“Gracie” and Polygamy

This month, my mother Arta Johnson has been visiting me in Victoria.   We have been having many conversations about debates occurring on the Canadian Mormon Feminist Facebook page, conversations that overlap with debates happening in the US.

Picture of Joan MacLeod from Times Colonist http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/playwright-joan-macleod-examines-polygamous-sect-in-gracie-1.8916505 

Part of the conversation has been about the play, “Gracie”, by Victoria playwright, Joan MacLeod.  I missed the play when it was running in Victoria, but Arta and my cousin Marcia saw it in Calgary.  Our friend Christine saw it in Ottawa.  It also had a run in London England.  Arta has been writing to the playwright to ask her when it will be coming our way again (the answer is, Regina in early 2019!)  (click here for a short interview with the actress)

Arta is hoping that the play can open some interesting conversation amongst Canadian Mormons.  The play has just been published as a book, so it would be a great option for a book club!

9780774826167-7660-510x590Seeing the play threw us back into reminiscing about conversations with academics about polygamy.   Several years back, we were both part of a workshop in Victoria focused on polyhamy.   It resulted in a book edited by Lori Beaman and Gillian Calder called Polygamy’s Rights and Wrongs.  The book was the outcome of a workshop held in Victoria on polygamy.



Reflecting on things I learned from my parents (the pedagogy of bribery and guilt)

I have this ‘thing’:  I really really love Shakespeare.  I blame it on my parents (who forced us kids into a deep engagement with the texts of The Bard).  And so, the goal has been to pass this love of Shakespeare onto my children.  Part of the goal is purely self-centred: I enjoy going to see the plays, and in some ways, taking the kids is a way of ensuring that I can talk about the plays when I get home.  But in trying to pass this love along, I have developed an appreciation of the hard work that was done by my parents.  It is not an easy task to teach one’s kids a love of iambic pentameter. However, it has been made somewhat easier by the move of theatre companies to do cinematic broadcasts.  Thank you NT Live and Stratford HD!  It is such a gift to be able to take the kids to the local movie theatre and see some of the best actors in the world bringing their craft to bear in an astonishing range of Shakespeare’s famous and lesser known plays.

But lest any parent out there think that it has been easy for me to get my kids off to see Shakespeare, I will put the more disreputable dimensions of my parenting skills on the table:  I do use both ‘guilting’ and ‘bribery’ to get them there (or, both the carrot and the stick).  The guilt side is of course not optimal, but it does go some distance:  my kids both assert that I have some exceptional abilities to explicity offer them the freedom to decline my invitations while simultanously delivering implicit messages of disappointment in them should they operationalize their freedom (Ah well…. I blame my father for enabling this skill set in me).But I think my skills in bribery have actually been the stronger tool.  Bribery is something I learned from watching my mother work with the younger siblings in our family!  🙂

On the bribery front, I work two angles:

  1.  I let them smuggle in as much junk food as they can [relatively quietly] eat during the show, and
  2. I let them earn money [$1 per answer, up to a pre-set $20 limit] by asking or answering questions after the show.  In short, there is an opportunity to do some learning, and to have some testing! (a teacher’s dream!)
my notes in advance for Taming of the Shrew

There is some advance work to be done to make the bribery effective (in a pedagogical sense).  I have found that they have needed some framework to be able to follow the plot in a Shakespearean adventure.  If you are to follow me, then you need to have a sense of what will happen in the play before getting to the theatre. Again, my model is my mother.  Prior to the event, I generally head out to the web, and spend a bit of time just trying to get the names of the main characters on a piece of paper.  It is messy, but it helps me to be able to have some snapshot points in mind, so I can “SEE” some connections (and make them visible in advance for the kids)

I generally try to give the kids some info in advance like:

  • the year the play was written (so i can say “420 years ago!”)
  • the names of main characters and the ‘teams’ they belong to
  • framing devices they might see
  • political or human issues at the centre of the play
  • ways to read with or against the grain in an old play
Ben Carlson as Petruchio and Deborah Hay as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photography by David Hou.

