David French, creator of the Mercers, Canada's best-known fictional theatre family, died Sunday (December 5) at the age of 71.
French was one of the key playwrights at the Tarragon Theatre in the 70s and a frequent collaborator with director Bill Glassco. French established his reputation with Leaving Home, his first play about the Newfoundland family that settled in Toronto, and followed it at the Tarragon with Of The Fields, Lately, Salt-Water Moon and Soldier's Heart. Another Mercer-based play, 1949, was produced at Canadian Stage.
The first three plays are part of Canadian theatre history; it's generally acknowledged that French drew on his own family experiences for the characters. Focused on Mary and Jacob Mercer and their sons Bill and Ben, the first two plays follow the family after the move to Toronto and are especially poignant in dealing with the thorny relationship between Jacob and Ben. There's as much heart in Salt-Water Moon, a prequel that deals with the courtship of the teenaged Mary and Jacob in Newfoundland.
Revivals by Soulpepper Theatre during the past several seasons introduced a whole new generation of theatregoers to these three extraordinary plays. Soulpepper mined further French gold with a revival of Jitters this past summer; the show isn't about the Mercers but rather an affectionate look at 70s Canadian theatre.
Not all of his plays were successes, but at his best, David French knew that the heart lies at the centre of relationships both in the family and in the theatre. A dissector of that heartbeat, he understood that it has to grow and change, and that in such growth there is humour as well as pain.
The funeral service will be held at Metropolitan United Church, 56 Queen St. East (Queen & Church), Friday, December 10th at 2pm. Memorial contributions may be made to The Writers¹ Trust of Canada, writerstrust.com.