Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring/ Printemps 2000

LINDA GRIFFITHS. Sheer Nerve: Seven Plays. Winnipeg: Blizzard Publishing, 1999. 301 pp. $29.95 CDN paper.


Of the seven plays collected in Sheer Nerve, five have been published previously (see Works Cited). Other work has not been included: the early collective creations to which Griffiths contributed; Spiral Woman and the Dirty Theatre, which was directed by Jennifer Dean and Sandra Balcovske at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1993; or the more recent Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen, performed in November 1999 at Theatre Passe Muraille and the winner of the 2000 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award.

Although the collection includes biographical notes on her collaborators, it is unfortunate that there is no introduction. Linda Griffiths's career as an actor, writer, and director encompasses many of the important movements in Canadian theatre which could be discussed: her early work with Twenty-Fifth Street House Theatre in Saskatoon; her close association with Paul Thompson's collective-creation process and the evolution of Theatre Passe Muraille; her place in feminist theatre and contribution to the development of Native theatre; interesting cross-overs between television, radio, and film; and the exploration of the tension between Canadian culture and an American career.

Griffiths's work is all about trying to capture particular moments and places in time. Context is particularly relevant because she is so aware of theatre as a bridge between notions of "high" and "popular" culture. For Griffiths, contemporary theatre has the same kind of spiritual and ceremonial function it had for the ancient Greeks. She is fascinated with the epic, with larger-than-life characters that allow us to grapple with their relevance to our lives. Henry, the reporter, says of Maggie and Pierre Trudeau,

. . . they can never be two small figures to me, the kind like you hold in the palm of your hand, they're huge, they're giants, two Epic Characters, and they carry on a mythological struggle. They're King Arthur and Guinevere, they're Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and they play out our pain way up there. (10)

This line might be applied to all of Griffiths's characters; they are all struggling to create a larger significance, often by relating to a symbolic role model: Bob Marley; Native spirits and unicorns; the Toronto Blue Jays; Captain Jean-Luc Picard; the Faerie realm for Wallis Simpson. Even the minimalist The Darling Family has a heightened, spiritual element in the burning of sage and the evocation of a past life. As Griffiths explains, "When I write, or act, I like the sweep . . . I don't like to have a dull moment. I like my actors to have a good time" (Rudakoff 18).

Linda Griffiths was born in 1954 in Montreal. After being asked to leave the National Theatre School, she spent a brief period teaching in "inner-city schools" (Book 18). She went west to Saskatoon and worked on ten collectives with Twenty-Fifth Street House Theatre. In the spring of 1974, Paul Thompson and Theatre Passe Muraille toured The Farm Show to Twenty-Fifth Street, which led to western collectives by both companies, and the beginning of many collaborations between Thompson and Griffiths. (1) Griffiths describes her work up to that point as being "part of a theatre movement that has taken Canadian mythology and hero-making, if not as its central issue, at least as its dominant theme" (Maggie and Pierre 10).

In 1977, Griffiths worked with Paul Thompson in Montreal on the collective Les Maudits Anglais, and they developed the idea for Maggie and Pierre: a two-act, one-person, three-character show about the tumultuous marriage of Margaret and Pierre Trudeau, subtitled "A Fantasy of Love, Politics and the Media." It previewed in November of 1979 and premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille on February 14, 1980. Griffiths won Dora Mavor Moore Awards for outstanding new play and best lead performance and has said that "Maggie and Pierre . . . turned [her] into a writer" (Rudakoff 34). Throughout 1980 the play toured to Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary. In 1981, it played in a number of venues in Ontario and had a run in New York. It was published in 1980, and then adapted for television in 1983. (2)

[Photograph currently unavailable]

In 1979/80, the Trudeaus had only been separated for a few years, and the play ends by suggesting that their saga might well continue. The version published in Sheer Nerve acknowledges that it did, but also finds Henry worrying if anyone remembers their importance: "What can I offer to a land suffering from amnesia?" (34). (3) Maggie and Pierre was remounted in 1996 for a Playwrights Union benefit and in 1997 for a run at Passe Muraille, where Artistic Producer Susan Serran called it a "Made at Passe Muraille Canadian classic."

