Michel Tremblay Tremblay, Michel (Vol. 102) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michel Tremblay 1942–

French Canadian dramatist, novelist, screenwriter, autobiographer, librettist, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Tremblay's career through 1990. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 29.

Acknowledged as one of the most important playwrights of French Canada, Tremblay has achieved international recognition for the power and originality of his dramatic art. Most of his plays use the impoverished popular speech of urban Quebec, or joual, as their dramatic idiom, and they are mainly set in the narrow world of Montreal's working-class slums. His best-known play, Les Belles-soeurs (1968), is considered a landmark production that initiated the transition from "French Canadian" to genuine "québécois" theater. An innovator in language and dramatic technique, Tremblay also has written several novels featuring autobiographical elements and connections to the characters and situations of his plays. In addition, he has produced two musical comedies, a historical opera, several screenplays, and translations and adaptations of other dramatists' plays, ranging from Aristophanes to Anton Chekhov. As Leonard E. Doucette remarked: "Prolific and versatile, [Tremblay] continues to voice the frustrations and the aspirations of his native Quebec even as he formulates a universal human search for values in an apparently inhumane world."

Biographical Information

Born June 25, 1942, Tremblay was raised on Rue Fabre in the "Plateau Mont-Royal" section of east Montreal. He won a scholarship to a collège classique, but left after three months and enrolled at the Institut des Arts Graphiques, where he studied graphic arts and, like his father, became a linotype operator. Tremblay's first play, Le Train (1964), won first prize in the young amateurs contest of Radio-Canada, and he published his first fiction, the short story collection Contes pour buveurs attardés (Stories for Late Night Drinkers) in 1966. With the popular success of Les Belles-soeurs Tremblay established his theatrical career and reputation, which enabled him to devote himself to writing full-time. Tremblay continued with a group of plays collectively known as "Les Cycle des Belles-soeurs," which concluded with Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra (1977). After this play-cycle, Tremblay directed his attention to a series of novels collectively known as "Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal," including Le Premier quartier de la lune (1989; The First Quarter of the Moon). Tremblay also produced several independent works, most notably the plays L'Impromptu d'Outremont (1980; The Impromptu of Outremont), which satirizes bourgeois cultural values, Les Anciennes Odeurs (1981; Remember Me), a psychological study of a homosexual couple, and Albertine in cinq temps (1984; Albertine in Five Times), a technical masterpiece focusing on one character in dialogue with herself at different ages; the opera NELLIGAN (1990); and the autobiographical sketches and fiction of Les Vues animées (1990). Throughout his career, Tremblay has received numerous literary awards and academic honors, and many of his plays have been staged in the United States, Europe, Japan, and New Zealand.

Major Works

Tremblay's work blends psychological realism, structural experimentation, and political expression. "Les Cycle des Belles-soeurs" is comprised of the plays Les Belles-soeurs, En Pièces détachées (1969; Like Death Warmed Over), La Duchesse de Langeais (1970), À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou (1971; Forever Yours, Marie-Lou), Hosanna (1973), Bonjour, là, bonjour (1974), Sainte-Carmen de la Main (1976; Saint Carmen of the Main), and Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra, and well as the plays Berthe, Johnny Mangano and His Astonishing Dogs, and Gloria Star, published collectively as Cinq in 1966. Peopled by social misfits, transvestites, and homosexuals, each play presents a different aspect of life in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal district, a milieu of economic and social despair centered around two distinct areas—the residential Rue Fabre and the red-light district known as The Main. Les Belles-soeurs centers on Germaine, who has won a million trading stamps in a contest. As a group of neighborhood women gather in Germaine's squalid flat to help her paste them into booklets for redemption, each woman reflects on her frustrations. In the end Germaine's neighbors steal every booklet, leaving Germaine more desperate than ever. Some of the other plays in Tremblay's dramatic cycle portray similar domestic tragedies on Rue Fabre, including Bonjour, là, bonjour, which examines a father-son relationship; Like Death Warmed Over, which focuses on the children of Robertine, alcoholic Thérèse and insane Marcel; and Forever Yours, Marie-Lou, which presents a harsh portrait of family life in impoverished Montreal. The rest of the plays in the cycle feature disillusioned characters who have left Rue Fabre for further disappointment as drag queens, prostitutes, and homosexuals on The Main. La Duchesse de Langeais depicts a deluded transvestite prostitute rejected by a young client she loves, and Hosanna centers on a crisis in the relationship between a drag queen and "her" male lover. The children of Forever Yours, Marie-Lou assume the title roles in Tremblay's last plays in the cycle, Saint Carmen of the Main, in which Carmen is murdered for trying to free her transvestite and prostitute friends, and Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra, which juxtaposes the religious ecstasy sought by Manon with the sexual cravings of "Sandra," a male transvestite. The novels of "Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal"—comprised of La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte (1978; The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant), Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Agnes (1980; Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel), La Duchesse et le roturier (1982), Des Nouvelles d'Édouard (1984), Le Cœur découvert, roman d'amours (1986; The Heart Laid Bare: Making Room), and The First Quarter of the Moon—serve as complements to Tremblay's dramatic cycle, providing a social and familial context for central characters in the plays and fleshing out minor characters.

