Jan 102017


The Burning Air, Hutchinson, London, 1960
The Way In Viking, New York, 1968
No Resting Place Viking, New York, 1972
The World at Noon, Guernica Editions, Montreal, 1994


Eugene Mirabelli has written four novels which form a significant oeuvre. They are not singular, but interrelate in complex and delightful ways to form a unique (and, one assumes, unfinished) collectivity connected by a set of thematic concerns: family, marriage, Italian heritage, Cambridge, mutability and death; and structural articulations: the dominant male point of view that modulates briefly into the female at climactic junctures, the subtle fracturing and dislocating of time, and the interpolation of what Milan Kundera calls novelistic essays.

Literary comparisons are often invidious, but the names that come to mind as I read Mirabelli’s work are Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. The Burning Air is very much an Italian American “Goodbye, Columbus” and also reminds one of Bellow’s brief, tightly controlled early novels. Almost immediately, though, this comparison breaks down: Roth and Bellow share an era and a set of social concerns with Mirabelli, but their work falls into a Jewish American tradition (with roots in Yiddish literature) which is male-oriented, materialistic (i.e., of this world), intellectual, and comic. Mirabelli’s Italian American mental syntax is quite different: he builds his literary universe around an Augustinian dichotomy. His books are like long, careful sessions in the confessional, talking to God, enumerating small and large sins. His protagonists have one eye on the woman (wife and lover — Mary and Mary Magdalene) and one eye on death. He sees this world as an anxious and frustrating place, a place where his protagonists vain attempts at control are always being defeated by their own sinfulness and the fleeting nature of existence. Redemption comes only in the chaotic embrace of the family, the constricting yet reassuring bonds of love. A Mirabelli character may crack up and take anti-depressants, but one could never imagine him taking Roth’s detour into psychoanalysis or filing for multiple divorces as in Bellow.

Reading through Mirabelli’s novels in sequence one also begins to admire his technical ingenuity. He does lovely things which might not be noticed unless one treats the books as an on-going production. For example, he links his novels by taking a thematic note or plot segment from one and using it again in the next. The Burning Air is about a man who proposes to a woman and then never sees her again. In The Way In, the next novel, Frank Annunzio has proposed to a woman named Alba and then lost her. The Way In ends with Nancy’s premature and difficult delivery which is echoed darkly by Marianne’s miscarriage at the opening of No Resting Place. And, of course, Marco’s affair with Carol Crispin in No Resting Place is echoed in Nicolo’s affair with Roxanne in the last novel, The World at Noon.

Beginning with The Way In, Mirabelli also makes telling use of the novelistic essay. In The Way In, this takes the form of background essays on the Puritans who built New England and on the Shakers who built the school at which Frank begins his teaching career. The latter — mystical, other-worldly craftsmen — become a moral-spiritual counterpoint to the sad emptiness of Frank’s life before marriage and career. In No Resting Place, the device ramifies and extends itself into interpolated essays on Brook Farm, a running Sacco and Vanzetti sequence, and a tiny chapter on historic Albany. And in The World at Noon, the novelistic essay and family history combine and foliate in a delightful series of comic-mythic stories about the ancestors of the Cavallus. These interpolated essays and stories function like classical epyllions (one of Marshall McLuhan’s hobby horses) and give Mirabelli’s books what Yeats, in his essay on sub-plots in King Lear, called “the emotion of multitudes.”

This repetition of technical and thematic elements results in the odd sense one has reading these novels that the twenty-year gap between the publication of No Resting Place and The World at Noon ceases to exist in the experience of the reading. Mirabelli’s novels seem to form a perfectly logical sequence of growth, mutation and expansion. Each novel has been an advance in terms of technical virtuosity, thematic complexity and, for want of a better phrase, metaphysical accommodation. The Burning Air is taken up with George’s failed effort of control over the mysterious and fearful Giulia Molla. In The Way In, Frank Annunzio’s existential emptiness is the aftermath of that kind of loss of control (over women and/or the dark, shiftingness of things in general). Briefly, Frank is reprieved through marriage to Nancy and the community of friends he finds at the (Shaker) school (note especially the wonderful and redemptive chapter on kite flying), only to be plunged back into insecurity by the difficult birth of his child.

