#762 Bard Smedley of Armstrong

Horn Swoggled: A Play
by Ken Smedley

Vernon: Rich Fog Micro Publishing, 2019
$25.00 / 9781988707211

This book is available via Canada Post from Ken Smedley, PO Box 323, Armstrong, BC, V0E 1B0 for $25, which includes postage and handling

Reviewed by Grahame Ware

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First, a word or two about the playwright. Born in 1952, Ken Smedley started writing plays as a teenager. As a founding member of the Western Canada Youth Theatre (now the Western Canada Theatre), Smedley wrote his first play, Renegades, about the historic McLean Brothers Gang in Kamloops. It was mounted in December 1971, the first time that the frontier mythology of the Kamloops area had been dramatized for the stage.

Ken Smedley, circa 1977

Smedley then went to England to hone his acting skills and steep himself in the dramatic and cultural gravitas of an older culture and society. Before he was twenty, he was employed by Phoenix Theatre (now the Sue Townsend Theatre), a professional repertory theatre based in Leicester, where he acted in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard), managed Peter McEnery’s Hamlet, and directed the English premier of Slawomir Mrozek’s Striptease.

Back in Canada and a little older, he kept writing plays and had many staged at the Terra Nova Theatre in St. Johns, Newfoundland. He adapted Jack Hodgins’ piece, After the Season, for actor and producer Don Mowatt and his CBC Vancouver radio series, The Hornby Collection. Another Smedley adaptation, Timothy Findley’s About Effie, was nominated for an ACTRA award.

Ken Smedley and his wife Dorian Smedley-Kohl, circa 1985. Photo courtesy Lake Chapala Artists

Smedley’s long and fortunate connection to iconic Canadian dramatist and writer George Ryga has led many observers to refer to him as Ryga’s protegé. Indeed, Ryga’s habit of spending his winters in Mexico, near the shores of Lake Chapala in Ajijic, meant that Smedley and his wife, the actress Dorian Kohl, also became enamoured of life in Mexico, so much so that they decided to live there. Two of their children were born there while Smedley made a living producing plays for the Chula Vista Theatre, the oldest English language theatre in Mexico. Coincidentally, this area was where Tennessee Williams penned the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire (aka The Poker Night), and where D.H. Lawrence did the heavy lifting for his famously anti-Christian novel, The Plumed Serpent.

George Ryga’s former house in Summerland, 2014. Photo courtesy The Wilderness Dweller, Chris Czajkowski

Smedley’s Mexican phase ended in 1989 when he and his family moved to Armstrong as the publicity man for Caravan Farm Theatre and in 1994 he started a campaign to establish George Ryga House in Summerland, acting as the Artistic Director of George Ryga House until the Ryga family suddenly decided to sell the property in 2012. Nobody did more to keep the house afloat than Smedley. This entailed constant fund-raising in order to pay the mortgage on the houses just north of Giant’s Head. As a result of this dedication to the memory and spirit of Ryga, many of Ryga’s plays were mounted by Smedley as stage plays and included many excellent actors including Peter Hall, David Peterson, Dorian Kohl and Wayne Ashton.

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Ken Smedley, circa 2005

And now to the play at hand. There is a quote by Urjo Kareda on the back cover that might strike many as a slam — a strange way to hype the play. “This play is vile: morally, spiritually and aesthetically — and I hated it a lot!” However, this comment falls into the same category as the use of the word “sick” as “impressed praise” in street lingo or, in baseball circles, “filthy” to describe the incredible and often unhittable action of a baseball pitcher’s stuff. Obviously, Kareda loved Smedley’s play, Horn Swoggled. The late and beloved longtime artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre, Kareda may have known more about contemporary Canadian plays and playwrights than anyone else. His reaction to Smedley’s play shows that he got it. He was not alone. Maristella Roca, the acclaimed dramatist (Pinocchio, La Storia, etc.) also understood the play.

Undoubtedly Kareda also appreciated Smedley’s ear for language and broad humour, which are utilized to full effect in this play. Smedley doesn’t write like other Canadian dramatists. His style and themes have much more in common with the English playwright, Joe Orton (1933-1967).

Horn Swoggled was performed as a stage reading in late winter of 1994 in various cities in the southern interior of British Columbia: Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, and Smedley’s hometown of Armstrong. The reviewer of the Armstrong production, Peter Critchley, thought that the main character of Perfidio, played by Vaughn Fulford, was “one of the most memorable characters ever to appear on stage at Centennial Auditorium. Fulford creates a character of flesh, blood and bone without ever rising from his chair” (Armstrong Advertiser, March 2, 1994).

Ken Smedley, 2009. Photo by Elaine Cavazzi

This reviewer gained deep insights into this play as I played the role of Saturnino, the long-spurned lover of Lee-Lee. Thus, I was involved in the rehearsals and discussions of the “intentions and motives” of my character.

