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Bold lives revered

May 16th, 2017

Recognizing that teaching and presenting papers are performances in themselves, Sasha Colby has fused her studies of three remarkable women into a fascinating triad of theatrical presentations for Staging Modernist Lives (McGill-Queens $37.95).

Although this volume lacks photos for its extraordinary subjects—H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Mina Loy and Nancy Cunard—possibly that’s coherent with a mandate to inspire curiosity. After an obligatory and sometimes perplexing foreword, Colby ventures into fresh pedagogical territory, taking an unconventional approach to unconventional subjects—and that’s intriguing.

Rapunzel-like, Colby first let down her hair and escaped from the ivory tower of academe—where she is SFU’s director of Graduate Liberal Studies—when she wrote and performed a twenty-five-character one woman show about H.D. for the Vancouver Fringe Festival. She has since proceeded to fashion plays about the shipping heiress-turned-radical-publisher Nancy Cunard and the avant-garde poet and visual artist Mina Loy.

From Ph.D to H.D.: Sasha Colby performing one of her plays.


Readers of this volume will have a hard time picking a favourite from among the fascinating trio of trailblazers. H.D. and Loy were both connected to Freud, but Cunard’s life would likely make the best movie.

As the great-granddaughter of Samuel Cunard, founder of a transatlantic shipping line, she grew up in a 700-year-old castle but eschewed a life of privilege in favour of fighting for racial equality; founding the Hours Press in the 1920s; reporting on the Spanish Civil War; befriending Ernest Hemingway, Augustus John and Aldous Huxley; being photographed by Man Ray; having romantic involvements with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda; and publishing Samuel Beckett and a landmark compilation Negro: An Anthology (1934). In 1965, this great beauty was found unconscious on a Paris street at age 69, destitute, dying soon after.

Most playwrights would not ask an actor to portray H.D. by saying: “Near the birth of my baby in 1919, Ezra hurtled himself into the decorous St. Faith Nursing Home. Beard, black soft hat, ebony stick—something unbelievably operatic—directoire overcoat, Verdi.” But then most plays don’t come with footnotes.

The intent is to teach H.D., Loy and Cunard as much as it is to recreate them as characters, so Colby favours researched-based texts with direct quotes from her subjects’ literary works and letters.

If there’s a central link it’s Ezra Pound who also critiqued Loy’s poetry and was engaged to H.D (who maintained a female life partner while being married to Richard Aldington).

There have been many plays and movies about writers. Back in the 1970s, for instance, local playwright Michael Mercer gave us Goodnight Disgrace, an excellent drama about the real-life meeting between Malcolm Lowry and Conrad Aiken.

With her book, Colby presents flesh ‘n’ blood lectures delivered by the subjects being studied—making for very unusual theatrical fare. In the process, she illuminates the bravado of artistic and feminist pathfinding in the 20th century.

No doubt H.D., Mina Loy and Nancy Cunard would applaud Colby’s resolve to not merely break a mold, but to try and fashion a new one. 978-0-7735-4894-7.

BELOW: Nancy Cunard (bangles); H.D. (left); Mina Loy (right). TOP: Author photo by Laura Sawchuk

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