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. Believing that in the works of painters like Carr and the Group of Seven lay a cultural nationalism which grew out of an intuitive response to a natural environment and the perception of a transcendent order, he attempted to recreate a similar art on the stage. In his manifesto for a new Canadian drama, written as an introduction to Six Canadian Plays (1930), Voaden advanced the idealistic notion that a spiritual awakening was possible through a vitally expressive art in which set design, lighting, words, music, and movement were wholly integrated. In his earlier expressionist plays, such as "Rocks" and "Hill-Land," Voaden's characters are projections of different responses to landscape. His dramatic portrait of Emily Carr, however, is that of an historic individual, and it relies for its biographical detail on Carr's autobiography, Growing Pains, which according to Stephanie Kirkwood Walker, "reveals less about life purpose and professionalism than about her relations to family and friends, and her alienation from urban society" (18).
Voaden wrote Emily Carr: A Stage Biography with Pictures in 1951 and submitted it to the Stratford Festival Globe & Mail playwriting competition in 1958, but it was not produced until 1960 at Queen's University. In his Preface to the unpublished MS of the play, Voaden explained his desire that "the painting and the theatre would be webbed together as never before," and he hoped to evoke Carr's creative spirit by the projection of images of her paintings on a scrim:
The ideal arrangement is to disguise a "scrim" in a permanent section of the upstage wall of the set, with a projector with short lens attachment ten to fifteen feet upstage of it....When Emily is looking at a canvas, or talking about it, stage lights should drop a little and this portion of the wall should come alive with the picture...when the pictures appear the actors should look at the upstage screen, rather than the actual drawing or painting. (7)
The limitations of the theater space in Convocation Hall at Queen's University, however, precluded having the slides projected from upstage, so instead "they were thrown from the balcony on the wall adjoining the proscenium, stage right" (7). As a result, the overall effects were more complementary than "alienating," in the Brechtian sense, and indeed the projections functioned like illustrative slides in a lecture, with explanatory comments provided by the characters. In the second scene of the play, for example, the young Emily shows an early work to a French visitor:
Emily: ...This is the second one I have to show you - a water colour of"Indian Canoes in a Harbour." I did it last month at Lytton. (The water colour...is shown on the screen)
Joullin: Good! Your colour sense you have the makings of an artist is excellent [sic]....Your work is pleasant, honest. But you do not yet consider what is under the surfaces, or what is inside yourself. (18)
Near the end of the play, Emily reviews her career as an artist with Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery of Canada during the 1920s, and the projections again have a documentary effect:
(The canvas, "Skidgate"... appears on the screen as they look at it)
Brown: I remember this one. I like it. (Looking) It's dated 1928.
Emily: Yes. The year after I came back from seeing the Group of Seven.
Brown: What a difference between this and your 1912 painting!
Emily: It was the trip east that did it - seeing the pictures of the Group. They tore me. They woke something in me that I had thought quite killed, the passionate desire to say what I felt about Canada. (78-79)
Even the title of the play itself suggests that the pictorial expressionist elements function more as additions than as integral aspects of the play; i.e., the play is really a "biography" illustrated with "pictures." According to a review of the Queens production, these projections of Carr's paintings were "not quite happy," serving to distract attention from the "stage action," just as they did not "do much for the pictures" (Macdonald 16).
Voaden also attempted to evoke Carr's creative life through what he believed to be a symphonic form, which he described in terms of "a storm violent at first, and spending itself at last," moving "from darkness into vision and light" ("Preface" 3). He believed that this emotional pattern -"the movement toward spiritual resolution and fulfilment" - characterized her development, and thus his intent was to produce a kind …
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Publication information: Article title: Staging a Woman Painter's Life: Six Versions of Emily Carr. Contributors: Nothof, Anne F. - Author. Journal title: Mosaic (Winnipeg). Volume: 31. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 1998. Page number: 83+. © 1999 University of Manitoba, Mosaic. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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