From Pollock to Karasik: Forty-five Years of Canadian Theatre

Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

Fredericton’s Sharon Mary Chalmers Pollock’s career has spanned four decades, her politically charged dramas garnering national and international acclaim. Donna Coates’ new collection, Sharon Pollock: First Woman of Canadian Theatre, brings together a range of scholars, critics, and performers to celebrate the life and work of Canada’s best-known, female playwright. Not only detailing the substance and influence of the playwright’s dramatic work, but also the many roles filled by Pollock—actor, director, administrator, critic, teacher, and cultural activist—the eclectic mix of essays imparts the multifaceted nature of Pollock’s contribution to Canadian theatre. The collection also includes a new play, Sharon’s Tongue, concerning Pollock herself, written and produced by playwright/actor Lindsay Burns, actors Laura Parken and Grant Linneberg, and Pamela Halstead of the Playing with Pollock Collective—along with the unpublished transcripts from seventeen episodes of Pollock’s radio show, Pollock on Plays, which round out the book nicely.

While Pollock’s first play, A Compulsory Option, premiered in 1972, her career took off with the 1973 piece, Walsh, which received positive audience and critical reception. It is thus fitting that First Woman opens with an essay by Pollock scholar Jerry Wasserman, examining the relationship between Officer James Walsh of the North West Mounted Police and Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. Wasserman, who came to Canada as a “draft-dodger,” parallels the Sioux struggle for sanctuary in Canada post-Little Bighorn (1877–1881). Wasserman contends that Pollock’s treatment of Canada’s national mythology dispels notions of “moral superiority.”

Similarly, Cynthia Zimmerman, also a Pollock scholar, reconsiders one of the playwright’s earlier pieces, the 1984 Governor General’s award-winning play, Doc. Zimmerman takes a controversial stance on the play, contesting the commonly held critical perspective, and suggesting that, while sympathies tend to lie with the parents (Chalmers and his wife) such sentiments should rather be reserved for Catherine, the daughter, torn between her hostile parents. Zimmerman uses examples from two different productions of the play (1984 and 2010) to show the extent to which choices made by directors can alter audience interpretations of the play.

Tanya Schapp engages with Pollock’s most recent play, Man Out of Joint (2007), which pertains to the rampant abuse of Guantanamo Bay inmates, while also addressing the controversies related to 9/11. Using Trauma Theory, Schapp examines how the play operates as a “trauma narrative,” ensuring audience recognition of our shared national role in such tragic phenomena, while in tandem emphasizing Pollock’s role in raising awareness concerning atrocities in Canadian history. Coates’ essay, like Schaap’s, points to Pollock’s employment of large power structures as metaphors to demonstrate the intersectional nature of systemic oppression. Coates compares playwright Judith Thompson and Pollock’s respective depictions of “torture chicks.” Coates argues that Thompson’s play, about the moral bankruptcy of “Soldier”—a character derived from media representations of United States Army Reserve soldier Lynndie Rana England—removes focus from the (far more important) analysis of women’s roles within masculinist power structures. Coates asserts that Pollock’s play, to the contrary, is sensitive to the ramifications of gender-based exclusion.

The closing entries focus on Pollock’s shaping of dramatic production processes: referred to by Coates as “the making of theatre.” Martin Morrow revisits his years as a theatre reviewer at the Calgary Herald. Morrow describes his work at the Garry Theatre—the playhouse operated by Pollock and her son Kirk. He discusses the difficulties involved in keeping the theatre open and suggests that his reasonable lack of attention may have been a factor in the theatre’s closure. The following piece, written by Kosovar playwright Jeton Neziraj, pertains to Neziraj’s collaboration with Pollock. Discussing his company’s choice to produce Blood Relations in Pristina in 2010, as well as the potential for future collaborative work, Neziraj explains that it was Pollock’s commitment to live theatre in Kosovo that brought their friendship about.

In the final article, literary critic Sherrill Grace uses the construction of Canada’s “national mythology” as a lens through which to examine the struggles faced by biographers. She disputes the commonly accepted notion that biographies of politicians and military figures are more relevant to Canada’s “life-story” than the narratives of artists and writers. Grace, demanding that the tales of artists are, in fact, necessary to understanding the “silence[ing]” of minoritized groups and individuals, leaves readers with a positive message, indicating that such biographies are today purchased more often. Grace, moving the collection smoothly to a close, also describes Pollock’s life after 2008. Grace’s article is followed by Sharon’s Tongue, which, as Coates promises in her introduction, “substantiates the kind of impact Pollock has had on the local theatre community.” The play encourages audiences to consider the true value of Pollock’s contributions to Canadian art. Bringing the collection full circle, the final entry, a series of Pollock’s CBC radio reviews, conclusively demonstrates the playwright’s ability to work successfully with a variety of artistic and entertainment mediums.

The second work under review, Dora Award-nominated Daniel Karasik’s new play, Little Death, provides a fine compliment to Coates’ collection, given that the play, like so many of Pollock’s eloquent works, makes for nearly as pleasurable a read as it does a viewing experience. The play, which won Karasik a place in London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre’s young writers program, is a lyrical study of monogamy that truly reads like a poem. The play alternates surreal scenes in which protagonist Alex, ostensibly suffering from a terminal illness, meets women in various hotels and bars with scenes in which he and wife Brit engage in an ongoing dialogue concerning the impact of Alex’s behavior on their relationship. Karasik’s scenes, often described in brief—“Hotel bar. Home.”—leave much to the imagination, an arguably positive aspect of the work that allows for directorial freedom. While it is impossible, through text-based analysis to fully gauge Alex’s interpretation of his own actions (or the actual severity/existence of his illness), the play presents an interesting, however surrealistic, dramatic analysis of the complexities of romantic relationships, monogamous and otherwise.

This review “From Pollock to Karasik: Forty-five Years of Canadian Theatre” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 161-163.

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