Patricia Keeney[1]

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In many ways, Canadian playwright Judith Thompson has been redefining the feminine since the startling blast of her first drama in 1980 when she was only 25. Her work typically re-visions a traditional plot line to follow the wavering arc of monologue and voice.

Her 2007 play Palace of the End features three riveting monologues that expose the war in Iraq from three very individual and distinct perspectives, achieving a report of human inhumanity that almost obliterates any line between private and public and that finally frees her from an insistent focus on society’s outcasts. With this first overtly political play, she says, “I seem to have stumbled right into the zeitgeist,” landing her into global politics with real public figures. Some of these, no doubt, have risen disastrously from the depths.

The first is a female soldier. A media-massacred private who ‘takes the fall’ as program notes put it, for her country’s abuse of Muslim inmates at Abu Ghraib and imagines herself an American Joan of Arc. She may well be “a woman brutalized by the macho military culture around her,” as critic Robert Crew says, bragging that the human pyramid of naked captive men was her idea because “vanquishing the enemy, vanquishing evil was what I was born to do.” However, she is also the sordid product of white trash. Recruited at twenty-three from a dead end life working at Dairy Queen, she quickly graduates from the jaunty camaraderie of ‘I used to be the high school queen. Now I got my M16, to the mean version: ‘Flyin’ low and feelin’ mean. Find a family by the stream. Pick ‘em off and hear ’em scream’.

Judith Tompson
Judith Thompson

Obviously, the brutalization process has begun long before the army career. When walking a prisoner naked and pulling him by the neck, she describes the feeling of ‘having it over somebody. Like walking the dog. How different a human neck is from a dog’s. Much softer. You can’t just pull and pull.’ But she does and compares this sensation of heavy breathing excitement to an earlier time when ‘I had it over someone else and that was Lee Ann Wibby with her missing leg who smelled and was ugly. We lured her to the clubhouse on her birthday, made her strip naked, chopped up her wooden leg and let her crawl home.’

Orchestrating an astounding balance between psychological acuity and careful research, Thompson achieves the matter-of-fact ordinariness of this character along with the bland platitudes that render her both scary and sad. Her highly responsive instrument is the technique of dramatic monologue honed to a fine degree.

The second voice is that of the UN weapons inspector who ultimately reveals the lies contained in the British dossier of Weapons of Mass Destruction, so instrumental in escalating the Iraqi war. A scientist and a sensitive man, he feels acute responsibility for the scale of misery mounting in Iraq, the horrific pinnacle of which is the murder of a Baghdad bookseller and personal friend as well as the atrocious rape and killing of one of his daughters.

The magical bookshop “had books a hundred years old, giant books it would take three men to lift, tiny books with pages like moth’s wings that would fit into the palm of your hand.” The wife reminded him of Lucille Ball, the American comedienne, in her inspired antics and the daughter was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables. Together they made plans to bring the whole family to Canada for a visit…until it was reported in the NY Times that four American soldiers had shot the parents, raped and bayoneted the daughter and set fire to the bookshop. This, needless to say, is the moment the scientist ‘blows himself up’ as he puts it, revealing everything he knows to the CBC.

“This sad little Walter Mitty of a man,” he concludes with characteristic self-irony, alone in the woods and contemplating suicide, “just couldn’t take the pressure…they will say I was a man defeated, weak and meek and poor in character…”

The New Yorker review of Palace warns that “political pundits might be alienated by the idea of a hard news story such as this being treated in a poetic or ‘feminine’ manner” but urges all of us to remember that “the earliest reports of man’s inhumanity to man took the form of poems, recited beside a crashing sea.” Thompson cares for each of her people enough to render them tirelessly distinct and specific. It is where their poetry comes from.

The lyric intensity of the closing monologue belongs to a middle-class Iraqi woman who was tortured along with her sons by Sadam Hussein and then died when her house was bombed by the US in the Gulf War. We meet her at fifty drinking tea by a window looking out onto a huge date palm. This tree, the Nakhla endures like a woman she says. Fully grown, it does not need much of anything save a little rain now and then…I am not lonely; I am a full-grown tree…Just as the leaves breathe out into the air, I breathe out my memories… And so she does, through the range of her unique pain until we arrive back at the date palm and an ancient military saying: ‘Do not kill a woman, a child or an old man. Do not cut a tree…What happened to that? That is only a joke now. That is collateral damage.’ She may not be able to tell the difference between the three hundred varieties of dates in her country, she says with a smile, but she knows the value of her own date palm and her dream of a time when she will fly with her son around Baghdad putting back all the destroyed crowns on all the date palm trees.

Typically, Thompson’s people talk directly to the audience, breathing fire, burning the air with their litany of anger, pain or ecstasy, reinvigorating the long theatrical tradition of the monologue. She has said she hates the phony set-up of the ‘professional listener,’ that is, the social worker or psychiatrist.

