Michel Tremblay Essay - Critical Essays


Antecedents in the history of dramatic literature help to characterize the plays of Michel Tremblay. The playwright himself cites as most influential the ancient Greek tragedians on one hand and Samuel Beckett on the other. The influence of the ancient playwrights shows itself most notably in Tremblay’s repeated use of choruses and in the rhythmic precision of his work. Indeed, much of his theatrical power stems from a native musical sensibility that informs the structure of his plays. Like the Greeks, Tremblay writes dramatic pieces that operate, at least in part, as rhythmic scores for performance; his plays abound with overlapping voices and interwoven monologues, and possess a rhythm so peculiar to the language and intonations of the Québécois that there is often as much power in how his characters speak as there is in what they say.

Beckett’s influence on Tremblay manifests itself in the specific context in which Tremblay places his characters and in the way those characters grapple with the struggles of life. Tremblay celebrates the notion that, despite the seeming despair of Beckett’s figures, there is a beauty in their struggle to face and accept their lives: “I never read or see a Beckett play without experiencing a lift.” His appreciation of Beckett is significant; although Tremblay’s characters seem trapped in the underbelly of culture, in seedy nightclubs, confined apartments, in a world of whores, pimps, and transvestites, or trapped even in their own social roles and family relationships, still there is a sense of uplift in their struggles and in the courage they find in themselves.

Les Belles-surs

Stylistically, Tremblay’s dramas are eclectic, not only when looked at as a body of work, but also within single plays. In Les Belles-surs, for example, he creates a realistic setting, utilizes realistic dialogue, and then counters that realism with stylized elements reminiscent of the Theater of the Absurd. The premise of the play is simple: Fifteen women of the neighborhood gather to help Germaine Lauzon paste a million Blue Chip stamps in booklets for a contest she has won. The women of the title (“the sisters-in-law” or “the beautiful sisters,” an ambiguity in French that accounts for the original title maintained in translation) gossip as they paste. When Germaine is not looking, however, the women secretly steal the stamps. This ostensible, realistic line of the story unfolds in a dynamic relationship with stylized, isolated monologues spoken by the women to express the more honest, individual problems of their miserable, trapped lives: Marriage, family, and sex—the basis of their worlds—have achieved a level of banality that seems to reduce all of life to sheer endurance.

Perhaps the clearest example of the juxtaposition of styles comes at the end of the play. Germaine discovers the thieves, throws them out of her home, and feels a profound sense of loneliness and isolation. She falls to her knees to pick up the stamps that scattered on the floor during the chaos of discovering the theft. At that moment, Tremblay breaks out of the realistic structure once again. From off stage the women begin to sing a chorus of “O Canada,” while simultaneously a rain of stamps falls from the ceiling. The stylized “shower” of prosperity is parallel to Germaine’s windfall of stamps at the beginning of the play. Yet the playwright creates his final image as a self-consciously artificial construct, an image that contrasts with the conventionally realistic form used at the outset. Like a Euripidean deus ex machina, Tremblay’s rain of stamps is a theatrical joke; humanity is in turmoil and has reached an impasse within the realistic conventions of the play. The playwright’s ending undercuts that impasse, however, and, with a broad satirical gesture, he clarifies the source of the problem itself; the values of the Canadian middle class have their price.

The Family Cycle

The body of Tremblay’s dramatic work possesses a remarkable consistency both in theme and in focus. His dramatis personae are the underprivileged, the people on the fringe of society, people who live in disguise. His plays also have a striking similarity of context; indeed, in the bulk of his work, he examines two specific worlds. On one hand, he looks at the family, at the home, and at the nature of the individual within the family construct. On the other hand, he looks to a horrifying world external to the family: the world of the Main in Montreal, with its host of transvestites, whores, and pimps, all set against a backdrop of “gambling joints, cabarets, lights and noise.” In the words of André Brassard, “The Main is the Kingdom of the marginals . . . the underprivileged and forgotten part of the proletariat . . . the underlayer of society.” The Tremblay opus can thus be examined to a large degree in two major cycles: the family cycle and the Main cycle. The two worlds do intersect at points, creating a potent juxtaposition. Indeed, when considered as a whole, Tremblay’s work is interesting not only because of his investigation into these two separate worlds but also because of his ability to show how those worlds mirror each other. In effect, the two cycles intersect to illuminate the “family” of the Main and the “underbelly” of the home.

