Sharon Pollock Walsh


Robert C. Nunn
Sharon Pollock has been writing for the stage, radio and television for more than ten years. Although her television and radio plays are not readily accessible, a survey of those of her stage plays which are available (and two of her radio plays) reveals a dramatist who has given
her central theme, the effect of social issues and public myths on individual lives, a progressively richer treatment. In particular individual identity, taken for granted in her first plays, becomes in Blood Relations a mystery, explored and reassessed with troubling impact.
Sharon Pollock écrit pour la scène, la radio et la télévision depuis plus de dix ans. Bien que ce qu'elle a écrit pour la radio et la television ne soit pas d'un accès facile, un survol de celles de ses pièces pour la scène qui sont encore en vente (avec l'addition de deux pièces radiophoniques) révèle un dramaturge don't le thème central, l'effet des questions du jour et des mythes publics sur la vie des individus, a reçu un traitement progressivement plus riche. En particulier, l'identité personnelle, presentée comme un donné dans ses premières pièces devient dans Blood Relations un mystère, exploré et ressassé de façon à amener un impact troublant.
Since Malcolm Page's article on Sharon Pollock appeared in Canadian Drama in 1979, you might say that she has arrived: there has been recognition in the sincerest form, namely productions of new plays on stages across Canada, there has been the publication of Blood Relations and Other Plays and its receipt of the Governor General's Literary Award in 1981, there have been awards in the fields of both radio and television drama. It is time for another critical survey of her work.
It must be noted at the outset that we are dealing with only a small part of her work, primarily the published playscripts.1 The problem of availability noted by Malcolm Page is compounded by the fact that all through her career Sharon Pollock has been writing not only for the stage but for radio and television: her work in both of these media is difficult to get at, yet would have to be considered in any full account. Indeed this aspect of Sharon Pollock's career may be of great significance. At present it is not nearly as common for Canadian dramatists to work in a variety of media as it is for example in Great Britain (think of Harold Pinter, David Mercer and Trevor Griffiths). With the advent of Pay-Television another avenue has opened up. It is to be hoped that Sharon Pollock's out-of-court settlement with the production company adapting Blood Relations for Pay-TV will have the effect of ensuring that further ventures of this kind will respect the playwright's contribution.
In the following remarks, then, I am not doing justice to her work as a whole. Yet even an incomplete overview reveals a great deal about Sharon Pollock's strengths as a playwright; a pattern begins to take shape, the path she is taking begins to define itself.
A Compulsory Option, Sharon Pollock's first play, was written in 1971 and first produced in 1972. It is a lightweight farce about the funny side of the paranoia of the New Left, represented by a young man who is convinced that his one act of rebellion - he protested against the college cafeteria's serving blancmange five times in a row - has put him on the hit list of 'the big money boys'. He shares a flat with two other men: one he talks into sharing his suspicions; the other is the perfect object to project all this paranoia on, since he is a 'raging queen', and the other two are loudly homophobic, and since he spends most of the play offstage, either in the bathroom meditating or in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound he receives while tied to a chair. Hidden in this slightly ugly farce are elements that will be explored seriously in the later plays: the force exerted by oppressive institutions on individuals, discrimination against minorities, the power of myth.
Walsh first brought Sharon Pollock national attention. It was produced in Calgary in 1973 and the following year at Stratford. It has been in print for ten years now, and has worn well, although more as a play to read than as a play to perform. What keeps it fresh is its passion and sincerity and its ability to arouse troubling thoughts about Canada's treatment of aboriginal people and about its relations with the United States.
The impressive heart of the play is the encounter of Sitting Bull, chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, and James A. Walsh, superintendent of the NWMP, two men of great dignity and integrity, who achieve a mutual respect that crosses a great racial and cultural divide. It chronicles how these men join the thousands of victims of the romantic myth of The Opening of the West, which casts the Indians as villains, the whites as heroes, and is utterly impervious to the truth. Walsh is forced, indeed, to become part of the ugly real-life destruction of aboriginal people which the myth rationalizes. The legend of General Custer, 'flower of the American Army', proves to be stronger than the reality of his exterminatory raids, the retribution which caught up with him at Little Big Horn, the Sioux' exemplary behavior during the four years they stay in Canada, and Walsh's struggle to acquaint his government with the facts. Walsh, haunted through the play by Custer's marching song, 'Garryowen', is pressed into the service of a fantasy cynically subscribed to by the Canadian government in order to maintain good relations with its mad neighbour to the south.
