Formerly Withdrawn Play About Marshall McLuhan Returns to the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto


R.H. Thomson performs the role of Marshall McLuhan during his time of decline & aphasia

I attended a pre-opening performance of The Message last week. I was not impressed by either the play or production I witnessed, indeed I was disappointed. I know R.H. Thomson to be a highly regarded and skilled actor, but he could only work with the script that he was presented with by playwright, Jason Sherman. I found his depiction to be sadly lacking in that his play showed McLuhan during only two stages of his life, shifting back and forth between these two phases: first, there was the period after 1967-68 when he had been on sabbatical at Fordham University in New York, during which time he was afflicted by a benign but large brain tumor that required an overnight many-hour operation (see; second, we are also presented McLuhan in an aphasic state during his final year, at which time his most common verbalization was “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy”. In other words, we never see a depiction of the brilliant genius who was foundational for the new academic field of media studies, was hailed as “Canada’s intellectual comet” by Richard Schickel of Harper’s Magazine (1965), and who author Tom Wolfe compared to Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein. Therefore, uninformed theatre audiences without knowledge of McLuhan might be left with the impression that even before the major stroke that left him speechless, McLuhan was little more than an absent-minded professor who even his secretary, Margaret Stewart couldn’t understand. That is utterly misleading and an unfortunate misrepresentation. No wonder Corinne McLuhan, McLuhan’s wife and the McLuhan Estate, objected to the play in the first place. I could say much more but, maybe I will write a full separate review of this disappointing play and production. – Alex Kuskis

By Brad Wheeler, Toronto Globe & Mail – November 12, 20018

How big was Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s? The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed the University of Toronto professor “the hottest academic property around,” and the line “Marshall McLuhan, whatcha doin’?” was featured on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, delivered by a giggling Goldie Hawn.

Here’s the thing about McLuhan that nobody likes to talk about, though: In 1967, at age 56, he underwent surgery for the removal of a benign growth in his head. The operation – described by McLuhan biographer Douglas Coupland as a “gross insult to the brain” – extended his life, but may have cost him some of his genius.

Recently I came across a story about the time McLuhan met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Canada in 1969. For an interview organized by the CBC, the eccentric communications theorist talked to the rock-star couple about their “War is Over” media campaign. He was intrigued not by the duo’s peace message but the medium that carried it: Billboards.

McLuhan seemed a bit off his game. “I just sort of wonder how the ‘War is Over,’ the wording, the whole thinking,” McLuhan began the interview, stumbling from the get-go. “What happened?” Lennon answered that the basic idea was Ono’s, and that they had an idea for Christmas that was a “bit too vast,” but that something would happen, “maybe,” in the following year.

And so it went – a real egghead fandango. McLuhan, the darling of the elbow-patch-and-turtleneck set, wasn’t going to get to the bottom of the ideas held by Lennon and Ono. In his absent-minded state, he sometimes had a tough enough time getting to the bottom of his own. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything that I say,” McLuhan once said. He was, jokes a character in a curious new play by Jason Sherman, “a man of a thousand ideas, three of them completed.”

The Message – the title is taken from McLuhan’s oft-quoted maxim, “the medium is the message” – opens on Nov. 14 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The play has a long and controversial history. Fifteen years ago, The Message was scheduled to kick off Tarragon’s 2003-04 season. But after reading a draft of the play, McLuhan’s eldest son Eric and the estate’s literary agent, Matie Molinaro, objected to some of the content and threatened to sue Sherman.

As a result, The Message was put on the shelf. Sherman, a Governor-General’s Literary Award winner, busied himself with other projects. For the last decade, he’s concentrated on writing for radio and television. But, earlier this year, out of the blue, it was announced that Sherman had returned to Tarragon as its playwright-in-residence and that The Message was being dusted off for its long-awaited world premiere. Questions abounded: What took so long? Why now? What about the lawsuit? In short, whatcha doin’, Jason Sherman?

Initially, Sherman wasn’t interested in giving answers. The Message had undergone significant alterations since its contentious beginnings 15 years earlier, I was told by Tarragon Theatre, and Sherman didn’t want to talk about the play just yet. Fair enough. I interviewed him for a short feature about his return to writing for the stage with the understanding that we’d talk about The Message closer to its premiere.

A couple of weeks before The Message was set to open, however, I was informed by Tarragon that Sherman was game to talk about the play… (Read the rest of this article here

Read the previous announcement of this production on this blog here – Play about Marshall McLuhan to premiere after long and controversial history –

 Jason Sherman, playwright

2 Responses to “Formerly Withdrawn Play About Marshall McLuhan Returns to the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto”

  1. Thank u for ur review

    Sorry to hear about quality of play



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