Staging the Temporality of Trauma: Vern Thiessen’s Vimy as an Exploration of the Reach of Traumatic Memory
Academic Essay by Jamie Donicci
Vern Thiessen’s 2007 play, Vimy, is a poignant and nuanced representation of the processes of traumatic memory. In Vimy, Thiessen stages the story of five veterans of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the nurse whose experiences are interconnected with theirs. Through his portrayal of these characters’ struggles, Thiessen explores the processes of trauma and healing, and the massive reach of traumatic memory as a defining force in the lives of communities and individuals. Vimy focuses on representing the conflation of past and present that occurs in traumatic memory, and while the play shows that individual survivors of trauma can heal, it acknowledges that the effects of trauma are extremely difficult to overcome, and that they extend far beyond place and time.
For the purposes of this essay, I will be analyzing trauma in Vimy using evidence and terms from Dori Laub’s essay “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Learning,” from his joint publication with Shoshanna Felman, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. “Bearing Witness,” like much of the contemporary work on trauma theory, was written in response to the trauma experienced by survivors of the Holocaust. My use of “Bearing Witness” as the theoretical basis for my essay is in no way intended to draw parallels between WWI, subject of Vimy, and the Holocaust. I also recognize that the approach to trauma theory used by Laub in “Bearing Witness,” has specifically been informed by the unique experiences of survivors of the Holocaust. However, its applicability for psychoanalysis and trauma theory is wider reaching, and Laub does not present his findings as only applicable to one specific event. Furthermore, the parallels between Vimy and “Bearing Witness” are simply too strong to ignore. Laub’s emphasis on the power of testimony as a healing force, the special role that the witness plays, and the importance of historical reconstructions are essential to understanding the portrayal of trauma in Vimy.
Trauma, as articulated by several scholars, is defined by the way in which its survivors experience the events of the past in the present. As asserted by Dori Laub in “Bearing Witness,” a traumatic event may have occurred in the temporal past, but for those affected by that event, its trauma “continues into the present and is current in every respect” (69). While the processes of trauma remain, this event is never truly “passed,” or completed. The traumatic event repeats itself in the memory of the survivor, becoming part of the present. Sometimes, as many survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder attest, this memory takes on a vivid and real quality through hallucinations and nightmares. This conflation of past and present through traumatic memory can be further observed in the processes of “postmemory,” where individuals are affected by “powerful, often traumatic experiences that preceded their births” (Hirsch 103). Eva Hoffman, quoted in Marianne Hisch’s “The Generation of Postmemory,” discusses how postmemories manifest themselves in the minds of the second generation as “not memories, but emanations… in flashes of imagery… [and] broken refrains” (109). As studies into the phenomenon of postmemory attest, the conflation of past and present that is experienced in trauma affects not only those immediately impacted by an event, but potentially subsequent generations as well. In Trauma and the Memory of Politics, Jenny Edkins expands on the relation between past and present that takes place in traumatic memory. “Trauma demands an acknowledgement of a different temporality, where the past is produced by—or even takes place in—the present,” she argues (Edkins 59). In Vimy, Vern Thiessen acknowledges this “different temporality,” and conflates past and present on stage in order to represent the disruption of temporal reality that occurs in processes of traumatic memory.
Each character in Vimy is suffering from some kind of trauma, but I will be focusing on two characters, Sid and Clare. Sid, a soldier from Winnipeg, has been struck by the impact of a shell at the battle of Vimy Ridge, which buried him under a combination of earth and dead solders. This experience, in addition to blinding him, has left him prone to vivid nightmares of being buried alive. Clare is a nurse from Nova Scotia who attempts to heal the psychic injuries of the men in her hospital, but struggles with her own trauma at the same time. She has been devastated not only by the loss of her fiancé Laurie, whose ghost appears to her many times, but also by seeing the effects of the war on her patients. The trauma suffered by Vimy’s characters is represented on stage in two different ways: the re-enactment of the past in the present, and the conflation of imagination and reality. These two modes of representation work to accurately represent the “different temporality” necessitated by the processes of traumatic memory, and are particularly evident in Sid and Clare.
