Murrell, John 1945-
MURRELL, John 1945-
Born October 15, 1945, in Lubbock, TX; immigrated to Canada, 1968; naturalized Canadian citizen, 1975; married, wife's name Cindy; children: Meg. Education: Southwestern University (Georgetown, TX), B.F.A., 1966; University of Calgary, B.Ed., 1969.
Office—Banff Centre, 107 Tunnel Mountain Drive, Box 1020, Banff, Alberta, Canada T1L 1H5.
Playwright. Schoolteacher for five years; Alberta Theatre Projects, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, playwright-in-residence, 1975; Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario, Canada, associate director, 1977-78; Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Alberta, head of playwrights' colony, 1985-89, artistic director/executive producer of theatre arts, 1999—; Canada Council, head of theatre section, 1988-92.
Clifford E. Lee Award, 1975, for Power in the Blood; Chalmers Best Canadian Play Award, for Waiting for the Parade, Farther West, and The Faraway Nearby; Fringe First Award for outstanding new writing, for Death in New Orleans; Best Play Award, Canadian Authors Association, 1992, for Democracy; Best Play Award, Writer's Guild of Alberta, 1992, for Democracy; Gascon-Thomas Award for lifetime of service to arts education in Canada, National Theatre School, 1998; Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, Canada Council, 2002; Alberta Order of Excellence, 2002; named officer, Order of Canada, 2003; Betty Mitchell Award for outstanding new play, 2003, for Filumena.
Power in the Blood, produced in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 1975.
(With Kenneth Dyba) Teaser, produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1975.
A Great Noise, A Great Light, produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1976.
Waiting for the Parade: Faces of Women in War (produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1977), Talonbooks (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1980.
Memoir (produced in Ontario, Canada, 1977, revised version produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1981), Avon (New York, NY), 1978.
(Adaptor) Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: Scenes from a Rural Life (produced in Ontario, Canada, 1978), Theatrebooks (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1978.
Bajazat, produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1979.
Mandragola (adaptation), produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1978.
(Adaptor) Anton Chekhov, The Seagull, produced in Ontario, Canada, 1980.
Farther West (produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1982), Coach House Press (Toronto, Canada), 1985.
(Adaptor) Sardou, Divorçons, produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1983.
(Adaptor) Anton Chekhov, The Master Builder, produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1983.
New World (produced in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 1984), Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.
Oedipus the King (adaption), produced in Ontario, Canada, 1988.
October, produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1988.
Democracy (produced in Juneau, Alaska, 1991), Talon Books (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada).
(Translator) Edmund Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (produced in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 1994), Blizzard Publishing (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), 1995.
(Adaptor) Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, produced in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 1995.
The Faraway Nearby (produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1995, produced in Washington, DC, 1998-99), Talon Books (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada).
(Translator) Carole Fréchette, The Four Lives of Marie (produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1996), Playwrights Canada Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
When They Stop Dancing, produced in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1998.
Death in New Orleans, produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1998.
(Adaptor) Heinrik Ibsen, The Doll House, produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2000.
(Translator) Carole Fréchette, The Seven Days of Simon Labrosse (produced in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 2001), Playwrights Canada Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
(Adaptor) Homer, The Odyssey, produced at Banff Arts Festival, 2001.
(Translator) Carole Fréchette, Elisa's Skin, produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2001.
(Libretto) Filumena, music by John Estacio, produced by Calgary Opera, 2003.
The Human Voice (adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau), produced in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, 2004.
Born in the United States, John Murrell immigrated northward in 1968 and became one of Canada's most produced playwrights. He has seen his plays translated into fifteen languages and performed in over thirty countries. Murrell himself has translated a number of plays for English audiences, from Sophocles and Anton Chekhov to the works of contemporary Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette. Of his own plays, he is best known for Memoir and Waiting for the Parade: Faces of Women in War, the latter one of modern Canada's most popular plays, a perennial favorite both at home and abroad.
Centered around five women living in Calgary during World War II, Waiting for the Parade interweaves the stories of mothers, wives, and daughters touched in different ways by the great conflict. The eldest, Margaret, is a depressed and pessimistic widow with one son in the navy and another in prison for antiwar agitation. Catharine is a factory worker who is starting to forget her husband, a prisoner of war, and has entered into an affair with another man. Eve is a quiet, idealistic teacher with a husband too old to join the army, and Janet is an overbearing bigot whose husband, a radio announcer, is failing to properly support the war effort. Finally, there is German-born Marta, whose father is in prison due to his Nazi sympathies. While rolling bandages and bringing treats to the train station for the troops, the women talk and argue, revealing the secret fears and anger beneath their patriotic façade. "No Minivers these … they're flesh-and-blood ladies, each torn apart in her own way by her separation from her man. And they poignantly bring home the aura and emotions of that last glamorous war," commented Los Angeles Times critic T.H. McCulloh. While some have noted that the characters seem more sketched than fully developed, the effect is still quite powerful, and quite popular with audiences around the world.
