Remembering John Murrell, 1945–2019

The critics, including me, panned his first significant play, Waiting for the Parade, when it premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects in February 1977. Set in Calgary during the Second World War, Parade offered a series of interlinked vignettes about five women coping with civilian life on the home front. I described it in the Calgary Herald as nothing more than a “photo album of staged nostalgia.” The Albertan reviewer said much the same. And when the play moved to Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, the Star critic described it as “annoyingly domestic and vague.”

So much for the early reviews of Parade. If John Murrell had allowed himself to be defeated by them – he was 31 when the play made its debut at ATP – chances are he would have quit the theatre and gone back to schoolteaching.

But Murrell believed in the play. It was still a work in progress. He returned to his typewriter, revised the script, and eventually had the satisfaction of seeing a new edition of Parade mounted and toured across Canada by the National Arts Centre. The play was later filmed for television, produced in New York and London, and given the Chalmers Award for best Canadian play. It also garnered better reviews. I described the NAC production as “more edifying, more amusing and more fully realized” than the version I had seen at ATP in 1977.

John Murrell

I had been writing reviews at the Herald for less than two years when I panned the first production of Parade, and I know now that I wounded more than one emerging Canadian playwright – Sharon Pollock was another – with my hard-hitting early critiques. Following in the tradition of such theatrical nabobs of negativism as Nathan Cohen and John Simon, I was trying to impress readers with my wit, intelligence, and the fruits of my reading list on a given week. When I mentioned this to Murrell several years afterwards, his response was characteristically generous. “Perhaps we weren’t very good,” he said. “Remember, we were learning our craft too.”

If Murrell was learning, he soon moved to the top of the class. His next play, Memoir, was a huge international success. A bittersweet two-hander about the last days of Sarah Bernhardt, it was translated into fifteen languages and performed in thirty countries including Ireland and England, where the role of the legendary French stage star was played by the distinguished Irish actress Siobhan McKenna. Memoir ran for more than three years in Paris in the 1980s and enjoyed a successful revival in Paris in 2003.

After writing a couple of award-winning plays set in western Canada (Farther West and New World) and drawing on his knowledge of Italian and French to produce vivid new translations of such plays as Machiavelli’s Mandragola and Racine’s Bajazet, Murrell wrote and directed in 1988 what he said could be his last play. It was called October and dealt with the relationship between Eleonora Duse – Bernhardt’s great Italian-born rival – and Gabriele d’Annunzio, the chauvinistic poet and playwright who created starring roles for Duse in La città morta and Francesca da Rimini.

Murrell felt October might be his last play because it was taking him longer and longer to revise and polish scripts to his satisfaction, and he was about to take on an administrative position as head of the Canada Council’s theatre section. But happily for theatregoers he did return to writing plays in the 1990s with Democracy and The Faraway Nearby, two award-winning dramas that also focussed on famous cultural figures from the past. Democracy told about a meeting between the poet Walt Whitman and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson during the American Civil War. The Faraway Nearby was a poetic portrait of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Also in the 1990s, Murrell began what became a long and fruitful association with Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit both as a playwright and an actor. Additionally, starting in the early part of the 21st century, he demonstrated his versatility as a writer by crafting the librettos for three operas with Canadian composer John Estacio and one opera with music by the Calgary Opera’s current artistic director Bramwell Tovey.

Writing for Murrell was the ultimate therapy and he couldn’t imagine ever living without it. “It’s the most natural process in the world for me,” he told me. “More natural than eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the bathroom or whatever. It can never stop. I will always continue to write, even it it’s only writing letters to people.”

That’s why when he took a break from playwriting in the late 1980s to work at the Canada Council, his friends knew it would be just a matter of time before Murrell was back at his typewriter. “If he’s got things to write, he will write them, regardless of what circumstances he finds himself in,” said Tarragon director Urjo Kareda. “It’s his curse. He’s a writer and you can’t turn that off.”

The circumstances he found himself in took a turn for the worse ten years ago when Murrell was diagnosed with leukemia. Yet he continued to write and perform and – according to an article by Jon Roe in today’s Calgary Herald – continued to approach life and his work with a dark sense of humour. “You never heard a word of complaint,” One Yellow Rabbit’s Blake Brooker told the Herald. “We joked darkly when he was around. He used humour to live life just as maybe you would or I would, if you could, if you had the strength and the ability.”

John Murrell died on Monday at age 74. The flags of the National Arts Centre are flying today at half-mast.