Does a touch of darkness lurk in even the nicest Canadian heart?
Quite possibly, according to Jonathan Christenson. He wrote and is directing Vigilante, a rock-styled musical about the notorious, 19th century Donnelly family of southern Ontario that’s at the National Arts Centre starting March 29.
The Donnellys, as you remember, were Irish immigrants who farmed in Biddulph Township north of London, Ontario. They weren’t especially peaceable – James, the paterfamilias, wound up in Kingston Penitentiary for killing a man with a railway spike in 1857 – and their constant battles with other township residents finally got five of the Donnelly brothers massacred and their home burned by neighbouring vigilantes. No one was ever convicted of the crimes.
Since then, the Donnellys have become the stuff of legend, the subject of books, plays and songs including two by the late Stompin’ Tom Connors, and part of the warp and woof of Canadian history. Seems we just can’t get enough of their story.
One reason for our fascination , says Christenson, is that “Canadians have an instinctual sense that the idea put forward that we’re clean and nice doesn’t (completely) capture who we are as a people.” The Donnellys came to Canada “full of hope, yet their experience speaks to a dark side we have.”
There’s also a “mythic quality” to this dark, dangerous family and the fate it met, a kind of monumentalism we don’t usually associate with Canada but which is actually part of our history. Christenson says playgoers respond to that mythic, monumental element in Vigilante.
The Edmonton-based playwright — who’s forged an admired career nationally and internationally with difficult-to-categorize, musical theatre shows like The Blue Orphan and Nevermore — was first bitten by the Donnelly bug when he lived as a youngster in London, ON. There he learned that a young farmhand, Johnny O’Connor, had witnessed the massacre while hiding under a bed in the Donnellys’ home. “It got under my skin,” he says. “That’s where the seed was first planted” to write about the family.
Casting about for a subject for a new work a few years back, he revisited the story of the troublesome and troubled family. Although The Donnellys, the trilogy by the late Ontario playwright James Reaney, still commanded attention (Sticks and Stones, the first part of the trilogy, played the National Arts Centre in 2007), Christenson felt the story merited a fresh perspective.
“It was about issues of our time,” he says. “About the migration of people around the world; the politics of fear, anger, vigilantism; about where terrorism is normalized.”
As part of his research, he visited the Donnelly homestead where a fellow who says he’s clairvoyant now lives and claims to have seen the ghosts of the family. Christenson says he made the trek to the homestead in February, the same month the Donnellys were killed. “It was a very bleak landscape, and it planted the seed of the notion for the play: What if the ghosts returned to tell their story?”
That story is one of love and hate, revenge and the gargantuan task of forgiving when one is the victim of injustice. The challenge as a playwright, says Christenson, was whether he could take the audience to that interior place where the Donnellys live.
It’s important to remember, he says, that the Donnellys, now mythic, were real, complex people. In writing Vigilante, he says he wanted to create characters whose reliability, like that of the vigilantes, is questionable but whose passion is indisputable.
To create that passion, Christenson turned to rock when he composed the music and wrote the lyrics. “I don’t tend to write in a hard rock style generally, but it was interesting to go down that road,” he says. “There’s an angry edge and raw energy to rock. It bypasses the head and goes right to the heart.” Like the Donnellys and bad boys everywhere, he says that rock is dangerous but compelling.
Christenson says that while he admires the much-vilified Johanna Donnelly, the strong-willed mother of the clan who managed to run the family farm when her husband was carted off to jail, he wouldn’t want to chum around with her sons despite his fascination with their ghosts.
“If I was in a bar that the Donnelly boys were in, I think I’d figure out pretty quickly that I was in the wrong bar.”
Vigilante is playing in the National Arts Centre Theatre from March 29 to April 15 (previews March 29 and 30; opening night, March 31). For tickets and more information, please see nac-cna.ca.