Loose women

Canadian playwright unlaces the corset of the Victorian age in popular new play

The actress/playwright Linda Griffiths was pawing through the buck bin outside a Toronto used bookstore when she came upon a beat-up copy of The Odd Women.  After noting the author of the 1893 novel was somebody named George Gissing, she flipped it over, discovered it was about five Victorian spinsters and was immediately intrigued. At $1, it seemed a bargain at the time.

Today it looks more like a steal, as Age of Arousal, the play wildly inspired by The Odd Women, gets set to open at Theatre Projects Manitoba tonight, Montreal next week, Vancouver and Austin, Texas, in April, and in North Carolina the following month. The sudden popularity has Griffiths running off in all directions to promote her most sought-after script in years.

“It’s kind of crazy but it’s also pretty great,” says Griffiths, who made an auspicious debut on the national stage in 1980 with her one-woman show Maggie and Pierre. “That’s a lot of productions for a Canuck play.”

The 50-something Montreal native is a theatre lifer whose career has sometimes seemed like a life sentence when a new play failed to find traction with artistic directors or audiences. There’s nothing like a spate of opening nights to make a stage veteran feel as if she has been sprung from theatrical confinement.  “I’m very up about Age of Arousal,” says Griffiths, who was recently in town to give a reading and visit the Theatre Projects set. “Being a Canadian playwright is brutal. I’ve done plenty of griping, but not right now.”

The central character in Age of Arousal is an aging suffragette named Mary Barfoot who believes she can foster social change in 1885 London by training women at her secretary school. She and her lover/protegé take in three starving women with no means of support and help them find a place in society. When Mary’s male cousin/cad visits, ideas and libidos clash.

Theatre Projects’s artistic director Ardith Boxall has assembled a potent lineup of Winnipeg actresses: Patricia Hunter, Maggie Nagle, Carolyn Gray, Krista Jackson and Erin McGrath. Eric Blais rounds out the cast for the March 19-29 run at the Rachel Browne Theatre, 211 Bannatyne Ave.

Griffiths’ first draft was faithful to Gissing’s story but then, as is her habit, wandered off in subsequent rewrites. “I’m not capable of writing an adaptation,” says Griffiths, who has always been a Canadian alternative theatre darling. “I’m too rebellious.

“I began to feel asphyxiated by the (Victorian) times myself. I felt like I was wearing a corset, restricted by what the women could say and what they couldn’t say.”

She soon realized that what her characters were thinking was more important than what they were saying. Griffiths decided to employ what she calls thought speak, which involves her characters speaking their thoughts to themselves or each other.

It is a device first glimpsed in Maggie and Pierre nearly 30 years ago and which has surfaced in her plays from time to time.

“What threads through my work is a sense of what I would call fabulism,” says Griffiths, whose plays are a rare sight in Winnipeg.

In Maggie and Pierre, she dressed as Maggie Sinclair and wore a tuxedo sleeve on one arm to represent Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau so she could change characters with a twist of her body.

“I always root the fantasy with a political element so it’s never ‘dreamy girl writes play,'” she says. “There is always this leaping-off point out of reality. In Age of Arousal, it’s the thought speak.”

The Victorian period was a time of tremendous social and economic flux, exploding with the beginnings of communism, Darwinism and socialism. The suffragette movement was beginning to loosen the limitations on women.

“The corset does not represent the Victorian age, but it being ripped open does,” she says. “It was believed that if women were unleashed they would be nymphomaniacs. They were entirely at the mercy of their bodies. They needed to be protected and controlled.”

It all makes Griffiths appreciate how much gender politics has evolved since the 19th century.

“For all this talk about all this explosion of ideas, there was a lot of repression of women,” she says. “If I was a Victorian I might like to be a man. I’m not sure I’d want to be a woman. Even now, it’s hard enough, but then it was hell.”

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Griffiths File

1956 — Born in Montreal.

1976 — Asked to leave the National Theatre School.

1978 — Founding member of 25th Street Theatre in Saskatoon.

1980 — Co-wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre.

1984 — Her play Jessica opens in Saskatoon and goes to win a shelf full of Toronto awards.

1990 — Performed The Darling Family with Alan Williams at PTE’s second stage.

1999 — Wrote Alien Creature, about poet Gwendolyn McEwan, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary award.

2007 — Age of Arousal premieres at Calgary’s playRites Festival and moves on to Toronto and Philadelphia.