The next play in the collection is O.D. on Paradise, which was written with Patrick Brymer and premiered in 1982 at Twenty-Fifth Street, in association with Passe Muraille. This is a two-act, eight-character comedy about Canadian couples on vacation in Jamaica. Between the beauty and heat of Jamaica, and the consumption of much alcohol and marijuana, each character endures a total breakdown and a "redemption," none so extreme as Vic, who dies at the end of an apparent overdose of paradise. Vic's death is based on an incident that Griffiths and Brymer witnessed while on a package tour of Jamaica in 1981 (Rudakoff 32).

The play premiered at Passe Muraille on January 15, 1983 and won the Dora Mavor Moore Award as outstanding new play. Director Clarke Rogers hoped for a longer run, but an unfounded accusation in a newspaper review that the actors were smoking "real 'ganja' on stage" resulted in libel suits and audiences stayed away (Rudakoff 23). Griffiths argues that the play is indeed provocative, but not for the reason the reviewer assumed: "O.D. on Paradise isn't a benign comedy; it speaks of understanding anarchy and its uses. It demonstrates that anarchy can be dangerous to the people who want to box us up all of our lives" (Rudakoff 24). (4)

While O.D. was running into trouble with the police in Toronto, Griffiths was in New York acting at the Public Theatre in Caryl Churchill's Fen: "I was moving to the States to finally enter a world of true careerism in the grand old style" (Book 57). Griffiths played the title role in John Sayles's film Lianna and won a Los Angeles Actor's Guild of America Award. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Griffiths continued with film and television work. She won an ACTRA Award and was nominated for a Gemini for her performance in the CBC mini-series Empire Inc., and had lead roles in the feature films Samuel Lount, Reno and the Doc, and Patricia Rozema's Passion. (5) As a writer, Griffiths had short stories published in Prairie Schooner and The Journal of Canadian Women's Studies.

When she became ill and returned to Toronto in 1985, Griffiths went back to work on Jessica: "It was the first time I had ever written completely by myself" (Book 59). She also became the Associate Artistic Director at Passe Muraille during this period (1985-88). Jessica had been evolving ever since Griffiths met Maria Campbell in Edmonton while touring Maggie and Pierre. The first version, written by Griffiths, Campbell, and Paul Thompson, was co-produced by Twenty-Fifth Street and Passe Muraille in October 1981, directed by Thompson and with Griffiths in the title role. The revised version, (published in The Book of Jessica and in the collection), premiered at Passe Muraille in February 1986, directed by Griffiths and Clarke Rogers. It won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for outstanding new play and a Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. It also won the Quinzaine International Festival Award for Best Canadian Production in Quebec City in 1986. (6)

The central character, Jessica, is a half-white, half-First Nations woman who embarks on a spiritual journey of healing and self-discovery, aided by animal spirit guides who take her on a flashback of her life and play the human characters that she encountered. Into this evocation of Native spirituality, Griffiths introduces a unicorn as an approximate equivalent from white culture, not only as a representation of Jessica's mixed heritage, but also as a symbol of the inter-relatedness of spiritual traditions and as an expression of female power: "On one level, you could say that Jessica is a political play about the oppression of Native people. And yet, as far as I'm concerned, the politic of the play is articulated when Vitaline says, 'Magic is revolution'" (Rudakoff 17).

Griffiths's next play was The Darling Family, which went through a workshop process (7) and then premiered in January 15, 1991 with Griffiths as SHE and Alan Williams as HE. There was no director, and a note in the text indicates a similar absence of other conventional markings of theatre: "The play is ninety minutes without intermission, set, sound, or lighting cues." The published play was nominated for a Governor General's Award, and a feature film was also made, directed by Alan Zweig and with Griffiths serving as actor, writer, and executive producer.

