Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808
SOURCE: "Mixing Spirits, Bingo and Genius," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, November 21, 1987, p. C5.
[In the following excerpt, Conlogue discusses The Rez Sisters within the context of Highway's life and culture.]
Tomson Highway has long black hair, worn straight and loose. There is no mistaking that he is a native person—he will even call himself an Indian, but the word is tongue-in-cheek nowadays—and his commitment to his heritage is profound. That much he has shown in a play called The Rez Sisters, which came out of nowhere last year to win the Dora award for best play.
The Rez Sisters is being remounted by Toronto's Factory Theatre. That's why, this particular afternoon, Highway is found sitting at the piano in the Factory Theatre's green room, basking in late autumn sunshine. He may have just happened to be there, but the image has the composed quality of an artist mindful of such things. In either case, it is dramatic: a black glossy piano and a black glossy mane of hair.
Highway embodies the customary contradictions of living in two worlds at once, native and white, but he embodies them with special intensity because, simply put, he is outrageously talented. He grew up speaking Cree, not learning English until his teens—but he speaks it now with a fluid and untrammelled eloquence. And although as a child on a Manitoba reserve, he witnessed privation and brutality of every kind, he exudes a startling serenity.
"Indisputably bad things happened to my people," he says. "But it's water under the bridge. Now we have to deal with it, cure it."
Highway, who is 28 years old, is deeply attached to the spirituality of his people. Their religion was badly battered by the traders and missionaries and battered worse by the move off the reserves to the white cities. But it survives nonetheless, and it underlies The Rez Sisters.
The play is set on Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay, which is a long way from Highway's home on a reserve in northern Manitoba. But it is a place he knows well; he moved there to start a theatre company after graduating from Western University.
One of the things that struck him, after having lived some years in the big white cities, was the way people in isolated communities give a mythical quality to their own lives. "Even in a few years, certain people's adventures become legends. Near where I lived on Manitoulin, there had been a lady who played bingo with such ferocity that she became the queen of bingo. She's dead now, but her spirit still hovers over the bingo hall." He smiles. He is not sanctimonious about these things. "It's a neat way of making your life more fun than it might have been."
Out of such stories, and the sense of fun underlying native culture—an idea he returns to frequently—Highway began to fashion the story of seven women on this reserve. The story focuses on a huge bingo game they have heard of, which is going to take place in Toronto. They set off on an epic journey to the Big City, which none of them has seen before. On their journey they are accompanied by a seagull, played by an actor; the bird embodies Nanabush, the trickster spirit at the core of native religion.
As the play develops, the story pushes out in several directions. Only two of the women can actually see the magical bird, one of them being a retarded girl who has suffered terrible abuse in her life.
"This trickster is so central to our system of spiritual belief," says Highway. "It's a connection to this great energy, or God, which most people perceive only in moments of extreme crisis. Or when they are close to death, and can see into the spirit world."
In the case of the retarded young woman, he was thinking of a true story of a girl from his home reserve who was raped by several white men on a backwoods road. She was retarded, but, to make doubly sure of not being identified, they beat her and gouged out her eyes. They needn't have troubled—she froze to death before she was found.
In recounting this story, Highway's customary serenity and composure cracks somewhat. There is a terrible anger as he states quietly that the white men, who were known, have never to this day been prosecuted. "The racism is real. And the sexism. Men are here"—he gestures—"and women are here, and Indian women are here." His hand hovers near the floor.
Then he leaps imaginatively back into the world of the play, of the thoughts that this terrible story inspired. "I began to imagine that when the girl is lying there in the snow, the seagull comes to her. In my version, in the play, she doesn't die. The bird says, 'Not yet.'"
And that is the young woman, gifted with second sight, who accompanies the group to Toronto.
People who have seen the play are struck by Highway's extraordinary empathy with women.
"I am sensitive to women because of the matrilineal principle in our culture, which has gone on for thousands of years. Women have such an ability to express themselves emotionally. Men are all clogged up. And as a writer, you want to express emotion."
As a writer, especially in the theatre, you also want to work in a tradition. Highway's knowledge of theatre comes from his studies at Western University, where he met and was deeply influenced by James Reaney. "Seeing the Donnelly Trilogy was one of the great moments for me. With those characters, the mother and father of the Donnelly clan, James Reaney is putting down roots. They become characters that remind me of Mother Earth and Father Sky in our stories."
The Donnellys were real people, but folklore gave them a great dimension, which Reaney incorporated into his play. "I love folklore," says Highway. "How stories go from mouth to mouth and the figures become huge and heroic."
At university, he also familiarized himself with Western theatre, and the influences are interesting to notice. In The Rez Sisters, one of the women continually repeats that she "wants to go to Toronto." Is there Chekhov in this?
Highway laughs. "Oh sure, there is The Three Sisters in there, and a little bit of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs."
He is open to such influences, but they never dominate in his play. "People often tell me when they see the play, even if it is in English, that these are not French women or English women, but Indian women who are speaking."
One very good reason for that is that Highway writes his plays in Cree before he writes them in English. "It's hard for native writers to write in a language that isn't theirs. I wasn't fluent in English till my late teens. So my dream life is in Cree. And so are my first drafts."
Highway is fond of the explosive nicknames that exist in his culture, which often become permanent names. "Names like Shot on Both Sides, or One Foot in Hell. Or Highway.
"I'm a full-blooded Cree. Nobody knows where my name comes from. It may be an Irish name, borrowed from an early trader."
This also accounts for the names of the characters in the play—such as Emily Dictionary. "My home reserve is half Cree and half Chipewyan. There was a Chipewyan family with a name we couldn't pronounce, so we changed it to the nearest thing: Dictionary."
The eternal play on words and ideas is part of what makes Cree "such a funny language. You laugh all the time when you speak it. In spite of the violence on the reserve, the rhythm of the language is funny. It must have something to do with the Trickster being at the centre of it."
It is difficult for whites to understand how a deity called the Trickster could be central to any culture—one of the perennial problems between natives and whites. Highway tries to clarify it by comparing the Trickster to Christ. "He occupies a central role for us, just as Christ does for you. But there are three important differences. Trickster has a sense of humor. He was never crucified. And he is neither male nor female."
By the absurd construction of having to say that he is neither male nor female, Highway underlines the inadequacy of the English language to describe reality as seen by a native.
But at the same time, the otherness of the native view of the world has survived immersion in white culture. "The missionaries think that they killed off the Trickster," says Highway, "but we don't think so. To my mind, the Trickster has been passed under the table for 200 years. Those guys in Hastings Street (Vancouver's skid row) who have been drunk for 25 years—you see the Trickster in them, clawing to come back to life."
In the face of so much human destruction and tragedy, it is tempting to see something Pollyanna-ish in Highway's optimism. But it is not like that to him. He is well aware of the destruction—"the Indian you meet is a drunk, and the reserves are full of inner-directed rage and violence"—but he does not see why this should lead the observer to lose sight of the other side of native reality.
"Our mythology is strong. Our dream world is filled with the most extraordinary creatures. Freud and Jung would have had a holiday travelling in Manitoba. And these dreams are relevant to the way this country breathes."
Highway's personal salvation comes largely from his father. "My dad has a unique charismatic personality. Just by his example, we wanted to do well by him. So we took what he taught us tacitly: that you take the most positive aspect of your culture and do what you can with it. So my brother is a dancer and I am a writer."
When The Rez Sisters opened last year in Toronto, it was overlooked by most of the media. It was presented in the Native Canadian Centre, which nobody had been to before, and it ran very briefly on slim funding.
But the few people who saw it were passionately committed to the show. They threw all their votes into it for the Chalmers Award last year and helped it to win the Dora for best new play.
For Tomson Highway, this was a vindication of his own talent, and of the people who inspired and performed the play. "It was a thrill to be nominated for a Dora beside people like Margaret Hollingsworth, whose writing had electrified my imagination."
So the Rez Sisters made it to Toronto after all, and won the biggest bingo game of all.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783
SOURCE: A review of The Rez Sisters, in Canadian Theatre Review, No. 65, Winter, 1990, pp. 62-4.
[In the following excerpt, Peel discusses the characters and narrative structure of The Rez Sisters.]
Tomson Highway succeeds in creating a striking cast of characters who reveal both blemishes and beauty, and possess, on the whole, great human dignity. His The Rez Sisters tells the tale of seven Indian women living on a reserve in northern Ontario who one day decide to travel to Toronto to attend "the Biggest Bingo in the World." The women are sisters, half-sisters, and sisters-in-law, and their ages range from the 20s to the 50s. The polarities and contradictions of their characters reflect the polarities and contradictions of the world in which they live: poverty-stricken, crude and cruel, and at the same time rich in beauty, vitality, and tenderness.
Highway has carved out a number of memorable portraits. Among these are Pelagia Patchnose who hammers shingles onto the roof of her house, when she'd much rather use her bingo-won hammer to knock some sense into the band chief and get the reserve's roads paved; Philomena Moosetail whose aspirations to gentility are directed into an unrelenting pursuit of "bathroom beautiful"; Emily Dictionary, a former battered wife and motorcycle gang member, who keeps the name of her abusive ex-husband, "the man who made me learn to fight back"; and Marie-Adele Starblanket who at 39 has had 14 children (each one designated by a board in her 14-post white picket fence) and who now battles cancer.
Highway's achievement lies not only in the characters he has created, but in his masterful orchestration of the action through which these characters are revealed. Before becoming a playwright, Highway trained as a classical musician, and he brings a truly musical sense of composition to the structuring of his work. One scene in particular, a fight at the reserve's general store/post office involving all seven women, is a masterpiece in terms of rhythmic development and the interweaving of a variety of voices. Another, the women's manic fund-raising campaign for their trip to Toronto, is superbly theatrical in its mimed, ever-accelerating action. In fact, from the opening moments to the end of the play, Highway's compositional control and acute sense of dynamic rhythm never fail to impress.
