Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Diving Bell and Marsha Norman

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In a DVD extra interview for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, American painter and director Julian Schnabel remarks that he made the film to help his ailing father overcome his fear of death. He goes on to say that, though the film wasn't finished at the point where his father passed on, the making of Diving Bell has at least partially succeeded in expunging the fear in himself.

That's no small feat. Obviously the process of making a piece of art is a little different from that of consuming it (to use so vulgar an expression), but watching the film again, I could see what Schnabel was talking about. By taking us inside the "locked-in syndrome" of former French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby - by making his one blinking eye the camera's opening POV - Schnabel's film makes the audience consider the challenge of its protagonist's state. Over the course of the film, Bauby learns how to use his imagination and memory to set himself free. In other words, he learns how to live.

By learning to live, we learn how to die. And thus, in the moment where we are watching Schnabel's film, it is possible to say that we learn how to overcome death. Or at least address it. Because who ever overcomes death, really?

Hamlet works the same way. It's a play about a young man learning to cope with the death of his father, and learn how to face death himself. His indecisiveness is deeply connected to his fear of death. As a result, ounce he can finally say "Let be," the brooding Prince can act.

So much of great art is great not only because it transports us from our dreary shells and into new worlds and skins, but because, by doing so, it helps us cope with the inevitability of death - our parents', our loved ones', our own.

Modern North American culture has a deep aversion to death. That's fair enough really. Death is a bummer. It's not the kind of thing that's gonna help sell jeans or Lattes. Further, we've done virtually everything in our power to distance ourselves from it. We take the elderly and set their uncomfortable aging aside. If it ain't curable, it will be. And if it can't be, then we don't want to see it.

For me, this makes the existence of those cultural artifacts which genuinely deal with the subject so valuable.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of watching Soulpepper's production of Marsha Norman's Night, Mother at the Michael Young Theatre. Now, I haven't been overly impressed with much that Soulpepper has done since back when I was in high school, but this production, starring mother-daughter team Megan Follows and Dawn Greenhalgh, is raw and gorgeous and deeply stirring.

Thelma (Greenhalgh) and Jessie (Follows) live together in a house that looks like the set of Roseanne. Their life seems comfortable and banal, but after roughly five minutes of our having met them, Jessie calmly reveals to her mother that she will be committing suicide in an hour and a half. As, you can no doubt guess, this inspires a deserved freak out and a highly charged series of conversations and revelations, all of which somehow manage to drain and electrify at the same time.

I won't ruin the ending for those who don't know the play and haven't seen the film starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft, but the power in it for me had less to do with whether or not Jesse would actually go into her room, shut the door, and pull the trigger, and more the conversation leading up to it. How do you prepare for your own death? What do you need to ask, to know? How do you let someone go?

By going above and beyond the myriad cliches of suicide and depression, Norman's play give its audience something unique and deeply enriching.

Sometimes, when I'm teaching high school kids and they ask why on earth they need to be reading Hamlet or studying "literature" at all, my defense of art comes out flat, as though regurgitated from some insipid book I read in my first year of university. Too bad I can't bottle what I felt leaving the theatre last night.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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