Author Tags: Fiction, Theatre

"I was told that women don't go to university and women don't become writers. Only the rich could be writers." -- Betty Lambert

Betty Lambert was born in Calgary, Alberta on August 23, 1933. “My father died when I was twelve and I was no longer ‘working class,’ I was ‘welfare class’ and I was determined to get out of that class. Writing was a way out but soon it became more than that, it became a necessity.” Lambert became a socialist in her teens. She said she used her anger to fuel her art. She moved to Vancouver in 1951 to attend UBC, worked as a copywriter at a local radio station and graduated to writing radio plays for CBC. She published Three Radio Plays (Burnaby: West Coast Review Publishing Society, 1985) containing GRASSHOPPER HILL, FALCONER'S ISLAND, THE BEST ROOM IN THE HOUSE.

Among her plays for children The Riddle Machine (1966) was performed at Montreal’s Expo in 1967. In her late 20s, Lambert became embroiled in feminist issues which permeated most of her best work for the stage. In 1965 she became a part-time lecturer of English at Simon Fraser University, where she was later made an Associate Professor (with only a BA in Philosophy and English) teaching modern and Greek drama, Shakespeare and linguistics.

Betty Lambert raised one daughter as a single parent and produced approximately 60 plays for radio, television and stage. Sqrieux-de-dieu (Talonbooks, 1975) gained renown as a witty and outlandish sex comedy about a ménage a trios. Jennie’s Story (1983), her most powerful work, was based on a true story from southern Alberta in the 1930s, when a priest had his 15-year-old housekeeper, whom he seduced, taken to a mental institution and sterilized. She is told she has an appendectomy. Later, married and unable to conceive, Jennie learns the truth and commits suicide. Under the Skin (1985) is based upon a true Vancouver story of a man kidnapping and sexually abusing a twelve-year-old girl for six months. Lambert won ACTRA’s Nellie award for best radio play in 1980 for Grasshopper Hill, a drama about a Canadian woman who has an affair with a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.

Crossings, her only novel, is a penetrating study of female masochism. It's called Crossings because the man and the woman repeatedly “cross over” the Burrard Bridge from opposite worlds. Mik O'Brien, a violent and virile ex-con, crosses over to Vicky’s rooming house at 2952 West 8th Avenue. Vicky Ferris, a CBC dramatist, crosses over to the coarse but truthful world of Mik and his cronies at the St. Helen’s Hotel (later called Theo’s) on Granville Street. It is a riveting account of female sufferings, mental and physical, with flashbacks to a failed marriage and an illegal abortion in East Vancouver. Unable to extricate herself from Mik O’Brien’s influence, Vicky is raped, gets pregnant, demands marriage, discovers the pregnancy alarm was false, retreats to Berkeley, gets pregnant by a stranger and keeps the baby. The skilful clarity of the writing convincingly evokes the protagonist’s passion and restlessness.

“Maybe it’s one huge orgasm, this book. Maybe I just want to remember it once more before I go menopausal. Maybe I just want to feel young again and real and alive. The Victorian era. Repressed lust. But to the girdle do the gods inherit. Down from the waist they are centaurs… Perhaps I shall go mad and run naked down the street at night, waving my bum behind me like a flag. Perhaps I shall leap on beautiful young men, a moustache on my lip. Oh god, it’s not fair to grow old. It’s not fair. I hate it. I really do.” The book gained the disapproval of one Vancouver feminist bookstore, but its boldness impressed most critics. It was published in the U.S., with limited success, under the title of Bring Down the Sun.

Betty Lambert fought a six-month battle with cancer in 1983. “In the manner of her death,” recalls friend and actor Joy Coghill, “she was absolutely extraordinary. It was one of her greatest gifts to us.” Cancer of the lung was spreading through her body. Lambert persevered against the disease and dismissed suicide on rational, philosophical and moral grounds. She continued to write, frustrated by lack of time but also impressed with the urgency that the immediate prospect of death brought to her work. “I have so much to do and no time to die,” she wrote to Coghill. She composed her own memorial service, including her favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” to celebrate life. On August 9th, she completed her final play, Under the Skin. Jenny's Story and Under the Skin were republished (Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1990).

