The Heart Specialist

Yesterday afternoon was the re-enactment of Claire Holden Rothman’s 2009 novel, The Heart Specialist, and what an event it was!

Slowly, the impressive auditorium located at the very back of the Redpath Museum filled up. It had been, Claire told us in her introductory speech, the first lecture room for women at McGill. With its polished wood, high benches and steep steps, you could easily picture the very first group of Donaldas in their burdensome dresses paying close attention to what was going on below. As much attention as we gave Claire and her short play.

The Donaldas, we learned, were the first women allowed to study at McGill. They got their nickname in honour of Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, and his major financial support. But several restrictions were imposed on these women. For example, they had to enter the auditorium through a side door, but more seriously, and importantly for Claire’s book and play, they were not allowed to study at the Faculty of Medicine.

After a short speech in which Claire introduced McGill in the late nineteenth century, her main character, Agnes White, and the inspiration for the character, Maud Abbott, the play began.

However difficult it might have been to adapt a full-length novel that spans over decades and that contains several characters into a half-hour play with two actors, Claire did a brilliant job. She chose to present the novel by starting with an “old” Agnes White (Joanna Noyes) accepting an honorary doctorate from McGill. She then summarizes her story through flashbacks and interactions with a “young” Agnes White (Holly Frankel). Both actors (literally) wore several hats, playing all the characters required to summarize this complex and fascinating story.

Directed by Claire’s love and husband (as she emotionally told the audience), actor and playwright Arthur Holden, the re-enactment was a wonderful little play that made the audience want more. In fact, during the question period that followed the play, an audience member asked if she had any plans in turning this into a full-length play. It was then revealed that actor Holly Frankel was already working on it.

We’d like to thank Claire, Arthur, Joanna, and Holly for their wonderful work. It truly inspired Lara and me to do this again. Funds permitting, we’d like to try and make this an annual event. So many wonderful Montreal books could be re-enacted this way. We’d also like to thank Ingrid Birker, the museum’s Science Outreach and Public Program Coordinator. She prepared a lovely PowerPoint presentation showing archive pictures of McGill that looped while we waited for the event to start. She also set up a small exhibit containing one of Maud Abbott’s hearts and a notebook.

Our fourth and last event will be a walking tour of literary Montreal. We’ll give you the details as we finalize them.