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Current Issue: #221 Science & Canadian Literature (Summer 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 221 (Summer 2014) is now available. This special issue focuses on science and Canadian literature and features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Theatrical Rides

  • Vern Tiessen (Author)
    Einstein's Gift. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Sean Reycraft (Author)
    One Good Marriage. Scirocco Drama (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Mieko Ouchi (Author)
    The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye). Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Tom Cone (Author)
    True Mummy. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Stephen Heatley

Although there is little thematic or stylistic linkage in this grouping — plays that range from the conversational to the poetic — each play asks the audience to participate directly in the theatrical event. True Mummy contains a series of contrapuntal direct audience-address scenes interpolated throughout the more naturalistic scenes. In The Red Priest (Eight Ways To Say Goodbye), the audience plays many roles. Sometimes they are confidante, sometimes characters that never actually appear on stage, and finally they take the more traditional “voyeur” role. In One Good Marriage, the audience is only addressed directly. The characters begin the play by looking the public straight in the eye and the entire convoluted story is unravelled for their benefit. In Einstein’s Gift, the matter for consideration is presented to the audience through a kind of narrator/provocateur. He reflects on the narrative with the audience and, as he does so, the story unfolds before them.

Tom Cone’s True Mummy is a theatrically intricate play that continually juxtaposes images of life against images of death. Its central image, one of the many meanings of the “true mummy” of the title, is the use by painters such as JMW Turner in the nineteenth century of the ash from burnt mummies: it provided “the best shellac in the history of art” to seal paintings. Through death, the life of these paintings is preserved for all time. The play opens with Caroline, a fire-spotter, giving the breath of life to Patti, a woman she has rescued from drowning. The next scene begins the companion story of an Egyptian princess being readied for burial, a narrative that carries through to the use of the ash of her mummified self in the sealing of a Turner painting. Cone follows this counterpoint of life against death throughout the play.

Mieko Ouchi’s The Red Priest (Eight Ways To Say Goodbye) launches with solo scenes of a down-and-out Antonio Vivaldi placed against scenes featuring a cynical French aristocrat. Vivaldi has given up a simple but satisfying teaching job to pursue his composing career and finds that no one is interested in the development of his music – their only interest is in him as the composer of The Four Seasons. To prop up his sagging fortunes, he begs a commission from a moneyed individual, is invited to the villa and encouraged to take on the man’s disaffected wife (the cynic of the beginning) as a violin student. Vivaldi and “the Woman” are at odds throughout the early parts of the drama until it dawns on them that they are, in fact, kindred spirits, both desperately unhappy and both at the mercy of the same individual for money, upkeep, and respect. It is a delightfully poignant turn when their relationship does not develop into some tawdry affair but evolves into one of deep caring and respect expressed through their appreciation of each other’s passion – one for opera, the other for gardens – but both for beauty.

The characters in Sean Reycraft’s One Good Marriage take the audience on an entirely different journey. Stewart and Steph are celebrating their first anniversary. The banner which should read “Happy Anniversary” is only partially hung so we read “… versary.” Obviously something is wrong with this event from the moment the characters walk on stage. They look at the audience, and before Stewart can utter a word, Steph says, “Everybody died.” From here the story of their lives together rattles forth; how they met, why they married, the disaster of their honeymoon. The diabolical truth about their wedding is revealed in a very clever unravelling of the antecedent action. The play takes place in real time and continuous action except for a theatrical conceit interpolated whenever Stewart knows that Steph is losing control. The lights shift to a tight focus on her, he repeats a soothing mantra, she calms down, and we are restored to the play’s former reality.

Although Einstein is the titular character of Vern Thiessen’s Einstein’s Gift, the play actually focuses on the life of Fritz Haber, an ardent German nationalist who renounced his Judaism for the academic convenience of Christianity in the nineteenth century. He won the Nobel Prize for Science in 1920 for his invention of fertiliser, thus averting a pan-European famine. However, Haber was also the inventor of chlorine gas, which he was would quickly end the First World War and leave the Germans victorious. The play’s tension comes through Haber’s friendship with Einstein. Einstein claims that the scientist’s only job is to think. Haber argues that science must only be pursued for its practical usage. Haber is an avid German nationalist. Einstein, German-born, lives in Switzerland to avoid the politics of science in his homeland. Where Haber easily gave up Judaism, Einstein claims that culture and faith are much more important than nationality or position. Haber, in essence, always compromises himself. Einstein’s gift to Haber, after Haber’s career is torn apart by National Socialism (nationalism at its ugliest), is to give him back his faith in the form of a Kipa and Tallis. The disturbingly ironic twist to the play is that, of course, it is Einstein who creates the knowledge that allows for the development of the atomic bomb. And it is Einstein who contacts the American government about the practical application of the theory to the creation of weaponry.

Although all four plays offer the audience a theatrical ride – through musical underscoring and counterpoint in The Red Priest, juxtaposed interpolation in True Mummy, or the masterful narrative unravelling of One Good Marriage — it is Einstein’s Gift that blends theatricality, content, and scale of idea to craft a truly great piece of theatre. It is no surprise that it won the Governor General’s Award for English Drama for 2004.

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MLA: Heatley, Stephen. Theatrical Rides. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 May 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 119 - 120)

***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.

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