The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs/Thinking of Yu. Playwrights Canada Press
Penny Plain. Playwrights Canada Press
Maggie and Pierre & The Duchess. Playwrights Canada Press
Canadian drama is preoccupied with the relationship of the personal to the political. These five plays explore the psychological and social implications of the diverse ways in which women attempt to push through limiting parameters. In Maggie and Pierre (1980) and The Duchess (1998), Linda Griffiths portrays two controversial women whose discontent and ambition had considerable consequences for their husbands and for their countries. In The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs (2012) and Thinking of Yu (2012), Carole Fréchette dramatizes the obsessive need of two women to ascertain the reasons behind personal and political proscriptions, and to act on what they discover. In Penny Plain (2011), Ronnie Burkett shows a wide range of responses to an apocalyptic scenario, from the resigned acceptance of his powerless elderly heroine, to the psychotic behaviour of some of her boarders.
Griffiths enacts the fraught relationship between Margaret and Pierre Eliot Trudeau from the narrative perspective of the journalist, Henry, who considers their story to be mythological. In an entertaining introduction to the published play, entitled “Dancing with Trudeau,” Griffiths describes her research process. She decides that she must enact Trudeau’s vulnerability, but not use cheap laughs. Maggie is a conflicted young woman, plagued by insecurity but frustrated by the circumscriptions of her public life. Griffiths’ perceptive portrait of the dynamics of a complex couple has contemporary resonance, since their son, Justin is currently the leader of the Liberal party. Although the play’s humour and irony are best realized through her skills as a performer, it still plays well on the page as a struggle between reason and passion.
Wallis Simpson is a less sympathetic character in The Duchess. Although Griffiths provides a personal rationale for her greed and ambition, Wallis is primarily a caricature, a vehicle for political satire, much like the cartoon characters in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and Michael Hollingsworth’s History of the Village of the Small Huts. The other characters (including Noel Coward, the Royal family, and Wallis’ jewels) provide historical context and choric comment. In another informative introduction, Griffiths suggests that she is using a Canadian commedia dell’ arte style: “The characters are at their most effective when a balance is found between their comic potential and the reality of their emotions and situation.” Through a series of vignettes based on the scandal and gossip Wallis inspired—from her sexual adventures with her first husband in China to the auctioning of her jewels after Edward’s death—Griffiths tracks her rise and fall. For Wallis, power was an aphrodisiac, and men the means to an end.
The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs also interrogates the shifting power dynamics of a marriage. It revisits the fable of Bluebeard as a psychological portrait of a woman’s compulsion to explore the forbidden—the archetypal story that has been the rationale for the subjugation of women since Eve’s first bite of the apple. Fréchette’s heroine is significantly named “Grace.” Although she appears to have it all—a loving husband, a mansion with ten guest rooms—she is compelled to open the door to a small room forbidden by her husband. She is also warned by her sister, mother, and maid against following her irrational inclinations; they have a more pragmatic attitude to what is possible for women. When she finally opens the door, Grace discovers the nightmare scenario of a bleeding man, whom she attempts to save. She lies to her husband about her disobedience, and when he finds her in the room, the wounded man has disappeared. The play ends with differing responses by all the women to the meaning of “true tears.” What are the implications and consequences of compassion for others? Has Grace in effect destroyed not only her marriage, but also her husband by exposing his private pain? Is her sister’s strategy a better response to human suffering—“to provide bandages and medicine and vaccinations for men and women who are bleeding and suffering on the other side of the world”?
Thinking of Yu explores a similar conundrum through a debate triggered by the arrest of three young men in China for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao. The protagonist, named Maggie, reads about the release of one of these men after a seventeen-year incarceration, and becomes fixated on his sacrifice of freedom for his beliefs. She feels wholly powerless: she has never had the courage of her convictions, and believes she has failed in every relationship and endeavour, to the point where she has arrived at a stasis. She is reluctantly teaching English to a Chinese girl who has recently left her country for a better, freer life, and who finally tells Maggie the unheroic truth about the political dissidents. A helpful neighbour, who is preoccupied with his responsibilities to his dependent son, engages in long debates with Maggie about the power politics inherent in helping others: “Some people are like that, all they ever want is power. And the ones who grab it while pretending to save humanity, they’re the worst.” He believes that political protest is pointless. But, in the end, they all conclude that their lives have been changed.
Burkett’s Penny Plain, blinded as an indirect consequence of eating too many apples as a young girl, calmly awaits the end with George, her dog, who aspires to be human, although a highly contagious virus is wiping out the earth’s population. The inhabitants of Penny’s rooming house respond violently, or irrationally, or helpfully, but they are also fundamentally powerless. Burkett has again created an imaginative cast of marionettes with considerable skill in caustic one-liners or introspective monologues. Penny Plain is an apocalyptic cabaret, punctuated with news announcements about yet another atrocity or disaster. The innocent girl, Tuppence, masquerading as a replacement canine companion for Penny, embodies kindness and compassion, but she can change nothing. The puppet baby created by Geppetto is an assemblage of garbage—“the future we made for ourselves.” The real power is vested in the earth, which is asserting itself through the detritus of the human race.
Griffiths, Fréchette, and Burkett all raise compelling questions about the nature and consequences of power in their plays. As Patricia Keeney points out in her introduction to Griffiths’ works: “These playwrights use the unique resources of theatre to dramatize the psychology, history, and mythology embedded in the human stories it can most vividly tell.”