In No Resting Place, Mirabelli’s Manichean tour de force (the light of Brook Farm warring with the darkness of Sacco and Vanzetti), Marco Falconieri almost drowns in the slough of mid-life (and post-1960s) burnout which, really, is nothing but the final realization life itself will never redeem us, that things will not miraculously get better: “All our desire has been to carry through time, to stand on firm ground, reach out and stay the changes. Love leads us from ourselves to the things of this world, but in time these same things alter and pass away, no matter how much we cling to them. Here is no steady place.” In No Resting Place, Mirabelli grants us for the first time full access to the mental states of his protagonist as befits the overtly confessional mode of the narration. Mirabelli, as author, is himself beginning at this point to move deeper into his unique Italian-Catholic-American psyche, turning away from the vaguely modish, existential angst of the first two books toward a more chaotic (less controlled) vision of worldly and domestic uncertainty (the sinfulness of the flesh).

This is a dark, brave book which, in many ways, points toward its successor The World at Noon while yet not preparing us for the surprising shift of tone, the operatic and magical comedy of this most recent Mirabelli production. The World at Noon, as I have mentioned, replicates some of the plot articulations of No Resting Place — the extramarital affair, the reconciliation at the end. But the material is handled in a completely different way. It is as if, in delving always more deeply into who he is, Mirabelli has reinvented the peculiarly Italian, extravagantly melodramatic and often comic vision — the opera — in the novel form. By fusing the tale of American mid-life domestic woe with the mythical family histories of the Cavallus, he has created a wonderful interplay of now and then, this and that (the epyllion structure again). And he has coupled this complexity with a new sense of tranquil acceptance; not a superficial shrug but a genuinely comic (loving) accommodation. When Nicolo Pellegrino calmly invites his wife’s naked lover to climb down from the tree where he is hiding we know we have arrived at a totally new (for Mirabelli) and special literary place. And at the end of the novel, the double wedding of Gina and Aurora echoes the wedding at the close of The Tempest when Prospero throws his books of magic away and the world is renewed in the ritual sanctification of love and sexual regeneration.

—Douglas Glover

This essay originally appeared in Italian Americana Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 1995)


Dec 122016

Here’s the new trailer for the Waterford production of Elle, the play based on my novel, which is actually the Theatre Passe Muraille touring production, bound later for Winnipeg and Vancouver. But the Waterford performance is first on the tour, my home town, champagne extravaganzas on the first and last nights. I will be there, possibly not standing upright.

In other news, it turns out Goose Lane Editions, Elle‘s publisher, is rolling out a new print run to keep up with demand. Nice news.


Elle by Douglas Glover

Nov 202016

CaptureSevern Thompson as Elle in the original Theatre Passe Muraille production.

More exciting news about Elle, the play (based in my novel Elle). If you have been tracking this you are aware that Severn Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille are taking the play on tour this winter (tour details here). But it’s just been announced that this tour will actually start with performances in my home town of Waterford, Ontario, at the Old Town Hall Theatre, under the aegis of the most charming artistic director ever, Claire Senko (passionate, fierce, scarily competent, friend of Fred Eaglesmith).

I went over to meet Claire Friday afternoon and wander around the place. All strangely familiar because I grew up just outside of town, and once even strummed a guitar with my brother’s band during a rehearsal on the theatre stage in the early 70s.

There will be performances on January 26, 27, 28 and 29, and on February 2, 3, and 4.

There will be an opening night champagne gala and a talkback session with the playwright and actress Severn Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille’s artistic director Andy McKim (who fed me incredibly intelligent questions about the novel and play when we did an onstage interview together last January).

And closing night (February 5, Saturday) there will be ANOTHER! champagne gala and a talkback session with me after the show. (Amber Homeniuk will be the facilitator, as they call it.)

You can buy tickets here.




This video slideshow was produced by an old friend, Alison Bell. (Her brother Ian Bell has appeared in the magazine.)


