The Harps of God


The 2001 Governor General's Literary Awards

A Tragedy in Three Acts for twelve men.


Kent Stetson, C. M.

*French Text

La mer de cristal

Isabelle Famchon,
Traductrice, Paris.

Peter Lamb

Photo by the playwright,
from the premiere production,
Maggoty Cove, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland
directed by
Richard Rose

Donna Butt, Artistic Director of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, Newfoundland, Canada,
commissioned an original work for the stage arising from survivor's statements
sworn before two commissions of inquiry into facts surrounding
the Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914.

The develpoment of The Harps of God was supported by;

Le Conseil des Atres et du Lettres du Quebec
The National Arts Centre of Canada
The Canadian Stage Company
Rising Tide Theatre
The Canada Council

Background to the Excerpt:

March 31, 1914:  A blizzard assaults one hundred and fifty rain-drenched sealers stranded on North Atlantic ice floes forty miles off the northeast coast of Newfoundland.

The temperature drops from 38o (f) to well below 0 o as night falls.

The wind shifts. A Labrador gale whittles ice towers into pinacles. Vast ice floes  collide and sink, roll and rise wet from the sea; slick surfaces become glistening ice. Mountainous icebergs driven by wind, tide and current shatter the sea of  glass.


            Henry?  Name of God.    Henry?    
                    [Lowers Henry’s body to the ice.  Rises]
            Is anyone there?   
                    [Hunched against the cold]              
            Run.  No.  Just wait.  For what?             
            Run like the wind and don’t stop ‘till ye gets...   
            Where?  Anywhere.
            Henry...  Henry?
            Damn ye to hell for a coward Henry Dowden.

(Art Mouland enters, comes to the edge of the water that separates him form the pan on which Jessop scavenges Henry’s belongings  -- jersey, sculping knife, etc.)

            Jessop?  Who’s that?

            Henry Dowden.

            He was a friend of yours.
            Leave the dead lie in peace, b’y.    

            Him and me was boys together.
            Not a day went by we never seen each other.
            He was more brother to me then me own two brothers.
            Never done a tap ‘a harm to  no one.  
            Henry was my friend.
            Why poor Henry?
            Why not me?    

            There’s no answer to that question.
            None that will satisfy.  
            Where’s Jones and Bungay?

            Them and their crowd forced us onto this little pan.
            They took our haul ropes to burn, and our gaff handles.  
            They’re like a pack of hungry wolves.  
            Or somethin’ up out of the grave;
            Losin’ their minds. Turnin’ on each other.  
            Me and Henry was gettin’ far from this cursed rock as we could.
            Wine women and song, b’ys.
            Halifax.  Montreal.  The Boston States.

            I had them same notions once.  
            Turns out everything I needed to know, I learned at home.

            I knows all I needs to know about Newfoundland.

            One night in St John’s town a poor fool went drinkin’ wit’ the devil.  
            Seemed a nice enough fella.  
            Only the devil had a knife.  
            The poor fool found himself face down in an alley.  
            People took one look and passed him by.  
            A young woman recognized the poor fool  —  
            Someone from back home, he was —
            Layin’ there moanin’ in his own blood and vomit.  
            She looked into his eyes; she said his name.  
            Death hightailed it in the opposite direction.

            The fool in the alley was ye.

            My Belle tended me wounds and saved me life.  
            I hates to see another human bein’ suffer so.

            Who says I’m sufferin’?

            Look at ye... pacin’ forward and back like a caged animal.  
            Come back wit’ me, Jessop.

            Good Saint Art, is it?  Ye’ll save yer own pelt.

            I will.  And as many else I can.
            My ‘pelt’ don’t belong to me alone now;  
            My Belle is waitin’ for me ashore.
            She’s got the most precious thing on earth growin’ in her belly.

            Another simpleton born to work his guts out,
            To keep some miserable old son of a bitch merchant in the fat.        

