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“It is not exactly factually autobiographical. It is emotionally autobiographical.”
- David French
Five of the twelve plays penned by David French tell the semi-autobiographical story of the Mercer family from Coley’s Point, Newfoundland. You could fill a very large theatre with all the professional actors who have played Jacob or Mary in a Mercer family play. You could probably fill a stadium if you included all the high school and other amateur productions. The Mercer plays offer a family dynasty, creating a Canadian mythology around these two characters. In Salt-Water Moon we meet them as wooing teenagers. They are married and parents in the next three plays. Jacob, who is sixteen in Soldier’s Heart, is the only one who appears in all five Mercer plays.
“I’d like to play all the Jacobs at some point in my life.”
– Jamie Mac,
Jacob Mercer in the National Arts Centre production of Salt-Water Moon, 2011
In Leaving Home, Mary and Jacob Mercer are a married middle-aged couple living in Toronto with two teenaged sons when their elder son Ben announces his decision to leave home. After its very successful run in Toronto in 1972, Leaving Home went on to be produced at virtually every regional theatre in the country – the first Canadian play ever to do so. It showed Canadian theatres that there was an audience keen to see plays written by Canadians.
In 1973, its sequel, Of The Fields, Lately, opened Tarragon Theatre’s third season. It is two years later, and Ben Mercer returns home for the funeral of his aunt to discover that his father has suffered a heart attack and is not working. Ben must decide whether he will stay and help his family. “I wrote it because people kept asking me what happened to the Mercers after Ben leaves home,” said French. It won a Chalmers Award, was adapted as a CBC television special, and was produced across Canada and abroad — including a critically acclaimed Spanish-language run in Argentina and a production on Broadway.
It took David French eleven years to return to the Mercers with the prequel Salt-Water Moon in 1984. Eighteen-year-old Jacob Mercer has returned from Toronto to the tiny Newfoundland outport of Coley’s Point, hoping to win back his former sweetheart, Mary Snow. French’s first draft had about twenty characters. The final script has two. He describes the play as being about his father and mother, but also about him and his wife. Sadly, neither of his parents lived to see the play. He once wrote of his parents in a playwright’s note to Salt-Water Moon, “I can’t help feeling that of all the Mercer plays written so far, this is the one that would have touched them most.”
It has since had hundreds of productions, including an annual outdoor production at Rising Tide Theatre in Newfoundland. It was adapted for CBC Radio and has been produced extensively in the United States, Britain and Ireland, including productions in London and at the Edinburgh Festival. After its successful premiere run at Tarragon’s Mainspace, it immediately transferred to the Bayview Playhouse (Toronto) for a three-week run.
The French language version, Une lune d’eau salée, translated by Antonine Maillet, has been produced across Canada. Salt-Water Moon won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Drama, the Hollywood Drama-League Critics’ Award, and the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play.
When accepting the Dora, David French said that he wanted to thank “the two people who made me want to put a moon in the sky – my parents.”
1949 is a fond look at the extended Mercer clan (it has fourteen characters) as Newfoundland prepares to join Confederation. As recent immigrants to Toronto, the members of the Mercer family see this event both as a new future and as a loss of Newfoundland's culture and independence. 1949 premiered at Canadian Stage (Toronto) in 1988.
In Soldier’s Heart, a young Jacob and his father Esau deal with the impact of World War I. The play, which explores the effect of the Great War on two generations of Mercers, was produced at the Tarragon in 2001, thirty years after the Mercer family was first introduced to Canada.
During his last years, David French was working on a sixth Mercer play. It remains unfinished.