How to write a play about a Canadian hero

Actors portraing John McCrae and his mother Janet McCrae

Don Macrae

Meet Don Macrae, author of A Night in Flanders

Get inside the mind of Canadian hero John McCrae. Try to imagine the turbulent emotional state that led to the composition of his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. Convey all that to an audience in a compelling one-act play to be performed outdoors.

It may sound like a daunting task to most, but Guelph-based playwright Donald Macrae was ready to “jump in with both feet” when told about the project by Bev Dietrich, curator at Guelph Museums.

Dietrich, who is also a veteran of the local theatre scene, is particularly enthused about the outdoor play, which is one of a number of initiatives Guelph Museums has planned for the centenary of In Flanders Fields. “In my experience, outdoor theatre is always an event you remember,” says Dietrich.

The play also presents an opportunity to tell McCrae’s story in a new way. As Guelph Museums manager Tammy Adkin says, “Audiences will learn about McCrae’s life in a manner that really touches them on an emotional level.”

Macrae immediately leapt to mind as the perfect playwright for the job—and not just because he shares a similar last name with the famous Canadian (they’re not related). Macrae has had past experience writing plays featuring historical figures. He penned a popular one-man show about Robbie Burns entitled Great Scot!

According to Macrae, writing about a real person rather than a fictional character carries its own unique challenges. “When I invent characters, I put a lot of myself into them,” says Macrae. “With real characters, it’s important that I don’t put any of myself in them.   The worst thing that could happen to me is if someone said, ‘that’s not him. That’s not McCrae.’ ”

To familiarize himself with his subject, Macrae spent many long hours poring over McCrae’s diaries, letters, and scrapbooks. “I have quite an obsessive compulsive nature,” he says. “I really needed to find out as much as I could about him. I just took and took and took until I had filled hundreds of pages with notes.”

What he discovered in these documents was an incredibly complex and multi-faceted man – hard-working, intelligent, creative and selfless. “He was a great example of someone making the most of this life, of being active rather than passive,” says Macrae. “He caused me to look at my own life and ask, ‘are you doing what you need to do to be satisfied?’ I was inspired by him.”

The research was so absorbing that Macrae found it difficult to switch back into playwriting mode.  “I had to throw out so much material, because what enthralls you as a historian does not necessarily enthrall you as a theatre goer.”

Originally, he had planned to have only one character in the play – John McCrae – but Dietrich urged him to add another. One of the most important people in McCrae’s life was his mother, Janet, whom he wrote letters to twice a week throughout his adult life. Macrae knew he had to find a way of incorporating Janet into the play.

“But then I was thinking what to do with these two people,” says Macrae. “I was struggling because I did not want to do a ‘biopic’ thing. It would not be revealing enough.”

Then Macrae had a eureka moment. He decided the play would take place entirely on May 2nd, the day that McCrae buried soldier Alexis Helmer, and composed his famous poem. Following the burial service, McCrae would return to his dugout exhausted and fall into a reverie. During the reverie, he would be visited by the spirit of his mother, who would help him grapple with the tough moral and spiritual questions the war had posed.

With the idea of a dream, Macrae had found an ingenious device to frame the action of the play and bring together his two characters.

Audiences expecting a harrowing night of theatre might be surprised, thinks Macrae. “It’s not all serious. At the same time it is humorous and hopeful. I think people will feel good at the end of it.”

The play will likely also give people a renewed appreciation for the poem. Recently, a friend and English teacher paid Macrae the ultimate compliment. “He told me that through the years of teaching and reciting the poem, it had been reduced to something jingoistic – like a commercial,” says Macrae. “’But when he read the play, and saw the way I built up to the writing of it, he was able to understand the poem as a piece of thought and action. He could love it again.”

The play opens in the McCrae House backyard July 2. Tickets are on sale right now. Please see our event page for more details.

Posted by Dawn Owen on June 12, 2015