I WANT TO BE completely alive ... alive in my mind as well as my body. Let me get away for a while and look for my own kind of life ... a life of the mind and the spirit." A character in a 1933 play by Elsie Park Gowan.
I was dead, was killed by a lion in a long silver car, starving lion, maul maul maul me to dead, with killing claws over and over my little young face and chest." A character in a 1990 play by Judith Thompson.
From clarity to obscurity? Or from naivete to maturity?
Gowan's work, collected in The Hungry Spirit (NeWest, 328 pages, $14.95 paper), helps to establish that English-Canadian drama didn't begin with Robertson Davies, James Reaney, and
George Ryga. Gowan, like Gwen Pharis Ringwood, should be recognized as a pioneer who wrote for stage and radio in Edmonton in the '30s,'40s, and '50s. Six scripts, photos, an interview, Gowan's '30s lecture, "Women in the 20th Century," and Moira Day's substantial introduction bring before us Gowan and her times.
Two pieces deal with issues, and amazingly topical they are. The High Green Gate is CBC radio at its most socially responsible: three cases in need of pre-school day care are documented, while
a male in the background advocates traditional family values instead. Back to the Kitchen, Woman!, overblown and generalized, depicts the women's backlash against the backlash against feminism, the latter expressed by a man who has written a text entitled Andromache, which calls for women to stay in the kitchen, pregnant and barefoot.
The other scripts glimpse Prairie life, past and present, lightly in Breeches from Bond Street, sombrely in Homestead, and earnestly in The Hungry Spirit. The good-humoured Breeches from Bond Street, set in 1884 and about a gambler, a remittance man, and a rejected mail-order bride, looks over-tailored to old amateur-theatre expectations. Homestead, Gowan's first play, is powerful in a well-worn vein struggle for survival (if one may still use that overworked word) in an environment that, in Michael Cook's phrase, would kill you if it could. A sensitive, pregnant wife is tempted to run away with her handsome, sympathetic neighbour and abandon her dour, industrious husband - but then a falling tree kills the neighbour. Gowan records that as a young teacher she lodged in Rocky Mountain House with a couple like the one in Homestead, and notes that "everybody who starts writing plays in Canada writes one play about human nature versus the climate." The Hungry Spirit depicts a young woman in a stultifying small town, the relatives who can't understand her yearning for university, and the conflict between her duty to herself and her duty to others.
The full-length The Last Caveman features English-born homesteaders facing an unscrupulous landowner who wants their farm. This good vs. evil situation is complicated when the homesteaders resist with stones and shotguns. Observing this struggle, a depressed war veteran rediscovers his need to be on the side of the people, and walks off into the moonlight hand in hand with pretty, high-minded Miranda. The Lost Caveman is set by a Canadian lake containing a Canadian serpent; Banff is close; the family was lured to Canada by a misleading CPR poster. The worldly-wise may find Gowan's direct speeches simplistic: "There's hope in your anger. Maybe it's the only hope we've got." Gowan rejects all the academic cant about the virtues of subtlety and complexity; and I certainly respond to the hope, the refreshing idealism, the vision of a better life. Written when the Second World War was looming and revised as the Cold War began, The Last Caveman still speaks to us now, as American force imposes a "new world order."
What does it say about theatre and publishing that pieces as strong as Homestead and The Hungry Spirit have waited nearly 60 years to reach print? Somewhere - on the CBC, at universities or the Blyth Festival - might we have a chance to see whether they still convince in performance? Might the Shaw Festival try "The Last Caveman" as its "risk" production? Gowan is one of 13 playwrights between the wars lumped together in one sentence in The Literary History of Canada - perhaps students can dig up more lost, worthwhile scripts.
Robert Wallace's collection, Making, Out: Plays by Gay Men (Coach House, 350 pages, $19.95 paper), brings us directly to the present; all six plays were first staged between 1986 and 1991. Wallace's long introduction raises various questions. Is our culture "anti-sexual"? Is gay work in the canon, and how is it taught? Does a drama become gay through its characters, its author's sexual orientation, or what? As in his Producing Marginality (1990), Wallace expects his reader to work, and succeeds in making me scrutinize my own feelings about homosexual expression in literature. He offers the first Canadian anthology (in Britain Methuen has published four volumes of Gay Plays and two of Lesbian Plays) asserting "a Canadian gay theatrical tradition." This may be questioned: is it a Toronto tradition? And how Canadian are the scripts? All the texts were originally presented in Toronto, though one was commissioned in British Columbia and a second is set in Saskatoon. Of the others, two are unlocalized, one is mainly about the German artist Joseph Beuys, and the last is set in Yaddo in New York State. All the authors are quite new, with few previous published plays; and although David Demchuk's sketch on the appeal of gay pornography appears to be addressed to gay spectators, the other plays should reward any audience.
