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Biography 23.2 (2000) 352-371

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"The Bright Bone of a Dream": Drama, Performativity, Ritual, and Community in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family

S. Leigh Matthews

The part always has a tendency to reunite with its whole in order to escape from its imperfections.

--Leonardo da Vinci

I go back there a lot now and I go back to complete myself, I think.

--Michael Ondaatje, Interview with Ariel Dorfman

Given the popularity of performance theory in modern day academic circles, and the open-ended definition of the word "performance" provided by such theorists as Richard Schechner, 1 it is inevitable that the long-accepted analogy of "life as theatre" would be extended to that particular literary genre known as "autobiography," or more inclusively, as "life writing." 2 While many literary critics have made the connection between life writing and dramatic technique, Evelyn J. Hinz's 1992 essay "Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Auto/Biography" fully articulates a "poetics" of life writing which highlights the genre's "dramatic affinities" (195). Using Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family (1992) as my example, I would like to suggest that in certain texts the type of performance is ritual in nature--a reiterative therapeutic act, before an audience, meant to aid the writer in enacting a public performance of the marginalized self as a way of reintegrating that self into its familial/communal origins. Even Ondaatje's earliest works display his preoccupation with both performance and communal identity. I am also suggesting that Ondaatje's choice of the memoir form for Running underscores this concern with reintegrating self and social context through performance, and further, that the public representation of communal [End Page 352] selfhood in Running is in fact a "metasocial performance" that exposes the limitations of Western concepts of subjectivity and historiography.

Hinz locates the beginning of the "dramatic lineage of auto/biography" in Aristotle's Poetics, the "oldest attempt to define the generic features of drama" (198). 3 Like drama, auto/biographical documents have "an element of conflict and dialogue, a sense of performance and/or spectatorship, and a mimetic or referential quality" (195). Hinz further suggests that auto/ biography simulates drama's "visual immediacy or quality of actual presence" through "recourse to pictorial metaphors"--most notably, the use of the term "portrait" (196). More significantly for my purpose, Hinz also notes--although surprisingly only in terms of biographical texts--that photographs "constitute a major component" in many works of life writing, providing a sort of visual gallery whose pictures "dramatize" descriptions of people and places. Hinz then argues for the historical "sisterhood" of drama and auto/biography by giving examples of moments when the two arts come together, from the "earliest depiction of individual lives" in classical tragedy to the "epic or melodramatic nature" of the eighteenth-century novel, and on to twentieth-century works (196-97).

Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family is one of those contemporary works. Certainly the narrative contains the "conflict and dialogue" which Hinz suggests characterize the dramatic elements of auto/biographical texts. As the author searches for his father and his cultural roots, for instance, he continually encounters the vagaries and contradictions of collective memory when playing over historical "truth." Speaking of his family, Ondaatje notes that "No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgements thrown in. In this way history is organized" (19). He dramatizes this observation in the sections entitled "Lunch Conversation," "Dialogues," and "Final Days: Father Tongue," which record the imprecise and various recollections of those members of Ondaatje's family who participated in those long-past events. What drives this process is the author's attempt to make sense of the memories shared of his father, which together compose a complex, contradictory picture of a man, a time, and a place, known intimately by everyone and no one. Faced with this...