In her final days, blind and unable to speak, she enjoyed playing Trivial Pursuit with her sister, Dorothy Beavington. Beavington recalls, “On the night she died she indicated she wanted her yellow writing pad and her pen. She wrote, with much effort, ‘Dot, one last trivia question.’ I asked Betty if she wanted me to ask her a question and she vigorously pointed to her own chest to indicate she was definitely asking me. Then she wrote, ‘What is the final demand in life?’ I said I didn’t know but I was sure that she did. She nodded. Then she slowly wrote her answer, which was, ‘More and more and more nostalgia.’”

Lambert was remembered by her colleagues and friends at a Simon Fraser University memorial service on November 21st, 1983, following her death on Novenmber 4, 1983 in Burnaby. SFU subsequently established a playwriting award for SFU students in her honour. Lambert was the subject of an interview conducted by Bonnie Worthington fore a special issue of Room of One's Own devoted women and theatre, edited by Eleanor Wachtel.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Theatre" "Fiction"

A Tribute to Betty Lambert

Betty Lambert, 1933-1983

Betty Lambert was a Canadian writer with a distinctive voice that spoke through her seventy-five diverse plays and her only novel, Crossings, in a way that once heard could not be easily forgotten. She was once called by a reviewer the “Margaret Laurence of Vancouver” but of course she was really the Betty Lambert of Vancouver. Her vision was her own.

Betty was born in Calgary in 1933. She was from a working-class prairie family and, growing up during the depression, she became aware of social injustices early. She decided as a child that she wanted to be a writer and sold her first poem at thirteen for two dollars. She wrote, “My father died when I was twelve and I was no longer working class, I was welfare class, and I was determined to get out of that class. Writing was a way out but soon it became more than that, it became a necessity.”

At sixteen Betty became a committed socialist and much of her work deals with the social inequities of the time. Through her life Betty often described herself as an angry woman—and she was. Angry at the moral and social injustice she saw in the world. She used her anger to shape her art, to say what she felt she had to say.

When she was eighteen Betty moved to Vancouver to attend UBC. She continued to write. By the age of twenty-two she was writing radio plays for CBC. Betty’s early plays for radio are powerful but limited in scope. They deal with small worlds and people with small lives. As Betty grew and began to change her plays began to reflect this growth. She began writing children’s plays, with great success. Her best known play for children is The Riddle Machine, which was performed at Expo in 1967, went on a Canadian tour and was produced in the States.

She soon began writing television plays dealing with larger issues and more controversial ones such as rape and abortion. She had always been aware of a chauvinist attitude within the theatre towards women as writers. When she was in her early twenties she was told by her male director not to think about the message in her writing. He told her, “You’re a diamond in the rough, you have intuition. Don’t worry about the philosophical meanings in your plays.” Shortly before her death in 1983 Betty said, “I took his advice and got the dialogue and characterization down but not the implications. It took me a long time to stand behind not only what I was saying but also to say it very carefully.”

She worked very hard at learning to say what she had to say very carefully. Her ear for dialogue was incredible. There is a Chekhovian element to her dialogue. You are acutely aware not only of what her characters say to each other but of what they don’t say. You are also aware of the silences, the spaces between the spoken words.

In her late twenties Betty became involved in feminist issues and although she never saw herself as a feminist writer she began to write more of issues concerning women. Her own struggle as a woman writer in the male-dominated world of theatre she described in ironic terms on a CBC interview. She said “my own experience has not been that there is any overt societal problem about being a woman writer, the problems are rather internal, in how one perceives one’s self. I remember one TV play I wrote about the miners strike in the early 1900s in Nanaimo and how pleased I was that someone said after 'You wrote that? God, that could have been written by a man.' How do you fight, as someone said, when the enemy has outposts in your own mind?”

