Tuesday, August 7, 2007

the underbelly of the hero, the inferiority of the colony

Billy Bishop Goes to War
by John Gray and Eric Peterson

At its heart of hearts, I don't believe that Billy Bishop Goes to War is really about Billy Bishop, or even about war, at all. Deep down at its fleshy core, this play is about Canadian inferiority and making a name for Canada on the world stage. In the end, the play's own history (the triumph of arriving on Broadway, the flop of being deeply misunderstood there) is a perfect echo of the theme of Canadian also-ran-ism that the play is really about.

When Billy arrives in England to fight, he describes his boat as filled "with dead horses and sick Canadians," looking like "a boat load of Balkan refugees." He describes the Canadians at war as "cannon fodder," and determines that it is because he is Canadian that he will never get a look in as a fighter pilot. Indeed, the recruiter agrees, asserting that "no one gets to be a pilot right away, for Christ's sake. Especially not bleeding Canadians!" The idea that we arrived in England to soak up bullets is distasteful to Billy, but he also accepts it fully because he can't imagine it any other way. Billy is a deeply colonized man. He doesn't doubt for one second that he is inferior to the British people around him, and there is certainly no sense that he could fight against the people who believe this to be true.

At war, Billy becomes increasingly homesick for Canada. In one of the songs in the play, he remembers Canada fondly, saying: "Nobody shoots no one in Canada, / Last battle was a long, long time ago. [...] Nobody starts no wars on Canada, / Where folks tend to wish each other well." He prays that when he dies he will die in Canada.

When he meets Lady St. Hellier, however, he becomes aware that his point of view is skewed. She sees that he is capable of more, and says to him that while soaking up bullets is acceptable behaviour in a Canadian, he is gifted, and therefore he "belongs to a much older and deeper tradition than Canada can ever hope to provide." She points out to him that he is hindered by his "colonial mentality," which seems determined to prove that those who think of Canadians as failures right. Because Billy has this guardian, he can move away from this point of view and become "someone" outside of the colonial context. There is a sense that Billy becomes practically British, in the end.

Through his heroic deeds, Billy becomes an inspiration to the colonial residents -- he is created to be held up as a figurehead -- and this is what gets him sent home in the end. That's the moral of the story here: we must throw off the shackles of colonial oppression, because only in so doing can we achieve real successes and, in Billy's case, survive the war.

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