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Unpunctually Yours
by David Prosser

READING THE SCRIPT of a play can be like having a joke explained to you: even though you get the point, you rarely burst out laughing. Theatre relies on energies and intuitions peculiar to crowds, and what stirs an audience may have little effect on a solitary reader. On the other hand, since a good script embodies subtleties that no single performance can encompass, reading a play should not automatically be assumed to be a less rewarding experience than watching one; nor should a written script be regarded by its publishers as deserving less care than would be given to a novel or a volume of poetry.

I have been perusing three scripts from Blizzard Publishing of Winnipeg: Timothy Findley's The Stillborn Lover (91 pages, $15.95 cloth), Carol Shields's Thirteen Hands (61 pages, $11.95 paper), and Greg Nelson's Castrato (78 pages, $11.95 paper). The last of these is the harrowing story of Peter, a young minister whose struggle with the memory of his father's suicide leads him to rebel against spiritual totalitarianism in the church. "How many of you are abusing your children?" the audience is asked in the first scene, and the emotional stakes are raised from there. It's a taut, powerful drama, and I'd love to see it performed. Reading it, though, made me want to spit.

The publishers of plays need all the customers they can get. Why, then, do so many of them seek to repel those of us reactionaries who still believe in punctuation? "You know Peter" means something utterly different from "You know, Peter,..." and no professional writer or editor should need to be reminded that the commas in the latter are not optional. Nor is the question mark a meaningless flourish to be used or omitted as the fancy takes you. It is not, in fact, proper to write: "You didn't like your father did you Peter." (I guess we should be grateful that they left us the apostrophe.) Yet half this play is printed like that. Aren't we supposed to mind?

Having taken a calming swig of port and a fistful of snuff, I turned to Carol Shields's Thirteen Hands, only to discover (pages 12, 14, 18, and passim) that this author too regards the question mark as a matter of personal choice. Resisting the impulse to chuck the damn thing away, I read it through and found, by the end, that I had rather enjoyed it.

Four women come on stage and play cards: a game of remembering, of venturing, of winning and losing. We overhear their conversations and their thoughts, meet their counterparts in other places and other times, and observe the links between them. The women's talk is of birth, death, sickness, divorce, growing old: the unacknowledged history of private lives. Towards the end, one of the players is rebuked by an outsider for wasting time on bridge when she could have been doing something: learning about the history of the Commonwealth, or medieval art. "Why, I know you," the player responds, "you're Doris Veal's oldest girl." It's a beautifully subtle moment, at once deflating and dignifying, reminding us that there is more than one kind of history, and more than one way of defining real life.

Shields achieves many of her effects by purely theatrical rather than literary means: our recognition, for instance, of the same actress in different roles contributes to the idea of continuity that is central to the play. The striking visual imagery of Timothy Findley's poignant The Stillborn Lover, by contrast, springs directly from its language. Public and private lives collide when the ambassador Harry Raymond is recalled to Ottawa from his Moscow posting to face an investigation into the death of a young Russian. As the nature of the victim's relationship to the ambassador and his wife becomes clear, we become haunted by Findley's opening image of human destiny: the Japanese game of Go, in which smooth stones are irrevocably locked into their positions on the board. Michael Riordon, the minister for external affairs, has his eye on the PM's office and cannot afford not to throw Harry to the wolves. "One does," he says to his wife, "what must be done." But the demands of the heart cannot be ignored either, for, as Harry's wife points out, denial kills. She has her own version of Riordon's precept: "Love does what it must." A lovely, sad, regretful play.

(Curmudgeon's note: It was with an unease bordering on terror that in this script too I noticed the absence of several question marks from their posts. Is this a conspiracy? Is a mote at work in Blizzard's editorial offices? Or is there a new postmodernist pose of which I am unaware: the asking of questions with no note of query, as if to preclude the possibility of answer? I must be careful.)

