Character/Fandom: Geoffrey Tennant, Slings and Arrows.
Email: lozenger8 at gmail dot com.
Spoilers: I attempted to construct this essay with few spoilers, but this was extremely difficult. There are character spoilers for the first season and second, but they do not tell too much about the plot. I believe it is possible to read this essay without having seen the series. ETA. There are spoilers in the comments section, however.
Notes: Slings and Arrows has three seasons, 6 episodes each. The third and final season has not aired anywhere in the world as of my writing this essay. A thousand thank yous to bjohan57 for beta-reading this essay and giving the most wonderful feedback.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
and by opposing end them?
Geoffrey Tennant, what can one say about this theatre director? Oh, one can say so many things.
My first introduction to Geoffrey was of him unblocking a toilet in the “Theatre Sans Argent” (Theatre Without Money). This is the opening scene of the first season of Slings and Arrows. I was intrigued by him the very moment he stated “Good news, I have fixed the toilet!” in his wonderfully theatrical way.
Geoffrey, at first glance, is the stereotype of the mad artist. He has wild unruly hair, the scruff of lax shaving and a general lack of hygiene. He appears to have few material posessions. He also dresses in a manner which would repel most people, a closed off, leave me alone manner, complemented by a long dark coat. Despite this, he remains attractive. Geoffrey is rather good looking in a shabby ‘I live on the streets’ sort of way. He is a man of outrageous fortune, in more ways than one.
Geoffrey’s Theatre Sans Argent really is without money and we see him attempting to placate the landlord with a cheque that will surely bounce. We later see him being hauled off by the police as he protests by chaining himself to the doors of the theatre. After an array of incidents which will be explored in more detail, Geoffrey leaves his Theatre Sans Argent behind to become the Artistic Director of the New Burbage Theatre Festival. Not only is he to be Artistic Director, but he is to Direct the Festival’s flagship production of Hamlet.
The power and intrigue in Geoffrey is how his strengths and weaknesses are so closely intertwined. It is difficult to separate his good qualities from his bad because he has the uncanny ability to use usually admirable qualities in the worst possible contexts, and use problematic qualities to everyone’s advantage.
Geoffrey, for the most part, is honest. He is brutally honest. He makes giant social gaffs with his honesty.
Episode 1.03 – Geoffrey in an interview on the New Burbage Theatre Festival, after being made Artistic Director.
Look at this hideous mug that I stole from the Gift Shop this morning, look at this. Art. Literally Art as product. This is a crime.
When Geoffrey is not being honest, he is being manipulative. Geoffrey wears manipulative well. He usually uses his manipulative powers for the force of Good.
Episode 2.06 – Geoffrey is aware that the director of Romeo and Juliet Darren Nichols is creating a terribly pretentious version of the play dealing in theoretical signifiers rather than characters because he is essentially without love. Geoffrey also knows that Darren is unaware he has been to see rehearsals.
Geoffrey: Are you happy, Darren?
Darren: Happy? Ah, yes, I suppose I’m happy.
Geoffrey: Well, there, see, that’s why you can direct this play. I couldn’t take it on, I mean, how can you direct Romeo and Juliet if you are dead inside? I mean, how, I ask you?
Darren: Well, I don’t know, I think…
Geoffrey: Well, you can’t, that’s how. I mean, all you would do is mock it, you know? Make some kind of dull, anti-romantic, vaguely condescending, shallow fucking commentary on what that play actually is [becoming hysterical] and I don’t even understand this, I mean, is it age that numbs you because when I was younger, boy…
Geoffrey is genuinely passionate. It was this passion which was his downfall so many years before the series of Slings and Arrows is set. Geoffrey does not exist within a vacuum. So much of his character relies upon what occurs around him, and this is rather complex.
You see, Geoffrey was once an actor, not a director, and furthermore, one of the actors at the New Burbage Theatre Festival. He was playing an ‘incandescent’ Hamlet. His director and mentor was one Oliver Welles, a pompous, unlikeable man with whom Geoffrey was actually rather close. He was madly in love with his Ophelia, Ellen Fanshaw. And their Hamlet was a rousing success. However, tragedy befell them. One night, in the middle of a performance, Geoffrey froze. He completely forgot his lines. He jumped into a hole in the stage, Ophelia’s grave, and never came out. This ended his acting career. In true Shakespearean form, the scene of his greatest triumph was the scene of his greatest downfall.
