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The Mercer Family Play Cycle

The Mercer Family play cycle: Exploring Family and Newfoundland
By Caitlin Main
Please be advised that the following content may contain spoilers of Salt-Water Moon and the other Mercer cycle plays.

In Salt-Water Moon, Jacob Mercer and Mary Snow stand together on a precipice. Their futures, although indefinite, provide them with hope and relief from the past. Even if just for a moment, family troubles fade behind flurried thoughts of young love and their tenacious optimism. Love leaves us with its familiar warmth and an inkling of what is to come.  In fact, the lives of Jacob and Mary surpass the bounds of Salt-Water Moon and trickle into four other plays (Leaving Home; Of the Fields, Lately; Salt-Water Moon; 1949; A Soldier’s Heart) by playwright, David French.  The collection of these plays is widely referred to as the Mercer play cycle.

Each play in the cycle deals with the Mercers and their extended family. David French unapologetically dives into his own family history and its origins in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland to serve as fertile ground for his characters and themes to emerge.  As a collective, the plays – each one a portrait in time - depict the power of intergenerational history, specifically, in relation to immigration and Newfoundland identity. To approach the Mercer play cycle in its entirety is to understand the interconnectedness of the past and present, but also the opportunity to redefine or fight against its power.

Audiences were first introduced to the Mercer family in 1972 with Leaving Home, the realist family drama set in late-1950s Toronto.  Its title is two-fold, signifying both the Mercer family’s immigration from Newfoundland to Canada and the departure of Jacob and Mary’s teenage sons from the family home.  The act of leaving home is more than a rite of passage, however, it may also be a form of resistance.  As the unshakeable rift between Jacob and his eldest son Ben deepens, Ben decides to leave home and seek asylum with his younger brother, Billy and his future wife Kathy.  From Ben’s perspective, Jacob embodies past traditions and ideologies that dictate their relationship, leaving no room for change or improvement. Therefore, the act of leaving home becomes an act of freedom from Jacob and by extension, Ben’s ties to the past.

Ironically, the Mercers’ decision to immigrate to Canada may also be considered an act of resistance from the past.  Both Jacob and Mary Mercer grew up in the dominion of Newfoundland; their lives there were characterized by class struggle, volatile family dynamics, and the aftermath of Beaumont-Hamel. Although Jacob and Mary hold many fond memories of Newfoundland, they chose to immigrate to Canada for a better life for their children.  Leaving home represents a departure from their lives in Newfoundland and the possibility for new beginnings.  Despite Jacob’s best intentions to provide for his sons, Ben still perceives his father to be a relic of the past, stifling his future. 

While both Jacob and Ben have sought liberation via the act of leaving, their unchanging relationship suggests that geographical displacement cannot entirely shed the past. Pieces of the past inevitably embed themselves into relationships and identities that must be reckoned with. The importance of acknowledging the past in order to heal and move forward becomes increasingly evident in French’s next play, Of the Fields, Lately.

Of the Fields, Lately, which premiered in 1973, revisits the Mercer family home years after the events in Leaving Home.  After a spending a significant time away, Ben Mercer returns home for his Aunt Dot’s funeral.  At home, his father’s rapidly deteriorating-health prompts an identity crisis, shaking Ben’s perceptions of Jacob.  Ben – only now privy to the physical condition of his father – is compelled to reconcile his relationship with Jacob, but past relationship dynamics re-emerge. This time, however, French strays from a purely naturalistic style and employs a narrative device to externalize his characters’ thoughts; we learn of the pre-existing tension between Jacob’s working class upbringing and his son’s middle class life. In Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately, Jacob suggests that his sons are ashamed of him.  While these claims may be interpreted as manipulative tactics in Leaving Home, they begin to hold solid ground in Of the Fields, Lately.  In Ben’s opening and final monologues, he describes an incident with his father at a baseball game during his youth. The monologues transform into a confessional of Ben’s deep-seated shame in his father. We learn that he’s embarrassed by his father’s appearance, dialect, and behaviour.

To mend his relationship with his father, Ben must confront his role in their strained relationship. The deterioration of Jacob’s health forces Ben to re-examine his perceptions of his father, uprooting Ben’s prejudices of the working class. In fact, Ben’s prejudices create fixed expectations of Jacob behavior and identity. By projecting his expectations onto Jacob, Ben is complicit in shaping his father’s identity, leaving little room for Jacob to change. As Of the Fields, Lately progresses, Ben begins to come to terms with his prejudices and in turn, is able to develop a newfound sense of respect for his father. As a result, the wall dividing Jacob and Ben begins to crack, allowing room for deeper connections to blossom. By confronting his prejudices, Ben creates space for Jacob to determine his own identity.