Critical Reception

Regarded as the leading playwright of Quebec, Tremblay has been admired for his innovative and provocative dramas. Although initial criticism of Les Belles-soeurs interpreted the play principally as a political statement, it has since become a "classic" of québécois literature, considered the most original play composed in Quebec, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Critics often have discussed Les Belles-soeurs in the context of Quebec's cultural "Quiet Revolution," analyzing the profound influence exerted on the movement by Tremblay's drama. Catherine McQuaid has observed that Tremblay "contributed to a general movement out of colonial, into a tribal Canadian theatre." Both critics and readers have generally hailed his novels, especially The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, but subsequent novels in the series have been less well received. Nonetheless, commentators have "[connected] the ethos of the plays with the world views attributed to the characters in the novels who are associated with the dramatic protagonists, even if these characters do not appear in the plays," as Pierre Gobin remarked. "Tremblay's works … [refuse] to sever [their] ties with the community in the name of an apprehension of others, however precise, in which the collective experience of the community plays no part," Bruce Serafin concluded. "And it is precisely because they do justice to this experience that Tremblay's works occupy a special place in Quebec literature."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Train (drama) 1964
Messe Noir (drama) 1965
Cinq (dramas) 1966; adapted for television as Trois Petits tours
Contes pour buveurs attardés [Stories for Late Night Drinkers] (short stories) 1966
Les Belles-soeurs (drama) 1968
La Cité dans l'œuf (novel) 1969
C't'à ton tour, Laura Cadieux (novel) 1969
En Pièces détachées [Like Death Warmed Over] (drama) 1969
La Duchesse de Langeais (drama) 1970
À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou [Forever Yours, Marie-Lou] (drama) 1971
Demain Matin Montréal m'attend (drama) 1972
Hosanna (drama) 1973
Il était une fois dans l'est [with André Brassard] (screenplay) 1973
Bonjour, là, bonjour (drama) 1974
Les Héros de mon enfance (drama) 1975
Surprise! Surprise! (drama) 1975
La Duchesse de Langeais and Other Plays (dramas) 1976
Parlez-Vous d'amour (screenplay) 1976
Sainte-Carmen de la Main [Saint Carmen of the Main] (drama) 1976
Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra (drama) 1977
Le Soleil se lève en retard (screenplay) 1977
§La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte [The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant] (novel) 1978
L'Impromptu d'Outremont [The Impromptu of Outremont] (drama) 1980
§Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Agnes [Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel] (novel) 1980
Les Anciennes Odeurs [Remember Me] (drama) 1981
Les Grandes Vacances (drama) 1981
§La Duchesse et le roturier (novel) 1982
Albertine in cinq temps [Albertine in Five Times] (drama) 1984
§Des Nouvelles d'Édouard (novel) 1984
Le Cœur découvert (screenplay) 1986
§Le Cœur découvert, roman d'amours [The Heart Laid Bare; Making Room] (novel) 1986
Le Vrai Monde? [The Real World?] (drama) 1987
Le Grand Jour (screenplay) 1988
§Le Premier quartier de la lune [The First Quarter of the Moon] (novel) 1989
La Maison suspendue (drama) 1990
NELLIGAN: livret d'opéra (libretto) 1990
§§Les Vues animées (autobiography, novella and drama) 1990
Le Vrai Monde? (screenplay) 1991

∗This volume contains the plays Berthe, Johnny Mangano and His Astonishing Dogs, and Gloria Star, and is part of "Les Cycle des Belles-soeurs."

†These works comprise "Les Cycle des Belles-soeurs."

‡This volume includes Cinq, En Pieces détachées, La Duchesse de Langeais, and Surprise! Surprise!

§These works comprise "Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal."

§§This volume features autobiographical sketches, the novella Les Loups se managent entre eux, and the play Le Train.

Catherine McQuaid (essay date Fall 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Michel Tremblay's Seduction of the 'Other Solitude,'" in Canadian Drama, Fall, 1976, pp. 217-23.

[In the following essay, McQuaid explains Tremblay's success in English Canada by examining the social concerns, "highly" theatrical nature, and indigenous québécois qualities of his plays.]

In 1970, anglophone Canadians suddenly learned that the québécois were serious about conserving their heritage and that meant more than the old sections of Montréal and Québec city. Two years later, the Tarragon theatre produced A Toi Pour Toujours, ta Marie-Lou, to be followed by Hosanna and Les Belles Soeurs in 1974. We all read the critics and...

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Bruce Serafin (essay date Summer 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Five Short Plays by Tremblay," in Essays on Canadian Writing, Summer, 1978, pp. 248-59.

[In the essay below, Serafin discusses how Tremblay's use of language affects the theatricality, characterization, humor, and dialogue of the five plays comprising La Duchesse de Langeais, and Other Plays.]