As a playwright Highway openly acknowledges his debt to James Reaney and Michel Tremblay, and the inspiration of the latter is particularly evident in The Rez Sisters. Obviously Highway had Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs—complete with its "Ode to Bingo"—very much in mind as he wrote. Yet Highway's voice is distinctively his own. The depth of his characterizations and the original flair of his compositional ability cannot be denied.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
SOURCE: A review of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 15, 1991, p. C3.
[In the following excerpt, Cushman asserts that Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a powerful play about misogyny.]
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, which opened Saturday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, begins with magic. At the side of a great, bare, tilted plat-form, white with a black surround, stands a figure, recognizably and traditionally Indian. The figure gestures, and snow falls.
After this descent another, more prosaic. A sofa is lowered from the flies. Visible upon it is a naked male body. A female in black underpants detaches herself from it, and begins to dress. Actually she dons, slowly, a monstrous pair of false breasts. Music sounds: The Stripper, played plaintively and incongruously on a mouth organ. Not a word spoken and already we have been moved—beautifully, comically and with enormous theatricality—from the ideal to the painfully real and on again to the satirical-grotesque….
Playwright Tomson Highway's characters live, for the most part, like poor whites; they have adopted rock-bottom American values. This is not a play about racial prejudice; it couldn't be since there are no non-Indian characters. It is about what people do to themselves under pressure, though the pressures may be externally imposed. Especially it is about what men do to women.
This is the most powerful play I have seen about misogyny, and it is fitting that it should be the work of a man. The cast contains one woman, in a multiple role, but eight men; for the most part, their view of women is accurately summed up in the opening dumbshow. The extreme case is Big Joey (Ben Cardinal), whose wife is the one with the falsies; he is virtually prostituting her as part of a blackmail scam. His ambitions to run a radio station conflict with those of his pudgy victim Zachary (Gary Farmer) to get money to open a bakery. Big Joey cannot stand the sight of female blood, and his phobia led to culpable negligence at the birth of his son (in a barroom, by the light of a juke box). Seventeen years on, he watches while the boy commits an especially brutal rape.
The scene in which Joey explains himself is one of the play's weakest, matched by one in which the baker takes on the Christian God, defying Him to justify the misery in which the community is living. These both sound like the playwright being painfully explicit. He also spreads himself so that his play, though actually tightly plotted, seems to sprawl. But the weaknesses are those of talent and ambition. At times he writes with horrific power; more often he deploys a barbed, juicy laughter that exploits and explodes masculine obsession and masculine bluster. Sometimes he suggests a grown-up Sean O'Casey. Urban-sharp this Highway may be, but he belongs in the line of ethnic comedy that periodically rejuvenates the Anglo-American theatre. When this line breaks through, as Indian writing now has, it does us a double service; it introduces us to new scenes and puts us in touch with old ones. At moments we seem to be reaching back to the roots of the theatre.
A crisis finds Pierre St. Pierre (Graham Greene, at the furthest remove from his wisdom-incarnate role in Dances With Wolves) posed at a window, pulling a nightcap on and off as he wrestles between the demands of sleep and conscience. The sequence is prolonged past the limits of farce, and becomes agonizingly tense. We desperately want him to do the right thing, and know how easily we ourselves would do the wrong one.
Greene also has a protracted clowning triumph as a hockey referee, slithering around on invisible ice, in abject fear of the game and the unseen players. These players are the women on the reserve and it is these sporting ambitions that put the fear of whatever it is into most of the males. The men literally fall backward with astonishment when they first hear about it. But they recover.
The women in the play, even more than the men, have a rich variety of names and labels: from Gazelle Nataways to "that awful dictionary woman" to the eponymous Dry Lips. The men end up hooting the dismissive title line, Big Joey once more in the lead.
Cardinal's Joey, balefully unrelenting, makes a strong negative pole in a group otherwise composed of weaklings, misfits and the odd doomed idealist. They have all—Tom Jackson, Gary Farmer, Billy Merasty, Dwayne Manitowabi, Kennetch Charlette, Doris Linklater—appeared in the play before, at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto or in Manitoba, and they are an ensemble.
The arrival of this show at the Royal Alex is an event. One hopes that a general audience, subscribers or otherwise, will fill a large theatre for a major new play. This is a matter of economics, but also of morale and of ultimate value. If the Canadian theatre is to mean anything, it cannot skulk forever in holes and corners.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
SOURCE: "Native Grace: An Indian Reserve Struggles for Salvation," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 17, April 29, 1991, pp. 60-1.
[In the following review, Bemrose praises the humor and moral of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.]
Last summer, as armed Mohawks stood guard at their barricades in Oka, Que., a new image of Canada's native people forced itself on the national consciousness. But such defiance is only one aspect of the current Indian struggle for greater self-determination. Early this month at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, native people staged a different kind of event—the production of Tomson Highway's award-winning play, Dry Lips Oughts Move to Kapuskasing. The bitter tragicomedy first appeared at the city's Theatre Passe Muraille two years ago. But its remounting at the plush Royal Alex—where it is the first Canadian play in eight years—marks a special triumph for an Indian cultural community determined to raise the profile of its concerns and its achievements.
Pride in those achievements was in evidence at the theatre earlier this month as native people in formal evening attire mingled under the television lights with the well-to-do opening-night crowd. In part, the celebrity atmosphere was a carryover from last month's Academy Awards show when one of the stars of Dry Lips, Toronto actor Graham Greene, was an Oscar nominee for his role in Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. The glitter contrasted starkly with the events portrayed onstage. For all its broad humor, Highway's vision of life on Wasaychigan Hill, a fictional Manitoulin Island reserve, is as bleak as the morning after a week-long binge. Like so many native communities, Wasaychigan Hill is destroying itself in a black orgy of substance abuse and violence. Only its frayed links to traditional values and a kind of gamy courage hold it back from complete disintegration.
Highway's earlier hit play, The Rez Sisters, focused on Wasaychigan Hill's women, who made an epic comedy of their journey to a big-city bingo game. In Dry Lips, Highway turns his attention to the men. They are a pathetic if oddly endearing lot. Of the seven native males in the play, five are drunks, fools or both. The remaining two, Dickie Bird Halked (Kennetch Charlette) and Simon Starblanket (Dwayne Manitowabi), are youths struggling to escape the community's collective nightmare. But Simon is killed in a pointless accident, while Dickie Bird's inner demons—he has been left speechless by a mysterious childhood trauma—drive him to commit a brutal rape.
All the men of Wasaychigan Hill are caught in a vortex of angry passivity. Even the authority figure, Big Joey (Ben Cardinal), is a bully obsessed with past memories. By contrast, the women of the reserve—who appear mostly through the eyes of the men—positively brim with creativity and initiative. That has helped inspire a deep strain of misogyny. When Big Joey is pressed to explain why he stands by passively during Dickie Bird's attack on Simon Starblanket's fiancée, Patsy Pegahmagahbow (Doris Linklater), he blurts out that he hates all women for taking power away from the men.
Fortunately, Highway, a Cree born 39 years ago in Brochet, Man., leavens Wasaychigan's anguish with humor of a very high order. The chief vehicle of the play's comedy is a loquacious bootlegger named Pierre St. Pierre, played by Greene. The gap-toothed, jut-jawed drunk is the utter antithesis of dignity: he shamelessly cadges beer and chugalugs it a bottle at a time. Greene is simply brilliant in the role. When he appears as the referee for an all-women's hockey game, his physical comedy has the stumbling insouciance of Buster Keaton. St. Pierre is also, in his way, the poet of the reserve, as he sums up with wonderful exaggeration and malapropisms the exploits of the women hockey players. His repeated recitation of their outlandish names, including Big Bummed Pegahmagahbow and Dry Lips Manatawagan, grows more deliciously funny every time.
While all the comic sections of the production have an engaging buoyancy, a certain heaviness creeps in elsewhere. Much of the play concerns Dickie Bird's search to discover his true father and understand the causes of his dumbness. It is a tedious quest, unable to bear the dramatic importance that Highway places on it. Part of the problem is Charlette's too-frenetic performance. Even more critically, Highway has not found a language adequate to his characters' rage and pain. That makes the climactic rape scene—which involves the brutal use of a crucifix—a bloody but emotionally unaffecting affair.
The result of those failures is that Dry Lips breaks in half between beguiling comedy and less effective tragedy. Still, much of the production soars above that split, including Carlos del Junco's haunting accompaniment on the blues harp. Also successful is the use of the Ojibwa trickster figure, Nanabush (Linklater), who hovers like Puck in the background, an invisible influence on the characters. In one scene, she waggles an enormous pair of false buttocks and causes the reserve's baker, Zachary (Gary Farmer), to break into a chorus—he has no idea why—of Hot Cross Buns.
The drama's earthiness and gallows humor are important gifts from native people to a society that has all too often lost sight of such qualities. Dry Lips is also a warning. Wasaychigan Hill's predicament can be seen as being symbolic of the larger society that surrounds it—a society that may itself be bent on self-destruction in more subtle or socially acceptable ways. In that sense, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is more than just a play about conditions on Canada's Indian reserves. It is a reminder that when the cultural underpinnings of a society crumble, chaos is not far behind.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3043
SOURCE: "Native Playwright: Tomson Highway," in Theater, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 88-92.
[In the following laudatory review of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Honegger discusses the play's plot, character, and main themes.]
A non-Native theatergoer sees a play written by a Native playwright. It is one of the most exciting plays she has seen in a long time. The all-Native ensemble has developed a uniquely cohesive acting style, rarely seen on our stages. The work is a brilliant combination of Western and Native performance traditions. The observer, a theater professional herself, with extensive training in Western theater has no problem ranking the work (very highly) within the canon of Western drama. She is much more limited in her resources to define adequately, let alone do full justice to that "other", "Native" dimension, that enriches and transcends the European conventions. Already the quotation marks reveal the perspective of the speaker which necessitates a special care in the use of language, and specifically, of misleading generalizations such as "Native Drama" or "Native Theater." The playwright, Tomson Highway, is Cree, one of the "First Nations" in Canada, which is the preferred term there. Accordingly, the sensibility that informs his play is Cree.
