Sharon Pollock

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Anne F. Nothof (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Nothof, Anne F. “Gendered Landscapes: Synergism of Place and Person in Canadian Prairie Drama.” Great Plains Quarterly 18, no. 2 (spring 1998): 127-38.

[In the following excerpt, Nothof studies the differences between man's and womans relationship with the land. By evaluating Canadian plays including Pollock's Generations, Nothof suggests that man views the land as something to conquer and control, and land, as an entity, can destroy him; women, however, tends to notice the beauty and the bounty of the land, and try to conform and become one with it.]

In an attempt to realize the relationship of character and landscape, recent Canadian Prairie drama has moved beyond the confines of theatrical space through a metaphysical evocation of place and time. The prairies are configured as an imaginative projection of the human psyche, expressed through images that are themselves a reflection of an interaction of human and elemental forces. In the works of three women playwrights in particular—Gwen Pharis Ringwood's Mirage, Sharon Pollock's Generations, and Connie Gault's Sky and The Soft Eclipse, character has metonymic resonance: it is contiguous with place and time. The relationship with place is not confrontational but synergistic.

Typically, the male response to prairie landscape in earlier works of fiction by Robert Stead, Frederick Philip Grove, and Sinclair Ross, has been a posture of either triumph or defeat—a paradoxical configuration of vertical man in a horizontal landscape.1 Approached wholly as a masculine enterprise, the encroachment of man on the prairie environment has been defined by two things—solitude and an awareness of the surrounding emptiness: “The basic image of a single human figure amidst the vast flatness of the landscape serves to unify and describe Canadian prairie fiction” (p. ix). In his seminal essay “The Prairie: A State of Mind,” novelist and playwright Henry Kreisel similarly defines the relationship of man to the landscape as being that of an intruder: “Man, the giant-conqueror, and man, the insignificant dwarf always threatened by defeat, form the two polarities of the state of mind produced by the sheer physical fact of the prairies” (quoted on p. xi). Travel writer Edward McCourt also sees the relationship as paradoxical: “The Saskatchewan prairies [are] a world that persuades [man] to accept the fact of his own curious duality—that he is at once nothing and everything, at once the dust of the earth and the God that made it.”2 Struggle and conflict characterize a masculine perspective of human interaction with the land in early twentieth-century Canadian prairie fiction. In Wolf Willow (1955) by Wallace Stegner, the relationship is more ambivalent—both adversarial and nurturing:

Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don't get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don't escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.

It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones.3

This response of the “pioneer” to the land in the works of male fiction writers is perhaps as much a product of the time in which they were...

(This entire section contains 2333 words.)

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written as it is determined by the gender of the writers. However, the “transcendental” response of Sharon Butala inThe Perfection of the Morning (1994) suggests that a woman's inclination is to make connections with physical landscape and to evoke a spiritual geography: “And what about the end of the day when in the wash of golden light all blemishes fade and disappear and peace descends over the yellow grasses and the luminous sky? Then, too, there is such perfection that all desire for heaven is absorbed in the glowing, fragile plains, the radiant hills.”4 In the plays of three Canadian women written in the last two decades, there is at least an attempt at reconciliation with landscape, even a “merging” with landscape in a mystical sense. Sharon Pollock, Gwen Pharis Ringwood, and Connie Gault assume that character is “bred” by landscape. They dramatize the possibility and necessary of a synergistic relationship of people and environment. Their characters are survivors only insofar as they have not lived in opposition to the land or to each other.

In some respects, the prairie plays of these three women are expressions of their own interaction with a prairie landscape. The small prairie towns in Connie Gault's Saskatchewan are part of her personal history. Sharon Pollock has chosen to live in Calgary, Alberta, although she was born and grew up in the radically different landscape of New Brunswick, believing that “you aren't always born where you belong.”5

Similarly, in Sharon Pollock's prairie family history Generations, the land is cast as a dynamic “character” in the play. In her introduction to the play, she suggests that “in a sense, THE LAND is a character revealed by the light and shadow it throws on the Nurlins' lives. It has many faces, but Old Eddy sees it most clearly when he stands in the heat of summer or dead of winter in his southern Alberta back section watching the [sun] rise, and looking right across the expanse of Saskatchewan all the way to Winnipeg.”6 Pollock stipulates in her description of the setting that “There should be some sense of the omniscient presence and mythic proportion of THE LAND in the design,” but this proved to be impossible to realize on the stage for the premiere production in Canmore, Alberta, in 1980, and in the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, in 1981, particularly in combination with a “realistic” home interior, a kitchen with “all the usual accoutrements” (610). Critic Gina Mallet sarcastically points out the inadequacy of the set in her review of the Tarragon production in the Toronto Star:

Pat Flood has designed the small theatre as a prairie environment, the walls covered with canvas painted as blue sky with fleecy clouds, the playing space stretching up the auditorium's steps to the entrance of the theatre.

