Tag Archives: Sharon Pollock

203: Doc

14 Apr

Another play by Sharon Pollock today: Doc. This is one of the Canadian playwright’s most acclaimed plays, having garnered her the Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Governor General’s Award for Drama.

cover of Sharon Pollock's Doc

Doc is an autobiographical play about Pollock’s family. Her father, Ev, was a workaholic physician and her mother, nicknamed Bob, suffered depression and alcoholism, eventually committing suicide when Pollock was 18. The play is unflinching and raw, particularly in the way it depicts Pollock herself with all her flaws writ large.

Doc can be compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night, because of its autobiographical nature and the examination of a deeply dysfunctional family. But Doc is a more nuanced and hard-hitting piece of drama, in my opinion.

In an interview with Richard Ouzounian for The Toronto Star, Pollock said that: “Sometimes you don’t know what it is you’re writing. Your brain is playing a trick on you. If I knew I was going to delve so deeply into my past life I never would have done it.”

Reading Doc, I could understand why Pollock would have steered clear had she known what she was getting into. Not only is the play autobiographical, she also used real names, with the exception of her own. Apparently, in rehearsals, the director suggested that she change the name of the characters based on her to give herself a little distance. And, yes, there are two characters based on Pollock. Katie, Pollock as a young girl, and Catherine, Pollock in her 30s. Katie gets to experience things as they are happening to her and Catherine offers some perspective, looking back with the vantage of years and distance from her family.

The play is beautifully shaped and very moving. Interestingly, the character most will empathise with is Bob, the alcoholic mother, the one character Pollock had no empathy for while she was growing up. In her interview with Ouzounian she said: “I didn’t like my mother very much when [I] was growing up. I hated her in fact. I used to say, ‘My God, you’re trying to kill yourself again? Couldn’t you even do that right?’”

What makes this play so interesting is the blurring and shifting nature of time and the two versions of the author. One witnessing and reaching out to the past, while the other is oblivious and has to live through all the hurt, blind to the advice being offered.

Publisher: Playwrights Union of Canada (1984)

Cast: 2M, 3F

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202: Generations

13 Apr

Sharon Pollock’s play Generations premiered in 1980. Set on a farm in Southern Alberta, Canada, the play could be about almost any farm in a period of drought, anywhere.

prairies in Southern Alberta

Southern Alberta prairie

The Nurlins have managed to keep their farm when all around them were selling up. They’ve hung onto it through sheer grit because Old Eddy poured his life into the land and losing it now would be a kick in the old man’s teeth. Old Eddy is pushing 80 and lives on the farm with his son Albert, Albert’s wife Margaret, and their son David. David has an older brother, Young Eddy, who has left the farm and become a city-dwelling lawyer.

Generations reminded me a little of Sam Shepard, probably because the land has such a presence in the piece, and the family dynamics feel claustrophobic even in the vastness of the prairie. It’s not as dark as a Shepard piece, probably because almost all the characters are likeable.

The tension in the play comes from external and internal forces. There’s been a long period of drought and the Native Canadians have blocked off the farmers’ access to water from their reserve. The protest is aimed at the government, but it is the farmers who will have to suffer first as Old Eddy tells Charlie, an elderly Native Canadian who he’s known most of his life.

OLD EDDY: The thing is yuh agreed, and now yuh cut that water off, and we’re the ones that’s sufferin’, not the government, the farmers! Why the hell’re yuh takin’ it out on us?

CHARLIE: You’re the only ones around.

OLD EDDY: Hit the government, not us!

CHARLIE: The government don’t use our water.

OLD EDDY: Goddamn it, Charlie!

CHARLIE: Yuh keep right on yellin’. Council says the government don’t hear us yellin’, maybe they hear yuh.

The internal pressure in the play comes from Young Eddy’s return. He’s come back for something and it takes a while to get to the real reason for his return, which is to persuade his family to sell off a section of the farm to float his new business. The internal and external pressures cause the characters to face truths about themselves and bring relationships to a head.

OLD EDDY: To be a farmer yuh got to have a soft spot ’bout the size of a quarter in your brain, and yuh gotta have a strip ’bout this wide a iron in your soul. Yuh don’t have that winnin’ combination, yuh gonna spend your whole life runnin’ scared in this place.

Generations is a family drama about land, place and relationships. It’s an ode to farmers everywhere.

Publisher: NeWest Press (published in Blood Relations and other plays)

Cast: 5M, 2F

198: One Tiger to a Hill

29 Jan

Today’s play was Sharon Pollock’s One Tiger to a Hill. First produced in 1980, this is a drama set inside a prison during a hostage situation.

prison cell

Despite external reviews and recommendations for the prison, the management refuse to make any changes. As a result, an inmate has died in suspicious circumstances which leads to the hostage taking.

Two prisoners, Paul and Gillie, take two rehabilitation officers and a school teacher hostage. Their demands are for an inquiry into the death of the prisoner in solitary confinement, for the prison to implement the changes it’s supposed to be implementing and for a flight out for the two of them.

Being privy to the machinations behind the scenes as the security firm and the prison’s management decide how to respond, means that you know the likely outcome from the beginning. The hope comes from the two people brought from outside to try to negotiate. The play begins with a monologue from one of them.

CHALMERS: For nine years, twice a day, almost every day, I drove past the pen. Grey stone walls, turrets at the corners, bleak, oppressive, looked like a medieval fortress. Whenever I noticed the place, it always seemed to be raining. Sometimes I wondered what it was like being inside, locked up. I suppose there was always this question at the back of my mind and the question went like this – what if? What if the things you hear, the things you don’t want to hear, the things they won’t let you hear, what if those things really happen inside? Would I be any different in essence from all those good Germans who passed Dachau and Buchenwald, and never asked questions?

