Magpie, Having, Hunger Striking
In Magpie, winner of the Grain Drama Award, we meet Bernice, large, middle-aged, and prone to fantasies. Her small-town life is disrupted by the arrival of a gifted dance instructor. He is everything she aspires to be and that her background rejects as frivolous. The men in her life, husband, doctor and evangelist preacher, cannot keep her in the confines of her reality, and her fantasy world escalates into a place that is much larger and more exciting than life.
Having dramatizes our progressive society and its materialistically-driven values and cyber-navigated spaces within a romantic arch of 18th-century poetry and the motif of the "highwayman." Contemporary lives raging with ambition, self-destructive tendencies and the fight for freedom and control are played out in a high-tech world set in the mystical ambience conjured by the "moors."
In Hunger Striking Sarah's student, Katie, has just died of anorexia. Her death propels Sarah into her own memories, taking her from her present day reality as a high school English teacher into multiple pasts: her own past as an anorexic girl twenty years earlier, her Celtic heritage with its vivid creatures and mythology passed on to her by her father, and the world of the hunger-striking suffragettes at the beginning of the last century.
Born and bred Presbyterian, eh? But there you go. I got an open mind. I like to know what's going on, what other people think. My ma'd die'f she knew. You're the only girl, Bernice. We got to keep them going right. We got to keep the faith. What'll people think, you not there every Sunday? They're not going! How come I got to go! I been away from home over half my life—funny how the years go. How she keeps her hold. Never kept it over my brothers, drinkin' and swearin'. Just goes to show... Anyway. One summer night, just after my third, I went to a revivalist. I did. You don't believe me. Something to do, like, see what all the fuss was. See, my friend Cheryl was always going on about him, the preacher; said he was a wonderful man, he'd make you feel so pure and that. She got me curious. And I was—well, I wasn't feeling so good, you know. And anyway. This preacher, I knew him to see him, through the Legion, eh? where my dad went. He's been around, municipal politics and that, well respected family man. Good head of silver hair. Lots of women going and the husbands didn't mind. He had a hall, a big crowd of people went every Sunday. She said, Cheryl said, it was like a well kept secret, it was a beautiful sacred place. She's like me, Cheryl—three little kids, one of them not out of diapers. Well, I got two more now, but this was three years ago, eh? And we get along all right, her and me, watch the soaps together sometimes, though I'd rather watch them on my own than gabbing away and wondering what I'd missed and that. Anyway, there I was, middle of the summer, baking in this hall with the windows closed like we were doing something we shouldn't be. My ma woulda killed me! She was all excited, Cheryl, her face all red and shining—
Erin: Are you scared, Nan? Of death? Maybe you don't want to talk about it...
Olivia: Of course I don't. Who does? Are you asking because—
Erin: I don't know why. You don't have to. Never mind.
Olivia: Yes, I'm scared. Like a chill wind down my spine whenever I think of it, because it's coming, and it's unknowable. We have no idea what to expect, none at all, no matter what the churches say. When you're young, even if you're not— completely well, you think—you have to—that death can't happen to you. It's why young people are more foolhardy, perhaps. They're not yet fully connected, to everything that's here, everything they have. It doesn't yet mean very much. Maybe that's rather fanciful
Erin: No, it's not. Go on.
Olivia: Then at my age...? You know I'm realizing you'd better learn to embrace it, because you can't sidestep death, it's not going away, and if you can't get a sort of a grip on this unknowable thing, then you're going to be in a terrible state—Stan was in such a terrible state (Looks at Erin, worried.) That's probably more than you wanted to know. Isn't it? ...Erin? There are so many ways you can do what you want with your life. Don't let this small setback stop you.
Erin: It's not small. I don't want to spend my life watching everyone else have a good time, being afraid to do anything. Like, in that ballad—why does she have to die in her bedroom, for the highwayman?
Olivia: Well, because she loves him. She wants him to be free.
Erin: She should be riding, getting away—!
Olivia: They've tied her up, she can't get free. But she thinks, at least I can help him.
Erin: No, I think he wants her dead—it makes him excited, her finger on the trigger, turned against herself.
Olivia: What do you mean, dear?
Erin: He wants to see how far he can make her go. He's a thief and a murderer. Why don't songs tell the truth!
from Hunger Striking
She makes me think, all the time, think so hard. She never coddles me, or calls me stupid. She never pretends to feel anything for me that isn't real. I see a tiny hole back into the real world.
"The suffragettes, Sarah. Women who wanted a voice, a share in shaping the world and their own lives. You've read the facts, but the truth is this: the hunger strike is a gamble. The striker must rely on the humanity of her jailors. What if they refuse to back down? What if they don't understand the importance of her demand? Her goal must be clear give me the vote, and I will eat. So, here we are. What are you demanding of me? Do you see what I'm asking? What do we need to give you to allow you to give up your hunger strike?"
My mind a blank. The words spinning around in it. It had seemed like a gift, to know about suffragettes. Why must she keep going on and on? I don't want to know why women stopped eating at the beginning of the last century, I just want to know how.