Michael Cook was born in Fulham, London, in 1933 and emigrated to Canada in 1966 where he joined the Department of Extension at Memorial University of Newfoundland as the Drama Specialist. He quickly became fully immersed in the emerging theatrical scene by becoming a theatre reviewer for The Evening Telegram. One of the many new amateur groups that formed during the late sixties was the Open Group and by 1970 Cook began writing plays for this company. From 1970 to 1975, The Open Group worked closely with Cook on the creation of three plays, Colour the Flesh the Colour of Dust (1970), Head Guts and Soundbone Dance (1973) and Jacob's Wake (1974), often grouped as his Newfoundland trilogy.
Colour of the Flesh The Colour of Dust
Colour The Flesh The Colour of Dust is a quasi-historical drama that loosely relates the surrender of St. John's in 1762 to the French and its subsequent recapture by the British. Often interpreted as a love story, Colour the Flesh the Colour of Dust is a play about survival. In order to explore this issue, Cook creates three characters, the lieutenant, the woman, and the captain who each offer different responses to the island. It is the woman and the Captain who can see clearly and accept the price that the bleak island demands. In the end, the Lieutenant remains unable to accept the failure that his new home promises and chooses instead a suicide of sorts.
Head Guts and Sound Bone Dance
Head Guts and Sound Bone Dance dramatizes the tragedy that results from the past controlling the present. Skipper Pete demands that Absalom and Uncle John maintain their strict fishing rituals despite the fact that there are no longer any fish. This eerily prophetic play with its drowned child becomes a chilling dance of death.
Jacob's Wake explores the relationship of a father, Winston, with his three sons, Wayne, a corrupt politician, Alonzo, a cynical business man, and Brad, a failed priest. It quickly moves from an apparently realistic family drama to nightmarish, expressionistic drama of 20th century failure as an approaching storm begins to dominate the stage. Once again, ritual lies at the heart of this play; Cook establishes clear patterns of behaviour that are transgressed and broken by the gathered family. The whole play, not merely the last few moments, is a wake, specifically for Jacob, the lost son of the title, but more generally for Newfoundland.
Plays and Commissions
Cook also wrote several one act plays, 'Tiln' (1971), 'Quiller' (1975) and 'Theresa's Creed' (1977), all with varied production histories and still frequently produced. In 'Tiln', two old men are caught in a personal power struggle. Using a lighthouse setting, Cook explores the modern man's dilemma in an uncaring world. In contrast, 'Quiller' is a one- person play set in a Newfoundland outport. In this play, Cook creates a portrait of an old man assessing his empty life. 'Theresa's Creed' is similar to 'Quiller' in that Cook again returns to the one-person format in an outport setting but here he explores the female role.
Cook also received specific commissions. In 1975, Festival Lennoxville commissioned him to write a play based on a diary held in the Admiralty Records Office, Whitehall. This play, The Gaydon Chronicles (1977), produced by Rising Tide Theatre in 1985, is a broad, sweeping, drama, epic in style and substance, in which Cook explores a quasi- historical figure, using flashbacks and the figure of death.. He received another commission in 1976, this time from The Newfoundland Travelling Company, which wanted a play for young audiences. The Fisherman's Revenge opened in Trinity East, Trinity Bay in 1975. This play uses the commedia dell'arte tradition to explore the idea of theatre. In the same year, Cook also returned to the Beothuk story, an idea that he had explored in a radio drama broadcast by the CBC in 1970. The resulting stage play, On the Rim of the Curve, was published in 1977. A disturbing and violent play, On Rim of the Curve uses the circus motif in order to explore a very bleak period of Newfoundland history.
During the eighties, Cook continued to write under commission for radio and theatre. Increasingly radio became his favoured medium and he received several national and international awards for his scripts. After retiring from Memorial University, Cook made his home in Stratford, Ontario, returning often to Newfoundland and his summer retreat at Random Island. On one of these many visits in 1994, Cook became ill on his way to Random Island and later died in St. John's.