≈ 2 hours and 20 minutes · With intermission
About three years ago Dennis Garnhum, the intrepid Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre, called me to champion a project about Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel. I thought Trina Davies’ play would revolve around the invention of the telephone, however it turned out to be a story with a much more profound impact on the characters involved. It was a love story.
This love story is beautifully told by a cast made up of both Deaf and hearing performers, each one at the very top of their game. The production, as imagined by Peter Hinton and his design team, has the distinct signature that only Peter’s own brilliance can bring. The element that resonated most for me was the individual lights of isolation, making Alexander’s aloneness just as palpable as Mabel’s. Although they were an essential match for one another, they each still inhabited their own world, which no one, not even the other, could fully penetrate. Bell was a wacky, excitable, ill-mannered genius who had once taught his dog to talk. Mabel was distinguished and strong-willed, and a fierce genius herself. Their love affair sparked a platform which now helps sustain love affairs the world over.
Silence is a love story, but like many love stories it is a ghost story too; haunted by its own power, its own mythologies, and the formidable obstacles that, despite technological advances and cultural awakenings, still continues today. We can look at this play and ask ourselves, “what has changed?” We can follow this love story and ask ourselves, “what did love overcome, and what was this love unable to endure?”
Like many love stories, it is also a story about loss. Somehow, the measure of love is always loss. When Mabel Hubbard gained her deafness, she discovered in herself untapped resources and skills, and a creativity and power that many women of her social class and standing would never know. Perhaps it was this genius that Alec fell in love with. However, what was lost was this elusive spark, this sometime madness/sometime genius which clearly Mabel saw in Alec and he, too, in her. Theirs was a love that was/is constantly surprising and unexpected. Society has a tendency to focus on disability rather than ability, and this is a story about all that human beings are capable of. Love by its nature makes its own rules.
In Trina Davies’ telling it is something more than biography; Bell is neither a hero nor a villain, Mabel neither vanguard nor victim; both are terribly awkward and vulnerable, flawed and human. Silence chronicles a history that is beautiful and painful and immerses the audience in the imagined experience of what Mabel heard and saw in her lover and her time.
Silence began with a phone call from dramaturge Iris Turcott. She had an idea: Alexander Graham Bell. She wanted me to write a play. That call set me out on a path that meandered through sound and silence, shadow and light, love and connection.
I read every book and obscure text I could find about Bell, his work and his family. During this time something else happened. I met my partner. As I read through these materials, I was getting pulled towards Mabel, rather than Alec. She was an extraordinary person who captured my admiration and my imagination. I started to ponder the potentially epic proportions of long-term relationships, and particularly communication within these relationships. So much of what is understood has nothing to do with the words that are used, but is communicated in a look, a touch, a gesture, the positioning of a shoulder. How do we connect? How do we stay connected?
These questions were especially poignant for me when considering Alec and Mabel. He created a device that connected the entire world, but it had little personal functionality for him – as his wife and his mother were unable to use the device to communicate with him.
In June 2016, Iris, Peter Hinton and I travelled to Calgary for the first workshop of Silence. Outside of our downtown hotel, beside a dusty street, Iris and I talked for hours over a picnic table. She was always in my corner, and she believed in this play. That is the last time I saw her. Iris passed away in September 2016.
This play is for those who have loved and for those who have been loved. For those who have spilled over in their all-consuming love for another, and for those afraid they might not have enough love to give. For me, this one is for Iris. And for Cliff. Hold those you love a little tighter tonight.