Lost for Words
- Joan MacLeod (Author)
2000. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sandra Shamas (Author)
A Trilogy of Performances. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sally Clark (Author)
Lost Souls and Missing Persons. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jessica Gardiner
Towards the end of the last century, many Victorians believed that the erosion of commonly held values in western culture, derived from a crisis in faith and the escalating speed of technological innovation, would ultimately lead to a breakdown of social order if not to anarchy. It would appear as we once again face a new century that this fear has not completely left us, that is if the three plays considered in this review are any indication. These plays, all written by Canadian women between 1984 and 1999 explore modern woman’s sense of isolation in society, and the miasma generated by her inability to communicate truly.
As such, Sally Clark’s Lost Souls and Missing Persons is the most disturbing of the three. Performed at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1984, it is the first of this popular and controversial playwright’s produced works, and it resonates with the dark wit, irony, and surreal almost cartoon-like characterization and scenario that have become her trademark. The plot centres on the search for a missing—or is she lost?—housewife named Hannah Halstead by her bewildered and equally "lost" husband. Like his wife, Lyle Halstead finds himself unable to relate to two teenage children and an increasingly withdrawn spouse, or find meaningful employment.
As a commentary on modern life, Clark’s drama begins when Hannah "sits bolt upright" in bed and screams. Hannah, on a vacation to New York, leaves her hotel room one morning to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, the Cloisters. At some point Hannah is taken in by an artist named Turner. Like his namesake, British painter J.M.W. Turner, he is a Romantic. If Hannah is silenced and misunderstood by her family, Turner’s objecti-fication of her reduces her to little more than a Zombie unable to communicate in anything other than gibberish. She discovers that it is pleasant to be molded and admired in this fashion, but once again she is robbed of her identity.
This disturbing characterization of the male artist as one who shapes and silences the female subject is, of course, not a new one. Clark departs from Romantic convention in the idea that art grants one neither a sense of release nor agency. Turner is as unhappy and lost as the others.
Of course, Hannah’s search is a search for self, for identity, for her own "missing person" She asks as she lies alongside a "Man"—her husband not named in this scene—in bed: "What am I doing here? The fact is, I don’t know how I got here, how long I’ve been here and I’m not sure I want to know." Nor is there any sense, as this quotation suggests, that Hannah or any of the "lost souls" find any self-awareness unless it is through some form of visceral excitement or physical proximity: a caress, sex, violence. This play that starts with Hannah’s scream ends with her realization that she is living one of her nightmares; she will be stabbed by one of the many mad characters, a Mr. Cape. "This is not a dream," she cries.
Joan MacLeod’s 2000 also contains a verbally challenged character, in this instance a homeless man who lives within the radius of a professional British Columbian couple’s suburban home, a house that is "very much on the edge of a forest, a forest that is barely kept out." Employed as planners, Wyn (Resource Management), and Sean (Urban) live with Wyn’s grandmother, Nanny, who will be 100 in the year 2000, and it is she who is most sympathetic to this homeless man. Nanny believes him to be a true primitive with mystic quality, a "Mountain Man" who lives in harmony with the land and his instincts, much as her hero Chief Dan George and his people had lived before being robbed of their rights. Wyn is not as certain about the Mountain Man. Unhappy in her marriage, she wants to believe that there is a more primal and satisfying alternative to her liberal civilized husband’s impotence, both physical and metaphoric, but is repelled by Mountain Man’s crude sexual advances and his brutality as he "forces his shorn hair" down her throat in an attempt to become intimate. Sean and Janine, a flamboyant unorthodox caregiver hired to nurse Nanny, believe the Mountain Man to be a parasite feeding on the leftovers of their affluent lifestyle.
On the jacket cover of the playtext, MacLeod claims that in writing this play she is concerned about "the notion of the wild invading the city and the city invading the wild, by the idea of things not being right in nature and the approach of the millennium." While it is never clear whether the Mountain Man is a true natural or an imposter, it is he who most embodies the notion of the "wild" for the characters in MacLeod’s play. As such, he only speaks in one scene towards the end of the play when he struggles to mumble the words "Thank you" to Nanny, perhaps because she is the only character who has faith in him or because she has shared her vision with him. It would appear in either case that the civilized have something to offer him as well.
Sandra Shamas’ highly successful trilogy of one-woman plays My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Gonna Be Laundry; My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Gonna Be Laundry II: The Cycle Continues; and Wedding Bell Hell contain the most positive prospects for love, marriage, and society at the turn of this century. Her plays, not far removed from stand-up comedy, chronicle her experiences as a single woman living in Toronto through the eighties and nineties. A native of Sudbury, she describes her childhood with unhappily married parents, and her move to Toronto where she finds employment as a puppeteer on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. Her initial sense of frustration and isolation in Toronto—"I was single and desperate"—is further hampered by a period of being attracted to pretty homosexual men and disastrous blind dates. When she does meet Frank, her future husband, she finds herself unable to trust the relationship as she has been scarred both by her parents’ dysfunctional marriage and her own feelings of inadequacy. The third play which primarily chronicles the events surrounding her marriage to Frank ends with Shamas’ realization that despite the odds, she has found love by marrying "the funniest man she has ever met in her whole life." And it is laughter that serves as the solace in all three of these plays.
- Findley's Ground by Lorraine M. York
Books reviewed: Spadework by Timothy Findley
- Dreaming of Nationhood, Writing of Motherhood by Jane Moss
Books reviewed: The Dream of Nation. A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec by Susan Mann and Mothers of Invention: Feminist Authors and Experimentl Fiction in France and Quebec by Miléna Santoro
- The Ties that Bind by John Moffatt
Books reviewed: In a World Created by a Drunken God by Drew Hayden Taylor and Pursued by a Bear: Talks, Monologues, and Tales by Daniel David Moses
- Sore Ear, Aching Hearts by Len Falkenstein
Books reviewed: Earshot by Morris Panych, The Heart As It Lived by Mansel Robinson, and That Summer by David French
- Transumptive Acts by Len Falkenstein
Books reviewed: The Buried Astolabe: Canadian Dramatic Imagination and Western Tradition by Craig Stewart Walker
MLA: Gardiner, Jessica. Lost for Words. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 128 - 130)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.