“A heart can block four shovels”,


but love cannot block five deaths







A comparison of


Wendy Lill’s play


The Glace Bay Miners ‘Museum


and Mort Ransen’s film


Margaret ~ Museum





Birte Goessling



April 5 2004



Frances MacDonald describes “The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum” as “a story about voice”. The play by Wendy Lill and Mort Ransen’s film version called Margaret’s Museum, both based on a short story by Sheldon Currie, give voice to the post-war working class in Canada. Lill creates strong characters and puts powerful words in their mouths to present the exploitation of people’s poverty in the mines, whereas the movie’s accusation shines almost imperceptibly through the mounting affection between the two protagonists, Margaret and Neil. However, what first seems to be a story of an extraordinary love turns out to be a critical tragedy with historical background. Ransen weakens several features for the benefit of the love story, but involving the viewer emotionally is his way of demonstrating “the price of coal”. In fact, reading the play but watching and listening to the film lets the voices of the second medium appear even more powerful.

Taking a closer look, the motion picture uses foreshadowing techniques, hidden in little details, which indicate the film’s social criticism as early as in the play namely in the first scene. The first thing the viewer hears in Margaret’s Museum is the penetrating sound of sirens. This sound is the recurrent theme in the movie, it appears several times and out of nothing, disturbing the flow of the scene as it disturbs the daily routine on Cape Breton Island. People drop their work and look worried, some start running towards the mine and the viewer soon finds out that sirens mean injuries and death. The sirens are a powerful noise that startles the viewers and wakes them up out of the soothing romance in the foreground. Ransen incorporates the wailing sirens Margaret mentions in the play, indicating the loss of her father and her brother Charlie: “[...] then the sirens started to wail. [...] And they went out the door, and out the world altogether.”

 Suffering from this loss, Margaret and her mother give voice to the cruel impact of the pit. Lill’s mother Catherine changed after the incident: “All she does [...] is talk about the wake and go to bingo.” (54) She even brings up the wake when she explains how she met her husband. It is apparent that going to wakes belongs to the people’s everyday life. In the movie Margaret’s mother exchanges her bingo-nights with attending funerals; she sarcastically spits: “It is cheaper than bingo”. The film exaggerates her sarcasm. Kate Nelligan interprets Catherine as a dour, frustrated woman, dispensing pessimism with every word she says. The anxiety that her daughter could lead the same joyless life she has, makes her spoil the family’s harmony and especially her daughter’s dreams. Her response to Margaret’s vision of having five sons sums up what industry does to the working class: “You’ll lose two sons to a shoe factory in Boston and three to the pit one will die with the lungs, one from a fall of stone, and one will get shot in the face making a speech during a strike.” This corresponds to Catherine’s warning in the play: “If you let love in, you’ll get hurt.” (74) The language of the play is noticeably weaker than in the movie. This shows how Ransen utilizes Catherine’s stroke of fate to give a strong voice to the women that are left behind.  Although Margaret belongs to this group of women and grieves for her dead brother and father, her optimism predominates in both versions. Her character gives voice to confidence. The complexity of her confidence is developed in more facets in the movie. In the play it is mostly a metaphor that expresses Margaret’s belief in a better life. She refers to a card game comparing spades to shovels which “dig the hole” (51), and hearts to the only thing that can prevent death. Falling in love with Neil proves to her that there is more in life than the mine and death, that the “heart can block four spades” (51). Contrarily, the movie also clarifies her transition from mourning to happiness. Margaret’s tears in the graveyard and her question why “they go through the trouble to bring the bodies up just to bury them again” make Neil promise to stay away from the mine. The moment he breaks the promise gives Margaret reason to move out because she is determined not to “have funerals”. This is the point in the film where the joy love brought into her life weighs more than her glaring attitude towards the mine. She returns to Neil and begins appreciating the money. She cannot wait for example to present Catherine their new toilet and bans her mother for her sobering reaction:

“Good, so [...] you can piss and cry at the same time.” Margaret having the first shower of her life unifies romance with the pit and brings the love story to its climax. Romanticizing the place of evil almost destroys its increasing negative picture, but then the sirens howl again. Catherine’s premonition comes true and Margaret’s confidence is proved unfounded. Her heart could not prevent death casting a shadow over her perfect bliss. Still the optimistic tone of her voice does not peter out as there is enough left of the people she loved to pass on what she believes in to protest.

