Armin Wiebe says it was an anecdote about his grandparents that inspired his first play, The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz.
The former University of Manitoba writer-in-residence says he recalled a story about his grandfather contracting poison ivy so severely that he had to wear a dress to harvest.
“I started speculating on how [my grandparents] picked out the dress [ . . . ] and I sat down to write a story about it.”
After having wrote the resulting short story, And Besides God Made Poison Ivy, Wiebe felt there were a number of issues that weren’t resolved and began developing the story further. “One thing led to another,” Wiebe says with a laugh.
The result was The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, what Wiebe says began as a novel he “couldn’t tame” that instead turned into his first play.
A comedic love story set on a Manitoba farmstead in the 1930s, Beethoven Blatz revolves around a young married couple, a local midwife and a refugee from the Russian revolution — a musician named Beethoven Blatz.
The play begins with husband Obrum Kehler bringing home to his wife Susch a broken piano and Blatz, a would-be Beethoven with the task of repairing it — all of this instead of a washing machine.
“What want you with such a thing here on the farm?” asks Susch. Obrum replies, “What wants a man with a rainbow in the sky?”
This, says Wiebe, is the introduction of the Mennonite Low German tradition “talking through the flower” — where speaking metaphorically is taken to the extreme, and it results in the characters facing consequences of avoiding direct communication.
“So much of the play is this double-speak,” says Wiebe, “where people are talking about something but the literal thing is different than what they are actually talking about — and of course this causes confusion, often comic and sometimes serious.”
Wiebe says that music became an integral part of the play, but made clear it wasn’t a musical.
“There is something about a play with music that appealed to me. Not necessarily a musical, I’m not all that excited about musicals,” says Wiebe, “but a play with music and it’s part of the story. In this case, the music is such an integral part of the whole story that I couldn’t do the play without the music.”
Wiebe says that Blatz’s character plays the piano in almost every scene.
“At the beginning of the play, [Blatz’s dream] is to play the “Moonlight Sonata” in a manner that would be worthy of Beethoven. By the end of the play, he has composed his own sonata.”
Wiebe says the play follows the characters’ shared struggle of trying to fulfill what seem to be impossible desires.
“Real human desires, very basic human desires that in the play find fulfillment through, what I would say, are some unconventional solutions,” says Wiebe.
These desires, says Wiebe, are still as relevant to people today as they were in the 1930s.
“The people in the play want things that people now want. [ . . . ] I don’t know that the solutions they find today are any easier than the kinds of solutions the characters in the play come up with.”
Wiebe, born in Altona, Man., spent 12 years as a creative writing instructor at Red River College. He has also authored three novels based in the fictional town of Gutenthal, Man. — The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Murder in Gutenthal and The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst.
The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, directed by Kim McCaw, runs from April 7-17 at the Rachel Brown Theatre.