Quill and Quire

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Thirteen Hands and Other Plays

by Carol Shields

Carol Shields claims to have been “an avid theatre-goer in the sixties and seventies,” when she was “greatly attracted to the experimental theatre of the time.” Her own plays, collected here for the first time, are unfortunately neither experimental nor very good.

Departures and Arrivals (her first full-length piece) is set in an airport and consists of 22 vignettes. Characters inexplicably reveal things that no air passengers ever would to strangers. For example, two wives buy life insurance for their husbands who are frequent flyers, and then proceed to discuss with each other how they will invest the insurance money. There are crude ethnic types (Frenchman, British Matron), cross-sections of society (Politician, Jock, Reporter, Poet, Man, Daughter), and sequences involving a pilot and flight attendant written as a satire on soap operas. At the end of two acts, a cleaner explains in incongruous diction how “a deep calm rises out of the absence of commerce and the petty distractions of human activity.”

Anniversary (co-written with Dave Williamson) is a talkative not very funny two-act comedy about two couples (one separated; another close to being so) and a fifth character thrown in to complicate things. Shields’ daughter lends a hand with Fashion, Power, Guilt and the Charity of Families, a contrived musical about family life.

Thirteen Hands is better than the other plays. This time the central situation is a women’s bridge game, enlivened – if that is the correct word – by songs (operetta, gospel, blues) with embarrassingly trite lyrics. The women have an irrepressible urge to deliver narratives that, while occasionally engaging, really belong in a short story rather than a play.