Walsh, imagining that he serves a government that bases its Indian policy on recommendations from the field, is brought face to face with the truth that he is a puppet and the Sioux are pawns, and that there is no justice or even sense to the policy he is obliged to carry out. When he breaks, he does so in the only way possible for a man of his integrity, by brutally, physically, acting out the cruelty hidden in the Prime Minister's directives. At the cost of both his and Sitting Bull's self-respect he strikes him and sends him sprawling. The moment is of a sort that seems to fascinate Sharon Pollock, for variations on it occur in most of her plays. After slamming the door so finally, or finding it slammed shut, on the way you have lived up to that moment, even on the very principles you have lived by, how do you go on from there?
The answer in Walsh is the powerful anti-climax which concludes the play. Walsh returns to his post after an extended leave (the audience having been kept in suspense in the meantime), quite willing to substitute the myth of the savage Indian for the reality he knew first-hand, to substitute 'style', 'show' and 'image' for substance; he illustrates his plan to stage a mock-attack, Indian style, on Eastern dignitaries arriving to open the new railway, with toy soldiers mounted on a model: a precise metaphor for the state he has been reduced to. The plan is derailed by the news of the abject end of Sitting Bull at the hands of the United States Army. Walsh's helpless rage and grief at the news intensify the pathos of his surrender.
The play resorts to some awkward tactics to set this action up so that it will be viewed from the proper angle. The prologue, a flash-forward to the end of Walsh's career, is necessary so that we will understand from the start that his spirit will suffer destruction; the cynical Harry's long account of Custer's raids and his death at Little Big Horn is necessary to utterly demolish the legend of Custer, so that the audience will possess the ironic awareness of its persistence regardless of the facts; scene after scene in the first act are required to establish Walsh as a man of integrity sympathetic to the native people; a long scene in Sitting Bull's teepee is necessary to introduce the audience to the Way of the Medicine Wheel. ... But the result of all this is that the first half of the play sinks under the weight of exposition.
Pollock's interest in montage as a principle of composition first appears in Walsh, not completely successfully. The juxtaposition of scenes in different styles seems partly due to a need to get certain things into the play, at least in the first act. Act II is much more successful at making montage contribute to the total effect, mainly because there is a much stronger through-line to carry us forward from scene to scene. For example, two scenes in very different styles - prosaic with Walsh, poetic with Sitting Bull - place the exhaustion of the two leaders in piquant contrast, and prepare for the climactic scene in which they confront each other for the last time.
Finally, in contrast to Pollock's later writing, the dialogue is such that every character means only what he says. There is no unverbalized subtext enriching, contradicting or counterpointing the text, as there is in her later work. Hence characterization is emphatically two-dimensional. What we see is what we get.
The Komagata Maru Incident (first produced in 1976) goes one layer farther down. Where Walsh set the myth of 'Openin' the West side by side with its dreadful acting out, this play goes after the myth of racial superiority that 'Openin' the West' rested on, again by contrasting the rhetoric - 'the clearly defined conception of moral necessity', 'the Gift of Responsibility', with the dirty work involved in acting it out on real people.
Its protagonist's dilemma is more intimately reflective of its theme than was the case in Walsh. Walsh's integrity simply ran counter to the policy of his government. Inspector William Hopkinson of the Immigration Department identifies his integrity with his government's racist immigration policy and takes great pride in carrying it out. His conflict is with himself, for, as the play gradually reveals, his mother was a native of the Punjab. His racism is practised only through constant and strenuous denial of a part of himself. The through-line of the play - the slow return of the repressed - is more intriguing than that in Walsh where we indignantly watched 'them' destroying that fine man (make that 'us'). Here Hopkinson's anguish takes us farther into ourselves: the racist denies a part of his own humanity in denying the humanity of others.
The plot unfolds eerily, setting the ultimately successful effort of the Department of Immigration to prevent the landing of a boatload of Sikhs against Hopkinson's ultimately unsuccessful effort to suppress the Asian half of his inheritance.
