The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

 

A friend recently mentioned that all Westerns begin with a stranger coming to town. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance meets this criterion. The fictional, frontier town of Twotrees accepts a stranger (Ransome Foster) who had been dragged, beaten and bloody into town by a local gunslinger (Bert Barricune). Foster is left at the saloon, run by a feisty and prickly Hallie Jackson and assisted by Jim the Reverend Mosten. Bert, Hallie and Jim know that Ransome has brought books with him and know that he is not equipped to survive in the West. Nevertheless, he stays in Twotrees after having promised Hallie that he will teach Jim how to read. Part of the agreement is that Hallie will also learn to read.

 

The plot is more complex because Jim is Black, having been abandoned as a baby on the steps of the salon run by Hallie’s parents. He is raised as a member of the family but folk in The West, although rejecting the rule of law, accept certain social conventions as law. When Liberty Valance gets word of Ransome’s teaching of Hallie and Jim, he rides into town, engages Jim in a high-stakes game, and calls his bluff, and then has him taken outside and hanged.

 

Hallie is heart-sick when she and Ransome return from the theatre and hear of Jim’s death. Jim was her best friend and colleague. The confrontation between Hallie and Ransome foregrounds important issues and beliefs that represent the town of Twotrees prior to Ransome’s arrival: the place of African-Americans in the town; the disdain that folk feel for education and book learning; the privilege of those who hold power; the inability of the justice system to deal with crime and intimidation; individuals who feel responsible for Jim’s death, and finally, the man that Hallie loves.

 

Ransome then decides to hunt and kill Liberty Valance; Bert’s attempts to dissuade him are in vain. The inevitable meeting between Ransome and Liberty Valance takes place in Hallie’s saloon. The rather lengthy conversation between them reveals Liberty’s understanding of men like Ransome as well as areas of mutual understanding. The duel occurs; Liberty is killed and Ransome is wounded.

 

The play, written by the British dramatist, Jethro Compton, is based on a short story by Dorothy Johnson. That story was made into a film in 1962 starring James Stewart and John Wayne and has been selected for preservation in the U S National Film registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’ The narrator is Robert Vaughn, famous for his roles in Western films.

 

The ensemble worked well. Jim managed to balance a deferential manner with pride in his auditory memory and his development as a reader and thinker. Hallie softened her feisty manner and biting tongue by accepting Ransome’s invitations to learn to read and to accompany him to the theatre. Bert conveyed a quiet honesty and strength through his short utterances. Liberty’s swagger hinted at his power over the frontier territory and legal system. Ransome’s arrogance could not quite endear him to the audience. All the characters are fueled by hope. The play lets them experience their lives, their loves and their sacrifices.

 

Seminar by Theresa Rebeck

Seminar by Theresa Rebeck opened the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre Winnipeg’s 2015-16 season. Four aspiring writers, Martin, Douglas, Kate and Izzy, pool their money to engage an established novelist for a 10-week master class.

The ensemble of the young quartet worked well. Sparks flew as the relationships among them shifted and as Leonard, their teacher, reacted to their writing and their personas.

The opening scene, in Kate’s apartment, allows us to glimpse the quartet spar with words, the passion that unites them. Martin, nephew of a famous playwright,appears as a parody of serious students of writing. His arrogant use of terms such as the interiority and exteriority of the landscape, his description of the trees and shrubs he has passed on his way to the apartment as balanced for growth, and hints about a possible publication in “The New Yorker” place him in the realm of those who seem to prefer to talk about writing, rather than working at writing. Martin challenges him and mocks his words, trying to gain the support of Izzy and Kate.

When Leonard arrives for the class, he asks to read a piece of writing. Kate steps up, handing him a piece in the style of Jane Austen on which she has been working for 6 years. Leonard stops at the semi-colon, rips her work apart and leaves the class.

Each week another member of the quartet presents work; Izzy’s work is praised; Martin is told to go to Hollywood and Douglas rejects Leonard’s scathing remarks about his friend’s work. When Martin comes a week later and announces to his fellow students that Leonard had been accused of taking the words of others, Douglas then has the courage to reveal his words. Leonard cannot remember having read the first chapter of Douglas’ novel, the piece he had submitted to gain entrance into the seminar. Douglas and Leonard joust before Leonard reveals a hidden part of himself, becoming honest  perhaps for the first time during the play.

Creating works of art is a lengthy process; refining that work also requires time and effort. Leonard’s remarks after a superficial reading of his students’ work, dismiss their creative processes. He acts on the assumption that telling his students the hard truth is the best approach to teach them how difficult the task of becoming successful writers is. His students would prefer him to comment on their talent and let them know he values their work. When they do not accept his remarks, he begins to attack their character as well as  their writing. They begin to wonder about the class but also about the profession they have chosen.

His remarks call into question the narratives they have constructed of who they are. All of us construct narratives of ourselves; these narrative slip and elide depending on contextual influences. Why should it be any different for the aspiring writers? When they begin to question the each others personal narratives, shifts and cracks appear in the faces they present to the world. They begin to tell each other little lies, stretching and reshaping the truth to fit their own purposes. Even Leonard undergoes transformation when confronted by rumours of plagiarism and false memoirs.

Rebeck’s exploration of serious themes, such as personal identity and creativity did not come alive for me, despite the efforts of the actors and some good dialogue.