Whylah Falls: The Play|
by George Elliott Clarke
The Baby Blues
by Drew Hayden T
The Tale Of Teeka
by Michel Marc Bou
by George Elliott C
Post Your Opinion
|Settling The Score
by Cynthia Sugars
The essence of a concert recital is its ephemerality. It is fated to remain etched in the listener’s inner ear as an intangible memory, never to be precisely recalled. After all, no performance will ever be exactly the same as another. This was a phenomenon that obsessed Glenn Gould. How to make manifest the perfect moment—and how to preserve it for posterity.
This, of course, is also the experience of theatre, and is part of what draws the audience to the live performance: the actors’ presence on stage thrills even as it discomforts, as though one were a voyeur to what one should not really be privy to. David Young’s Glenn consciously plays on this elision between music and theatre, performance and text. As the perfectionist Gould expresses it in Young’s play: “who is to say that on this night at this particular piano we are going to hear this performer’s definitive rendering of the work in question?” Who is to say, moreover, that we are to get a glimpse of the real Glenn Gould? Instead, Young shows us something far more profound: the world of the psyche, with all its internal fluidities and contradictions externalized.
Originally performed in 1992, Glenn has been republished by Coach House Press with new introductory material, well timed to coincide with the acclaimed performance of Glenn at last summer’s Stratford Festival. The structure of the play, like the 1993 film, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, parallels the form of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Not only is it broken into thirty-two scenes, but the action of each scene mimics the movement of the variation with which it coincides, with contrapuntal voices and chase-game melodies. Add to this the fact that Gould himself began and ended his recording career with the Variations, and you have a play constituted as a mise-en-abyme of structural virtuosity.
This is a play about how the intensity of the moment constantly eludes us, how it lies always beyond our grasp. The attempt to capture it is perhaps what constitutes the pursuit of the artist; the impossibility of that attempt may be what fragments even the most control-obsessed individual. In one sense, the entire action of the play takes place inside Gould’s head. Four characters play different aspects of his psyche, the embodiment of his obsessions and fears realized on stage. But in another sense, each character is also playing each of the others, circling around the others, addressing them, avoiding them, until Glenn Gould the man becomes more vivid to us the less we are able to pin him down—very like the theatre (and concert) performance itself.
The young prodigy Gould cannot say where he is or where he’s going; the later Gould cannot say where he’s been. All that any of the Goulds is certain of are the silences and spaces within the scores. Sadly, the one thing missing from a reading of this magnificent play is the music, for it is performed against a background of Gould’s recordings. Like Gould, to hear all of the silences here, you need the variations.
George Elliott Clarke’s work is also infused with musical strains—from his first collection of poetry, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (1983), to his recent forays into drama. Two recent plays by Clarke emphasize the importance of poetry and music to the power of theatre.
First performed as an opera in 1998, Beatrice Chancy is Clarke’s blues libretto of slavery in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia, just around the time when the influx of the Black Loyalists was putting the institution of slavery seriously into question. The play is loosely based on the real-life account of Beatrice Cenci, a sixteenth-century Italian woman who murdered her abusive father. The story of the demise of the Cenci family was infamous for years after; indeed, it so fascinated Percy Shelley that he was himself compelled to turn it into a verse drama in his 1819 play, The Cenci.
Clarke has resurrected this lineage to new effect. Beatrice Chancy is successful in exploring the ambivalence of violence as a response to oppression. Set in the Annapolis Valley in 1801, the play is a tragedy that follows the trials of Beatrice, mulatto daughter of land-owner Francis Chancy who rapes her in an attempt to reassert his increasingly tenuous authority. Together with her lover, Beatrice sets out to murder her father—a sort of last bid for freedom which takes her to the gallows.
Clarke’s treatment of Beatrice is exemplary, for her half-black/half-white status is further complicated by the fact that her father has sent her to a convent school to receive the education befitting a lady of her class. However, when Beatrice uses this education to counter her father’s continued oppression of her and the other slaves (not to mention of his white wife), he lays down the law.
Written in verse, the play perhaps works better on paper than on stage, but it represents a powerful treatment of the generally unacknowledged history of the “Africadians”. As Clarke writes in his preface to the text, “I will never know the furthest origins of my African heritage. I do know that it was disrupted by a ship and ruptured by chains”. This, too, is the legacy of Beatrice herself.
Clarke’s Whylah Falls: The Play takes place in the same locale more than a century later. Based on Clarke’s 1990 collection of poetry of the same title, the play follows the tragedy in the Clemence family when their son is senselessly murdered through the machinations of the town’s leading politician (a 1930s descendent of Francis Chancy). A collation of blues songs and Baptist spirituals, poetry and daily idiom, Clarke brilliantly captures the sounds and soul of the community of Whylah Falls, the place to which our main characters return again and again, in spirit and in body. Complete with musical score, the lesson of the play is the power of song. Love (and poetry), the preacher tells his people, “is the only thing that can’t be oppressed”, a lesson that is revealed in the play through the triumph of love over pain: the pain of a lost son, the pain of a bad marriage, the pain of historical oppression. The play enacts Cora’s salving words to her daughter near the conclusion: “Truth never ages, wisdom never dates, and love never goes out of style”.
These lines might as easily be applied to Drew Hayden Taylor’s comic romp about the pow-wow circuit in central Ontario, The Baby Blues. And again, music plays a pivotal role—in this case, in a tale about those who suffer and sing “The Baby Blues” (musical score included) in their interminable quest for love. Much as Clarke does for Whylah Falls, Taylor is intent on capturing the spirit and joie de vivre of life on the reserve. Hoping, like Tomson Highway, to rectify the stereotype of Native stoicism, Taylor takes us through a “Native version of a British sex farce” that pokes fun at most of the politically-correct assumptions of our day: postcolonial theory, native traditions, community living. For non-Native readers interested in Native writing, this play is a must—if only for its discomforting but affectionate portrayal of the white woman who is “going Indian” at the pow-wow for reasons of her own.
Finally, I want to mention Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Tale of Teeka. Written as a play for young audiences, The Tale of Teeka is a moving and powerful drama of the legacy of child abuse—namely, how the experience gets reenacted as one moves down the hierarchical ladder. Performed as a dialogue between the child Maurice and his pet goose, Teeka (a puppet operated by the adult Maurice), the play takes us through the jungle fantasy world of a child whose daily life has itself become a jungle of indecipherable rewards and terrors. Set against the score of an approaching lightning storm, the silences between the sounds here testify to the failure of the imagination to overcome the pain of chronic abuse. As the adult Maurice states at the end of the play: “The storm still rages at the centre of my being”. The power of the performance is that the violence is merely hinted at—through Maurice’s playing at being Tarzan, through the sounds of an approaching storm, through Teeka’s observations of life on the farm—until the final crescendo when the game comes to a shocking and tragic end.
All theatre to some degree draws attention to the performativity of everyday life. These plays build on this effect through the unsettling silences in their musical and poetic scores. •
Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian Literature at the University of Ottawa.