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Comments for Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop Goes to War: 03/26/15

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Billy Bishop Goes to War by John MacLachlan Gray is the March 2015 bonus title for the Canadian Reads Challenge. Plays are funny things to read in that they are really and truly meant to be seen as performances. Actors read plays to learn their lines and become their characters — but reading one as written literature is something else entirely.

My father who did a bunch of acting in college owns a collection of the best contemporary plays (plays that were popular in the first half the 20th century). There was a time when we'd go camping at Green Valley Falls as a family and somehow one of those volumes of plays would end up in the reading material pile for that weekend. One night out of desperation (called teenage boredom) I cracked open the volume and read Arsenic and Old Lace (1943) by Joseph Kesselring. It was magnificent.

Now Billy Bishop Goes to War is a very different beast, in that it's written for a very limited cast (as in two people playing multiple roles). The person cast as Billy Bishop must be versatile enough to play the bulk of the cast, as it's Billy's recounting of his time in WWI. Rather than just telling the audience who he met and what they told him, Billy becomes those people.

If I were to compare Billy Bishop Goes to War to another stage production, I'd say it's most like Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray (which is both a memoir and a monologue). Except with the WWI setting and the poking fun at the British aristocracy and their disdain for colonials (Canadians and anyone else from the Commonwealth), there's also a heavy helping of Blackadder Goes Forth.

As the introduction states, Billy Bishop is really two plays. Which play that is performed depends on the age of the actor playing Billy. If he's a young man, the play is done one way (and is longer, by the way). If he's an old man, the play is shorted to jump him right to the point of being a Canadian pilot hero. If you take in the large amount of wiggle room given to the piano player / narrator role, namely in how the songs (or in some cases, what music) are performed, then it can be any number of plays, following one of two branches.

That's not to say this sort of variation is unique to Billy Bishop Goes to War. It's not. Think of Shakespeare. His plays are done in modern settings, or gender swapped, or as musicals. But a lot of this interpretation is left to director or to the version being performed (Kiss Me Kate instead of Taming of the Shrew for instance). For Billy Bishop Goes to War, all the variations are left on the page and are left to the performers to pick and chose from.

Three stars

Comments (2)

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Comment #1: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 at 14:25:44


Fascinating. The first time I encountered instructions for adaptation variations was in Ann-Marie Macdonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) which I wasn't crazy about. I like, as you pointed out with Shakespeare reproductions, that directors can modify as they see fit. Still, whereas I found Macdonald's to be a bit too restrictive, the way you describe BBGTW sounds like gives more choice. That could make for an interesting read as well, comparing the variations.

Comment #2: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 at 12:05:42


I think I'd like to see Billy Bishop performed sometime, or maybe twice — once young and once old, just to get a rough idea of how the play can vary.

I'll be skipping the April challenge as no library near me has a copy of the book.

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