It is an interesting process. Evy, Hopkinson's mistress, witnesses a Sikh being beaten by whites as she rides past in a streetcar, is horrified, and refuses to accept Hopkinson's comforting rationalization: 'That's why we're sending the Komagata Maru back, so things like your fight won't happen'. She confronts him soon after with his mother's race. He breaks down and begs her abjectly to stop. But the wall is breached. We have already seen his racism in the context of a number of hints of the force of his ambivalence - his contempt for Indians and his admiration for their workmanship, his refusal to be drawn out about his mother, his obsession with the woman and child aboard the Komagata Maru, his habit of disguising himself as a Sikh and going to the temple, the intense scene in which he recalls an encounter with an Indian in an empty bazaar the day after British soldiers had put down a disturbance there: 'He stopped in the shadow of the huts ... he extended his arms t'wards me ... and I ... turned around ... and ran home.' Hopkinson had seen his other self.
After Evy has breached the wall, his prosecution of his duties becomes strangely self-defeating. We see a partial enactment, partial narration, of his attempt to board the Komagata Maru from a sea-going tug. He has forgotten that the ship has a cargo of coal. He and his men are driven from the ship: he is struck down by a lump of coal - he looks like a chimney sweep. Through a neurotic oversight the meticulous civil servant has placed himself where he will be overwhelmed by the dark-skinned men in whom he refuses to see himself, until his skin too is dark. As he suffers the slow return to life of his buried self, his authority erodes and his superiors' approval dries up. He is finally left face to face with the Sikh who has come to assassinate him, and meets his death with an oriental resignation, quoting from a hymn to Shiva the Destroyer.
The structure of the play is an interesting montage of violently clashing styles: the naturalism of the scenes in Hopkinson's unofficial headquarters, the brothel, the gradually increasing poetic eloquence of the Sikh woman's interjections, the raucous carnival mood of the master of ceremony's spiels and impersonations of various government officials. The latter style, which frames the action and frequently erupts into it, has the disturbing effect of transforming an incident of brutal injustice into a sideshow complete with crudely obvious tricks of sleight-of-hand, imposing on the audience the role of idly curious passers-by. The problem of exposition, which loomed so large in Walsh, is neatly overcome here by being dashed off by the Master of Ceremonies with a briskness which is itself a harsh comment on the ugliness of the incident.
Sweet Land of Liberty, broadcast on CBC Soundstage in December 1979, has to be considered even in a brief survey of Sharon Pollock's dramatic writing. It is a very accomplished piece of radio drama (it was awarded a Nellie the following year) and an intriguing variation on her central theme. Its protagonist is an American who served his country proudly in Vietnam, suffered and did such terrible things there that he was driven to desert. His wanderings since then have finally taken him to a provincial park on the Alberta-Montana border; from a cliffside covered with petroglyphs he can see the homeland from which he is exiled. The play moves through an intricate montage of flashbacks within flashbacks to his suicide.
He is on the far side of the sort of crisis that destroyed Walsh and Hopkinson. What he was and what he served have pulled him apart. He is 'strange', and what is strange about him is that he has ceased to live yet is still alive. Like Hopkinson walking through Vancouver towards his assassin, Tom perceives everything with uncanny clarity and detachment (he describes his ultra-patriotic sister in terms of her house - it has sharp edges you could cut yourself on, there is a little American flag in the window, and inside there is an organ anyone can play after ten lessons). The pathos of the tormented spirit in extremity receives its most intense expression in this work.
Blood Relations (first produced in 1980) is the first of the three plays published in Pollock's most recent volume. It is the best of the three, as its numerous productions across Canada testify. The best way to indicate its excellence is to point out that it is the most necessarily theatrical of all Sharon Pollock's plays. Blood Relations treats performance not as a vehicle for conveying something else but as an activity that by its nature may lead players and audience to revelations that it has literally brought into being.
The 'game' is a development of a favourite device of the playwright, framing the action. In one form or another it appears in Walsh, The Komagata Maru Incident and One Tiger to a Hill. Here it is more than frame; it is completely integrated into the action as its very life. The play begins and ends in Lizzie Borden's parlour ten years after the axe-murder of her parents. She is entertaining her guest and lover, a professional actress. The latter urges Lizzie to confess. Did she or didn't she? Miss Lizzie presents her with a challenge: to paint the background by playing the role of Lizzie ten years back, and so come to her own conclusions. Miss Lizzie herself plays Bridget, the Irish maid, and the two bring the events of ten years ago back to life. The play is written in such a way that we never lose sight of the 'real' characters during this role-playing. Bridget's feistiness is distinctly Lizzie-ish. And more importantly, she is constantly present, watching, cueing the actress-as-Lizzie, guiding her - in a word directing her. In fact the first 1892 scene, between Bridget and Harry, is a brilliant pastiche of the retrospective exposition of the opening of an Ibsen play, as if to say, 'you're an actress, you'll understand this'.
