Beating Heart Cadaver


83 pages
ISBN 0-88754-567-X
DDC C812'.54




Reviewed by Shannon Hengen

Shannon Hengen is an associate professor of English at Laurentian
University and the author of Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors,
Reflections and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry.


The parents of eight-year-old Amelia, who recently died in a car
accident (the driver, her father, was rendered paraplegic), deal with
their unbearable present by avoiding one another, numbing themselves
with booze or pills, and engaging in angry confrontations. Recurring
memories of their daughter and a recognition of their shared failure on
the day of her death are the means by which they begin to offer hope to
one another.

Characterization verges on false in this play’s opening scenes, when
Murphy conveys the hardness of the situation by means of edgy joking.
Set perhaps 10 days after the child’s death, the play also introduces
six figures early on in addition to the phantom of the dead girl—the
mother of the child, the now-disabled father, the grandmother, an
estranged Irish uncle, and a manic representative of a support group for
parents of young accident victims—all within the heightened situation
of premature death. An uneven tone and a host of characters combine to
border on the absurd.

But realism gains ground as the minor characters recede and we enter
the parents’ deep sadness and remorse. Their devoted attention to
their daughter had masked their own flaws, such as the mother’s
paranoid inability to leave the house and the father’s irascibility.
She could have accompanied the pair in the car on the day of the
accident and perhaps have prevented the crash had she been able to go
out, and he could have controlled himself at the wheel—but neither
did. When he reveals his torment over the child’s last moments of
life, both we and his wife forgive him. When she overcomes her morbid
fantasies and finally lets go of the child’s balloon, inhaling its
contents like hope, we can accept her, too.

That Murphy’s script recovers from an unsteady beginning rescues a
play that finally, by means of the simplest of language and
theatricality, becomes a meaningful commentary on forgiveness and
acceptance as agents of hope. Imperfect adults do dreadful things but
can recover.


Murphy, Colleen., “Beating Heart Cadaver,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,