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Three Cities in the Life of Dr. Norman Bethune


Photos: Laurence Labat

Three Cities in the Life of Dr. Norman Bethune - Tim Brady (2002 - 2003) - 50 minutes
Bradyworks with baritone Michael Donovan
Part 1 - Montréal
I - Prelude: Three Cities:You must remember
poem - "To Pony" - Aug. 31, 1935 and letter - Oct. 8, 1935 (N. Bethune)
II - poem - An Immigrant - Dorothy Livesay (Montréal)
III - Incantation 1 - letter - Nov. 6, 1935 (N. Bethune)
IV - poem - Depression Suite - Dorothy Livesay (Montréal)
V - letter - Oct. 8, 1935
Part 2 - Madrid
I - Prelude - "El Segador" (viola, cello and tape)
II - poem - The Defense of Madrid, the Defense of Catalonia - Raphael Alberti (Madrid)
II I- The Evacuation of Malaga - pamphlet - Feb. 7, 1937 (N. Bethune)
voices: Sol i Sombra Theatre. Solos - Maria J. Vazquez, Julian Zazurca Anton, José Lorenzo
IV - poem - "I come from Cuatro Caminos" - Jan. 1937 (N. Bethune)
Part 3 - Chin-Ch'a-Chi
I - Prelude - piano, percussion, electric guitar
II - poem - Unititled - Lu Xun (tranlsation: Arthur Bull) (China)
III - Incantation 2 - letter - Aug. 15, 1939 (N. Bethune)
IV - poem - Autumn 1939 - Dorothy Livesay (Montréal)
V - Reprise - letters -Aug. 15, 1939 and July 1, 1939 (N. Bethune)
VI - final letter - Nov. 11, 1939 (N. Bethune)

Part 1 - funded by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec
Parts 2 + 3 - commissioned by la Sociéte Radio-Canad

This project would not have been possible without the generous help of: Irene Kon, Laurent Major and Carole Legault (Radio-Canada), Arthur Bull, Maria Vazquez and the Montreal-beased Spanish-langauage theatre company Sol i Sombra (Julian Zazurca Anotn, José Lorenzo, Carlos Tomas, José Maria Alberu, Eduardo Sandoval, Matthias Kukovica, Dolores Vazquez) , Randall Ware and Anne Goddard (National Librady of Canada), Katherine Kasirer (National Film Board of Canada), Sylvia Arie and Mrs. Betty Cornell (Norman Bethune's niece)


Programme note
Like every Canadian child growing up in the 1960's and 1970's, especially those in Montreal, we heard passing mention of Norman Bethune and his remarkable story in our history classes. But it was news surrounding the release of the film "Bethune" in 1988 that intrigued me and it was only then that I began researching Bethune's life. I started with the biography The Scalpel, the Sword, written by by Sydney Gordon and Ted Allan in 1952, and I was immediately gripped by the intensity of Bethune's passions and the extraordinary nature of his life. Many more hours of reading, research and planning followed.

Though the story of Bethune's life is truly out of the ordinary (see short biogrpahy), what struck me most was the enormous philosophical and personal transformation that he underwent in the last 5 years of his life. His change from a gregarious, headstrong, somewhat egotistical, successful modern urban doctor into a selfless, devolted, military surgeon and teacher serving on the front lines in rural China is at the heart of his experience, and is the essential focus of this concert.

In order to create both this concert and my own work "Three Cities", I had to create a structure which would allow us to follow this transformation, and the symbolism of the three cities seemed appropriate: Montreal - urban North America; Madrid - civil war in Europe; Chin-Ch'a Chi Military district - the Chinese war against fascism, largely an isolated, rurual military campaign. The texts I use in my work move between letters which Bethune wrote at the time and poems written in the 1930's in the three cities in question.

As with Bethune's life from 1935 to 1939, the work traces a path starting with large social and political issues of the era (Immigration, the Depression, public health issues, the fight against Fascism), and slowly moves towards a greater awareness and understanding of Bethune's inner life and his search for a way to live in balance with his own inner demons and his political convictions. The last year of Bethune's life, spent in extreme physical hardship and isolation in rural northern China, appears to have been the happiest time in his adult life, when he had begun to understand himself and his place in the world. Though his death in November 1939 at the age of 49 cut his life uneccesarily short, he seems to have felt content with his decisions and with the life he had led.

- Tim Brady 2003

Norman Bethune - biography
Norman Bethune is unquestionably one of Canada's true heroic figures, a brilliant surgeon and ambitious professional who was transformed by his belief in the fight against poverty and fascism into one of the great humanitarians of our century.

Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario in 1890 and received his education there and in Toronto, He worked as both an ambulance driver and as adoctor in the First World War, followed by advanced medical studies in London, England. In the early 1920's he began a promising private practice in Detroit. Contracting tuberculosis, he became fascinated by the disease and, following his cure in a sanitarium, he eventually become a world leader in the field, inventing many new surgical instruments and procedures. Moving to Montreal, he was soon named head of Lung Surgery at Sacre Coeur Hospital in Montreal. His fight against tuberculosis began to involve him in more than just purely medical activities. Realising that the root cause of tuberculosis was poverty and poor medical treatment, he became increasingly vocal in his opposition to the established medical community. He was one of the first doctors in Canada to support the idea of a state run, not-for-profit medical system.

A complex personality, Bethune was a gifted amateur painter and writer, and helped found an art school for poor children in Montreal in the 1930's, which held classes in his apartment. His personal life was equally complex and passionate, as he married and divorced the same woman twice in a period of 8 years.

In 1936 he went to Spain to fight fascism, creating a highly effective and efficient military medical service from scarce means. Based out of Madrid, he traveled throughout the country with the "Servicio Canadense de Transfusion de Sangre", the blood transfusion service that he founded. In 1937 he returned to a hero's welcome to Canada on a fund raising speaking tour that took him from coast to coast, raising thousands of dollars for the Republican cause in Spain. By now a committed communist, he decided that he would be of greater value working as a doctor as part of the Chinese Eight Army and he left form China in January 1938. Here he felt he could make a bigger difference than in Spain, working with a united Chinese front fighting fascism in the guise of Japanese Imperialism.

During his 19 month stay in China, he transformed the Chinese medical system, creating a complete training system for Chinese doctors and nurses, and eventually creating small, portable operating rooms and transfusion services that were more adapted to the Chinese reality. His own feats as a surgeon were legendary, at times working 3 or 4 days without sleep, performing hundreds of operations in appalling conditions, refusing any salary from the Chinese military, and often giving away his meager rations to sick patients.

He died in November 1939 as the result of septicaemia poisoning contracted from a patient during an operation. In 1952 the Chinese government created a permanent Norman Bethune memorial and museum, and Mao Tse-Tung's essay In Memory of Norman Bethune was one of the most important texts to circulate in China in the 1960s. Several books have been published about his life and work including Ted Allen's The Scalpel, the Sword, Roderick Stewart's Bethune and Larry Hannant's recent Politics of Passion. The National Film Board produced a documentary on his life in 1964, and a resurgence of interest in his work began in Canada in the 1980's, leading to the production of the film Norman Bethune, starting Donald Sutherland

For more information visit the Norman Bethune Memorial House Web site