(From left to right) Carol Hodge, Graham Cuthbertson and Jean-Sébastien Poirier in The Crackwalker, by Judith Thompson, produced by Soulfishing, Montreal, 2001 © photo Gideon Dante
(From left to right) Carol Hodge, Graham Cuthbertson and Jean-Sébastien Poirier in The Crackwalker, by Judith Thompson, produced by Soulfishing, Montreal, 2001 © photo Gideon Dante

The opening monologue of The Crackwalker, her first play in 1980, begins with the rough words, “Shut up mouth.” But Theresa – an impoverished First Nations prostitute living in small town Ontario and one of four desperate, dissolute characters that comprise this disastrous lurching between darkness and light – cannot stop the words. Ugly words full of beatings and rape, betrayal and humiliation. Words, both pungent and hilarious. Thompson’s work can bristle with mordant humour.

The language of Crackwalker, hurls its lower depth characters against the bars of their own cages that incarcerate them in prostitution, mental retardation and infanticide. Theresa talk grew from a mask work exercise in which the playwright developed the changing character of a semi-retarded girl-woman, decidedly not a feminist protagonist. Rather, dim-witted and promiscuous, someone dependant on the state and men for survival, almost a put-down of women, exploited and helpless. But Thompson insists she is a survivor with her own mental level. Other Canadian women playwrights, Sharon Pollock for example have also used a female voice of ‘unreason’ (Esme in Getting It Straight) to express what has been hidden long enough to become dangerous.

Put on the mask, look in the mirror, find the character, says Thompson. This technique allows the playwright to discover a fluidity of ego, to trace a moving being. Strindberg said it in his preface to Miss Julie, wanting his characters’ minds to ‘work as freely as in real life, letting the talk spin in a thousand direction.’ For these dramatists, the fixed ego is not realistic. As Canadian theatre scholar Rick Knowles points out in his introduction to Lion in the Streets, Thompson’s 1990 drama, ‘characters are fragmented, subjective constructs that allow opportunities for transformation. They are subjects in continuous construction’. The personality as a work in progress thereby affords more possibility for change. Knowles concludes that – along with the technique of monologue privileging a personal, private and otherwise secret voice – this is true of much feminist’ drama. Certainly, the fluid ego allows its creator a pouring into other, an inhabiting of other that involves empathy and a loosening of structure one might attribute more to female than male intuition, no matter what the gender of the literary creator involved.

“I put on a hat in my living room and start talking,” Thompsom says. “Listening for phrasing and rhythm. Out of these characters come moments and then meetings and then plot. That’s the engineering. I have to find the character from inside me, a part I can use, stretch, mould.” She insists her people are not ‘down and outers,’ they are all of us fighting off the nightmare … swinging over the same abyss we all do, dealing with existential terrors. Thompson’s characters are strung out dangerously and daringly between their socialized and anarchic selves, saved from the monster by the little daily laws of living. There are monsters yawning in the living room. Sandy from Crackwalker goes out on the balcony and screams and screams. Comes back and says ‘It was nothing.’ She believes in civilization, that it can be maintained with a new drink, a new eyeliner. If you live the way you’ve been taught you can be saved from the monster.

Thompson makes the distinction between characterization, the person you present to the world, and character, what you do in times of crisis. For her, once you find a character’s way of speaking, the words spill out. “What Thompson hears,” declares Canadian dramaturge Urjo Kareda writing in 1989 “is the poetry of the inarticulate and semi-literate complete with brand names, colloquialisms, fractured syntax and urgency.” Always urgency. “She hears and writes the words that carry wild, unruly, seeking spirits in a language that slips constantly between consciousness and unconsciousness. Her people are giddily non-private.” I would go so far as to say, they walk around inside out. Thompson gets inside her characters to the extent, as she has said many times, that she stands in their blood.

Often enough, Thompson’s bridge between consciousness and unconsciousness is the condition of epilepsy. Her radio play, Tornado (1987) is the powerful story of an epileptic woman on welfare who is conned by a middle class social worker into giving up her newborn child. The disease also opens forbidden doors in I am Yours (1987) and Perfect Pie (2000), described as a reunion between two, middle-aged women, one of whom may have died or may have lived life under another name, a play in which memory is alternatively treacherous, seductive and funny. In this short exchange Patsy and Francesca (a version of the poor country mouse and the slick city mouse) are comparing marriages:

Patsy. Is there any passion left?
Passion?
Yes Passion. You know.
Oh! That. Yeah. Sometimes. When the lights are out. Nosy
But, I’m talking about, you know, ecstasy? Do you find…Ecstasy?
In sex?
Well…
Not really.
Then where, Patsy? Where do you find it?
I don’t know. Here and there. (Pause.) Where do you find it?
I haven’t.