Lill replaces this part of Margaret’s transition with the strike, imtiated by Margaret’s other brother Ian. His role constitutes the greatest difference of the two works. In the play he is a miner, but he has higher ideals. He “would have loved to have been a doctor” (45). Too poor to study medicine, he puts all his effort into the union. In that way he gives voice to the oppressed workers who experience injustice through the mine company. As the spokesman of the union, he is able to make his voice heard, to fight for his beliefs. It is his ideology that “if you don’t fight for it, it ain’t gonna happen” (102). Like Margaret, he is optimistic because he has something to believe in. In contrast to Ian, Margaret’s brother in the film is called Jimmy and is too young and knows too little to have an ideology or beliefs. He embodies innocence and naivet& The only thing that bothers him is growing up. He tries to get ajob in the mine because he thinks that is what is missing to make a man out of him as he already explores his sexuality with the mine manager’s daughter. Jimmy’s carefreeness is demonstrated by his reaction when the dancing lessons with his girlfriend get cancelled. For him, “happiness is cancelled forever”. Ian also is involved with the mine manager’s daughter, but in his case this leads to inner conflicts: “You’re either taking out the manager’s daughter or you’re thick with the union.” (26) In changing Ian into Jimmy an important element of living in an industrial place gets lost. The union is not represented in the film at all, and Jimmy’s death has the only purpose to make the reason for the last howling of the sirens more heartbreaking whereas Ian dies after making his attitude clear, after trying to escape.

Ian’s attempt to escape is mirrored in the whale episode which unfortunately cannot be found in the movie. Keith Garebian sees Lill’s episode of a beached whale “trying to save its life” (101) as “a connection [to Margaret’s] Grandpa’s notebooks, which testify to a people’s similar attempt to survive marginally”, but the comparison to Ian seems to suggest itself. The moment he rebels against the company he does not only loses the chance to get a “surface job” (117), but he also has to go back to the pit under worse conditions than before and gets killed. The lack of Ian’s character makes it unnecessary for Ransen to include the whale episode and the movie misses an interesting character as well as an expressive representative scene.

The interpretation of Margaret’s grandfather, which Garebian mentions, rather takes a different direction. His part does not undergo any changes through the adaptation. He lies silently on his bed in both the motion picture and the play. His existence and his notebooks contribute a new kind of voice to the story. He cannot speak anymore or, better, refuses to speak. This withheld voice adds to the other characters’ intentions as it symbolizes that the pit can kill a person not only by a fall of stones; the pit affects one’s health, shrivels up one’s lungs. Grandpa stops speaking and walking which is the only free choice he has, demonstrating to the cormptive company doctors that his lungs cannot be strong enough to breathe in the pit if they do not even take enough air to form words. He is the living evidence of how the mine company influences and limits one’s life, also poignantly expressed by Neil:

“They took your language and your music and your songs, and all they left you with is a shovel.”

Neil uses nearly the same words in the play. Ransen and Lill both emphasize Neil’s striving to keep up his heritage. They present him inseparable from his bagpipes and the Gaelic language because those are the things that remind him of his roots and the times when people did not have to work underground. In the play he defends his attitude towards Ian:

“Unless you know your history and your music, you don’t know that the way things are is not necessarily the way things have to be.” (76) Lill describes Neil as very proud and self determined. He refuses to join the miners because “burrowing underground is a good job for worms” (29) and “good men stand tall, [...] they don’t crawl around tunnels for a company” (69). His pride is of an excessive kind and gives Neil’s performance the sense of resolution and strength. It is a different kind of pride that changes his mind in the second act. He is married now and wants to “put a roof over [their] head” (113). In the movie it is Neil’s romantic bent that first keeps him away from and finally brings him to the pit. His character appears very gentle and sensitive. He is in love with Margaret and she does not want a “goddamn miner”. When she tells him that she also does not want to have “children [she] can’t feed”, his wish to pass on his heritage and culture gains the upper hand. No matter why Neil feels the urge to earn more money, he always ends up in the pit, because that is where the money is (97) and “there’s no credit unless you got someone in the pit”.

