The Shape of Events
- Sharon Pollock (Author)
Blood Relations and Other Play. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joan MacLeod (Author)
Jewel. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joan MacLeod (Author)
The Shape of a Girl. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shannon Hengen
Anne Nothof and Diane Bessai contribute introductions to this grouping of four of Sharon Pollock’s early plays. Bessai observes rightly that Pollock is “more interested in examining character in a social or political context than through the intimacies of psychological interiorization” in the “epic-documentary theatrical tradition.” When characters are subordinated to social or political issues, or in fact to staging, and not made equal to them, then the characters can seem lifeless, their dialogue wooden.
In Generations, placed third in this grouping, Pollock changes the pattern of the other plays and introduces us to characters before issues, with the pleasing result that we can come to empathize with the members of this Alberta farming family and so experience at the emotional as well as the intellectual level their conflicts over how best to tend both to the land and to themselves. But this play otherwise fits with those collected here in its main motifs: among them, passionate but unthinking devotion to ideals on one hand and soulless opportunism on another; the overarching power of human interconnection, especially love; and the working out of gender and/or sexual and other identities.
Nothof points towards the deliberate ambiguity in Pollock’s limning of her characters--“No one is wholly innocent or completely powerless”--and we as readers/viewers feel that ambiguity so keenly that we might indeed at times wish for more clarity, more symmetry in the characterizations. We might feel confused rather than satisfied by, for example, Pollock’s Lizzie Borden, the main character in the Governor General’s Award-winning Blood Relations, placed first in this volume, a woman charged with but never convicted of murdering her parents in late nineteenth-century New England. Nothof reminds us, however, that “Blood Relations remains the most popular of Pollock’s plays,” having been “produced around the world,” for Pollock’s fine critical intelligence and lively dramatic imagination colour this and all of these plays.
Perhaps the most insightful politically is the second piece collected here, One Tiger to a Hill, concerning the hostage-taking in a maximum security prison, with a Metis inmate named Tommy Paul as the central figure. Produced at Stratford and the National Arts Centre, this play has in fact earned even better success in the USA than in Canada, with Denzel Washington, for example, having played Tommy Paul in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production (Nothof, Introduction). Characters align themselves on the familiar Pollock axis of idealistic/opportunistic but here with more serious consequences as the lives of prisoners, guards, and hostages are at stake. As we read we want to care about the question of reform--is it possible and, if so, through what agents?--and yet the characters who flesh out these questions are difficult to connect with, for although they divulge information about themselves freely, they never surprise us. Nonetheless, Pollock’s apparent thesis, that progressive change can and must occur even through the agency of conflicted, improbable beings, remains compelling and powerful.
In Whiskey Six Cadenza, a main character’s view that freedom of choice must be defended at any cost in order to preserve what is most human--including, in his case, the freedom to provide strong, illegal liquor to the citizens of a disadvantaged mining town--is, like issues in the other plays, profoundly significant, and yet coming out of the mouth of the bombastic, violent, and corrupt Mr. Big this view is degraded. And, we come to know another main character first through her jingoistic temperance beliefs, never really sensing her as a complex being until late in the play, if at all.
Pollock’s early plays collected here represent important moments in North American history and as such deserve the productions and praise they have received. Her deliberate subordination of character to issue and spectacle may in fact work very well on stage, however it may disappoint on paper.
Character, on the other hand, provides the only focus in MacLeod’s two plays, but the importance of past events links MacLeod’s and Pollock’s work, as does the frequency of a Western Canadian setting. The killing of teenager Reena Virk in Victoria in 1997 by other teenagers informs the action of The Shape of a Girl while the female speaker herself is located on an island near Vancouver, and the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982 informs that of Jewel while the female speaker is located in the Peace River Valley. Both plays are monologues, the first for a teenaged girl and the second for a young widow.
In The Shape of a Girl, MacLeod creates a compelling and complex teenager, Braidie, who uses the murder of Reena Virk by females her age as an occasion to reflect on her own identity. An aspiring poet, Braidie should perhaps speak in language more distinguished by figures of speech and unusual diction in this piece meant as a letter to her brother; her voice seems, nevertheless, authentically that of a difficult teenager. She engages us fully with her unambiguous irritation with her mother, her conflicted love for her friend, Adrienne, and her inability to defend the young woman to whom Adrienne is viciously cruel. In this potentially very powerful play, MacLeod might have made clearer any implied resonances between the poetic and the violent, particularly since a recurring moment is this paraphrased quotation from Adrienne Rich: “A girl in the shape of a monster / A monster in the shape of a girl" (see Rich’s "Planetarium").
In the second play, Jewel, we have motifs similar to those in the first in a tale equally well told: drowning, speaking hard things, and behaving badly. As well, both of these women are funny, their humour somehow underscoring rather than mitigating the harshness, sadness, and dumb cruelty around them. Marjorie, the young widow, addresses her monologue to her dead husband on Valentine’s Day and recalls other of those holidays since she was a girl. As honest as the teenager from the first play, Marjorie engages and moves us fully, her language appropriately spare and her emotions clear three years after the death.
In MacLeod’s plays, important Canadian tragedies take hold of us in ways that make us perceive how the tragedies might have occurred. Highly evocative, the plays do not call us to action as do Pollock’s in the epic tradition, but they can provide us with stimulating theatre nevertheless.
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MLA: Hengen, Shannon. The Shape of Events. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 164 - 166)
***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.