In her story "Copenhagen Season" Isak Dinesen tells of an artist who was "feted in society, but feared as well, because he would at times sit without saying a word, taking in the face and figure of a lady until she felt that she had no clothes on, and at other times, when once set upon a theme, would go on talking forever." Nothing could be more appropriate than the fact...

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Pierre Gobin (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Michel Tremblay: An Interweave of Prose and Drama," translated by Richard Deshaies, in Yale French Studies, No. 65, 1983, pp. 106-23.

[In the following essay, Gobin elucidates the relationship between the plays and the novels in the series "Le Cycle des Belles-soeurs" and "Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal," stressing that "it is only by coming to know the plays that one can have an idea of what is being woven in the novels."]

Although still young—he was born in 1942—the Montréalais writer Michel Tremblay has already produced a considerable amount of work: a dozen or more original plays have been staged; four novels, a work of science fiction,...

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Jane Moss (review date Winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "School Days," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 103, Winter, 1984, pp. 123-25.

[In the favorable review below, Moss summarizes the plot and themes of Thérèse et Pierrette.]

Shelia Fischman has performed another valuable service for Anglophones in translating Michel Tremblay's 1980 novel, Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges. Best known as the playwright who revolutionized Quebec theatre by using joual in Les Belles Soeurs (1968), Tremblay has since 1978 devoted himself to the Balzacian task of re-creating Montreal in the 1940's in his "Chroniques du Plateau Mont Royal." Tremblay's Montreal is a personalized fictional world in which...

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Volker Strunk (review date January-February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sins of the Father," in Books in Canada, Vol. 15, No. 1, January-February, 1986, pp. 20-2.

[In the following review, Strunk finds Remember Me "a fine monodramatic miniature."]

[Remember Me is the translation] of Michel Tremblay's Les Anciennes Odeurs (1981), a one-act piece that explores the anxieties of two homosexual but not very gay ex-lovers ambushed by their mid-life crisis and the growing suspicion of their mediocrity. The mode is, or appears to be, relentlessly confessional: if it weren't for the pregnant silences that would have done Harold Pinter proud, the two figures would have talked themselves to death. Visually highlighting...

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Catherine A. Paul (review date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Albertine in Five Times, in Queen's Quarterly. Vol. 95, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 967-68.

[In the following review, Paul comments on Tremblay's critique of patriarchy in Albertine in Five Times.]

The chief difficulty in translating [Albertine in Five Times], originally published in French in 1984, stems from the fact that Tremblay's play was written in joual. Thus, much of the colourful charm and poetic forcefulness of the language is lost in the English translation. Although disappointing, this departure from the original text may have been unavoidable. In the Canadian context, it would certainly have been problematic (but not...

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Eva-Marie Kroller (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Le Premier quartier de la lune, in Canadian Literature, Vol. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 229-30.

[In the favorable review below, Kroller relates the plot of Le Premier quartier de la lune.]

Le Premier quartier de la lune concludes Tremblay's five-volume "Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal," a monumental achievement which sustains the imagination and historical sweep initiated by La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte from beginning to end. The cover of Le Premier Quartier is adorned by a child's drawing of a cat, smiling craftily like the Cheshire Cat. The similarity with Lewis Carroll's feline is not accidental; Marcel, who...

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Kathy Mezei (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE; "Poet's Dilemma," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 135, Winter, 1992, pp. 130-31.

[In the review below, Mezei faults Tremblay's "clicked and tainted" libretto for NELLIGAN, finding that his "lines do not rise to his usual exuberant eloquence."]

There is no doubt that Emile Nelligan, Québec's "national poet," has not loosened his hold on the Québec imagination. As I write this review, a major commemorative conference, "Colloque Nelligan: 50 ans après sa mort" is taking place in Ottawa. It will culminate in the launching of "l'édition critique de l'oeuvre nelliganienne."

Nelligan's poems, which are unquestionably evocative and moving,...

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Renate Usmiani (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bingocentric Worlds of Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway, Les Belles-Soeurs vs. The Rez Sisters," in Canadian Literature, Vol. 144, Spring, 1995, pp. 126-40.

[In the following essay, Usmiani compares Les Belles-soeurs to Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters, demonstrating how both plays parallel aspects of postmodern theater but express a different spirit.]

The emergent theatre of Native peoples offers theatre scholars and historians a unique opportunity to observe the fusion of cultures in the making. While contemporary postmodern theatre represents just one more link in a long chain of historical evolution that goes back two and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Fogel, Melanie. Review of The Heart Laid Bare. CM XVIII, No. 1 (January 1990): 27-28.

Suggests that "superlatives to describe Tremblay's work were exhausted a long time ago. Let's just say that with The Heart Laid Bare he lives up to his reputation."

Freeman, Mark. "Affairs that Start Out All Wrong." Lambda Book Report 2 (September, 1991): 29.

Admires Making Room, claiming that "we haven't heard such truth in much gay fiction."

Johnson, Ann. Review of Hosanna and La Maison suspendue. Books in Canada...

(The entire section is 463 words.)