Although I have for some years now involved myself in the histories of some of the Native peoples, their different performance traditions, and the present situation, particularly of American Indians, I am in no position to adequately illuminate the intricate texture of the play within the rich and diversified heritage of Native traditions. My emotional response, overwhelming as it was, comes from my own cultural and personal experiences. The play generously led me into its world, its tragic dimensions as well as its wonderful comedic spirit. This world as I perceive it, in all its contemporary vitality, takes on its full life and meaning only within the ancient circle of myths which hold the origin and still safeguard the continuity of its people. I consider myself an invited, privileged guest at the periphery of that circle. I cannot speak from within it. I feel that at this point in our shared history on this continent it is important to establish one's perspective and acknowledge one's limitations.
Although a great critical success in Canada, no major American publication has reported about the recent production of Tomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Somewhat unexpectedly, this tough, unsentimental yet deeply compassionate play with its feisty humor and unrelenting tragic drive became a triumphant, sold out hit at the Royal Alexandra, Toronto's historic landmark of Continental, West End and Yankee showbiz glamour. It marks the first major commercial break-through of a Native writer. The playwright, a long time favorite of reservation and urban theater audiences across Canada, is virtually unknown in the United States. He should be introduced here as a powerful voice in the theater with important stories to tell. He might inspire our Native writers to share their stories on the stage. Perhaps even more importantly, the success of this play should inspire our Artistic Directors and producers to turn their attention to Native writers.
In a time when American theaters have become programmatically committed to the challenge of reflecting an ethnically diversified society on stage, it is still surprising how little attention has been paid to the development and presentation of plays by and with Native American artists. It is all the more surprising since Native American poets and novelists have made extraordinary, internationally acclaimed contributions to contemporary literature. This is not to say that Native American playwrights don't exist. To name just a few: Hanay Geiogamah comes to mind immediately. As a playwright, director, teacher and producer he has made crucial contributions toward the development of a Native American Theater; Bruce King, a powerful, tough writer of the Vietnam generation, generated some interest a while ago. More recently, William Yellowrobe, Jr. is a name, practically the only name, that comes up regularly in conversations about Native American drama. But no Native American playwright has achieved the recognition of a Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, James Welch, Linda Hogan, not to speak of the most recent mega-stars of the contemporary literary scene, husband and wife-team Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.
By contrast, in Canada, 39 year old Tomson Highway has first gained national attention with The Rez Sisters. Its sequel, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing should firmly establish him as one of the leading voices in the English speaking theater. As all of his plays, (as well as many other Native playwrights' works), it was first developed by Native Earth Productions, Toronto's only and arguably, North America's foremost professional Native theater company, of which he is also Artistic Director.
While Rez Sisters follows the journey of seven women to the world's largest Bingo game, Dry Lips concentrates on seven men from the same reservation. In both plays, the rich heritage of the northern Woodland nations intersects with the legacy of colonialization in a contemporary Native world, presented as the fictitious Wasaychigan reserve on Manitoulin Island.
In Larry Lewis's fluid production of Dry Lips the set pieces are flown in from above. Before the play begins, and when not in use, the shabby furniture pieces are visibly suspended in the fly space, with a hockey game in process on the old black and white television set. What may at first seem a convenient way of changing the scenery also conveys the essential tension of the play: the handed down clutter of the dominant culture looms over a bare stage, soon to cut into the expansive, mythic space of the ancient woodland, with its present inhabitants suspended between tribal dreams and colonized nightmares.
The play's central dreamer is Zachary Jeremiah Keechigeesik, 41 years old, an average kind of guy with a pregnant wife and basic American dreams of sex and a little status and money. He wants to have his own bakery on the reservation. We first get to know his (sizable) ass, framed in a spotlight, as he lies sleeping on his friend's shabby sofa, with a life size Marilyn Monroe poster in the back. A voluptuous leg drapes itself, around his bottom, followed by the regally voluminous body of a Native woman. She puts on black stockings, paper-maché tits and ass and a hockey sweater. It is Gazelle Nataways, the reservation's femme fatale and captain of the newly formed women's hockey team, the Wasy Wailerettes. The kiss she plants on Jeremiah's ass leaves a red pair of lips on his buttocks. It will soon become the stuff for blackmail by her present boyfriend, Big Joey, tough guy of the Rez and his devoted admirer, Creature Nataways who happens to also be her husband. Eventually the comedy will evolve from a puck that gets lost in a heated hockey match, with Jeremiah's wife and Gazelle getting into an impassioned fight over territorial claims on Zachary. The puck will be found stuck in Gazelle's ample bosom just in time to have the Wasy Wailerettes advance from a local team of reservation rebel women to the Ontario to the National and finally the Aboriginal Women's World Hockey League. Somewhere during the performance, the ass we saw at the beginning suddenly connects via its synonym to another dreaming stage character, who turned into an ass with the help of a woodland trickster whose name happens to be synonymous with the embattled object of the hockey match. And sure enough, at the feet of Marilyn/Titania, this big Native bottom is transported into a Midwinter Night's Dream by another woodland trickster of Chippewa origin: Nanabush, mythic survivor, transformer, clown and healer with great spiritual power, histrionic talent and indestructible humor.
Language further confounds the situation. As Highway explains in a program note, in contrast to European languages there is no gender differentiation in Cree and Chippewa, the first languages of the characters in his play. This means that in theory the trickster as the central hero figure in Native mythologies doesn't have to be exclusively male or female. In Rez Sisters, Nanabush was a man, a beautiful dancer who transformed into mythic birds of life and death. Now Nanabush is a woman.
It is Nanabush who activates the dreams and plays all the female characters. They are Native women in the grotesquely exaggerated guises of femininity shaped by the cliches of the dominant culture. On the surface, this Nanabush appears as an oddly assimilated aboriginal Lulu, the comic subversion of her colonized men's sexual fantasies who ends up as the tragically brutalized victim of alcoholism and the delusions of an imposed religion. But this is also Nanabush, the shaman, who is taking all seven men into a dream world, knowing that "before the healing can take place, the poison must be exposed…." Highway prefaces the play's published version with this quote by Lyle Longclaws.
Doris Linklater, of considerable size and magnificent in her power, moves through the transformations of sexual stereotypes with such commanding dignity that the portrayals of these women never seem exploitative. There is a special concentration to her performance, an integrity of knowledge, compassion and intent which she shares with the dancers of sacred Native ceremonies. It seems to come from an uncompromising, uncompromised commitment to the responsibility involved in the (sacred) task of enactment. It informs every transformation, whether she does a hilarious deadpan strip, twirling the tassels on her nipples with deadly arrogance, or tiptoes in as Patsy, the shy young woman in love with the young dreamer, Simon Starblanket; whether she dances with the magnificent feather bustles, or does an impersonation of the old Catechist God sitting on a potty in white wig and beard and black lace stockings.
Zachary's dream intersects with the dreams of his buddies, Big Joey, ruthless, merciless and macho, Creature Nataways, hopelessly in love with him, and Spooky Lacroix, a born again Christian. All are 39 years old, and together they had participated in the famous siege at Wounded Knee in 1973. The shared memory of their youth, with its legacy of violence and abandoned dreams haunts them to account for their own lives and their effect on the next generation.
At the depth of the tribal nightmare is a rape performed with a crucifix by the 17 year old victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, on a young woman who is the only person still connected to the old native traditions. At the height of the four buddies' comic nightmare is a hockey match that involves their wives who have organized the team to reaffirm their power. A team member's fateful slip on the ice elicits the emotional exclamation which gives the play its cryptic title. The match is refereed by Pierre St. Pierre, an old toothless bootlegger, played by Graham Greene in a dazzling virtuoso clown act which is all the more astonishing after his composed performance of Kicking Bird, the charmingly worldly Lakota holy man in Dances With Wolves. He is all alone there on the ice, on skates, surrounded by phantom women. His body language and facial expressions visualize in hilarious details the women's frenzied encounter while trying to keep his balance. His consummate performance is further proof of the extraordinary range of this actor and confirms what those of us who had seem him on stage in New York knew all along: at 38, he is one of the most powerful actors around. Neighboring Stratford should remember this Toronto based actor when they are casting a Falstaff or Macbeth, to name just the most obvious possibilities. He can play anything.
Between the crucifix and the lost puck, Highway takes us on a rollercoaster dream ride that drives towards the confrontation with the reckless circumstances of the disturbed boy's birth in a speakeasy, next to a jukebox, with Gazelle Nataways stripping on top of it, just as his mother is about to pass out in a drunken stupor. The events are locked deep inside the mute boy's head as unspeakable mysteries. The only key handed to him by his born again uncle Spooky Lacroix is the cross. Everyone had a part in that hellish night. Everyone had avoided facing up to the truth of their own irresponsibility, their dependence on the self-perpetuating cycle of the dominant culture's destructive forces. As the drama erupts in all its phantasmagoric horror through everyone's alcohol drenched unconscious, the child reenacts the classic tragedy at the threshold of Western consciousness: He penetrates his mother, in the figure of Nanabush who is also enacting the young woman. Through these transformations, he is also violating Nanabush, the spiritual center of his culture, and he does it with the ultimate symbol of Western civilization. In the production, the traumatized boy repeatedly stabs the cross into the earth. The young woman stands in front of the jukebox which has transformed into a bizarre altar. She slowly lifts her skirt to reveal her blood soaked panties while blood is dripping from the cross in the boy's hand. With the cross symbolizing the rape of the earth that sustains his culture, his desperate act is also an act of tragic self-immolation. It is an eerie reminder of both Oedipus blinding himself and of Jocasta's suicide. The rape becomes the ritual enactment of gender separation, first introduced through language and enforced through violence.
Nothing is just what it seems. Resonances of Western drama and Native customs mirror each other and refract the collisions and convergences of influences in contemporary Native cultures. Indian names that refer to certain characteristics or incidences in a person's life echo the descriptive names in classic comedy. Underlaying the street/rez smart lingo is the poetry of idioms that have traversed layers of linguistic residues, Native and European. There is a special music to the soft pitch and gently punched rhythm of the characters' Cree tinted English, which is counterpointed by passages in Cree and Chippewa. Behind every surface emblem there is a dream image that contains the past, both ancient and immediate, tribal and personal. The speak-easy's flashing lights which encircle the stripper, give way to the calm glow of a full moon that frames the young woman who teaches her lover to dance the old way. Behind the kitschy life-size madonna statues in Spooky's house lurks the desperate face of his pregnant sister, with a huge bloated belly, a big rosary around her neck and beer bottle in her hand. The nightmare contains the healing process: The comedic imagination, ancient gift of the trickster, outsmarts the terror: Storytelling as performance in process is a triumphant proof of continuity: a culture creates itself anew through each act of telling, of performing.