The device of the casket as a silent presence in Horn Swoggled is a dominant leitmotif in the play not unlike that of the dead remains of the mother/wife in Joe Orton’s Loot (originally entitled Funeral Games [but not to be confused with Orton’s television play of the same name])

The similarity of this one core device and feature between Loot and Horn Swoggled is not at all far fetched: they both have a penchant for black comedy, strong language, and absurdly farcical sensibilities with scenes that are truly uproarious. The tradition of this type of outrageous comedy has a home in Britain, whereas in Canada it is seen as a bastard not unlike Porfidio himself.

Horn Swoggled is best seen through the lens of death and the manner in which it is honoured and/or ritualized by the living. Smedley dramatizes a dysfunctional family with sexual politics and legitimacy at the core; the old wounds and sibling rivalries create a cascade of overlapping dialogue and contrapuntal conversations charged with conflict. Smedley’s clever and ribald writing creates dialogue that is sharp and diffuse. Slowly, we see a family with some serious shit – that is, unresolved interpersonal and emotional tension and hostility.

The main characters are a sister and a brother, an “aunt” and a daughter, a son and a daughter of the son and their daughter. Got that? The dead matriarch — known simply as Madame — lies in a casket at the centre of the stage as they mourn and reminisce all the while arguing over their respective realities past and present. The drama unfolds under the roof of a big, ramshackle pink house cum bordello whose ownership was finagled by the now dead mother/madame of the rose-hued “establishment.” Apparently, the once lascivious matriarch refused to sell her beloved pachyderm, Boom-Boom, the pink elephant who was the main draw in the Mexican circus that she and her husband owned and operated. This refusal, so claims the son Porfidio, meant that their father, known as the King of Tequila, was unable to finance his budding empire in order to stay afloat during the Depression. Not surprisingly, during the play Porfidio is continually self-lubricating with tequila.

At one point in the play he toasts Madame:

(RAISES HIS GLASS)

Heres to Blacky! (DRINKS) You know … Ive been thinking about the business of her burial. I think we should send the old bitch off in style. So, I took the liberty to call up the head lieutenant of the Tanganyikan Fusiliers, and the commander general of the Blackguard Grenadiers — and theyve both agreed to a parade for the old box — understandably, she was intimate with both regiments — theyll turn out in force and fire off a 21 gun salute, even lob a few grenades, in memory of all the times they shot their wads on her parade ground. All in all, I think it would be a commemorative befitting the Queen of Spades.

Needless to say this toast goes over like a fart in a church.

Ken Smedley, 2018. Lena Whittaker photo

Porfidio is referred to as the bus stop baby by Sheda, the eldest legitimate daughter. As such Porfidio is not really part of the inner family that have sprung from the loins of Madame the matriarch but, surprise-surprise, he still wants some of the estate.

Amid the accusations of incest and uneven birthrights, there is a wealth of interconnected jealousy. Like the undetermined origins of the word itself, in Horn Swoggled we find a play striated with layers of unresolved propriety, ambiguous family legitimacy, and a very intense sibling rivalry. Smedley manages to pull no punches whilst teeing up some scenes and punchlines that are pure magic.

Canadian dramatists such as George F. Walker, Tomson Highway, and Judith Thompson (especially her play White Biting Dog [1984], which has strong affinities to Horn Swoggled) have carved out a more modern sensibility for drama in this country. So too has Ken Smedley with many dramatic works. For me, Horn Swoggled stands out in his canon as a definitive work and, as such, deserves a place in any drama aficionado’s library.

Some plays by Ken Smedley. Photo by Grahame Ware

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Grahame Ware

Grahame Ware is a writer, book reviewer, and carver on Gabriola Island. He studied creative writing and communication studies at Simon Fraser University. As a feature writer, often under the Buzz Ware handle, he has been published in Georgia Straight, Vancouver Magazine, TV Week, TV Guide, and Toronto Star, and he had shows on CBC radio, CKVU-TV, and CO-OP radio as a freelance broadcaster and producer. He worked with Ken Smedley in performing plays by George Ryga, Sam Shepard, and George F. Walker in the Okanagan. He taught ornamental horticulture at Okanagan College, made a living as a landscape contractor and rare plant nurseryman, and spent three years as editor of the Alpine Garden Club of B.C. With Dan Heims, he is author of Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells (Timber Press, 2005), and contributed articles to the International Rock Gardener, The Rock Garden, and The Plantsman. See www.phantasma.ca for his wood sculpture and related subjects.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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4 comments on “#762 Bard Smedley of Armstrong

  1. Wonderful review, Buzz Ware. It has such a nice flow. I love your recollections of working with Ken and your insights on his writing style. Great chronology of Ken’s life and I also enjoyed reading about your life and your many gigs and artistic endeavours. Both you and Ken are definitely among my favourite writers and my favourite old chaps.

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