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."
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.
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.
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."