is ideologically pure, and hell-bent on changing things, maybe you want the corrupt person.
And I do think the story of the infiltration of the Fenian Brotherhood is amazing untold story, [especially] I think, given the interest people have now in security versus liberty and the dangers of internal subversion, connected with external force. In a different way, the secret police force that Macdonald, McGee and the others grappled with in the 1860s, and the story of the agents themselves in the field is fascinating: their arguments, their backbiting, their successes, their failures, their duplicity, their manipulation and lies. These are people who are practitioners of the art of deception, so it’s not just the Fenians they deceived. They may deceive the women they’re with, or they may deceive their bosses or their colleagues. To me, the story of Charles Clark, this particular one, is completely unknown would be a great thing to do. But there are so many things in Canadian History that can be mined.
Check out Part 1 HERE
Interview by Jesse MacMillan
Transcribed by Allison Ferry
Blog written by Allison Ferry