MacKenzie King's National Dream -or- The House of Commons
Ottawa -or- MacKenzie King's Dreams and the World Stage
The national leader who brought Canada to the world stage (especially during World War II), to play an international role greater than our numbers warranted is viewed today as little more than an eccentric curiousity. William Lyon MacKenzie King was our longest serving Prime Minister, yet visitors to Kingsmere attend more to the undeniable beauty of the Gatineau estate than to comprehend the dramatic insights King had into our national character. That we have forgotten King's legacy is not a historical tragedy, we have only mislaid an important Canadian voice of the Canadian imagination who helped create and shape the social framework of our national dream in the 20th century. King today remains a mostly forgotten (see CBC TV clip) antiquity of Canadian national and literary history.
The dream paraphrased below occurred January 13, 1935, when King saw himself attending a play.
"There was a lady dressed in black, who was collecting tickets, she was a part of the performance, or one...of the performers. I gave her my ticket, but went beyond the supposed custom of not speaking to ask her about the play, finally she came along with me to where it was being enacted.... She gave me a sense of strength and power and vitality - When we came into the theatre, they were rehearsing. I recall that some new play was thought of, I was looking it over and listening to what was being said, finally saw a line which it would not take long to recite and I offered to take the part, the smallest of all - It was thought that this would show great sympathy with the whole theatrical movement as apparently at that moment I was again Prime Minister. It had to do with some ancient Greek play - something of ancient philosophy... it was at the end of the act, what I noticed was the throne which occupied the centre of the stage & which was of black oak, beautifully carved, not unlike ecclesiastical archetecture in part. I said to myself I have a fondness for old things, this seems to posses a particular attachment, I have been associated with or had an association with this in the past, I ought to secure it if possible. Then it seemed to me the head of King George appeared, most clearly, quite alive, tho' I could only see his head. I remarked the resemblance to father...then those around me...the actors & the others seeming to read my thoughts said, At the University your father was like the King, that they just said there was no doubt about the relationship, and everyone accepted it, some line of descent from Kings. Then there was a change of scene... where appeared one of the Edwards, wearing a crown, dressed as a sovereign of that period...and around were university students, who were making fun of his ignorance, of how little he really knew and amounted to."....
Politics of the Dream: Society of the Spectacle
The play can be interpreted as the dramatic historical spectacle of political role-playing and plot devices applied to the Canadian political stage, in this theatre King begins by recognizing that women might participate in it. He volunteers to modestly participate by playing a small part, but soon feels a sense of destiny and duty, drawn to a much larger political role. We can note his affinity for the throne (perhaps alluding to the Canadian throne speech in the House of Commons?), which he recognizes instinctively as the central perceptual focus of his political attention. King keenly perceives the dramatic workings of the political history of ancient Greece and England, the political framework of Parliament and the roles of past English Heads of State (King George and King Edward) and the Monarchy. The political metaphor the Crown is viewed as providing the philosophical embodiment of popular sovereignty and legal authority for the Canadian government over the Canadian stage drama.
From a literary perspective we can use the tools of literary criticism to understand King's dream. King's prophesy that women would play a dramatic role on the Canadian stage has come true, we have briefly had Kim Cambell as Prime Minister, we also find the figure of Margaret Atwood, who has been dubbed the Queen (CBC radio and TV clips) of CanLit. However, it is the works of one of Atwood's professors at the University of Toronto that can give us a sense of the literary depth of King's dreams. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination by Northrop Frye (Frye ‘pilfered' the image of Bush Garden from a Dream Vision found in Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie) enables us to understand the archetypal nature of King's dreams. If Dream Vision provides the archetypal foundation for the Canadian imagination, then it is King's diaries that stands at the centre of the Canadian literary canon and the Canadian Dream (read article about The Canadian Dream).
King's own interpretation of his dream began with a search of his household furnishings for items found in the dream. King then began to think of the Cromwellian period and Cromwell becoming a dictator and that it was King's duty to oppose dictatorship, just as it was his (Cromwell's) duty to oppose absolutism on royalty. In King's own words; "It seems to me the whole vision has to do with the political stage as it is being set for the ensuing battle - something being sent to me to give me confidence in my right to assume sovereignty in control of parliament, not to permit dictatorship - to claim power as of right, where it relates to the people and is on their behalf." King at the time of his dream had began anticipating war in Europe. He knew that dictatorship must be opposed to advance the cause and objectives of individual freedom. King knew the complexities of power on the domestic and international stage and he felt compelled to assume a role.
This sense of destiny and duty was more than an ego trip. This feeling of kismet, was evidently defined by King's Christian eschatological understanding of his own predestination. King grew up steeped in the political heritage of his grandfather, the journalist, publisher, first mayor of Toronto and Upper Canada reformer and rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, who had passed on his cultural inheritance to King's mother who in turn had passed it on to him. This heritage acquired through his lifetime was stored in his subconscious, eventually bubbling to the surface in nightly dreams which King used to address and evaluate recent events and concerns. His longevity as the Prime Minister of Canada can be traced to this fundamental recognition of Canadian heritage and his motivation to play a political role in serving the Crown to protect the people of Canada and their freedom against all threats of dictatorship. From the depths of economic depression King led Canada through the world's largest conflagration into a position of wealth, while at the same time guiding Canada in its political ascension to the world stage where it could wield international influence.
With the guiding phrase "all for all", King proposed a culture that balanced individual freedom of expression with the freedom from want and fear. His spiritual ruminations were not embarrassing eccentricities, instead they were his means by which access to his heritage was achieved, a transgenerational memory, through which he realized his own and Canada's destiny. In the new millennia we face the challenges of rapid technological, political and economic change, we can use King's dream to reconnoiter our own political bearings. In a 2004 CBC survey of the top 10 Greatest Canadians we do not find William Lyon Mackenzie King on the list. The fact that King ranks 49th in the top 100 is indeed sad and ironic, and proof that the public may be ill-informed or the present generation may not be as well educated as it thinks it is (read Northrop Frye's Educated Imagination) or have we just forgotten his role and his accomplishments. Irrespective of why, there evidently is little or no place for King in the modern Canadian conscious collective imagination and memory, his archetypal memory has been lost. We may have forgotten him, yet I believe King has not forgotten us, having left us the legacy (listen to a CBC's MacKenzie King's Legacy) of his work on the Canadian political stage, his diaries and his heritage. We can eulogize (listen to the CBC radio clip) and pay tribute to this modest Canadian leader (listen to King's 1948 resignation speech) whose Everyman's "similitudes of a dream" laid the political foundation for our collective Every person freedoms, our own inalienable right to dream and our modern national dream.