The three realistic works (counting Demchuk's fragment) can usefully be distinguished from the three more theatrically audacious ones. Colin Thomas's Flesh and Blood is heavy to the point of didacticism, examining Big Issues: AIDS, homophobia, a confused teenager, gay and straight brothers, mother vs. son, the shaky relationship of a gay couple, safe sex for heterosexuals too. I preferred David Rintoul's Brave Hearts, a duologue at a picnic table outside a gays' party, with at least three twists and surprises. Gradually we learn to know these men, and their public personae and self-deceptions, as the play's flat, sometimes unpredictable talk leads to a moving conclusion.
The other three are more difficult on the page. Sky Gilbert's musical uses Truman Capote, seen aged 20 at a writers' colony in 1946, as a kind of gay icon. The caricatured authors at leisure contrast playfully with the boy genius; we are to enjoy more than care. Daniel MacIvor's imaginative 2-2-Tango has two identically dressed men relating and connecting - a little - through a series of dances: they are simultaneously two men and two sides of one man. Wallace concedes that this is "an almost cryptic work of performance" - and he has seen it. Ken Garnhum's Beuys Buoys Boys is a monologue that takes place during the building of a sculpture resembling a buoy, with jokes, apparent inconsequentiality, insights into Beuys, and eventual focus on death. Though I have to struggle to visualize these, their physical expression of ideas and emotions is at the cutting edge of verbal theatre.
While none of these plays is as startling as Michel Tremblay's Hosanna or as moving as Kent Stetson's Warm Wind in China, they begin to build a gay repertory, half-apart from the mainstream, and represent a stage in the process of trying to understand the many meanings of "gay."
Colin Thomas's "Flesh and Blood" is aimed at secondary schools and backed by study guides; so too is Dennis Foon's Mirror Game (Blizzard, 63 pages, $10.95 paper). We need an account of the rise of seriousness in theatre for young people over the last 20 years, and the decline of fairy tales and participation-for-its-own-sake. Foon is central to this phenomenon, taking on crucial topics with a sense of fun and of theatre (here, parents are seen only as shadows; technically, Mirror Game is a huge advance on Gowan's treatment of day care 40 years earlier). Foon's piece features pairs of boys and girls, three likeable and one tough; the issue is the cycle of abuse, and Foon shows effectively how they are shaped by parents who hit them, neglect them, put them down. Mirror Game bolsters self-esteem and prompts debate, and should be seen in every high school in the country.
I am glad to have Dave Carley's two-hander Writing with Our Feet (Blizzard, 61 pages, $10.95 paper) in print (it's noteworthy mostly for the chance for a tour de force from an actress in five roles), but it seems modest when measured against the work of George Walker and Judith Thompson.
Walker's Escape from Happiness (Coach House, 127 pages, $12.95 paper) has a convoluted story-line that asks who beat up a young man, and who planted bags of drugs in a basement, and why, grafted on to a portrait of a mixed-up family. Walker's strength is in quirky language and humour in unexpected contexts. This time, though, I found diminishing returns from his weirdos (Mary Ann making soup and rambling on about her therapist; the ex-alcoholic. husband in a blanket not accepted back; the improbable woman lawyer whose sexuality is improbably discussed; the new-style woman cop rivalling the traditional policeman) and, besides, I had been here before, in Better Living, Criminals in Love, and others.
Judith Thompson uses equally distinctive speech in Lion in the Streets (Coach House, 64 pages, $9.95 paper). Her concept is audacious - a nine-year-old Portuguese girl journeys, after her death, through the purgatory of our urban society, observing infidelity, a confessional, even a day-care meeting, while coming to understand her own situation. Fearsome lions are in the city, and lurk in the forests of our minds - but finally forgiveness, then ascent to paradise, is possible. This disturbing, surprising drama is of a new kind, towards which Daniel MacIvor and others strive, and of which Elsie Park Gowan never dreamed.