THERE WAS A TIME when a package of 24 plays published in Canada could be expected to have few surprises, mixing regional realism with perhaps a few slice-of-life portraits of the downtrodden and a dash of documentary. The present review package is exhilaratingly heterogeneous and resists easy generalisations, except insofar as it exemplifies the output of an impressive array of drama publishers.
Monique Mojica's half-hour play, Birdwoman and the Suffragettes, was produced by CBC Radio for the 1991 "Vanishing Point" series "Adventure Stories for Big Girls," and has now been published with her Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots (Women's Press, 86 pages, $11.95 paper). Birdwoman and the Suffragettes attempts to reclaim for Native women the story of Sacajawea, a guide on the Lewis and Clarke expedition, from the dubious honours now being bestowed upon her. "If you remember me," the character intones as she struggles to break from the bronze confines of a statue raised to commemorate her,
remember a child fighting to stay alive
remember a slave girl gambled away
remember a mother protecting her child
remember a wife defying the whip
remember an old one who loved her people
remember 1 died at home on my land.
Mojica's revisioning of the stereotypes of Native women in Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, although not always easy to follow on the page, is a challengingly disjunctive and ultimately visionary play. It is based on "transformations" rather than scenes, invokes changes rather than linear growth or development, and incites Native women to become "word warriors" and "fashion [their] own gods out of [their] entrails."
Mojica was a prominent participant and proponent of Native issues at the Second International Women's Playwrights Conference held in Toronto in 1991, for which the six plays in Airborne: Radio Plays by Women (Blizzard, 155 pages, $14-95 paper) were commissioned by "Morningside Drama." The collection is edited and competently introduced by Ann Jansen. The scripts in Airborne are unusual in that half of them are by non-Canadians, and all of them are by women. They include Te Pouaka Karaehe: The Glass Box, an exploration of cultural assimilation by the part-Maori New Zealander Renee; Mussomeli-Dusseldorf, an unpretentious "trip-logue" about a modem daughter and her old-world mother by Italy's Dacia Maraini (translated by Margaret Hollingsworth); and That's Extraordinary!, a clever but cartoon-like satire of media exploitation by the Argentinian playwright and cartoonist Diana Raznovich (translated by Rosalind Goldsmith). The Canadian offerings are White Sand, a chilling evocation of racism in Toronto by Judith Thompson, who has made an art form out of "duelling monologues"; Venus Sucked In by Ann Chislett, which contains the telling line, "if women in the nineties want to get ahead ... they better not act like my mom. They should act like my dad instead"; and The Making of Warriors, in which Sharon Pollock, a white writer sensitive to the cultural appropriation controversy, experiments intriguingly with a kind of contrapuntal form in an attempt to explore the links between slavery, feminism, and Native rights.
The other volume of "Morningside Dramas," Take Five (Blizzard, 229 pages, $14.95 paper), edited and introduced by Dave Carley, includes an equally diverse group of five plays, in which Timothy Findley's meta-narrative adaptation of Chekhov, Love and Deception, rubs shoulders with the vibrant and engaging storytelling of Richardo Keens-Douglas's Once Upon an Island; and the clever but ultimately rather silly satire of Thomas Lackey's The Skid is juxtaposed with Arthur Milner's serious social drama, The City, which concerns municipal politics and neighbourhood protectionism. The other play in the collection is Mary Bums's sensitive Yukon Quintette, an adaptation of five northern stories Of solitude, desperation, and need. Each of the "plays" in the volume deals differently with the challenges and constraints of the unusual format of "Morningside," in which a script is broadcast in five 15 -minute slots over a Monday-to-Friday period. The best of the group, Love and Deception, simply ignores the problem and relies on the reputation of its author to ensure that the broadcast rules are bent; the least interesting, The Skid, employs an episodic structure that fits the form perhaps too well. But part of the interest in reading the collection is to watch the writers struggle with a form that doesn't always sort well with their purposes.