For the Actress, the game starts off as a great giggle - saying unladylike words, dishonouring her stepmother, correctly interpreting 'Bridget's' reproaches as a cue to keep it up, But the game grows more and more serious as it goes along. As she begins to feel the oppressive atmosphere of the Borden home, as she feels more and more caged, she is guided by 'Bridget' into rejecting one way out after another until there is only one way left, At strategic intervals, Miss Lizzie steps out of character and does what a good director does: she fills the actress's mind with images to guide her performance at the subconscious level, This is the function of the haunting description of the dream of a mask-like face with black holes for eyes, of the description of the puppy starved by its mother because it was different, etc. Playing Lizzie has gradually turned from a lark into a claustrophobic nightmare.
In the game, Miss Lizzie has complete control of the Actress, painting the background in such a way that the Actress chooses step by step to go on the strange winding path that leads to murder. Early on in the game, Miss Lizzie inserts two confessions, the first, that she was thirty-four yet still day-dreamt, the second that she feels as though she had been born defective without benefit of the magic formula for being 'a woman'. The Actress's emphatic reactions in effect are commitments to playing the role of Lizzie in a certain way whose consequences she cannot foresee. First: 'thirty-four is too old to day-dream' means rejecting one way out of Lizzie's plight. Second: to insist that Lizzie is not defective is to rule out another form of resignation; it is to say on her behalf, I am normal and I want my freedom. Having made these choices, the Actress plays the confrontation with Lizzie's father and stepmother with unrestrained passion, and as Miss Lizzie well knows, is in no mood to accept the way out offered by 'Bridget', in her story of the cook who secretly spat in her employers' soup. Another door has been slammed shut. Immediately, several more shut in quick succession: 'I could / No. /I could / No. / I could / No!'
Following Miss Lizzie's hypnotic account of her dream of the mask and the scene that climaxes with her father's axe-murder of the birds, the Actress is face to face with the horrible imagining of murder. At the beginning of the second act there is an intense scene in which Lizzie pleads with her sister to stay and join forces with her to prevent the loss of their inheritance, the only hope of independence either of them has. What gives the scene its urgency is the Actress's foreknowledge that if Lizzie is left to stand alone, there are only two choices left, suicide or murder. The struggle between the two choices gives the second act its uncanny intensity, Miss Lizzie's climactic bit of stage directing is evident in the Actress's lines: 'I want to die ... I want to die, but something inside won't let me, inside something says no.' The slightest touch from Miss Lizzie at this moment is crucial and is all that is necessary. After shutting her eyes, the Actress opens them to say 'I can do anything', and from that point, murder is no longer fantastical, and everything that passes between Lizzie and her family is loaded with confirmation after confirmation that murder is all that is left.
The ending does not simply return us to 1902; the two players return with the unexpected and profoundly troubling recognitions that they both arrive at from having played the game. The Actress learns not only that her friend could have hacked two people to death, but - in the last line of the play - that she herself could kill. Miss Lizzie, having just manoeuvered her alter-ego through a series of seemingly free choices, having just made someone else act out her life, is suddenly face to face with her elder sister and has a horrifying moment of self-estrangement, in which she sees herself as the someone else, and her sister as the manipulator: 'your hand working my mouth, me saying all the things you felt like saying, me doing all the things you felt like doing'. Two protagonists, two recognitions, crossing each other. The Actress can imagine killing to be the free woman she is now. Lizzie must ask herself: Am I, was I, free? Was I a puppet? A strange and haunting conclusion. The audience too is forced in these final moments to look back over the whole play with fresh eyes.
The ending makes the play a more dangerous confrontation and moves it away from being simply a sermon against the subjection of women, which is what the 1892 scenes would amount to if played by themselves, as indeed they were in the first version of the play, titled My Name Is Lisbeth (produced in 1976).2   One's response can then be quite comfortable: 'look what an independent, spirited woman was driven to in 1892'.
