5 min

Beautiful passion

Love of art fuelled remarkable partnership

AESTHETES. Writer and Queer As Folk producer Michael Lewis MacLennan has penned Last Romantics, a new play on the amazing lives of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. Credit: Paula Wilson

“If you ask nine out of ten people who go to theatre here, they won’t know who I am,” says playwright Michael Lewis MacLennan. “It’s puzzling that the city I live in is the one I’m least produced in.”

But at 34, MacLennan can’t really complain. In the past 10 years since he wrote and produced his first award-winning play, Beat The Sunset, he has built a career many writers can envy. His plays include Grace, Come On!, The Fabulous Life and Leaning Over Railings, some of which have been produced across Canada, in the US and England.

And a French translation of his last play, The Shooting Stage, which was a finalist for the 2002 Governor General’s Literary Award, premiered in Paris last year.

He also dabbles in musical theatre and opera, and is always busy writing a number of screen and television projects. He is currently a producer and writer for Queer As Folk, and his script for the drama Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story films this summer.

Toronto audiences will be seeing a lot more of MacLennan’s work on stage starting next week with the NAC/Necessary Angel Theatre Company’s world premiere of Last Romantics at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It is directed by Richard Rose with sets and costumes by Charlotte Dean, lighting by Martin Conboy, and has a cast of eight including Oliver Dennis, Julian Richings, Jonathan Crombie, Barbara Gordon, Michael Hanrahan, Kate Hennig, Steven McCarthy and Vickie Papavs.

MacLennan got the idea for the play after seeing a portrait of artists and collectors Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon in the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. He had never heard of them, but took note of the brief biographical description.

“All it said was that they had met at art school and had lived together for 50 years, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1930s,” he recalls, “and that they were contemporaries of Oscar Wilde.”

After doing some research, MacLennan unearthed a fascinating story of love and beauty, set against the backdrop of turn- of-the-century London and the Aesthetic movement, which expounded its philosophy of arts for arts’ sake and beauty at all costs.

The play is peppered with 14 colourful characters, including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and an aunt and niece lesbian couple who wrote plays together under the name Michael Field.

And with Ricketts having been in charge of European acquisitions for the National Gallery Of Canada in the late ’20s, the play also has an amazing Canadian connection that young writers looking for grant money would kill for.

“It moves from London to Paris to Canada, and has a sweeping, epic kind of feel,” says MacLennan.

Last Romantics was originally commissioned by Christopher Newton for the Shaw Festival. But when Newton left the festival, MacLennan got the rights back in order to make his play available for production.

“I probably wouldn’t have written the play if it hadn’t been for Christopher,” says MacLennan. “He was the only person I met who answered ‘Yes’ when I said, ‘Have you ever heard of Charles Ricketts?'”

Ricketts was an important figure of the Aesthetic movement. He illustrated all of Oscar Wilde’s books -except for Salomé, which was Aubrey Beardsley’s career-making assignment. He designed some of the first plays of Shaw, and accumulated enough art that his private collection was considered the best in England. He and life partner Shannon lived through the end of an era and witnessed the explosion of the 20th century.

“They lived that life to the fullest, going without meals and spending all their money scouring the continent to buy art,” says MacLennan. “At his death, nobody knew more about art in Europe than Ricketts.”

MacLennan explains that Ricketts was ultimately forgotten because he simply refused to accept change. When most people viewed Impressionism as a viable future for art, Ricketts saw it as a passing fad and couldn’t let go of the Renaissance.

“He thought he was at a narrowing of the road,” explains MacLennan, “but he was stuck in a cul-de-sac. Fifty years earlier he would have been a superstar.”

Almost everything that happens in the play is based on fact, but MacLennan was not interested in creating a respectful retelling of history. “It’s dull just to choose the greatest hits of somebody’s life,” says MacLennan, “but they didn’t have one really good weekend that you could write about, either.”

His challenge was to find a way to make it interesting for contemporary audiences.

“I couldn’t imagine a play with costumes and plumby English accents, so I wrote a very fast, modern play,” says MacLennan. “It’s about the passion for beauty and the way that can transform people. And the question of whether beauty can survive the modern age.”

The play also explores what it was like to be gay at a time when there were no role models. “The play has tons of ideas in it,” says MacLennan, “but at its heart is a good love story about an incredible relationship.

“Every play I’ve written sort of has a gay theme, but they’re not gay plays,” says MacLennan. “I don’t even know what a ‘gay play’ is. Most of my plays have a very broad range of characters, but there’s always something gay in them, reflective of my world.”

MacLennan focuses on telling good stories that are generally life affirming, about peoples’ ability to help others through adversity. “I’m not interested in subjects that are ultimately depressing or nihilistic,” he says. “I definitely want to go to those places, but I don’t want to leave anybody there. And to be enduring, the work must have a soul.”

MacLennan never imagined he would become a writer. He never even met another person who was artistically inclined until he was at least 20. “I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver where everybody was straight and married,” says MacLennan. “I think it’s remarkable that I ended up here – out and gay and an artist and happy.”

And his story is truly remarkable. He studied English at the University Of Victoria, with plans to be an academic. “But I realized what a bunch of bullshit that was. It was really bloodless.”

After building a successful career as an arts administrator, running an art gallery and a theatre company, MacLennan decided to take time off to write a play.

“People thought I was insane,” he remembers. “But I gave myself one year to make it work, with a plan to go back to administration if it didn’t work out. I had seen too many people struggling and I didn’t want to do that.”

MacLennan studied and researched and put all of his energy into his first play, Beat The Sunset, which was self-produced in Victoria in 1993. It was remounted in Vancouver, then staged in London and the US.

“With all my high ambitions, I got a little bit frustrated by the scarcity model of theatre in Canada,” says MacLennan, “so I decided to work in screen.” He moved to Toronto to do a residency at the Canadian Film Centre. Then he worked his way up from writing on Wind At My Back to writing and producing Queer As Folk in about four years.

“It’s amazing to be on a show [like QAF] that is so much about my own life,” says MacLennan. “It’s really helped to shape our culture, and to show our culture to the larger world.”

But MacLennan is not about to stop writing theatre.

“People can’t believe I’m turning down work so I can sit in a rehearsal hall for three weeks,” he says. “Theatre is amazing. It reconnects me to why I write.”

MacLennan is currently writing a new play for CanStage, and is adapting for the stage some of the work by author Douglas Coupland (Generation X).

“I’m also writing an opera for Tapestry New Music and Pacific Opera Victoria with composer Jeffrey Ryan,” he adds. “I just finished my second season with Queer As Folk, I’m developing a TV show in Vancouver, and a few other things.”

With his career in good order, MacLennan feels that maybe he needs a little balance in his life.

“I have a real kind of west coast connection to being able to slow down and invest in relationships,” he says. “In Toronto I tend to forget that, so I rely on my friends. And I have been blessed with amazing friends.”


$20-$39. 8pm. Tue-Sat. 2pm. Sat. PWYC. 8pm.
Mon. Thu, Feb 27-Mar 22.
Berkeley Street Theatre.
26 Berkeley St (downstairs).
(416) 368-3110.