The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Once More, With Feeling: Five Affecting Plays edited by Erin Hurley 

Reviewed by Kailin Wright

Ed. Erin Hurley

Once More, With Feeling: Five Affecting Plays. Playwrights Canada Press, 2014.

257 pp.

$25.00

In this powerful collection—Once More, With Feeling: Five Affecting Plays—Erin Hurley (editor) gathers five plays that demonstrate the emotive intensity that theatre has to offer. As Hurley explains in her introduction, “affect, feeling, and emotion are the red thread that brings together the plays in this collection” (viii). This is not Hurley’s first foray into the affect scene. Her book Theatre & Feeling (2010) offers an intellectual apparatus for the study of feelings in the acts of creating and viewing theatre. As a work in Palgrave Macmillan’s Theatre& series, Hurley’s Theatre & Feeling targets the general reader by offering a comprehensive analysis of theatre history, theory, and terms as she argues that intense feelings are what draw audiences to the theatre. Once More, with Feeling enriches this earlier work by collecting five plays that would nicely complement any scholarly or classroom study of theatre and feeling.

In her introduction, Hurley cites Nicholas Ridout, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari to arrive at a concise definition of what she means by “affect” and “affecting” plays: “the variation of a body in its encounter with another” (viii). She adds that the “body need not be human” and the “variation” need not be emotional (viii). After all, the audience “can be moved (altered) by calculated, rational argument” (viii). In this way, Hurley encourages the reader to consider how the components of a play (plot, character, language, thought, and spectacle) interact with the audiences (and their senses, culture, location, histories) to create “a mutual impression of play on audience and audience on play” (ix). For Hurley, a play’s affect is one way of engaging with theatre’s changeability—that is, the fact that a theatrical event can never be duplicated—as well as with the mutually constitutive relationship of a spectacle and its spectator.

While Hurley offers a general introduction to the collection, the book also features brief yet pointed introductions to each one of the five plays by scholars and artists Stéphanie Nutting, Nicholas Hanson, Allison Leadley, and Moynan King. Joined under the rubric of “feeling,” the five plays engage with a plethora of issues that range from commodity culture (Bliss) and celebrity icons (Bliss, The Glass Box) to nanny culture (Nanay) and youth issues (Rage) to sexual disabled bodies (The Glass Box) and automatons (The Salon Automaton). Olivier Choinière’s Bliss (translated by Caryl Churchill) stands out as an innovative piece that questions the lack of feeling in the real world as we continue to experience emotions through acts of consumerism and through bearing witness of entertainment. In her helpful introduction to the play, Stéphanie Nutting notes that the often-controversial Choinière targets not only “the pursuit of pleasure” but the pursuit of pleasure as derived from “commodified patterns of consumerism and entertainment” (4). First developed in French by Théâtre de la Manufacture at Théâtre La Licorne in Montreal (as Félicité) in 2007, Churchill’s English translation has been performed in Scotland, Switzerland, and Australia. This performance history is not unique to Bliss: all of the plays in the collection premiered in Canada and many went on to be performed at international venues.

Geraldine Pratt and Caleb Johnston’s Nanay (Mother): A Testimonial Play not only uses feeling to incite global change but also offers an example of a verbatim play: the script is taken from interviews with Filipino workers, their families, and Canadian employers that were conducted over the course of fifteen years. In his overview of the play, Patrick Alcedo takes care to remind us that “Nanay illustrates the power of qualitative research in theatre production” by “painfully braid[ing] the sad plight of Filipino nannies together with the frustration of Canadians in finding care for their own children and elderly parents” (51). While the play questions our very definition of mother and of parenting, it also explores the immigrant experience in Canada and the many hurdles Filipino nannies can face in acquiring work permits and steady employment. The play also features a talkback session at the end of each performance that is moderated by an academic and a member of a community organization.

Michele Riml’s Rage takes the reader to yet another theatrical genre—that of TYA, or Theatre for Young Audiences. In his introduction to the script, Nicholas Hanson highlights the play’s resonances with recent school shootings and how the play’s “two-person cast, one-act structure, modest set pieces, and minimal requirements for lighting and theatrical effects” (97) epitomizes the TYA canon. Riml’s one-room play, Hanson explains, uses a theatrical technique “that appears throughout the theatre-for-adolescents canon, including Clem Martini’s 1995 Illegal Entry, which chronicles a trio of would-be teenage thieves who lock themselves in a garage, and In This World, Hannah Moscovitch’s 2009 play that places two sixteen-year-old girls on chairs in a small school office” (97). The play’s enclosed setting—a high-school counselling office—and the onstage presence of a gun rely on, as Hanson suggests, “human tension instead of theatrical spectacle” (97).

Theatre Terrific’s The Glass Box (devised by and starring Kyla Harris, Watson Moy, and Susanna Uchatius) stages a welcome challenge to societal perceptions of disabled bodies as either asexual or impotent. The play parodies a celebrity game show as the characters take turns answering sexual questions and talking about pasta, fishing, strippers, and masturbation. Together, the three characters challenge notions of normative sexuality: the play is a three-hander that features an older woman (Sofia or Sofia Loren), a man with Down Syndrome (Brad or Brad Pitt), and a young woman in a wheel chair (Cleo or Cleopatra). Allison Leadley aptly praises the play’s approach to human sexualities and the disabled body: “Rather than the terror or surprise that the freak show sought to instill via the exceptional body, or the feelings of charity and pity that Harris [as Cleo] suggests the disabled subject conjures in popular representations of disability, the disabled experience is reframed through the pleasure, desire, fantasy, and fascination of the celebrity presence” (156).

If The Glass Box questions normative sexuality, then The Salon Automaton asks “what is meant by human?” and thereby echoes “the greatest question of the Enlightenment” (Moynan King 198). Nathalie Claude’s “play for one flesh-and-blood actress and three automatons” (195) completes this collection with a study of the relationships between stillness and motion, death and life. “The mortal stillness of the Hostess [or the one flesh-and-blood actress],” as Moynan King points out, “is paradoxically contrasted with the emotional physiology of the slowing movements of the automatons, whose voices meld in expressing infinite awe at the wonder of ‘your humanity, your humanity, your humanity . . . .’” (203). While the words “your humanity” (203) constitute the last lines of the play, and the collection, they also compete with Hurley’s “red thread” of “affect, feeling, and emotion” (viii) as the throughline in this collection because each work questions the definition of our humanity through various contexts whether it be celebrity culture, immigrant work experiences, the disabled body, or automatons.

Once More, With Feeling is a bold collection for academics, general readers, and students that has applications beyond a focused study of feeling and theatre. After all, as Hurley argues, “making, managing, distributing, and provoking feeling of all kinds is a key element of what theatre does, of why it matters” (viii).

 

Kailin Wright is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at St. Francis Xavier University. Her research focuses on race, gender, and sexuality in Canadian literature and theatre. Her work on Canadian drama has appeared in Studies in Canadian Literature and Theatre Research in Canada. Kailin is a Co-Applicant of the Editing Modernism in Canada (EMiC) project (funded by a Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant), and she is currently creating a scholarly edition of Carroll Aikins’s play The God of Gods (1919). 

 

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