In Morris Panych's Vigil, a man shows up at a decrepit old house ostensibly to attend to his old, dying aunt, but from the first terse scene to the wordless final tableau in this macabre two-act black comedy, comedy resonates in dark salvos. Kemp more than looks forward to old Grace's death; he urges it insistently, discussing organ donation, the signing of her will, estate auctions, funeral music, and a proper eulogy-all while she knits silently or listens to his often caustic cynicism and confessions of loathing and nausea.
Kemp virtually stalks Grace, and his small acts of kindness (such as his feather-dusting or the serving of butterscotch pudding) are underlined by a savage pleasure at her imminent death. Some lines are exquisitely phrased gems of black comedy: "I'm concerned about your health these past few days. It seems to be improving." "Not being a Catholic, I had no idea that misery and self-loathing could actually be a religion." "I have no sexuality at all as it turns out. It's my one saving grace. No one has to rely on my body for pleasure. Not even me." They sound like Joe Orton, but the momentum is too simple for his frenetic farce. One suspects that had Grace turned into a corpse before the surprising twist in the plot, Kemp would have joked about her human remains.
Panych has the ability to write from within Kemp's deadpan predicament as he keeps vigil by the woman who turns out not to be his real aunt. The brazen idiom and the exposure of deep-set passions turn his apologies, abstractions, and attacks into absurd misfirings with a twist of self-vulnerability. Kemp finally sees reality, but by then he is a comic victim of his own emptiness. But his vulnerability has a tenderness, because as entrepreneur of his own nausea, he must give up on varnished wisecracks and accept his own solitude.
Vigil demonstrates how Canadian stage humour is becoming more verbal and less physical. Perhaps this is a logical development in keeping with the greater education and selfconsciousness of Canadian audiences. (A similar change has been noted in American stage comedy by Woody Allen, Wendy Wasserstein, and Christopher Durang, which, on the whole, is far less kinetic than, say, Neil Simon's or George S. Kaufman's.) In the '60s and '70s our clichéd anxiety-neurosis turned us irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and parochial, but a new cultural confidence has since allowed writers of comedy (John Murrell, Jason Sherman, Peter Eliot Weiss) to polish their wit. Myths of defeat still prevail, but dread has acquired an elegance to hold in check its excesses. As Vigil demonstrates, charming buffoonery has been replaced by witty agony, and this agony is both a burden in its warped self-absorption and a blessing in its risible self-abuse.
To move from Panych to Wendy Lill is to go from subversive comedy to regional portentousness. Lill's The Glace Bay Miners' Museum, an adaptation of Sheldon Currie's novel of the same name (which was the source for the film Margaret's Museum) is a memory play bred on the type of Canadian selfconsciousness that reached a peak in the '60s and '70s with the advent and growth of the alternative theatre movement. Its historical, political, and regional references give it credibility, but its documentary actuality is of a different sort from the kind that once characterized the "agitprop" and deeply political works of Paul Thompson, George Luscombe, Martin Kinch, Rick Salutin, and George Ryga. For one thing, the documentary aspect is literal (characters quote from diaries, letters, and ballads), but while there is some sense of a community portrait of Cape Breton miners and their pinched, afflicted families, Lill's impulse is towards creating a sentimental drama with a peculiar love story at its core, rather than focusing on an ill-fated miners' strike which had terrible repercussions on their families.
Neil Currie, a large, wandering musician, returns from war service to paltry options: the coal pit (which has absolutely no appeal to him) or relief (which he proudly rejects). Neither farmer nor miner, he does not fit into the community, his only talent being the ability to make squealing noise on his bagpipes and to compose romantic ballads. He falls in love with Margaret MacNeil, a coal miner's daughter and herself a bit of a peculiar thing, with a runny nose, sexual appetite, vulgar diction, and a scrappy disposition. She is particularly antagonistic towards her younger brother Ian, primarily because he isn't quite like their elder brother, Charlie Dave, who died in a mining accident along with their father. The MacNeils are an odd family. Grandpa cannot speak without suffering agonizing pain on account of diseased lungs. He has to be thumped occasionally, lest he choke to death, so the best he can do is communicate by writing in a scribbler. Margaret's mother, Catherine, is quicker with criticism than with praise. And Ian, tired of being a pit "pony", becomes a union leader who organizes a doomed strike, though his beloved is the boss's daughter.
