Vol.18 No.1, 1997, Spring/ Printemps

WALKER, GEORGE F. Shared Anxiety: Selected Plays George F. Walker. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994. 503 pp. $24.95 paper.


This anthology includes eight of Walker's eighteen published plays: Beyond Mozambique, Zastrozzi, Theatre of the Film Noir, The Art of War, Criminals in Love, Better Living, Escape from Happiness, and Tough!, the latter making its first appearance in print. We thus have, depending on how you count and categorize and with some obvious overlapping, a couple or three of the early cartoon or B-movie plays, a sample from the Power plays trilogy, two or three or four of the East End plays, and a couple of his most recent efforts. With Zastrozzi, we also have perhaps the play by which Walker is best and most widely known, at once atypical of his work, given its unusually high quotient of high artiness, and the quintessential Walkeresque vision of the world, as the attractiveness of evil is one of the most important sources of the shared anxiety which pervades Walker's work and this book. This is a good introduction to Walker's theatre, satisfying to the devotees even though they may regret the omission of a favourite play, while Tough! may even convert an infidel or two.

Tough! is a one acter, originally commissioned by Green Thumb, Walker's only play for "young audiences," and it has something of the flavour of a photographically realistic sketch produced by an abstract expressionist, just to show he can indeed do it. On one hand, the setting, a small city park, and the characters, three working class teenagers, would seem to place the work firmly within Walker's East End. On the other, there's little of the hyperbolic aria, the dazzling non sequiturs or the larger than life antagonists one has come to expect from Walker. Tina, backed up by her tough friend, Jill, meets her boyfriend after work to tell him that she's pregnant; Bobby tells her he was planning to break up with her anyway because he wants to see other girls. Jill kicks the shit out of Bobby, verbally and physically. Young love in the nineties, all very realistic, linear, rich with subtext, gritty, sad, funny, detailed. (And wonderful, very demanding material for young actors to work with; I speak from my students' experience.) Given the absence of older characters like William and Wineva from Criminals in Love and what Robert Wallace has called their "manic, grotesque theatricality," characters whom I've argued elsewhere seem to me to function partly as products of younger, less fully formed characters' subjective points of view, we are left in Tough! with the relatively realistic world of the adolescents who here struggle not with the uncontrollable, outside forces represented by their elders, but with problems of their own making, issues of their own responsibility. Jill says to Bobby:

You have to stop talking about condoms. Get it?! Because you're talking about them like they're some kind of gift from God or something. Some powerful thing that God gave you to make you immune. God didn't give you the condoms asshole. You bought them in a store. The store bought them from a company that's got a factory. The factory makes them. And sometimes the factory fucks up ... Everyone else on the planet knows this. I gotta think you know this too and you're just looking for a way out of this mess. But there isn't one. There's no way out. You're the father of this baby and if you don't just admit it pretty damn soon we're going to kill you. We're going to kick you to death. Okay? (456)

Jill's dialogue has the wise ass, street smart colloquial punch and aggressiveness so typical of Walker, but there's nothing inherently outrageous here, nothing we couldn't imagine a real adolescent saying. More to the point, there's nothing a real adolescent couldn't imagine herself saying, or even wishing she had said, and Walker's unusually "realistic" and consistent approach makes this '90s battle of the sexes, and issues of sexism, gender based values, and failed communication more readily accessible to the audience to whom it is aimed, their acceptance of or resistance to drama influenced so strongly by the conventions of TV realism.

While Tough! is the only play in the collection never before published at all, this book also makes available Theatre of the Film Noir, a play previously in print only in the old Playwrights Canada typescript of 1981 and in a limited run souvenir edition accompanying the play's 1993 revival. There is new Walker material, too, in changes to previously published plays; Criminals in Love and Escape from Happiness both differ from earlier versions in that both are shorter, the former no longer requiring an intermission and the latter going from three acts to two. Most importantly, revision to Better Living distinguishes it significantly from the version published in The East End Plays in 1988. Better Living occupies an interesting position in Walker's work. First produced in a workshop production at Cornell University in 1982, in a shorter version much different from anything now available in print, it was, in fact, the first of the East End plays Walker wrote. The version published in The East End Plays, in its turn, differed significantly from the version premiered by CentreStage in 1986. It seems to be the play which most fascinates and troubles Walker himself, and is the one to which he has returned most often; he once told me that he uses work on Better Living as a "warm up" for starting work on a new play, that when he sits down to write, the voices he hears are those of the women in Better Living.

There are numerous minor changes: at one point Gail says "fuck you" instead of "piss on you," and "dollars" becomes "bucks," for example, or a word is repeated or not repeated, the sort of change an actor might make in rehearsal and the sort of change a playwright might retain if it clarified or heightened the moment or improved the rhythm. Some longer speeches are broken up by interjections from other characters. There are a number of changes in stage directions, apparently to clarify the significance of business and the subtext of those involved. There are also, however, some striking new visual images: Elizabeth changes into a red evening gown before attempting to shoot Tom/Tim at the end of Scene Three, while moments before, instead of fleeing to the basement Nora hides her face and instructs the others to do so as well when her husband reappears from his ten year absence.