In his review of the plays nominated for the Governor General's Award that year, Ronald Bryden praised The Darling Family as "the best acting play" (Globe and Mail 30 Nov: C6). The audience participates in a couple's emotional journey: SHE wants them to explore every aspect of her unplanned pregnancy, to keep talking until it becomes clear, not so much what they should do, but what they're supposed to learn from it. By the end of the play, when SHE has an abortion, they have come to love each other, they are a real couple, brought together by a process which the audience has shared in intimate detail. In my opinion, it is Griffiths's strongest work.

A Game of Inches was written in collaboration with and directed by Sandra Balcovske. An hour-long monologue, it was workshopped at Nightwood's Groundswell Festival in fall 1991, and then performed as a benefit for Passe Muarille in the spring of 1992. Brother Andre's Heart premiered at Crow's Theatre in February 1993 and was directed by Jim Millan with Linda Griffiths. It is a two-act, four-character comedy, the only one of these plays in which she did not perform. Both plays are dependent upon specific references to, and familiarity with, a particular moment in popular culture. In A Game of Inches, watching baseball on TV leads to an understanding of relationship dynamics, while in Brother Andre's Heart, life lessons are learned from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The final play Sheer Nerve returns to Griffiths's favourite themes: a larger-than-life historical figure (Wallis Simpson) with a mystical, mythological dimension to her tale. The initial story idea came about when Griffiths played Wallis Simpson in an NBC mini-series. She researched and reworked the play for six years, through many incarnations: "[a] one-person jam with a video camera operated by film director Alan Zweig"; a 1993 radio play called The Duchess: Pieces of Wallis Simpson; and a musical version (The Duchess--An Unabashed Epic about the Life and Times of Wallis Simpson) at Alberta Theatre Projects' PlayRites Festival '96, with music composed by John Millard. The most recent version, The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson, premiered at Passe Muraille on January 31, 1998, directed by Paul Thompson, with a cast of seven, including Griffiths as Wallis Simpson.

Despite the introduction of a non-Canadian setting, The Duchess shares many similarities with Griffiths's other work. The structure is similar to Jessica in that the central character is transported back through events in her life by a chorus of spirits who take on the roles of the people she encountered (and the jewels she owned). As in her other work, Griffiths draws connections between the particularities of her character's situation and its larger resonances and implications. At the very beginning of the play, Noel Coward calls the relationship between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor "the love story of the century, a faerie tale romance" (242). And Wallis declares, "I was the Yoko Ono of my generation" (243).

As always, Griffiths makes certain that we understand her characters as archetypes, as makers of culture. She has retained the emphases on mythology and research from her collective creation roots, paired it with her own vision of spirituality, embraced her love of notorious women, (8) and created a series of characters unique to the Canadian stage. While a collection of her plays is most welcome, an introductory essay is missed. Griffiths occupies an integral place in Canadian theatre history and she deserves to be recognized in that context.