If the idea was to evoke the sense of infinite space, forget it. Watching a couple of actors crouched on the stairs, surrounded by the audience, does not give the impression of a vast prairie but of a conversation on a crowded city fire escape.7

Pollock indicates in the published description of the set that the passage of time during one day in the life of the Nurlin family be suggested by the change of light, from “the cold grey before dawn” to a rosy glow, then “a golden glow with the rising of the red ball of the sun,” which will be supplanted by “the clearer, purer light of day” (610). As does Ringwood, however, Pollock more successfully evokes the prairie through her portrayal of character and through the “enhanced dialogue.”8 It is in the persons of Old Eddy and his grandson David that the spirit of place is realized: they are defined by the land, it has imprinted them, and they have imprinted it. Old Eddy is characterized by critic Richard Perkyns in his introduction to the play as “an essential part of the inscrutable landscape.”9 As an early pioneer, Old Eddy has had to “wrestle and fight” with it, and in the struggle he has lost part of his hand in a threshing machine. He has also lost a wife and a son. But although he has approached the prairie as an adversary, it has over time become an integral part of his psyche; he misses nothing, taking in each day “like a dog” with a “subtle sniff of the air,” the “smallest swivel of the head taking in the environment” (614). Old Eddy sees his family, his friends, his community in terms of their relationship to the land in which he has invested his life.

His son, Alfred, has fulfilled, at first with some reluctance, Old Eddy's expectations that he continue to farm the land, persuaded only by his devastating experience of war in the trenches of France. Alfred's youngest son, David, has inherited the convictions of Old Eddy and assumes without any doubt that his life can be lived only in terms of the prairie. He joins his grandfather in the dark kitchen at the beginning of the play, as comfortable in the faint light before dawn as is Old Eddy, with no need for artificial light to find his way around his home. Between the two men is “a silence born of ease” (611). Although he becomes embroiled in political conflict over the price of grain and finds considerable resistance to this way of life from his girlfriend, Bonnie, David emerges “not changed—but confirmed in what he knew already but could not articulate.”10 Finally, however, forced to choose between marriage to a woman unsympathetic to farm life and his commitment to the land, he does attempt to express his symbiotic relationship with the environment:

Out there … is … something—I know it. Out there … is a feelin' … you don't get other places. Other places it's hidden in all the dinky scenery, but on the prairies it's just there. A power.

… Sure I could do some stupid job somewhere else, but when I'm standin' out there … well … there's just somethin' ‘bout a person standin' there on the prairies, everything else stripped away. It makes things simple.

(654)

The women in Generations have very different views of their relationship to the land. Bonnie can see only what it takes away, the high physical and psychological costs it exacts, and she chooses not to marry David, afraid that she will lose herself in the vast space of the prairie. She prefers a more “domestic,” orderly space. Margaret Nurlin has chosen to marry Alfred just because with him she can continue to live on the land, after her father had lost his farm during the Depression, and to participate in a project that is larger than any personal or individual endeavor could be. She challenges Bonnie's fear of losing herself as a kind of self-absorption: “Are you so special, so fine, so wonderful, there's nothin' bigger worth bein' part of? … Good … You be whole then, be complete, be self-sufficient. And you'll be alone. And in the end, you'll be lonely” (647). Sharon Pollock's plays frequently depict this conflict between individual needs and the larger issues that may subsume them. As she has explained in an interview, “I have a real interest in people who are willing sacrifices. On the other hand, it can't be a sacrifice to the person who does it.”11 Margaret's connection to the land could be interpreted as a loss of self, but the character compellingly interprets it as a fulfillment of self.