Patsy’s discussion of epilepsy also begins in humour. ‘They used to think it was contagious and caused by being over-sexed.’ Then she describes feeling underwater, smelling the deep personal smell of blood just before a seizure, how the next fit waits like a stalker, always there because the more you have them, the more you have them, pulling her under the floor and into the loneliness each time, like a cockroach.’ Thompson imagines her own mild epilepsy as “a screen door swinging between (two states) of mind and putting me in contact with the dark…it’s like they forgot to nail in the storm windows in my head.” And so the tempest invades. Considering her subjects, her relentless penetration into troubled psyches fuelled partly by a personal condition, it is not surprising that she is known as the dark lady of Canadian drama.

Thompson’s penetration of ‘other’ to the extent of psychological chaos has been traced by director Clarke Rogers as the hard edges and ragged lives that begin with observation, are forged in the playwright’s imagination, then explained by actors in workshops and performance until the play emerges, flickering before audiences like fire in a mirror. She has been called an actor’s writer, working to entrench subtle essences of character into her text, strange small qualities that actors eventually translate, as a kind of code that any cast can read.

“Superficially naturalistic, Thompson’s plays continually fracture their own realist surface with a kind of psycho-surrealism.” says Canadian theatre scholar Jerry Wasserman. For instance, Crackwalker’s Theresa, a semi-literate whore, is perceived by her boyfriend (who has impregnated her) as the Madonna. This image affects her to the extent that by the end of the play after her baby’s murder and debased in every way, she is described in a stage direction as ‘reminiscent of Cassandra in The Trojan Women’. For Thompson, naturalism’s opportunities for generating emotion are few and unsubtle. She is not interested in narrative predictability. Isobel, the ghost of a murdered girl flits through every scene of Lion in the Streets, creating a psychologically intricate web of a play, representing, in Knowles’ words, “the collage composite of an urban community in crisis.” It is a play without a plot, a series of mini-dramas each standing alone but linked, both forwards and backwards, careful as needlepoint. Early in her career, Thompson expressed a desire for the structural freedom of Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago.

There are also affinities between her work and Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s relentless penetration into urban violence and chaos in such plays as Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love(1989) which traces the patterns of desperate couplings and uncouplings in an urban labyrinth punctuated by a serial killer’s assaults. For Albert Glapp, a German scholar of Canadian drama, neither Thompson nor Fraser is interested in the well made play but rather problems of identity crisis. Her philosophical observation that nothing foreign is human to us allows her to say that the family in White Biting Dog (a 1984 a non-naturalistic play she insists must spin through the musical rhythms of its wounded, suicidal characters) is only dysfunctional because she exposes their inner world, insisting we’re all like that underneath the skin.

Here’s part of the father’s monologue at the beginning of Act 11, living, imaginatively, several different parts of his life simultaneously. He has been alone, seriously ill and is now visited variously by his delusional son; a psychic street woman; his estranged, sexually promiscuous wife and her current boyfriend. In a tux before an immaculately set table and very excited he says:

Yes I expected my wife to leave me, a beautiful woman like that? I used to run home at lunch every day just to see if she was still there. Do you think I expected that heaven to last? That heaven of phoning up from work at five o’clock. And saying, ‘Darl I’m through! Shall I pick up something on the way home?’ And her saying ‘Yes pooch, a loaf of brown.’ No no she had to escape that—she had to escape being—bored. I was—boring. Of course she left. I certainly NEVER ever expected her to come back!! That’s the – thing of it, eh? It’s the way things just work, the fates love to be tricky to give, give you that which you do not expect. Even now, I don’t …dare to believe that she loves me, not yet, only that perhaps she…likes me – I have made some contribution to my field, after all…I’ll tell you a moment in time like this makes me feel that there really is some spirit of good about…cornball, eh? The one other time I have felt this…spirit…when my son, my son was young and I watched him eat, I used to…love…to see him eat. (jumps back into the here and now) Uh oh!

Thompson agrees with the controversial psychiatrist R.D. Laing that the people who wander around muttering crazily are maybe those who feel the world most intensely. The playwright must get inside for that intensity. Her characters don’t interact with each other but with the audience, reflecting a failure of self expression and an inability to sustain relationships in what she calls ‘the treadmill world’. Her people exist in their own world, she maintains, and don’t need the outside references. Thompson is shocked when audiences are shocked by her work. She doesn’t accept that she is writing provocative in-your-face-theatre. “We can all relate to everything everywhere,” says Thompson in interview. “In murders, the id is screaming. When I write, I spend a lot of time getting to know myself, like psychoanalysts getting to know themselves through psychoanalysis. I try to get inside the characters as they become amalgamations of relatives, friends, acquaintances. It doesn’t occur to me that my characters offend anybody because they’re people I care about.”

