Michel Tremblay

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Catherine McQuaid (essay date Fall 1976)

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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 noted that Tremblay was daring to write in "joual", so we sought out the French scripts, if we considered ourselves competent in the language. However, most of us were not familiar enough with a Montréal accent to comprehend Tremblay's notation of the celebrated "joual", so we reverted to English.

The critics also told us that Tremblay borrowed theatrical techniques from Brecht, Tennessee Williams and Beckett. We nodded approvingly, because, after all, we were still suffering from colonial inferiority complexes.

So, we went to the Tarragon to see this new wonder who came from that unknown land, and who came so highly recommended. Once in the theatre, we no longer had the impression that we were watching something foreign to us. We were gripped by our mores—Puritan, if you please, as opposed to Jansenist, which shows how similar the two codes are. We were shown realistic/theatrical characters, we heard outraged demands for change. It was only when we were released from an immediate emotional response to Tremblay, that we fit his play back into its original Eastern Montréal context.

Tremblay has had an historical advantage, writing when he did, because Québec's demands for cultural autonomy served as an example for wavering self-determinating efforts in English Canada. That is not to discredit him, merely to say that he chrystalized similar concerns in both cultures. He portrayed characters who were struggling with the same things many Canadians were—poverty, inferiority complexes vis-à-vis Europeans, alienation, especially among women in urban settings, restrictive moral codes inherited from an even more rigid age. Things were changing rapidly socially and when we were confronted with these problems in the theatre, they had a great impact. Thus, Tremblay served as an emissary between the "two solitudes" and demonstrated, inadvertently, that we were struggling with similar problems.

Evocative theatrical techniques also helped to bridge that gap. Excluding their social implications, Tremblay's creations are compelling. Yet, once again, what Tremblay does so well—demystification of the theatre was starting to happen to English Canada. Especially at the Tarragon theatre, James Reaney, for instance, was using homely objects and regional accents, to reduce the sacred nature of theatre which has always existed.

Along with demystification, Tremblay's plays have a tribal unity, both in form within each of the plays and as an entire body of works. Many of the characters re-appear, as is well demonstrated in Il était une fois dans l'ést, the film presentation of the Tremblay/Brassard world.

So, there are three factors which aided Tremblay to succeed in English Canada: social concerns, in which English Canadians were implicated, the highly theatrical nature of each play and a simultaneous movement in both cultures, out of colonial, into indigenous (or tribal) theatre. An examination of Tremblay's texts will serve as an elaboration of these points.

English Canadians are implicated in the social problems which are dealt with. Essentially, the three plays produced at the Tarragon, concern women in revolt. The feminist movement had been getting a lot of publicity,...

(This entire section contains 2356 words.)

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it is true, but, more important, women's roles were being re-evaluated, by both men and women. Tremblay's women question their responsibilities, but within a context which is far enough removed from the comfortable housewife/part-time career women of most English Canadian women who go to the theatre, to avoid making us feel uncomfortable.

Tremblay's women are literally enclosed in the house, with their still-large families. Large families are a cultural phenomenon associated with Québec. Yet, neither the children nor the neglectful husbands are shown on-stage, so the criticism is not to be directed at them, but at the women themselves. The women in Les Belles Soeurs and Marie Louise, notate the repetitive drudgery of their lives. Each has her own way of escape: accusing her husband of ruining her life, as Marie-Louise does; dreaming of how to "spend" her stamps, for Germaine Lauzon, and alcohol for Hélène, in En Pièces Détachées.

The women are alone in the house and within this theatrically, as well as literally limited space, they are forced into confrontation with each other. Tremblay's most brutal metaphor for spiteful, despairing women, is the Gold Bond Stamp party in Les Belles Soeurs. A party turns into a manifestation of jealousy and cruelty. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf uses the same vehicle. The effects of a hermetic environment explode into aggression in both instances.