As in Mirage, the spirit of the land is also present in the First People: Charlie Running Dog, who at the age of eighty-one looks like some outcropping of arid land, is the first character to appear in Generations, standing near the remnants of the original Nurlin homestead, the “Old Place” where his people used to camp, with his back to the audience, in the “cold grey light before sunrise” (611)—a figure integral to the prairies before settlement. Like Old Eddy, he has experienced the devastating loss of a son, and like him, he is a survivor. The play begins and ends with the two “elders” as the sun rises on the prairie. Old Eddy's last words to Charlie are, “We're still here Charlie. Hell, we'll always be here” (655). As critic Cynthia Zimmerman points out, “Pollock grants this pair of ancestors a mythic, archetypal dimension. Representing endurance and proud continuity, they voice the play's optimistic conclusion.”12 Like Ringwood's “diviner,” Dowser, the mystics are “elders” whose long experience in living informs their vision.

Pollock's plays are never schematically simple, however. Ironically, it is through David's impulsive actions—in protest against what he perceives as unjust government policy—that the land is threatened: he fires a section of wheat, and the blaze is stopped only by a thunderstorm, which also brings much needed water to the dry prairie. The other threat comes from his elder brother, ironically named Young Eddy, since he does not inherit his grandfather's values, who wants to sell part of the land to finance his law career. Both young men are confronted and thwarted by Old Eddy: the acquisitive, selfish expectations of Young Eddy are denied and the land remains whole; the aggressive, self-destructive impulses of David are literally knocked out of him by his grandfather.

Notes

  1. Laurence Ricou has analyzed this dichotomy in Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973). Further citations to Vertical Man/Horizontal World are given in parentheses in the text.

  2. Edward McCourt, Saskatchewan (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), p. 224.

  3. Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow (Toronto: Macmillan, 1955), p. 8.

  4. Sharon Butala, The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 1995), p. 190.

  5. Suzanne Zwarun, “The Cats Came Back,” Western Living (September 1990): 31-33, quote at p. 32.

  6. Sharon Pollock, Generations in Major Plays of the Canadian Theatre, ed. Richard Perkyns (Toronto: Irwin, 1984), p. 609. Further citations to Generations are given in parentheses in the text.

  7. Gina Mallet, review of Generations by Sharon Pollock [Toronto Star], in Modern Canadian Drama and the Critics (rev. ed.), ed. L. W. Conolly (Vancouver: Talon books, 1995), p. 274.

  8. Judith Rudakoff and Rita Much, Fair Play: 12 Women Speak: Conversations with Playwrights (Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1990), p. 210.

  9. Richard Perkyns, introduction to Generations (note 21 above), p. 605.

  10. Robert Nunn, “Sharon Pollock's Plays: A Review Article,” Theatre History in Canada 5 (Spring 1984): 72-83.

  11. Robert Wallace and Cynthia Zimmerman, eds., The Work: Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights (Toronto: Coach House, 1982), p. 201.

  12. Cynthia Zimmerman, Playwriting Women: Female Voices in English Canada (Toronto: Simon and Pierre, 1994), p. 80.

Geeta Budhiraja (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Budhiraja, Geeta. “A Glimpse of Canada in India.” Canadian Theatre Review, no. 105 (winter 2001): 24-26.

[In the following essay, Budhiraja discusses a production of Generations in India and details how the Indian audience related to the Canadian drama.]

M.S. University Baroda, in the state of Gujarat, has the distinction of having produced two Canadian plays, Sharon Pollock's Generations and George F. Walker's Love and Anger. These productions were sponsored by the Indian Association of Canadian Studies (IACS), which has, from its inception, organized seminars and workshops on different aspects of Canadian studies, including multiculturalism, interdisciplinarity and postcolonialism. Comparative studies on Indian-Canadian works have also been popular themes because they facilitate establishing cultural and social similarities between the two countries. In the winter of 1994, the Center for Canadian Studies, M.S. University, organized a month-long workshop on drama. Professor Robert Fothergill (Department of Theatre, York University, Toronto) conducted a workshop in conjunction with directing a production of Sharon Pollock's Generations that ran only for a single performance, on the last day of the workshop.

