George Elliott Clarke’s newest dramatic poem, Trudeau, makes an irreverent, jubilant portrait of the life and politics of one of Canada’s most controversial political heroes, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Clarke’s poem provides a whimsical and informative look at the balance of world powers in the 1960s and 70s, infused with the spirit of the many revolutions taking place throughout the world during these years. The poem opens on a hillside in Nanjing, China, April 1949, in the midst of the country’s civil war. Our hero exchanges political stances with Mao and falls for a beautiful young flautist. From China the drama moves to Fredericton, NB, where Trudeau chats with Massachusetts Senator and future American president John F. Kennedy, who has just received an honorary doctorate from the university. The two men cavalierly discuss the perks of political power, each on the cusp of leading their countries. Then, in Havana, on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro treats Trudeau to rum and cigars and offers his take on revolutions, Cuban and otherwise. When the focus moves to the Quiet Revolution and Trudeau’s response to this crisis in his leadership, Clarke presents a leader at once loved and loathed at home, who perseveres through both political and personal upheaval.
Originally composed as the libretto for a new opera by D.D. Jackson to be presented at Toronto’s Harbourfront Festival in April 2007, Trudeau is a political caper, an extravagant portrait and a dramatic study of influence, power, revolution and liberation. Clarke injects the life of one of this country’s most intriguing personalities with the exuberance and grimy frankness his readers have come to love and expect.
According to the author: “As a teenage poet in the 1970s, seven artist-intellectualsor poet-politicoshelped me to conceive my voice. They were jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, troubadour-bard Bob Dylan, libertine lyricist Irving Layton, guerilla leader and poet Mao Zedong, reactionary modernist Ezra Pound, Black Power orator Malcolm X and the Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau. These ‘idols’ inspired me to sculpt an individualist poetic scored with implicit social commentary. Yes, this ‘Gang of Seven’ is flawed. But, taken as a whole, I find their blunt talk, suave styles, acerbic independence, raunchy macho, feisty lyricism, singing heroics and scarf-and-beret chivalry quite, well, liberating.
“For me, no Canadian stood more for liberation than Trudeau, that aloof populist, rights-trampling democrat and tax-and-spend millionaire. An operatic figure in life (19192000), he now merits dramatic treatment. My dramatic poem imagines the politician as ‘player’: Plato meets Chaplin.”