Surround these events with the 'game' and you overlay their relatively acceptable message with disquieting insights into the mystery and ambiguity of personal identity: where do we draw the boundary between 'me' and 'not-me', on the near or far side of murder, on the near or far side of another person? In this context, the feminism of the play has a flavour of Pirandello. Being a woman is being the Other in somebody else's perceptions.
The play is also notable for the strength of its writing. The script is virtually uncuttable. The dialogue is spare and laconic but rich in subtext. Also new in Sharon Pollock's work is the metaphorical density, made possible here by the doubleness of the plot, where every object and gesture of 1892 is being searched for revelation in 1902, and by the complete assimilation of poetic passages into the structure of the play, something that wasn't quite carried off in earlier plays. Eyes, poison, birds, animals, recur through the script; it is also filled with the found metaphors of naturalism: the cage, the hatchet, staircase, money, newspaper, coffee and so on.
Blood Relations is a further development of a basic theme: a struggle to the breaking point between personal integrity and a larger force that denies it. Here there is an equivocal triumph. Lizzie does not break, she survives: how intact is the question. The oppressive force is no longer an identifiable institution or a consciously-undertaken program; the myth that sustains it needs no apologist. It is a patriarchal system so pervasive, so much the air everyone breathes, that Lizzie's struggle to break free of it seems mad and absurd. The father is a fascinating study of a man who is not even aware of an impermeable barrier in his mind between his affection for his daughter and the assumptions on which he bases his actions. Without abandoning the public dimension characteristic of her earlier plays, Sharon Pollock has shifted the accent; we now see the issue as it is reflected in the individual consciousness, from which vantage point we see beyond it and beneath it.
The montage-structure, characteristic of much of her work, is further developed in this play. The juxtaposition of 1892 and 1902 scenes has a compelling inner logic, as we have seen. The play's rhythm is an exacting challenge to performers. Act I's steadily-accelerating rhythm must successfully fuse with the gradually intensifying stillness of Act II.
One Tiger to a Hill, the second play in the volume, seems to me the least successful of Sharon Pollock's published plays. Although, like most of her plays, it is based on real events, in this case the famous riots in the British Columbia Penitentiary and at Attica Prison, it is curiously detached from reality, its characters and situations too close to the clichés of television melodrama.
The play unfolds as if narrated by a character much like Walsh, a lawyer whose faith in the system he serves is shaken to its roots by what he discovers when he finds himself inside the Pen as a mediator between hostagetakers and prison authorities. But his part in the action is so peripheral that it will not bear the weight of the anguish he informs us he is suffering. Like many things in the play - the rehabilitation work which we are told is held in contempt by the prison security staff, and the evil of solitary confinement which we do not get to hear about in any detail until near the end - it has to be taken on faith.
The most severe problem in the play is that the jarring clash between the political and the personal aspects of the play confuses rather than illuminates. The political message, conveyed by the rapid montage of scenes with the hostage-takers and with the prison authorities, carries a depressing sense of hopelessness about changing the system or even heading off a violent end to the crisis. But the violent end, in which two people are killed, arises out of pure soap opera. Has Dede, the classification Officer, allowed Tommy, the ex-contract killer, to make love to her? When Tommy makes himself an easy target for Hanzuk, the guard, is he doing it to save Dede, whom he intended to use as a shield, or is he throwing his life away in despair over Dede's eleventh-hour confession that she does riot love him? Does Hanzuk shoot Dede because he used to stand outside her office when Tommy was with her, seething with sexual hangups? All these possibilities are raised, quite insistently, and are all left up in the air; yet no other reading of the climactic events, particularly the death of Dede, is offered.
This sexual triangle imposes the stock motivations of melodrama onto a play that apparently intended to say something about the inhumanity of the prison system, particularly the arbitrary power and absence of due process pointed to by a character who does a lot of editorializing. In this play the personal and public aspects do not reinforce or resonate with each other, as they do in the other two plays in the volume. It is a confused and unfocused play, which has never worked on stage, except when Sharon Pollock herself directed a workshop production at the National Arts Centre.3 Perhaps she directed the play she intended to write.