Generations is a realist play about the struggle of a farm family and the resulting tension between its members. The conflicting values, which are the source of the tension, had clear appeal for an Indian audience, who could identify with a family in crisis. Further, the agrarian setting of the play also provided a point of identification for an Indian audience, despite the play's Canadian context. The central conflict of values (between the young and the old and between the ways of life in the country and the city) and the demands of farm life, particularly in the face of calamity—in this case, a drought—resonated with the Indian audience watching Pollock's play. Many had roots in the small towns of Gujarat but had migrated to the city, Baroda, in search of a better life. Hence, the play struck a chord with the audience. The sons' dilemma about whether to continue working on the farm out of loyalty to the family and its traditions or to move to the city was one which many in the audience had faced.

The set for the production was minimal, and might have seemed grossly out of place in a Canadian production, but added to the play's realism in India, where few agrarian families enjoy a lavish style of life. Farmers in India do not expect to have opulent homes. Basic furniture, a few kitchen implements and a smattering of potted plants adequately conveyed a farm kitchen. Lighting was used creatively to suggest not only the passing of time during the day but to indicate the vast expanse of prairie fields which stretched beyond the house. Lighting also created the fiery blaze of a grass fire and the intensity of lightning during a thunderstorm.

The show attracted good houses. The audience, mainly academicians, their families and friends, was homogeneous. Many members were familiar with the play as a script, and they clearly enjoyed seeing the script in production because they laughed appreciatively at its earthy humour. The support of the audience certainly helped the cast of relatively inexperienced actors, who gained confidence through the show, overcoming bouts of nervousness and stage fright. Seventy-five minutes later, the actors took their curtain call to thunderous applause from the audience who, appreciated this production of a Canadian drama in Baroda.

After the success of Generations, M.S. University Baroda hosted a three-day workshop on Canadian drama and theatre in January 1997. Professor Fothergill was invited to direct another play as the finale of the workshop. With a different but equally inexperienced group of actors from the ones who performed Generations, he presented Walker's Love and Anger, which had tremendous appeal for the audience. Like Generations,Love and Anger had only one performance. Again, the audience was mainly academics, students from the English Department, workshop participants, University staff, as well as friends and family of the cast. Because the audience was used to seeing Hindi movies and plays which deal with corruption in high places, the audience could identify with the plot of Love and Anger. Indeed, Hindi cinema in the 1990s had a plethora of offerings on corruption among lawyers, the police and government officials. The plot of Love and Anger was highly attractive. The Robin Hood-type hero was one with whom the audience could identify because this figure is a staple of Indian cinema. This anti-establishment hero holding a mock trial in which the accused is a sleazy newspaper editor who is exposed as an evil, corrupt person was received warmly by the audience. The farcical humour of the play also elicited a positive response, as did the wild energy of the scene in which the two women attack and wrestle the two men. The audience, who responded with cheers and whistles, was used to seeing its favourite screen idols grapple on screen in a similar manner, even if aggressive women don't have many precursors in Indian theatre. The enthusiasm of the audience suggested that this was a novelty which it relished. Although the scenographic elements of sets, lights and props were not up to the calibre that might be expected in professional theatre, they worked on a level other than technical excellence, creating an effective sense of the office of a deranged, out-of-work lawyer who devotes his time to the poor and marginalized of society.

Fothergill chose not to adapt the play to suit the tastes of an Indian audience. Given the cast, issues of race took on interesting valences. Sarah, the ex-psychiatric patient, claims that she is black. Played by a white actor, this amounts to a political statement in which she aligns herself with the oppressed. In India, where most people are darkskinned, this does not register as a truly political claim and so did not have the impact that it might have had in Canada.

As indicated, neither the production of Generations nor that of Love and Anger had any degree of sophisticated professionalism; yet both worked, not despite, but because of, the non-professional production values. Both plays resonated with the audience, partially because it could identify with the material and partially because the enthusiastic commitment of the cast, clearly inculcated by the director, was communicated to those watching. Part of the appeal of the productions was that Fothergill is a talented director who effectively drew out the latent talent of his inexperienced actors by infusing them with energy and commitment which conveyed the power of these plays and generated a chemistry between the performers and audience. Given that Robert Fothergill comes from a cultural background that is vastly different from that of the actors and technicians with whom he worked, not to mention the audience, the success of these two productions is a feat to be lauded generously.

This success might seem like a small achievement. After all, the plays did not attract the kind of audience that might go to commercial or traditional Indian theatre. Small and self-selecting though the audience might have been, the productions of Generations and of Love and Anger offered a glimpse into the Canadian way of life and both were appreciated. For this alone, I hope that a wider Indian audience is given the chance to see productions of Canadian plays.

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