Self-determination is also a common thread in Salt-Water Moon. The play, which premiered in 1984, is a dynamic departure from the family torment in French’s previous plays. With a poetic touch, French explores the Mercer family’s roots and the bond of young lovers Mary and Jacob.  Like the other Mercer plays, themes of troubled pasts and relationships emerge. Underneath Jacob and Mary’s passionate deliberations about the future, however, lies an active resistance to definition by past troubles.

In Salt-Water Moon, resistance comes in a subtler, but equally powerful form: imagination. Like all of us, Young Jacob and Mary were born into a set of social circumstances (like class and gender) that have the power to influence one’s future. With imagination, however, Jacob and Mary are able to theorize alternatives to their social circumstances.  The pair speaks honestly about their circumstances, but also find relief in imagining their futures, perhaps at home or at a picture show.  In this sense, imagination becomes a method of resistance to their pre-determined paths. Ultimately, allowing the characters to experience the beginnings of young love.  French touches upon this evident, but often overlook fact: before change to occur, one must imagine change first. The ability to imagine is a liberatory act that offers hope, possibility, and love.

While struggles with individual identity exist in French’s earlier plays, 1949, which debuted in 1988, most explicitly grapples with national identity. Newfoundland sits on the brink of confederation with Canada.  The Mercer family is living in Toronto and caught up in the busyness of daily life.  Ben Mercer, only ten, is constantly in trouble with his school teacher.  The Mercer’s boarder, Ned, is love-struck and confused. And Mary’s old lover, Jerome, is coming for a visit.  However, the confederation forces the family to pause and reflect upon their Newfoundland identity and where their allegiances lie. French contrasts the heated divide of older generations over confederation with the apathy of younger generations whom have lost ties with their family heritage.

In this time of change, the Mercers find comfort in reflecting upon their past and present relationships with Newfoundland. Each generation faces unique challenges in forging a relationship with their birth country.  For the older generations, French illustrates the importance of discussion and debate as a source of reckoning or coming to terms with their past ties to Newfoundland the forthcoming changes.  For example, Jacob’s mother turns to political debate to mourn the nation she once knew and come to terms with its future, even if that means protesting confederation.  On the other hand, the younger generations – many of whom feel disconnected or ashamed of their heritage – use this time to forge initial connections with Newfoundland. The Mercer’s boarder, Ned who is ashamed of his Newfoundland identity turns to writing to reflect upon his past in Newfoundland.  Writing becomes a non-judgmental platform for Ned to experiment with and redefine his identity.  Ultimately, reflection allows the Mercers to consider their past in Newfoundland and move forward in whatever way they deem fit.

In the final play of the cycle, A Soldier’s Heart, David French depicts two generations’ experience of Beaumont-Hamel to explore the nature of cultural memory and collective identity.  Jacob Mercer, only sixteen, waits at a railway station, prepared to flee from his troubles.  A violent incident between Jacob and his father Esau reveals their strained relationship much alike to that of Ben and Jacob. However, both men have been deeply impacted by the events of WWI.  Esau, a soldier during the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, suffers from a ‘soldier’s heart’, more commonly referred to as shell-shock. In order to cope with the past, Esau internalizes his experiences and in doing so, breaks his promise to tell Jacob the truth about his time overseas. While Jacob feels an impulse to flee from his troubles, we witness him over and over again ask his father for the truth in attempts to reconcile their relationship.  In order to maintain a relationship with his son, Esau is forced to confront the long-lasting trauma of the massacre of the Newfoundland regiment in WWI. The discussions between Jacob and Esau illuminate the significance of Beaumont-Hamel not only in their personal lives, but in the memory of a nation.   

Across the cycle, the Mercers face re-occurring challenges of familial strife, prejudices, societal expectations, political change, and trauma which serve as a reminder of the past’s stronghold on the present. However, love and reconciliation prove that our futures are not entirely determinate. Amidst confusion and pain, there is also hope. For the Mercers’ hope may be found in the redefinition of or resistance to the past.  The Mercers employ various tactics in the present – like leaving home, acknowledgment, imagination, reflection, and acceptance – in order to elicit change in the future.  Regardless of their success, French touches upon the natural human impulse to seek freedom from the past and control one’s own life.  

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