But of course Betty did fight. She had a growing sense of her own power, her own view of the world, and this becomes evident through the plays she wrote during her thirties and forties. First came the stage comedies. Her best known was Sqrieux-de-Dieu, which was highly successful and dealt with life, love, sex and human relationships in a devastatingly witty manner. In Clouds of Glory, she turned her comic insights to academics. She had observed the Simon Fraser University scene since she began teaching there in 1965 and the result was a hilarious but deep-reaching comedy of the foibles of academia.

In the eighteen years that Betty taught at SFU she was remembered most as a teacher of incredible wit, knowledge and generosity. Despite a heavy workload of teaching and writing she always found time to give to her students something of her own boundless enthusiasm that went far beyond the confines of the classroom.

In 1979 her only novel, Crossings, was published. The book is set in Vancouver and is the story of Vicky, a young woman growing up in the sixties, searching for self-recognition as a writer and as a person. It is also the story of how Vicky, educated, intellectual, comes to love Mik, an uneducated and sometimes violent logger with a tattoo on his chest that says Coffee over one nipple and Cream over the other (you’re supposed to ask, Where’s the sugar?). The novel searches deep into a woman’s psyche and soul to discover why and how we love the men we do. The book caused a feminist furor. A prominent feminist bookstore in Toronto advocated buying it and an equally prominent feminist bookstore in Vancouver banned it from its shelves.

After the publication of Crossings Betty began writing her most powerful and universal plays, such as Grasshopper Hill, which won the ACTRA Nellie award in 1980 for best radio drama, and Jennie's Story, which was nominated for the Governor General’s award in 1983, for best stage play.

Grasshopper Hill was the story of a Canadian woman who has an affair with a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Their affair contrapuntally emerges with the survivor’s memories of Auschwitz and Betty weaves a powerful and compassionate story of love and evil.

In Jennie's Story Betty wrote of an incident she had heard as a child in Southern Alberta in the 1930s. Jennie is a girl of fifteen who is housekeeper to the local priest. He becomes her lover and then, unable to control his desire for her, he takes her to the mental institution at Ponoka to be sterilized. He tells her to be silent, to not answer the questions the doctors ask. Jennie, being a good little girl, does this. They decide she is mentally deficient and they sterilize her. Jennie is told she has had an appendectomy. Until 1971 it was legal in Alberta toBetty Lambert sterilize both men and women who were feeble-minded or who were thought capable of transmitting “evil” to their progeny. Seventy-five percent of those sterilized were women.

Later, married and unable to conceive, Jennie finds out the truth and the rest of the play deals with her inability to live with this terrible truth, her terrifying need for vengeance and her ultimate suicide. Although Jennie’s suicide seemed the dramatic end of the play, Betty ended the play with a life-affirming scene. Harry, Jennie’s husband, has taken a young farm girl as his wife and her out-of-wedlock child as his. Betty had to fight with her directors to keep this ending, as they saw it as redundant, but she said it must stay and stay it did. Although she showed life’s evil in her plays Betty was determined that the life force she also portrayed was never to be seen to be destroyed by life’s evil.

In February, 1983, Betty found she had lung cancer. She knew she didn’t have long to live and she said “I have so much to say, so much to write about.” She spent many of the last months of her life writing a final play, Under the Skin, which is based on an incident near Vancouver where a man kidnaps a twelve-year-old girl and keeps her captive for six months while he sexually abuses her. In the play we never see the little girl, but only her mother, the kidnapper (a neighbour) and his wife, who is the mother’s close friend. It is a fascinating study of these three characters and the slow realization by the wife of what her husband has done.

Betty’s plays have a strong theme of moral and social injustice. Her roots as a prairie girl during the depression and her early dedication to socialism later grew to produce the powerful plays for which she became known. Her concerns with injustice to men, as well as women, appear as biting ironic wit in her comedies and as a profound sense of evil and deep compassion in her tragedies.

