Why does any playwright become involved with a story?
What makes him chase the facts of something that happened long ago?
Hamilton playwright Brian Morton has always had tenacity. He will search out the relevant details of an event, chart its relevance for today and turn it into a compelling drama.
“I first heard about this story in 1989,” Morton says. “I was interested because it happened in this city. A sex film made at McMaster by members of the McMaster Film Board in 1969 was seized by the police, deemed obscene by the court and ordered destroyed.”
That’s what Morton’s new play “The Night They Raided McMaster” is about. It’s also about what constitutes artistic license and freedom.
“The focus of my play is on writer John Hofsess. He wrote a very good article in “Saturday Night Magazine” about the Hamilton trial and the verdict that was passed down. He was also the director and writer of the film ‘Columbus of Sex.'”
It showed gay and straight adults in various sexual positions. Young and attractive bodies, kissing, touching and exploring each other. It was about trying to achieve the perfect sexual experience.
In that era, The McMaster Film Board had a group of young men including Eugene Levy, Bryce Kanbara, Jim Chambers and Tom Laing, all with some skill in cinematography. The board existed for 10 years and Ivan Reitman, one of its major success stories, went on to a film career in Hollywood making popular movies such as “Ghostbusters” in 1984 and “Kindergarten Cop” in 1990.
Although the 90-minute film “Columbus of Sex” was ordered destroyed, parts of it somehow survived. Those are what helped Morton fashion his play about sex, art, repression and politics.
Morton, a fixture in Hamilton theater circles, was four in 1969. Now, 53 years later, he has written a play that examines this local story.
“Why does the story attract me? It’s something about the nature of obsession,” Morton says. “Why do we pick certain stories and follow them through to the end? I don’t know. We just do.”
In wanting to tell the story of the prosecution of young filmmakers in a Hamilton courtroom in 1970, he chased the story, eventually acquiring access to what is left of the film.
In his stage version of this Hamilton story, Morton alludes to the sweeping changes in community standards, and the sexual revolution in film and television content, which allows far more graphic images to be shown today.
Morton takes three major players in this story, Hofsess, the writer and director of the film, and Ivan Reitman and Danny Goldberg, its producers, and builds his story around them.
Actors Gregory Cruickshank and Chris Cracknell appear, along with Morton himself, in the play.
“In my play, we are screening parts of the film for the very first time since Aug. 8, 1969 when it was shown in McMaster’s Chester New Hall and the police raided the place.”
Details of the facts of the “Columbus of Sex” debacle were brought to light in writer, filmmaker, film preservationist, historian and publisher Dr. Stephen Broomer’s book, “Hamilton Babylon — A History of the McMaster Film Board,” published in 2016.
“Broomer’s detailed research, which took decades, and his film restoration work, has made a version of the John Hofsess film available again. Without the elements he has provided to my production, it would not be possible to stage it,” Morton says. “Truthfully, that any of the lost film has survived is incredible.”
Morton is clearly fascinated by the story and the film itself.
“I’m not offended by nudity,” Morton says. What has survived looks like images of fine art nudes, black and white figures and lots of shadows. I think amazingly Broomer has constructed some idea of what the film might have been like. He calls it ‘speculative reconstruction.'”
I suppose you could apply that term to Morton’s play as well.
Woven into the factual elements he has pieced together from true accounts of events, is a kind of commentary on where we were in 1969 and where we are now.
Interestingly, “Columbus of Sex” was the first Canadian film ever charged with obscenity in a court of law. And to think it happened here in Hamilton.
Fascinating? You bet.
What: Theater Erebus Inc.’s The Night They Raided McMaster, presented as part of the 2022 Hamilton Fringe Festival
Where: Zoetic Theatre, 526 Concession St.
When: July firstname.lastname@example.org@7pm-24@email@example.com@6pm-30@5pm and 31@3:30pm
Tickets: $12 plus $5 mandatory Fringe Festival Button at the door. Online $18.75 including button and fees. Go to hftco.ca or call 289-698-2234
Protocols: No masks required.