Words and Music
- Constance Lindsay Skinner (Author) and Joan Bryans (Editor)
Birthright. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Judith Thompson (Author)
Enoch Arden in the Hope Shelter. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Karen Hines (Author)
Hello ... Hello. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shelley Scott
In what ways can these three plays by Canadian women be compared? Two are musicals, two are melodramas, and two are adaptations. But perhaps the most useful point is that each playwright simultaneously relies upon and defies the conventions of her chosen genre, evidenced by the necessity of unusually extensive introductory material and explanatory notes in each volume.
Karen Hines subtitles Hello … Hello "A Romantic Satire" and calls it "a self-consuming artefact, a musical that uses music to meditate on some of the more troubling impulses behind that most delightful of escapist forms." From its seed as a fifteen-minute piece for the Tarragon Spring Arts Fair, to a twelve-person version called La Boom, to workshops and performances as Hello … Hello (most recently at the Tarragon in 2003), Hines has struggled to find a form for her dystopic vision. The play is a pleasure to read, partly because of its attractive presentation, but mainly for Hines' gorgeously descriptive, funny/sad writing. Hello … Hello is told by Ben and Cassandra and supported by a Male and Female chorus, two actors who play over fifty characters each. There is no set, only indelible images created by words and music of a world in which dead birds fall from the sky, climate change has gone berserk, consumerism has reached both epic and intimate proportions, and the latest fashion craze is a shiny ball of poison to wear around one's neck. Hines has played Cassandra in all the productions so far, and there are echoes of her popular and subversive clown character, Pochsy, in the delicate balance between beauty and horror that makes Hello … Hello wonderfully effective but tricky to describe.
Birthright was written in 1905 by Constance Lindsay Skinner, a writer born and raised in British Columbia, who boldly made her mark in the United States as a New Woman. Historian Jean Barman came across the play in a New York archive and entrusted it to director Joan Bryans, who adapted and staged it with her own company, Vital Spark. Although Birthright had several American productions in Skinner's day, Bryans' production in Vancouver in 2003 marked its Canadian premiere. Along with pieces by Barman and Bryans explaining this genesis, the text also includes a scholarly essay by Michelle La Flamme that enumerates the multiple strategies Skinner employs for her controversial material.
Birthright is the story of Precious Conroy, a young woman adopted by Christian missionaries who, at the play's climax, learns that her birth mother was Native. The play walks a path between the realist conventions of Ibsen and the uneasy exoticism of any number of American melodramas that tackle race and ethnicity, from The Octoroon to Showboat. Precious is the object of desire for two men: Harry, the upstanding son of her adoptive parents, and Louis Prince, the "half-breed" son of the local chief. Precious is by no means a shrinking violet: we learn that she first encountered Harry when she saved him from drowning; they have pre-marital sex; and when Harry, after learning of her parentage, cruelly rejects her, Precious stabs and kills him. The play ends with Louis Prince claiming Precious as his woman, as one of his own "kind," and the two of them setting forth to a new life in the wilderness. Skinner pulls no punches in her depiction of the white characters' racism and hypocrisy, but Native characters also condemn the destructive effects of interracial relations. Louis Prince, for example, speaks in an embarrassing faux-Indian dialect, but only because it is what the white characters expect of him. La Flamme praises Precious as "a very unconventional representation of a woman, especially at the turn of the century," but also wonders if we read her as "unconventional because of her education as an artist, her romantic sensibilities or the presence of her wayward and demented Native blood." Throughout the play, Precious is "called" to the Native way of life, demonstrating an essentialist understanding of racial identity. Photos accompanying the text suggest an attractive cast and an intriguing production; as in this printed volume, any production would require careful contextualization to make it palatable to a contemporary audience.
Director Maria Lamont does the same sort of contextualizing when, in her introduction to Enoch Arden in the Hope Shelter, she explains that melodrama merely means to combine music with spoken text or poetry. The melodrama Enoch Arden was written in 1897 by Richard Strauss, based on Tennyson's epic 1864 poem. At Lamont's request, Judith Thompson found a contemporary setting for the work, developing it through a number of workshops, culminating in a performance at Toronto’s Theatre Centre in 2005. Kristin Mueller, who played piano and sang as Ciel, and John Fitzgerald Jay, who delivered the largely monologic text as Jabber, were no doubt essential to its creation and success.
Thompson chose to place the action in a halfway house, where the mentally ill lovers practise their act for a talent show. The narrative is multilayered, as Jabber conflates his own personal history and village on the east coast of Canada with Enoch's. What led Thompson to connect the love triangle of Tennyson's poem with these two marginalized characters is not apparent, although clearly the virtuosity of the performers and the emotional power of the music would go a long way to explain its 2006 Dora nomination for outstanding new musical.
- Loss and Longing by Eric Henderson
Books reviewed: The Time of Her Life by David Helwig, Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill, and Purple for Sky by Carol Bruneau
- Subverting Synecdoche by Jo-Anne Episkenew
Books reviewed: Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival by Kim Anderson
- Staging Alternative Albertas by Ric Knowles
Books reviewed: Staging Alternative Albertas: Experimental Drama in Edmonton by Patricia Demers and Rosalind Kerr
- Making Waves by Virginia Cooke
Books reviewed: Maiden Voyages: Ship's Company Theatre Premieres 2000 - 2002 by Scott Burke
- Polarities by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Inexpressible Island by David Young and Escaped Domestics by Robin Mcgrath
MLA: Scott, Shelley. Words and Music. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 134 - 136)
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