We only find out what happened to turn Geoffrey mad in drips and drabs throughout the first six episode season, and there is still enough sufficiently left open that individuals could have different interpretations on what exactly it was, and whether this was only it. It is revealed that Ellen and Oliver had sex. Not even an affair, but one instance of sex.
This, by itself, seems far too little to send a man over the edge and into mental instability, however, consider Geoffrey at the time. His whole world revolved around the theatre, Ellen and Oliver. He had just asked Ellen to marry him, he was ready to settle down to a life with her. His two best friends betrayed him, and Geoffrey did not recover. Further complication comes from the knowledge that Oliver is gay, and ostensibly in love with Geoffrey himself. Oliver’s seduction of Ellen becomes about power, revenge and substitution.
It is unclear when Ellen and Oliver conducted their affair. I would argue for it occuring after Geoffrey proposed to Ellen, the second night of the play, for Geoffrey to find out on that third and fatal day. Geoffrey’s reaction is immediate and violent, motivated by the horror of Ellen betraying him just as he had asked her to be his wife. This action is in keeping with what we see of Ellen in the present day New Burbage, an automatic response to fear and anxiety. Oliver’s motivation would appear to be jealousy under any circumstance, but more so when Geoffrey is betrothed to another.
Were the actions of his friends the only reason, or were they the catalyst to an already unstable mind? Was it actually more to do with the pressure of playing Hamlet? Geoffrey and Oliver both remark that it was “the play which drove him mad.” [Emphasis mine.] Geoffrey has also stated, however, that his actions were due to a broken heart. The true nature of cause and effect is not explicitly delineated. The fact remains, however, that Geoffrey ended up in an asylum for his fever’d mind, and his life, as he had lived it, was destroyed.
Fast forward to seven years later, and Artistic Director Oliver Welles has a tragic accident with a truck bearing “Canada’s Best Hams”. He is run over, killed instantly. Before this, he was attempting to contact Geoffrey once again and simply managed to further drive a wedge between the two. Oliver was hardly apologetic, and Geoffrey was clearly still forcefully angry.
Episode 1.01 – Oliver has called Geoffrey at the Theatre Sans Argent
Oliver: Everything I ever do will be compared to those three performances. You ruined my life.
Geoffrey: I ruined your life? You destroyed mine you… you wanna know why no-one will speak to you? I’ll tell you. It’s not that you’ve ruined the festival, although you have done that, and it’s not just because you’re a sell out. You wanna know why no-one will speak to you? You wanna know why Ellen cannot stand the sight of you? I’ll tell you, so I do not have to think of you ever again. So that you will be erased from my memory. It’s because…
[Oliver hangs up.]
After Oliver’s sad demise, Geoffrey is asked to become Artistic Director of the Festival, Ellen is now his aging Gertrude and things are even more complex because Oliver comes back as a ghost.
Now we have Geoffrey, a man not only haunted by his past in the figurative sense, but in the literal sense as well. This colours his every action and motive. It is his relationships with Oliver and Ellen which define Geoffrey. He also has a similar effect on them. When he is at his most petty, it is because of something related to the two people who are essentially the loves of his life.
Oliver is a pest. He is a wonderful construction of a character, but as he applies in Geoffrey’s world he is a pain in the neck who continues to make Geoffrey look stark raving mad. Geoffrey is actually no longer mad, in fact, he is one of the saner people we find at the New Burbage Theatre Festival, but he appears crazy because he is so often responding to Oliver. We do have hints that Geoffrey isn’t entirely sure Oliver isn’t merely a figment of his deranged mind.
1.04 – Geoffrey is in a Gaol Cell after his duel with Darren Nichols.
Geoffrey: Let’s cut to the chase, shall we. Are you dead, or am I insane?
Oliver: I don’t see why those two thoughts are mutually exclusive.
Geoffrey: Well, if I’m insane, I’m talking to myself, aren’t I?
However, it seems that from various scenes, the audience is supposed to read Oliver as being a ‘real-life’ ghost, and this is how Geoffrey comes to view him. Arguments can be made that Oliver is a manifestation of the psychological as opposed to the mystical, but the important aspect is that neither of these points of view weaken Oliver’s impact as a force in the young director’s life. I reiterate, even if Oliver is in Geoffrey’s head, he is still more sane than most of the people we encounter.
