In the prologue of Carole Corbeil's powerful, haunting second novel, the disembodied narrator's voice says, "The best stuff, my mother always said, happens `off-stage'. Remember this: a plot is a rumour set down. And this: fools and villains have the best lines." The voice is strong, lyrically deft-and bereft. We do not meet the narrator again until the epilogue, until after the voice has summoned back the ghosts of the incomplete plot that has doomed it to wander, mournful, chained to its past, made them climb onto the stage from their obscure realm of rumour, and reprise their roles-fools, villains, princes, and queens-and, through this liberating process, taken over, freed and joyful, as their rightful heir: their writer, director, and reviewer.
The voice is that of the child of Allan and Alice, lovers doomed to tragedy by their own ghosts, their rage at them, their inability to extricate themselves from the ill-fated scripts that have been handed down to them by their families and forced them to play out their lives in the dismal wings of their parents' unresolved misery. The structure that Corbeil has employed to frame the tormented story of the two lovers is an insightful, unsettling layering and expansion of the convention of a play within a play, moving seamlessly back and forth through time. Into it, in evocative prose-her beautiful use of water, as a river, or play, one is doomed to step into twice, or as a stew to be swum through, or as a clear surface reeking of poison when disturbed, for instance-and effortlessly believable dialogue, she weaves provocative examinations of love, abandonment, aging, religion, theatre, writing, reviewing, and-with lovely satire-what it means to be Canadian.
Allan and Alice-and the expertly plumbed minor characters who populate In the Wings-are mounting a production of Hamlet. Among many parallels between Shakespeare's tragedy and Corbeil's twist on it, Allan, like the figure of Hamlet whom he is playing, refuses to accept the circumstances of his father's death. Physically and emotionally, the young, princely Allan becomes the maddened, ruined Hamlet. Just as Shakespeare's Hamlet stages a court play to attempt to elicit the truth, Allan arranges a social drama in the stately Rosedale residence of his stepmother to force her hand. In such ways, Corbeil gives the reader many plays within many plays, the outcome of the contemporary story being strongly driven by the strength and magnificence of words written four hundred years ago. In essence, then, we are all cursed-and blessed-by what has come and gone before us.
It is in coming out of the wings, if, indeed, we are brave enough to make the necessary journey toward the light, that we are condemned or saved-ultimately frozen or freed. Otherwise, we live in psychological obscurity, not really knowing ourselves. Corbeil's characters force themselves and each other to face the stage-literal or metaphorical-taking emotional risks and enduring scrutiny. Only in this way, by peeling back layers of themselves in readiness to take on the personas they wish to become, can they really confront themselves. The bit players, in the story as on-stage and as in life-and everyone is a bit player in others' lives, just as everyone is centre-stage in their own-affect the outcome.
But Corbeil raises an additional, intriguing problem: which script to follow? Does Allan follow the script for Hamlet, and appear, fully realized, as his character? Does he follow the script that is embedded in his subconscious, and essentially orchestrate his own death? Isn't that what Hamlet does anyway? Wouldn't that be truer to the part? Or does he throw both scripts away, and, enlightened, move off to a different stage? Or, has the struggle of the voyage driven him truly mad? His child chooses to believe that Allan is still alive. Whether or not that is true, the child has broken free of the generational directive toward suicide.
The child-voice has conjured up its past, watched intensely as it played itself out, and exorcized its ghosts. Is that not why, at least in part, we go to the theatre, and read-to understand and come to terms with ourselves? Corbeil provides a persuasive argument for the enduring value of theatre, and the need for better arts funding. And she argues for Canada, and Canadian theatre, and Canadian writing-and Canadians-to come out of the wings. Alice, a Canadian, thinks to herself while in Los Angeles: ".the longer she stayed here, the more she saw how her identity had been built on scruples that owed their existence to the size of what it was possible to achieve in her country. It had been very easy, in other words, to refuse with smug self-regard what was not offered." Cambridge and Yale give validation and status to two utterly undeserving characters. One of them is Robert Pullwarden, the ridiculous, pathetic, voyeuristic, jealous, and finally destructive theatre critic. But he is the fool in Corbeil's wonderful book, and he has the best lines. I suppose, by association, in attempting to fathom another person's work, I qualify as a fool, too. But I believe Corbeil is also saying that the illuminating power of words should be celebrated. Her words soar on their wings. And I feel no risk in saying so.
Anne Steacy is a Toronto writer and director.