Excerpts from The Life of W.O. Mitchell
W.O.: The Life of W.O. Mitchell, Beginnings to
Who Has Seen the Wind, 1914-1947
(McClelland & Stewart, 1999)
From the "Preface"
Our biography is composed of a number of narrative voices. The first is our shared voice, which attempts to document and appraise Mitchell's life and work in the tradition of the critical literary biography. Within this framing voice are woven a number of others, the most central of which is Mitchell's own. Using material from sixty-odd hours of taped interviews with him, we frequently let him tell his own story. There are also the voices of people Mitchell knew throughout his life ranging from those very close to him, such as his wife Merna, his children, and his brothers, to the more distant voices of acquaintances. Finally, there is a memoir voice (italicized in the text), sometimes Orm's alone and sometimes shared with Barbara, which recalls experiences with W.O. and reflects on his life in a more personal way.
At times we have used Mitchell's fiction and drama as a kind of wrecking yard from which bits and pieces of his autobiographical experience have been salvaged. He often described his fiction as compelling illusions largely composed of sensuous and emotional fragments of autobiographical experience: "every bit's the truth, but the whole thing's a creative leap/lie." One of our aims is to throw some light on the ways and the extent to which he used autobiographical experience in shaping his fiction and drama. Reading the life of a writer backwards from his work, however, can be a dangerous strategy for the literary biographer. As Mark Twain said in speaking of the relationship between his brother Henry and the fictional character Sid in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, "[Henry] is Sid in Tom Sawyer. But Sid was not Henry." We are wary of confusing the writer with his fictional characters.
Mitchell himself at times confused his own fictional embellishment with the "truth". As he puts it, "you come to believe your own lie." We all do this to one degree or another when we tell the stories of our lives. But the creative writer is perhaps more prone to this embellishment because he invests his own life so intensely in his characters. One of the problems with which we were faced in our taped interviews, as well as with salvaging autobiographical information from Mitchell's creative work, was to identify as accurately as possible the points at which Mitchell's instinct for exaggeration began to transform autobiographical "truth" into fictive illusion. Since we have lived with Mitchell's story-telling for a long time and were often witnesses to the events he turned into stories, we were able to differentiate fairly accurately between fact and fiction, to sense when Mitchell's memories of events in his life began to metamorphose into Jake Trumper tall tales.
In setting out to trace the growth and nature of Mitchell's imagination, to explore those forces that came together to make him a writer and performer, it became apparent that his childhood years in Weyburn were unusually significant. His philosophy about creativity, and about "how to be," were partially influenced by William Wordsworth's insight that "the Child is father of the Man," or as Mitchell said, "the man always retains in his magnitude the miniature boy." Throughout his life he held fast to the belief that the channel to the imagination is through the senses, that it is essential to stay alive to sights, sounds, and smells with the freshness of childlike wonderment. There was nothing passive, however, about Mitchell's imaginative interplay with the world around him. He actively pursued the dramatic in life and welcomed--in fact, often created--what he called the "capsize quality" of life. He retained all his life an irreverence, earthiness, immodesty, and enthusiasm, as well as a kind of immature solipsism. The child's consciousness and how the child's imagination is nurtured are primary concerns in his writing. The good guardians in his stories are those characters who have not suffered "complete amnesia for childhood."
The child's experience and prairie are central to Who Has Seen the Wind and the "Jake and the Kid" stories. Throughout his career, Mitchell returned to his early years in Weyburn as inspiration for his work. In his last novel, tentatively called "Brotherhood: True or False" and unfinished at his death, he had circled back to this landscape and era once again. But this circling back was not simply a nostalgia for a lost time and place--it was a continual exploration of the education of the imagination.
From the Depression Years:
Bill ended up in Drumheller for the summer of 1939 giving diving lessons at the city swimming pool. He did not get a salary, only his meals and $1.00 for each diving lesson he gave. But he and the other staff made some money from galas for which they charged admission. The last gala, on August 16, did very well and went on to play at Carbon. Bill did his "Dumb Swede" routine and, in Carbon, an underwater escape act in which he was handcuffed, tied up in a canvas bag, and dumped into the deep end of the pool. When he did not appear after a couple of minutes, "the guys would start diving and showing panic and when everybody was shitting themselves for fear I had drowned myself I would come strolling up from the other end saying, could I help you guys?" The Drumheller Review reported that "one of the hits of the evening," was "Metitia the educated horse (Bill Mitchell and George Humphries)" who, after "mounting the three metre diving board and doing different stunts at this great height, made a real high dive into the water below."