So, for example, when we went to the movies for the broadcast of the Stratford production of The Taming of the Shrew, here were some of the preliminary discussions:

  • What is a framing device? This let us talk about the ‘play within the play’.  Then we could ask about the relationship between 1.  the actors  in the framing story ‘tricking’ Christopher Sly into thinking that he [and they] are something other than what they are, and 2. the way the ‘Shrew’ story can also be about people who are other than what they seem to be.
  • Look for people in the play pretending to be someone else  Here, the goal was (in advance) to try to count each time someone dressed as someone other than what they were.
  • What are some misogynist/violent elements in the play?  Here, we talked about 1.  “Patriarchy” – Rule by the Fathers, and the ways Fathers in this play have control over the choices of both their daughters AND their sons 2. How the men are able to ‘compete’ for the desirable daughter, and how those men are able to put aside that competition to work together to get the undesireable daughter married off first 3.  The ‘violence’ present in the supposedly ‘non-violence’ of depriving Katerina of food, sleep, and nice clothing, and in doing so until she agrees that the world is the opposite of what she sees.
  • What are different ways of seeing this misogynist play-within-a-play?  we talked about seeing it as 1. A Farce to distract a drunken tinker (Christopher Sly) 2. A piece of Irony – that is, as making fun of patriarchy  3. A historical play documenting how things were ‘in the past’ 4. An argument re-enacted today in support of misogyny – that is, taking it as inviting us to affirm its message about how women should be and how the violence against them might be validated   5. as a piece of contemporary critique – asking us to draw connections between what seems over the top, and what is present in different ways in our own society.
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays Laertes (left)

At other times, and with other plays, the bribery ‘quiz’ will be related to famous quotes.  So, for example, in the week before we went to see the NT live version of Hamlet (with Benedict Cumberbatch!), I went to the web, and printed off a page with the top 20 most famous quotes from the play.  I stuck it up on the wall in the kitchen.  Over meal times, I read the quotes to the boys, and said a bit about what the phrases meant (again, you can rely on the web and a short amount of pre-reading…indeed, the web will have pages that EXPLAIN those famous lines for you).   Then, at the play, in order to earn money, all the kids had to do was poke my arm when they heard those lines show up in the play (but hopefully not poke me too hard).  Again, the result was that some of the language of Shakespeare was in their ears and minds before we got there, and then was attached to the action of the play itself.

So… while it might be preferable if I did not need to rely on bribery to get my kids to come see Shakespeare with me, rely is what I have done.  And in my case, bribery has been efficient (cheaper than paying a tutor!)  The result is that my kids can listen to the language of Shakespeare without being defeated by it, can follow the plots, and laugh at the humour, and keep me company in the cinema (so I don’t have to go alone).   It is a win-win!

Thanks mom and dad for passing on guilt and bribery as parenting tools!


Lulu and Pandora’s Box

Marlis Petersen in Berg’s Lulu

I spent the morning at the movie theatre watching the Live at the Met production of Alvin Berg’s opera Lulu staged by William Kentridge (thanks Gillian and Arta for coming with me!) Here is the trailer.  It was four hours of what felt like an atonal musical assault.


Maybe that seems a bit unfair. It was amazing.  I loved it. But I also left it feeling wrung out.  It left me thinking about the narrative story, the visual field and the musical soundscapes.  There was much there that was unexpected. In the face of everything unexpected, I felt very much  grounded in the experience of the story.

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box

For maybe ten years, I taught a Law and Film Course using Pabst’s 1928 silent film classic, Pandora’s Box, which is also the story of Lulu. The arc of the story in both the opera and the film is similar. Lulu, a femme fatale, is taken in by (and ‘takes in’) man after man. Always, Death follows in her wake.  In the end, Jack the Ripper has to be brought into finally quell the threat that she poses to men and women in the world around her.  As Orit Kamir points out in her excellent analysis of the film (in her book, Framed: Woman in Law and Film), it is as if one serial killer has to be brought in to finish off another.

Lulu dancing with the Countess Geschwitz

Having seen the movie so many times, I was prepared for the narrative which situates woman as Pandora, as responsible for the introduction of desire, disease and death all around her.  No surprise.  Fabulous story for feminist analysis.  But today was my first experience with Berg’s adaptation of the story.

Of course, musically, it is a complicated piece of work.  Not much in the way of easy melodies, or catchy tunes to carry you through.  But it was not just the difficulty of the music.  There was also so much that was unexpected in the production. The visual field was staggering. The back stage was used cinematically with layers of film, newspaper texts and images whipped on and off throughout the piece. Opera these days is always subtitled, so I am accustomed to reading the libretto text, so it was not really a big deal that the opera is in German. But I did feel conscious of how rapid my eye movements were because of how lush the background scene was, how rapidly the images moved and how it drew my eyes away from the narrative text up to the visual field. It was a visual field that completely matched German expressionist painting style of the ‘30’s.  But it was cinematic, and always in motion.  And as my eyes were continually being pulled across the stage, i could feel a matching rise in discomfort in my body.  I suppose in some ways that is what I mean when saying it was an assault both of sound and of image.

The opera is astonishingly visceral. It does operate in multiple registers.  In addition to the musical language, and the visual field of cinematic expressionist art, there are two  characters who are silently on stage throughout.