Nov 152016



DG and his intrepid close relative RG, who has appeared earlier on these pages, went for their usual pre-winter canoe trip on Big Creek (see Google map above: southern Ontario where Long Point juts into Lake Erie). RG fell in first unwisely trying to clear a snag. Then they went to another put in spot and realized they’d left the paddles back at the first put in. RG made DG stay with the canoe in the mud while he drove in his warm car (with heated seats) back for the paddles. DG, the creative mind behind NC, passed the time taking selfies. Then RG rammed DG into a thorn bush and his hand was bleeding. When they got back to the landing DG’s bare feet were so cold he fell over.

Actually, it was quite stunning (aside from the nature and brother-on-brother violence). Immense labyrinthine marshlands, many threatened species holding out there. Fascinating to me because in 1670, on Easter Sunday, two Sulpician priests, François Dollier de Casson and René de Brehant de Galinée, were struggling to cross Big Creek in flood when they heard above them the shrieks of horses, the jangling of harness, war cries and the sounds of battle. According to their journal, they knew exactly what it was, King Arthur’s Hunt. King Arthur’s Hunt is one name/a version of the legend of the Wild Hunt (also Charlemagne’s Hunt), which John Irving used in the short story “The Pension Grillparzer” in the The World According to Garp. Ghostly, wraithlike warriors riding and battling endlessly in the sky. Terrific to be in exactly that spot.

I have an anthology of quotations about Long Point and Norfolk County, including that journal entry, which you can read here.


DG intrepidly negotiating hazard.

RG after his dip.




DG selfie.

—Photos by dg, rg & google maps

Oct 282016

The morning started like this: Views from the NC Bunker.




Then I slid my car down the back hill to Barre to get it undercoated at a place called Yipes. Went to Espresso Bueno to write then slipped down Granite Street, over the railway tracks, to visit the Socialist Labor Party Hall (aka the Old Labor Hall). Hallowed ground. Emma Goldman used to live on Granite Street.


Big Bill Haywood who led the IWW spoke at the hall. He’s the big guy below, leading a strike parade in Lowell, MA, in 1912.


Also the legendary Red Flame, Annie Burlak (National Textile Workers Union).

burlakvia Five College Archives

The great Anarchist Luigi Galleani lived a block or two away on Blackwell Street and published his internationally influential newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva (The Chronicle of Subversion). How I love that name, Chronicle of Subversion.

galleanivia Wikipedia

And the young brilliant stone carver Elia Corti was famously shot to death (by another Anarchist) on the front doorstep in 1903.


It did me good walking there. I felt the hairs go up the back of my neck a bit. I was more moved than I care to talk about. I think I fell in love a little with the Red Flame. I could feel the big hall packed with voices.

And yet it’s a functioning community hall and social centre. I went back to Yipes to get my car and the woman at the counter told me how she has a small foster child who had never had a birthday party in his life. So she rented the Socialist Party Labor Hall and threw him the biggest party ever just a few weeks ago.

It did my heart good, as I say, — in the midst of this tawdry election cycle — to find myself suddenly in the presence of such kind, dedicated, hearty people (the current ones and the ghosts).

Nice day.


Oct 122016

Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe Muraille


I have an essay in the new issue (July/August — just out though) of American Book Review. It’s called “The Literature of Extinction” and in something like 1,500 words covers the entire history of experimental literature to the present. One of the fascinating things about writing this essay was the insight I derived from Germán Sierra’s essay “Deep Media Fiction,” which we published here in the magazine in January. I keep going back and rereading that essay. It has driven a good deal of my current reading.

American Book Review is a print publication. You’ll have to buy a copy or find it in your library or download, if you can, from Muse. But here is a short passage.



We see the world more clearly now (we think). It’s very small, dirty, crowded with people, and heating up. The Anthropocene is the new name given to the period of time (roughly beginning with the Neolithic) human beings have had a significant impact on the environment. Now we know there is no free lunch, and the hubris of our assumption that the earth was an infinite, free resource specially catered for us by the gods is beginning to look like a monumental gaffe.