Motifs of birth are woven throughout: Only pregnant women or women with many children qualify for the hockey team. Spooky's and Zachary's wives are pregnant, so is Patsy, fiancee of Simon Starblanket who dreams of going to Rosebud to dance with the Sioux and ends up accidentally killing himself, as he pursues Dickie Bird with a loaded gun. Early in the play he shared his haunting vision of an Indian baby waiting to be born:
… I have my arms around this rock, this large black rock sticking out of the ground, right here on this spot. And then I hear this baby crying, from inside this rock. The baby is crying out my name. As if I am somehow responsible for it being caught inside that rock. I can't move. My arms, my whole body, stuck to this rock. Then this … eagle … lands beside me, right over there. But this bird has three faces, three women. And the eagle says to me: "the baby is crying, my grand-child is crying to hear the drum again."
As he is telling the story to Zachary who is thinking about his bakery and the equipment he needs, Nanabush as Patsy, enveloped in shimmering circles of feathers appears like a mysterious, wailing bird. Simon continues:
There's this noise all around us, as if rocks are hitting the sides of houses-echoing and echoing like in a vast empty room—and women are wailing. The whole world is filled with this noise.
Simon, too begins to wail, then he continues:
Then the eagle is gone and the rock cracks and this mass of flesh, covered with veins and blood, comes oozing out and a woman's voice somewhere is singing something about angels and god and angels and god….
Zachary replies with his dream which is considerably simpler and with more predictable, comically solvable consequences: He tells Simon that he dreamt waking up at Gazelle Nataway's place with no shorts on and his pants ripped in the middle.
In the end, Zachary wakes up in his own house with his own wife, played by Nanabush, entering with their baby. It is a real baby, a beautiful, naked, Indian baby girl which she hands to the naked Indian man on the sofa. The final tableau is fully earned in the context of the play. It is filled with strength and free of sentimentality. Nanabush's healing gift to her people becomes Highway's generous gesture to the audience who at this point has also been cleansed to accept the gift of continuity in the right spirit.
What is perhaps most impressive and enviable from the point of view of a visitor from the U.S. is the depth of the company, which makes for the remarkable consistency of their performance style. It is a dazzling combination of Vaudevillian humor, the tough critical edge of a Brechtian approach to characterization and, at the core of it all, the transformational skills of the tricksters, the clowns, the story tellers and dancers of ancient Native origins. What is also quite astonishing is the actors' versatility. Gary Farmer, remembered from the film Powwow Highway for his whimsically challenging portrayal of Philbert, the young Indian reclaiming his native spiritual powers in junk littered ancestral landscapes, plays Jeremiah with just the right mixture of an all too human foolishness and a touching, albeit endangered humanity. Tom Jackson is a popular singer-songwriter with matinee idol charisma. He turns Spooky Lacroix into a spindly bigot with pot belly and thinning hair. Every one of the actors gives a performance that is testimony to an impressive Native talent pool which should also serve as a model and a challenge to U.S. theaters.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4873
SOURCE: "Let Us Now Combine Mythologies: The Theatrical Art of Tomson Highway," in Border Crossings, Vol. 1, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 22-7.
[In the interview below, Highway discusses his upbringing, Native literature, mythology, and the structure of his plays.]
[Enright]: You were born on a trap line 176 miles north of Lynn Lake in the upper reaches of Manitoba. What was that experience like?
[Highway]: Back in the early '50s it was very basic. There were 12 in my family and most of us were born in tents and we lived in tents almost year 'round. In the summer time we travelled by canoe and in the winter time we travelled by dog sled. We lived a very nomadic life; my father trapped in the winter and fished in the summer and hunted in between. It was an exquisite lifestyle.
A dozen children! Your family was almost its own tribe.
Yes. It was beautiful. I mean, we weren't in a state of constant ecstasy but we certainly weren't unhappy, either, even though it was very harsh in the winter. It's always been easy for me to go back to those days in my mind.
Doesn't Philomenia say in Rez Sisters that the place gets in your blood, you can't get rid of it and it can't get rid of you? Is that a reference to the way you feel about the North as well?
Yeah. I go back as often as I can, twice a year on average, once in the winter and once in the summer. I believe that a sense of place applies to everybody. Where you come from, where your roots are—all that is extremely strong. I don't think anybody really is able to get rid of it.
So even when you're not in the North, when you're working in Toronto, or attending a play in Edinburgh or Paris, there's a way in which it will constantly come back and renew you?
Yeah. I come back because of that and certainly having family up there makes it even more necessary to return. But I've frequently thought about going to live in Europe again. We live in the age of FAX machines and telephones, so you really can live anywhere on the face of the earth and still do what you do, or at least do what I do, and I have this fantasy of living in Paris.
Why would that be your fantasy?
For a number of reasons. I've been there many, many times over the years and I love the city, the language and the sense of anonymity the culture provides. I wouldn't go and live there forever, but a two- or three-year stretch would be nice. But I'd have to come back; I mean, I love this country too much. Part of the reason I'd want to live in a situation like that is to avoid the pressures. You do get a tremendous number of requests to speak here, to do this interview there, do this charity, do that benefit, sit on this committee or that board. After a while it gets to be too much. The demand on your time is extreme and privacy becomes a rare commodity.
Has that become a problem for you?
To a certain extent. I certainly do seem to get a lot of demands on my time. I haven't had a new play produced in four years because I just haven't had any time to write. The other reason I'd like to live in Paris comes out of my personal life. I'm proud of the fact that I'm considered to be among a group of artists whose statements are unequivocally direct and honest. But it's also earned me a certain degree of notoriety, not to mention a certain number of enemies, and after a few vicious attacks on your own person you can be hurt. I just don't have time to deal with that kind of hatred. So there's a certain part of me that wants to hide away.
Have the attacks come about because of the frankness with which you've presented aboriginal culture?
Well, it goes beyond aboriginal culture. The material I write is layered and certainly a very obvious layer is the aboriginal component. But I think I've studied enough Western and other art to have achieved a level of sophistication where I write beyond the specifics of my aboriginal background and get to the universal human condition. At this point in my career I'm really heavily into the whole gender issue, the male/female dichotomy, the sexual hierarchy, which is an area that knows no racial boundaries.
Partly because these things are layered constructions, they can be very easily misunderstood and a lot of people do misunderstand them. I've been called everything from a racist to a sexist and I've been accused of purposely promoting racism and sexism. It reached the point where I've been called the living reincarnation of Satan. I've come across situations where people I used to know will refuse to talk to me on the street. I've even had people who are very Christian, and supposedly very kind and loving, turn and walk away from me.
But surely you're not surprised? After all, you were raised in residential schools where the discrepancy between the practice and the preaching of Christianity must have been fairly apparent.
In a perverse sort of way I'm almost thrilled by the occurrences, because they represent tangible proof that the theory and the practice are two entirely different animals. Which is an opinion I've always held.
I want to pick up this notion of your sophistication coming out of the study of Western culture. The plays are highly canny in a theatrical way. I mean Pierre St. Pierre is a kind of Mr. Malaprop; he tells a character "not to contribute your elders," for "contradict." He plays with language and makes bizarre, unconscious mistakes. Now, you must be aware that there are characters going back to Shakespeare and the Restoration who abuse language in just that way. When you conceive of a play and its characters, do you deliberately build in a literary tradition which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the aboriginal culture you're writing about?
It's not a deliberate choice. But there's two or three answers to that question. In order of importance, the first answer is that I find the whole process of writing to be so difficult, so painful, so humiliating and so humbling that I'm grateful for anything that works. The actual act of writing is an act of desperation at the best of times. So the first answer is that ultimately those characters and situations came out because I really didn't have a choice. There's a point where they start running on their own and they pull you. Secondly, those kind of characters are universal—they're story-telling conventions that exist in every culture. The concept of the hero is a universal and so is the heroic myth. And the comic or clown character. I also have a strong musical background and I believe that the process of writing plays is very much a musical act. Ultimately, you seduce an audience, you lull it into a kind of hypnotic state. To me the human mechanism responds naturally and subliminally to the concept of rhythm, the origins of which lie with the basic beat of the human heart.
Is that one of the ways you structure your plays, as if they were musical arrangements?
Yes, and that's the way it works psychologically on the human brain and on human emotions. You can subdivide that whole note, which is the beat of the human heart, into quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes, and complex configurations thereof, including variations and combinations of pitch, meaning, counterpart, harmony and so forth. What I'm saying is that I transfer all that knowledge into the construction of a line.
You score your language and the rhythm of the play that closely?
It's not a conscious process but ultimately that's what it boils down to. I'll give you a very blatant example. I find it comes naturally to create one character as a legato and contrast him with a staccato, so that in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, there are the two guys who enter the play at the very top, one of whom, Creature Nataways, is a staccato character, and then the character with him is Big Joey, who talks in monosyllables. Then there are lyrical characters like Simon Starblanket who's full of dream visions and lilting, vaulting passages. And there are other variations, not all of which I can explain. Ultimately, for me writing a play is very much like writing a symphony.
You also use music more directly. The wail of the harmonica is used throughout Dry Lips, as is Kitty Wells. Are these part of the symphonic play you're making, as well? How do these songs and instruments interact with your musical characters?
During the initial productions of a new play, I'm usually very much a part of the rehearsal process. I usually end up playing the role of musical director, being very precise about choosing the music and choosing the rhythms of the music. If I want a drum to go boom boom I say so and if I want to change that drum to go digga dum, then I say that and we put it in. For instance, in Dry Lips the first musical sound you hear, other than the human voice, is the harmonica. In Rez Sisters it's the drum. Those are choices I made. And at the opening there's an upward climbing glissando, sort of like the opening of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." That was a very deliberate choice. I said to the harmonica player, "I would like you to start out with a trill on the low A flat, A flat combined with B flat, and then I would like you to do this glissando climbing all the way up to the high B flat above the high C." That's the way I talk in the rehearsal process.
