Non-linear memory play explores addiction as a ‘wild-eyed, howling beast’

Through dark matter, Beth Graham uses humour as a healing force

In her play Pretty Goblins, Edmonton-based playwright and actor Beth Graham explores themes of sisterhood, addiction, and the overwhelming effects of trauma.

The play’s title, and her initial inspiration, came from the text of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market,” which also explores sisterly love and addiction.

“Christina Rossetti does not shy away from frightening material and the pain that comes with addiction,” Graham says.

“In some ways, my admiration of the author’s fearlessness gave me the courage to dive into painful subject matter. I have an emotional response to her poem whenever I read it. I drew on this response when I was writing. It fueled me.”

The result is a non-linear memory play, moving fluidly from the present to the past and back again. Graham came to this structure indirectly.

“Initially, I didn’t really know where I was going. I began by writing about the twin sisters growing up as an exploration. I tried to find moments in their lives that defined their relationship and tried to track where Lizzie’s addiction came from,” she explains.

“So, I had all these memory scenes that I didn’t quite know what to do with. I felt that I needed to tie these memories to the present. There needed to be a reason for Laura to recall the past with her sister in order to make sense of her present moment. I needed the memories to become active.”

Also tying the moments of the play together are a number of symbolic, natural images.

“One of the first images I envisioned, while writing Pretty Goblins, was of a woman on all fours howling at the moon. The woman couldn’t even put what she was feeling into words. She could only howl. I wanted to understand what was making her howl,” says Graham.

Beth Graham
Beth Graham

Nature appears in the play as both a destructive and a healing force.

“There is the dark, feral animal that exists within Lizzie in particular. She can’t seem to control her coyote blood, passed on to her from her mother. This idea came from witnessing addiction in others. Addiction is a wild-eyed, howling beast. It has the ability to control someone from deep within and to tear them apart,” explains Graham.

“Then, there is the connection that the sisters have to the night sky. The sky is a place of solace and guidance. Lizzie loses sight of the sky when she is in the city.”

Humour is also a healing force as it helps Graham, and the audience, get into and through the dark material. “It is so important for me to find the humour in a play, especially if the events are of a serious and dramatic nature. The humour reveals the resilience and humanity of the characters. It is what makes me (and hopefully an audience) fall in love with them,” she says.

“It took me a while before I could start writing the more painful scenes. Lizzie and Laura go through a lot together. But, I had to uncover the pain because that’s what fuels Lizzie’s addiction. Pain is what binds the sisters together and it is what tears them apart.”