Staging a Woman Painter's Life: Six Versions of Emily Carr

By Nothof, Anne F. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Staging a Woman Painter's Life: Six Versions of Emily Carr


Nothof, Anne F., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


The life of Canadian landscape painter Emily Carr has posed a persistent challenge for playwrights, who have accordingly experimented with a variety of techniques to express her individualist lifestyle and vision of the natural world. Focusing on six Carr plays, this essay examines their varying degrees of success in staging the "subjectivity" of such a woman artist.

Insofar as depicting an individual's authentic sense of self is dependent upon realizing that person's subjectivity, a theatrical "biography" would seem to be a technical impossibility: theater tends toward objectification - whatever is presented on stage is apprehended in a contextualizing mise en scene which makes characters and events the objects of the audience's gaze. In the case of depicting a woman's life, this difficulty is compounded by reason of the way that a patriarchal culture has already performed a kind of objectification - in the sense that women's roles have been constructed according to patterns which assume male centricity. When the focus of a drama is the life of a woman artist, however, an expression of her own way of seeing is crucial, since her aesthetic response to the world is a fundamental component of her "character."

Attempts to dramatize the life of the Canadian landscape painter Emily Cart (1871-1945) have therefore proven to be both fascinating and problematic for Canadian playwrights. Cart is entrenched in the national consciousness as a kind of cultural icon, a marker for revolt against social and aesthetic ideologies. Moreover, her "fresh seeing" has inevitably been conflated with her popular reputation as a social eccentric, a role which she herself constructed in highly imaginative terms in her autobiographies and stories, such as Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of the Small (1942), and The House of All Sorts (1944). In these works she recalls her childhood rebellion against a patriarchal household in Victoria, British Columbia, a city overlaid with imperialist attitudes and traditions. Her artistic training included studying painting in San Francisco, London, and Paris, after which she returned to Canada and developed a vigorous expressionist style in response to the primal forms and colors of the West Coast landscape and to its indigenous Native culture, recording the vanishing villages and totem poles of the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Although her painting was encouraged by Lawren Harris, one of the "Group of Seven" Canadian landscape painters, for most of her life she experienced a strong sense of artistic isolation. After a series of heart attacks, she spent her last years living with her sister Alice in Victoria, articulating her aesthetic philosophy in her journals, one of which, entitled Hundreds and Thousands, includes her perception of herself as being "a nothing, only a channel for the pouring through of that which is something, which is all" (34).

The extent to which Emily Carr has proven to be a difficult subject for dramatization is evidenced by the fact that several Canadian playwrights - including Sheldon Rosen, John Murrell, and Sharon Pollock - have abandoned projects of this kind. In this essay, however, I wish to demonstrate the problem by exploring the work of six dramatists who did make the attempt. In roughly chronological fashion, these works range from Herman Voaden's pioneering script of 1951 to the 1990 French production by Jovette Marchessault, although my concern is less with tracing a historical progression than with exploring how the respective playwrights use not only the "materials" of Carr's life - including her paintings and autobiographical writings - to "dramatize" her inner life but how they also use their own experiences. In this way, I also hope implicitly to argue for the value of what might be called a more feminist mode of "expressionism," one which views character as fluid and amorphous, and reality as subjective perception.

Herman Voaden (1903-91), a pioneer of Canadian theater, was the first to put Emily Carr on the stage.

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