The women revolt against their suppressive ethical and financial environment. Marie-Louise is the most outstanding example of the generation of women for whom sexual relations were disgusting. Robertine in En Pièces Détachées and the older women in Les Belles Soeurs, belong to the same generation. Part of their disgust comes from a rigid Jansenist morality (substitute "Puritan" for English translations) and the other half of it was the risk of pregnancy. The women knew that another child meant financial hardship.

The second generation of women were actively liberating themselves from their mother's hardships. Carmen, Linda Lauzon and Hélène, are the representatives of this generation. Carmen accepts her limitations and doesn't delude herself about her career. Yet, as she says to Manon, her sister, the most important thing for her is to have reacted and to have escaped from the "marde" in which she was born.

Hélène and Linda Lauzon have not as successfully freed themselves as Carmen has, but they are trying to escape from the situations which cause their mothers so much frustration.

With both morality and financial conditions conspiring against them, the families of these women are not very happy either. There is alienation between all members of the family, as a result of no communication. They watch television or the husband spends the evening in the tavern. He is just as dissatisfied as the women are. The only two men in all of Tremblay's repertoire—Henri and Léopold—are exploited and unhappy in the factory. They have their respective avenues of escape; beer and/or compensation payments. All the other men are absent, because, as Tremblay says, "There are no men in Québec."

These problems implicate English Canadians as well. The breakdown of the family unit, labour unrest, dissatisfied women are world problems. Yet, specifically in English Canadian theatre at this time, the same problems were being treated. David French's Leaving Home had created a sensation and his main concern is also antagonism within the family. It may be considered that English Canada was even predisposed by David French, to accept Tremblay's examination of problems within a family.

However, that is not the only aspect of Tremblay which made him a success. Social comment is presented in a highly theatrical style, which is extremely compelling. This aspect of his plays needs no translation, because they are so fundamentally theatrical. Hosanna, which was successful even outside of Canadian context, is the most theatrical of all of Tremblay's works. It is a drama-within-a-drama, with Hosanna functioning on three levels—Elisabeth Taylor/Cleopatra, Hosanna and Claud; an often-neglected sense in the theatre, the sense of smell, personalizes Hosanna through her cheap, cloying perfume.

The play begins "in medias res", a dependable theatrical gambit, with Hosanna in her Cleopatra costume. From then on, the play is literally a prolonged striptease. It is a metaphorical striptease as well, paralleling the lovers' progression towards honesty. Hosanna's costumes, as well as her lover's costume of the "beau gars", is a disguise, in addition to being a borrowed theatrical personality. Thus, Hosanna is twice-removed from Cleopatra.

Tremblay uses essentially the same theatrical pretext in La Duchesse de Langeais. La Duchesse is impersonating La Grande Dame at the beginning of the play. She speaks directly to the audience, addressing us as "ma fille". A dramatic monologue has to be a delicate balance between dramatic impersonation and sympathetic honesty with the audience. That is where la Duchesse succeeds. She gives us a magnanimous mental striptease, yet still retains a fundamental dignity.

En Pièces Détachées is an example of another style which Tremblay uses, which is the statuesque, borrowed from Greek drama. The characters seldom speak to each other and they are very static visually on the stage. The same quality of the statuesque is found in Marie-Lou, Les Belles Soeurs and Bonjour Là, Bonjour, but En Pièces Détachées is a refinement of this style.

Within the reduced realism of the set, which allows free movement, Robertine and Henri remain static. Around them moves Hélène, sometimes drunkenly. The neighbour functions as a Chorus, leading the characters in the family in their chant "Chus pus capable de rien faire", "I am no longer able to do anything". All of the characters are literally immobile at the conclusion of the play.

There is very little action on the stage in any of Tremblay's plays. This is a stage metaphor for the theme of this play—entrapment, whether physical or psychological. It may be an interesting technique for experienced theatre audiences, but why was Les Belles Soeurs, for instance, such a success with drama departments in universities?