Two of the volumes under review include reissues of scripts that are already of some historical interest. NeWest Press presents three previously published plays by Ken Mitchell under the title Rebels in Time (281 pages, $12.95 paper), edited by Don Kerr and Diane Bessai, with new introductions by the playwright; and Nuage Editions is republishing Allan Stratton's well-known historical farce Rexy in a volume entitled Canada Split (168 pages, $12.95 paper), which also includes Stratton's recent play, A Flush of Tories, as well as a generous introduction by Ann Saddlemyer. Both Stratton plays deal satirically with past prime ministers; but the complexity of Rexy, based on the wartime diaries of Mackenzie King, serves mainly to expose the shallowness of A Flush of Tories, which attempts to use the 1889-1895 struggles of successive Tory governments with Manitoba language rights to comment on current issues. What comment the play is making, however, isn't very clear.
Ken Mitchell also uses history to comment on the present in Rebels in Time. The gathering together of Davin: The Politician, Gone the Burning Sun, and The Great Cultural Revolution in one volume is logical and welcome, and it draws attention to the central preoccupations in Mitchell's writing for the stage. Each of these plays is competently written and constructed (in spite of occasional lapses, as when the "fiery feminist" addresses the aspiring politician in Davin, saying "Nicholas! Will you ever love a woman the way you love a crowd?"); and each centres around a questing but self-destructive historical rebel, an individualist "hero" whom Mitchell presents as virtually indistinguishable from a contemporary Christian humanist. This may be seen as a disservice to or misrepresentation of Norman Bethune or Wu Han, the central characters of Gone the Burning Sun and The Great Cultural Revolution, who might also object to the plays' privileging of the personal and individual over the political. But then that's the advantage of the history play, where accuracy is optional and the thrill of rebellion against safely distanced tyrannies can comfortably combine with the reassuring sense that times have changed.
Playwrights Canada continues to issue plays in an attractive trade-paperback format. The present package includes John Lazarus's linked one-actors, Homework & Curtains (55 pages, $9.95 paper), the first a father-son play about generation gaps in the '60s and '90s, and the second a very evocative mother-son drama at the mother's deathbed. Lazarus's plays are neither linguistically evocative nor structurally innovative in any major way, but they're always apt, clever, and functional. Something similar may be said about the quiet, sensitive, and unpretentious two-hander Patches (Playwrights Canada, 55 pages, $9.95 paper), by Robert More. Here we witness the friendship, based on quilting and needlework, of two older women, one of Ukrainian and one of Scottish background. Playwrights Canada's third offering is Sally Clark's The Trial of Judith K (119 pages, $9.95 paper), a farcical feminist revisioning of Kafka that is both more ambitious and less successful than Homework & Curtains or Patches, by an important playwright who is clearly trying to stretch herself and push at the boundaries of both sexual politics and dramatic representation.
The last two plays considered here are perhaps the most interesting of the bunch - along with Monique Mojica's Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots - precisely because they more successfully stretch those same boundaries. Robin Fulford's Steel Kiss (Blizzard, 70 pages, $10.95 paper), about adolescent heterosexual male bonding and homophobia, doesn't quite work because its point seems somewhat simplistic. But as a political play inspired by the real-life murder of a man in Toronto's High Park in 1985, it attempts intriguingly to link docudrama with an earthy kind of theatrical impressionism - to promote change by offering alternative ways of seeing and understanding.
As Joyce Nelson points out in her excellent introduction to Daniel Brooks and Guillermo Verdecchia's The Noam Chomsky Lectures (Coach House, 94 pages, $9.95 paper), this "meta-theatrical explication" is a risky, intelligent, witty, deeply ethical "effort to be conscious and accountable," a work in continual process because it is revised for each performance in order to respond to current issues. Most important, it is a work that in its politically committed interrogation of politics and the media, and its vigorously innovative form, refuses to mystify its politics or condescend to the intelligence of its audience. A passage from the script may serve as both a summary of what The Noam Chomsky Lectures does, and an epilogue to this omnibus review:
I would like to say this: if the theatre is to survive, it must become something other than an expensive alternative to television. We are going to have to look at the world of the theatre without ideological or artistic blinders. And I'm not talking about the theatre of gentle psychological manipulation, or mature content, or three-dimensional characters. I'm talking about rolling up our sleeves, diving into the muck, taking a good, hard look at who we are and what we do and goddam the excuses.