Born October 7 1953; died September 21 2014
Linda Griffiths, who has died aged sixty following a battle with breast
cancer, was as wildly inspiring as she was wildly inspired, both as an
actress and a playwright in her native Canada and beyond. Nowhere was
this more evident in the latter than in Age of Arousal, Griffiths' 2007
play set in a nineteenth century secretarial college where five women
search for emancipation in very different ways.
In her programme notes for Muriel Romanes' 2011 production of the play
for the Stellar Quines theatre company at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in
Edinburgh, Griffiths herself described her work as being ”wildly
inspired” by George Gissing's novel, The Odd Women, which she
discovered in the dollar bin of a second-hand book-store.
“I turned it over, and it on the back it said ‘Five Victorian
Spinsters’,” Griffiths said in an interview with the Herald at the time
of the production, “and I thought, oh, that’s juicy. I’m so interested
in the idea of spinsters, and I wanted to feel I had the freedom to be
wildly inspired by it, but not do any traditional adaptation. So it’s
a collaboration between me and George Gissing. Now, he’s dead, but if
anyone is still doing any of my plays in a hundred years time, I will
let them mess with them.
“But the tone of the play is completely different from Gissing’s. it’s
playful, dangerous and there’s that bomb inside it. In Gissing’s book
there’s the bomb, but there is no soufflé around it and no sense of
humour. No-one goes to Berlin to smoke and wear trousers in the book as
they do in my play, which is meant to show the restriction of the age,
but in a way so we also see the freedom that was building. I’ve a
natural rebellious temperament, so I was never going to write a
conventional costume drama, and I was always more interested in what
was underneath than what was on top.”
In Age of Arousal, which in Romanes' production featured equally wild
costumes by students from Edinburgh College of Art, Griffiths used
something she called 'thoughtspeak'. This found each character
expressing their inner yearnings in a torrent of words that expressed
their internal emotions. When it happened to all the characters at
once, it resembled little symphonies of words. This was but one of the
flamboyant theatrical devices used by Griffiths to play with form in a
way that left her too weird for the mainstream, but not odd enough to
Regarded as one of the most vital voices to come out of contemporary
Canadian theatre, Griffiths was born in Montreal, where she studied at
St Thomas' High School, graduated from Dawson College, earned a
teaching certificate from McGill University, and spent a year at the
National Theatre School before being asked to leave.
Griffiths moved to Saskatoon, where she was a founding member of the
politically charged 25th Street Theatre and one of the creators of some
of the company's most seminal works, including If You’re So Good, Why
Are You in Saskatoon? in 1975, and 1978’s Paper Wheat, a history of
Saskatchewan’s co-operative movement.
At the Theatre Passe Muraille, Griffiths made her name with Maggie and
Pierre, a solo play about the Canadian prime minister, his wife and a
reporter, which she developed and wrote with director Paul Thompson and
performed in 1980. Maggie and Pierre won Griffiths awards both for
outstanding performance in a leading role and for outstanding new play.
She would win the latter three more times, for O.D. in Paradise in
1983, Jessica in 1986 and Alien Creature in 2000.
The production of Maggie and Pierre toured Canada, and played
off-Broadway in New York, where Griffiths was spotted by indie
film-maker John Sayles, who cast her as the lead in his 1983 film
Liana, about a married woman who has an affair with a female professor.
This won Griffiths the Alliance for Gay Artists Award in Los Angeles.
Had she stayed in America, greater stardom may have beckoned, but
Griffiths returned to Canada instead.
More than a dozen plays followed Maggie and Pierre, and in 1997
Griffiths founded her own Duchess Productions, which produced a tour of
Alien Creature, as well as developing and associate-producing The
Duchess aka Wallis Simpson (1997), Alien Creature: A Visitation from
Gwendolyn MacEwen (1999), Chronic (2003), and Age of Arousal (2007).
The latter was the second of Griffiths’ British Trilogy of plays,
inspired in part by her Rotherham-born father. The first, The Duchess
aka Wallis Simpson, looks at the American divorcee whose marriage to
King Edward caused him to abdicate. The third, The Last Dog of War
(2010), is a solo piece performed by Griffiths over the last few years
of her life, and which was inspired by a trip she took with her father
as he embarked on a reunion with his old RAF squadron.
“There’s always an element in my work of fantasy, or what I call
fabulism,” Griffiths said of the Trilogy, “so in Wallis Simpson, her
jewels are personified, and they become characters in the play. There
will be that uber level that the play goes to. There’ll be no
thoughtspeak, but there is this other thing that is reached for. So
while the three plays are different, I guess they’re about me wrestling
with my heritage, and bringing my own perspective to it.”
With Maria Campbell, Griffiths co-wrote The Book of Jessica and
published short stories, while in 1999, Sheer Nerve, a collection of
seven of her plays, was published. While Griffiths' final work, Games,
was presented in Calgary, last performance came in Heaven Above, Heaven
Below, a sequel to an earlier work, The Darling Family, which was seen
at Theatre Passe Muraille, where Maggie and Pierre premiered more than
three decades earlier.
Speaking about her Edinburgh production of Age of Arousal after being
introduced to the play in Toronto, Romanes recalls how “I was struck by
Linda’s fierce intelligence and energy, and her quite wonderful body of
work (I read all the plays). She also had very strong desires to write
in very different and innovative conventions, which I loved. She was a
director and actress herself and so understood all aspects of theatre,
and her input was invaluable and she inspired us all to take the piece
as far as she imagined.”
The Herald, October 15th 2014