Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Romance, Recognition and Revenge in Marie Clements's the Unnatural and Accidental Women

Academic journal article Theatre Research in Canada

Romance, Recognition and Revenge in Marie Clements's the Unnatural and Accidental Women

Article excerpt

I begin by summarizing some well-known facts: Marie Clements's The Unnatural and Accidental Women is based on a series of killings that took place in Vancouver between 1965 and 1988. Most of the victims were middle-aged Native women who frequented Vancouver's lower eastside, its Skid Row. The murderer was a white man--a barber called Gilbert Paul Jordan--who induced the women to drink fatal amounts of alcohol. As Clements explains in a prefatory note to her play, several coroner's reports declared the deaths to be "unnatural and accidental" (5). Although he eventually served six years for manslaughter, Jordan was never convicted of murder: indeed, he was living on probation in the Vancouver area when Clements's play premiered at the Firehall Arts Centre in November of 2000. (2) In answer to the failure of the Canadian justice system and to the social conditions that allowed Jordan to prey upon the women, Marie Clements's play proposes an alternative: a therapeutic fantasy in which the women move from the isolation and violence of their deaths to form a community after death--a community that both repairs the emotional wounds of the women's early lives and takes action to stop the killer.

Other critics have usefully situated Clements's play within the context of First Nations' culture. (3) In this essay I would like to consider instead the play's relationship to European traditions of drama and folk narrative, and especially its relation to the genres of revenge tragedy and romance. As its editors, Monique Mojica and Ric Knowles, observe, The Unnatural and Accidental Women combines elements of "post-modern collage, pre-modern quest narrative, and early modern revenge tragedy" (364). Reid Gilbert, who analyzes the way the play "denaturalizes" genre, points to even more narrative categories, including "police story," "contemporary love story [,...] fictional and utopian revenge, and [...] native dreams of a redemptive North" (133). At the risk of oversimplifying the play's complexity, I propose to isolate two of the primary genres at work--quest-narrative and revenge tragedy--and to examine the way Clements transforms and subsumes the latter in a feminist, maternal romance. (4) As in Shakespearean romance, recognitions are crucial to the comic resolution: here Rebecca, a thirty-year-old writer and the daughter of one of the murdered women (called Aunt Shadie), searches for the mother who abandoned her as a child, while her mother, in the spirit world, searches for Rebecca. They meet at the play's climax, when Aunt Shadie and the other dead women intervene to save Rebecca from the barber and to help her kill him. In contrast to the resolution of Renaissance revenge plots, in which the revenger typically dies to satisfy the claims of justice, in Clements's play Rebecca achieves a rebirth symbolized by the recognition she shares with her mother. Immediately afterwards the murdered women sit down to a banquet together. In short, this is a festive resolution for everyone except the barber, who experiences a dramatic reversal and recognition, as he sees his victims return from the dead to claim his life. Part of the satisfaction the play offers its audience is thus the fantasy not only of the women taking collective action to stop the killer, but also of the barber's recognition of their agency.

Romance

"Romance, being absorbed with the ideal, always has an element of prophecy. It remakes the world in the image of desire." (Beer 79)

I have coined the phrase "maternal romance" to describe what I will argue is Clements's radical and feminist transformation of the genre. Before I turn to a more detailed discussion of the play, I would like to consider the romance tradition briefly. Romance is a protean genre, notoriously difficult to define; however, I am focusing here specifically on what we might call the family romance. (5) Rooted in ancient Mediterranean cultures, this tradition is mediated to us powerfully through Shakespeare's final plays, in which family members are separated, suffer apparent deaths, and are providentially reunited. …

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