Central to this representation of “different temporality” are Vimy’s “re-enactment” scenes. During these scenes, the characters re-enact and therefore re-experience their memories of past events. Here, Thiessen utilizes the genre within which he is writing, the genre of theatre, to articulate the conflation of past and present. Vimy’s re-enactments are not simply monologues, or “retellings.” Rather, they are “re-happenings,” where traumatic past events are repeated in the present for the individuals who have experienced them. This distinction between “telling” and “happening” is brilliantly articulated in a scene in which Sid recalls and re-enacts his experience of being buried alive. For the audience member watching the play, there is no way to tell if the time or place has changed, whereas in a novel a change in time or place would generally be indicated through narration. The audience can only see Sid undergoing this experience in the hospital set, in the same “present” timeframe as the rest of the scene has taken place. Therefore, in the play world seen by the audience, Sid’s actions are perceived as a re-experiencing that takes place in the present day in the hospital. Additionally, there are no stage directions to indicate a temporal change. This indicates to the reader that this episode takes place within the present of the play. Because of the deliberate absence of stage directions here, the reader is shown that this episode is not a flashback to an event that happened in the past, but an event happening within the present timeline of the play. Thus, Thiessen is able to convey his message equally to the reader and to the audience.
Thiessen’s demonstration of the conflation of past and present is further demonstrated by the tense in which Sid recounts his experience. Sid tells his story in the present tense, rather than the past tense that one would ordinarily use to describe a past event. This is because Sid’s memory of the traumatic event is a current and recurring one. He cannot talk about this experience in the past tense because the event has not passed for him. “We’re pinned,” he says. “Ain’t going nowhere. Dig all the tunnels I want, not digging myself out of this one” (Thiessen 71). Just as he could not move out from his position on Vimy Ridge, he cannot move on from the present and inescapable trauma of his memory of Vimy.
In addition to the use of medium and tense, Thiessen’s use of stage direction also works to convey this merging of past and present. Thiessen interrupts Sid’s narration with a key stage direction, “Laurie is there” (72). This indicates that Laurie, a character from the “past” temporality of Sid’s experience at Vimy, is present, therefore indicating that Sid’s experience of the battle must also be present. Furthermore, the use of “is there” rather than the conventional “enter Laurie” is critical to Thiessen’s representation of trauma. It is deliberately ambiguous and has the effect of disorienting the reader. This direction does not tell us whether Laurie has just appeared, or whether he has been there all along. We assume that Laurie has not been there all along, as no prior stage directions indicate his presence in this scene. However, this direction is not an entrance, but an announcement that presumes a prior entrance, one that is not contained in the text. This contradiction mirrors the perceptions of a survivor of trauma, who is constantly re-experiencing an event that they know has occurred long ago. The direction “is there” not only affirms the “presence” of Sid’s past trauma, but Clare’s as well. Clare sees him, and “draws in a breath” at his sight (Thiessen 72). Struggling with her traumatization at the loss of her fiancé, she is confused by this contradiction between past and present appearances, just as the reader is confused by the ambiguity of the direction.
Later in this scene, Thiessen inserts three stage directions that drastically re-shape the way that the audience member or reader perceives Sid’s re-experience (72). The stage directions introduce actions that occurred in the past to Sid’s narration. These past actions, now repeated in the present, make it clear that this is not just Sid speaking about the past, but that this is a recurrence of the events of the past in the present. After Sid testifies to the Highlanders “wavin’ like they were kids on a snowbank,” Thiessen inserts the direction “He falls” (Thiessen 72). Without this stage direction, this testimony could easily be interpreted as a “re-telling” rather than a traumatic “re-experiencing.” However, because of this un-ambiguous direction, it is clear that Sid is experiencing a traumatic conflation of past and present. We see Sid talking to Clare before the stage direction, when he suddenly falls and experiences something from his past. There is nothing to indicate a shift in time before this action takes place, for the audience or for the reader. Further down the page, after Sid has cried, “Get ‘em off me!” we are told, “his injuries return” (Thiessen 72). Once again we see a past experience, that of Sid being injured, happening in the present. Furthermore, the statement that Sid’s injuries return affirms that he was uninjured during his monologue, as he was in the past. We know that this takes place in the present, as Clare’s presence in the scene and its setting in the hospital room affirm. Sid’s traumatic memory forces him to re-experience his past state of being uninjured, only to show him the pain of injury again and return him to his present state. Later in this scene, Laurie speaks directly “To Clare” (Thiessen 73). Clare is present but was never at the battle. As it is through Sid’s remembrance that Laurie appears, this interaction between Clare and Laurie indicates that Sid’s experience is current and present. However, Clare’s direct interaction with a character from the past reveals her that past and present have become conflated for her as well. Clare, just as much as Sid or any other soldier, is struggling with her own trauma—the pain of losing someone whom she loved.
