On Montréal Play #4…and “What gets lost in the dark green forests of translation”

Montréal Play #4—The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr by Jovette Marchessault, translated by Linda Gaboriau.

SOPHIE: I’m not an artist like my friend Em’ly—inside her tunnel, she opens doors to bring us closer.

LIZZIE: Bring us closer to what? To whom?

SOPHIE: To the light! To each other! To the last door.

This was the kind of play I was hoping to find through this exercise of reading prior to attending the ATHE Conference in Montréal! I am sort of skipping ahead to 1990 with The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr by Jovette Marchessault and not following a linear approach to my reading through this list of plays. But I couldn’t help myself when I saw the list of four characters—a female artist, her sister, her Native American ‘friend’, and a mystical Soul Tuner. Just that mix of characters seemed appropriate for our pre-conference discourse. Perhaps I was also eager because when I think of the plays that are written about the biography of a major artist, I can only think of plays featuring male artists. (Please feel free to correct me if you can think of an American play with a female artist as protagonist!)

The Montréal playwright, Jovette Marchessault, is also an important pioneer of lesbian and feminist literature (perhaps the recent Tony win of Fun Home is also on my mind). So this seemed the next appropriate play to dive into, as we have Emily, of British heritage, appropriating Native American art into her work. She struggles with the reception of her paintings during her lifetime for daring to be a female artist who was focused on depicting native themes and symbols. It also didn’t hurt that this play received the Governor General’s Award from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1990, so I was more than curious.

I was not disappointed. However, as I mentioned in the prior blog on Bouchard’s Lilies, it was also translated by Linda Gaboriau. My first impression of the dialogue was that it was highly poetic and symbolic and I had a hunch that this play, originally Québécois, was probably written that way to capture that the artist Emily Carr was one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist painting style. So, I accepted the strange linguist twists and turns and moved on.  Apparently, this poetic style was a major challenge for the translator.

In Agnes Whitfield’s book Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators, Linda Gaboriau recounts that translating The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr made her squirm while watching the production. In attempting to keep the lyrical and philosophical riffs that the main character of Emily Carr has on her paintings, the Anglophone actors who were trained in psychological realism struggled with the style in performance. According to Gaboriau, which may be interesting for us to keep in mind as we explore the landscape of Montréal theatre, “actors in English-Canadian theatre are not comfortable with flights of language, with poetry, or lyrical, rhetorical material…which are precisely the elements which have been most characteristic of Quebec theatre during the last two decades…” (Whitfield, pg. 293)


Emily Carr, Kitwancool, 1928

Well, we are deep into the dark green forests of translation issues now! And I haven’t even gotten into the issues of the play itself.

So why green forests? Since the 2010 Tony Award went to John Logan’s play Red on the artist Rothko, I got a bit of a chuckle that this play, written twenty years early, begins with a female artist standing before a totem of the Canadian First Nation goddess D’Sonoqua pondering “Is this green possible?” Green, a major color featured in Emily Carr’s paintings, becomes a throughline for this play as Emily struggles with her art. Later, the goddess D’Sonoqua responds to Emily:

“They all fled past the totem poles, the living men and women of the ill-fated human family. We still stand here with our vacant eyes…Who will accomplish the task of remembering? Who will remind us that these lives were not lived in vain?”

Throughout this green play, Emily Carr is burdened with this question of how her art can help this task of remembering.

Unlike many biographical plays, this isn’t a straight-forward historical approach to depicting the life of Emily Carr. The playwright has done her job in selecting moments that are highly theatrical and provocative and the main conflicts in the play are the three women, represented by Emily Carr, the artist, her traditional sister Lizzie, and her First Nation friend Sophie (who also doubles as the goddess D’Sonoqua).

The male world in this play, represented by the Soul Tuner, feels to me very much a secondary character. There’s a tense moments when Emily is invited to present her work back east in Ottawa, but the letter is addressed to “Mr. Emile Carr” as the art world assumes that a woman from the wilds of Western Canada could not possibly be sophisticated enough. The one kind male in the play, the artist Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven, does welcome her and recognize her talents. Still, for the most part, Emily exclaims in frustration that the men evaluating her work are “All so incredibly paternalistic!” (pg. 96). But other than this event with Harris, this is not a play where I’m getting a straightforward biography of her life. The focus is on her relationship to her sister Lizzie, her friend Sophie, and her philosophical struggles with being a female artist in a remote corner of the world.

While Emily Carr recognizes that the Group of Seven is setting out to revolutionize art in Canada, the play argues that Emily Carr is actually the artist doing it through her struggle to preserve what’s left of the First Nation culture in the region of Victoria, Canada. But of course, as the Soul Tuner helps her see, what’s done through good intentions is also a hard, complicated task. I hope I’ve given you enough a sense of this play that there are a myriad of issues of country, isolation, and assimilation that we could discuss with this play alone. I feel like I could get lost in Emily Carr’s green forest myself for days, but I’ll leave this play with its haunting symbols, like the fiery kiln that the Soul Tuner appears and disappears out of, for now, and keep reading through this great list of  Montréal plays, hoping to circle back to this play at some point.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the characters runs on, claiming she has seen an elephant? I hope I’m not missing any elephants in the room regarding this play.

One thought on “On Montréal Play #4…and “What gets lost in the dark green forests of translation”

  1. Plays about painters are just about one of my favorite things on this earth. We’re doing a staged reading of a play about Georgia O’Keefe at PWTF this year, and last year’s film “Big Eyes” is a great new addition to this conversation too. But you’re right, the list of ones I love, “Red” being near the top, are about male artists.


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