I thought you'd given music up after you stopped playing classical piano, but you haven't given it up at all. You've just found a different way for it to operate in your art.
You said earlier that there's always a hero. One of the things your plays seem to do is to create a mythology of the common folk. You have a female bingo player who's a legend for playing 27 cards simultaneously; another of your characters actually drinks a Kitty Wells record, presumably out of affection. These are stories that are part of a common mythology; if we were living in Greece, one assumes they would be our Olympians. Are you conscious of creating a substitute mythology?
Yes. One of my most passionate pursuits when I was at university was the study of mythology. Mostly European—specifically classical Christian, Celtic and Teutonic mythology—and its application in literature by the artists of those respective cultures. The first example that surfaces in my mind is William Butler Yeats. In Teutonic mythology, the most obvious example is Richard Wagner. And then, of course, there's Cree mythology. And making a comparative study of all those traditions of story-telling.
Was this a systematic study?
Very much so. I did go out and very specifically apply myself to the study of these mythologies. At some point I found out the process of myth-making is the same in every culture and it comes from a very basic human impulse—the need to communicate. To make people laugh, to make people enjoy and celebrate life. Let's say there was a party in a hotel room and the party got raided. The actual party was on the second floor. People are getting arrested but this one guy, who is the pusher, jumps out the window. It's only the second floor, so he takes off, unharmed and unheroic. But by the time the incident has gone from story-teller "A" to story-teller "X" a whole year has passed. By now the guy jumped out of the 15th floor of the hotel and hung on by his fingernails the entire time the police were investigating the party participants. He becomes a character of heroic proportions.
Robert Graves has done an exemplary job with the Greek myths in showing their actual historical and social beginnings. What intrigues me about your process is you also inherit a culture that already exists, the culture of the trickster Nanabush. The mythology is complete and intact. So how do you remake that mythology and continue to make it live? Can you pick it up and transform it, mix it with other stories without any worry?
I think with communication technology as highly developed as it is now it's pretty well impossible for a person to limit himself to his own specific mythology. Even though I come from northern Manitoba and from a Cree background, I've become very much a part of mythologies worldwide. I don't resist the impulse to create the characters that I do. And I don't resist the impulse to combine mythologies because ultimately I believe they are universal and that their archetypes are all the same. I was really surprised at the response to Dry Lips because I didn't realize that non-Native people were so ignorant of their own mythology. Putting it in the bluntest way possible, I was shocked to discover main-stream audiences knew more about the size of Elizabeth Taylor's breasts, Michael Jackson's most recent nose job and Madonna's most recent fuck than they did about their own systems of gods and goddesses. So that a Cree Indian from caribou country ended up knowing more about Hera and Zeus, about Apollo and Dionysius, about Mars and Mercury and about the roles they played within that society, than the people the stories belonged to.
So I assume as a result they didn't understand the importance of the central characters in your plays, either?
That's right. Dry Lips is the story of Hera and Zeus. Zeus was forever philandering because the Greeks were very much into the celebration of the sensual, visceral self. It's the same with Cree mythology.
This is the Zeus who had the imagination and the capability to turn up on earth in any number of guises—a swan or a bull.
Or a calf and so forth. He would come down and make love to mortal girls and then he'd go back up and Hera, the Queen of the Sky, would find out about it and shake the universe. Thunderbolts would fly and earthquakes would happen—that's the way the Greeks explained these natural disasters. So if you dig through all the layering in Dry Lips what happens at the simplest level is that Hera Keechigeesik—which in Cree means "Hera of the great sky"—finds her husband Zachary Jeremiah—I couldn't name him Zeus but I got close enough—in bed with another woman. Hera characteristically flies into a jealous rage and beats the living daylights out of the other woman, knocks a puck out of her bosom and only when that puck is released, after the whole world has been turned upside down, do things come back to normal. And it's Hera who is like a puppet mistress who manipulates her husband's dream world. Ultimately she puts back into his hands the reincarnation of herself and so you get the return of the goddess. A lot of people didn't understand that. All they saw was a woman being treated brutally.
That's a convincing explanation. Because you could be accused of being sentimental at the end of Dry Lips, in the way that you create the perfect aboriginal family in a kind of flawless, harmonic world. Coming out of the horror of the bar room scene and of the crucifix rape, the ending seems positively saccharine.
I put it in the dream context for a number of reasons. Number one, I wanted to make a distinction between so-called aboriginal societies and so-called industrialized societies, whether we're talking about the Indians of North America or the aboriginals of Australia. Putting it very simplistically, the collective intellect of industrialized society has been developed to such a high degree at the expense of its spiritual centre. Whereas, with aboriginal cultures it's the reverse. We're not a highly intellectualized or highly technologized society but we haven't sacrificed our spiritual centre. And extending that idea one step further, our spiritual centre is very much expressed in the way our dream world operates. Our dream visions affect our day-to-day lives and, certainly for North American Indian culture, our dream life is every bit as important as our physical, conscious life.
The cynical response to that would be that aboriginal people are probably a hell of a lot better off in their dream life than in their real life. In lots of cases that seems to me to be a kind of cop-out.
That's part of it. I don't know if cop-out's the word for it. I think that's being judgmental.
And equally cynical?
Yeah. I'm not passing judgement on these notions. At least, I don't wish to. We place such a tremendous amount of importance on the way our dream world works that I never thought that it could be considered a cop-out. Let's put it less pessimistically and call it a release. But I think that regardless of how you wish to judge the respective societies, it is beyond argument that these two comparative states exist.
Do you want the plays to be free of judgement?
I don't think so. I think that ultimately if they were not judged, if they were not criticized, if they did not generate emotional and other responses, then I wouldn't be doing my job.
Let me ask about judgement in another way. In Dry Lips there are two characters: Spooky Lacroix, a ridiculous, babbling Christian, and then there's Simon Starblanket, who wants the return of the drum, of the dance and of Nanabush. He wants to make the spiritual life powerful again. My sense is that as a playwright you have more sympathy with Starblanket than you do with Spooky.
I think it's inevitable that your writing will be coloured by your own point of view, by your own attitude towards the world and everything within it. Certainly coloured with your own experience. I've had a very specific type of experience with Roman Catholicism and so the play—and Spooky Lacroix—are coloured by that. It's unfortunate that my experience with Roman Catholicism has been what it is. Spooky Lacroix's opening speech, which is something about the end of the world being at hand, is taken almost verbatim from the mouth of a Jehovah's Witness.
Christianity isn't a neutral mythology for you though, is it? It can't be for someone who has been damaged by that mythology. Dickie Bird has such a rage in him that it leads him over the edge. I don't sense that you view Christianity as just being another neutral mythology that you can take this from and that from to layer your play so that it becomes more resonant and more dense.
I have every reason to fight when I think what Christianity has done to me personally, never mind what it has done to my race. It's been an act of monumental dishonesty, monumental two-facedness. To have it hammered into your head by so-called figures of authority (the priests and nuns and teachers) that sex and the human sex organs were disgusting and dirty instruments of the devil—at a time when your own sexuality is at such a delicate place of development—was deeply confusing. But then to turn that around and have ten-year-olds victimized by a priest who goes around diddling little boys. What I'm angry at is those priests who said one thing and then when the lights went out, they did the complete opposite. It's like a game. They're like that woman at the hotel this morning. The victim doesn't end up being the loser; it's the aggressor who debases himself and debases life. I think that truth should be told.
Were you sexually abused yourself?
Absolutely. Everybody was.
Do you mean at the Guy Hill Residential School in The Pas?
Yeah. It's been off the record so far, but I'll tell you what happened. There was this Brother—and he wasn't the only one—who was our supervisor. We were 30 beds of ten- to 12-year-old boys in the Intermediate Boys Dormitory. We were far away from home and our parents had no input whatsoever into our education. And they had no control over our teachers. There was no such thing as a PTA, for instance. Anyway, this Brother would put us to bed at 8:30 and we'd all be kneeling at our beds in our pajamas and he'd take us through the rosary. Then he'd turn the lights off and we'd all start falling asleep. About half an hour later he'd come through the dormitory in the dark and go from bed to bed and wank off little boys. He was a French guy with a very thick accent and I'll always remember that as he'd do this he'd go, "It's big, eh, it's big." The Hail Marys from the rosary were still ringing through your head. Through the course of the six years that this guy was at Guy Hill he must have gone through 300 boys, all of whom are now between the ages of 35 and 45, and many of whom are now lawyers and businessmen. Sooner or later that kind of activity is going to come up.
Is this Brother still alive?
He was quite old back then, so he's probably dead. But that's just one story. There are so many others. So to this day my experience is coloured with that singular act of dishonesty. I mean they lied to us.
You haven't yet written about that experience, of the massive hypocrisy involved.
I gather that prior to your encounter in the residential school system, you hadn't had much sexual experience?
No. It happened when I was ten. It's a very vulnerable time, just when you're entering puberty.
You have been accused by some feminists and by some aboriginal women of being sexist because of what happens to women in your plays.
I think I could boil it down to two or three women out of a raft of thousands, most of whom are totally in support of and who understand the material. Just because a few women misunderstand, misinterpret the material is no reason to condemn all of them as being unintelligent, for instance.
Do you have a personal sense of taboo within your own tradition and culture?
No, I don't think one should be frightened of violating one's culture. I think that the role of any artist in society is to criticize that society, to force that society to look at its own imperfections. In a sense the role of the artist is the role of the shaman in traditional, pre-Christian Indian society. Shamans were the visionaries who led that society into the future, who outlined the path that society was to take.
And outlining that path can be cruel and can expose raw nerves?
Well, I think that if society makes certain mistakes, then it's the role of the artist/visionary to tell society that it's made a mistake here, correct it, and then we'll move on. In the particular instance we've been talking about, the Roman Catholic church has made a tremendous error. And it should correct it and then either move on or die.
