On December 6, 1917 an explosion tore through Halifax, Nova Scotia, obliterating the Richmond District and shattering virtually every window in the City. The ensuing tsunami wiped out the Mi’kmaq First Nations community. Temperature at the core reached nine thousand degrees Fahrenheit. (The surface of the sun is eleven thousand degrees.) The explosive force equaled 2.9 kilotons of TNT. At the time, it was the largest explosion in an inhabited area in human history, and would remain so until Hiroshima.
The aftermath was horrendous. Two thousand people died, and another nine thousand suffered injury. Twenty-five thousand were rendered homeless, and three hundred lost their sight. The dead were collected in horse-drawn carts, and, in one of the gruesome details in Trina Davies’ fine play Shatter, buckets were filled with detached eyeballs. Thousands of freshly-homeless people slept in the park, or behind one of the few intact buildings, or anywhere they could.
And then it started to snow.
Shatter is the story of the aftermath of the aftermath – of the days of rage and recrimination. Canada was, at the time, at war – as part of the British Empire, it was sending its young men to the front to fight the Germans. Naturally, the survivors’ first thought was that the German enemy had somehow done this – that U-Boats, or some other exemplar of inhuman German technology, had launched a terrific assault.
Aided, of course, by a fifth column of German collaborators, living in Nova Scotia.
Davies tells her story through four characters – Jennie MacLean (Hollis McCarthy), a war widow who has become a war protester; her daughter Anna (Jackie Hanson), a young woman for whom the influx of young male soldiers has caused her hormones to declare Congress in session in her body; Brian Davidson (Michael Chris McGuire), one of those young men, who has come to the MacLean household to assure that all their windows be darkened so that the enemy cannot find them; and Elsie Schultz (Rebecca Nelson, who played Blanche in Arena’s Streetcar), Jeannie’s friend, who comes from Germany.
The play begins slowly, with the events of the morning: Jennie challenging a war booster; Annie writing in her diary; Elsie visiting for tea; Brian’s gentle intrusion, and it allows us to appreciate Rebecca Phillips’ beautiful depiction of an ugly part of town on the stage: the dirty-white warehouse with its empty windows; the shadows and sounds of reeling seagulls.
The production’s depiction of the actual explosion is more than a gesture, but this is not a play about special effects. We learn more about what happens from the wonderfully specific way that Davies has the terrified survivors describe the gory carnage. The explosion propels the characters forward, too – none more so than Anna, who has more responsibility thrust on her in ninety minutes than many people have in their lifetimes. Hansen is fabulous at depicting this. She is absolutely convincing as a girl at the threshold of adulthood at the beginning of the play, and absolutely convincing as a full-grown woman, anticipating marriage and a family at the end, and absolutely convincing at every intermediate step.
The business of the play is the rage that the townspeople direct at their German-born neighbors, and, more specifically, at Elsie. At its most terrifying, the rage drives people – Canadians! – to a wholesale destruction of the homes owned by German-born townspeople.
You may be forcibly reminded of Kristallnacht, although there are, of course, significant differences. The aftermath of the Halifax explosion shows that even the gentlest and most well-mannered of people are capable of irrational destructiveness if they are subjected to sufficient pain.
And what about Elsie? Brian has seen her late at night, walking in the park and writing letters in German. Since there is no postal service between Canada and Germany, what could they be other than information on how to destroy Halifax, which will be ferreted in secret to the German military? (Nelson reads them aloud; if you speak German you will know where the play is going with them). Brian – who Davies, director Susan Fenichell and McGuire take pains to show as a thoroughgoingly decent young man – poisons the minds of Anna and eventually of Jennie, who has been profoundly wounded in the explosion and is dependent on Anna and Elsie.
Except for the fact that it is a fictionalized depiction of a real event, you could almost call Shatter an allegory, in that it is a pocket depiction of the tragically wrong assumptions which underlie much human conflict. It is helpful that each actor (including McGuire, who makes his professional debut with this production) is relentlessly human – which is to say, full of good intentions, and prone to error.
The Halifax Explosion, as you have probably guessed, had nothing to do with Germans, whose army never got within four thousand miles of Canada during the first War. The SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with explosives for the war, collided with an empty Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Imo. The Mont-Blanc caught fire, and within minutes the explosives ignited. The ship was blown apart with such force that the anchor landed nearly two miles from the harbor. It remains there to this day, a monument to those who lost their lives, and perhaps to those who lost their minds as well.
Shatter is onstage through November 16, 2014 at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets.