This Newfoundland Play about Cannibalism is a Swiftian Tour de Force

Mary Dalton on Frank's Barry's Wreckhouse

Next month, Palimpsest Press brings out acclaimed Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton's first book of critical essays, Edge: Essays, Reviews, Interviews. In the following excerpt, she discusses the play Wreckhouse, which opened this week in 2002.

A SWIFTIAN TOUR de force that ought to be read by everyone interested in contemporary Newfoundland, Frank Barry's play Wreckhouse was first performed at the Resource Centre for the Arts in the LSPU Hall in St. John's in 2002; it was published in 2003 by Killick Press. It is a fiercely witty satire of a culture driven by poverty and political mismanagement to sell a parody of itself to tourists, and it is a brilliant dramatic achievement in any context. It is one of the most culturally significant works of Newfoundland literature to appear recent decades.

Bringing to bear on his creation a wide-ranging knowledge of  modernist and contemporary European drama, Barry draws on Brecht and Beckett, among others, in creating a surreal world, a postindustrial wasteland inhabited by a small band of cannibals who survive by trapping stray tourists, dancing them through mockeries of the usual tourist rituals, and cooking them up at a "folk feastival." The premise is grim indeed, but the analysis is astute, and the language play is stunning. In addition to its other strengths, Wreckhouse captures the fizz and spit, the ragged energy, of Newfoundland speech. With Early Newfoundland Errors, a later radio play by Ed Riche, Wreckhouse casts a cold eye on the way we live now. It is at once a dazzlingly funny play, and one of the darkest works in the literature, as bitter a piece of social commentary as Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and Christopher Bond's play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It is at once a dazzlingly funny play, and one of the darkest works in the literature, as bitter a piece of social commentary as Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

While one can dip into the play at any point and draw up delectably witty passages, Wreckhouse is not particularly well served by quotation; any individual speech is qualified in various ways by the theatrical context. Layers of irony are to be found everywhere. As well, many of the hardest-hitting and most verbally agile monologues go on for pages. Still, some sense of Barry's "fierce indignation" and of his verbal pyrotechnics may be gained from listening in.

Barry is merciless in his lampooning of stereotypes fostered by government tourist ads. Larky,  described in the cast list as "a confidence man," lures visitors to the island for cannibal rituals on the barrens. He considers his actions less sinister than those of the ad-makers, whom he sees as exploiting something akin to a fascist vision of the province. Replying to his helper Sydney’s quip about his “Ismism” that Nazism and a certain kind of Newfoundland nationalism can be linked, Larky launches into one of his dazzling tirades: 

They both begin with "N." No I'm sayin' they're caused by the same forces. And haven't you noticed some of the disturbing similarities in the jingoistic propaganda? Don't those TV ads depicting the bright-eyed lassies and their Menschfolk dancing in circles beneath the perfect sky to the music of accordions give off a faint whiff of Bavarian Uberjoy. Just add some lederhosen and steins of Lowenbrau and you got a perfect picture of Aryan Folk Himmel. And all this self promotion can only stem from one thing. A grimacing mask of hospitality covering a cringing clock of desperation. Besides everybody hates tourists. It's natural. They create so much envy. They're always on holiday. They turn everyone into servants. Excuse me. Service industry workers. (Bitterly.) Our pudgy pink masters. So much self loathing.

Here is Old Crow, a central crone-like figure, a Hogarthian version of Mother Courage, 
commenting on the poor quality of the specimens Larky has trapped for cooking up at
their "folk festival":

You call this marketing? Ahh, they'll do. They'll have to do. We have enough for a set. (Clapping her hands and rubbing them together in absurd glee.) That's what's important. Yep, a regular Jiggamaree. A real Screechamaroo. A real Codtonguein'agolly. A fine Ceidlihshelaighlee. A virtual Ubervolkaroony. A splendiferous Lobsterboilarama. Hee and Haw and Haw and Hee. Seniors and children get in free.

This is Old Crow on these same tourists a little later:

(Wiping her mouth.) God, I could suck them dry. They're not as plump as real tourists but delectable just the same. When we get 'em dressed up they'll be Isaacs on a slab. Now. We better get everything ready-o. It's almost time.... (...They form a line and, like a zombie chain gang, slowly follow Old Crow who speaks to them as they go.) Come for the whales, stay for the time. Jig to the jigs and hark to the rhyme. Hum through the songs and nod to the tunes. Dance in a circle and dig the mad spoons. (They all go off into the darkness.)

No one escapes whipping in Wreckhouse. Barry's satire of those who consider themselves above the scrabbling Newfoundlanders is equally scathing. Dr. Thomas O'Steinway, the immigrant Irish doctor, ruminates about his secret contempt for everything around him:

And my patients? The truth is I hated them. I hated their bodies, their accents, and their folk festivals. I actually stood on committees to raise funds for those accordion screeching, nasal hymning, tribal bewilderments. After a meeting where I'd bugle the virtues of "preserving the culture," I'd rush home to my empty house, whose homemade daybed I'd burnt in the backyard, turn Mingus up on max, and drown out the sound of those hideous haitches with a bottle of overproof rum. I did like the rum. Not Screech. Jesus Christ on the cross. The night they screeched me in. (Gasps.) The cod kissing ceremony. Me all smiles. I could have machine gunned the whole rubber booted, sou' westered, tourist-dollar grasping lot of them. Why did I pretend. No one asked me to be on those committees.

This is just a fragment of a much longer monologue in which Steinway touches on cod poaching and emigrating to Alberta to work in slaughterhouses, among other cultural phenomena.

Wreckhouse has the vigour and imaginative strength of many of the collective plays which emerged here in the 70s and 80s; it challenges a society to look at itself in a most unflattering mirror, revealing the horrific joke of its pimping itself. Now if only we might have a similar play for our oily time.


MARY DALTON's latest book of poems is Hooking: A Book of Centos (2013) and the forthcoming book of critical essays Edge: Essays, Reviews, Interviews (2015). 

WHAT TO READ NEXT: "A force that churns has somewhere else to be, / especially when spattered with this light. Someone got it started; it is free."