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The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr

Three-act play by Jovette Marchessault, originally written in French as Le Voyage Magnifique d’Emily Carr, premiered at Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui 1990, with Catherine Begin, Louise Bombardier, Louisette Dussault and Michel Laperriere; directed by Reynald Robinson; designed by Augustin Rioux. It was translated into English by Linda Gaboriau (Belfry Theatre 1992), and published by Talonbooks in 1992.

The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carrdramatizes the internal life of the artist: the mise en scene is a projection of the way in which Emily Carr sees her world. The play takes as an organizing metaphor the journey -- in this case a journey towards artistic self-realization. Its characters are the people and places which haunt the imagination of the artist, and it delineates a mental landscape through a juxtaposition of stage images.

One of these characters is Lizzie, Emily's older sister, who articulates a doctrinal social and religious point of view, the antithesis of the pantheistic beliefs of the Natives whom she attempts to convert, and of the vision expressed by Carr in her paintings and writings. The Native way of seeing is embodied in Emily's friend Sophie and the totem D'Sonoqua, played by the same actress. In her story of D'Sonoqua from Klee Wyck, Emily Carr describes this Haida totem as a goddess of creation and destruction. In Marchessault's play, Sophie, who bears a child a year, and buries a child a year, is a manifestation of this cycle of birth and death. She is also the wise voice of Native spirituality, speaking in a language of moral superiority to the non-Natives. The creative impulse is also portrayed through the symbolic figure of the "The Soul Tuner," and through the character of Lawren Harris, the Group of Seven artist who most encouraged Carr to reach beyond mimetic art to a more expressionist style -- both played by the same actor.

As in Marchessault's other plays about marginalized women artists, La Saga des poules mouillees (1981), La Terre est trop courte, Violette Leduc (1982), Alice et Gertrude, Nathalie Renee et ce cher Ernest (1984) and Anais dans la queue de la comete (1985), the voices of the imagination speak with the same authenticity as those of "real" characters.

The delineation of time is fluid, suggesting moments of vision rather than temporal sequences: "Sometimes dawn, sometimes the middle of a starry night, sometimes a moment of dazzling light in the forest and sometimes the dark night of the soul" (5); each moment evokes the way the artist sees and what she sees.

Like many expressionist plays, The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr is loosely structured as a journey to a "New World," in this case one in which feminist values and aesthetics will be recognized and celebrated. The journey takes the form of three "voyages," each of which comprises an increasing number of "tableaux." An approximate chronology is suggested only through the juxtaposition of significant events in the artist's life which may also be aspects of an imagined life. "Reality" is suggested through the conflict between Emily and Lizzie, and through the incantations of D'Sonoqua in the "Third Voyage," when Emily has begun to explore the spiritual dimensions of landscape. However, even the physical properties which invest her environment take on symbolic significance: in her struggles with doubt and despair she wrestles with her father's armchair, which she perceives as Jacob's angel--a figure of stultifying orthodoxy and patriarchy.

In delineating the struggles of one woman artist against a dominant patriarchy, Marchessault is undoubtedly dramatizing her own. Like Emily Carr, she is a painter, sculptor, and writer, a strong individualist who lives in the country and surrounds herself with what she calls her "therapy group"--her dogs, cats, ducks, guinea-fowl, and geese. Her work pervasively reflects the way in which an artist grows towards a way of realizing her natural environment through highly coloured images, and the ways in which women artists realize their own creative impulses. Marchessault takes almost nothing from Carr's own writings, however; she constructs the world of the artist in her own words. In effect, then, it is her world too.

Emily's final words in the play are, however, taken from Carr's journal, Hundreds and Thousands (264): "There's words enough, paint and brushes enough, and thoughts enough. The whole difficulty seems to be getting the thoughts clear enough, making them stand still long enough to be fitted with words and paint. They are so elusive, like wild bird singing above your head" (104). They articulate Carr’s attempt to vivify one art form through another, the same enterprise undertaken by Marchessault. The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr dramatizes the struggle of any artist who aspires beyond literal representation.

Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University; excerpted from “Staging a Woman Painter’s Life: Six Versions of Emily Carr,” Mosaic 31.3 (Sept 1998): 83-110.

Last updated 2011-01-28