Imperatives clash, less romantically, in Drew Hayden Taylor's Someday (Fifth House, 96 pages, $10.95 paper). A lottery win reunites an Ojibway family - Anne and her daughter, Barb - with Grace, another daughter removed in infancy by the Children's Aid Society and raised by a white family. Barb suspects that Grace's motive for reappearing now may be mercenary, but in fact it is something rather crueller: curiosity. The reunion is a failure, as it would have to be, but the play's tone is neither maudlin nor accusatory. Our response to it is guided by the character of Barb's wryly good-humoured boyfriend, Rodney, who steps outside the play to talk directly to the audience. With his terrible jokes and his fear of commitment, Rodney both defuses any potential for pathos and supplies the play with its true emotional centre. An engaging play - and competently punctuated.

Community groups in search of one-act repertoire should look into Escape Acts (Nuage Editions, 192 pages, $14.95 paper), a collection edited by Colleen Curran. Disregard her wincingly coy foreword and check out, in particular, The Sand, by Laurie Fyffe (monologue for one actress, with belly-dancing); Texas Boy, by George Rideout (American boy and Canadian girl flirt, spat, and make up); Life History of the African Elephant, by Clem Martini (elephant keeper meets wonderfully zany, accident-prone girl and her arsonist brother; elephant need be only partially represented); and Day Shift, by Meredith Bain Woodward (telephone monologue for woman: sort of quickie Shirley Valentine but with real-life ending). Play-reading committees take note: any two or three of these would make up a splendid evening's entertainment.

The drama professor Diane Bessai, in her book Playwrights of Collective Creation (Simon & Pierre, 292 pages, $29.95 paper), draws some useful distinctions between mainstream and "alternative" theatre. The former, she points out, usually begins with a written text, which the actors interpret. The latter has its origins in improvisation and spontaneity: actors "jamming" on stage the way jazz musicians do. The resulting text of such collaborations, although it may be collated and edited by a writer, is a by-product of the process, not its desired end. The script of a collective creation, she suggests, should be approached with caution: it is best regarded as "the notation of a performance piece."

Bessai identifies other characteristics of the genre: presentation rather than mimesis; interaction of actors and audience the use of conventions and structures belonging to popular entertainment; the metaphoric rather than purely literal use of props and set pieces; the use of "transformational" acting, in which performers assume several roles without attempting to hide the transitions. She demonstrates how these techniques were used in the 1970s by the director Paul Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille to "mythologize" Canadian history, and then proceeds to show how the individual work of playwrights John Gray, Rick Salutin, and Linda Griffiths, all of whom had connections with Passe Muraille, evolved out of - and still shows some characteristics of - the collective process.

Bessai's scholarship and powers of analysis are impressive, and her book, the second volume in Simon & Pierre's "Canadian Dramatist" series, will no doubt be hailed as a valuable resource. Unfortunately, no reader who gives a cuss about clarity, grace, and elegance in English prose can hope to emerge from these thickets undazed. Alerted to trouble on page 25, when we are asked to imagine something fading under the pressures of a lack and a need, we raise a quizzical eyebrow and bravely hack our way onwards; by page 158, where we are told that "stylistically, however, certain points are also emphasized editorially through the intermittent use of broadly satiric theatrical devices that are tonally reminiscent of passages in 1837 and Les Canadiens," we lie down exhausted and tell our stronger companions to go ahead without us; we will await death here. Talk about text as by-product.

Does this seem mean-spirited? Let us assume that language is not merely an adornment to thought but the only medium by which thought can be articulated and transmitted. Blunt and blur the medium, and the message will arrive garbled or not at all. It's not just herself that Bessai harms by writing in the style of a government report; it's hard to imagine anyone who had never actually seen any of the plays she describes coming away from this book with much desire to make their acquaintance. Whether you're an artist or a critic, words are all you've got, and if you don't look after them, they'll let you down. That's why I think it worth complaining about commas and question marks. I like my toots shiny; I hate to see those little spots of rust.


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