12 or 20 questions with Margaret Sweatman: Interview with Rob McLennan
— Corey Redekop, Shelf Monkey “Margaret Sweatman’s historical novel is far grittier and realistic than the period pieces you’ll see on TV or at the movie theatre. And more erotic, too… Sweatman’s writing flows as smoothly as a muscular northern river, with a stunning control of voice. She keeps the reader engaged every moment, introducing us to a company of intriguing characters.”
— Mark Frutkin, The Globe and Mail “Margaret Sweatman’s The Players is the kind of novel that just feeds the desire for and appreciation of good writing. I read it and loved it as a reader, but I appreciated it, and was inspired by it, as a writer as well…”
— Inkslinger, The Over Decorated Bookcase “The Players is a magical tale, much akin to Douglas Glover’s Elle and Bill Gaston’s The Order of Good Cheer.…this is a wonderfully humourous tale filled with playful language.”
— Andrew Armitage, The Sun Times
Goose Lane Editions, 2009
It is 1665, and young Lilly Cole must learn to act, to perform in the King’s theatre company of “players.” For Lilly, acting is the way to save her own life. At the same time, two French explorers, Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, arrive in Court to charm two ships from the English King. Set in the libertine era of Restoration England, The Players takes us on a voyage of discovery. This is a tale of beginnings, and of invention. While this novel is set in the 17th Century, the world it evokes is remarkably contemporary. In The Players the ability to perform – on stage, in Court, in private quarters and in the brutal cold of James Bay – this is the way of survival.Nominated for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year.
A Personal Note about The Players
The ideas for a novel set in the 1660s began for me in the 1960s when I was a teenager listening to Led Zeppelin. The sadness of Led Zeppelin comes from American blues, yes, but it also shares DNA with Restoration Theatre of London 1666 – an aesthetic, an attitude, an art that was broken, brilliant, masked, just like British rock.
Look at the photograph of Jimmy Page. Then look at the painting of King Charles II, three hundred years earlier. The sadness. The genius.
Look at the photograph of Robert Plant. Then look at the painting of the court poet Lord Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester – a gorgeously self-destructive man who became Bartholomew in The Players.
The 2nd Earl of Rochester was a catastrophic satirist and drunk, yearning to be busted by the king (who paid for his ferocious life) and by God (who did or did not hear his prayers for redemption on his deathbed at the age of thirty-three – he outlived a lot of rock stars by six years). The complexity of a rebellion deeply embedded in the Court, the yearnings of a conflicted materialist, the intersections between music and language and alcohol and sex – so visibly evident in Restoration England of the 1660s – was manifested again in the 1960s. And I inhaled.
British rock and roll of the 1960s and 1970s was idealistic and cynical, self-mocking and self-pitying. It was uncannily similar to Restoration theatre.
Restoration London is remarkably contemporary for me in regards to feminism, too. Only, it’s not feminism: it’s “Women’s Lib.” Different.
I read somewhere that when the theatres in London reopened after Oliver Cromwell’s military theocratic regime, when Charles II (a man I love even though he’s been dead for well over three hundred years) was restored to the throne in 1660, there were more productions of plays written by women than at any other time in the history of British theatre. Charles II loved theatre and he loved women – some philanderers actually do. He permitted women – for the first time – to perform the female roles on stage.
In the liberation of women to be actresses in 1666, we see some of the double-edged effects that were real yet again in the1960s and 70s. In 1666, women were freed to starve to death as artists. The courtesan and actress was liberated sexually, free to die of venereal disease or in childbirth, free to lose her children through starvation and disease, free to lose her maternal rights, to die in the street. “Female liberation” isn’t really feminism. Nobody cared much for women’s lives.
The Players is also about money. Money, sex, power. Just try writing a sentence with the words “king” and “bed” in the same sentence and see what unravels from your pen.
In 1670, Charles II gave 1.5 million square miles of North America (15% of the continent) to about twenty men, his friends, who formed the Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson Bay. Some of these fellows owned much of the south too – Florida, Virginia. They “created” Rupert’s Land.
The fantastical creation of Rupert’s Land begins the (so often tragic for First Nations people) English colonial enterprise – a marriage of navigation, science, bureaucracy and new capitalism.
My origins as an English-speaking Canadian exist not only in woollen shirts and birch bark canoes – my origins are on stage, among men wearing high-heeled pumps, velvet coats with lace jabots, so overdressed they can’t relieve themselves.
English Canada began in marvellous corruption, and in theatre. It is a performance of magnificent, often violent proportions.
That’s what The Players seeks to conjure.