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literature

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Canadian Literature in English  
 
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In Gilbert's play, Capote at Yaddo (1990), for example, supposedly literary characters utter such phrases as "with Newton and I" and "you who holds": an apparently deliberate carelessness. Cute and clever are no substitute for intelligence and craft, and the four Toronto plays that are included in Making, Out suffer from the same post-modern cleverness that the comma in the anthology title suggests. Only in David Demchuk's Touch (1986) does one find credible (not pastiche) characterization.

Ken Garnhum's Beuys Buoys Boys (1989) is a performance piece that does not read well as a text. Its title suggests what it shares with the work of another Maritime playwright, Daniel MacIvor's 2-2-Tango (1990): a "neat" idea that seems unsubstantial.

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Like MacIvor, Audrey Butler is also from Cape Breton, but she has drawn on the strengths of local character and narrative to create, especially in Black Friday? (published in Radical Perversions, 1990), a play that deals credibly and movingly both with lesbian coming out and with its place in working-class culture and its history.

The working class also gets refreshing treatment in David Type's Just Us Indians (1983), set in downtown Toronto. "We're the garbage they leave behind because it won't fit in the cans," says one of his characters, touching more potently on the relation between subcultures than any amount of fashionable theory.

Leaving home is also the theme of much Canadian heterosexual drama, but it has a special poignancy in Butler's consistent attention to the creation of new families that are not simply suburban facsimiles.

Butler is now associated with the main producer of lesbian drama, Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, where Ann-Marie Macdonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) (1990) also played. Although more popular than Butler's play, Goodnight Desdemona has too much of Tom Stoppard's literary cleverness to be continuously enjoyable.

There are two powerful plays in Making, Out, both of them very much post-AIDS dramas: Harry Rintoul's Brave Hearts (1991) and Colin Thomas's Flesh and Blood (1991). Although both works have their defects, each is moving and confronts with a tough irony both real pain and the nature of relationships in a post-AIDS era.

Flesh and Blood shares with Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (1988) a cast that includes gay and straight characters. Fraser's play, set in Alberta, is also a clever examination of the fictions of monstrosity and the banality of evil. Widely popular, it has become the most successful gay Anglo-Canadian play, having both been performed in London and New York and filmed by a well-known Canadian director, Denys Arcand.

There are at least two gay first-nation playwrights in Canada, Thomson Highway and Daniel David Moses, but neither has written about gay subjects in a manner that is recognizable in conventional gay Anglophone culture.

Highway, who includes Cree and Ojibway speeches in his dialogue, is the better known of the two, not least for such moving collaborations with his late brother, the dancer René Highway, as The Sage, the Dancer and the Fool (1984): a danced play about native mythologies and sexual selves. The closest one comes to gay material in Highway's very successful plays, The Rez Sisters (1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), however, is the sexually indeterminate mythological figure, Nanabush, who governs the action.

Lesbian Poetry

The problem of gay-identified authors is even more problematic in lesbian writers: an aspect of "écriture au féminin" that is especially evident in Canadian literature. An intelligent treatment of this issue appears in the essays of the Montreal fiction writer and journalist Gail Scott, called Spaces Like Stairs (1987).

There is no male equivalent of the movable line between feminist and lesbian, nor is the difference in color so markedly political in male writers, with the possible exception of Ian Rashid's poetry collection, Black Markets / White Boyfriends (1991). Terry Castle has recently complained of "gal-pal" miscellanies in which any female writing about or for or out of lesbian experience can be included, whereas male writers on the subject are excluded. That male authors are excluded, however, does not make the work of identifying what is truly lesbian writing any the easier.

The case of Dorothy Livesay, a distinguished Canadian poet, is a good example. Widowed and having had an affair with a younger man, she refuses to be merely "feminine" or to identify herself with any school or party.

Nonetheless, her poems about lesbian experience in The Phases of Love (1983) qualify her for inclusion in any consideration of lesbian writers. "You must let your mouth go / you must drown in me" (from her "Dawnings") is undeniably powerful, as powerful as another west-coast (though originally Australian and married) poet, Daphne Marlatt.

Marlatt describes herself as a poet of "open form," where the line may be like a wave in water, and as an antirationalist who, like the great gay poet Robert Duncan, seeks "to recreate the imaginary/sensory language of the Mother." "Desire floods in / your look i meet / and met, flushed, hear / the singing sound of my blood / rising to it," she writes, moving increasingly toward a poetry that is a sort of compacted and intensified prose.

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