Deeply entangled with the conflation of past and present is the conflation of imagination and reality. We assume that memory is confined to the realm of the imagination, but in traumatic memory, this imagination becomes realized. This realization of imagination involves a traumatic instance of past becoming present, as one’s memory of a past event takes on a real and present quality. Historian Eric Leed, in his book No Man’s Land, references the testimony of British author and Great War veteran Robert Graves as an example of this. In his memoir Goodbye to All That, Graves recounted an instance after the war where he was walking near a busy street. Suddenly, a car engine backfired, and he dove for cover, thinking that a shell had exploded (in Leed 3). Graves’ past memory of shells exploding, and his response to those explosions, had become realized in a present event that seemed to mirror it. In this instance, his memory had caused his imagination of an exploding shell to become real for him. In Vimy, Sid experiences the same phenomenon when he cries, “Get ‘em off me!” (Thiessen 3). Lying in his hospital bed, blind, his imagination tells him that the past experience of being buried alive is happening once again. For both Sid and Graves, their past becomes present through the conflation of imagination and reality.
The motif of thundering guns is one that encapsulates the conflation of imagination and reality that occurs in trauma. The thundering of the guns takes place both in the minds of Vimy’s characters, and in the physical reality of the battlefield nearby their hospital. This motif also plays a vital role in communicating the conflation of imagination and reality to the audience. The sound of thunder opens the play, as is clearly indicated by the direction, “From away—thunder” (Thiessen 3). The reader has the benefit of this description, but for an audience member, it is less clear what this sound might be. As the play takes place on a battlefield, the audience might confuse the thunder of a storm for the thundering of artillery. This problem of distinguishing thunder from guns intensifies as the scene progresses. For example, the stage directions indicate, “A loud clap—as if a shell bursting” (Thiessen 3). For the reader, the distinction between thunder and guns remains intact, but the directions now indicate that the thunder is supposed to confuse the audience and make them hear the sounds of guns in the thunder. Later, “A burst of thunder and guns” (Thiessen 3), occurs at once, and the audience most likely hears either thunder or guns, as the two noises sound so similar. Just as Graves’ imagination mistook the backfiring of a car for the bursting of a shell, the audience’s imagination causes them to mistake the sounds of a storm for the sounds of war. Thiessen subtly involves the audience in this process, a process that the audience may not even realize that they are being engaged in unless they read the stage directions themselves.
As the play progresses, the distinction between memories of guns and “real” guns is introduced. The stage directions indicate, “A shell—or a memory—exploding” (Thiessen 8). It is entirely ambiguous to the reader, and consequently the actor and director, whether or not this is an imagined shell. Another stage direction later in the play indicates two shells exploding near each other. One shell “bursts in [Clare’s] mind,” while the other burst in reality, “From afar” (Thiessen 32). This indication of an imagined explosion shows that Clare is suffering from the same conflation of imagination and reality as Sid and Graves. Her memories of shells exploding on the battlefield, killing the men she has healed after they have left her protection, have become indistinguishable from “present” shells to her. Additionally, the audience is placed in the same position as Clare, as there is no way to communicate a distinction between an “imagined” shell and a “real” shell on stage. It is clear that something is lost whether one reads the play or watches it.
Audience members cannot perceive the distinctions between memory and reality, or thunder and shells, and because they are not aware that there is supposed to be a distinction between the two, they may not feel disoriented. However, because readers are able to perceive the distinction between “real” and “imagined” shells through the stage directions, they do not conflate memory and reality as the audience does. The ending of the play is able to address this gap between mediums. It gives the reader a sense of the disorientation and conflation felt by the audience, and ends on a note that does not need to be read for its meaning to be appreciated. The play’s final three lines are the stage directions: “The thunder—draws closer / But it is clear now / it is the thundering of the guns” (Thiessen 78). The thunder, which began the play, has now been revealed to the reader, not as thunder, but as the sound of artillery. The reader now realizes that despite what their perception had told them earlier, they were wrong about the nature of the noise at the beginning of the play. This is akin to Graves’s realization that the sound of a bomb was really just a car engine, or to Clare realization that a shell explosion only existed in her mind. Therefore, the reader is placed in the same place as these survivors of trauma—questioning their perceptions. The ending of the play also contains a meaning that can be perceived by audience members and readers alike. However, in order for us to understand that meaning, we must move to the discussion of Thiessen’s troubled depiction of the healing process.
