BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
I had seen and reviewed several of Sharon Pollock’s plays before I interviewed her in 1984 about Doc, the most autobiographical of her works. It deals with a respected physician in Fredericton, New Brunswick whose mentally unstable mother and alcoholic wife both kill themselves. How much of it was real and how much of it was made up? Pollock’s father, Everett Chalmers, was also a well-known doctor in Fredericton, and both her grandmother and mother also committed suicide.
Pollock acknowledged that Doc drew heavily on her personal history, and that she summoned up these ghosts from her past to find possible explanations for some of the unanswered questions in her life. “But that’s true of any play I write,” she said. “It always begins as an attempt to understand the world around me. I make up a story in which I can control the elements and the motivation of the characters. I create a little world which I know has meaning and makes sense. When I’m finished doing that, I’m better able to cope with what began as something incomprehensible to me.”
The main characters in Doc are:
Ev, a retired physician in his 70s.
Catherine, Ev’s daughter in her mid-30s.
Katie, Catherine as a young girl.
Bob, Ev’s wife, Catherine’s mother.
Pollock said that when she started writing the play, the characters were based on real people from her past – Ev and wife Bob even had the same family pet names as her own father and mother – but as the story unfolded and the characters developed, they turned into people she didn’t really know any more. As Pollock enigmatically put it in a program note, “My father is [named] Ev, but Ev [the character] is not my father.” The same held true for Catherine and Katie, who started out as two aspects of Pollock herself with different memories of a shared past. “If they were really me, I’m not sure I could have revealed all that much about myself.” If it had been just her own story, said Pollock, “I would have put it in a letter and sent it to my family.”
Pollock hoped that when her father eventually saw the play, which begins with the estranged writer daughter Catherine coming home for a civic ceremony to dedicate a hospital in Ev’s name, he would see that Pollock had taken the family’s personal story and used it to create something larger. “I would hope that the love and affection with which I’ve used very personal material is apparent in the play, even though some of the things might not be pleasant for him to recall.”
Among those unpleasant things was the spectre of the workaholic father dedicating himself to community service while his troubled stay-at-home wife, who once had a good career as a nurse, slowly drinks herself to death. Pollock said that while some of the memories were painful for her she didn’t find it painful to write the play. “For one thing, it was easy for me to hear the voices of the characters. What was difficult was trying to transcend the personal and make what they were saying of interest to others.”
First she had to distance herself from her past, she said. That was the only way she could deal with the characters in an objective and unsentimental way. After that, her relationship with the characters became the same as with the characters in such Pollock plays as Blood Relations, which deals with the Lizzie Borden axe murders, and Whiskey Six, which deals with a Prohibition-era bootlegger and his homicidal mistress. “In a way those stories such as Blood Relations and Whiskey Six were more real to me than my quote-unquote ‘own’ story,” she said. “It was only when my own story became sufficiently real to me in a dramatic context that I was able to write about it.” The theatre gave her the means to tell a personal story that would have been difficult to tell in any other way. “It gave me a distancing so I could reveal concerns that I couldn’t reveal otherwise. Once the play was created it became something apart from the real events and the people who were used as its material.”
The play had its premiere at Theatre Calgary in April 1984 and was an instant success. I wrote in my review that it made a “strong personal statement with universal implications.” It subsequently played in Toronto, where it was hailed by the Canadian Press as a “superb family drama” and in Ottawa, where CBC Radio described it as “an intelligent and captivating descent into the murky realms of the human psyche.” It went on to win both the Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Governor General’s Award for Drama.
Pollock’s father, then aged 79, saw the play in Ottawa in November 1984 and, much to her relief, liked it. “Although there are certain similarities in it to our own life, he saw it as being about somebody else’s family,” she said. “He didn’t seem to feel personally exposed by it, and for that I was eternally grateful.”
Her father saw the play again, this time in his hometown of Fredericton, when Pollock directed it at Theatre New Brunswick in 1986. She temporarily changed the name of the play to Family Trappings when TNB artistic director Janet Amos expressed concern that the title Doc would lead the local audience to expect a heroic portrayal of Pollock’s well-liked father instead of the foul-mouthed workaholic depicted in the play. Amos remained nervous even after the title change, but she didn’t have to worry. Family Trappings played to appreciative audiences in Fredericton, and Pollock’s father said he still liked the play.
The play was presented in Vancouver in 1990 and Hamilton, Ontario in 1992, and then sat on the shelf for several years while other Pollock plays took centre stage. In 2010, Doc was dusted off and revived by the Soulpepper company at the Young Centre in Toronto. By that time, Pollock told the Toronto Star, she had trouble separating fact from fiction: “I always say that the realities of life are the flour and eggs and vanilla a playwright puts into the cake that she’s baking. But when it’s all finished, who can taste the flour and eggs and vanilla anymore? It’s all about the cake itself.” For the reviewers, the cake was more than plenty. The Star’s Robert Crew described Doc as the most “powerful and gut-wrenching” of Pollock’s plays. “This is one doctor’s appointment that you have to keep.” The Globe’s J. Kelly Nestruck echoed the praise. He described the plot twists as “the hallmarks of sophisticated writing.”
After mining her personal history, Pollock, now 79, has turned her hand to mining the history of her adopted province, Alberta. Her most recent production, staged in 2014, is Centennial, a revue celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Turner Valley, south of Calgary.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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