Geoffrey loves Ellen passionately. As passionately now as he ever did. It is a passion which inspires him to duel with director Darren Nichols. It is a passion which motivates almost every action he takes. When faced with a moment of ‘to be or not to be’, Geoffrey chooses ‘to be’ for Ellen. He makes sweeping concessions for his love. In the second season of the series, he directs Macbeth seemingly purely because Ellen wants him to, even though the play is “extraordinarily difficult to stage effectively” and obviously terrifies him. He hires the actor Ellen asks for, and fires him because of her too.
As he is older, however, it is a realistic love. He does not expect from Ellen the same he expected seven years before. He is able to quash his jealousy, only lashing out at Darren for disparaging remarks. It is a love of compromise. In some ways, however, it is a love without trust. Or perhaps, a love in which Geoffrey trusts that Ellen will do something to the detriment of their relationship. I would argue that this is the more dangerous point of view. In her turn, Ellen does not trust Geoffrey as she should, though it seems to me that Geoffrey has more grounds for wariness. He sees Ellen for who she is, flaws and all. Ellen appears incapable of taking responsibility for her actions and her guilt manifests itself as misdirected hatred and anger towards others – more commonly, Geoffrey.
The relationship problems between Geoffrey and Ellen typically involve power. Geoffrey, as Ellen’s director, seemingly has the power. Ellen, however, is fully capable of turning the tables. They struggle with dominance, but they are equally as strong as each other in differing ways. We witness scenes where it appears they are about to hack each other to death, only to have them kissing passionately. Despite relationship problems which Geoffrey and Ellen need to resolve, it is clear the two are meant to be together.
1.03 – Geoffrey speaks with accountant Terry at the bar.
Geoffrey: You know, there is one thing about acting that I miss.
Geoffrey: I was in love with an actress. A beautiful, talented actress and when we were together on the stage it was like… it was like having sex in public.
Terry: Uh. I love that.
Geoffrey: I have never felt as close to anyone. And we played all of the great love scenes and we meant it and people would stand and they’d cheer and then they would throw flowers and then we would go home and we would make love. And that, I miss that.
Geoffrey’s relationship with Oliver is not sexual, at least not from Geoffrey’s perspective, yet he shares an inextricable bond with the man – why else would Oliver come back to haunt him in all his suspendered glory? Perhaps, if Geoffrey had been able to tell Oliver exactly what he thought of him on the telephone before Oliver stumbled out to get run over by ‘Canada’s Best Hams’, Oliver would not be hanging around.
On the question of sexuality, it appears to be one of the few things we have a clear indication of in regards to Geoffrey. From the way Oliver reacts to Geoffrey, it seems obvious that his love was never requited in the way he would have hoped, and in a discussion with Ellen, Geoffrey is extraordinarily frank.
2.01 – Geoffrey and Ellen are are about make love.
Ellen: I don’t know who you’ve been with. Firm young actresses…
Ellen: No? What? Firm young actors?
Geoffrey: No, I haven’t been with anyone.
Ellen: You’re lying.
Geoffrey: No, I’m telling you the truth.
Ellen: For eight years?
Geoffrey: Ellen, listen, you have to remember, I was in an asylum, and then, when I got out, I just kinda never met the right girl.
It is important that Geoffrey says ‘girl’ as opposed to ‘person’. Whilst Geoffrey may have had dalliances with males in his youth, Geoffrey associates himself as heterosexual. The only evidence that Geoffrey might have had dalliances with males is Ellen’s insecurity, and she is coming from the point of view of someone who has not spoken to Geoffrey for seven years.
Geoffrey often conveys himself in theatrics. He is knowingly outlandish. There are occasions where he has clearly lost himself in arguing with Oliver and is completely unaware of how bizarre he appears, but there are just as many occasions when Geoffrey is deliberately making a scene. When he is feeling particularly beset he starts playing with a razorblade placed on his tongue, in a move which is both terrifying and oddly compelling. He makes grand sweeping gestures, and uses a booming overwrought voice to bring emphasis to words and phrases. But when Geoffrey’s not acting, (and so often he is acting) we mostly see that Geoffrey is lonely and underappreciated, and unsure of who he is and what he wants.