Betty never lived to see her final play, Under the Skin, produced. She died on November 4th, 1983, writing until almost the end. Just before her death, blind from three brain tumours, unable to speak because of pneumonia, she wrote on her yellow pad, laboriously, letter by letter, “I want to write.”

Before she died Betty wrote her own memorial service. She asked that it be a celebration, and it was. On November 22nd, 1983, people who loved her gathered together to celebrate her life—as a remarkable woman and as a remarkable writer.

Written by Dorothy Beavington (Betty Lambert's sister, August 8th, 1985

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Clouds of Glory
1979 (production date)
Dressing Up
The Good of the Sun
Jennie's Story
The Pirates and the Gypsies
The Riddle Machine
Song of the Serpent
Turtle Beach (The Foolish Virgin)
Under the Skin
The Visitor
World, World, Go Away


All in Good Time
And Bacon for Breakfast
And When the Nights are Long
The Annuity
The Best Room in the House
broadcast dec/1959
The Bequest (To Reach an Understanding)
The Dark Corner
broadcast 7/mar/1960
Death Watch
broadcast 28/sep/1959
The Devil's Disciple (by G.B. Shaw, adapted by BL)
broadcast 25/jun/1966
Dr. MacGregor and the Case of the Abominable Snowman
Dr. MacGregor and the Case of the Constant Suicide
broadcast 14/nov/1960
Dr. MacGregor and the Case of the Curious Bone
broadcast 28/aug/1961
Dr. MacGregor and the Case of the Persistent Poltergeist
broadcast 11/aug/1963
The Doctor's Dilemma (by G.B. Shaw, adapted by BL)
broadcast 25/mar/1962
The Encircling Island
Falconer's Island
broadcast 9/mar/1966
Grasshopper Hill
broadcast mar/1979
Hamlet, Revenge! (by Michael Innes, adapted by BL)
broadcast 23/jan/19??
In the Name of Progress
King of the Castle
The Ladies
The Lady Upstairs
Once Burnt, Twice Shy
broadcast 18/jul/1965
The Portrait of a Lady (by Henry James, adapted by BL)
broadcast 1/mar/1966
The Rebel
The Seagull (by Anton Chekov, adapted by BL)
broadcast 22/may/1960
The Sea Wall
broadcast 29/jan/1961
The Summer People
broadcast 24/may/1961
The Three Sisters (by Anton Chekov, adapted by BL)
broadcast 27/jul/1963
A Time of Rejoicing
The Visitor (radio version of stage play)
Whoever Murdered Good Old Charlie?


The Apartment "Nobody Knows I'm Here"
telecast 6/Jan/1976
The Closet
The Human Element
The Infinite Worlds of Maybe (by Lester Del Ray, adapted by BL)
Lilacs and Lillies
No Love Lost
Prescription for Love
Return of a Hero
production 8/Dec/1960
Tumult with Indians
When the Bough Breaks
telecast 13/Apr/1971

Keep it in the Family
Pointing the Bone (only half-completed)
The Victim
Victorian Era


Banff School
Bending Sickle
Black Gold
Blue Chow
The Black Nightgown
Cinderella Man
Dance of the Moon
Don't Bring Him in the House*
The Dream
French Seams
The Guest Room Curtains
The Hen Who Forgot How to Hatch Her Eggs
How We Married Mother
Just a Little Game
Kiss Googie Winthrop
Last Dinner
Lollypalooza and Jim Molockee
No Love Lost
No Yesterdays
Nobody Knows I'm Here
The Personal Column
The Pony
Prairie Fire*
Pronounce it Ay to Ryhme
The Rebel
So Much More
A Story!
The Strange, the Foreign Faces*
Swiss Cottage
That Mrs. Benton (as "C. Thomas")
Them as Has Pride**
This Side of Tomorrow
The University Life*
The Unloved
The Victory
The Wasted Years
Winter Never Comes
A Woman in Love

*Written for English 401 at UBC, taught by Earle Birney.

**Written for English 409 at UBC, taught by Earle Birney.