Staging Northern Ghosts
- Lisa Chalykoff (Author), Eve D'Aeth (Author), and Sherrill Grace (Author)
Staging the North: Twelve Canadian Plays. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Martin Kuester
The North—whether true, strong, free or not—has always been a central theme and a central region in the Canadian imagination. A collection of twelve Canadian plays centring upon the North such as this welcome anthology edited by Sherrill Grace, Eve D’Aeth, and Lisa Chalykoff invites a whole range of regionalist and thematic interpretations. In a certain way, and this is not a criticism, we seem to have here twelve Canadian plays in search of the North, because rather than giving us the North promised in the title of this anthology, the collection provides us with many different Norths existing at various and quite different places on the geographical map of Canada, some of them imaginary landscapes of the mind, some lying in a mythical past, some in a rather prosaic and sobering present.
In her introduction to the volume, Sherrill Grace states that "It is no longer possible to assume that there is a North that can be the subject of a Canadian theatre or that can be staged’ and that "There are, in fact, as many Norths in this volume as in the country...." As she points out, one version—and possibly the most important one, or at least the one shared by the largest number of Canadians—is that held by Southerners who take the North to be "a place of adventure, and of physical and moral challenge." Northerners, many among them representing the First Nations, naturally have a different view of their everyday environment.
Grace briefly traces the development of drama and theatre in the North as well as the depiction of the North in drama and media such as radio and firm. She justifies the choice of the twelve plays included on the grounds oi readability and success on ihc stage.
Rather surprisingly in a country whose authors at one time complained that they were haunted by a lack of ghosts, Grace concludes at the end of the introduction that "a common view of North emerges from these plays with great clarity. North, they tell us, is a topos rich in imagery, story, history, living myth, legends, and ghosts: the ghosts of madmen, explorers, past selves, vanished towns, dead fathers and brothers, and unappeased spirits stalk these plays, haunt the living, and dance in the Northern Lights."
There is not enough space in a short review to analyze any of the twelve included plays in any detail. Some of them seem to work better on the page than others. They present very different Norths, ranging from a ghost town in Northern Ontario to Inuit settlements in the Arctic, from the mythical realm of puppet plays to that of kitchen sink or bar room realism.
The plays are so different that—and this is a very positive aspect of the collection—it becomes impossible for readers to believe any longer in any generalizations about life in the North or dramatic versions of this life, unless we accept the "common view" cited above as such a generalization. In the sense that it points to the existence of a plurality of Norths rather than one single North, Staging the North is a welcome addition especially for those of us who teach Canadian Studies abroad and are always hunting for easily accessible materials. Furthermore, this anthology has the indisputable advantage of offering—in addition to well-known plays such as Herschel Hardin’s Esker Mike & His Wife, Agiluk (first performed in 1971), Henry Beissel’s Inuk and the Sun (1973), Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Terror and Erebus (1975) and Wendy Lil’s The Occupation of Heather Rose (1986)—more contemporary and even recent plays such as Changes (1986) and In Search of a Friend (1988) written and workshopped by Tunooniq Theatre, Ditch (1993) by Geoff Kavanagh, Colonial Tongues (1993) by Mansel Robinson, Who Look in Stove (1994) by Lawrence Jeffery, Free 5 Point (1996) by Philip Adams, Trickster Visits the Old Folks Home (1996) by Sharon Shorty, and Sixty Below (1997) by Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater.
As a teacher of Canadian literature in Europe who is looking forward to using at least some of the texts in this collection, I must add, however, that the introductions the three editors give to the twelve plays could have been more informative, especially with regard to the biographical background of the dramatists.
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MLA: Kuester, Martin. Staging Northern Ghosts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 119 - 120)
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