Adapted into a play in 1973 from a book of poetry which won the Governor General Award in 1970, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is a work of history, fiction, and biography which jumps from the past to the present life of Billy the Kid, poet, outlaw, legend. Ondaatje’s story of Billy the Kid and his nemesis Pat Garret is a tragicomedy which combines poetry, images of the violence found in the movies and legends of the Wild Wild West, and American pastiche.
The story dances between fact and legend; the characters contradict themselves and create an atmosphere of American mythology and Western historiography. The subject of William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, combines historical and popular sources which Ondaatje uses to his advantage in the play. Drawing from the popular imagination of the Wild West, The Collected Works… is a collage of poetic and historical images of gun slingers and their “histories.”
The play is made up of Billy the Kid, Garret, and the characters who ride in and out of their lives. A series of prose poems, images, and songs, The Collected Works is a non-linear story of the outlaw’s life. Ondaatje jumps between legend and unglamorous details of the sounds, smells, and violence of Western life. “The smell of things dying flamboyant/ smell stuffing up your nose/ and up like wet cotton in the brain“(Ondaatje).
The characters of Billy and Pat Garret are neither the villain nor the hero in Ondaatje’s tale, as Sally Chisum describes the two in the play, “Both were worth knowing.” Billy the Kid is seen in all his humanity, both good and bad, while the events of his life and that of his friend/pursuer Garret are shown as any in life, difficult to pin down or take sides on.
The Collected Works… is a performance piece for the postmodern era. Both self-reflexive and wittingly self-conscious, the play pushes the viewer to confront his or her own conceptions of the American past and the value of violence among the Western legends. The characters contradict themselves and the events of their lives in a way that makes it difficult to believe what they say, or wish to be said about them. Ondaatje’s tale is tortuous; he jumps backwards and forwards in a Brechtian journey towards and away from the death of Billy the Kid.
Born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1943, Michael Ondaatje was educated in Britain and Canada where he is now a citizen. Much of Ondaatje’s work reflects postcolonial, postmodern themes that strongly reflect his position as both a Canadian and an immigrant. His poetic and non-linear prose style aptly portrays the thoughts and feelings of his characters beyond the traditional narrative trajectory. The experimentations found within Ondaatje’s work helped propel a new wave of critically acclaimed Canadian authors. Ondaatje began a successful literary career in Toronto and Western Canada. He won the Governor General Award for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid in 1970, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Trying to Do in 1979, and The English Patient, also a winner of the Booker Prize, in 1992.