GRACE, Sherrill

Author Tags: Alcohol, Literary Criticism, Theatre, War

Sherrill Grace (b. 1944) has been at the centre of international research into Malcolm Lowry and his writing. As a member of the UBC English Department, she edited essays of criticism about Malcolm Lowry's work, Swinging the Maelstrom, and wrote The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry's Fiction. Lowry's papers are housed at UBC's Special Collections. [See Malcolm Lowry entry.]

Grace has also written a book about Margaret Atwood's fiction, A Violent Duality (Vehicule Press 1980), and co-edited (with Lorraine Weir) an essay collection, Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System.

Among those who ponder and discuss Canadian identity, Grace is known for her book Canada and the Idea of North, a synthesis of 150 years of representations of the Canadian North in art, music, fiction, poetry, and drama. On the Art of Being Canadian looks at some examples of how Canadian art has affected the imaginative construct we call Canada.

While working on a book about Tom Thomson, Sherrill Grace edited and introduced a new version of Mina Benson Hubbard’s 1905 memoir A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador (McGill-Queens 2004), an illustrated account of the first recorded white person’s crossing of Labrador. Her subsequent study of the painter who drowned in 1917, Tom Thomson, examines his influence and appeal as an iconic figure.

Sherrill Grace was appointed to the Brenda and David McLenn Chair in Canadian Studies, 2003-2005. With Jerry Wasserman she has co-edited Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice (Talonbooks 2006). It was followed by her biography, Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollack, an account of the life of the New Brunswick-raised playwright who overcame an abusive marriage to raise six children and twice win the Governor-General's Award for Drama (for Blood Relations and for Doc). At the time of its publication, Grace was President, Academy 1, of the Royal Society of Canada.

Sherrill Grace was the Brenda and David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies from 2003 to 2005. In 2008, Sherrill Grace, received the Canada Council Killam Prize in Humanities. [The Killam Prizes were inaugurated in 1981 and financed through funds donated to the Canada Council by Mrs. Dorothy J. Killam in memory of her husband, Izaak Walton Killam. The Prizes were created to honour eminent Canadian scholars and scientists actively engaged in research, whether in industry, government agencies or universities.] A press release stated, "In her influential writings—18 books and over 200 chapters and articles—she has drawn on her vast erudition in such areas as theatre, literature, autobiography, the relationships between literature and the other arts, scholarly publishing and women's writing to shape new understandings of such towering Canadian figures as Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Lowry and Tom Thomson. In theatre, another major focus, she has written a biography of playwright Sharon Pollock, Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock; examined connections between drama and expressionism; and organized an international symposium at the University of British Columbia—where she is a professor of English and a Distinguished University Scholar—on the relationships between autobiography and performance. This event produced the co-edited book Theatre and AutoBiography, with contributions from academics and artists."

To mark the centenary of Malcolm Lowry’s birth, one of the world’s pre-eminent Lowry scholars, Sherrill Grace, has gathered her work on Canada’s most famous alcoholic for Strange Comfort: Essays on the Work of Malcolm Lowry (Talonbooks $19.95) and dedicated her collection to the pioneering and somewhat saintly UBC librarian Anne Yandle (1930-2006), one of the people most responsible for making UBC Special Collections into a treasure trove of archives for Lowry research and scholarship. It includes a new essay on Lowry’s legacy for the twenty-first century, as well as a new essay on Debussy and Under the Volcano, Lowry’s masterpiece.

In Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007 (University of Alberta Press $31.31), Sherrill Grace uses her knowledge to adopt the role of observer. This comprehensive study of the literature, theatre and art related to memories of both world wars constructs a bridge through history and connects readers with wartime trials and traumas that many Canadians have never experienced.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
On the Art of Being Canadian
Painting the Maple: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada
Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977–2007


Sursum Corda: The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Vol. I (London: Jonathan Cape, and Toronto: UTP, 1995), 730 pp.
Sursum Corda: The Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Vol. II (London: Jonathan Cape, and Toronto: UTP, 1996) 974 pp, with the assistance of K.Y. Chung.
Satan in a Barrel: Malcolm Lowry's Early Stories. Edited, annotated, with introduction. Edmonton: Juvenilia P, 1999.


Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood (Montreal: Véhicule P, 1980) 154 pp. Reprinted pp. 79-86 from Violent Duality in Short Story Criticism (Gale 1989).
The Voyage That Never Ends: Malcolm Lowry’s Fiction (Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1982) 160 pp. (publ. 29 Nov. 1982).
Regression and Apocalypse: Studies in North American Literary Expressionism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989) 312 pp.
Canada and the Idea of North. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002) 365 pp.
Inventing Tom Thomson: From Biographical Fictions to Fictional Autobiographies and Reproductions (McGill-Queen's, 2004)
Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollack (Talonbooks, 2008). $39.95 978-0-88922-586-2
On the Art of Being Canadian (UBC Press, 2009).
Strange Comfort: Essays on the Work of Malcolm Lowry (Talonbooks, 2009) 978-0-88922-618-0
Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007 (University of Alberta Press 2014) $49.95 978–1–77212–000–4

Co-ed. with L. Weir, Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System (Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1983) 158 pp.
Edited collection (with two contributions), Swinging the Maelstrom: New Perspectives on Malcolm Lowry. Montreal: McGill-Queens U.P., 1992, 270 pages. See nos. 37 and 38. Translation of pages 9-10 in Alberto Gironella: El Via Crucis del Consul (Barcelona 1992): 44-45.
Representing North. A special issue of Essays on Canadian Writing, guest-edited with introduction and one chapter. 59 (Fall 1996). 230 pp.
Painting the Maple. Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada, co-edited with V. Strong-Boag, A. Eisenberg, and J. Anderson. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Staging the North: Twelve Canadian Plays, co-edited with L. Chalykoff and E. D’Aeth. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1999.
Performing National Identities: International Perspectives on Contemporary Canadian Theatre, co-edited with Albert-Reiner Glaap. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003.
Sharon Pollock Three Plays, introductory essay. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2003.
Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice (Talonbooks 2006). With Jerry Wasserman.
Bearing Witness: Perspectives on War and Peace from the Arts and Humanities (McGill-Queens 2012). Edited by Sherrill Grace, Patrick Imbert, and Tiffany Johnstone

