Playwrights Canada Press
Reading plays in the quiet of one’s home is more solitary than immersion in a novel, poetry or non-fiction. The most significant difference is imagining how a stage direction would be carried out in such a way as to draw in an audience, as this random example from Robert Chafe’s one-act three-hander play, Between Breaths, illustrates: “JON stands in a tight spot of rain, alone, looking somewhat perplexed but immune to the cold … He stares up into the rain cloud above, then closes his eyes a moment.” As individuals we can picture this, but since water on stage is generally avoided we wonder how this can be achieved, and thus momentarily step away from the reading experience. When the presence of water is amplified from rain to an ocean, and that ocean is filled with whales—their conjured presence and the use of their calls making them nearly another character—the demand on our imagination is greatly increased.
Between Breaths is about Jon Lien (1939-2010), a scientist who originally moved to Newfoundland and Labrador to study seabirds. He was soon known as “the Whale Man,” credited with rescuing hundreds of them after they became entangled in fishing nets. That was not part of his duties when he took up his job at Memorial University of Newfoundland. As Chafe has Jon say: “This fisherman thought I was there to help. Heard I was into whales. Those potheads trapped in the ice the previous year. But I was just there to record them. Their distress.”
One intervention follows another until gradually it becomes a mission lasting many years, embracing ecological concerns as well as the economic damage to fishers from ruined and expensive nets, until Jon’s health declines. The play opens with him “trapped” in his wheelchair and ends with his release. In between the first and last scenes Chafe describes, through a mixture of exposition-laden and semi-dramatic flashbacks, how the healthier Jon—with support from an employee named Wayne, a former whaler who became his friend and right-hand man, and sometimes in the face of opposition from an unnamed MUN dean—grew to embrace his unexpected role.
Most of the life-saving events occur on and under the water. That means the stage directions contain explicit details of events that readers who are also theatregoers would not expect to see mounted. “The whale bumps the boat suddenly” is one instance that speaks to the canvas Chafe has created, and indicates that only a larger and more costly production than is usual could capture his full vision. A CBC story from May 2016, “Whale researcher Jon Lien’s life set to be dramatized this summer,” contained this remark about Between Breaths: “‘We’re doing a sort of stripped down version of this play this summer that can easily tour to rural communities, and we’re really happy about that,’” said [producer] Pat Foran, adding the skeleton and more elaborate sets may appear in subsequent productions.”
For me this mingling of Chafe’s ambition and an awareness that what is being presented cannot be truly grasped unless there is a full-scale production, made the reading process less than satisfactory. As well, there is at times an undercutting of dramatic moments or possibilities. Jon and Judy, his wife, argue about his involvement with whales, and the confrontation echoes what has been portrayed in countless movies and plays when someone (usually male) has to take a course of action that goes against common sense or the wish of a (usually female) loved one. Late in the play Jon declares, “I’m the guy, Judy, because there’s no one else,” but this is neither surprising nor incisive. Their clash of wills may be true to life, but as character development it resembles stale workshop advice on how to instill conflict more than living, breathing disagreement. Similarly, when Jon and the dean (never shown) butt heads any potential drama is swept away as quickly as it’s introduced.
It may be that Between Breaths isn’t meant to be a dramatic work but rather an affectionate and respectful bio-play, since Jon, for all his stubbornness, comes out quite well, and Judy “concedes something deep within herself”—that’s a bit mysterious—once she finally understands he is more than “a lecturer… a scientist.”
The play is not a tragedy and Robert Chafe designed its structure to avoid it ending as an “irredeemably sad” piece of work. Instead, he has provided audiences with a celebration of a life given over to helping endangered mammals. As such, it might be seen as preparation for a future screenplay where the real drama of lives on the line—the stuff that, in its present incarnation, occurs underwater and therefore out of sight—can be brought fully before our eyes.