The one-act comedy, The Courting of Marie Jenvrin (1941), takes place on Valentine’s Day in an isolated mining community in the icy northwest of Canada. Written by Gwen Pharis Ringwood (1910-84), a prolific dramatist from Alberta, it was first produced at the Banff School of Fine Arts, remained an intermittent choice for high school production until at least 1987, and is still remembered by students of Canadian drama today.
One of those students, author of a 2002 University of Calgary Master’s thesis on Ringwood’s plays, describes one scene, with familiar modern overreaction, as ‘most disturbing’, ‘a shocking image to watch on stage’, something that ‘would make today’s audiences very uncomfortable’. So perhaps it’s worth quoting how an adjudicator reacted to the very same scene in a 1967 contest production in Brandon, Manitoba:
The play came alive for the spanking scene, the screaming and whacking invested it with the kind of energy it needed throughout.
The screaming is done by, and the whacking administered to the rear end of, the 20-year-old title character, a pretty but temperamental French-Canadian who works at the Beaverlodge Hotel in Yellowknife. Two men want to court her, but the central relationship of the play is with a third, the handsome Irish-Canadian miner Michael Lorrigan: ‘a tall, homely and thoroughly attractive young man of great vitality’, whose relationship with Marie seems to have more hate in it than love. ‘Michael Lorrigan speaks only insults,’ says Marie. ‘No man can speak insults to Marie Jenvrin.’
Well, Michael can. ‘You’d be almost a pretty girl, Marie, if you controlled your tongue,’ he tells her. ‘Your nose is snub, of course, and there’s too much red stuff on your lips, but you’d get by, if you didn’t talk.’ That’s telling her…
The particular tension that sparks off the story concerns the hotel food, which Marie cooks and Michael eats with apparently little enthusiasm. And since there is no milk-cow in town, the unappetizing coffee is served with canned milk. Marie takes the criticisms badly, and swears a petulant oath that she will marry the man who brings a cow to Yellowknife. She even goes so far as to put it in writing, duly signed and witnessed to make it legally binding.
And they’re off! Louis, who would dearly like to marry Marie, rushes out to make arrangements to have the requested bovine flown in. Unfortunately for him, the cost of freight alone is $200, which happens to be $183 more than all the money he has in the world. And that’s fortunate for Marie, who doesn’t love Louis and is busily trying to fix him up with her friend Cecile.
She doesn’t love her second suitor either, the odious jeweller Dinsmore, but he does have $200 to spend on cow carriage. He wastes no time in wiring the order, then tells her the wedding day will be next Tuesday. The signed, witnessed document makes it impossible for her to back out, and Marie bitterly regrets her foolishness. Meanwhile the doting Louis goes off to consult the encyclopedia in search of a legal way to release her from her cow vow.
It takes Michael to think of the most direct approach: in front of Marie’s employers and the local priest, he tears up the document, then exposes Dinsmore as a corrupt businessman and orders him out of town… or else!
Marie’s gratitude only lasts for seconds. Michael insists that he ejected Dinsmore as a matter of ‘general principles’ rather than as a favor to her, and when the subject of the hotel food comes up again, she explodes: ‘I can’t think. I cannot put on my lip rouge. I cannot speak English. I cannot cook. Nothing I do is good.’
Absolutely right, agrees Michael: ‘You’re a bad-tempered, wilful, spoiled brat with no mind of what you want. Crying for a cow like the moon.’ And with that, he lays down $300 on the bar for her to buy the beast with. Insulted, she throws it at him, followed by a dipperful of water. And that does it.
MICHAEL: So, you threw water on me. You spoiled my clean shirt that I ironed myself. All right, Marie Jenvrin. Now, none of you interfere, you understand.
MARIE: What are you going to do? I – I didn’t mean –
MICHAEL: I’m going to give you something you’ve needed for a long time. I’m lucky to find a weapon at hand.
(He rolls up a magazine.)
FATHER LEBEAU: Michael, this is not –
MICHAEL: I said there’s to be no interfering, Father.
(He takes up Marie as if she were a flour sack and puts her over his knee.)
MICHAEL: I’ll give you twenty. One for each year. You can count them in French if you like. One!
(There is a resounding smack.)
MARIE: Ouch! You let me go, Michael Lorrigan. Let me go!
(She kicks vigorously.)
MICHAEL: Two, three, four, five –
MARIE: Ow! Diable! Father, he’s hurting me. I’ll bite your hand off –
MICHAEL: Six, seven, eight –
MARIE: Mon Dieu, he’s killing me. You let him kill me!
MICHAEL: Nine, ten, eleven – Ouch, you vixen, would you take a piece out of my knee? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen –
MARIE: Enough, enough! I will never be angry again. I will –
(She beats on him.)
MARIE: Fiend, devil, put me down, I tell you!
MICHAEL: Fifteen, sixteen –
Louis comes in, encyclopedia in hand, but we never get to hear what wisdom it has to offer on foolish promises and legal loopholes. Seeing what is happening, he moves to intervene, but the hotel proprietress stops him. He ignores her, and Father Lebeau puts a hand on his shoulder: ‘She is right, Louis,’ he says. ‘It is better so.’
MICHAEL: Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. There!
(He sets Marie on her feet.)
Ordered to pick up the thrown money, Marie first refuses, then meekly obeys. As she does so, the others leave the room. Once the money is neatly rolled up, the chastened Marie admits that she feels very small. Michael seems satisfied with that, and buries himself the newspaper.
MARIE: Michael, that spanking you gave me. It hurt me very bad.
MICHAEL (still reading): Very good.
MARIE (drawing a little nearer, shyly): Michael, was that – would you say that was the spanking of an – uncle?
MICHAEL (looking at her doubtfully): What else? What other kind of spanking would it be?
MARIE (very small): It is strange. I only thought – It reminds me so much of the spanking my sister Rose receives from her – husband.
MARIE (daring a quivering little smile): It wouldn’t be that kind, would it, Michael?
MICHAEL: And if it were? What would you have to say?
And with that, Marie Jenvrin’s courtship is over: she is won, and all that remains is to make the wedding arrangements. ‘You will be a wonderful husband, Michael,’ says Marie. ‘I know it!’ And with that, the curtain falls.