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Still Stands the House

Play in one act by Gwen Pharis Ringwood, one of the most performed and anthologized works in the history of Canadian theatre. Premiered at Carolina Playmakers School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, US, March 3, 1938, directed by Lynn Gault, featuring Floyd Childs, Howard Bailey and Ruth Mengel. Subsequently produced by Medicine Hat Little Theatre, February 25, 1939, directed by Mary Laidlaw with Kitty White, Ethel Finley, Louis Flath and Vivian Rodgers. It won first prize at the 1939 Dominion Drama Festival. It was also performed on CBC Radio.

Influenced by her education at the University of North Carolina and particularly the teachings of Frederick Koch (and his thoughts on the folk play with the land figuring as a shaper of character and plot), Ringwood struck theatrical gold with this taut, spooky little drama which still reads very well. The playwright has said of its creation, "I wanted to express through images, similes, metaphors that came up out of the land...and to use those in the way that the Irish writers [ie: Synge] had used them." Indeed, it can be read and performed with a dash of Herman Voaden stylistics, but it is also a straightforward drama of life and hate on the prairie. (Indeed, it is subtitled: A drama of the Canadian Frontier.)

It is January. Outside the living-room of the Warren farmhouse in Alberta, a blizzard begins and the winds start to shriek. Inside, writes Ringwood, there is "faded austerity...decayed elegance...remote and cheerless as a hearth in which no fire is ever laid." Over all this reigns the portrait of the dead patriarch, Martin, whose spirit still fills the house. Hester, his daughter, and her brother Bruce and his wife Ruth live in resentful closeness. Bruce is considering selling the homestead behind Hester's back. There is, from the start, a horror-movie tension heightened by the screaming winds outside, and Hester's crypto-incestuous ties to her father. Ruth, a chatty quasi-hysteric who is pregnant, has to deal with the icy Hester who intones, "We are not a family to put words to everything we feel." Ruth wants change: light and colour. Hester thinks, "There is nothing in this house that isn't good..." When it comes out that Bruce is planning to move the family closer to the town, Hester takes decisive action, using the "moving shroud" of the snow outside as her accomplice.

Not as old-fashioned as one might think, it still, in its uncomfortably lingering Chekhovian silences and final moment, produces goose-flesh. Elsie Park Gowan, in Canadian Author and Bookman (Fall, 1975), said, "Still Stands the House is to me the best Canadian one-act play by far and it sums up the whole human experience of farming in that dried-out country...there isn't a single line in the play that is superfluous."

Readings: Geraldine Anthony. Gwen Pharis Ringwood. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

The Collected Plays of Gwen Pharis Ringwood. Ed. Enid Delgatty Rutland. Ottawa: Borealis, 1982.

Commentary by Gaetan Charlebois. Additional information provided by Anton Wagner.

Last updated 2014-10-21