Allusion and Illusion in Tracey Power's "Chelsea Hotel" by Ginny Ratsoy - Western Canada Theatre

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be transported by Tracey Power’s Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen. I certainly was – but, thankfully, not in the way I imagined. As a Canadian literature specialist with a particular fondness for Mr. Cohen, I approached the script anticipating a nostalgic trip based on the biographical touchstones of Leonard’s life – his romances, his dalliances, his hit songs and lauded poetry and prose in chronological order, interspersed with, say, his refusal in 1968 of the Governor General’s Award, on the grounds that “the poems ... forbid it [acceptance] absolutely.”  I hoped for a revisiting of his memorable 1991 speech of acceptance into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, in which he concluded that the award had come at the best possible time: “at 56, hell, I’m just hitting my stride.” 

There’s none of that here. Think carnival mirror, rather than window. Chelsea Hotel is not a biography or a conventional tribute. It’s closer to an interpretation – but an indirect one. For instance, don’t expect it to weigh in on that naive question that, I confess, preoccupied me as an undergraduate student: what does “Suzanne” really mean? 

What Power has created with this evocative, allusive, and illusive piece is a transporting vehicle that is the theatrical equivalent of Leonard Cohen’s audio and narrative output, a study of the angst and loneliness of the creator/writer (in general, not Leonard Cohen specifically) and a Brechtian/Expressionistic/Carnivalesque tour-de-force that, like Cohen’s work, hits all the right notes by going off in its own idiosyncratic direction. This play is, appropriately, more concerned with interiors than exteriors. It goes for – and achieves – a deeper truth than conventional biography.
From the crumbling wallpaper and grungy floors to the delicate costumes, Chelsea Hotel is an expression of the sheer existential terror of the solitary soul confronting the act of writing. 

Lyrics from Cohen’s 1977 “Paper Thin Hotel” form a refrain in the play – “It’s written on the walls of this hotel/ You go to heaven/ Once you’ve been to hell” – that neatly encapsulates the act of creation. 
As shadowy romantic figures float – to musical accompaniment – into and out of the unnamed Writer’s imagination, they tempt him away from his vocation with love, sex, and drugs.  All is transitory, though, and one figure replaces another. True to memory, dream, and imagination, this is not a chronological unfolding, and some figures recur. The mood, the atmosphere, of imagination is not static; nor is it bound by realism: expect surreal, circus-like vignettes – complete with highs and lows – and expect things to change shape – to transform before your very eyes. Writing, music, and lovers are of a piece – even as they interfere with each other, they blur, blend, and instigate each other. 

Like Cohen’s “Suzanne,” 1967 debut single, and so much of his subsequent work, Chelsea Hotel resists easy classification and interpretation. Fittingly, Tracey Power takes us from the realm of the mundane to an alternate reality of grit, melancholy, beauty, and joy. We are richer for the journey. 

Professor Emerita,
Department of English and Modern Languages,