I once interviewed a Native jazz drummer who was scrupulous about not using sacred rhythms in his music. He felt a sense of taboo, even in the free-wheeling world of improvisational jazz. I was struck by his adherence to this self-imposed limitation and I'm wondering if there's anything about the world you live in that you would feel discomfort in exposing to a mainstream audience. Maybe even because you don't want to be critical at this point in the history of aboriginal culture.
I don't know. I often stand alone in these situations, which is why I've got myself into trouble in the past. I don't necessarily subscribe to that opinion. I don't think any religion or any society should be so holy as to be untouchable. I don't think that any icon should be put on a pedestal because once you put it on a pedestal it's too easy to tear down.
So is Nanabush—a figure who operates on both sides of the gender and sexual spectrum—susceptible to attack? He's a mischievous figure, a trickster, he's always getting into trouble and is in some senses dangerous. Or am I going too far?
No, I think he should be dangerous, I think he should push people right to the edge. I think—when he needs to be—he should be absolutely horrifying.
Does he ever get diabolical?
I think Nanabush is perfectly capable of it. I think he's capable of anything that the human heart is capable of, that God is capable of. I think God is ultimately Nanabush and by extension what he/she represents. God, the Great Spirit, whatever you wish to call this being. I think that God is every bit as capable of diabolical cruelty and evil as are human beings. He embodies beauty and incredible love and ecstasy and all these things. I also think that God is every bit as capable of being as enormous an asshole as that blonde was this morning. She's not the only one. They're an archetype and they're everywhere. Men treat women like that. And women have been angry about it for many generations, and are now doing something about it. But to go back to your question, no, nothing is too sacred too attack.
You use humour in a liberating kind of way. Is that tendency something that comes naturally out of your life and culture, or is it a strategy for taking some of the pressure off events in the plays that may get pretty hard to take?
Both. My favourite activity is to laugh. And the Cree culture is hilarious, the language is hilarious. When you speak Cree you laugh constantly. But the other side of it is that to make a statement that is brutally honest, you have to count upon incredible hilarity and incredible ridiculousness. And so the plays are structured in such a way that you do have to laugh at what seem to be the most inappropriate moments. But it works. It happened in Dry Lips time and time again. There's a scene where Zachary Jeremiah basically tells God to fuck himself. And people were crying. But then all of a sudden God is sitting up there on a toilet. You know, in drag as a woman with boobs hanging out and everything. And then people started to laugh. So there they were, laughing and crying at the same time.
Speaking about mixed emotions, because of your experience in The Pas, did you use the Helen Betty Osborne incident in the crucifixion rape scene?
I think the more specific application of the figure of Helen Betty Osborne comes in Dry Lips. I think the act that was committed up in The Pas back in 1971 has a complex metaphorical resonance. Because of society's response to the crime, she might as well have been raped with a crucifix. Did the church stand up for that girl, did the city council, the town council of The Pas? As they went to church every Sunday and prayed to their god, did they come back after church to stand up for that girl? Did the white women in that community stand up for another woman? No. I think those kinds of acts and those kinds of mistakes should be trumpeted.
You often describe one play as the flip side of the other. When you initially conceived of Rez Sisters, did you know immediately that there was another play you would do very quickly and that it would be a mirror image?
So Dry Lips came out of Rez Sisters after you realized what you could do with it?
I don't know that it was that easy. Ultimately it was so difficult to do that I was just grateful that it came out the way it did. I mean, a lot of it is a happy accident. I'm just very fortunate. I'm so desperate at certain points that I'll write anything.
But after you had done Rez Sisters, you did sit yourself down and say, Okay, now I want to do a play about seven men where hockey is the governing metaphor rather than seven women obsessed with bingo?
Yeah, I think that was a rational choice.
Am I right in thinking that 'beauty' means usefulness in Cree and Ojibway? It's an interesting way of looking at art, isn't it, that it has a social message as well as an aesthetic one?
That's right, it is an interesting way of looking at things.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809
SOURCE: "Bingo as the Way of Escape, at Dismal Odds," in The New York Times, January 5, 1994, pp. C15, C21.
[In the following review of the New York production of The Rez Sisters, Richards criticizes the play for its poorly plotted scenes and adolescent humor.]
It's Toronto or bust for the seven impoverished Indians whom the Canadian playwright Tomson Highway calls The Rez Sisters.
That's where "the biggest bingo in the world" is about to be held. As the raucous women envision it with mounting excitement and a feverish gleam in their dark eyes, hitting the $1 million jackpot is how they'll change their hard-scrabble existence on the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve in Ontario. "When I win" is how they begin their wishful sentences. No one says, "If I win."
You don't need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of Mr. Highway's 1986 play, which opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop. For all their gumption, his characters are up against hopeless odds, in society as well as the bingo hall. Still, the drama, which has won awards in Canada, has to be more surprising than this ramshackle staging would suggest.
Mr. Highway, a Cree, may be writing about a mythical community, but The Rez Sisters ("Rez" is short for reserve) is rooted in harsh realities. Joblessness, prejudice and alcoholism are endemic. The old sustaining Indian rituals have died, replaced by the platitudes of consumerism and country-western music. While his women don't lack for get-up-and-go, they really have no place to go to. Surely, this is material for some pungent conflicts.
Unfortunately, all of the playwright's shortcomings, and none of his assets, are readily apparent in the production that the New York Theater Workshop has put together in collaboration with the American Indian Community House. He plots scenes clumsily and states points baldly. When the dialogue is meant to be ribald, it rarely rises above the level of adolescent bathroom humor. And if you want to know what it all adds up to, well, grizzled Pelajia Patchnose (stone-faced Gloria Miguel) is more than happy to tell you.
"Kinda silly, isn't it, this business of living." she mutters, after the flashing bingo lights have been extinguished and she and her sisters are settling back into the dreariness of their welfare lives. "But what choice do we have?… I figure 'we gotta make the most of it while we're here.'"
Mr. Highway's strongest gift, an ability to capture flamboyant personalities with their defenses down, remains largely unexploited. All the actresses belong to various tribes and several are sisters in real life, so their credentials would appear to be in order. Few of them, however, show signs of theatrical sophistication. Raw gusto, more than anything else, distinguishes their collective endeavors. (There are also two men on the fringes of the story. One beats a large drum and chants accompaniment. The other portrays the star-spangled bingo master, a defecating sea gull and the ominous nighthawk, a harbinger of death.)
The principal acting area is marked off by a semicircle of birch trees, and seven brightly painted chairs, grouped in clusters, serve as the van that takes the women on their long drive to Toronto. But if the two directors. Linda S. Chapman and Muriel Miguel, have chosen to approach the play non-realistically, their imagination seems to have dried up immediately afterward. All through The Rez Sisters you find yourself thinking that it needn't be this dull.
After all, one of Mr. Highway's characters, Marie-Adele Starblanket (Shella Tousey) has 14 children and is dying of cancer. Emily Dictionary (Murielle Borst), a barely reformed hellion with a tattoo on her shoulder, lost the love of her life, a woman, in a motorcycle accident. That indefatigable busybody Veronique St. Pierre (Lisa Mayo) has two equal sources of distress: a mentally deficient adopted daughter (Hortensia Colorado) and an erratic stove.
The garish Annie Cook (Elvira Colorado) sees herself as a country-rock star, a proposition that might be easier to accept if Ms. Colorado carried a tune better. As for loquacious Philomena Moosetail (Muriel Miguel again), her dyed and painted head is bursting with gossip and visions of the new toilet she'll purchase with her lucre from the bingo tables.
They may not be delicate souls, but they should be more affecting than they're allowed to be here. Ms. Tousey, who projects wan, unwavering strength beautifully, is pretty much alone in demonstrating that she knows how to navigate a stage. And the nighthawk makes short work of her.
Before the Rez sisters spread out their bingo cards and go for the big pot, the audience is invited to participate in a warm-up game. The cash prize, paid on the spot to the winner, is $20. The sum is not princely, granted. But this way, at least, it cannot be said, that everybody leaves the New York Theater Workshop empty-handed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4791
SOURCE: "On the Road with Tomson Highway's Blues Harmonica in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing," in Canadian Literature, No. 144, Spring, 1995, pp. 113-24.
[In the following essay, Imboden discusses the role of the blues harmonica player in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing stating that while the player does not participate in the drama as a character, "the musician's absence-presence is crucial for the full development of the play's potentiality."]
Tomson Highway observes in the Production Notes that precede his play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing:
The 'sound-scape' of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing was mostly provided for by a musician playing, live, on harmonica, off to the side. The 'dream-scape' of the play is laced all the way through with Zachary Jeremiah Keechigeesik's 'idealized' from of harmonica playing, with a definite "blues" flavor.
The harmonica player invites the reader/audience to enter the dream, but the link between the play and the Blues warrants a preliminary explanation.
The blues is the music that arose from the recently freed slaves of the United States at the end of the 19th century. The Hayes Compromise of 1877 ended the hopes of Afro-Americans for authentic political participation in American life. This law caused the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, troops who were perceived as a buffer against white southern prejudice. By 1896 the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was declared unconstitutional and a situation of apartheid existed, for the doctrine of "separate but equal" was the law. The blues emerged out of this sociopolitical setting.
The spirituals, which came directly out of the slavery experience, at once resemble and differ from the blues in that both forms of music emerge from the suffering of slavery and move toward transcendence, but the transcendence of the spirituals involves life after death, whereas that of the blues involves only that of historical reality on earth. The blues, although sometimes referred to as "secular spirituals," are totally secular. "The blues are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression." Not surprisingly, the blues have strongly sexual overtones since on this earth the only possession the Afro-American had was the body, the body that must be celebrated.
The blues music emerges from the horror of the failed reconstruction of the South, but its power lies in the affirmation of the Afro-American self as it transforms itself through song. Thus, the structure of the blues moves from the tragedy of a lost dream, lost in the tragedy of the Post-Civil War South, toward a transcendence of this agony within the visceral affirmation of the Afro-American self.
