Timescape: History Plays and Isolation
Mitchell’s stage play, The Shipbuilder, was first produced at the University of
Regina in 1977.34 Four years later, in February of 1981, the play was adapted to radio.
The Shipbuilder was produced at CBC Vancouver and aired on CBC’s National FM
network. The play’s strong auditory components helped it achieve widespread success
on radio. As Mitchell points out, “The percussive and poetic elements took shape in
radio adaptations produced successively by the BBC, Finnish National Radio, Swedish
National Radio, and the CBC through the 1980s” (The Shipbuilder 7-8). The national
and international broadcasts of this play speak to both the skill of Mitchell’s playwriting
and to the universal appeal of Sukanen’s story.
Mitchell based his main character on Sukanen but chose to name him Jaanus
Karkulainen. Mitchell portrays Jaanus as more than a mere man. Classically mythic
comparisons come to mind: Jaanus’s name resembles the Roman god Janus, the double-
faced god of gateways and beginnings after whom January is named; Jaanus’s constant
pounding of metal in the glow of his forge cast him in a Hephaestus-like light while his
impossible struggle to single-handedly drag his ship across the prairie brings Sisyphus’
impossible struggle to mind.
Throughout the play, he is also portrayed as being strongly allied with the
elemental, superhuman power of nature. Often Jaanus, unkempt and non-socialized, can
inspire terror in women of the house merely by showing up on their doorsteps. Anna-
Marie speaks of his almost mystic attunement to the land. She describes the labours of
Jaanus and Bender, the neighbour with whom he works as doing “the labour of four men,
Jaanus and Bender, working to the rhythm of the sun and the moon” (Mitchell 23).
Anna-Marie, as Jaanus’s daughter, describes how Jaanus appeared to claim her back from
The same year the Sukanen Museum dedicated Tom’s new gravesite.