Sheldon Curie’s idea of ascribing to Neil the look of a giant is adapted by the playwright and the director, but in combination with his varied character features his height has a different effect on the recipient. Being portrayed gentle and romantic in the movie, Neil’s physical appearance does not fulfil the viewer’s expectations of a rough specimen and serves the purpose of the love story. He has to lift up his wife like a child every time they kiss and tallies with the cliche of being the woman’s protector. In the play it sounds as if Margaret is actually looking for protection: “I wish he’d pick me up and put me in his shirt pocket.” (11) However, in the play Neil’s height rather underlines his backbone in refusing to go underground where he would not be able to walk upright.

Film adaptations of novels are said to leave out a lot due to the time limit of the medium, but Margaret’s Museum shows that a movie can extend a play. Ransen’s extension is unfortunately just an enhancement with regard to the touching effect of the film. Ransen adds the role of Uncle Angus to the story, who is a kind of substitute for Margaret’s father. He supports the family, which diminishes the gravity of poverty on the one hand. On the other hand, Angus personifies the voice of the average miner who becomes more and more frustrated and fills the gap of Ian’s part a little bit. Angus has worked in the pit all his life, sometimes night and day, only to see his wife spending the money in the company store. He sees his brother “broken to a hundred pieces” and promises him to protect Jimmy, only to see Jimmy dead the day he allows him to enter the pit. The ugly incident becomes a real tragedy as it is Angus who infects Jimmy with his dream of seeing Toronto and paves the way for his death. Angus’ dream proves how modest his demands of life are and the film proves that not even the smallest wish can become reality in the world of the working class.

One could argue that putting the emphasis on love and tragedy in the film drowns the play’s critical voices. “Lill’s voice [is] passionate, and politically and socially conscious. Her theatre educates.” (Wagner) Looking at Lill’s political role in Canada, her serious ulterior motive for writing the play cannot be denied. In an interview she states 1998: “When I’m trying to think about what I want to write about, I think ‘Okay, what is it that’s really bugging me right now?” Lill wants to act as a “community activist. ‘I’m doing that ~ in my role as a politician and I’ve done it as a playwright”’ (interview).

Of course the movie takes advantage of the play’s aspects that address a big audience and couches them in an entertaining tone, but touching the viewers may cause the same reaction as depressing them. And the most effective way of making people ponder is present in the play and the movie. Margaret’s special artefacts shock the reader and the viewer equally. To cut up the bodies of Grandpa, Neil and Jimmy disturbs the recipients because they do not expect and understand such an immoral deed. After getting Margaret’s explanation of the reason for her massacre, it does not seem that absurd anymore and her message is clear: “It is important to remember.” (126)

Many of the story’s voices die away in the end like the characters they belong to, but as they are part of a play and a movie they can be brought back to life. Frances MacDonald points out that a “culture can only be preserved by living it, a language by speaking”  (Fiddlehead). The reviewer who criticizes that Currie’s “voice [as] being lost or imperfectly translated” by both mediums does not attribute to the play and the film that the past can only be preserved in writing it down or telling it, in showing it on stage or on the screen. Especially in a time where people read less and less and prefer to get entertained, a play or a movie can work as a reminder of the past. It is not necessary to open a museum full of preserving jars, as long as there are other ways to give voices a podium.



Works cited




Garebian, Keith. Rev, of Marcel pursued by the hounds, by Michael Tembley. Books in Canada 27.4 (1998): 23.

 Lill, Wendy. The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum. Burnaby: Talonbooks, 1996.

 Lill, Wendy. Interview. In 2 Print. Summer 1998: 26.

 MacDonald, Frances. Rev, of The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, by Sheldon Currie. Fiddlehead 194 (1997): 109.

 Margaret’s Museum. Dir. Mort Ransen. Malofilm Communicating, 1995.