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Blood on the Moon

Written and performed by Pierre Brault

Directed by John Koensgen

Great Canadian Theatre Company

January 17-February 5, 2012

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on April 7, 1868 Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot in the back of the neck at close range at the door of the Sparks Street boarding house where he resided while in Ottawa. One of the founding Fathers of Confederation, the politician, journalist and poet died within seconds. James Patrick Whelan, a young tailor, was charged, tried, convicted and executed for McGee’s assassination. Was justice served?

This is the question that playwright and performer Pierre Brault asks as he takes us on a fascinating journey back in time to explore justice through the perspective of the man charged with the crime, and with a contemporary lens. Brault humanizes Whelan by giving him a voice. The one-man play has multiple characters and Brault easily and convincingly transitions from one character to another. The 75 minute production is a captivating story that works on both an intellectual and an emotional level. The stark scene lighting and simple set decor – a chair, and the sound of weather and an Irish ballad contribute to the emotional impact of the play.

Did James Patrick Whelan kill Thomas D’Arcy McGee? We don’t really know and the play leaves us with questionable doubt. Whelan was tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence. Much of the evidence against him, including the sole eye-witness testimony, was discredited. He was suspected of being a sympathizer of the Fenian Brotherhood – a militant group that opposed British rule in Ireland and planned to hold Canada hostage – but this was never proven. Whelan’s trial lasted 8 days. The case was heard by Chief Justice William Buell Richards. He was defended by John Hillyard Cameron and prosecuted by James O’Reilly. Prime Minister John A Macdonald, a friend of the late Thomas D’Arcy McGee, sat next to the judge. Whelan was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The case was appealed and the same judge, who now sat in the higher court, cast the deciding vote in favour of his earlier judgment.

James Patrick Whelan was publicly hanged on February 11, 1869. According to Brault, it took 7 minutes for him to die. Despite a morning snowstorm, more than 5,000 people showed up for the execution. He was the last person to be publicly executed in Canada.

Blood on the Moon was originally produced in 1999 for the Ottawa Fringe Festival and expanded in 2000 for a production at the National Arts Centre. It’s toured in Canada and Ireland. It was remounted on short notice for this production at the GCTC. It’s a fascinating exploration and I encourage you to go see the play.

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