1. The West Show (1975) and Far as the Eye Can See (1977) were created by Passe Muraille, and If You're So Good Why are you in Saskatoon? (1975) and Paper Wheat (1977) by Twenty-Fifth Street. Thompson rehearsed the Passe Muraille company in the afternoon and the Twenty-Fifth Street company in the evenings (Rudakoff 31).
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2. Adapted for television in 1983 by Tapestry Productions in association with First Choice and the Canadian Film Development Corporation, it was directed by Martin Lavut and produced by Rick Butler. Mary Jane Miller notes significant changes between the 1980 published play text and the TV version: "The ending in particular is rewritten to reflect the political reality of Trudeau's unexpected political resurrection" (189).
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3. Reactions to a production I directed in 2000 were very much influenced by the death of the Trudeaus's son, Michel, in 1998; audience members commented that they now thought of the Trudeaus not as epic political figures, but as bereaved parents.
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4. The production toured to a Quebec City theatre festival and was also produced subsequently at Northern Light Theatre in Edmonton.
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5. Her television work includes: The Marriage Bed, 1996 (nominated for Gemini Award for Best Lead Performance); Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story, 1993; A Town Torn Apart, 1992; Passion and Paradise, 1989 (in which she played Wallis Simpson); Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, 1987; Sword of Gideon, 1986 (nominated for Gemini Award for Best Lead Performance); The Execution of Raymond Graham, 1985; and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, 1985. She has also made guest appearances on the TV series Twice in a Lifetime (1994), Due South (1994), Beyond Reality (1991), Katts and Dog (1988), and Friday the 13th (1987). She has also served as a weekly host of The Showcase Revue on Showcase Television.
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6. In the fall of 1986, Theatre Passe Muraille remounted Jessica to play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa and the Toronto Free Theatre, directed by Clarke Rogers. In this production, Jessica was played by Tantoo Cardinal, the actor who had played Coyote in the very first, 1981 production.
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7. The first workshop was directed and dramaturged by Clarke Rogers with actors Jennifer Dale and Ted Wallace.
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8. In the program for The Duchess a.k.a Wallis Simpson, Griffiths declares, "I have a love of unpopular women."
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Bryden, Ronald. "Dramatic leaps from stage to page." Globe and Mail. 30 Nov. 1991: C6.

Griffiths, Linda and Paul Brymer. "O.D. on Paradise." Dangerous Traditions: A Passe Muraille Anthology. Edited by Judith Rudakoff. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1992. 150-213.

Griffiths, Linda in collaboration with Maria Campbell. Jessica. Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 1986.

Griffiths, Linda and Maria Campbell. The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation. Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1989.

Griffiths, Linda with Paul Thompson. Maggie & Pierre: a fantasy of love, politics and the media. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1980.

Griffiths, Linda. The Darling Family: A duet for three. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1991.

--. "The Duchess: Pieces of Wallis Simpson." Adventures for (Big) Girls: Seven Radio Plays. Edited by Ann Jansen. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1993. 126-148.

--. The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1998.

--. "Spiral Woman & The Dirty Theatre (excerpt)." Taking the Stage: Selections from Plays by Canadian Women. Edited by Cynthia Zimmerman. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1994. 34-38.

Johnston, Denis W. Up the Mainstream: The Rise of Toronto's Alternative Theatres 1968-1975. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

Matas, Robert. "Michel Trudeau's life, death recalled with pain and pride." Globe and Mail 15 Jan. 2000: A2.

Miller, Mary Jane. "Billy Bishop Goes to War and Maggie and Pierre: A Matched Set." Theatre History in Canada/Histoire du Theatre au Canada Vol. 10 no. 2 (Fall 1989): 188-198.

Program. Theatre Passe Muraille presents the World Première of The Darling Family: A duet for three by Linda Griffiths. 1991.

--. Theatre Passe Muraille presents the World Première of The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson by Linda Griffiths, directed by Paul Thompson.

--. Theatre Passe Muraille presents A Game of Inches. Written and performed by Linda Griffiths. Directed by Sandra Balcovkse. A series of performances produced in aid of Theatre Passe Muraille.

--. Theatre Passe Muraille presents Maggie & Pierre by Linda Griffiths in collaboration with Paul Thompson, 1997.

Rogers, Clarke. "Introduction." Dangerous Traditions: A Passe Muraille Anthology. Edited by Judith Rudakoff. Winnipeg: Blizzard, 1992. 143-144.

Rudakoff, Judith and Rita Much. Fair Play: Twelve Women Speak: Conversations with Canadian Playwrights. Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1990. 13-36.

Wallace, Robert and Cynthia Zimmerman. "Interview with Paul Thompson." The Work: Conversations with English-Canadian Playwrights. Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1982. 237-251.