Nor are we essentially different from the other orders of being (say, trees, rocks, newts); consciousness may be a neural anomaly, or as the A.I. researchers like to say, an emergent property, that is, a side effect of our neural interaction with whatever we are interacting with (just as the colour of an object is not a property of the object but a side effect of the wavelengths of light interacting with eye neurons). Not a self, a soul, a ghost in the machine, but a whisp of smoke, dream-like and temporary.

from Douglas Glover “The Literature of Extinction” American Book Review, Juy/August 2016.

Sep 172016

Douglas Glover photo

Left the NC Bunker today to check out the Tunbridge Fair. Was persuaded against better judgement to go on rides. First took pictures of this thing, which I think of as The Claw, and then rode on it. Feel much better now. But cannot write complete sentences yet.

Douglas Glover photo

Then I went on another very fast whirling gyroscopic orgasmomegatron ride (which I did not photograph) and with four tickets left got onto the Zero Gravity machine with Matt Monk (dg dressed in dark clothing, Matt in white). I recall Matt saying, as we entered the big kids’ ride enclosure, “Now the shit gets real!” Needless to say someone else took these pictures.




What you see here are the faces of men who have faced Death in the Zero Gravity ride (along with 12 small children).


Jun 052016



The Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver has announced its 2016/17 season, and Elle, the play adapted from dg’s novel by Severn Thompson, will be there.

From Toronto, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Dora Moore Award nominated ELLE, adapted from Douglas Glover’s award-winning novel, tells the story of a French noblewoman abandoned on the Isle of Demons (off the coast of Newfoundland) in 1542.


Mar 242016

Click on the image to read the first couple of paragraphs.

Just out, the new Cambridge Companion to Alice Munro (Cambridge University Press, March) with an essay by me. It’s called “The Style of Alice Munro.” Go buy the book and have a look. Just be to clear, this is not the other essay I wrote, “The Mind of Alice Munro,” which is in Attack of the Copula Spiders. That essay deals with Munro’s story “Meneseteung.” This is brand new, never before seen by anyone but the editors and my dog (who really liked it). The stories in reference this time are “Lives of Girls and Women” and “Baptizing,” which appear in Munro’s book Lives of Girls and Women.

Click the image at the top to see a snippet from the opening.


Mar 122016

CaptureSevern Thompson as Elle in the original Theatre Passe Muraille production.

Exciting news about Elle, the play, (um, you know, based in my novel Elle) is beginning to emerge. Even when I was in Toronto for the world premiere in January, there were quiet whispers about taking the play on tour. Very sotto voce because theatres are a difficult market; they schedule far in advance and prefer their own productions (I was told). But Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg just announced their 2016-2017 season and Elle is going to be there. And Severn Thompson tells me other productions are in the conversation stage.



A historic play set before Canada was a country, Elle (Feb. 22-March 12) is a sesquicentennial-ready adaptation of a novel by Douglas Glover mostly set in the year 1542. It follows an unmanageable French noblewoman named Marguerite de Roberval who’s sent to the wilds of the New World in Jacques Cartier’s time and abandoned on the Isle of Demons (now known as Hospital Island, off the coast of Newfoundland) by her uncle. Actress Severn Thompson both adapted and stars in the play, which played earlier this year at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.

“It’s a great story of her survival,” says Metcalfe. “In the usual literary Canadian narrative, people come over and the harshness of the land is tamed and the beauty is discovered. But she doesn’t tame the land, she learns to live inside it. It takes the usual Canadian narrative of our colonization of the land and actually flips it on its head.”

Read the rest at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Feb 022016


Just back from my crash course in theatre at the premiere of Elle, the play, in Toronto. But a lot is happening. There is more. Canadian Notes & Queries, that redoubtable Canadian literary magazine that published my essay on Camus in its last issue, has just published a new essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig’s little masterpiece, the novella The Stand-In. I love that book. Many of you know who David is because he has published here often, beginning with his translation of a Chekhov short story in our second issue, March, 2010. This essay came about when Ingrid Ruthig (who has also appeared in NC) asked me to contribute to a book she was editing on Helwig’s work. Then CN&Q picked up the essay ahead of book publication. (I know, complicated.)

