Mavis Gallant's What Is To Be Done? by Linda Leith

The new edition of What Is To Be Done? 

Set in wartime and written in the late 1970s, Mavis Gallant’s play What Is To Be Done? premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre on Remembrance Day, 1982, and was published by Quadrant Editions the following year. It was in print only for a couple of years, however, before Quadrant closed its doors, and it has seldom been read or even mentioned in the intervening years. Re-reading it today, is a reminder not only of its liveliness and wit, but also of two lively young women, Jenny Thurstone and Molly McCormack, who may be the most engaging characters Gallant ever created.

The first edition of What Is To Be Done?  

The play opens in August 1942 and closes on VE Day, May 8th, 1945. Its subject, like that the revolutionary pamphlet by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin from which it takes its title, is the dream of a better world. Jenny, aged 18 at the beginning of the play, and Molly, 20, are Communist activists receiving instruction from an older woman, Mrs. Bailey, and from a young man from Glasgow named Willie Howe. Lenin’s dream was of Communist revolution; the young women’s dream is of the new world that will emerge when the war ends. As Jenny tells Molly, it will be “a clean new world, with a clean swept sky.”

Mavis Gallant (1922-2014) published well over a hundred short stories published in the pages of The New Yorker as well as two novels and numerous essaysThough she was not a playwright, she came up with the idea of What Is To Be Done? when she was approached by the British director Clifford Williams, and she then sent the play to the Canadian director John Hirsh, who had been asking her for a play since 1968, when he was at the Stratford Festival. He passed it on to the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto,[1] and when Urjo Kareda was hired as artistic director in 1982, he wrote to Gallant, saying, “I love What Is To Be Done? and would like to present it as part of my first season as artistic director of the Tarragon. I was immensely drawn to its vitality and its humour, to its fascinating mixture of irony and compassion; and I am mad about those two women.”[2]

Gallant was in Toronto for rehearsals and for the premiere at the Tarragon Theatre. Reviewers were struck by the play’s focus on the two young women, with Gina Mallet in The Globe and Mail calling the play “a treat” and describing the actors Margot Dionne (Molly) and Donna Goodhand (Jenny) as “enchanting.”[3] A second Globe piece that same day, by Carole Corbeil, argues that Gallant takes “a very female approach,” appropriate for the play’s subject. Corbeil sees the play as “a mix of the absurdity of 40’s French comedies, evocative naturalism, and off-the-wall surrealism.” Like Mallet, she, too, loves the two women, saying that “Miss Goodhand and Miss Dionne give gorgeous performances as two women friends united by conspiracy; this is a rare enough sight in the theatre.”[4] Maclean’s described the play – “an accomplished theatre debut” – as “ambitious, invigorating and blessed with a quirky rhythm which continually employs indirection to find direction out.”[5]

A later review of the published play praises the play’s “perfect writing,” Gallant’s “fine ear for Canadian dialogue, her observations on Canadian society and her attunement to the Canadian sense of humour” which “which Gallant firmly among the finest English-Canadian writers. What Is To Be Done? is a continual delight to its reader.”[6] Such criticism as there was of the play focuses on time spent on scene changes and on the fact that much of the conflict is off-stage. Tickets sold briskly throughout the six-week run. In the Toronto Star, Sid Adelman wrote that it “sold out the first two weeks, tickets are going fast for this week, its third, and the rest of the run. Extra matinees are scheduled for Dec. 1 and 15” before complaining that this “hot ticket” must be taken off Dec. 19 after six weeks.[7]

When Gallant returned to Paris, Kareda wrote, “How we all miss you! It was so exciting to have you with us. Excitement, however, has not ceased. What Is To Be Done? is what must be called a runaway success” (November 19, 1982). She wrote in her journal, “I’m pleased for them.”

As for me, I had a hard core of confidence under the anxiousness. The whole enterprise seemed charmed from the moment I saw a rehearsal. What I can’t bear is that in four weeks it will cease to exist. (Mavis Gallant journal entry dated November 24, 1982)

Kareda wrote again on December 28, 1982, after the final performance: a long, single-spaced letter about the “feelings that passed through me, through so many of us, at the final performance of What Is To Be Done?

The production was like some gorgeous soaring balloon, which spun around in the air-currents and kept reaching higher and higher. The actors were so confident and polished and joyous in their work: what they achieved did seem superhuman. The two girls glowed with such grace and radiance and life that you wanted to hug them every moment… Thank you so much for giving us these women and their world and their hopes."

His letter arrived after the holidays, and Gallant found it “so extraordinary and heart-lifting that I went straight out to the Vaugirard  and had it copied? Why? What do I think I am going to do with the copies  … ?  I think it was just something that made me happy and wanted the happiness multiplied. He says that it is not ‘just another play” but that in some way it changed all their lives” (Mavis Gallant journal entry dated January 6, 1983).


© 2017, Linda Leith

Photo: Judith Lermer Crawley

Linda Leith is a Montreal writer and publisher. LLP will be publishing a new edition of What Is To Be Done? in September 2017.

[1] Martin Knelman, “Coming Home,” Saturday Night, December 1982. 69-70. 

[2] Letter dated March 15, 1982. Excerpts from letters and unpublished journals are quoted with the permission of Gallant’s estate.

[3] Gina Mallet, “What Is To Be Done? a treat at Tarragon,” The Globe and Mail, November 12, 1982.

[4] Carole Corbeil, “Gorgeous performances in a wry play,” The Globe and Mail, November 12, 1982

[5] Mark Czarnecki, “Daughters of revolution,” Maclean’s, November 22, 1982.

[6] Patrick O’Neill, review of the published book in Atlantis, vol 10, No. 2, 1985. 204.

[7]Sid Adelman, “What’s to be done about Gallant’s hit?” The Star, November 29, 1982.


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