            You got a mind of yer own and yer old man hates ye for it.  
            Am I right?
            Mine drowned himself in fish guts and misery.
            Then set about pullin’ me under wit’ him.
            He was squat little bull of a man, like meself.
            Fishermen, wha’?
            We’re bred compact fer hard work in tight quarters... so they says;
            We takes up less room below decks, and if a fella goes overboard,
            Solid muscle sinks quicker than flesh.
            Yes, b’y. Hard hearted fathers.  Ungrateful sons...
            Long as I was a boy, things was dandy.
            My best friend in the world, my old man;
            Till I come into me own manhood.
            He’s dead these fifteen years. I’m terrified of him yet.            
            I spent half the time angry at meself for bein’ afraid.
            The other half afraid of me own anger.
            P’isoned wit’ guilt.  
            And so damn sad.
            I got away alright.  Then set about creatin’ me own misery,
            Far worse than any the old brute ever handed out.   
            On the run, goin’ nowhere.  
            Whorin’, brawlin’—the promise of me young manhood
            Streeled out behind me in a string of empty bottles.  
            My so-called friends liked me better drunk than sober.  
            They was the bars of a cage of me own makin’.  
            My Belle rattled the door,  said,
            “You kept it up some nice me son,
            But whoever threw ye in here is long gone.
            Look at this. They left the door wide open.
            Come out my son.  Have a look around.”  
            Well, sir. I did.  
            I seen that lovely woman... my Belle;
            The sea washin’ through her,
            Full ‘a tides and currents,
            Her heart awash with yearin’;  
            Mine like foam on the sea...
            Love’s the antidote, me son.    
            All the love on earth can’t keep a cold man from dyin’.  

            Can’t it?  I got the chance to start over.  
            Nothin’ says you won’t too.

            Along comes friggin’ Simon.  Then Andrew.   
            The old man casts me aside and worships them.  
            ‘Specially friggin’ Simon.  
            Miniature copy of himself.   
            All I heard from then on was,
            “Look out for yer brother.”   
            “Ye’ve had more than yer share.”  
            “Grow up, for God’s sake.  Act like a man.”
            Act like him, he was sayin’.  
            Well, I’m not him.  I’m meself.
            Save yer talk of love for yer poor sap of a child, Mouland.  
            I heard it all before.
            Who am I, he hates me so?

            There’s not much left in yer little fire, Jessop.  
            Join up wit’ us.

            I’d rather die here by meself then come up against Jones and Bungay and them.
            Or that old bugger... ‘tis all the same to me.

            Things is orderly back at my gaze; every fella lookin’ out for the other.    
            I haven’t lost a single man, and that’s how I intends to keep it.  
            Come wit’ me.  Ye’ll be taken care of.

            Is that a promise?

            It is.

            What odds?  No future here.

(Mouland throws his gaff across to Jessop, who prepares to copy from the opposite side of his pan into darkness)

            Are ye determined to die by yerself, in the black of night in a blizzard?

            No Skipper.  That’s what I am not.
            I got a gaff now.  
            What more do I need, besides sunrise?            

            You haven’t got a gaff.  
            Ye’ve got my gaff.  
            Jessop!  If ye gets back to the Newfoundland,
            What’ll ye say about the men ye left behind?
            I’ll tell them what I tells you.  
            I’ll tell them me father sent me.

            You steal me gaff, ye leave forty men wit’ a crippled leader.

            Thirty men left me and Henry to die.  
            Fair’s fair.

            Fair has nothin’ to do wit’ what ye intend.  
            It’s easy, picking bad over good.  
            Yerself over others.

            You got an opinion on everyt’ing, ain’t ye?

            It’s the sum total of a man’s choices that make his life, Jessop.
            You’ve got a choice, here and now.  
            No less a choice than evil or good.
            I answered yer call for help.  
            Please.  Help me to help my men —

            I seen somethin’. ..  Somethin’ terrible.


            I stood there, talkin’ to him.  
            I seen him... he just slipped away.

            ‘Tis hard to watch a man die;
            ‘Tis far worse to feel yerself slippin’ away.  
            If the devil’d finished me off that night in St. John’s town,
            I believe I’d ‘a  come back from the dead and thanked him.
            For what?

            For ending my misery.   
            The best life had to offer, stole out from under me, and I’d ‘a thanked him!
            Ye mustn’t live yer life believin’ yer stuck, that things don’t change.  
            They do, my son, for better more often than worse.
            I needs that gaff, Jessop b’y.  
            I’m their leader.  
            They depends on me.

            That’s where we differs.  
            I was taught to depend on no one but meself.
                        [at Henry's body]
            Ye won't be needin this.
   [Takes Henry’s food bag]   
            Ye won’t be needin’ this.  
                        [Pulls scarf free]   
            Or this.

                (Jessop exits. The fire dies)

            Jessop!  Jessop!!
                            [Rising wind]
                God help us.

  End Excerpt

The Harps of God

 is available at

MacArthur and Company Publishing Limited
(ISBN 1-55278-544-0)


MPW Harps excerpt