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Book Reviews

The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum: A Stage Play Based on the Novel by Sheldon Currie

by Wendy Lill

Marcel Pursued by the Hounds

by Michel Tremblay, John van Burek and Bill Glassco, trans.

Modern Quebec theatre was born in 1965, when Michel Tremblay stopped writing plays in French French (in works that he came to call “foreign subliterature”) and started, with Les belles soeurs, writing them in joual.

In his 1992 play, Marcel poursuivi par les chiens– or Marcel Pursued by the Hounds, as this serviceable translation by John van Burek and Bill Glassco has it – he revisits rue Fabre, the street where it all began. You don’t necessarily know it’s rue Fabre because, as the first stage direction points out, “The action takes place on a bare stage before an immense sky.” Why, if it weren’t for the telltale sign of three women knitters, you’d think you were in Beckett territory.

Tremblay’s always loved these gossipy neighbours – part Greek chorus, part Tennessee Williams rumour mongers, peering through the dirty laundry into their neighbours’ unhappy lives. Here they become much more than that – they become the inner voices of Marcel, the unfortunate fellow being chased by dogs. He’s come looking for his sister Thérèse, a woman being chased by demons of her own.

Thérèse is one of Tremblay’s bitterest creations, the alcoholic mother of a daughter whose existence she’s kept a secret for seven years, all the better to exact revenge on her own unloving mother: “I’ve stolen seven years of hugs from you!” she imagines crying gleefully as she presents the child. It’s a moment worthy of Sophocles (or Williams).

For his part, Marcel’s looking for some money, a dollar ninety-five to be exact, with which he intends to purchase a pair of stolen sunglasses. (He likes sunglasses – they make him invisible, you see.) More pressingly, Marcel needs to tell someone about the awful bloody mess of a woman he spotted in a bathtub hours earlier.

Yes, it’s all here: blood and vengeance, writ large, talked small, with characters we’ve met before (in En pièces détachées), but have never known quite so well. Tremblay’s grip on matters of the human heart is as precise, knowing, and unforgiving as ever; I’ll leave it to others to discuss his grip on the language. I do know this: the time has come for his long-time translators van Burek and Glassco to turn their literal translations over to writers. These plays call out for a language that is rich, suggestive, raw, and poetic; these subtitles just won’t do for the country’s greatest dramatist.

Wendy Lill, nominee (and very likely winner) of this year’s GG for English drama for this, her latest play, has let her conscience be her guide through several plays of social realism. Such cries for justice as All Fall Down (about child abuse), The Fighting Days (feminism) and The Occupation of Heather Rose (destruction of native culture) have earned her a healthy reputation as a writer of no-nonsense dramas. It’s only natural, then, that she should write a play based on Sheldon Currie’s short story The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, the tale that also inspired the movie Margaret’s Museum. Set in Cape Breton, the story is of a coal miner’s daughter driven by sorrow and anger to carve up the remains of her husband and brother – victims of a cave-in – and seal them away in jars. Lill is left with the unenviable task of constructing an entire play out of this sudden, unexpected turn. The scenes are decent enough – Margaret’s husband and brother arguing about unions and the like, interspersed with bagpipe-scored laments for a lost (Gaelic) culture – but they feel enervated, and strangely at odds with the brutal lyricism of the ending. Recreating the life of the noble worker is a fine gesture, but it pales in comparison to preserving it in formaldehyde. You’ll forgive the pun but, taken as a whole, this is a miner play from Wendy Lill.