I knew I had found my vocation

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 on May 1, 2019

Dave Carley is a Canadian playwright. His plays have had over 450 productions across Canada and the United States, and in many countries around the world. His play, Canadian Rajah, had a successful run at Toronto’s Campbell House Museum in January. Mr. Carley attends St. Paul, Bloor Street.

Dave Carley at Knox College in Toronto.

The story behind Canadian Rajah is so bizarre that I always feel compelled to stress that it is also true. In 1884, a young man named Esca Brooke Daykin arrived in Madoc, in east-central Ontario. The adopted son of an Anglican clergyman named William Daykin, Esca had spent most of his young life being dragged from parish to parish in England and South Africa. All of a sudden, Reverend Daykin uprooted his family and moved across the ocean to Madoc, where he took over the parish of St. John’s.

Esca quickly adapted to life in the backwoods. He often filled in for his father as a lay-reader at the mission churches. He would run across rock-covered farms and through forests to these tiny outposts, doing his best to minister to the faithful. He later received a church scholarship to attend Trinity College School in Port Hope. He blossomed there, ending up as Head Boy.

Esca was unique for many reasons, starting with his parentage. His biological father was Charles Brooke, one of the legendary “White Rajahs of Sarawak.” The very English Brookes owned Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) and ruled it as self-styled rajahs for over a century. Esca was the biracial product of a marriage between Charles and a Malay princess, Dayang Mastiah.

Eventually, Rajah Charles ran out of money, and needed an infusion of cash to save his country. He went back to England and rustled up an English wife with a healthy dowry. Esca and his Malay mother became inconveniences. Esca was shunted off to England and, from there, to Canada.

This is where Canadian Rajah picks up Esca’s story. A few twists and turns later, he became a successful businessman at Hollinger Mines, with a loving family and a substantial house in Lawrence Park in Toronto. He was very active at St. Clement, Eglinton, serving as a churchwarden there. Esca should have been happy – but for the ever-gnawing desire to be recognized by his Brooke father and family.

The dramatic crux of Canadian Rajah revolves around Esca’s confrontation with Rajah Charles’ English widow. The Ranee of Sarawak was a fiery woman who had absolutely no intention of letting Esca gain recognition, lest it threaten the succession of her children and the very legitimacy of her own marriage. Let the battle begin!

Esca Brooke Daykin

I “discovered” Esca by accident – and it’s a good argument for reading old-fashioned hard copy newspapers. Nowadays I do the bulk of my newspaper reading on-line and – not to my credit – I tend to access articles on subjects that already interest me. With print newspapers, it is easier to browse and stumble across the unexpected. I was idling through The Globe and Mail book section when I found a small review of The White Rajahs of Sarawak by Australian historian Cassandra Pybus. The review mentioned that a young should-have-been-Rajah from the Far East had washed up in Madoc, Ontario. That startling little fact was enough to hook me.

My new play, premiering this summer in Ohio, is called The Shakespeare Club. It’s the true story of a club of women in Peterborough, Ontario. The Shakespeare Club there has been meeting monthly to discuss the work of The Bard and other authors for over 120 years, and it has had its own share of drama.

I was born and raised in Peterborough. I originally intended to go into law but veered off into journalism. On a whim, I entered a theatre company’s playwriting contest, because the prize was the same amount as my VISA debt (back then). Even better, they offered a production of the script. About five minutes into the first performance, I knew I had found my vocation.

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church but fell away in my teens. After a few decades, I decided to re-engage with questions of spirituality – first at a United Church and then at St. Paul’s on Bloor Street.

The latter was initially a choice of proximity; I live just around the corner. On my first visit to St. Paul’s, I was happily surprised when people approached me to say welcome. I felt very much at home and have made many friends there. Just as important, I find a great deal of intellectual and emotional fulfillment in the excellent teaching.

In an odd twist, I called up my mother and confessed, “OK Mom, brace yourself, I’ve gone over to the colourful side. I’m an Anglican now.” To my surprise, she didn’t seem too alarmed. She asked me which church I was attending. When I told her it was St. Paul’s, she deemed it a wise choice – as it turns out, my grandfather was baptized there and my great-grandfather had been a churchwarden. I’d had no idea.

I’m still becoming acquainted with the Bible. Each week I learn something new that surprises or stirs me. I do know the passage that meant the most to me growing up, one that still resonates deeply. It’s the brief story in Matthew 19, about a group of children hoping to meet Jesus, and the stern disciples who tried to send them away.

As we learned it in Sunday School, Jesus was relaxing in a garden, having his dinner after a long day of sermonizing. (Looking back on it now, I think I was getting an expanded edition geared for restless Sunday School children.) Jesus heard a ruckus down at the gates – a bunch of kids were clamouring to hear some parables. Before the disciples had a chance to shoo them off, Jesus invited them to gather ‘round for a story-time, much like we then had at the public library.

I know now that Jesus was not enjoying a refreshing ginger ale, as per my inventive teacher. Nor were the children necessarily going to hear stories – their parents had brought them to be blessed, a less interesting activity from a child’s point of view. But the essence of the message still penetrated my wee brain: although a mere kid, I was as welcome as any adult to meet with Jesus, and he was available to me 24/7.

Decades later, I still find that passage attractive, albeit for different reasons. We are instructed to approach God as a child. I take that to mean we should put aside our adult inhibitions and become as children with our faith, to approach it humbly and simply, with a sense of wonder, awe and anticipation. We deny that sense of wonder at our own peril. It’s both the charm of childhood and an adult’s armour.


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