When a character admits, ‘I could never smile at anyone except a baby,’ that is a form of honesty. Motifs of mother and child figure centrally in Thompson’s work. Interestingly, after becoming a mother herself (she has five children), Thompson downplayed the infanticide of Crackwalker. Her preoccupation with maternity and birth drives her drama. “Manipulative sociopathic people have, in my experience, been men,” she says. “They have a different sense of what power is than women.” Her characters do come to the mother in women for strength and shelter. Babies are desired, threatened, stolen and retrieved, fought over, bargained with. Typically in her drama, babies represent the currency of life: a reward for sex and the delay of death.

Nevertheless, her women are not soft characters and the actors who play her female roles often have trouble with the pure rage that she writes. In Pink, a 1986 anti-apartheid monologue written for a Toronto benefit, a ten-year-old white girl talking to her dead black nurse begins with an innocent enough rationale of separation that existed: ‘because if you spit and we said eww yucch, we’d hurt your feelings,’ to the indulgence of pink cakes and pretty Zulu songs, to an outburst of racist betrayal in which the furious child yells: SLAVE, SLAVE, DO WHAT YOU’RE TOLD OR I SLAP YOUR BLACK FACE AND KICK YOUR WHITE BELLY…TIL IT CAN’T HOLD NO MORE UGLY BLACK BABIES… It is a truism of feminist literature than the expression of real anger has often been problematic for women. Carolyn Hielbrun, in her seminal book, Writing a Women’s Life—her 1989 study of women and biography—applauds the great modernist women poets such as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich for giving voice to their outrage.

It is also these women who insist, as Thompson does, that the personal is also the political.

For Thompson, we commit little murders on a daily basis – physical murders and soul murders. When asked whether we can really equate these small cruelties with the violent psychotic behavior that is war, she answers that people do go over the edge internally and that is what she is trying to convey. Often criticized for her extreme situations, Thompson consistently refuses to mask horror with beauty. Lion in the Streets includes one character’s monologue on the ‘acceptable’ suicide of Ophelia, a pre-Raphaelite fantasy full of watery weeds and flowery sweetness that she wishes for herself, contrasted to her friend’s reality-check monologue describing the ugliness and filth that would comprise the real event. “The situations I dramatize are utterly real,” Thompson maintains. When pressed on the Shakespearean allusions in this play, she declares that “The massacre at the end of Hamlet is quite plausible…in Chechnya, Uganda or Iraq.”

Actress Arsinee Khanjian in the poster of Palace of the End, by the Stage Canadian Company.
Actress Arsinee Khanjian in the poster of Palace of the End, by the Stage Canadian Company.

Prize-winning and internationally produced, Thompson is not likely to leave the public arena of personal pain and transformation, her outstanding applications of monologue and individual voice to channel the interior lives she discovers, travelling with them in uniquely empathetic journeys to ‘the other side of dark,’ as it has been called, through to redemption. Her latest work, Such Creatures, weaves together the voices of two females from different times and experiences. One, an elderly Holocaust survivor dying of cancer who returns to the scene of her Auschwitz horrors and the other, a Canadian teenager abused violently threatened by a female gang. On a bare stage separated by a wire mesh fence, one brightly coloured ladder soars up, suggesting a child’s playground; the other, plain and functional, drops into the hell of the concentration camp. Each monologue is meant to illuminate the other.

In Thompson’s drama, we are all connected and we are all responsible. Ultimately, her work provides a confrontation with the self that allows us to identify and acknowledge those moments of explosive hostility that so easily spill over into larger arenas.

In conclusion, Thompson’s approach to playwriting over the last thirty years has consistently featured many of the elements that distinguish her as a female literary creator: a re-visioning of plot to follow the emotional arc of monologue and voice; a penetration into ‘other’ as far as psychological (and frequently hilarious) chaos; an arduous tracing of self and personal identity through shifting boundaries; the use of anger and violent language to express desperation and defiance; an exhaustively empathic attention to the fragilities of everyday life; a scrutiny of the mother archetype.

Thompson’s drama embraces the preoccupations and strategies of modernist and post-modernist women writers who customize the literary vehicles they have inherited, who indeed often re-invent them, to say what they must say.


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[1] Patricia Keeney is a member of IATC, editor and critic widely published in journals both in Canada and abroad. A poet and novelist, her books have been translated into many languages including Hindi, Bulgarian, Chinese and French. Keeney is a professor of English and Creative Writing at York University in Toronto.

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Where the Wild Things Are: The Voice of Unreason in the Work of Canadian Playwright Judith Thompson