1979 Starring Joe Clark as Jimmy Stewart

Michael Healey’s 1979 is a 90-minute stage production focused on the events leading up to the vote that brought down Prime Minister Joe Clark’s nine-month-old minority government forty years ago, clearing the way for Pierre Trudeau’s return to power in 1980. The political comedy premiered in Alberta two years ago, but was revived for a 19-day run at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre in January. At first blush, given the thin-sounding premise, I was inclined to stay home and watch Yes, Prime Minister on YouTube.

All the same, I bought a ticket. I hoped Healey’s work might approach the heights of, for example, the UK’s Trevor Griffiths or Australia’s David Williamson, blending political insights with deft dramatic touches.  And in a few places, 1979 did that.

This play proceeds briskly through a series of dialogues where the young prime minister converses with a stream of visitors in the hours prior to the fabled defeat of his government’s budget. Each visitor brings out some key strength (or weakness) in Clark as an individual.

Pierre Trudeau, for example, is two-faced – viciously skewering his own caucus to Clark in private as “a pack of rabid, retarded jackals.” Trudeau is also portrayed as extremely vulgar and power-hungry, and he berates Clark for not being more power-hungry. In a profanity-laced harangue, PET advises his usurper that “[y]ou may not have been listening closely when you were sworn in, but you’re now obliged to f**k, eat, or kill to stay behind that desk. F**k, eat, kill. For as long as you can. That’s what you agreed to.”

For Trudeau, Clark is a naïf who stumbled into power. “Joe,” he sneers, “they didn’t elect you. They rejected me. They wanted to teach me a lesson.”

During this discussion, Clark earnestly emphasizes his loyalty to Canada’s parliamentary democracy and its system of precedents, and asks Trudeau to tone down his attacks in Question Period, saying: “[y]ou abuse the institution [of Parliament] when you accuse me of things you know are untrue. You diminish Parliament when you do that.”

Clark strikes a similar, stubbornly high-minded tone when speaking with his cabinet minister Flora MacDonald. After MacDonald speculates whether Clark will try to delay the looming budget vote, Clark says: “Either I have the moral right to govern, or I don’t.”

You get the picture; he’s the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the only honourable member in a nest of vipers.

Brian Mulroney also appears. He is greasy, transparently grasping and calculating, while Clark is too upright to agree to Mulroney’s scheme of ramming through patronage appointments ahead of the anticipated national election campaign.

Towards the end of the play there’s an encounter between Clark and a young Stephen Harper. Harper is a young Thatcherite, sputtering on about “right wing revolution” and how the only correct focus of politics for any faction seeking power is “hegemony” over society (a concept lifted from Marxist doctrine).

Clark dismisses the young Harper’s single-minded focus on building and maintaining an ideologically super-charged political base: “That’s the grossest perversion of what I would consider a leader’s job.” A few lines later, Clark jokes about killing the hyper-aggressive youngster, “to make sure your ideas are never disseminated.”

Talk about red meat for the base! The Central Canadian Red Tory or Laurentian base, that is, as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson might put it.

It’s not possible to reconcile this vision of good, honest Joe with the man’s record in the Mulroney cabinet from 1984 to 1993 – nearly a decade of loyal service to someone who in 1979 resembles Dickens’ Fagin, in an expensive suit.

In 1979, Harper is scornfully caricatured as the stock villain who will forever haunt the imagination of Canada’s “woke” population – a bizarre far-right mutant from far outside the bounds of polite Canadian political discourse, whose spaceship must have crash landed in Ottawa en route to a CPAC conference in Washington. He’s a cartoon character, really, but then so are the rest of the cast, including Trudeau as the brutal vulgarian and Clark as the precious boy scout.

If we boil the play down to its essential idea, it would be that Joe Clark represents a respectable sort of political conservatism, in comparison to his contemporaries and successors. Healey has made the same argument elsewhere, including an op-ed in The Globe and Mail. He’s part of a tiny Clark revivalist society, which includes longtime Toronto corporate lobbyist and communication pro Paul Deegan.

1979 tries hard, but ultimately comes up short in its bid to raise Clark up on such a high pedestal. It’s not possible to reconcile this vision of good, honest Joe with the man’s record in the Mulroney cabinet from 1984 to 1993 – nearly a decade of loyal service to someone who in 1979 resembles Dickens’ Fagin, in an expensive suit.

Healey obviously believes there is something good and decent about Clark’s approach to politics, and something indecent in Mulroney’s and Harper’s – and probably Trudeau’s as well. To get this across more effectively, a small dose of didacticism at the play’s end could have gone a long way, even in a political comedy.

Perhaps Healey could have mined Clark’s late-career efforts to rescue the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from the clutches of Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay. Perhaps a poignant closing soliloquy about the properly-understood responsibilities of those who enter public life, from the Best PM Canada Ever Had for Nine Months.

Or, in keeping with all the other invented conversations here – why not a scene where he commiserates with Alison Redford, the former Clark staffer who briefly and imperiously served as Alberta Premier before she was hounded out by right-wing jackals? Kim Campbell could have had a cameo there too.

Instead, what we get in the closing moments of the play is a final appearance by the villainous Harper, as he snubs the 2008 unveiling of Clark’s official portrait in Parliament. A last chance to hiss Harper no doubt pleased some in the audience, but it did little to drive home why Healey thinks Clark matters.

This is the second time Stephen Harper has been lampooned in a work by Healey, the first one being Proud. It was so nasty that Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre company declined to stage it in 2012, apparently because it feared a lawsuit from the then-PM. Too bad for Tarragon’s box office: it was a vintage display of Harper Derangement Syndrome that Laurentians probably would have lapped up.

Healy’s obsession with Harper and affection for Clark is apparently sated, for now. He says he wants to explore the potential for a script built around Jody Wilson-Raybould’s demotion from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

That saga already seems more than ripe for a stage play. But will the author be able to resist putting in scenes where Clark mentors Wilson-Raybould and Harper tells Trudeau where to stick the knife? Probably not. After all, that’s what really gets Laurentian bums in seats.

Neil Hrab was a Harper government political staffer in 2007-2008.

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