23 May Fire
The music of Fire (1999) embodies the text’s unnerving union of sensuality and lynch-mob violence by weaving the voices tightly and inexorably together. Four voices move as one, reflecting a claustrophobic small-town setting and the text’s airless imagery of water, fire, and drowning. Rhythm and pitch are simple but obsessive, emphasizing the schism between the cool, soothing surface of the words and the horrifying ritual they portray. Fire was commissioned by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra, Co-artistic Directors) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.
Fire, by composer James Rolfe, was the dark centre of the show; it captured the troubling ambiguity of a poem by Andre Alexis about the murder of children and the lynching (or burning?) of the man who supposedly killed them. Rolfe’s deceptively simple, hymn-like setting had an undercurrent of anxiety that built into a climax of unbearable intensity.
– Tamara Bernstein, The National Post (Toronto), 20 June 2000
Once we get to Fire, however, with its text by André Alexis, set by James Rolfe (the composer of Beatrice Chancy), we have arrived not only at the performance’s most potent fusion of music and word, but its emotional core, a memorable journey into darkness.
– Urjo Kareda, Toronto Globe and Mail, 17 June 2000
FIRE by André Alexis
Woman 1: I am standing in unburning flame, like a moth in amber. Above me, the sky is blue as cobalt, and the clouds drift like steam from a warm room. It is morning and I am on the shore of a wide lake. I look down, and (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Woman 2: I don’t get out much since the house burned down. Not much more than a square of black ground. We lost everything. Even the letter I was writing you. What was it? I was saying (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Woman 3: I wake up every morning thinking of him. Some days I almost feel him in my arms, my hand on his chest. And then, to be near him all day long. I wonder if he knows that (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Women: We were by the lake, watching men and women bring kindling. Each with as much as they could carry. The night sky was cloudless, black, and filled with stars. The moon was white; our songs were still as the evening:
song: In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice, and my cry came before him, my cry came into his ears. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke, and fire out of his mouth devoured.
The night was black. The moon was white. The water rubbed against the canal. His arms around me; his breath warm . . . and the names of the dead children in our ears:
Jenny Wilson Helen Vendler
Heather Young Michael Carson
Miranda Andrews Michael Harris
Thomas Parsons Peter Allen
Peter Allen Thomas Parsons
Michael Harris Miranda Andrews
Michael Carson Heather Young
Helen Vendler Jenny Wilson
The torches moved on the water like fireflies . . .
And then, the hammers on wood, wood on wood, to build a pyre for the childkiller . . .
The lake a mirror from which the scaffold rose, on which the wood was heaped, on which he was left, hands bound, feet tied . . .
Woman: Our torches above us like moths . . .
Child: Like moths?
Woman: Like moths.
Child: Was there really a killer?
Woman: Yes, darling . . .
Child: How black was the night?
Woman: Black as a bible.
Child: How white was the moon?
Woman: White as salt.
Child: How many stars were there?
Woman: Three million million million million . . .
Child: And did he cry when you burned him?
Did his hair burn first?
Did his teeth burn?
How black was the night?
How red was the fire?
song: There once was a moth. White as ash.
And there was a candle flame. Yellow as lemons.
And what a friendship they had. Dance, dance, dance . . .
Text © 1994 by André Alexis
Abridged with author’s permission by James Rolfe, 1999