In Vimy, healing is shown to be possible, and it does take place. Sid and Clare can be seen as playing the roles of survivor and witness, respectively, as articulated by Laub in “Bearing Witness.” Clare bears witness to Sid’s testimony, allowing him to finally speak about his trauma through what Laub refers to as a “historical reconstruction,” and heal. However, the picture that Thiessen gives us of witnessing and healing is more complicated than the one described by Laub. Clare is a witness, but she is also a survivor, and her role as a witness has deeply affected her psyche. Furthermore, the play shows us that traumatic events are powerful enough to affect even those who were not even present at their origin, proving that healing must be extended past the individual level to be successful.
The role of the witness, as presented in Testimony, is essential to the healing of psychic injuries. In order to overcome one’s trauma, one must first speak about the event that caused it, in order to assert resistance against the “boundaries of silence that surround it” (Laub 62). Healing “can occur and take effect only when one can articulate and transmit the story,” in order to reassert reality (Laub 69). But testimonies “are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude” (Laub 71). They require “the intimate and total presence of an other—in the position of one who hears” (Laub 72). Clare plays this role to all of the men, but it is in her relationship with Sid that her effect as a witness is most clearly observable. When the play begins, Sid shows that he is suffering from the effects of a traumatic event. He calls out, “Get ‘em off me!” (Thiessen 3), but does not tell anyone why he calls out like this until the end of the play.
Clare is “unobtrusively present” (Laub 71) for Sid throughout the play, as a witness should be. She never demands that he recall his experiences, instead choosing to wait for him to do so on his own. She does not “push” reality on him, careful not to reveal that his friend Will is in the same room as him when he believes that Will is elsewhere. When he is finally able to reconstruct the traumatic scene of his living burial, she is present. By acting his traumatic experience out on stage for another, Sid shows the audience that he is finally able to articulate the knowledge of what has happened to him. As previously noted, Sid describes his experience at Vimy Ridge in the present tense during his re-enactment, because the experience is current and present to him. However, after he finishes his re-enactment, he speaks about the experience in the past tense. “But I was so warm” (Thiessen 73), he says, finally able to put his experience in the past. Furthermore, he is able to completely reassert control over his reality by acknowledging that his perception of Will is real.
Earlier, Sid had heard Will’s voice, but when Will replied that he was someone else, Sid accepted this, because he was not confident in his own perception of reality. Now that Sid has overcome his trauma, he is able to reaffirm his faith in the reality of his perception. He perceives that Will is beside him, despite what he has been told, and believing in his perception, he calls out to him. Because Clare’s witnessing has enabled Sid to reconstruct his traumatic past, he is able to heal and move beyond the conflation of past and present, and imagination and reality.
However, Clare’s role as a witness does not leave her unscathed by trauma. As Felman and Laub attest, witnessing comes with its own perils. As a survivor expresses his or her testimony, the witness “comes to feel the bewilderment, injury, confusion, dread and conflicts that the trauma victim feels” (Laub 58). On page 29 of Vimy, we see the effect that witnessing has on Clare. As Mike, another of Clare’s patients, concludes a historical reconstruction of his own, Laurie appears to Clare. She feels Mike’s bewilderment and confusion from his testimony about his dead friend, and her experiences of these feelings overcome her. As Mike’s past becomes present through his re-enactment of a conversation with Bert, Clare’s past becomes present as she re-enacts a conversation that she once had with Laurie. Her position as a witness to Mike’s loss has heightened her own sense of loss at the death of Laurie, and her trauma manifests itself. Clare’s trauma shows that her role in the play is more than just that of a witness, who exists only to help the men around her overcome their trauma. She too struggles with trauma, and unlike Sid, it is unclear whether she is ever able to heal or not.
