Tuesday, August 7, 2007

if prison break was canadian and also if it didn't suck

Fortune and Men's Eyes
by John Herbert

Fortune and Men's Eyes is one of the most important plays ever written in Canada, not only because it has been massively popular around the world, but because the play inspired the founding of the Fortune Society for Prison Reform. As far as international social impact goes, I can't imagine any Canadian play has had more. The play was inspired by Herbert's own experience in prison (he was beaten and robbed by a street gang, but when the police came the attackers told the officers that Herbert was gay and had sexually propositioned them, and Herbert was convicted of gross indecency).

Despite the import of this play for prison reformers everywhere, to me this is a play about gender. For a play from 1967, the characters here have remarkably fluid gender identities, in a way that even in 2007 we wouldn't see as acceptable in prime time. Mona and Queenie both choose to identify as female (Queenie is a more brashly drag performer, where Mona seems to embody womanliness in full as an identity), and the other prisoners accept this. The only person who insists on calling attention to genderlessness is the guard, who refers to Mona as 'it' and is disgusted by her choice to become another gender. Interestingly, the being female of Queenie and Mona is to different ends. Queenie does it for power -- she knows she can control the men in power at the prison by offering herself to them sexually. Mona, conversely, seems to be more comfortable in womanly skin than in trying to define herself as male, and though Mona finds herself regularly attacked and abused as a result, it is worth it to live her reality. All the characters in the play engage in homosexual sex -- it's the only sex on offer -- but only Mona makes it her identity, and this is why she is ultimately destroyed by the action of the play. It also seals her unhappiness, because Mona wants to be wanted for herself rather than for being the next best thing to a woman -- and within the prison walls, this ideal is basically impossible. Smitty, coming to prison from a tradition upbringing, wants Mona to be male, but eventually accepts her as a woman enough to make love to her.

Through Smitty we see the point of the play that gave the Fortune Society its inspiration -- the horrors of the prison system destroy an individual's identity in ways from which it can never be recovered. To become strong enough to survive the harsh prison world, Smitty must change from the caring man he is to a hard-nosed criminal. He is preparing for the discrimination he will receive when he tries to reintegrate into society with violence and pain. It is expected that he will reoffend. Smitty is destroyed over the course of the play, and the cruel man we see at the play's end bears no resemblance to the fearful boy we meet at the play's opening. That, in the end, is the central tragedy of Herbert's play.

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