Spit Delaney's Island

By Monica Prendergast, December 2015

Jack Hodgins’ novel has been reworked into a new play by Charles Tidler.

Local author Jack Hodgins needs no introduction to Victoria readers. Winner of a Governor General’s Award (Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, 1979), a Commonwealth Writers Prize (The Honorary Patron, 1987), and an Ethel Wilson Prize (Broken Ground, 2000), Hodgins is also the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence and is invested as a Member of the Order of Canada. 

Hodgins may also be in the running for the (fictional) title of Writer Laureate of Vancouver Island. If you haven't seen the 1981 National Film Board documentary Jack Hodgins’ Island (www.nfb.ca) I believe it will convince. Hodgins is a Vancouver Islander, born and bred near Courtenay, then a high school teacher for many years in Nanaimo before his writing career took off and he landed in a faculty position in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. His affection for this island and its people is evident in his writing and in the interviews seen in this charming one-hour film. I love his description of we islanders and of our neighbours on the lower mainland and up the Sunshine Coast as “trenchdwellers”; both of us facing a wall of mountains and living in the trench between these two ranges. “Do you suppose trenchdwellers think any different from the rest of the world?” Hodgins asks. That unique sense of belonging and sense of place pervades his work and has crafted his significant legacy in Canadian fiction.

Fans of Hodgins’ work will be pleased to hear that local theatre company Theatre Inconnu is mounting a stage adaptation of his early work Spit Delaney’s Island this month. This collection of short stories is set on Vancouver Island, was published to acclaim in 1976, and has been adapted for the stage by local playwright Charles Tidler. 

Tidler first adapted the two short stories that bookend Hodgins’ collection, both of which feature the title character, in 1990 for a production at the Nanaimo Theatre Festival. Inconnu’s Artistic Director Clayton Jevne approached Tidler last year to see if he had something for the company to produce. Tidler suggested a reworking of this adaptation. The playwright has been a regular presence in the production’s rehearsals and the new adaptation has received input from the whole company in shaping its narrative and dialogue.

The production features Artistic Director Clayton Jevne in the title role of Spit Delaney, a steam locomotive operator at a pulp mill who loses his job in the wake of a new technology, the diesel engine. Delaney refuses to drive the new engine, saying, “A monkey could operate that rig!” Thrown into an uncertain future, Delaney faces the ending of his marriage, alienating his teenage children, and dealing with well-meaning but misguided friends and neighbours. Delaney is a kind of Everyman, caught up in changes he cannot comprehend. As Hodgins writes, “He’ll be damned if he can figure out what it is that is happening to him.”

Delaney represents anyone who has been made redundant yet who clings to the way things were. For Spit this is a tape recording of his beloved #1 steam engine that he plays over and over again, driving his family to distraction. He tries to take them on a grand tour of Europe to improve the situation, but cannot leave his obsession with work and his cherished train behind him. The price he pays for this is high when his wife asks him to leave the family home and he takes up lodging in the local motel.

It is at this point that the magic realism of the stories kicks in. Delaney meets a couple of characters, a hitchhiker and a poetess named Phemie Porter. They seem to have a kind of magical ability to know who Spit really is, and to mirror back to him a sense of his true identity. Both western and indigenous west coast mythologies are woven into Delaney’s journey of discovery and transformation. Through a series of encounters Spit moves into gaining a better understanding of himself and his place in the world.

I spoke with Clayton Jevne about the play and its production. He told me that the play features a blend of direct address to the audience from Spit and dramatic scenes. “Charles [Tidler] has done a very nice job turning the stories into dialogue. Spit is the narrator who talks to the audience. He steps out of scenes to comment on them to the audience.”

Jevne tells me that he read Spit Delaney’s Island shortly after moving here in the late 1970s. After spending some time visiting various places on the island, the book spoke to him. “I’ve met all these people,” was his response to the short stories. Set in and around Parksville, mentioning Long Beach and Port Alberni, these are places most Island residents will know as visitors or as locals. These are small town characters, dependent on the logging or fishing industries, and therefore very vulnerable to economic change. The book has been a favourite for Jevne ever since and so was a logical choice for staging by his company, a local institution with its own 28-year history.

When asked about how the rehearsals were going, Jevne laughs saying “We are having a lot of fun. The show is staged alley style, with a raised platform and the audience on three sides. This creates the sense of intimacy, that we are in Spit Delaney’s house, in his living room.”

I was also curious about this choice of play for the holiday season. Jevne has performed his excellent one-man version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for many years (and the Belfry is remounting Michael Shamata’s hit version this month). I wondered if there was anything in Spit Delaney’s Island that connected with this time of the year. “This is a wonderful show for the holidays,” Jevne replied “The play strives for empathy, wishing goodwill to all and without passing judgment on its characters.” Sounds like Jack Hodgins to me.

Jevne is supported on stage by actors Catriona Black, Perry Burton and Susie Mullen and the show is directed by Karen Lee Pickett, artistic producer of the Victoria Shakespeare Festival, directing her first show for Theatre Inconnu. Spit Delaney’s Island runs from December 1 to 19 at Little Fernwood Hall, 1900 Fernwood Road. Tickets are available at www.ticketrocket.co or reserved by phone at 250-360-0234.

Monica will spend her holidays at home with family and friends, sitting in front of the fireplace. She hopes to be reading a copy of her latest book, Staging the Not-Yet: How Dramatic Ensemble Creates Utopian Space published by Drama Australia.