Here’s a photo of David Helwig and a few paragraphs of the essay:

David Helwig

The Arsonist’s Revenge

David Helwig’s novella The Stand-In came to hand first when I was asked to write a cover comment for the book, yea, these many years ago. I read it, was entranced and enchanted by its incendiary delights. It presents a man, a wounded lover, a long-suffering husband, a bird watcher, a university professor (that most careful and restrained of professions), in extremis, who explodes decorum, wreaks revenge (mayhem and insult), and becomes utterly and gloriously himself (apotheosis). This is what art is best at, giving us the moment we all wish for but can never achieve. To somewhat embellish what I wrote at the time: The Stand-In is a comic gem, by turns mordant, witty and wise. It’s a delicious novella of friendship, marriage, infidelity, plagiarism, and sly revenge. But it’s also a fascinating meditation on irony, biography, badminton, the great Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice, also Flemish painting, mirror imagery, Ernest Thompson Seton and animal painting (especially birds and horses), and the self. David Helwig is a master of thematic weaving. His timing is impeccable. One has the impression of a ferocious intelligence at play – the effect is gorgeous, seductive, compelling and liberating.

The Stand-In isn’t a long book (I am working from the 2002 Porcupine’s Quill edition), about 80 pyrotechnic pages after you subtract the blanks and section titles, separated into three chapters. It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.

The governing principle of composition is digression and recursion. One amongst the digressions that keep popping up is the story of the story, or the history of two mismatched academic couples whose marriages exploded one summer, “that summer,” the one of crucial memory. Denman Tarrington (DT, aka Delirium Tremens) was married to a tall, slightly awkward woman named Madeleine; the narrator’s wife was Anne, a quick, pink-skinned woman who kept her secrets and made a smashing doubles badminton partner (Anne and the narrator would invariably trounce the Tarringtons on the court). Tarrington pilfered the narrator’s ideas and wrote them into sensational essays that secured for him an academic career far beyond the local horizons. The last summer, the summer before Tarrington left for a big job in the States, he and the narrator met in Paris. Infidelities were revealed. On his return to Canada, the narrator finds his wife away on an extended trip (that she keeps extending, never to return); questioned by Madeleine, he tells her the truth about her husband. Madeleine disappears; Anne goes off with Tarrington: and the narrator lives on in the old house by the salt marshes until retirement, when, finally he too leaves town.

CN&Q is a print journal with a small online presentation. You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest of “The Arsonist’s Revenge” by Douglas Glover at Canadian Notes & Queries.


Jan 282016


Here’s the Theatre Passe Muraille onstage interview with Douglas Glover, who wrote the book (Elle) on which the stage play (Elle) by Severn Thompson is based. Andy McKim, artistic director at TPM, is a really intelligent and genial interlocutor (there were three pages of lovely questions of which he only managed to ask a handful). The event was billed as “Eggrolls with Andy” and there were, in fact, eggrolls. This was on the evening of January 20, just before the main performance. The location is the little cabaret stage in the bar on the balcony above the stage at TPM. The pictures were taken by the poet Amber Homeniuk, who has appeared before on these pages. She managed to capture some of dg’s more expressive moments.

The sound file is below the images.



Buy tickets here!





Buy tickets here!

Jan 262016


I almost missed this one from yesterday. Actually, a good review of Severn Thompson’s performance. Here’s a teaser. Click the link below for the rest.

Severn Thompson, who adapted the play from the original novel by Douglas Glover and plays the role of Elle, is absolutely captivating. In what is essentially a one-woman show, minus about ten minutes, Thompson holds the audience’s attention in a vice grip with her precision, depth and hilarity. Her script it beautifully poetic, and she is a master of its delivery. Through her words and conviction, she creates a landscape and characters that were as vivid and clear as if they had been on stage with her.

Read the rest at Mooney on theatre.

Jan 262016


Another review. This one at Torontoist. Here’s a taste:

For a full-blooded heroine with courage, resourcefulness, and a healthy libido to match any debauched Victorian gentleman, look no further than Elle at Theatre Passe Muraille. Actress-playwright Severn Thompson’s rousing adaptation of Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel finds her embodying the legendary Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, the young French aristocrat who was marooned on the fabled Isle of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland in 1542 and lived to tell the tale.