Memoir, built around legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, has also earned a place in the hearts of audiences and has been performed in thirty-five countries. Set in the last year of "the divine Sarah's" life, the premise is that seventy-seven-year-old Sarah is dictating her memoirs to her pedantic, middle-aged secretary, Georges Pitou, a failed actor with a dubious view of the theater. As Sarah, the original drama queen, gets wound up, she forces Pitou to act out the parts of characters from her past, including Oscar Wilde. Rather out of his depth, Pitou thus provides a comic counterweight to Sarah, and indeed, for Daily Variety reviewer Steven Oxman, "Bernhardt gets upstaged by a plethora of playwriting gimmicks, including a more enjoyable sidekick." Chicago Tribune chief critic Richard Christiansen, in contrast, found that Murrell's "play is a clever, well-crafted and charming look at a larger-than-life individual." Audiences seem to concur with the latter assessment; like Waiting for the Parade, Memoir remains a perennial favorite both in Canada and abroad.
Two of Murrell's plays are set in Canada's west. Farther West is loosely based on the life of May Buchanan, a brothel owner who began in Rat Portage, Ontario, and ended in Nose Creek, west of Calgary, all the time pursued by an obsessive, fanatical policeman named Seward and a rancher named Shepherd, who wants to marry her. In the play, Shepherd eventually kills Buchanan, but it is Seward who rows her corpse into the middle of English Bay in the poignant last scene. New World, set in the present on Vancouver Island, brings together a number of disparate characters, including an English painter, her brother, an American who makes rock videos, an aging Canadian photographer, and a French-Canadian bisexual. While coming together in various shifting sexual and emotional combinations, the characters reveal their longings and often an underlying sadness, while evoking the magical world of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with references to powerful allure of sea and sun.
The inner life of famous artists is also a theme in a number of Murrell's plays. October is centered on actress and dancer Eleanora Duse, who tries to comfort Isadora Duncan after the drowning death of Duncan's two children, and then returns to the stage only to emerge as a bit of a monster in the second half of the play. Democracy focuses on a meeting between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in the midst of the U.S. Civil War, and the way these two diverse geniuses, the rationalist and the romantic, seek to come to terms with the horrors around them. In The Faraway Nearby the subject is artist Georgia O'Keefe, who at age eighty-three finds herself growing attached to a twenty-eight-year-old potter even as she struggles to maintain the solitude that has sustained her and her work for so long.
More recently, Murrell has tried his hand at opera, writing the libretto for Filumena, taken from an incident occurring during the U.S. Prohibition era. Filumena was a young immigrant from Italy, forced into a loveless marriage, who finds a new life when a powerful bootlegger named Emilio Picariello decides that she should pose as his son Steven's wife to lessen suspicion during his many trips across the U.S. border. When a Royal Canadian Mountie is killed as revenge for shooting Steven, Emilio and Filumena find themselves charged with murder. Although the defense attorney tries to shift the blame toward Filumena, believing that the jury would probably not convict a woman and would certainly not seek the death penalty for one, both defendants are convicted and sentenced to hang. For Opera Canada contributor Kenneth DeLong, "The story is, ultimately an account of the emotional journey of an immigrant girl caught in the web of circumstances that threatens to crush her. Her efforts to achieve psychological and personal freedom and genuine love take on a tragic dimension, especially in light of her final betrayal by the man who should most have stood by her."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Back Stage, November 16, 2001, Jon Kaplan, review of Elisa's Skin, p. 30.
Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1996, Richard Christiansen, "'Memoir' Tells Bernhardt's Story," p. 2.
Daily Variety, April 12, 2002, Steven Oxman, review of Memoir, p. 30.
Economist, October 19, 2002, review of Memoir.
Library Journal, August, 2001, Barry X. Miller, review of Memoir, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1989, T.H. McCulloh, "Heartbreak behind the Patriotism in 'Parade,'" p. 6.
MacLean's, January 27, 2003, Brian Bergman, review of Filumena, p. 46.
Opera Canada, spring, 2003, Kenneth DeLong, review of Filumena, p. 29.
Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada, autumn, 2002, "John Murrell Wins Walter Carsen Prize."
Alberta Order of Excellence Web site,http://www.lieutenantgovernor.ab.ca/ (September 29, 2004).
Banff Centre Web site,http://www.banffcentre.ca/ (September 29, 2004).
CanadianTheatre.com,http://www.canadiantheatre.com/ (September 29, 2004).