On Pauline by Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes

This article was originally published in issue 3.23 (Spring 2014)

Lorna Brown reviews Pauline, a new opera by Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes

If you had been a student in the Canadian school system at a particular moment in the post-war era, the spirit and rhythm of The Song My Paddle Sings would still be summoned up whenever Pauline Johnson’s name was evoked. In my mid-1960s schooldays, however, Johnson’s mixed race identity, her astonishing fame as a performer, and her remarkably independent life were missing from the curriculum. Indeed, the relationship of paddler to river in Johnson’s interpretation—as a thrilling collaborator with the power of nature, rather than the more familiar conquest narrative—would have to wait for careful recognition until the beginning of this century. Veronica Strong-Boag and Carole Gerson in Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson reconsider the nationalistic, interracial, and erotic facets of Johnson’s work and its importance to Canadian literary history. At prestigious theatres in Toronto, London drawing rooms, and whistle-stops across Canada, decked out in an “Indian” costume of her own devising, Johnson presented her own poetry with great gusto, making her performances unique among “recitations” yet distinct from the popular entertainments of the day. Her fame and popular appeal stemmed from these performances as compared to her (ample) publications, and influenced, perhaps, the choice of opera as the best form for a new work about her life.

In the libretto for Pauline, Margaret Atwood reconstructs the scene of Pauline’s final days in her adopted home, Vancouver, as she finally succumbs to breast cancer. The morphine administered for her pain by the compassionate Dr. Nelles creates a hallucinogenic lens through which she is visited by the apparition of her dead grandfather, the Six Nations chief Smoke Johnson. In waking dreams, her stage-partners and lovers swirl and combine as they reunite. Attended (somewhat competitively) by friends, supporters, and the complicated figure of her older sister Eva, Pauline’s memories, regrets, and triumphs are layered and circular refrains as elaborated in Tobin Stokes’ score. Haunting motifs draw us back to the Grand River of her birth. Visiting society ladies trill in a brittle comedy that punctuates Pauline’s solitary ruminations and her somber dialogues with intimates. While the tonal, lyrical trademark style of Stokes is dominant, he also develops contemporary motifs for Pauline’s convulsive efforts to understand her own life and defend her right to live it. Using flute, clarinet, and bassoon plus a string trio (violin, viola, cello) with additional elements, the score, like Atwood’s libretto, listens carefully to the past but addresses us, here and now. In a collaborative design, visual artists Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka’wakw), Lindsey Delaronde (Mohawk), and lighting designer John Webber project images and Six Nations forms alongside set pieces from a Victorian interior, placing dual cultural influences in familial proximity. Such dualities thread through Johnson’s life and work, and are traced in the competing appraisals of her work since her death. She was a celebrity whose friends and supporters included leaders as diverse as Chief Joe Capilano (Su-a-pu-luck) and Sir Charles Tupper. In London, Lord Strathcona, whose marriage to a part-Cree woman, Bella, had created in him a sympathetic attitude to Mixed-race Canadians, took her under wing. An ardent supporter of the monarchy, she nevertheless “asserted the equality of Indian spirituality and Christianity” and “pointed out that Iroquois women enjoyed a political power denied to British women.” 1 She could socialize with notables with the same confidence used to handle rowdy hecklers at the back of frontier halls. Her continuous touring, from the comfortable accommodations in Montreal’s Winsor Hotel to the ramshackle frame hotels, drill halls and church basements of tiny Ontario towns, was an effect of her precarious financial circumstances, taking a great toll on her health and literary output. Yet it was her popular success that secured for Johnson a more lasting place in schoolrooms, anthologies, and now opera halls of Canada.

For more, see TCR 3.23 (Spring 2014)

Charlotte Gray, Flint and Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake, Toronto: Harper Collins, 2002).

Performance May 23-31, 2014 at the York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive, Vancouver.

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