Glover’s conception of Marguerite is of a “headstrong girl”—and a bawdy one, too. When we first meet her, she’s aboard her uncle’s ship, having vigorous sex with her seasick tennis-player boyfriend as a means of distracting herself from a horrendous toothache. It’s one helluva’ opening scene—hilarious, erotic, and disgusting all at the same time.

Read the rest at Torontoist.

Jan 232016

elle7Severn Thompson as Elle, and the sheet (see below)

State the obvious. Elle, the novel, and Elle, the play, are distinct works of art. They are radically different forms; we have different expectations. The novel’s more than 200 pages of text suck down to perhaps 40-45 pages of script. This is necessary for the transformation into a play, a necessity and a problem for the playwright in terms of selection, but it’s not something the novelist mourns because, of course, the novel remains, fully in tact, over there on the book shelf.

In brute terms, a lot of the novel disappears. What disappears? The whole sequence of events that occurs after Elle’s return to France is gone. That means Rabelais is gone and the joke about Elle inventing the modern novel. Comes Winter, the native girl brought to France by Jacques Cartier, also disappears. Her tragic story is a dystopian inversion of Elle’s own adventure in Canada. Also gone is the frame device of the one-eyed child-stealing man and the novel’s contemporary tail with the Elle-like young woman on the beach at Sept-Iles with her older lover. These characters and devices are meant to extend the myth and the story of Elle into a larger, more mysterious cosmic rhythm beyond history. The novel is built around a complex set of themes loosely implied in words and oppositions like transformation, literary/orality, translation, New World/Land of the Dead, the invention of printing, colonization/love, and so on. Very little of this survives in the play except in stray phrases or references. Also missing from the play are the details of Roberval’s own failed colony upriver from Elle, pages and pages reduced to a few phrases and the mention of the colony’s failure. What survives in the play is a reduced set of events, a roughly similar sequence of action from Elle’s arrival in Canada to her rescue and departure for France and then, of course, Roberval’s murder in a Paris cemetery years later. The play focuses on Elle’s time in Canada and, in plot terms, becomes more of a female adventure story, Elle as Robinson Crusoe, than the novel is. Conversely, also in brute terms, a lot of the text of the play, the words, come straight from the novel. If you imagine a Venn diagram of the novel and the play, they would overlap at these points. After that, they diverge.

I say this not to diminish the play but to be clear about differences. You don’t want to make the mistake of expecting the play to replicate the novel precisely. I have listed some of the novel elements that didn’t make it into the play, but Severn Thompson’s Elle is an enactment, a presence, with a different structure and tool set, different intentions. It has actors, set, sound, lighting and a reactive audience, all in the same three-dimensional space. A novel is pure text; a play has a physicality that bleeds into the plastic arts so that on stage, moment by moment, you’re presented with tableaux or pictures that have a physical beauty. The presentation at Theatre Passe Muraille has an amazing set, starting with the what the director Christine Brubaker calls “the claw,” a metal and papier mache structure at the back of the stage that looks like the ribs of shipwreck or a dead animal or the back of a cave or the edge of a forest. It also feels like a hand, cradling the characters on the stage in front of it. This is the magic of theatre. The claw is an abstraction that changes with light, verbal context, character action, and, above all, the audience’s imagination.

Besides the claw, there’s the sheet. Oh, wonder of abstraction and efficiency. Severn and Christine needed a bear onstage and a woman changing into a bear and a way to imply that the actors are entering the world of dream. If this were a movie, there would be an actual bear. The sheet is a miraculous rectangle of cloth of indeterminate but changing colour that seems stretchy and drops into gorgeous folds. It’s a sail, Richard falling into the ocean, a robe, a tent, a flag, a hut, a fire, a bear, a sign of dream, and the face of transformation when Elle changes into a bear. There are some stunning moments with this sheet, which is sometimes on the stage floor, sometimes woven into the arms of the claw, sometimes suspended on hooks over the stage, and so on. When the white bear falls upon Elle and dies, it’s the sheet. It’s eerie how quickly the audience gets the implication, a lovely bit of theatre and timing. When the bear woman cures Elle and she drifts into a dream state, Severn the actress has her arms inside the sheet which, pulled from behind by Jonathan Fisher, the second actor on stage,  creates a stunning abstract idea of a woman with golden wings. And, of course, when Elle changes into a bear, she’s draped in the sheet, again pulled from behind, so that the human face is suggested but is also bearish. She changes into a bear just by having the sheet pulled against her face and body.