Joanna Dudley, holding a position in Lulu

The first is Joanna Dudley’s character, who appears first as a pianist sitting at the bench, dressed in an outfit that is evocative of Pabst’s 1928 film, like a character in black and white. As the opera moves forward, the character we initially believed to be a pianist begins to perform as a dancer, sometimes drawing our attention during a scene change and also seeming to provide an exteriorization of an inner feeling, thought or moment that belongs to Lulu. The second silent character is Andrea Fabia, who appears as a tall and gangly waiter whose body contorts into shapes that  capture the feel of something out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show or Young Doctor Frankenstein, or even the musical Cabaret. He often appears delivering the weapon that will deliver death. These two characters provide a silent and physical language giving yet another register of experience.

So, for example, when Lulu is seducing the artist behind a screen, Joanna Dudley’s character is out front, sliding her stocking up and down, spreading her legs open and closed, and weaving her body in ways that suggest a dance of sexual seduction, a dance that carries the feeling of 1930’s German expressionism. There is a certain angularity and almost a violence of line in her body and movements. Throughout the opera the movements of the dancer, of this ‘interior Lulu’, are marked by this sense of hold, legs askew in certain positions and very uncomfortable positions held with a sense of agony or tension, that as a viewer I kept noticing I was feeling in my own body, the discomfort of the hold.  This resonates with Kendrick’s decision to show Lulu throughout the opera with a piece of paper covering her heart with an ink line drawing of a breast – but which is its stylization, also appears as an inverted fermata, the musical indicator “to hold.” Again, the feeling of the silence was almost physically violent at times. It was almost like an interior psychological space, exhausting watching the bodies contort and be held in stillness. It is like a third language being played out on the stage.


I was particularly struck by one difference between the film and the opera. In the cinematic version, the Countess Geschwitz sacrifices herself for Lulu in order to enable her to escape to London.  In the operatic version, the Countess Geschwitz stays close to Lulu to the end.  The Countess, like many of the men who swirl around Lulu, is also desperately in love, a love that Lulu never requites.

Geschwitzt pledging to save Lulu


Near the end, as Lulu takes another customer to her bed, a customer whom we as the audience suspect to be Jack the Ripper, Geschwitz remains on stage, singing.  Having  considered throwing herself into the river or hanging herself, she determines to go on, to leave her broken heart behind, to return to Germany, to enrol herself in the university, to study law (you heard that right…Law!?) and take up the fight for women’s rights.

After Geschwitz has articulated this decision, we hear Lulu scream, and see the backdrop screen is covered by splatters of India ink, like blood.  The murderer comes out from behind the screen and then also kills stabs Geschwitz in the belly, expressing himself to be a lucky man to have had such a chance (two victims, not just one).  Even more than with Pabst’s film, Berg’s opera captured such a field of woman-hating.  Leaving the theatre, feeling the exhaustion of the musical and visual assault, I found myself thinking about the profound woman hating that structures both the opera and the film. Of course, many of the men around Lulu also die, but there was something quite powerful about the final scene involving this double killing of the embodied sexuality of a woman and the embrained core as well through Geshwitz: the act a denial of the productive agency of either a woman’s body or mind.


Of course, a person can read a film or an opera against the grain. I think it is certainly possible to read this film with great affection for Lulu and indeed to see her as a powerful character asserting her own will and her own morality, against the pattern of constraints and limits on her. She gives freely, both her sexuality and her money, but reserves the right to make her own choices about when she will or will not give those gifts. The background screen both captures something of the cruelty in the text, the cruelty of inter-war Germany, maybe even inter-war Europe to be precise, and the cruelty of the world of erasure in which Lulu lives. She is constantly misnamed by those around her: Mignon or Eve. And the text makes visible the ways in which she is a shifting object constructed by the desire of all of those who circle around her. You don’t have to go too far into psychoanalytic theory to find these themes. But the backdrop does make visible the ways she is a projection of those around her and made to pay for the gap felt by those who seek her to grasp something in her that they themselves had tried to place there.  The opera foregrounds commodification, set in the period of the economic crash which mirrors nicely the fact of value itself being a projection, rather than a tangible thing. Very much like Lulu is read by those around her.

The music student in me sees that the opera was lush, beautiful and there is every reason to see it. Marlis Peterson, like Louise Brooks in the cinematic version, completely occupies the role. At the same time, the significant woman-hatingness of the piece left me reflecting on strategies that different people use in the face of cultural narratives that carry such deep distain for and fear of women.  What would it mean to just turn away from these stories? I am not sure there would be any opera left to see if a person took that approach seriously. Maybe the best one can do is read the story in a way which makes visible the ways that these narratives, while projections, are none the less projections with tangible consequences.