Viewed from today’s perspective, the non-confidence motion that took down the federal Progressive Conservative government in late 1979 and precipitated the end of Joe Clark’s brief tenure as prime minister seems a mere footnote in Canadian history. But Michael Healey – a playwright with a fondness for the subtleties and absurdities of Canadian politics – thought he spotted something of enduring importance in the events swirling around that non-confidence vote. The result is 1979, at the Great Canadian Theatre Company starting April 11.
The play, which is billed as a satire and just had its world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, zeroes in on the evening before Clark’s minority government presented an austerity budget that included a steep, new gasoline tax. Clark, a highly principled man, knew the risks involved but believed in his financial strategy. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, others didn’t, triggering a federal election that swept the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau back into power.
In the play, Clark seeks a respite in his office, but his quiet retreat soon turns into a magnet for powerhouse politicians galore, who crash his alone time and whose appearance presages long-term currents in Canadian politics.
Healey says the events of December, 1979 have long fascinated him. “I always think, particularly when you’re writing political theatre, putting principled people under an enormous amount of pressure creates an interesting night at the theatre.”
Clark, says Healey, “took a principled decision and believed he could win. His philosophical bent is toward governing for all in spite of the fact you’re only elected by some, as opposed to using regional divides or class or anything else to get people on side. To a certain extent, that kind of politics is over.”
The playwright, a favourite on the GCTC roster, is clear about having enormous respect for the man from High River, Alberta.
Clark didn’t walk away from the arena when he lost the leadership of the PCs to Brian Mulroney in 1983 but instead took on key cabinet roles under Mulroney in thorny areas like international and constitutional affairs. He did leave politics in 1993 but returned to lead the PCs one last time in 1998. These days he’s seen as an elder statesman.
Healey says the play is also “a bit of a love letter” to the parliamentary process when it functions as it should. “It’s an example of people of mostly good will doing their jobs in a reasonably competent way, and the result being tough but heartening from a democratic standpoint.”
At the same time, “The context of (1979) now seems quaint. (Clark) presents a mildly austere budget and can’t get it through. In contemporary context, that seems kind of charming. The stakes seem so much lower.”
GCTC’s artistic director Eric Coates is directing the production, which moves to the Shaw Festival after its run in Ottawa.
He says that programming this season at GCTC with both 1979 and Brooke Johnson’s one-woman show Trudeau Stories about her friendship with Pierre Trudeau was “just happenstance. When I read (1979), it had great resonance in Ottawa and that was the driver in Ottawa.”
He says by focusing on Clark, a man with progressive beliefs, the play “defines the moment that the Red Tories died and helps us understand why Joe Clark later enjoyed this re-emergence as a beloved elder statesman. And that’s one of Michael’s points: that it’s possible to admire someone’s contribution to the country even if you don’t agree with their political position.”
He believes the play also underscores how our country has changed in the past four-odd decades. While 1979 encapsulates our desire to be a compassionate society, the reality is that we’ve become more polarized and that the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015 after a decade of Stephen Harper represents “our longing for a different time.”
Healey, who didn’t interview Clark as part of his research, began writing the play before the 2015 election when a Harper re-election was a very real possibility. He was interested in how conservatism used to be compared to what it had become under Harper (you may have seen Proud, Healey’s dissection of Harper, which played GCTC in 2013).
After the election, his focus broadened a bit and the subject of Liberal hegemony entered the play along with the theme of what Conservatives now need to do to create a “big enough tent” to reassert themselves on the national stage.
And if all that seems terribly serious, Healey is quick to note that, “One of the goals (of 1979), aside from rehabilitating Clark’s reputation to some extent, is to have a bit of fun. Those are big characters: John Crosbie, Pierre Trudeau – I just had so much fun revisiting those people and putting those fun things in their mouths.”
1979 is playing at GCTC from April 11-30 (previews April 11 and 12; opening night, April 13). For tickets and more information, please see gctc.ca.