They exist in every major city in Canada, and in a few of the smaller ones. Most are underfunded, struggling and more than a little tawdry. But the country’s alternative theatres are also home to some of the bravest, most innovative artistic projects going. They turn out new Canadian plays, introduce out-of-the-way foreign ones, and occasionally breathe new life into an old masterpiece. For many theatregoers interested in productions that catch something of the volatility and meaning of the current age, they are the place to be.
Such a theatre provides the focus for Carole Corbeil’s brilliant new novel, In The Wings. The Phoenix—the name is fictional—is situated in the artsy, downat-the-heel Queen-Bathurst area of Toronto. Corbeil, an arts journalist in that city and author of the warmly received debut novel Voice-over (1992), has a long association with a real-life theatre in the same neighborhood.
She has served on the board of Theatre Passe Muraille, lived with one of its former artistic directors, Clarke Rogers (who died tragically young at 48 in 1996) and is currently married to one of its veteran actors, Layne Coleman. In fact, In The Wings is saturated with such an intimate knowledge of Passe Muraille’s affairs (in every sense of that word) that no doubt many in the Toronto theatre community will read it eagerly as a roman à clef.
But while fragments of real-life people do drift through its pages (one former Toronto theatre critic gets a particularly nasty drubbing), the novel’s imaginative vision far transcends its origins. The book opens in the early 1990s, at a time when the Phoenix is facing huge cutbacks to its grants, a mountainous debt and almost certain closure. Its artistic director, Jimmy Tarken, decides to risk all on a production of Hamlet. For the lead role, he chooses a charismatic, gifted and very neurotic young actor called Allan O’Reilly. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is to be played
by Alice Riverton, a fortyish woman who once acted with Sir John Gielgud when she was an ingenue in London. The complicating factor is that, offstage, Alice and Allan are lovers. Devastated by the recent death of her mother, Alice has taken on Allan as a solace, and quickly fallen in love. But her tender ministrations cannot assuage the raging insecurity of her lover. Propped up by alcohol and drugs, he seems programmed to steer both himself and the production towards disaster.
In the novel, Corbeil has fashioned a language that combines her keen powers of observation and analysis—so familiar from her journalism—with a sensuous, empathetic embodiment of her subject. There is no authorial description in the novel. Instead, every object—an old mattress on which Allan and Alice make love, the snow falling through the dark city sky—becomes a living part of
the characters’ psychological weather. It is as if Corbeil, like so many of the best contemporary writers, has found a stylistic way to break down the old split between object and subject, mind and body. That is partly why reading In the Wings is such a great pleasure. Even while the novel ruminates on such diverse subjects as suicide, marriage and the Canadian climate, the rich dance of Corbeil’s language creates a single, enveloping experience.
She also writes with great sensitivity about the craft of acting. To many, actors are shiftless, fraudulent characters without proper jobs. But in her evocation of the rehearsals for Hamlet, Corbeil shows that their task can be as demanding as those performed by doctors or constitutional lawyers. Faced with bringing Shakespeare’s vast play to life, Allan and his colleagues must make instruments of themselves, drawing on their deepest reserves of intelligence, feeling and gut instinct. And in the end, having done their best, they are utterly vulnerable to the whims of critics and audiences. As Alice reflects: “Being at the mercy of others was at the very core of what it was to be an actor.”
I And yet the reward for this I exposure is, at its best, a thrilg ling sense of engagement. For g Jimmy, this means, in part, a x confrontation with the protean g genius of Shakespeare. In one of the novel’s inspired riffs, he considers: “There are bits in Shakespeare that are like coming upon an animal in the wild— the surprise of it, the awe of feeling kinship outside one’s species, the gratitude in finding a truth intact after all these years.”
The book has one major flaw: its portrait of drama critic Robert Pullwarden. At first, he is credible enough as a man whose keen intelligence is rendered malignant by hatred. But Corbeil soon makes him the vehicle of her pet dislikes, and he degenerates into a mechanical buffoon, neither touching nor funny. In the end, she tries to redeem him, but this comes across as a sentimental attempt to strike a positive note.
It is not needed. Though the tale moves towards tragedy, Corbeil’s art is fundamentally affirmative. In The Wings is not just a book about the theatre, but a spellbinding depiction of the universal struggle to find and make use of what is most genuine in human experience.
Passion on and off the stage makes for a brilliant, enveloping novel
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