Study Guide

Sharon Pollock

Sharon Pollock Essay - Critical Essays

Pollock, Sharon

Introduction

Sharon Pollock 1936-

(Born Mary Sharon Chalmers) Canadian playwright and scriptwriter.

The following entry provides criticism on Pollock's dramatic works through 2001.

Pollock is considered one of Canada's most respected dramatists. She employs innovative staging and writing techniques, works in multiple genres, and creates fluid dialogue that conveys strong social messages about oppressive forces and those who struggle under oppression. She has won numerous awards, including Canada Council Governor General's Literary Awards in 1981 for Blood Relations (1980) and in 1986 for Doc (1984); the Alberta Writers Guild award in 1986; and the Alberta Literary Foundation award in 1987. A prolific writer, her plays have been produced on stage, television, and radio.

Biographical Information

Pollock was born on April 19, 1936 in Fredericton, New Brunswick; her father was a physician and politician, and her mother was a nurse. She was traumatized in her childhood by her mother's depression, alcoholism, and subsequent suicide. Her play Doc is a semiautobiographical account of this portion of her life. Pollock entered the University of New Brunswick in 1952, but left to marry Ross Pollock; although they had five children together, the marriage eventually failed. She directed and acted in semi-professional productions during the 1960s, and in 1971, while pregnant with her sixth child (with actor Michael Ball), she wrote her first play, A Compulsory Option. (1972) The play won the 1971 Alberta Playwriting Competition and started her career as a playwright. Throughout the 1970s, she wrote radio and television scripts, along with children's plays, but Pollock came to national attention with her second full-length play, Walsh (1973). Over the next decade, she briefly worked with Theatre Calgary (1976), was employed at the University of Alberta, Edmonton (1976-1981) as a visiting lecturer in the drama department, was the leader of the Playwrights' Colony at the Banff School of Fine Arts (1977-1979), worked as the playwright in residence for Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects (1977-1979), was a member of the National Theatre School advisory committee (1979-1980), served as the Chairman of the Arts Advisory Council (1978-1981), and was artist in residence at Ottawa's National Arts Center (1981-1983). In 1984, she was Theatre Calgary's artistic director but resigned after four months due to administrative differences. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick in 1986, and became the artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick in 1988, but resigned after two years, asserting that artistic integrity was more important than financial gain. In 1993, Pollock started her own nonprofit, non-subsidized theater in Calgary, the Garry.

