Recently, I was lucky enough to see Artistic Fraud’s production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, adapted by Robert Chafe, on the second night of its four-performance maiden voyage. One scene near the end sticks in my mind. The whole Smallwood clan has gathered around the radio to hear the results of the first 1948 referendum regarding Newfoundland’s political future – Charlie, the grousing blustery alcoholic father, Minnie May, the high-strung mother down to her last nerve, Clara, the quiet and conventional wife, and the man himself, Joseph R. alias Joey, leader of the Confederate forces, our protagonist.
The scene opens with a radio announcer reading the referendum results: it’s a win for a return to self-governance, with 45% of the vote, but Confederation with Canada polls higher than expected, at 41%. The continuation of ‘Commission of Government,’ the strange dictatorial colonial interregnum that has administered Newfoundland since 1934, finishes a distant third, with 14% of the vote. As no ballot option received more than 50% of the vote, this means a second, run-off referendum is in the works, between the two most popular options – and it will be this second referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and delivers it to Canada as a tenth province in 1949.
It’s a proud night of triumph for Joey. Confederation has performed better than expected, and Joey anticipates that the supporters of continued colonial rule will be unlikely to switch to pro-independence – he knows that he’s going to win the second referendum. But the scene soon devolves into shouting, curses, recriminations, as Joey’s father, Charlie Smallwood – a man who, earlier in the play, bitterly instructed Joey to “love a woman, not a country” because “a country can’t love you back” – now patriotically accuses his son of selling both his soul and his homeland for a bit of political gain and Canadian coin.
The ensuing fight is fierce, probably the most heated and angry scene in the play. I read it as a symbolic representation of the very real family-destroying arguments that ripped through Newfoundland in the later years of the 1940s, as the issue of independence versus confederation divided families and communities – a trauma that still echoes today, not so many years after.
The night I saw the play, at every thunderous peak of rage, many in the audience laughed, as if the bitter schism being played out for us was a Codco skit.