David French’s award-winning and ongoing dramatic cycle about the Mercer family, both in their native Newfoundland and later, as participants in the great outport clearances, relocated in Toronto, has become a defining part of Canada’s theatrical history.
Set in Toronto, the first play, Leaving Home (1972), introduced the family saga’s key figure, Jacob Mercer, who appears in all of the plays. Also in this series are Of the Fields, Lately (1973); Salt-Water Moon (1984); and 1949 (1988), which deals with this expatriate family’s reaction to Newfoundland’s entry into confederation.
With Soldier’s Heart, French looks back in time at the thoroughly alienated 16-year-old Jacob, standing on a railway platform, his suitcase and one-way ticket away from home in hand. His father Esau, a veteran of the First World War, rushes to the station in a last-ditch effort to persuade his son not to leave. Unable to speak of what had happened in the Great War since his return, Esau begins, in halting and tentative language to tell of his comrades and his brother, their training in Scotland, the agony of Gallipoli, and finally the formative events at the battle of the Somme at Beaumont Hamel. At first defensive in response to his son’s probing and impatient questioning, Esau’s answers evolve into stories of pride, foolishness, anger, desperation and finally mindless terror, leaving only the image of a man driven by the blind animal instinct to survive. It is this devastating and unsparing account of all that is in a soldier’s heart, that finally brings father and son back together.
Born in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, David French was one of Canada’s best-known and most critically acclaimed playwrights. His work received many major awards, and French was one of the first inductees into the Newfoundland Arts Hall of Honour.
Among his best-loved works are the semi-autobiographical Mercer plays: Salt-Water Moon; 1949; Leaving Home, recently named one of Canada’s 100 Most Influential Books (Literary Review of Canada) and one of the 1,000 Most Essential Plays in the English Language (Oxford Dictionary of Theatre); Of the Fields, Lately and Soldier’s Heart. The Mercer plays have received hundreds of productions across North America, including a Broadway production of Of the Fields, Lately. This quintet of plays about a Newfoundland family has also touched audiences in Europe, South America and Australia. In addition, French produced skillful adaptations of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Forest, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.