Major Works

As a playwright Pollock uncovers injustices and analyzes the causes and the far-reaching effects of these issues. In Walsh, she attempts to shed light on a forgotten episode in Canadian history. The play focuses on the Canadian government's treatment of Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa Sioux who came to Canada in the 1870s, seeking sanctuary after their victory at Little Big Horn. The Sioux fought with the Loyalists during the American Revolution, and were awarded citizen status by the English crown. But in order to appease the United States, Canada refused to grant the Sioux sanctuary and forced them to return to their imminent capture at the United States-Canadian border. The title character, James A. Walsh, serves as an intermediary between the Canadian government and Sitting Bull. He develops a close understanding of and sympathy for Sitting Bull, but in the end, when his government forces him to betray his friendship with Sitting Bull, Walsh does, and in this capitulation betrays himself, becoming a shell of a man. In Pollock's The Komagata Maru Incident (1976) she again highlights an incident that may have been overlooked by the general populace. In 1914, a ship called Komagata Maru carried 376 East Indians to Vancouver. The Indians came because Canada boasted that its doors were open to any subject of the English crown. The Indians were denied entry, and their ship sat in the harbor for two months, creating strained racial tensions. The main character in this play, William Hopkinson, is of mixed heritage. He embraces his father's white heritage—even following in his footsteps to work for the government—but refuses to acknowledge his mother's heritage (she was Punjab). In the immigrants, he sees the very characteristics and “differences” that he is trying to suppress in himself. As in Walsh, as the situation progresses, he betrays the asylum seekers, and in doing so betrays himself, destroying himself in the process. Pollock changes the focus to feminine repression in Blood Relations, a revised work originally produced as My Name is Lisbeth (1976). Blood Relations' main character is Lizzie Borden, the woman charged with brutally murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892. Although acquitted, she is generally believed to have been guilty of the crimes. The play takes place ten years after the trial. Lizzie's lover, referred to by the name Actress, asks her if she did in fact commit the crimes. Lizzie sets up a scenario where Actress plays the part of Lizzie and Lizzie directs Actress through the days leading up to the murders. Victorian-era female oppression is prevalent throughout the scenes. Actress becomes immersed in her role, and begins to respond with the desperation and fear that must have haunted Lizzie's dictated existence. In the end, Actress cannot see any way out except murder, but as the curtain falls, the real Lizzie still won't confess. Ironically, Lizzie's acquittal came under the same double standard—it was inconceivable at the time to believe a woman would have enough courage, anger, and determination to carry out such a heinous crime. In Blood Relations Pollock illuminates a system which is so oppressive that kill-or-be-killed may be the only option. In Generations (1980), Pollock changes focus and writes about man's relationship to “THE LAND”, the vast expanse of prairie in Saskatchewan. She casts “THE LAND” as a character of mythical proportions, and chronicles the struggle of one family against “THE LAND”'s omnipotence. The adversities the family endures almost break it apart, yet ironically bind the family ties tighter. Pollock's fascination with the prairie continues in Whiskey Six Cadenza (1983). The play depicts southern Alberta society during Prohibition and casts a somber light of verisimilitude on determined lives under the onus of an arbitrary law. Pollock returns to the themes of paternal oppression and familial relationships in Doc. Her most autobiographical work to date, Doc emphasizes the feeling of non-identity and captivity experienced by women is oppressive society. The title character's name is Ev Chalmers—Pollock's physician father's name. After Ev is an established physician, his wife, Bob, wishes to continue her career in nursing, but Ev insists that she be content with being a doctor's wife, and sees no reason why Bob would want anything more in life. Ev is a caring physician and frequently spends extra time with his patients to insure their care, but at the cost of neglecting his family. Their daughter, Katie, is witness to the neglect, and watches her mother's decline into depression, alcoholism, and eventually suicide. The play features two actresses playing the part of the daughter—a young girl portrays Katie, and a woman portrays Catherine, as she calls herself in adulthood. Catherine attempts to reconcile with her past and with her father in order to heal her self spiritually. In Fair Liberty's Call (1995), Pollock continues to explore family tensions and returns to historical drama. The play centers on the Roberts family during the Revolutionary War. The father, George, fluctuates between loyalties to the English crown and the rebels—whichever seems to be more advantageous to him at the time. The oldest son, Richard, fights with the rebels. The second son fights with the loyalist and after his death, his twin sister Emily, renames herself Eddie and takes his place on the battlefront, dressed as a man. Through this renaming and re-gendering, Emily/Eddie is able to break away from the oppressive restrictions that women faced and gain her own independence. In Fair Liberty's Call, as in Walsh and The Komagata Maru Incident, Pollock strives to educate audiences about unknown and darker times in Canadian history and compels the audience to rethink their views of both the past and the present.

Critical Reception

Occasionally labeled a documentary, historical, or feminist playwright, Pollock crosses the boundaries that these labels impose. Her plays are considered complex in structure, frequently using nonlinear progression, and critics commend her experimentation with dramatic styles and genres. Commentators applaud her character development and her ability to realistically and compellingly capture an individual in the throes of a monumental inner struggle. Reviewers note that her earlier works are concerned with political and social issues whereas her most recent plays are more introspective and deal with women's issues and rights, and believe this signals her maturity as a dramatist.

Principal Works

A Compulsory Option 1972

Walsh 1973; revised 1974

New Canadians 1973

Superstition Throu' the Ages 1973

Wudjesay? 1974

The Happy Prince 1974

The Rose and the Nightingale 1974

Star-Child 1974

The Great Drag Race of Smoked, Choked, and Croaked 1974

Lessons in Swizzlery 1974

And Out Goes You 1975

The Komagata Maru Incident 1976; revised 1978

My Name Is Lisbeth 1976

Tracings—The Fraser Story [with others] 1977

The Wreck of the National Line Car 1978

Chautauqua Spelt E-N-E-R-G-Y 1979

Mail vs. Female 1979

One Tiger to a Hill 1980

Blood Relations 1980

Generations 1980

Whisky Six Cadenza 1983

Doc 1984; revised as Family Trappings 1986

Saucy Jack 1994

Fair Liberty's Call 1995

Portrait of a Pig 1973

The Larsens 1976

Ransom 1976

Country Joy [with others] 1979-1980

The Person's Case (originally titled Free Our Sisters, Free Ourselves) 1980

A Split Second in the Life of 1970

31 for 2 1971

We to the Gods 1971

Waiting 1973

Generation 1978

Sweet Land of Liberty 1979

Intensive Care 1983

The Making of Warriors 1991

Blood Relations and Other Plays (drama) 1981

Criticism: General Commentary

Malcolm Page (essay date fall 1979)

SOURCE: Page, Malcolm. “Sharon Pollock: Committed Playwright.” Canadian Drama (fall 1979): 104-11.