Tremblay had dared to use the language of his characters and of his environment. The language itself is a form of revolt, even within Québec theatre. In good English translation, the violence of Tremblay's language is conveyed. Therefore, it is only at the verbal level which his theatre could be called a "theatre of revolt". English Canadians were just beginning to talk about anti-americanism and nationalism, with residue sentiment sparked by Expo '67. They were, however, very curious to see Québec in the theatre, since visiting Québec is always so charming.

Tremblay did not portray the habitant and folk characters, which, until this time, was the image perpetuated by the bonhomme and ceintures fléchées of the Québec Winter Carnival. No, Québec and the theatrical experience in general was undergoing demystification. It was startling to realize that québécois were suffering from the same social problems as we were; to be shown that within families everywhere, there was alienation and non-communication.

David French's success in English Canadian theatre has already been mentioned. His theatre also dealt with the problem of the disintegrating family unit. The fact that French was a Newfoundlander who wrote good plays may have predisposed us to listen to another playwright, also from a relatively mystifying province.

In addition to a genuine desire to get to know each other as Canadians and to do away with stereotypes, there was a general movement away from colonialism in the theatre. We had seen all of Neil Simon's and Bernard Shaw's plays. Canadians want to encourage native talent. Docu-dramas and collective creations were producing a new theatrical form as well as informing Canadians of the variety of our experiences. Thus, Tremblay was fortunate to arrive at the peak of the Canadian awareness movement. That is not, however, to denigrate Tremblay, it is merely to say that he was part of the new interest in information about all things Canadian. His plays have a tribal unity which inspired and focussed Canadian nationalism within English Canada.

Many of the characters reappear, creating an impression of a tribe. La Duchesse is mentioned in En Pièces Détachées, Carmen's career is followed in Ste Carmen de la Main. There are three generations present within Tremblay's world and each generation has its specific qualities, which contribute to a sense of seeing an entire society. Like Margaret Laurence, Tremblay writes out of a microcosm which implicates all humanity.

Tribalism is manifested in another way. When Lisette de Courval in Les Belles Soeurs displays an attitude of superiority because she has visited Europe, or when Hélène in En Pièces Détachées resents the Frenchman who comes into the restaurant, a tribal reaction is elicited. A threat from the outside immediately unites a tribe.

Tremblay elicits a tribal response outside of Québec simply by virtue of being a very good playwright. "Discovered" Canadian talents always occasion a national pride. In strictly theatrical techniques, that is involved in the action on-stage through the use of chants, a ritualistic device, and the rhythmic pace of the plays. The acts in Bonjour Là, Bonjour are even designated as a vocal selection of music would indicate different groupings of singers. Duo, Trio and Quattor signal the number of actors in the scene. There is a musical quality in the hypnotic chants. Les Belles Soeurs accompany their chants with beating of feet as the québécois always do when folk music is played. Tremblay uses every theatrical trick to spellbind his audience.

It was not only the "other solitude" which Tremblay seduced. It must be remembered that Québec was also suffering from "colonialism" in the arts when Tremblay started to write. Jean-Claude Germain, in Canadian Theatre Review, Spring, 1976, uses this term specifically in his article on Québec's struggle against foreign domination in theatre. So, Tremblay's success in New York and in Paris produces a gleeful tribal pride at the reversal of this state of affairs.

Beyond an immediate reaction in the theatre, where Tremblay plays upon audience reaction as surely as any musician, he represents the first Canadian playwright to break through the language barrier of the French, even when, ironically, he writes in "joual", the most indigenous and inaccessible language of Canada. He has also contributed to a general movement out of colonial, into a tribal Canadian theatre.


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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."