Like Death Warmed Over

Like Death Warmed Over, the first play of the family cycle, was actually written, in its original version, before Les Belles-surs but published and performed at a later date. It unfolds in four loosely connected episodes. The play begins in the inner courtyard of an east-end Montreal tenement on a sweltering summer afternoon. For the chorus of neighbors, the single point of interest is the window across the way—the home of Robertine, her daughter Hélène, Hélène’s husband, Henri, and their daughter Francine. The neighbors are fascinated with the peculiar and unsavory domestic battles in Robertine’s home. They offer a detailed description of the troubled family and its history as they wait for Hélène to come home, for the “show” of the evening to begin.

The middle two episodes tell the story of Hélène, how she spends her time slinging smoked meat in a cheap restaurant on Papineau Street after having lost her job in a bar on the Main. She gets drunk, returns to the bar, only to have the frustrations of her life become that much more glaring as she confronts the figures of her past. The final episode takes place back in Robertine’s living room. Hélène comes home, verbally abuses Henri (who spends all of his time watching cartoons on television) and Robertine, and gives the neighbors the “show” for which they have waited. Toward the end, Claude, the retarded brother, returns home for a visit after escaping from his sanatorium. He wears “sunglasses and speaks English” and believes that doing so gives him ultimate power: It makes him invisible. In Tremblay’s world, the madman overturns his alienation to make it an illusory source of strength. Claude’s presence thus provides a sharp contrast to the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness among the other members of the family. Typically, the play ends in a series of stylized monologues in which the family members express their despair. They repeat a refrain in unison during this final section, a refrain that sums up their despondency and languor: “There’s not a goddamn thing I can do.”

Forever Yours, Marie-Lou

Although Like Death Warmed Over is a play about failure and ultimate despair in family relationships, Tremblay’s next play in the family cycle, Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, presents the attempt of two sisters, Carmen and Manon, to find refuge from the traumas of family life. In this play, two conversations transpire simultaneously, one between Marie-Louise and her husband, Leopold, and the other between their daughters Carmen and Manon. The two conversations take place in the family home, but ten years apart. Carmen and Manon (in the 1970’s) recall the past, ten years earlier, when their parents and younger brother Roger died in a car accident. Manon, a religious zealot, believes her father Leopold was responsible for the accident, an act of suicide and filial murder. Carmen denies this account, although her rejection is undermined when Leopold (in the action of the 1960’s) threatens Marie-Louise with that very scenario.

Structurally, the play is a quartet of interweaving voices as each level of action comments on the other through a powerful theatrical juxtaposition. Each character has complaints about the others, each feels abused, each feels as if life has dealt him or her an unfair blow. In the turbulence of the marriage, Marie-Louise turns to religion and Leopold to his drinking and television. The daughters, too, have their share of trouble, not only as products of their repressive and abusive home but also as individuals who must cope with the tragic past. Carmen has turned to the Main and to singing in cabarets. Manon has, on the other hand, withdrawn entirely into a lonely life of religious fanaticism. The two women have clearly gone in opposite directions, but it is evident that they are both striving to find shelter from the traumas of the family.

While Marie-Louise and Manon hide in an existence of religious repression, and Leopold in an escape into alcohol and boredom that finally erupts in the violence of murder and suicide, Carmen achieves a degree of liberation from her repressive past. This is evident only when one realizes that the core of Tremblay’s play is the collision of real human needs with the religious and social constructs that make the fulfillment of those needs impossible. That Carmen turns to the Main is perhaps only a limited alternative, another subculture with its own restrictions. Yet, within the context of the play, Carmen’s choice is the most fruitful; she has at least discovered a part of herself that opens the way toward personal creativity. This notion is the center of the play in which she next appears: Saint Carmen of the Main, a play in which issues of the family and the Main intersect in a subtle but provocative way.

Saint Carmen of the Main

In this later play, Carmen is returning from a stay in Nashville, where she has been sent to improve her yodeling technique; the play opens with the chorus (the people of the Main) celebrating her return. Indeed, her education away from the Main was more than simply a time to improve technique: Carmen comes back as a leader of the people, as their voice; it is a voice expressed through her new lyrics and songs that relate directly to the concerns of the community. Carmen’s journey from repression to release is a model of realized human potential and gives her strength to speak for others. Despite the ecstasy of the people over their newfound leader, however, Carmen must face her antagonists: the cabaret owner Maurice, who wants her to sing the “old songs,” and Carmen’s rival, Gloria, who fights for her “rightful place.” When he challenges Carmen, Maurice articulates the political question of the play, a question that perhaps haunts the playwright himself: “All right. Let’s say they take our advice. Let’s say they smarten up, they wake up and they get mad. Then what? It’s fine to wake people up,...

(The entire section is 4665 words.)