Howard Anglin: The unimportance of being earnest

Intentionally or not, the play 1979 succeeds in showing why Joe Clark failed as prime minister
Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark takes part in a memorial service in the Senate in Ottawa on Monday, June 5, 2023. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

If it seems strange to review a play about Joe Clark that has already closed, it’s no stranger than writing a play about Joe Clark’s premiership in the first place, let alone staging it for an Off West End audience in London. Watching the breezy production of 1979 at the intimate Finborough Theatre, two thoughts competed in my mind. How many staff can there be at the Canadian High Commission? And what must the English theatre-goers whose tickets aren’t being comped by GAC make of it? Joe Who? Indeed.

Conscious of its obscure subject, the play keeps the audience up to date with a barrage of surtitles identifying the secondary characters (two quick-changing actors alternating as Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Harper, John Crosbie, Allan Lawrence, Flora MacDonald, Brian Mulroney, Maureen McTeer, and Jenni Byrne) and providing relevant, sometimes wry, historical background. What is gained by these crib notes, however, is lost in the distraction of reading about the results of the 1976 PC leadership convention or Brian Mulroney’s progress through the ranks of the Iron Ore Company of Canada while the play’s action continues below.

The surtitles are also unnecessary, as the only characters who matter are the only three the audience is likely to recognise: Clark, Trudeau, and “Steve” (a not-at-all-disguised Stephen Harper). Everyone and everything else is filler: Crosbie storms in to provide updates on the budget vote count; MacDonald flits in and out to remind us what’s going on in the real world (the Iran Hostage crisis, as it happens); Mulroney arrives to push for last-minute patronage appointments (quelle surprise); and Maureen McTeer shows up to stiffen her husband’s, er, resolve.

Clark is written sympathetically. Among the traits that we are supposed to admire are his priggish earnestness and the fact that he had the grace to lose before he could do anything too conservative. Canada’s youngest prime minister may listen to rock music in his office, but only to drown out the fun the Liberal caucus is having celebrating Trudeau’s retirement down the hall. He drinks a little, but he doesn’t swear (a string of constipated “frigs” makes it hard to take his emotional outbursts seriously). He’s smart, but not smart enough to postpone a confidence vote he knows he is going to lose. 

This Clark is so naïve that when Trudeau, taking a break from the Liberal revels to check in on his successor, realises just how guileless he is, he reverses his retirement plans on the spot. Oozing predatory charm and (bizarrely) wielding a toy chainsaw, Trudeau judges Clark deficient in both cunning and charisma and—crucially—not up to the task of matching René Lévesque in a political street fight over the fate of the country. If that’s what really changed Trudeau’s mind, then he was probably right.

Clark’s conversation with Trudeau is one of the play’s two extended discourses on the nature of power. The other is between Clark and “Steve,” the future prime minister appearing anachronistically as a parliamentary errand boy. In an exchange that could have been (and perhaps was) cribbed from Paul Wells’ The Longer I’m Prime Minister, Steve explains to Clark that real political power, the only kind worth pursuing, is the kind that changes a country’s culture. But change takes time—something a prime minister who is willing to lose office rather than exploit the flexibility of parliamentary procedure will never have. Clark indulges his precocious lecturer, alternately amused and appalled by his zeal, but chooses to follow his principles to defeat.  

Like most of the play, the scene is lively but forgettable. The dialogue is superficially entertaining in a CanCon-Sorkin sort of way, but it’s also just…superficial. The play’s understanding of politics is too shallow to say anything important or memorable. Steve’s enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher was probably one of the few references that the London audience caught, but it’s cheap literary shorthand, a substitute for character insight. And while we are supposed to sympathise with Clark’s commitment to principle over expediency, the play never explains why the principles he chooses matter. Unshakable loyalty to the House’s standing orders is a thin thread on which to hang a moral.

Intentionally or not, the play succeeds in showing why Clark failed as prime minister. This Clark simply doesn’t understand the qualities that make a good leader. He is overwhelmed by his onstage office, his brown corduroy suit merging with the wood panelling behind him. He literally fades into the woodwork as more successful politicians impose themselves on him. Clark thinks he has to choose between being decent and effective, and that ruthlessness is incompatible with good government. But these aren’t opposites, and in politics you rarely have the latter without the former. The meek might inherit the earth, but they won’t hold the PMO. 

External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau, both former Prime Ministers meet briefly at a luncheon, Thursday in Montreal in 1985. CP Photo.

1979’s sharpest, though hardly original, insight is that the Liberal Party’s real success has been the way it has achieved cultural “hegemony” (a word the play repeatedly uses and misuses). Steve illustrates this for Clark by pointing out the Liberal red in the flag that Pearson forced through parliament. The play doesn’t get into all the ways in which the Liberals managed to capture the country’s major political and cultural institutions, but Steve at least doesn’t think the damage is irreversible—if only a Conservative prime minister has the mettle to try. It is ironic then, that a common criticism from conservatives of the real Harper’s premiership is that he didn’t do enough to remake the country’s institutions.

There is something to the charge, though; if you examine each decision Harper made in context you will usually find that what is criticized as incrementalism was really going as far as possible under the circumstances. Where change could be swift and permanent, like abolishing the Wheat Board or the Firearms Registry, that’s what he did. But where change risked national or party unity, his reforms were more cautious and limited—more conservative. Looking back, it is easy for today’s “Steves” to focus on what was left undone, but if that means the Conservatives still have a sense that there is much still to do, then that’s not a bad thing. Parties out of power should be ambitious and impatient.

Right now, there is much more public appetite—demand even—for change than there was at any time during Harper’s governments. If the general feeling that the Trudeau government is not living up to its promises and that many of our national institutions are no longer fit for purpose persists when the next Conservative government takes over, then today’s young “Steves” will be very pleased with what the new prime minister is able to remove, rebuild, and replace. And I’m sure the real Joe Clark’s reaction will remind us, as the play does, why the old Progressive Conservative remains every progressive’s favourite conservative.

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