Undercurrents festival: Story of two queer artists tugs at the heart

Margo MacDonald and Maryse Fernandes star as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore in the play Heartlines. Photo: Christopher Snow

The names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore don’t ring a bell? Fifteen years ago, they didn’t for Ottawa’s Sarah Waisvisz, either.

Then Waisvisz, a budding playwright, performer and academic, happened to watch a film about the two at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She felt an “uncanny connection … in my body” with the early 20th-century French-Jewish Surrealist artists/queer groundbreakers/anti-fascist activists. Now her play Heartlines, about the duo, is premiering at Ottawa’s 10th annual undercurrents festival.

Cahun (b. Lucy Schwob) and Moore (b. Suzanne Malherbe) were stepsister lovers and lifelong partners whose collaboration included not just Moore’s sometimes-funny, often-disquieting gender bending photos of Cahun, but also collages, sculpture, writing and theatre. The work, said the late David Bowie, who had no issues with transgression himself and who mounted an exhibit of their art in 2007, is “really quite mad, in the nicest possible way.”

Until it was rediscovered in the 1980s, their work was largely unknown, in part because so much of it had been destroyed by German soldiers in 1944. Cahun and Moore had fled anti-Semitism and political unrest in Paris several years earlier, winding up on the island of Jersey. The Germans invaded the island, the duo distributed anti-fascist materials, and in 1944 they were imprisoned and sentenced to death by the invaders, who also trashed much of their art.

The two were eventually freed. Cahun died in 1954, and Moore killed herself 18 years later, in 1972.

Since the 1980s rediscovery, their work has carved out a niche in the art world, where its disruptive exploration of binary gender norms — a no-go zone when the two were practicing their art — has become increasingly relevant to public discourse, even if the general public isn’t exactly discoursing about Cahun and Moore.

Little wonder Waisvisz felt such a deep connection when she saw that film in New York. Queer and Jewish herself, she says, “My family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis both in occupied France and the Netherlands. I had family members who were killed. I had family members in hiding. I had family members who were resisters… I felt (Cahun and Moore) were heroes that I wanted to know more about.”

She wasn’t ready at the time to write about the two, but became “obsessed” with them and five years later started mulling over a show. Finally, in 2015, she worked up a 20-minute piece that played as part of an event at Arts Court. She reprised it at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre two years later, and then expanded and presented it as a workshop at Ottawa’s TACTICS series in both 2018 and 2019. Now it’s a full-blown play with Margo MacDonald, Maryse Fernandes and on-stage musician Scottie Irving.

Along the way, Waisvisz hooked up with Michelle Gewurtz, who is senior curator at the Ottawa Art Gallery and is responsible for the exhibit Facing Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, which is running until Feb. 9. When Waisvisz learned about plans for the exhibit, she decided to present her show at the same time and recruited Gewurtz as historical advisor for the first TACTICS workshop.

Why use theatre to explore the story of Cahun and Moore? A vast love; gender disruption; political activism; bold, multi-disciplinary art: “Their life was too large for any medium other than theatre, and for theatre that wasn’t realism. I wasn’t interested in kitchen sink drama,” says Waisvisz, who has completed artist/playwright residencies at the NAC and Great Canadian Theatre Company. “It’s a passion project and feels, for me, like an attempt to honour these heroes.”

The play’s subject matter also seems to become more and more relevant with every passing day, she adds.

Cahun and Moore, she believes, wanted desperately to be able to choose.

“Liberty, choice, freedom was at the core of what they wanted for themselves and others… When any force — tyranny or heteronormativity or racism or white nationalism — tries to put us in a box, some people, somehow, can manage that and some cannot. And why should we have to be caged?  For both artists, at the core of humanity is a desire for liberty, and that’s what they fought for.”

This year’s undercurrents festival of contemporary theatre features nine plays from Ottawa and elsewhere, including Heartlines and three works in progress:

Crippled by Paul David Power, St. John’s, Nfld.

Awkward Hug by Cory Thibert, Vancouver

Cardinal by Mitchel Rose and Madeleine Hall, Ottawa

Kitt & Jane by Kathleen Greenfield, Ingrid Hansen and Rod Peter Jr., Victoria, BC

Unbridled Futurism by Nick Di Gaetano and Teddy Ivanova, Toronto

Beth-Anne by Monica Bradford-Lea and Nicholas Leno, Ottawa

Honey Dew Me by Luke Brown, Kyle Cameron and Axandre Lemours, Ottawa

Home Sweet… Something by Ayesha Chubb, Zaakirah Chubb and Ludmylla Reis, Ottawa

The festival runs Feb. 5-15 at Arts Court. A new, pay-what-you-can-afford ticketing model debuts this year. Information: undercurrentsfestival.ca, 613-232-6162

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.