Bruce Serafin (essay date Summer 1978)

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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 that Dinesen places this figure in an aristocratic milieu. After all, in what other milieu could one find individuals given to the fastidious and absorbed contemplation that this artist bestows not only on the women who catch his eye but also on the topic to which he later turns his attention? The ruminative genius has always found a refuge in the aristocracy, if not a home. And this has been so right into recent times. Proust, for example, presented a perfect copy of the type that Dinesen ironically summons up in her story. As one critic notes, Proust "alarmed his friends, who dreaded and longed for the moment when the writer would suddenly appear in their drawing rooms long after midnight—brisé de fatigue and for just five minutes, as he said—only to stay till the grey of dawn, too tired to get out of his chair or interrupt his conversation." That this behaviour was reflected in his writing is well known. Again and again, one comes across in Proust sentences that go on for interminable, exhausting lengths, so reluctant is the author to let his topic go until it blesses him. It is clear, however, that language which seeks to impulsively touch its listeners cannot afford to cling to its theme in this way. Rather, it must be playful, constantly changing, giving itself up to the most ephemeral subject. That this is so is demonstrated in the work which opens Tremblay's collection.

While La Duchesse de Langeais is a monologue, it is not a contemplative voice that we hear, but an ecstatic one. La Duchesse possesses the ecstacy of the creature; she almost literally vibrates with her awareness of herself. Talonbooks has supplied a picture of Claude Gai in the role: the jewelry, voracious mouth and brilliant eyes of this Duchesse bring to mind those habitués of Vancouver's Davie Street bars whose tight white blouses often reveal a startlingly hairy inch of belly and whose Roman-cut hair and shrill voices seem so in accord with their archly mobile faces that one can without effort imagine them as the subject of a Daumier sketch. Like these homosexuals, la Duchesse is garrulous to an extreme, talking as though she had never spent more than three minutes without companions. Her monologue has no inward quality; instead, it is stuccoed with impulsive phrases, as if at every moment she wanted to lean over and pinch an arm or kiss somebody on the lips. To be sure, this language, like a flapping coat, occasionally reveals a bright lining of pain. Nevertheless, these glimpses are far from having a sobering effect. In fact, considering the flushed and uncontrolled nature of her speech, it is surprising that it should be the delicacy which this creature brings to her reminiscences that makes them so vivid. Suffused with delight, la Duchesse harks back to an old lover:

… He used to play at being the poor suffering poet and while la Vaillancourt would tear your ticket, he'd tear your heart out! Hah! All he needed was a pair of big ears and he'd have made a perfect Gérard Philippe … Oh, what was his name?… Don't dig too deeply, hein, you'll get me all excited …

She laughs.

At your age! Tsk, tsk, tsk! You're so pretentious!

A wink, a little squeal and a wiggle of the hips.

I called him, "my lover with the brazen shaft." I don't know why. Guess I thought it sounded nice. God knows, that's the only thing about him that was the least bit hard … And I was stuck with the little pisspot for two whole months … He couldn't do a thing! Nothing! Had to show him everything! Toute!

From beginning to end! Mon Dieu, the crazy things I've done in my life. No one in Montréal has had more "aventures stupides" than me. I could tell you about them for weeks, my darlings …

Perhaps a backdrop of cherubs could do justice to this—certainly such a backdrop would be in line with la Duchesse's intoxicated, defenceless vulgarity. This vulgarity is an attribute of the purely spoken word that differentiates it from speech which has been profoundly touched by the reading of books, and since the introspective person is usually a bookworm as well, this includes all speech which ignores its audience for the sake of those interminable, enchanting sentences we mentioned before. What distinguishes it from the speech of la Duchesse is therefore easy to recognize, and why there can be no confusing the two: for those whose involvement with language begins and ends with the sentence the whole area of language that expresses the ecstacy of the creature must remain more or less inaccessible.

Actually, it is in this connection that Tremblay's use of the vernacular becomes most attractive. For that which in language is the receptacle of warmth, ecstacy, bliss—the colloquial utterance, the exclamation, the cry of creaturely abandon that completes itself not with a period but with a slap, a nudge, a kiss—is the very thing that his audience is to a perhaps predominant extent barred from expressing even while being drawn to its presence in others as if to the presence of genius. And it is indeed the genius of language which lives only to ensure communion between individuals that Tremblay has made his own in La Duchesse de Langeais. Many of the play's features—the abundant use of question marks and exclamation points, the short, utterly colloquial outbursts—flow from this fact.