Once when my father was showing me and my brother how to dive, he told us about the horse diving act he and his partner devised for the Drumheller gala. My father was the front-end of the horse and his partner was the rear. The "horse" would come out from the dressing room neighing and prancing, climb up the ladder to the three-metre board, strut out and rear up on the end of the board, and do a double dive. The timing of the two halves of the horse had to be perfect. At one of the performances in Carbon, the audience roared with laughter even more than usual as soon as the "horse" stepped out onto the board and then again as it went through the preparatory motions for the first dive. His partner was hamming up this part of the act and getting tremendous laughs but my father could not figure out what was was going on. Every time he tried to look back or between his legs the audience laughed louder. When the act was over and they went back to the change room, which was also used for the hockey rink in the winter, my father asked, "What the hell were you doing back there?" His partner, who had had a bit to drink before going on that night, grinned and pulled a red and white striped hockey sock stuffed with toilet paper from the hind-end of the horse costume. During the act when the "horse" pranced and reared on the board he had dropped the hockey sock out of the costume between the "horse's" hind legs. Whenever my father tried to see what was going on, he pulled the sock back in. So during this Carbon performance "Metitia" was a studhorse.
The Years of Fame, 1948-1998
(McClelland & Stewart, 2005)
Jake and the Kid CBC Radio Series:
Throughout the summer Peter Francis had written urging Bill to get some scripts finished for the second series of Jake and the Kid which was to start on September 30, 1951. Mitchell was now obsessed with Eden Valley, his teaching and his writing on “The Alien” so it was fortunate that the Jake and the Kid series had settled into a well-honed groove. As Francis reported in January 1952, the series had “reached a fair state of technical perfection”--the scripts had become “as perfect as they could be,” the actors had become the characters, and Morris’s music had grasped “the spirit of the show.” Mitchell had his characters and their town firmly fixed in his imagination. In the first series, Crocus was much like Mitchell’s birthplace Weyburn, but in the second series it frequently took on the character of High River. Over the next five years, a good many incidents were drawn from Mitchell’s life in High River where “the pageant of small town life was vivid for me once more.” The range of stories showed an amazing ingenuity although, as would be expected since Mitchell had only a week to prepare each one, the quality varied.
Jake Trumper’s character was enriched by foothills people. Bill said he “shamelessly stole” colourful expressions for Jake or Old Man Gatenby from his High River neighbours such as Jack Kelly, a retired rancher: “Every time I talked to Kelly over the fence he would come up with something.” Jake’s flair for story-telling, his rapport with children, his down-to-earthness are borrowed from Mitchell’s own personality. But in other areas Mitchell and Jake part company. Mitchell was not as unsophisticated or colloquial, nor as adversarial or crotchety. More significantly he was not as unbending and traditional in his views. As Mitchell said, Jake was “a man of biases” and was not fond of strong-minded women: “Woman’s Lib wouldn’t like him at all and he’d be appalled by modern women. That was his blind spot.”
By the end of the sixth series Mitchell claimed to have created around eighty characters. One character who came into his own was Repeat Golighty, the gossiping, psychologizing and puritanical barber, who says everything twice. He was superbly played by George Robertson and, in time, his barber shop became a more important meeting place than MacTaggart’s General Store. Daddy Johnson, the oldest man in Canada, was, perhaps, Mitchell’s most popular and successful minor character. He appeared in 1952, played by Tommy Tweed who could wheeze and sputter to such effect, particularly with his false teeth taken out, that the crew and cast would be in stitches. Indeed, Mitchell decided to create Daddy Johnson after hearing Tweed do his old man routine at a party. One of Mitchell’s personal favourites was Noble Winesinger, the con man with a heart, who appeared first on December 2, 1951 but more frequently in 1953 and ‘54. He was the ancestor of Heally Richards in The Vanishing Point. There were others: the villain, Pete Botten, “a fellah that’s a real bad puhtatuh...real bad;”Mr Wong, the proprietor of the Sanitary Cafe; Moses Lefthand, the off-reserve Blackfoot Indian, and his family; Mrs Elsie Abercrombie, the preserver, so she believes, of the town’s morals and culture; Mrs Clinkerby, the dirt widow who tries to snare Jake; and Belva Taskey, the prairie poetess. Jake and the Kid are really the only two characters who are given depth and roundness, but many of the other characters achieve a Dickensian dimension that makes them appear human and not simply caricatures.
