November 4, 2013
Review By Adele Perry
In the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, intimate relationships between indigenous women and settler men were freighted with a complicated and at times conflicting set of meanings in British Columbia. Children of mixed descent were said to inherit the worst of both races, whatever that was; white men were thought to be morally and physically endangered by Aboriginal women; Aboriginal women were said to be abused and denigrated by capricious settler men who represented all that was wrong with modern society in general and patriarchy in particular. It is worth stating that these bits of racial and gendered knowledge – sometimes seemingly benign examples of the racialized schemas of the day but, more often, gratingly vicious ideas premised on deep double distrust of women and Aboriginal peoples – had precious little to do with the lived experience of people whose intimate lives spanned and challenged racial boundaries. But such lives were invariably lived in the long shadow of these discourses. Constance Lindsay Skinner’s 1905 play Birthright provides an example of some of this swirl of ideas of racial mixing in motion and, at times, in contestation. Skinner’s play is now published for the first time and is put into context through an introduction by historian Jean Barman and an afterword by literary scholar Michelle La Flamme. The result is that a valuable and revealing archive is made newly available and understandable.
The publication of Birthright builds on Barman’s 2002 biography, Constance Lindsay Skinner: Writing the Frontier. In it, Barman reconstructs the life of an almost forgotten figure and, in so doing, adds to what we know about women’s history and reminds readers of the transnational context of BC history. Skinner was born to a white fur trade family in Quesnel in 1877. In 1900, the appeal of living as a “new woman” and earning a living as a writer would take her to Los Angeles, the first of a series of large American cities in which Skinner lived for the remainder of her life. She was a journalist, a popular historian, and a relatively successful playwright. Birthright played in Chicago and Boston in the 1910s. Despite Skinner’s persistent efforts to find more audiences for this particular play, it was never performed again.
In her introduction, Barman suggests that Birthright’s lack of circulation can be related to its portrayal of mixed-race intimacy. Much of Skinner’s corpus deals with the frontier world of her childhood, and Birthright is no exception. Set on British Columbia’s north coast in 1905, the play tells the story of Precious, a young woman adopted by a white missionary family. Early in the play it is revealed that Precious is of mixed heritage, and the rest of the play is devoted to exploring how this knowledge refracts through her family and the local community, both Aboriginal and settler. Skinner is especially interested in how Precious’s shifting racial identification conditions her romantic relationships with men. As La Flamme argues, Skinner uses Birthright “to represent a range of views toward interracial unions” (73). What is most unusual is the ending: Skinner turns the usual narrative conventions of the day on their head by having Precious kill her racist and fickle white suitor, Henry.
Birthright reminds us that perspectives on mixed-race intimacies and womanhood were multiple, subject to contestation, and by no means uncomplicated. This situation tells us something about the late nineteenthcentury British Columbia where Skinner grew up, but it also might tell us something about the spaces where she lived and worked as an adult. Skinner’s adult life was lived in the metropolitan centres of the United States. It is tempting to treat Skinner as a repository of BC local knowledge, but surely the literary words she conjured up also reflected the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York in which she lived, wrote, and socialized, and where her work was seen, read, and evaluated.
It is something of an understatement to say that I am not the best person to determine whether Birthright is – or ever was – a very good play. On the rare occasions that I go to live theatre, I spend an embarrassing amount of time hoping that someone will turn the house lights on so as to allow me to pass the time reading my program. As a historian, I am ambivalent about the decision to “adapt” Birthright in an effort to make it more palatable to “a modern audience” (xi). Moderating some of Birthright’s more extreme racial language and correcting Skinner’s clumsy faux-Tsimshian dialogue does not succeed in making the play contemporary. Birthright still reads as a textbook example of early twentiethcentury middlebrow popular culture: stiff in style, rich in stereotypes, and long in melodrama. Ultimately, Joan Bryans’ unmarked editorial inter ventions obscure the particular language that allows us to analyze what this play is rather than what we might think contemporary audiences want it to be. The upshot is that Birthright’s value as a revealing archive of the convergence of racial, gendered, and sexualized thought around the turn of the last century is diminished, and that is a shame. Barman’s fine introduction and La Flamme’s equally fine afterword provide readers with the interpretive cues they need to be able to interrogate Birthright for what it is: a window into the loaded, pervasive, complicated, and contestable ideas about intimate relationships across racial lines in North America.