Playwright David French dies

Canadian playwright and actor David French has died in Toronto after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 71.

Canadian playwright and actor David French died in Toronto on Saturday night after a long battle with brain cancer, CBC News has learned. He was 71.

He is best remembered for his tales of the fictitious Mercer family, a Newfoundland family transplanted to Toronto. What became known simply as the Mercer plays included Leaving Home, Salt-Water Moon, Soldier's Heart, 1949 and Of the Fields, Lately.

French's plays are considered seminal in part because they centre on the lives of ordinary Canadians.

Leaving Home was presented in 1972 in the first season of then-fledgling Toronto theatre company Tarragon by director Bill Glassco. French, then a struggling actor, had sent the play to Glassco when he heard a new theatre company was starting.

"With Leaving Home, I was a completely unknown writer. I changed the entire course of my life, because I've done nothing since then but write plays," he told CBC News in a 2000 interview.

David French was an officer of the Order of Canada. ((David French website))
Leaving Home was a success from the start and went on to be produced by nearly every regional theatre company in Canada as well as studied in high schools.  It was named one of the 100 Most Influential Canadian Books by the Literary Review of Canada and one of the 1,000 Most Essential Plays by the Oxford Dictionary of Theatre.

Long association with Tarragon

French had a long association with Glassco and Tarragon, with all of his Mercer plays beginning their run at the Toronto theatre under Glassco's direction.

Of the Fields, Lately became a CBC Television special and Salt-water Moon, a romance set in 1926, was translated into French and played throughout the U.S.

French was born in the tiny Newfoundland outport of Coley's Bay on Jan. 18, 1939, one of five boys. His family moved to Toronto to join his father, who had found work as a carpenter, and he grew up amid a community of Newfoundland exiles.

"I absorbed (the language) through some process of osmosis, through my family," he said in a 1999 interview with the Halifax Herald.

"When I was growing up, it was like Grand Central Station in my house — Newfoundlanders coming through all the time, sitting around, smoking cigarettes and telling stories. And, of course, my father and mother were great storytellers, and I picked it up from them, too. I remember the first six years of my life vividly."

It gave him the fabric of the Mercer plays, which centre on several generations of a Newfoundland family, both on the Rock and after they are transplanted to Toronto.

Influential as mentor

After high school, French trained as an actor and acted on stage and in CBC Television dramas before he began to write.

He also wrote the popular comedy, Jitters, the thriller Silver Dagger and the dramas That Summer and One Crack Out, which played off-Broadway in New York.

French's translation of Chekhov's The Seagull was performed on Broadway starring Laura Linney, Ethan Hawke and Jon Voight.

He has been influential as a mentor to other Canadian playwrights and often spoke to amateur theatre groups and high schools where his work was studied.

French is a winner of the Queen's Jubilee Medal and was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001.

He is survived by his partner, Glenda MacFarlane, a son, Gareth and a daughter, Mary.