Sid’s healing is enabled because he undertakes a historical reconstruction of the event that has traumatized him, with a witness present. However, Clare is not able to do so. She never articulates what has caused her trauma, the death of Laurie, to anyone else. Clare’s trauma is heightened because, for much of the play, she does not know how Laurie has died. She searches for, but cannot find, any witnesses to his death. She asks her patients if they served in Laurie’s unit, the Highlanders (Thiessen 7), looking for definitive proof that Laurie is gone forever. During the war, there were instances of veterans who were mistakenly reported dead, when in fact they were still living, as David MacFarlane reports in The Danger Tree (294). Because Clare has not received confirmation of Laurie’s death from a witness who personally knew him, she is unable to completely accept that Laurie is dead. There is a sliver of hope, however slim, that he is still alive. Clare occupies a liminal space between receiving knowledge and accepting that knowledge. She has been officially told that Laurie is dead by the War Office, but she does not yet completely believe this. Consequently, Laurie appears to her as a ghost, occupying the liminal space between life and death. At the climax of the play, when Clare witnesses Sid’s re-enactment of his experiences at Vimy, she finally receives the verification of Laurie’s death that she has been searching for. Yet after she receives this knowledge, she does not articulate it to anyone else. By not articulating or reconstructing the cause of her trauma, either to another character or to the audience, she is unable to clear the way for the work of healing to begin. While Sid speaks about his experience in the past tense at the conclusion of the play, Clare ends the play speaking about Laurie, directly to his still-present ghost, in the future tense. She knows that such a future cannot exist, but she is unable to articulate this, and therefore remains in a state of trauma.
As a woman and a non-combatant, Clare is not seen by her society as a “survivor” of the war. Her role, as dictated by that society, is to support and heal the fighting men who returned from the front. However, as Vimy shows us, Clare is struggling with trauma that is equally as powerful as that of Sid, or any of the veterans. She requires someone to be a witness to her, and to allow her to articulate her trauma and pain to them, but because of the assumptions that come with her status as a “healer” and a woman, no one makes themselves available to her. Through this examination of both successful and failed healing, Thiessen shows us that healing after the Great War was possible for some individuals, like Sid, but that for many others, like Clare, the processes of trauma continued well after the war ended.
Vimy’s last few lines drive home this message; that trauma continues for many despite the healing of individuals. This message, as it is articulated at the conclusion of the play, is equally moving and perceptible for both readers and viewers of the play. In the play’s final moments, Laurie and “the other men slowly vanish” (Thiessen 78), but Clare remains on stage. The characters that have healed have disappeared, leaving only one survivor, who is still struggling to overcome her trauma. As the curtain closes, Clare is alone on stage with a familiar noise, one that has accompanied Vimy’s characters throughout the play. “The thunder—draws closer / But it is clear now / It is the thundering of the guns” (Thiessen 78), the stage directions indicate. The thunder of a storm, which the reader was told opened the play, is a natural force, which brings with it destruction, but also rain, restoration, and healing. However, the guns, which end the play, are a man-made force, which bring death and destruction, and represent the trauma of war. Wars, unlike storms, are not natural processes, and while healing can occur after them, that healing is not a guaranteed part of war. The guns echoed throughout the play, and now they end the play, their sounds remaining even after those who have overcome their trauma have vanished. This note on which the play ends reminds us that events such as World War I can create a legacy of trauma, which continues for generations, and outlasts even those who were there for its inception.
Vimy is a challenge to its readers, viewers, and performers to nuance their views of the trauma of World War I, and consequently, of all trauma. It shows us the painful past becoming current and present, an experience that so many survivors of the War underwent. Furthermore, it puts us in the position of those survivors through its intentional disorientation of the viewer or reader. It calls on us to recognize and address the legacies of trauma for the marginalized and underrepresented, and shows us that the effects of war are not confined to the battlefield. Most importantly, it challenges us to see that the trauma of World War I is not confined to history, but rather that its effects are still reverberating around us. Only once we recognize and articulate these facts ourselves can we truly begin to heal and move on from the traumatic legacies of the Great War, and so many other events like it.
Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Felman, Shoshanna, and Laub, Dori. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis,
and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. 57-75. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today. 28.1. (April, 2008): 103-128.
Leed, Eric. No Man’s Land. London: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Print.
MacFarlane, Seth. The Danger Tree. 1991. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2014. Print.
Thiessen, Vern. Vimy. Toronto: Playwright’s Canada Press, 2007. Print.