There is no palpable future for any of the characters, and this pessimism is underscored by Neil's comment on the family history of dispossession: "Came here and lost their tongues, their music, their songs. Everything but their shovels." Despite some coarse levity and moments of lyrical beauty and tenderness-particularly in Neil's wooing of Margaret and her reminiscences of certain events in her family history-the play is shadowed by failure and death. The strike fails, as the boss and Neil had forewarned, and Margaret, after losing both her husband and her younger brother in yet another mining disaster, ends the play with a macabre ritual: she preserves parts of their bodies in formaldehyde jars in her private "museum".
The play thrives on effluences of place and folklore, deriving much of its dialogue and incidents from Currie's novel, but it diffuses its effects. The novel is narrated throughout by Margaret, and her story allows certain subsidiary figures better character development than does any of the play's monologues. Lill's play loses the impact of the beached whale episode, which the novel turns into a poignant epiphany by drawing a connection between the cruelly tormented creature that was "just trying to live its life" and Grandpa's notebooks, which testify to a people's similar attempt to survive marginally.
Lill's play ultimately does not exploit its bond between theatre and audience because it remains sentimental and conventional, rooted in a narrow perspective of folk heroism. The playwright appears to believe that Ian's naive heroism in union politics, Neil's cultural wisdom and pastoral sensibility, and Margaret's passions are enough to show how common people can be noble in their attempts to change things. But Lill's limited technical resources and didactic ambition cramp the material, so that instead of expanding the neuroses of its characters into a hallucinatory adventure, the play settles for an almost narcotic nostalgia.
Lill's failure is magnified when her play is examined in the company of Michel Tremblay's Marcel Pursued by the Hounds. Margaret's "museum" in Lill's play is merely grotesque because its source in her psyche is not explored; the hounds in Tremblay's play are not simply real dogs or a slang word for "cops": they are Furies (materializing from his memories) that torment the maddened title character. They also represent the subversive energies and pangs of conscience that prey upon the soul of his elder sister, Thérèse. Brother and sister have an unnatural closeness. Each is the bearer of a dreadful secret and each is haunted in adult life by the dangers of these secrets. Tremblay's protagonists (to borrow a phrase from Erich Auerbach) are "fraught with background"; this is a sordid working-class Québécois background, rife with melodrama.
Tremblay's play is an extended sequence of dialogues, but what transforms it from melodrama or soap opera into drama with tragic resonances is the playwright's ability to deploy his milieu, language, and characters within a classical structure. Tremblay is famous for his mixture of modes: Aeschylean choral tragedy, Shakespearean soliloquy, Beckettian absurdism. Often, as in Bonjour, là, bonjour and Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, the austere, ceremonious structure is diluted by melodramatic elements, but in Marcel, classical structure and symbolism retain their efficacy as Tremblay's monologues provide a driving force.
Setting is kept deliberately abstract. This is not explicitly an urban or rural play. The action takes place on "a bare stage before an immense sky", and this open emptiness suggests the cosmic dimension. As in Greek tragedy, there are no seasons, for the fates are not bound by time. Marcel's cries of despair and Thérèse's spasms of violence are visceral reactions to the division between them and the cruel world. The only palpable gods are the seats of passion.
Real tragedy, however, requires heroic decorum, and this is missing. Marcel and Thérèse have too many resemblances to other Tremblay protagonists (some of the symbols are also repeated from earlier plays), and they are too much creatures of their nasty family background. They both have buried childhood selves, although Marcel's surface is disquieting as well. The characters are enlarged by madness and revenge, and hallowed by suffering. Where the Greek gods punished entire cities and not single families alone, Tremblay particularizes and magnifies family history. Marcel returns to the older women who had once reared him before his rebellion and who eventually comfort and support him in his final delusion of inviolate peace.
Where Tremblay is able to expand the contours of his characters and their situations so that they acquire mythic resonance, Mark Leiren-Young exploits the mythology of Shylock to yield little more than an absorbing discursive argument against censorship. Shakespeare has always been a dangerous playwright for simple-minded commissars of political correctness, cultural appropriation, and gender stereotyping, who have continually sought to "purify" or stifle some of his plays that are at odds with their agendas. From Elizabeth I to various artistic directors at Stratford, Ont., from Rymer and the Bowdlers to Mao's Gang of Four and certain North American feminists, Shakespeare has been altered, abridged, diluted, condemned, or prohibited. If there is a single play that pulls this history of censorship into focus, it is surely The Merchant of Venice, which seems to thrive on its own cruelties. A daughter betrays her father; a mercantile society reviles a minority sect; a harsh victim is forced to submit to a harsher system of justice. But The Merchant's psychological ambiguities and subtle moral currents combine with modes of satire and romantic comedy to magnify a metaphor far beyond the factual reality it represents.
