Come from Away: A great play that extols merits of hospitality and co-operation

The Broadway musical Come from Away has sublimely exposed hundreds of thousands of non-Newfoundlanders to the province’s uniquely hospitable and heartwarming culture.

My wife and I finally got to see the play when it was recently  performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Like the rest of the audience, we were completely enthralled by the tale of what happened in the small Newfoundland town of Gander after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001.

That’s when 38 trans-Atlantic planes carrying nearly 7,000 passengers were diverted from their U.S. destinations to the Gander airport, instantly doubling the town’s population.

It was fortunate for these “come-from-awayers” that the airport at Gander is one of the world’s largest. It was built in the early 1940s as a refueling stop for transatlantic flights loaded with troops and armaments, and is still maintained for possible emergencies. So there was plenty of runway space to accommodate that many large aircraft.

The challenge for the people of Gander, of course, was how to accommodate such a large number of diverse foreign guests, including many children and pets (even a couple of baboons). And do so, as it turned out, for five days before the flights could be resumed. How they managed to feed and shelter so many unexpected guests for five days at such short notice was an unbelievably herculean achievement – but not to anyone who was born and raised in Newfoundland.

For the stranded airplane passengers, it was an enlightening as well as stressful experience. Many, though first bewailing their enforced flight delay, came to appreciate the kindness and solicitude bestowed on them. They actually came to enjoy interacting with their Newfoundland hosts, and learning about a caring and sharing way of life to which few of them had been accustomed.

When some of them, on leaving, tried to show their gratitude financially, all the payments they proffered were gently but firmly rejected. “Newfoundlanders,” they were told, “don’t expect to be paid just for helping people in distress.”

Many of the recipients of this magnanimity have since returned to Newfoundland, some to renew acquaintance with their Gander benefactors, some to vacation in other scenic regions of the province. Several have confided that their brief but stimulating stay at Gander has inspired them to improve their own relations with friends and neighbours.

The much-lauded musical

The Come from Away play produced by Irene Sankoff and David Hein of Junkyard Dog Productions, is a truly astonishing accomplishment. How 12 actors, playing multiple roles on a single revolving set, could entrance an audience with the entire complex tale of how a small Newfoundland village welcomed and cared for so many stranded guests is a truly miraculous feat. Especially when the narrative is enhanced by unique Newfoundland musical numbers that the producers note “are intricately woven together with the dialogue.”

No wonder the play has drawn rave reviews from critics everywhere it has been performed, from New York to theatres in Washington, Los Angeles, Toronto, and many other cities in the United States and Canada – including, of course, Gander itself.

Through Come from Away, many thousands of people in these cities have been enlightened as well as entertained by the play’s revelation of Newfoundland’s wonderfully hospitable culture. As one of the critics remarked upon leaving the theatre, “it’s a place you never want to leave.”

Over the centuries, of course, millions of Newfoundlanders have been compelled to leave in order to find jobs “on the mainland.” But their hearts always remain in the seabound ports and communities where they were born, and most of them return there for visits and vacations as often as they can afford.

I don‘t want to glamorize my birthplace, or depict it as a paradise on Earth like Hilton’s Shangri La. Human beings all have flaws and faults, no matter where they live. What distinguishes many of those born in Newfoundland, I think, is that they see themselves primarily as co-operators rather than competitors, and behave that way.

The biblical precept to “love one’s neighbour as oneself” was fervently practiced. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, although poverty and unemployment were rife in Newfoundland, as they were everywhere, nobody went hungry. Food was equitably shared. Fortunately, there were plenty of fish in the sea and rivers, as well as moose, caribou and rabbits in the woods, where wild berries and hazelnuts also grew in profusion.

My Memorial University speech

I acclaimed this distinctly Newfoundland preference for collaboration over competition in a speech I delivered in St. John’s in 1994. It was at Memorial University’s convocation, where I was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

“During the Depression,” I reminded the graduates, “we could always depend on our relatives, our friends, on the whole community if necessary, to come to the aid of the unfortunate among us. If any of us had a problem, we all had a problem, and we worked in harmony to find the solution.”

I warned the graduates that, in sharp contrast to Newfoundland, conditions elsewhere at that time were bleak, far less fair and tolerant.

“It’s a world of competitiveness, globalization, jobless growth, deindustrialization, and cutbacks – all the terms that describe a law-of-the-jungle society. It’s the survival of the fittest time again. The ruthless, the greedy, the cunning and affluent prosper, the rest fall by the wayside. It’s a time of rampant individualism. Competition is extolled, co-operation scorned. The directive being drummed into us, over and over, is that we each must fight and claw for an elusive bit of what is left of the economy after the rich and powerful have grabbed the largest shares.”

The ghastly view of the world I described in that speech 25 years ago has, if anything, become even starker and bleaker today.

But all is not yet lost. We can still take consolation from the outstanding global popularity of Come from Away, and the heartfelt lessons of good-will and equality it has implanted in so many thousands of its viewers.

Just as a tiny seed can create a mighty oak, so may the seeds of kindness and co-operation sown by this play continue to spread and flourish around the world.

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