We live in dangerous times. Canadian troops are dying with alarming frequency. Atomic weapons tests are rearing their ugly mushroom-shaped heads. War is a game played by countless young people in the flickering light of computers. Armed conflict is all around us, yet we are, for the most part, happily removed from it.
Flash back to 1941 and you’d find Canadians knee-deep in conflict. Young men from across the nation were coming to Halifax to join the war effort, some as naval officers on corvettes—the small warships that defended merchant ships against German U-boats as they crossed the Atlantic. Without the raw materials and food the merchant navy took to Britain, the war would have been lost. It is this pivotal period in Canadian history that award-winning playwright Michael Melski explores in his new play Corvette Crossing, which premieres this week at Eastern Front Theatre.
Melski felt it was important to get an accurate picture of life aboard a corvette. To this end, he sought support, advice and recollections from veterans who were involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. He says he was honoured to work with these men.
“This is a really special point in history here in this province that not enough people know about,” says Melski. “The men who fought this war for us—their era is passing. It is a high-water mark for me to illuminate this point on stage.”
Melski promises that his work, while celebrating the heroism of five fictional young men from diverse backgrounds, will not glorify war. He hopes that the audience will see that these young men did their duty with mercy and humanity, mindful of the terrible cost of war. He says he was careful not to whitewash the grim realities and the human suffering—that would be “disrespectful and untruthful.”
Although the subject can be dark, the play has its lighter moments. Melski is quick to point out that humans need humour, perhaps especially in war time. “Laughing is organic…humour can be a coping mechanism,” he says. “It helps people deal with isolation and fear.”
Melski, who is also a film and stage director, laughs when asked if it was difficult to turn his “baby” over to director Hans Böggild.
“I’m lucky enough to be one of the most produced playwrights in the country this year,” he says. “I can’t direct everything. But Hans has been intimately involved with this project since the beginning. It’s in good hands.”
Böggild, who is leaving his position as Artistic Producer of Eastern Front to pursue other creative projects, including The Satchmo’ Suite in Montreal, uses the word “courage” frequently when talking about themes in the play.
“This is a human story,” he says. “It’s about young people who are thrown into a huge, world-wide situation and meet it with courage, heroism and sacrifice. But courage is at the spine of the story.”
The play, which stars Martin Burt, Kevin Curran, Kelly Peck, Christopher Shore and Gordon Patrick White, will be running from October 26 to November 12, during which time the Canadian corvette HMCS Sackville will be berthed at Alderney Landing for tours and special events.
Eastern Front recognized that this work would be of special importance to young people so it has included several matinees for school groups. Melski says students will enjoy Corvette Crossing because it is an exciting story, but also because it is about “young people who had everything to live for—boys who chose to sacrifice safety for a higher cause. And that takes something special, something that you don’t find in any video game.”
Corvette Crossing, October 26 to November 12 at Alderney landing, 2 ochterloney, dartmouth, $12.50-$25, 461-8401.