As the director John Juliani notes in a preface, Leiren-Young's conceit is "simple and disarmingly straightforward": Jon Davies, the actor portraying Shylock, decides to address his audience after the last performance of the production. As he gradually removes his makeup, he is meant to strip away illusions and delusions about Shylock, Shakespeare, and the relationship between art and community. But the play has less art than it should, for the mediation of academic and technical content (including the playwright's introduction, an academic essay, and a preface by the director) call into question the text's confidence in itself. Moreover, the brief script (really an extended monologue with direct Shakespearean quotation, didactic argument, and ancillary anecdotes and digressions) has weaknesses of its own. Leiren-Young's perspective on Shylock is simplistic: it correctly rejects the stereotypes of "ethnic fool" and "wounded Jew", but in settling for a villain forced to withstand assaults of history, the playwright narrows the character instead of allowing him to be an anomaly-such as are many of Shakespeare's great characters.
His perspective on Shakespeare is more problematic. He doesn't go so far as to call Shakespeare an anti-Semite (as Davies does), because, then, by the surface evidence of other plays, he would be forced to call Shakespeare a Moor-hater, an inveterate cynic, a raving Protestant, a British jingoist, etc. But because he lets the actor Davies speak for him-especially when it comes to lampooning theatre academics and rabid audiences-he seems to be in love with Shakespeare more for the stories than for the dramatic poetry or the characters who transcend all propaganda or fashions of the day.
A problem with propaganda-and Shylock is clearly that-is that it chills the air which art stirs. But Sally Clark's Saint Frances of Hollywood attempts to whip up propaganda about an ephemeral figure of minority cult status. Frances Farmer's only lasting screen glory was in Come & Get It (1936), where her brassy saloon singer can be seen as a precursor of Dietrich's Frenchy in Destry Rides Again. Physically alluring, with "a special glow, a skin without flaw, lustrous eyes-a blonde you'd dream about" (according to Elia Kazan, who acted opposite her in Harold Clurman's production of Golden Boy)-she was a mere beginner as an actress, both on stage and screen, yet temperamentally she was as difficult as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Margaret Sullavan all rolled into one. But her fierce individuality cannot be sanctified without sacrificing truth or distorting the dimensions of mythic drama.
Much thicker in its texture and substance than the screenplay of the 1982 Jessica Lange film version, Clark's play is nonetheless burdened by its own problems. It is a drama of perverse volition which encompasses Farmer's life from her Seattle adolescence to her mental breakdown and raging death from cancer; her life is delineated as one of embattled passion. Variously denounced as a Communist, whore, alcoholic, egomaniac, and madwoman, she was part victim of a controlling, abusive, eccentric mother who catalysed her eventual paranoid schizophrenia, and part martyr to her own deliberate violence and extremism.
Clark casts Frances Farmer as a modern "unrecognized saint" for defying her parents, Seattle's puritan values, the Hollywood star system, vicious gossip columnists, callous psychologists, and primitive neurologists who lobotomized her, forcing her into a religiose echolalia ("I'm a faceless sinner").
Played in two acts with fluent transitions of time and place (there is only one blackout), the drama uses monologues and surreal hallucinations to express the demi-world of penumbral psychic reality, but it inflates its heroine without doing justice to other characters. There are no male figures who refrain from contaminating, exploiting, or subjugating Frances. Unlike Farmer's harrowing autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning?, the play engages in special pleading; consequently it does not ascend to the heights of tragedy. In glorifying the actress's self-defeating will-power, it allows her choices to presage her chaos too clearly. Moreover, the play treats its own drama as if it were religion, blurring radical distinctions between the two forms and diluting the effects of the drama by a wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Saint Frances, like The Glace Bay Miners' Museum, cultivates an awareness of recurring patterns of loss and destruction in a fairly modern milieu, but, like Lill's play, it fails to bring us closer to myth. I realize that "myth" has become an all-inclusive word in modern criticism, but I use it to signify a story with a large controlling image that gives some meaning to the facts of ordinary or extraordinary life. Saint Frances does have pronounced symbolic motifs and it does call attention to the dark places in which myth can grow into a passionate view of reality, but there is no real end to agony and indignity. Mythic drama can certainly be much more than I have suggested here, but it cannot be less than what I claim for it.
Keith Garebian has written ten books, seven of them on theatre. He is working on a memoir.