Generations, the third play in the volume, registers a further stage in a gradual shift of accent in Pollock's works from big issues to the characters on whom (and within whom) these issues have their impact. It is not at all a matter of dropping her concern with large social issues - certainly in Generations the impact of government policy on the survival of the family farm on the prairies is big enough. It is a matter of an almost Chekhovian approach, letting the texture of people's lives speak indirectly about the forces affecting them.
The dialogue has a refreshingly unportentous ring to it. Much more is said subtextually in this play than is the case with her previous work to 1980, even Blood Relations, where this kind of textured writing first appears (and is appropriately called 'painting the background').
For instance, the opening sequence, an exchange between Old Eddy Nurlin and his grandson David, has a marvellous off-hand kind of humour, and accomplishes a considerable task of exposition at the same time. It conveys the strong sense of family, the sense of changing values over three generations, the strong bond between Old Eddy and David, on which the plot hinges, and concise and very vivid thumbnail sketches of the major characters and what Old Eddy thinks of them by way of pungent comments on their drinking habits.
The play focuses on two brothers, David and Young Eddy, and on the contrast between Young Eddy's leaving the farm to become a lawyer, and David's apparently fatalistic acceptance of the burden of being the third generation of Nurlins to run the place. To David's fiancée, Eddy seems a free person and David a person who will never have the chance to be what he wants. But the play is about inheritance, about how you can inherit an obligation that slowly ripens into a vocation, and about the family farm as not just a way of growing food but as a way of preserving a sense of a life spanning generations, indeed as a human construct that is bigger than the individual and so permits him to hold his own against the vastness of the prairie landscape. It is a difficult theme to dramatize, as the acceptance is fundamentally inarticulate, a product of time not of purposive action.
The play comes close to succeeding, although Sharon Pollock notes that none of the productions of the play has successfully met the enormous and maybe impossible task it imposes on a designer. The play calls for the most detailed farm-kitchen realism yet at the same time for the most abstract and mythic rendering of the prairie landscape. When the naturalistic dialogue reaches toward that mythic level, there is a similar clashing of gears. Still, even though the play is not completely successful, it does strike out into new territory. This is particularly evident in the climax. David is under the kind of pressure that Sharon Pollock always puts her protagonists under. His integrity and personal dignity are under attack from a number of directions - his brother, his fiancée, the faceless government representatives - and he finally erupts into the kind of irrevocable act we have seen in her previous plays. What do you do after you have burned the place down? But here the accent is entirely different. A thunderstorm douses the fire, Old Eddy gives David a 'lickin' and tells him not to do that again. So the big moment is a throwaway. The stress is on the texture of life before the crisis and on how life is resumed afterwards. David emerges - not changed - but confirmed in what he knew already but could not articulate.
Sharon Pollock's radio play, Intensive Care, broadcast on CBC Radio in June 1983, is her most recently produced work.4 It addresses the issue of euthanasia, yet goes beyond the limits of the issue. It explores the territory opened up by Blood Relations, the disquieting revelations at the boundaries of personal identity. In it, a nurse, who has made what seemed to her the sane and reasonable decision to pull the plug on a brain-dead patient, is horrified to discover that she has breached the boundaries that until then had restrained a fellow-nurse, who kills a hydrocephalic child because it would not have much of a life anyway, and attempts to take the life of an elderly man simply because he is a pain in the ass. The play ends with the protagonist insisting with mounting anxiety that 'there is a difference between her and me'.
An overview of Sharon Pollock's work corrects the impression often conveyed in reviews that she is a didactic playwright whose characters are merely mouthpieces for social criticism. It is a conception framed with some justification on the basis of Walsh, and like many another journalistic ready-made, it clings to life. But ten years down the road it is clear that this stereotype has become increasingly ill-fitting. The grain of truth in it is her steady attention to the impact of public issues, and public myths, on individual lives.
John Palmer's marvellous tirade, 'Henrik Ibsen on the Necessity of Producing Norwegian Drama' (CTR, 1977), implied that there was no reason why Canada could not produce a playwright of Ibsen's stature, as long as it undertook not actively to prevent such an occurrence. When Canada's answer to Ibsen emerges, it will be someone like Sharon Pollock, with her long-haul commitment to the discipline, with her experimentation, and expansion of the boundaries of her dramatic universe, and quite possibly with her practise of working in more than one performance medium..

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