[In the following essay, Page details the storylines of a handful of Pollock's earlier plays, and considers the social and political motivations behind them.]

Sharon Pollock may be an under-estimated writer because, of her numerous works, only Walsh (Talonbooks) and The Komagata Maru Incident (Playwrights Co-op) are readily available—for the fact (sometimes the accident) of publication remains important in establishing the stature of a playwright. Further, Pollock identifies with alternative rather than mainstream theatre, telling an interviewer: “I...

(The entire section is 3945 words.)

Robert C. Nunn (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Nunn, Robert C. “Sharon Pollock's Plays: A Review Article.” Theatre History in Canada 5, no. 1 (spring 1984): 72-83.

[In the following essay, Nunn appraises Pollock's plays published together in Blood Relations and Other Plays. Nunn concentrates on the oppressive forces that assault Pollock's characters, the decisions these characters make while under oppression, and the results the decisions have on the rest of their lives.]

Sharon Pollock has been writing for the stage, radio and television for more than ten years. Although her television and radio plays are not readily accessible, a survey of those of her stage plays which are available (and...

(The entire section is 5601 words.)

Diane Bessai (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Bessai, Diane. “Sharon Pollock's Women: A Study in Dramatic Process.” In Amazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing, edited by Shirley Newman and Smaro Kamboureli, pp. 126-36. Edmonton: Longspoon/Newest, 1986.

[In the following essay, Bessai analyzes Pollock's addressing of feminist, social, political, and familial issues in her works, and surveys Pollock's experimentation with dramatic techniques to convey her message.]

At a summer 1985 conference in Toronto on Women's issues in the theatre, Rina Fraticelli cited playwright Sharon Pollock (along with the American Joanne Akalaitis and British Caryl Churchill) as representing ‘the distinct female...

(The entire section is 6800 words.)

Reid Gilbert (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Reid. “Sharon Pollock.” In Profiles in Canadian Literature. 6, pp. 113-20. Toronto: Dundurn Press Limited, 1986.

[In the following essay, Gilbert provides an overview of Pollock's plays, offers insights recurring themes and styles in her works, and comments on Pollock's evolution as a playwright.]

Since 1974, when Walsh brought Sharon Pollock to national attention, critics have tended to generalize her work as documentary, seeing it as another example of a style which, in various expressions, has dominated Canadian theatre, particularly through the last fifteen years. In this view, her plays are often seen as examinations of historical evils...

(The entire section is 5388 words.)

Diane Bessai (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Bessai, Diane. “Women Dramatists: Sharon Pollock and Judith Thompson.” In Post-Colonial English Drama: Commonwealth Drama since 1960, pp. 97-117. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Bessai expounds upon the feminist aspects of Pollock's Blood Relations, Whiskey Six Cadenza, and Doc.]

PROLOGUE

In Canada the fortunes of women playwrights, like those of their male counterparts, are reflected in the struggle for an indigenous Canadian drama on the Canadian stage. Only in the past fifteen years or so can it be truly said that Canadian plays have found an equitable place on that stage. However, in each...

(The entire section is 4502 words.)

Anne Nothof (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Nothof, Anne. “Crossing Borders: Sharon Pollock's Revisitation of Canadian Frontiers.” Modern Drama 38, no. 4 (winter 1995): 475-87.

[In the following essay, Nothof presents three examples (Walsh, The Komagata Maru Incident, and Fair Liberty's Call) in which Pollock blends historical documentation with fictional embellishments to refute the commonly held belief that Canadian history is lacking in controversy and has no issues of immigration double standards or racial discrimination.]

Sharon Pollock's “history plays” are essentially iconoclastic, deconstructing comfortable assumptions about the growth of the Canadian nation and the peaceful...

(The entire section is 5645 words.)

Rosalind Kerr (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Kerr, Rosalind. “Borderline Crossings in Sharon Pollock's Out-Law Genres: Blood Relations and Doc.Theatre Research in Canada 17, no. 2 (1996): 200-15.

[In the following essay, Kerr analyzes Blood Relations and Doc to reveal the correlation between Pollock's use of non-traditional theater styles and techniques with her plays about women who break from their traditional roles in a patriarchal society.]

Sharon Pollock's well-known plays, Blood Relations and Doc, can be read as “out-law genres” by extending the criteria which Caren Kaplan has outlined to designate women's renegade texts to theatrical...

(The entire section is 5370 words.)