(Drama Criticism)

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.