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Betty LambertBetty Lambert, 1933-1983

 

Betty Lambert was a Canadian writer with a distinctive voice that spoke through her seventy-five diverse plays and her only novel, Crossings, in a way that once heard could not be easily forgotten.  She was once called by a reviewer the “Margaret Laurence of Vancouver” but of course she was really the Betty Lambert of Vancouver.  Her vision was her own.

 

Betty was born in Calgary in 1933.  She was from a working-class prairie family and, growing up during the depression, she became aware of social injustices early.  She decided as a child that she wanted to be a writer and sold her first poem at thirteen for two dollars.  She wrote, “My father died when I was twelve and I was no longer working class, I was welfare class, and I was determined to get out of that class.  Writing was a way out but soon it became more than that, it became a necessity.”

 

At sixteen Betty became a committed socialist and much of her work deals with the social inequities of the time.  Through her life Betty often described herself as an angry woman—and she was.  Angry at the moral and social injustice she saw in the world.  She used her anger to shape her art, to say what she felt she had to say.

 

When she was eighteen Betty moved to Vancouver to attend UBC.  She continued to write.  By the age of twenty-two she was writing radio plays for CBC.  Betty’s early plays for radio are powerful but limited in scope.  They deal with small worlds and people with small lives.  As Betty grew and began to change her plays began to reflect this growth.  She began writing children’s plays, with great success.  Her best known play for children is The Riddle Machine, which was performed at Expo in 1967, went on a Canadian tour and was produced in the States.

 

She soon began writing television plays dealing with larger issues and more controversial ones such as rape and abortion.  She had always been aware of a chauvinist attitude within the theatre towards women as writers.  When she was in her early twenties she was told by her male director not to think about the message in her writing.  He told her, “You’re a diamond in the rough, you have intuition.  Don’t worry about the philosophical meanings in your plays.”  Shortly before her death in 1983 Betty said, “I took his advice and got the dialogue and characterization down but not the implications.  It took me a long time to stand behind not only what I was saying but also to say it very carefully.”

 

She worked very hard at learning to say what she had to say very carefully.  Her ear for dialogue was incredible.  There is a Chekhovian element to her dialogue.  You are acutely aware not only of what her characters say to each other but of what they don’t say.  You are also aware of the silences, the spaces between the spoken words.

 

In her late twenties Betty became involved in feminist issues and although she never saw herself as a feminist writer she began to write more of issues concerning women.  Her own struggle as a woman writer in the male-dominated world of theatre she described in ironic terms on a CBC interview.  She said “my own experience has not been that there is any overt societal problem about being a woman writer, the problems are rather internal, in how one perceives one’s self.  I remember one TV play I wrote about the miners strike in the early 1900s in Nanaimo and how pleased I was that someone said after 'You wrote that?  God, that could have been written by a man.'  How do you fight, as someone said, when the enemy has outposts in your own mind?

 

But of course Betty did fight.  She had a growing sense of her own power, her own view of the world, and this becomes evident through the plays she wrote during her thirties and forties.  First came the stage comedies.  Her best known was Sqrieux-de-Dieu, which was highly successful and dealt with life, love, sex and human relationships in a devastatingly witty manner.  In Clouds of Glory, she turned her comic insights to academics.  She had observed the Simon Fraser University scene since she began teaching there in 1965 and the result was a hilarious but deep-reaching comedy of the foibles of academia.

 

In the eighteen years that Betty taught at SFU she was remembered most as a teacher of incredible wit, knowledge and generosity.  Despite a heavy workload of teaching and writing she always found time to give to her students something of her own boundless enthusiasm that went far beyond the confines of the classroom.

 

In 1979 her only novel, Crossings, was published.  The book is set in Vancouver and is the story of Vicky, a young woman growing up in the sixties, searching for self-recognition as a writer and as a person.  It is also the story of how Vicky, educated, intellectual, comes to love Mik, an uneducated and sometimes violent logger with a tattoo on his chest that says Coffee over one nipple and Cream over the other (you’re supposed to ask, Where’s the sugar?).  The novel searches deep into a woman’s psyche and soul to discover why and how we love the men we do.  The book caused a feminist furor.  A prominent feminist bookstore in Toronto advocated buying it and an equally prominent feminist bookstore in Vancouver banned it from its shelves. 

 

After the publication of Crossings Betty began writing her most powerful and universal plays, such as Grasshopper Hill, which won the ACTRA Nellie award in 1980 for best radio drama, and Jennie's Story, which was nominated for the Governor General’s award in 1983, for best stage play. 

 

Grasshopper Hill was the story of a Canadian woman who has an affair with a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.  Their affair contrapuntally emerges with the survivor’s memories of Auschwitz and Betty weaves a powerful and compassionate story of love and evil.

 

In Jennie's Story Betty wrote of an incident she had heard as a child in Southern Alberta in the 1930s.  Jennie is a girl of fifteen who is housekeeper to the local priest.  He becomes her lover and then, unable to control his desire for her, he takes her to the mental institution at Ponoka to be sterilized.  He tells her to be silent, to not answer the questions the doctors ask.  Jennie, being a good little girl, does this.  They decide she is mentally deficient and they sterilize her.  Jennie is told she has had an appendectomy.  Until 1971 it was legal in Alberta toBetty Lambert sterilize both men and women who were feeble-minded or who were thought capable of transmitting “evil” to their progeny.  Seventy-five percent of those sterilized were women.

 

Later, married and unable to conceive, Jennie finds out the truth and the rest of the play deals with her inability to live with this terrible truth, her terrifying need for vengeance and her ultimate suicide.  Although Jennie’s suicide seemed the dramatic end of the play, Betty ended the play with a life-affirming scene.  Harry, Jennie’s husband, has taken a young farm girl as his wife and her out-of-wedlock child as his.  Betty had to fight with her directors to keep this ending, as they saw it as redundant, but she said it must stay and stay it did.  Although she showed life’s evil in her plays Betty was determined that the life force she also portrayed was never to be seen to be destroyed by life’s evil.

 

In February, 1983, Betty found she had lung cancer.  She knew she didn’t have long to live and she said “I have so much to say, so much to write about.”  She spent many of the last months of her life writing a final play, Under the Skin, which is based on an incident near Vancouver where a man kidnaps a twelve-year-old girl and keeps her captive for six months while he sexually abuses her.  In the play we never see the little girl, but only her mother, the kidnapper (a neighbour) and his wife, who is the mother’s close friend.  It is a fascinating study of these three characters and the slow realization by the wife of what her husband has done.

 

Betty’s plays have a strong theme of moral and social injustice.  Her roots as a prairie girl during the depression and her early dedication to socialism later grew to produce the powerful plays for which she became known.  Her concerns with injustice to men, as well as women, appear as biting ironic wit in her comedies and as a profound sense of evil and deep compassion in her tragedies.

 

Betty never lived to see her final play, Under the Skin, produced.  She died on November 4th, 1983, writing until almost the end.  Just before her death, blind from three brain tumours, unable to speak because of pneumonia, she wrote on her yellow pad, laboriously, letter by letter, “I want to write.”

 

Before she died Betty wrote her own memorial service.  She asked that it be a celebration, and it was.  On November 22nd, 1983, people who loved her gathered together to celebrate her life—as a remarkable woman and as a remarkable writer.

 

Written by Dorothy Beavington

August 8th, 1985

Read a note from Betty's daughter

Read Betty's eulogy written by her sister

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