The Huntress and the Holy Mother: Symbolic Integration in Berni Stapleton's the Pope and Princess Di

By Fralic, Michael | Theatre Research in Canada, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Huntress and the Holy Mother: Symbolic Integration in Berni Stapleton's the Pope and Princess Di


Fralic, Michael, Theatre Research in Canada


A prolific writer and performer, Berni Stapleton is a fixture on the Newfoundland theatre scene. Her original works for the stage demonstrate considerable artistry and rich, often mordant humour, as well as an ongoing commitment to the exploration of social issues, often from a feminist perspective. Stapleton's plays include the renowned A Tidy Package (co-authored with Amy House), a two-woman show on life in the wake of the Newfoundland cod moratorium, (1) which toured Canada several times. Also notable is Stapleton's one-woman satirical play Woman in a Monkey Cage, published in the collection Voices from the Landwash. Stapleton has also gained a name as a comedian in Newfoundland and beyond, largely for shows created and performed with Amy House. Along with playwrighting, performing, and directing for the theatre, Stapleton has authored educational video works, poetry, and non-fiction. Her multi-media publication on post-moratorium Newfoundland with Chris Brookes and Jamie Lewis, They Let Down Baskets, won the Newfoundland and Labrador Writers' Alliance Non-Fiction Book Award (1999). And her topical works for organizations such as the Provincial Working Group Against Child Sexual Abuse and the Federal Department of Justice are used as educational materials in public schools. The Pope and Princess Di continues Stapleton's abiding integration of public and political concerns into works with a compassionate heart and satirical guts.

Drawing on Stapleton's own experience of breast cancer, The Pope and Princess Di was first produced at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland in December 2004. Blending social realism, satirical fantasy, and affectionate caricature, the play is complex and intricate, yet also polemical, emotionally accessible, and broadly humorous. It challenges prevalent religious and cultural standards while sustaining a wary appreciation of tradition and a far-reaching skepticism about the ultimate adequacy of any epistemological framework. The play foregrounds symbols' constant subjection to alteration and hybridization, and it suggests that the symbols to which people become attached--even symbols of genuinely important principles--have destructive effects when viewed as sacrosanct. As the play's protagonists experience a painful process of transformation, their most revered symbols come to be seen as properly subservient to an experiential standard of wellness that does not require justification through a given set of ideas or beliefs. Religious and cultural symbols in the play are elaborated and subsequently shattered, only to be reintegrated as useful complements in a new symbolic weave messily adequate to the protagonists' emerging needs.

In developing an analysis of Stapleton's dramatic manipulations of symbols that either are explicitly Christian-religious or have gained a quasi-religious significance, I began to draw more and more heavily on ideas articulated by feminist theologians and religious philosophers. Writings on the subjects of symbolism and sacrifice by Christian feminists such as Kaye Ashe, Anne E. Carr, and Denise Lardner Carmody, radical feminists such as Carol Christ and Mary Daly, and other feminist religious thinkers such as Buddhist writer Rita Gross provide an illuminating foundation for an exploration of the symbolic content of Stapleton's play. The emphasis among these writers on the deep, manifold effects of symbols and the sense of ontological urgency that often fuels the expression of their ideas make their discussions particularly pertinent to an analysis of The Pope and Princess Di. Recalling such writers' critical interrogations of prominent patriarchal religious symbols and their typical advocacy of an organic relationship with symbols in general, Stapleton's play focuses on characters undergoing a radical refashioning of their self-conceptions through crucial reconfigurations and re-evaluations of dearly held religious and quasi-religious symbols. …

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