Most significantly, though, there are three or four pages of new dialogue, and most of the new passages are given to Elizabeth and Mary Ann, elaborating the relationship between these two sisters. In Scene Seven, Mary Ann brings up Elizabeth's past experience as a prostitute, although Elizabeth has to force Mary Ann to actually use the word. The new passage reinforces the idea that Elizabeth did indeed prostitute herself to pay her way through law school, whereas her previously telling her father, a passage present in both published versions of the play, could well be a lie, an attempt to shock and disorient Tom. The new passage also intensifies Mary Ann's admiration for Elizabeth: "You were amazing. Money was needed. So you went out and got some. Money for us. For our survival. Money for you to be what Mom wanted you to be. It was very, very brave of you. Of course I was disgusted and depressed by the whole thing. But that's just me" (329). This new dimension seems to prepare the way for the relationship between the two we see in Escape from Happiness; it also gives some additional punch to other changes involving Elizabeth and Mary Ann occurring nearer the end of the play, changes also prepared for by cuts which bring Elizabeth's temper much closer to the surface and make her much less self-controlled and contained.

At the beginning of Scene Ten, the play's last scene, when the sisters enter carrying a beam for the underground room, Walker makes much more of the role exchange between the two, going so far as to ask that Elizabeth be wearing one of Mary Ann's dresses. On one hand, Elizabeth seems more damaged by the encounters with her father than was previously the case, less able to cope with current stresses, and genuinely in need of someone else, even Mary Ann, to take charge; significantly, Tom is no longer referred to as "Tim" but as "Tom", his paternity firmly established. On the other hand, Elizabeth, by withdrawing, seems to be trying to force Mary Ann to be decisive, a change in Mary Ann underlined a page later by new speeches given to her: "What's wrong with me. What's wrong with me! It's so easy, isn't it. So easy. What's wrong with me. Well, listen to this. [to JACK] What's wrong with you! [to ELIZABETH] What's wrong with you! [to NORA] What's wrong with you!" (346).

Another cluster of changes centers on the central confrontation between Gail and her father in Scene 9, while changes to the immediately preceding conversation between Tom and Jack intensify Tom's claim to a messianic calling and Jack's aversion to his brother-in-law, who is now clearly identified as being who he is: "Tom's a new man. He's Tim. Really I am." Tom has many new interjections as Gail recalls the past; "There was no rape. Don't start with that rape stuff," like some of the small changes throughout the script, names the unnameable and presents much clearer evidence of the spectre of child abuse. Interestingly, this shift moves in the direction opposite to that evident in the hand-written first draft of the play in the archives at the University of Guelph, in which crossings out and substitutions move references into the more abstract, clouding and hiding the exact nature of Tom's offence; in this respect, then, this newest revision to Better Living takes the play closer to its very first impulses. Other new interjections from Tom make his fear more evident, as well as his attempts to minimize, shift the blame, bury the incident: "Let's move on to nicer things." Jack now has to struggle to take the gun from Gail; Gail no longer gives up her attempt to shoot her father herself. In the following scene, references to Junior Dawson's Dad as the hired enforcer are cut, and Jack, like many of the small "l" liberals in Walker plays of the past decade, is forced himself to take violent action against a violent aggressor, and is compelled to be accountable for doing so. At the very end of the play, Tom still appears at the back door, unseen by the others and carrying a portable TV, an extraordinarily and richly ambivalent concluding image.

In these changes, and in what is cut, we see a playwright continuing his engagement with his work as a whole, and its vision of a hostile, confusing universe confronted by brave but confused and anxious characters, an engagement also evident in the progression and refinement represented by this book's chronological sequence of plays. The Walker who emerges by the end of the book is no longer the brash young man who wrote Beyond Mozambique, perpetrated the Film Noir authorship scam in 1981, or was ejected from the Stratford Festival Theatre for saying audible and rude things about Shakespeare during a performance, although one strongly senses that Walker wouldn't disown any of these acts even now. The Walker we see now has developed the youthful brashness and anxiety into an aesthetic and into a theatrical language. Additionally, what may have seemed paranoid then certainly doesn't seem paranoid now, as more and more of Walker's anxieties are shared by all of us.

In his sharp and lively, indeed Walkeresque, introduction, Stephen Haff calls this theatrical language "Spoken Opera": "Walker puts his speakers into a primal relationship with language so that everyday words are suddenly re-discovered and applied to shape the world with intense, almost physical, power" (xiii) and

Walker's plays construct a place where human feelings are extended to extremes in order to respond to the high-stakes struggle for survival that is both confusing and upsetting. . . . The characters' need to share is so vast and insatiable that, were it not funny, it might embarrass, disgust or even frighten those who are reluctant to acknowledge that need in their daily lives. (xiv)

What is encouraging here is not only the aptness of Haff's insights, but also the fact that an American director from a younger generation, one no stranger to anxiety after all, is so strongly and thrillingly engaged by Walker's work. This, and the substance of the work represented in the anthology, lead me to sense with Robert Wallace in his preface that Shared Anxiety represents "only the first half of Walker's career."