There is deliberate anachronism in the play just as there is in the novel but enacted quite differently. Itslk is an Inuit hunter in Elle, the novel. He presents the intersection of European colonization and the myth/culture of native Canada. In the play, his role is expanded. Jonathan Fisher has a desk and sound board and a microphone and a guitar set up  off to one side of the stage. Through the play he makes music, sings a native song, does a throat singing loop, plays the guitar, etc. He’s a contemporary native artist/musician watching the play and participating in the play and, at the appropriate moment, he comes to the centre of the stage and plays the part of Itslk. Again, theatre is physical. In the same moment, Elle is onstage speaking her lines (having sex with Richard, pleading with her uncle, crooning over her dying baby) AND the contemporary native is present just a few feet to the side with an electric guitar and a soundboard. The effect in a theatre is difficult to parse precisely because, in the audience, you are aware of the juxtaposition but at any given moment the imagination is engaged with Elle or the line. The lighting focuses you. It’s a mechanism of audience manipulation that seems marvelous to me. And, of course, there are multiple message loops: Jonathan Fisher is an actor but also an Anishinaabe musician. Also in real life he is a member of the bear clan. And he delivers one of the lines that does depart significantly from the thematics of the novel. This occurs when he is reciting the story of his mythic quest/hunt for the white bear, a quest that Elle disrupts by her presence (one of the crucial metaphors of the novel is the moment when Elle’s European story collides with Itslk’s mythic quest and destroys it). In the novel Itslk is aware, sadly and tragically, that the disruption of his story means the ultimate disruption of his culture, a moment that cannot be redeemed. In the play, Severn Thompson gives Jonathan’s Itslk a more hopeful line about the bear returning, the myth world coming back (in other words), which is a nod to the contemporary resurgence of native of culture. The novel wants the reader to dwell in sadness; the play wants to leave some hope. That aside, there is clear a moment of delight when Itslk appears. You can feel the audience shift. It’s a daring and brilliant invention, this Jonathan Fisher/Itslk character. And he gets to deliver some very funny lines, bring back the dead dog, bring back the tennis ball, and deliver the thematic legend. (It’s fascinating watching audience, BTW. When Elle throws the ball off the ship and Leon, the dog, apparently dies, the audience turns against her, faces go suddenly glum. But when we hear the dog bark off stage, glimmerings of recognition appear. And there is a wondrous delight when Itslk produces the lost tennis ball — for me, this is a bit like watching the readers reading my novel.)

Lighting, sound. You deeply enjoy the effects. The framing of the tableaux on stage and with lighting creates a monumental feeling, creates focus, creates shadow and transformation. Some images are spectacular. For example, the moment when Elle/Severn falls through the ice. Suddenly she’s illuminated by a bright filtered light from above, a column of light, that imitates the flickering, shadowy feel of being under water while the actress mimes a person drifting down. There is more of this than I can describe here. And in all these moments you see the differences in the kinds of works of art. Novel. Play. (And film, if you think about it — the play is so much a series of abstractions demanding audience interaction whereas in a movie there would be much more of the real, a real ship, a real island, a real bear. A film more often than not will try to leave less to the imagination than a play or a novel.)