It is the uncertainty and honesty of Geoffrey which makes him an entirely relatable character. He is simply trying to direct a play (in the first season it is Hamlet, in the second it is Macbeth, in the third it is to be King Lear.) He’s attempting to do it in the best way he knows how. But he keeps getting pestered by Oliver, he continues to be given annoying little lectures by saboteur General Manager Richard, and everyone else is just a little bit crazy themselves.
One of Geoffrey’s most appealing qualities is that he’s amusing.
1.04 – Geoffrey is in a Gaol Cell after his duel with Darren Nichols.
Police Officer: I’m required to ask you a question. Are you a suicide risk?
Geoffrey: Isn’t everybody?
2.01 – Talking to Managing Director Richard Smith-Jones.
Geoffrey: Actors should be frightened for their lives, that's when they do their best work.
Richard: Really? That's just like normal people.
2.01 – Geoffrey is remarking on Oliver’s persistent interference in his life.
Oliver Welles is dead, I poured him in the river and swans ate him, what do I have to do to get this man out of my life?
Another strength of Geoffrey’s is his ability to connect with Shakespeare’s texts. He has an extraordinary skill in conveying his vision in appealing and interesting ways. He has a talent for bringing out the true actor in a performance. Unfortunately, his ability to connect with texts can lead him to disconnect from people as well. He becomes obsessed with the play he directs, involved in the intricacies of fine details and how we wishes to convey them. He is an extraordinarily good director, however. Even when Oliver is haunting him and the actors are up in arms, he guides well. It is partly his combination of brutal honesty and manipulation which aids him in creating productions that people want to see. Geoffrey is against art as commercialisation, but this does not stop him from creating commercially viable productions. Geoffrey’s plays are watchable, easy to relate to, invigorating, emotional and appeal to a wide audience.
Geoffrey occasionally parallels the role of one of Shakespeare’s characters, as so many characters in Slings and Arrows do. At times, he is Hamlet, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. To be, or not to be? This really is Geoffrey’s question. To be Geoffrey or to not be Geoffrey, and who is Geoffrey, really? Slighted by those he loved, harbouring feelings of betrayal, seemingly mad, haunted by a ghost. However, it would be an amalgam play as he is plagued by the OliverPuck and the RichardMacbeth, with Ellen being a combination of these and more. If Geoffrey was a straight transference from Hamlet, he would not be nearly as entertaining as he is.
His is an ultimately sympathetic character. A multi-faceted creation, who is not merely your stereotypical mad artist, but certainly not any less a mad artist for being so. He is sometimes contradictory, often somewhat annoying, and he has moments which are completely impossible to predict. You can’t help but like Geoffrey, for all of his problems and mistakes.
In the end, Geoffrey is a hero. He is a fallen hero, a flawed hero, a failed hero, but a hero all the same. He is a Shakespearean hero. He is to be admired for coming back from the brink of confusing a hawk and a handsaw, marvelled at for his abilities to bring out the very worst and the very best in people, and cherished for his wit, passion and power.
Geoffrey Tennant, what can one say about this theatre director? Oh, one can say so many things, but it is much more fun to watch and enjoy him in Slings and Arrows oneself.
I only knew about Slings and Arrows because of due South. Geoffrey is played by the ever brilliant and always delectable Paul Gross, who played our wide-eyed Mountie Benton Fraser. S&A did, however, inspire me to fall madly in love with Mark McKinney, co-writer, star and Kid in the Hall.
IMDb Slings and Arrows Page
Slings and Arrows on The Movie Network
melancholydanes - the Slings and Arrows Livejournal community!
ds_6degrees - a community devoted to fiction revolving around the shows that due South actors have been in, which of course, includes Slings and Arrows.
And I may as well link ds_noticeboard too, because you often get tangential fandom links posted there, Slings and Arrows included.
Oh, and since it seems to be tangential fandom ahoy, kidsinthehall
This fandom is still small, because Slings and Arrows has heretofore mostly shown only on specific cable channels like The Movie Network and The Sundance Channel, but hopefully they’re going to release the DVDs soon, or at the very least, a DVD boxed set after season three.
ETA: Thanks to malnpudl I have now been informed that you can preorder (as of writing this essay) S&A Season 1 At Amazon.ca or Amazon.com