The role of the Blues harmonica is one that parallels that of the Blues itself. Known as "the French harp," this instrument is well suited to the songs of a people hungering for a freedom that they have, yet do not have. Since the mark of the slave had been the absolute curtailment of all movement, trains and buses are important images in the Blues. Because the harmonica player could easily mimic trains, the sound of locomotives, the symbol of movement, of freedom, the harmonica was the ideal Blues instrument. Furthermore, the harmonica is seen by Blues experts as having a considerable expressive range, more volume, more versatility than the other instruments that were used by the Blues musicians. The harmonica, more easily than other instruments, can mimic the human voice.
Although Tomson Highway's characters have a very different history from that of the Afro-Americans in the South after the Civil War, the Blues harmonica suits well the situation of the Native People who are also struggling with a freedom that they have and do not have, toward some form of transcendence, some affirmation of the self. Thus, the Blues harmonica is an excellent medium of exodus for Highway's characters on the road toward meaningful liberation. This harmonica is the music the leads the characters from the poisons, sufferings, of their present state, on a journey that takes them toward a new world.
The Blues harmonica player does not participate in the play as one of its characters. Nevertheless, the musician's absence-presence is crucial for the full development of the play's potentiality. The placing of the musician on the side is symbolic of the assertion of a dynamic intertextuality by forces outside the text upon the actual play itself. Outside forces are always potentially disruptive, but in this case, this outside historical force, the suffering of the Afro-Americans of the Post-Civil War South, is interwoven into the play in such a way as to add a powerful, supportive new dimension. The eruption of an outside into the work has tremendous transformative potential for two different reasons. (1) The sound of the Blues harmonica sings of free movement and the possibility of transcendence. (2) The concept of performance, as personified in the semi-invisible musician, also carries within its process the transformation of the text. In the new idea of performance, the work that is being performed is opened up to the forces outside it. "[P]erformance can be defined as an activity which generates transformations, as the reintegration of art with what is 'outside' it, an 'opening up' of the 'field.'" Since, in a sense, the musician is performing Highway's play, the musician takes the characters on a journey that will allow them to move outside the confines of their narrow, sordid existence, toward the transformation of their lives.
The tools of Northrop Frye and Jacques Derrida will be helpful to the reader/audience who must accompany the characters on this journey. Although these critics are so obviously dissimilar, analyzing the play from these two different perspectives will add two different, but meaningful, dimensions to the deciphering process. The use of Frye will reveal an exodus that moves from the bondage of misery to freedom, whereas the use of Derrida will lead the characters, as well as reader/audience, on a journey from the present moment of this misery back, back in time, beyond time, toward the origins that allow such an exodus to take place.
Deep within the rhythm of the Blues harmonica lies a hidden impetus that finds the characters within the world of tragedy, not that of an apartheid American South, but that of a Native People's reservation that bears all the marks of an apartheid North. But this Blues harmonica, with its images of movement, of trains toward true freedom, will direct the characters from the present world of tragedy to the road of satire. On this road the characters will be given the weapons of liberation; they will see clearly all that is wrong with their society. A powerful light will shine upon them and they will understand their reality. They will see in the lucid light all vices, depravities, cruelties, all the demonic forces that have imprisoned them in a labyrinth of darkness, of violence. Highway will expose for them the torture and crucifixion of their women, the destruction of the vulnerable foetal brain of their children through foetal alcohol syndrome and the premature, senseless, violent death of their young men. But the Blues harmonica will give hope, will give the characters the gut capacity to survive, will tell the people on this reservation that the road from Corinth to Thebes is not caught within the strange circular path of the moebius strip.
Now, a brief look at what this circular path is, this structure of classical tragedy, is necessary. If one uses Sophocles' Oedipus Rex as an example, the structure becomes clear. Points A and B on the opposite sides of the circle are Corinth and Thebes. No way out of this enclosed circle is possible except through ostracism, exile, death. At first, on the road from Corinth to Thebes, while one watches Oedipus fleeing his fate of parricide and incest, as predicted by the Delphic Oracle, the reader/audience thinks that true escape is possible. But as the play progresses, every step that every character in the play takes on the road to Thebes from Corinth is really a step on the road to Corinth from Thebes. Corinth represents the irreparable fate of the past. Thebes seemingly represents the freedom to create one's own destiny of the future. But Oedipus, in fleeing his past, his fate, is actually moving toward it of his own free will. Similarly, Big Joey, in attempting to flee the fate of misery on the reservation, goes to Wounded Knee in 1973. But instead of finding liberation from his fate, he finds murder and assassination. When he returns to the reservation, he brings with him the hatred and violence of the South Dakota site. Seething in hatred and despair, he becomes responsible for the three strikingly tragic events of the play: the damaged birth of his son, Dickie Bird, whom he refuses to recognize, the brutal crucifix rape of Patsy by Dickie Bird, and the subsequent accidental, suicidal death of her lover, Simon. His hatred has both caused and allowed Black Lady Halked to drink constantly for the three weeks preceding Dickie Bird's birth. This same hatred allows him to watch silently as Patsy is raped. Every one of these events can be seen as one of the steps that binds Big Joey and his people more securely than ever in their agonizing fate of impoverishment.
This tragic structure is one of narrowing inevitability in which all the characters move closer and closer to hell. The plagues of Sophocles' Thebes, which threaten to kill all life, would have killed all life here as well, but the achingly beautiful strains of the Blues harmonica are heard. Somewhere within their feverish brains, the characters, through the Blues, become aware of an opening in the tragic circle. Somewhere, on this earth, within history, some form of transcendence of this agony is possible. The Blues song purges anguish, horror, just as did the ancient plays of the Greek tragedians. The harmonica, with all its range and versatility, tells them that this narrow hell is not all that exists. The Blues harmonica places them on the road toward satire which will give them the code that leads them out of the Corinthian-Theban impasse. As Frye reminds us, this world of satire is often a wasteland, a desert, but, in this case, because the Blues harmonica continues to play, the desert is not that of the wilderness and death of the ancient Greek exiles. Rather, it will be the desert of Moses and his followers going to the Promised Land.
The weapons of satire that break the structure of the tragic circle are: militant irony, burlesque, caricature, wild, obscene humour, the hallmarks of satire. The militant irony contains a sharp-edged attack against all that the characters see. The militant aspect contains the passion and the irony contains the intellectual ability to invert reality so that contradictions are unearthed, so that the present reality is juxtaposed with an ideal of Wounded Knee that has been absolutely defiled. Instead of being a source of transcendence, Wounded Knee casts a long shadow of devastating drunkenness, brutal rape, razor-edged misogyny and accidental death over the reservation.
The burlesque, wild, obscene humour that works with this militant irony on the wasteland road of satire, allows the characters, and ourselves, the reader/audience, to have the courage to face the horrors with a bravery that otherwise would not have been possible. A drunken nine months pregnant Black Lady Halked, looking very much like the Virgin Mary, suddenly appears in the bright spotlight in mid-air, trying very hard to become more inebriated than she already is. A few scenes later the reader/audience realizes that the mid air is held up by a jukebox. This same drunken Virgin, in the Dickie Bird Bar, giving birth astride this jukebox to a brain-damaged child, is the epitome of this type of humor. So too are all the appearances of Nanabush as she, in true Rabelaisian manner, romps through the play wearing either false, gigantic rubberized breasts, belly or bum. This burlesque humor allows the characters and the reader/audience to see the demonic, chaotic labyrinth in which the characters live in such a caricatured manner that a liberating process begins. The gross exaggeration is so close to the truth that a shock occurs. What appears as wild exaggeration on the printed page or on the stage is a faithful representation of the tragedy of reservation life. But the burlesque humour creates a distancing effect allowing the recognition that what is portrayed is so absurd that surely it is not normal and natural; it is not given. Surely another way must be better. The grotesque humour creates a sense of utter chaos, but, ironically, this realization of chaos means that a certain kind of freedom exists, the freedom that comes from not having to destroy the rigid structures of society, for in this play there is no society. Hope lies in the realization that such unbounded freedom is the stuff with which to build a new world. The zeitgeist of the Postmodern world suggests that it is only upon ruins that creativity takes place. The world of satire is a world of ruins, of pure anarchy. Within the Frye perspective, the world of comedy, which succeeds that of satire, rises from the chaos of anarchy toward the creation of a new society. The most paradigmatic example of this new society is the wedding banquets that end so many comedies, banquets to which the entire human community is invited.
The musical strains of the Blues harmonica fit beautifully into this bawdy world, for "the most expressive and dominant theme in blues is sex." Here Nanabush can bump and grind and strip and kiss men's bums to her heart's content. Here the harmonica can sing the agony and praises of the only possession that these characters have: their bodies.
Then, faithful to those who have been on the road of bawdy, Bakhtinian carnivalesque satire, Highway moves the play in the last scene, from the desert wasteland of satire to the Promised Land of comedy. Suddenly the dreamscape of the Rabelaisian world disappears as Zachary awakens from the dream that has been the play, and all the elements of the comic world are neatly in place, including the happy ending.
Through the comic classical twist in the plot that is clearly manipulated by the intelligence of the author, the play moves from the world of satire where chaos reigns to a new order that is that of a new society. Here we see Zachary united with his wife Hera and their infant daughter. The reader/audience realizes that the mayhem of the previous scenes, the riotous drunkenness that leads to brain damage, rape, and suicide was Zachary's nightmare. Now the scene is one of peace and love. Even the less harmful, but, nevertheless, disruptive actions of the earlier scenes were all a play within the sleeping brain of Zachary. In the opening scene of his play dream, he awakens naked on the couch of Gazelle Nataways. Panic ensues when he realizes the situation. What will Hera say? To make matters worse, he cannot find his shorts and he discovers the marks of a woman's lips in lipstick on his bum. Throughout the dream play, his male friends, who have found his shorts, threaten to send them to Hera. The threatening complications that could perhaps destroy Zachary's relationship with his wife are suddenly removed by the manipulated twist of Zachary's awakening. Zachary had indeed fallen asleep naked on a couch, but it was a couch in his own house. His shorts are missing, but Hera discovers them beneath the couch. The lipstick mark is indeed on his bum, but the conveyor of the kiss is Hera. Thus, in a sense, from the point of view of the reader/audience, a reconciliation has occurred. The furious Hera of Zachary's dream is serenely happy with the now happy, rather than harassed, Zachary. Furthermore, the reader/audience recognizes that Hera, Zachary and their infant daughter are the proper and desirable society that all have desired. The proper act of communion occurs with the reader/audience who feels that "this should be".