One Tiger to a Hill is a play about the penal system, about power and about what people will do to maintain it. The thirty years since it was written have aged it: I’d hope that prisons can no longer get away with the sort of abuse that appears to have been rife, and I know that men can no longer talk to women the way the officers speak to one of the lone women in this play (they’d be up on harassment charges if they did).

Publisher: NeWest Press (published in Blood Relations and other plays)

Cast: 8M, 2F

177: Saucy Jack

23 Oct

Saucy Jack is a play about Jack the Ripper that gives voice to his victims and points the finger at royalty. Sharon Pollock wrote this play because Jack the Ripper had had her “by the neck” for a long time.

Saucy Jack

In an introduction to the play Pollock writes:

I’m not particularly interested in the why of the original Ripper murders. I suppose that’s either because it is ultimately unknowable, or because I find it to be thus: the women are killed because they can be killed with relative or complete impunity. It’s done because it can be done.

What interested Pollock was the idea of memory, loyalty and sanity. Jem is a man with a head injury that may have affected his thinking, memory and behaviour. He is also the close friend of Prince Albert Victor, heir to the throne of England, and used to be his tutor when he was at Cambridge. Jem’s loyalty and love for Eddy (as he calls the Prince) goes beyond fealty and into something much darker. He carries blood-stained knives which one or both of them may have used to commit the Ripper murders.

The play begins when he brings an actress to a weekend get-away in Chiswick to provide entertainment for him and Eddy. Perhaps he means to kill her, or maybe she’s there to enact the previous murders for their pleasure.

JEM: It reduces me to rely on the likes of you. I abhor you, you are beneath contempt, had I the strength I’d tilt your head and slit your throat, but I consort with you to save Eddy, it must be done and I must do it. […] But you would know nothing of that, of friendship, love, nothing. You are a dosser, a daughter of joy, you sail along on your bottom and your life is savage and short and so it should be.

Kate, the actress, goes from being powerless to having a voice and refusing to be silenced. While the men appear doomed, she is the only one who might survive. She plays each of the Ripper’s victims, naming them and bringing them briefly to life.

KATE: I’m out for a trade but I stop and listen, and sometimes I dance ’cause I got looong legs and black curly hair and a big fat lip that I say comes from being kicked in the mouth clingin’ to a funnel to save myself when the Princess Alice sunk with the loss a 700 lives! And it’s all a lie. I tell terrible lies! […] What’s the harm? It’s better than truth and what does that tell you about what’s real?

Eddy and Jem’s relationship is the highlight of Saucy Jack. It’s twisted by class, status, education and love. Jem was Eddy’s tutor and mentor but has become unimportant in Eddy’s life as he’s matured.

JEM: Do you love me Eddy?
EDDY: I have a deep affection for you –
JEM: Nooo! Do you still love me! Love me! Don’t talk about that deep affection shit! […] Once you would have answered before the words had left my lips.
(Silence.)
EDDY: (A kind of explanation, or apology.) Mama is deaf. In one ear. That’s a confidence and I charge you with respecting it. I am not deaf in either ear – but sometimes when things around one are not to ones liking, a partial deafness is not a disability …

Publisher: Blizzard Publishing (1994)

Cast: 3M, 1F

170: Walsh

4 Oct

Today’s play had me sobbing on my way to work on the bus. It’s rare for a playscript to have this effect on me. Books do it regularly. (Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty was a shocking example of public tears while reading a novel. I cried in three different public places but still couldn’t put it down.)

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

This morning on the bus I was reading Walsh by Sharon Pollock. Her second full length play premiered in 1973 and is an amazing work. It’s a biographical play about Major Walsh and his relationship with Sitting Bull of the Sioux Nation and it’s a heartbreaking historical work about a shameful period in America, Canada and Britain’s history.

I finished the play with a loathing of General Custer (whom we never see in the play) and the cruelness and brutality of the American soldiers, under orders from Washington and aided by Queen Victoria. In an opening address to the audience, Harry (a wagon master) relates the bloodbath at Little Big Horn and explains how Custer used to attack the “friendly natives” (those who had moved close to the soldiers and settlers and camped under an American flag to show their allegiance). His attacks were cowardly in the extreme but one time he chose the wrong group of Indians.

HARRY: And the Injuns at the Little Big Horn weren’t friendly. They were hostile as hell. Sittin’ Bull and the Sioux had listened to the ‘merican government say, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, and their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” They had taken the government at its word – bein’ savages they weren’t too familiar with governments and all, so it was an understandable mistake.

The attack ends in the death of Custer and his soldiers and the American government sets out to bring Sitting Bull and the Sioux to ‘justice’ (despite the fact that they had acted in self defence). Sitting Bull and his people make it to Canada where they take refuge and Sitting Bull makes friends with Major Walsh. Their friendship is the key part of Walsh: a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. But neither of these attributes mean a thing in a period of America’s history where the white man was setting out to exterminate the ‘Injun’.

The fate of the Sioux and of Sitting Bull is enough to make a tough person cry. No wonder I sobbed on the bus and found myself tearing up whenever I thought of the play.

SITTING BULL: In the beginning … was given … to everyone a cup. … A cup of clay. And from this cup we drink our life. We all dip in the water, but the cups are different … My cup is broken. It has passed away.

Walsh is a beautiful, moving play. Despite the lump in my throat, I am still glad I read it.

Publisher: Talonbooks

Cast: 11M, 2F