A play has actors, not to be left out. Severn Thompson loved the novel Elle and saw a place for herself in it, and she is a spectacular actress. On stage every fibre of muscle is engaged in action. Her body is an instrument. She is amazing to watch. We are so used to movie and TV acting, which is mostly minimalist acting from the eyebrows to the chin (actually, on TV acting is mostly a minimal movement of the lips in speaking). The intensity of a stage play is astonishing. I saw three performances and the best audience was the third night which had an ASL component and a large number of deaf people in the audience. ASL is, of course, an enactment of language. Deaf people communicate with actions and they are acutely tuned into the physicality, the presence of the speaker. You could almost feel their attentiveness to Severn’s every move. In stature, she is a diminutive woman; on stage she is monumental and heroic (also very comic, sometimes pathetic, always passionate, exploding with energy). The lighting keeps trapping the gestures, like a series of still photographs, and they are gorgeously expressive. She’s also just a wonderful mime. With a gesture and a hanging of the head, she inhabits bearishness. She knows how a body looks drifting in the ocean. She has so much to work with in the play from lust (gorgeously funny sex scene early on, also a scene in the novel), rapture, resignation, pathos, rage, animal transformation, flirtation, and love to childbirth and the death of the child. It’s a huge part for an actress, a dream role, I would think. And Severn runs with it. Extravagantly and joyfully. I wrote the book, and I was still misting up when Emmanuel dies in her arms. Even the third time I saw it.

What else? Too much to think of. A note on structure. The novel has some little thematic pre-texts, then the frame with the one-eyed man, then the sex scene on shipboard. What the play does instead is quite fascinating. It actually opens with what you might call an overture, a montage of moments (tableaux accompanied by gong-like sound effects and flashes of light) that in fact presage the action of the whole play in gesture alone. The bear is the there, the death of the general, the death of the baby. Just a gorgeous piece of structure. Then the frame: Elle in Paris, by the cemetery, catching sight of the general, Roberval, her uncle in the gloomy street and starting to tell her story. Then the story begins, on shipboard, sex with Richard. Fleetingly, Elle steps back into the storytelling moment, once or twice, just enough to establish the frame and story together, and then we are off. We return to the frame scene at the very end of the play (these transitions beautifully indicated by a repetition of gesture, key language, also a slight costume change and a jug of wine) and thence to the final confrontation with Roberval. Throughout there are beautiful recursions, language, shape and gesture. The “headstrong girl” phrase from the novel. The shape and presence of bearishness (even Jonathan Fisher, with his fur vest, sometimes hulks like a bear). The cradling of the baby Emmanuel (at one point, again, Fisher is back behind the claw, apparently cradling a baby in his arms). It’s also interesting the way the play is text heavy through the scenes up to and including the arrival of Itslk. When he leaves and after the birth and death of the baby, the play leans more and more heavily on image. Itslk’s presence effectively introduces the native element and begins to educate Elle in the epic traditions of the new world (she is already steeped in her own epic traditions). The death of the baby and the advent of the bear woman (and her symbolic rebirth in the ocean) bring Elle into the world of dream and dream and image subsequently drive the remainder of the play, which, here, takes on a quality reminiscent of German Expressionist theatre. These are structural effects, small and large, that you notice upon revisiting the play, and you begin to appreciate the amazing physical inventiveness of theatre.

When I go to a play, I desire a total experience: intelligent interaction with characters/actors on the stage, magical and surprising effects, emotional engagement, language. I got what I wanted when I saw Severn Thompson at Theatre Passe Muraille. I wrote the book, I knew the lines, but I was still surprised and entranced. It was delightful still on the second and third viewing; I saw more, of course, and appreciated the artistry more (and was able to peek at the audience). If you can, go more than once. It’s revelatory. First reviews of the play kept mentioning that awful movie The Revenant (which, in my head, I keep referring to as The Ruminant). That is a completely wrong-headed response based on the most superficial resemblances (wilderness, survival, bear, revenge). Elle (both play and novel) is about first contact, the tremendous collision of European and native cultures, it is about an act that is continuous and ongoing, a conversation between our cultures. Because she is a woman (and a reader), Elle is the most apt and available of the Europeans for transformation. She and Itslk are paired cultural receptors; they know what is going on, the vast, tragic pageant. The Ruminant is a movie with its dumbed-down realism and a pop-Nietzschean thematic that’s very appealing to commercial audiences. It’s not the same thing at all.


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Buy tickets here!