Alan Twigg [BCBW 2014] "Lowry"

Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock

from Joan Givner
Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock by Sherrill Grace (Talon $39.95)

Considering the number of B.C. authors, the list of accomplished literary biographers in British Columbia is relatively short.
It would have to include Sandra Djwa (Earle Birney), Erika Grundmann (George Dibbern), Ira Nadel (Leonard Cohen), David Stouck (Ethel Wilson), George Fetherling (George Woodcock), Ben Metcalfe (Roderick Haig-Brown), Ralph Maud (Charles Olson), Betty Keller (Bertrand Sinclair)—to name a handful—and Sherrill Grace of UBC, one of the world’s experts on Malcolm Lowry.

Grace’s Making Theatre: A Life of Sharon Pollock now profiles that rare phenomenon of this or any other generation—a mother of six children, often a single parent, who has managed a prodigious output and a long career in the arts.

As Grace describes Sharon Pollock’s juggling of her maternal and professional roles, she frequently invokes Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that a woman who wishes to write must first kill the ‘Angel in the House,’ i.e. the model of domestic perfection to which women are expected to conform.

Pollock’s own mother was no domestic angel. We learn she was a seriously depressed, often institutionalized alcoholic who committed suicide in a gruesome poisoning incident. Although mental illness robbed Pollock of the security associated (at least in the popular imagination) with home and family, tormented childhood experiences can have a way of serving artists well.

Perhaps in compensation for her early deprivation, Sharon Pollock went on to create an apparently happy family of children, and to gravitate to the collaborative art of the theatre where a team of players replicates a family situation.

Pollock is also a rarity for being pan-Canadian. Following her formative years in Fredericton, she taught playwriting at Douglas College in New Westminster. On the West Coast she found rich subject matter for The Komagata Maru Incident, her landmark play about the 1914 stand-off in Vancouver harbour during which 376 British subjects, including 340 Sikhs, were mostly denied entry to Canada and were stranded for two months as they unsuccessfully challenged B.C. immigration policies.

Pollack had imagined “the laid-back atmosphere of lotusland” would be congenial, but ultimately the self-described “high energy pushy person” found it too slow. “I wanted to push people down elevators,” she once recalled. “I felt they should be walking faster.”

Pollock had two of her early plays performed at the Vancouver Playhouse during her Vancouver stint, but she never became fully acclimatized. Since Toronto at the time was a male-dominated town with an entrenched old boys’ network, Calgary offered more freedom and space to an ambitious, talented woman. From 1977 on, Pollock made it her base for her career as an actor, director, artistic director and award-winning playwright.

As an enthusiastic student of history, Pollock has long been drawn to historical subjects, as in her 1973 play Walsh which focuses on the relationship between James Walsh, the founder of Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills, and Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota Sioux.

When she subsequently drew on her personal experience of family violence for her subject matter, at least one critic thought she was abandoning great themes for trivial ones. Yet the plays that combine historical material and personal experience are among her most successful.
In Blood Relations, she uses the story of so-called axe-murderess Lizzie Borden as the vehicle for a study of domestic brutality. (A screenplay of Blood Relations distorted and mutilated the original to such an extent that Pollock was driven to file a lawsuit.)

In Angel’s Trumpet, she uses the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to show how a husband’s use of his economic, social and sexual power can control and crush his wife. By dramatizing Scott Fitzgerald’s exploitation of his wife’s mental collapse as material for fiction, she addresses the moral right of any writer to shape another person’s life-story into a work of art—a subject of paramount concern to all artists and biographers.

In Doc, Pollock makes direct and undisguised use of her own family history, not even changing the names of some family members. The eponymous “Doc” is based on her own father, a distinguished New Brunswick doctor, and the play focuses on his destructive relationship with his wife.

Sherrill Grace, who has written extensively on theatre and autobiography, is particularly astute in describing Pollock’s transformation of autobiographical material into art. In this very scholarly work, she weaves together not only the life and works against a backdrop of the times,
but also describes the various pro-
ductions of the works.

Possibly Grace’s greatest challenge is that she is writing about a living artist, far from the end of her career. She has the delicate task of balancing her subject’s right to privacy with her reader’s right not to be misled, but to be told the truth. That she succeeds in achieving this balance is partly due to her own good judgment but also to her subject’s unusual frankness about her own life.

While the conventions of literary biography are pretty set, writers still manage to put their own mark on the form. Grace’s hallmark is to place herself squarely in the narrative, giving a running commentary that includes asides, digressions, and comments on the difficulty of her task, normally confined to prefaces and introductions. The disadvantage of her intrusiveness is that it adds considerable wordiness to the book. Do we need to know that she was sitting in a friend’s kitchen while listening to Pollock do a radio interview?

On the other hand, the foregrounding of her presence, like that of Samuel Johnson’s great biographer, James Boswell, conveys a sense of immediacy to many scenes, and her excitement in Pollock’s work is contagious.

Most significantly, Sherrill Grace dispels the false impression that the biographer is an omniscient narrator, and she never allows her readers to forget that, in the words of Elinor Langer, a biography is “the story of one life as seen by another, with both always growing and changing.”


-- review by Joan Givner

[BCBW 2009] "Theatre"