The trademarks of this series were Jake’s many tall tales, such as the one in which he “wrassled Looie Reel” and made him say Uncle three times (the first in French, the second in Cree and the third in English), and his cursing, most famously, “It’s enough to give a gopher the heartburn” or “It’s a shaganappy world we live in.” The effect of cursing had to be created without actually swearing because of CBC policy, and the directors had to curb Mitchell’s irreverent tendencies: “gopher’s ass” had to be dropped; damn was usually dang; and hell was generally “aitch” (“sure as aitch”). “Holy Diddle” was one of Jake’s most explosive expletives. Occasionally Mitchell would set “verbal traps” for Drainie, the most memorable one being Jake’s condemnation of the Atheneum Women’s Club: “I don’t give a damn for the whole clucking flock of them.” Just after “damn” in this line, Mitchell added in parentheses, “WATCH IT DRAINIE.” He waited with great amusement for the Sunday broadcast to see if Drainie would falter. He did not. Mitchell’s scripts were quite different from any other scripts of the time in that he had characters interrupt one another, and used overlapping dialogue. This, said Claire (Murray) Taylor, “wasn’t being done by radio writers that she knew.” Just reading it on the page, “the script seemed unnatural to us.”
Canada’s Mark Twain on the Platform:
In May Mitchell went to Toronto to play the role of Stephen Leacock in Patrick Watson’s new CBC series, The Titans. As a humourist he was frequently compared to Leacock and his impersonation of Leacock was very good. However, physically, especially as he aged and his hair became whiter and more uncontrollable, Mitchell came to be known as Canada’s Mark Twain. The similarities go beyond the physical. Like Twain, he had a streak of irreverence, a bawdiness (sometimes exaggerated), a wit, though not quite as sardonic as Twain’s, and, finally and most significantly, an adult sensibility made keen, poignant and exuberant by a sharp recall and empathy for child-hood experience.
Like Twain on the stage, Mitchell perfected the technique of appearing not to be performing but to be spontaneously telling his stories for the first time. He would adeptly draw in his audience through deliberate mistakes and confusions, “Oh, I forgot to mention…” or “Did I tell you…?” In his most popular piece, “Melvin Arbuckle’s First Course in Shock Therapy,” he slipped easily into its various voices, from Melvin’s interrogative sentences to Peanut’s English schoolboy accent. He imitated Melvin’s Grandfather’s “saliva trouble” by shaking his jowls (as if “rattling dice”) and dry-spitting into the microphone (Eve 19). While he appeared to be ad-libbing most of the time, and seemed to lose his way in the first half of this piece, it was all very carefully planned story-telling.
Mitchell’s readings were dramatic performances. His shock of white hair, brown snuff-dusted moustache (and shirt front), gravelly voice, and dramatic gestures became trademarks of his story telling. He brought the houses down with a well-timed pause, a grin, or a raised eyebrow. Over the years his snuff box and reading glasses became stage props. His glasses, usually damaged and held together at the bridge with white adhesive tape, would take on a perverse life of their own and refuse to behave. In the middle of a reading at the Banff Centre he was using a pair of glasses with only one arm and they clattered onto the lectern and bounced to the floor. As he retrieved them he explained, “I left my glasses in Prince Edward Island. This is my spare and one arm is gone. I get them at Woolworths. I get six at a time because I drop glasses all over North America.” In “The Day I Spoke for Mr. Lincoln,” when describing Miss Finch’s elocution lessons, he would give a seemingly impromptu performance of “The Fool.” Pausing to look up at his audience over his glasses and holding up his original copy of “The Fool” given him in 1930, he would say, “Well, look--here’s ‘The Fool’. And here’s Billy Mitchell performing it.” He then stepped aside from the podium and microphone and punched out “The Fool” in classic elocution style using the various facial and hand gestures he had been taught half a century ago by Miss Finch.