The new society that Highway depicts is an interesting one. Hera and Zachary's name's are rooted in Western culture. Hera was the wife of Zeus and Zachary was the Hebrew Testament prophet. But Hera speaks Cree to Zachary, and a powwow bustle hangs over the poster of Marilyn Monroe on the wall. It would appear that the ingredients of the new society are composed of the richest roots of Western and of Native society. The bustle hanging over the photograph appears to imply that the richest roots of Native society can become more powerful than some of the more superficial, glossy Hollywood aspects of Western society.
Frye says that the new society of comedy is pragmatically free, free from the old obsessions that haunt tragedy and satire. Oedipus's obsession with parricide and incest, Antigone's obsession with the burial of her brother, and Big Joey's obsession with the massacre at Wounded Knee have vanished, along with the classical comic blocking character, Big Joey, himself, a constant source of hatred and violence. This pragmatic freedom exercises itself visibly as Zachary lifts his infant daughter high into the air in an act of exaltation, of celebration. She is the future and, freed of ancient poisoning obsessions, she will be able to create her own new world. The shape of that world is not defined, as it never is in comedy.
But that world will be founded upon reality, rather than upon illusion. Big Joey and Simon had lived with the illusion that traveling to wounded Knee would free them from the grinding poverty and misery of the reservation. The Marilyn Monroe poster, with no powwow bustle draped over it at the beginning of the play, can be interpreted as a symbol of illusion. Norma Jean, the original name of Marilyn Monroe, was a signifier of the real, but the face of the woman named Marilyn on the poster is an image of illusion that led to drug abuse and suicide. Now, at the end of the play, this illusion is exorcised.
In true Frye fashion, one of the great myths of the Judaeo-Christian culture has been accomplished. An exodus has occurred. To the strains of the Blues harmonica, the characters have boarded the train and traveled the road from the fallen world of tragedy to the new world of comedy through the chaos of satire. The Blues harmonica, through the structure of its music, through its singing the human heart out of its anguish toward transcendence and exodus, has enabled the characters to accept and to use the weapons of satire so that they could tread the difficult road toward comedy, the land of milk and honey. Moses is the invisible musician of the harmonica. True to scriptural tradition, once the characters have arrived in the new world that has been promised, the music of the Blues harmonica ceases. Moses never reaches Israel. Only his people do. Our harmonica player has expired in the desert. Once the world of freedom has been created, the Blues Harmonica, the instrument of liberation, has fulfilled its purpose, is no longer needed.
In Derrida's poetic piece Cinders, whose 1991 publication by the University of Nebraska has an excellent introduction by Ned Lukacher, the concept of "cinders" becomes the primary tool through which to understand what Derrida means by the non-presence within language. Derrida's theory concerning language, the written language, in particular, states that in order to read language properly, the reader must pay attention to the site within language, within the word, which is haunted by a lack, a kind of absence. This absence is "irreducible to either presence or absence," On the one hand, non-presence threatens all meaning, but on the other, it presents a promise that calls one to undertake a journey that can never be fully accomplished toward the origins of language, of the universe itself. Lukacher makes clear that it is Derrida's concept of "cinders" that inaugurates the journey toward the reading of the absence/presence. Cinders precede words; they are the "clinging to language of something beyond language," "the quarks of language." The call, the clinging of something entirely other, is that of the "You," the Other, the Nameless One that can never be named. The reader must, in reading the word, listen to the "inaudible song, prayer," this quark of language, and in so doing, take a journey to the "there" where the cinder is, "on the far side of Dasein, just on the edge of its Being-in-the-world." It is here, "there," on the border between speech and the silence of that which lies beyond the universe of language that the cinder lies. It is there, where it beckons to an unreachable site "that is not to be conceived or experienced spatially," where "the voice of the Other burns in the silence," at the site of the first all-burning, the original holocaust that marked the big bang, the all-incineration that brought being, the universe, into existence. Derrida's methodology thus takes the reader to the Alpha moment of time.
The undertaking of the Derridean journey toward that Alpha moment will reveal that we need not mourn the death of the Blues harmonica player. We must find her/him again by making a reverse journey through the play. Toward the end Highway states that Zachary "sleepwalks through the whole lower level of the set, almost as though he were retracing his steps back through the whole play. Slowly, he takes off his clothes item by item, until, by the end, he is back lying naked on the couch where he began the play…." Let us now walk backward with him.
In the final scene, two very important things occur in relation to this backward journey. Hera speaks Cree, and in her laugh one hears the laugh of Nanabush which, because it is wordless, carries one toward the silent ringing that lies beyond language. As the androgynous trickster of Native religion who is the mediator between ourselves and the Great Spirit, Nanabush is the perfect guide toward the big bang of the all-burning, the originary moment of creation. One also hears the silent ringing in the inaudible song of the Cree words, the song that is promised in the cinders that cling to language. The combination of the spoken Cree and the laugh of Nanabush will take the characters and the reader/audience on the road, back through the world of satire, through the world of tragedy. But the world beyond tragedy takes on the characteristics of a Derridean, rather than of a Frygian space. This world is one of shimmerings, of flickering fires, of space beyond language, rather than the green new world of Frye's romance. Frye's world of romance is the world at the time of its birth and infancy. Derrida's shimmering world is the space beyond the origin of our world, the space that moves one toward that moment of the all-burning, that moment of the birth of the cosmos. The laugh of Nanabush, the laugh beyond language, will guide us back to this world where all things are possible, the world before poison is poured into the ear of the king and into the minds of the Highway characters in the fallen world of the tragic circle.
In the land of satire, the Blues harmonica player will join us on the road so that we can more easily follow the laugh of the trickster. The musician will readily follow her. In the Production Notes Highway states that "the sound of this harmonica … under-line[s] and highlight[s] the many magical appearances of Nanabush in her various guises." We need the structure, the rhythm, the cathartic sorrow and hidden promise of the Blues to prevent us from going astray.
Perhaps more than anything else, the language of Cree(as well as Ojibway), that Hera speaks and that many of the characters speak throughout the play, makes possible Zachary's retracing sleep-walk journey. Hera's words of Cree enable the reader/audience, the characters, to set out on the journey of sensing the non-presence in her words that leads us to the cinder that clings, that calls us through its inaudible song. For a non-Native reader/audience, the hearing of the Cree language is a defamiliarizing experience that causes an awareness, in an acute manner, of the absence that clings to the words, to the silence that haunts them. Re-immersion in the play through Zachary's walk backward takes the reader/audience once again to the dramatic hockey game of the women and the wild narration of that game in Cree. Such an extended defamiliarizing experience can then apply to the words of English that inform most of the play.
The final words of the fatally wounded young Simon allow us to follow the cinders of words on the journey toward the hockey game, with its barrage of Cree words. Simon, who has dreamed of restoring Native spirituality to his people, utters these words: "Kammoowanow … apple … pie … patima … neetha … igwo Patsy … n'gapeetootanan … patima … apple … pie … neee." The cinder that clings to every English word is accentuated by the juxtaposition with the Cree words. "Apple" and "pie," the most familiar and everyday of words, appear to develop an unrecognizability, an inaudibility that makes them strangely alien, as if the meaning that they usually convey is absent. A mysterious code is presented to us, a code that is augmented by the pauses that the dying Simon places between his words. This sense of the absent meaning of the code calls the audience toward something, towards the laugh of Nanabush. The call toward this journey is facilitated by the Blues harmonica, an audible song, whose sound, with its familiarity, urges us onward. Since the harmonica, a great simulator of the human voice, is without words, this instrument is a perfect vehicle for calling the characters beyond the world of language toward the silent ringing.
The stage directions say, "From the darkness of the theatre emerges the magical flickering of a luminescent powwow dancing bustle." The two bustles "play" with each other, looking like two giant fire-flies. Another stage direction says, "The shimmering movements of the bustle balloon out into these magical, dance-like arches." The luminescent shimmerings are the cinders of the fires of the original all-burning toward which all language takes us. The presence of Nanabush is strongly associated with shimmering fire.
But one must recognize also in the shimmering fire the semi-invisible figure of the Blues harmonica player who has now become silent. This player was the initial absence/presence that called the characters toward the original all-burning. By means of an audible song, the Blues harmonica called everyone toward the inaudible song which the strains of the music always promised. The Blues harmonica is now part of that inaudible song.
We, the reader/audience and the characters, cannot reach that unreachable Other who is the origin of this wondrous activity, but the words of the languages lead us toward the Other. This is the journey that Zachary takes as he sleep-walks backward through the play. This journey is toward the "place for giving, rendering, celebrating, loving," for it is the site of the promise of the giving of the original, all-burning moment of creation, the promise of the name of the Nameless Other beyond Being that holds everything in being. A nice comic twist occurs within the last scene when Zachary, who has just awakened from his walk toward the origins of time, to a fresh world that still shimmers with the fires of creation, holds aloft in a triumphant gesture, his infant daughter, who, as yet, is a nameless one.
Thus, a strange dialectical movement pervades the play: one is the exodus of those fleeing bondage, and one is the free falling through time of those seeking the origin of the giving which created the universe. Perhaps the cinders of the dying words of Simon, the one who most passionately wanted to journey toward the shimmering fire of Nanabush, are one of the most important guides on that free falling journey. Both movements involve journeying on a road that is perilous, but one must remember that the greatest facilitator on that road is the Blues harmonica. Perhaps on a journey toward his own roots, songs of free West Africans, the harmonica player sings the audible song that makes the journey possible. The harmonica expresses the sorrow and, in the luminescent shimmerings of Nanabush with which it is so closely joined, promises the joy of liberation that permeates the lives of those who are "en marche," those who are on the road.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support