BODIES, FORM AND NATURE: THREE CANADIAN PLAYS AND REPRODUCTIVE CHOICE IN THE 1990s

By Scott, Shelley | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2004 | Go to article overview

BODIES, FORM AND NATURE: THREE CANADIAN PLAYS AND REPRODUCTIVE CHOICE IN THE 1990s


Scott, Shelley, British Journal of Canadian Studies


This article will deal with the ways in which three contemporary English-Canadian women playwrights have explored issues of reproductive choice in their creative work. Each playwright has made certain choices regarding form and design in order to address politically charged social issues in a specifically theatrical way. In Susan G. Cole's comedy A Fertile Imagination, a lesbian couple attempts to have a child through artificial insemination. Cole works within the familiar format of the television situation comedy to introduce characters and subject matter in a way that both naturalises them and simultaneously attempts to subvert the genre. In Linda Griffiths' intimate character study The Darling Family, subtitled 'a duet for three', a couple grapples with the implications of an abortion. Griffiths strips away most of the conventions of realist theatre: there are no costumes, sets, music or scene breaks, just two nameless characters speaking to themselves and each other. Deanne Taylor's musical fantasy, 2nd Nature, positions a woman's experience of her body and childbearing capacity as a force opposed to industrialised urban life. 2nd Nature exemplifies a theatrical style which Taylor has developed through twenty years of work with her company Videocabaret. Mixing live action with videotape and featuring flamboyant costumes and a multimedia setting, 2nd Nature uses form as a visual metaphor for content. All three of these plays were produced at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in the early 1990s.

Reproductive choice and new technologies were very much current issues in Canada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1988, the Supreme Court threw out what remained of the laws governing abortion and, in 1989, a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was created; the Commission issued a final report, containing 293 recommendations, in 1993. The three plays under consideration reflect the general preoccupations and concerns of the Canadian public, but while they are about reproductive choice issues, they contribute to the debate more by form than by content. As Ric Knowles has argued, form is itself a 'material agent of cultural affirmation (or reproduction), on the one hand, or cultural intervention, on the other' (1991: 15-16). We can ask what cultural work is being done by 'different dramatic forms and different dramaturgical structures, whatever the subject matter or thematic content'. Knowles goes so far as to suggest that form is the 'unconscious' of a play, and may or may not be at odds with the conscious subjects, themes and points of view (1991: 16). I will argue that the reproductive issues in the plays' contents are complicated and problematised by the particularities of each play's form, setting up a tension around the body onstage and the definitions of 'nature' it represents.

In the three plays under consideration here, the written text is only made fully meaningful by the performance text, in which underlying anxieties about the body and its relationship to nature are revealed in unexpected ways. While the play text (the drama) can be read, live bodies (both actors and audience) create another text entirely, layering significance through their flesh-and-blood presence. The importance of embodying meaning is especially relevant to questions of feminist theory, since many issues identified as feminist are body issues, revolving around the use and control of the body, the appearance and sexuality of the body, and the body's productive and reproductive capacities. Thus, the body of the woman onstage carries with it - literally represents through embodiment - its relationship with notions of nature and its contested status within culture. As we shall see, all three of the plays under consideration work with both cultural and materialist feminist models, at times suggesting that nature is innate, an experience to be expressed, and at others insisting that nature is just as constructed and changeable a concept as culture. …

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