There is no denying the jubilantly theatrical context in which this vernacular places itself. Not only is this the context in which la Duchesse's speech may be most fruitfully discussed, but it appears in nearly all the other of Tremblay's works as well, including the others in this collection. The innumerable uncorseted minutes in the lives of Tremblay's characters, the impulsive—one might also say, the improvised—nature of their lives and the concomitant emotional reversals and changes of fortune which again and again overcome them all go hand in hand with a tendency towards unabashed display, theatricality for the sake of theatricality. Tremblay reveals the heaven of his figures to be a theatre in which every moment can be turned into an opportunity to display oneself. And precisely this is reflected in the vernacular as in a mirror. To plan, to think ahead, to discipline oneself—essentially, this means to hold something in reserve, the very reserve whose excluding, distancing power on the social level finds its linguistic counterpart in the dignity of the completed sentence. Pure display of the self, on the other hand, is instantaneous. It gives itself without reservation to the moment, lives in the moment, and vanishes once the moment has vanished. Like the language that lends it voice, it is in its very essence lyrical. It must be admitted, however, that the creaturely attractiveness mat accompanies this lyricism and which is overwhelmingly apparent in such Tremblay figures as la Duchesse is shot through with an element of helplessness. One is reminded of the charm which the wild young men who fill the jails display in the eyes of the social workers who deal with them. "It cannot be guilt that makes them attractive," Kafka once wrote of figures who are distant cousins to those that appear in Tremblay's works, "nor can it be the just punishment that makes them attractive in anticipation … so it must be the mere charges brought against them that somehow show on them."

This attractiveness is usually represented by Tremblay in a figure who is charged with a version of the very theatricality discussed above and in whose appeal helplessness and defiance are intertwined. Hosanna and En piéces détachées provide striking examples of such a figure, and in this collection, too, Tremblay turns his attention to this prototype. Berthe details the struggles of a nightclub cashier to free herself of me swamp of daydreams in which she wallows. It is no accident that this woman sits in her box "reading a movie magazine" and wearing glasses "made of blue plastic and shaped like cat's eyes"; they are the attributes one might expect of the kind of dreamy bungler whose home is oblivion. This is Berthe's home, and the fact that this is so is perhaps most appropriately seen as a judgement on her. This judgement marks her unmistakably. The bungled, the useless, the lost—they are the most removed from the times in which they find themselves, and the smaller and more inconspicuous they are, the more they bear, in a concentrated form, as it were, the marks of judgement that the times deal out to whomever has lost touch with them.

To perceive these marks of judgement, to perceive the peculiar beauty which oblivion bestows on individuals, is one of Tremblay's gifts, and explains his sensitivity to the eccentric and grandiose features of his characters. The fact that he presents these features in a humourous light should not obscure the recognition that he does so with a full awareness that they are symptomatic features, just as the garish dress of an isolated individual in a big city is symptomatic of the anxiety his situation causes him to feel. Hosanna's involvement with Elizabeth Taylor is an example of this symptomatic element, as is Berthe's image of herself as a Hollywood star. "I'm the greatest actress in the world, and I get a million bucks per movie!" Berthe says. "I'm not locked up in this box!" Nevertheless, there is precisely the admission of failure which one might expect from a prisoner:

I know it's too late. I know there's nothing I can do. Everyone's been telling me for years. But let them say what they want. I'm not that crazy! "You're nothing but a bloody dreamer," they tell me. "All you're good for is making up crazy stories that don't make any sense! We never know if your telling the truth or if you're dreaming out loud. If you keep going like that, you're going to find yourself without any friends, Berthe. One of these days you're going to wind up all alone. All by yourself!" Do something, Berthe. Do something!

A long silence

But I never did anything.

A long silence.

I don't ask for much now … Just let me have my dreams. Leave me in peace and let me dream! That's all I've got left. 'Cause I do know how to dream. Ha! Do I ever! Maybe I'm dumb, but that doesn't keep me from making up stories. I know I don't look it, but I can make up, all for myself, the real life of a real Hollywood star. I'm not too smart, but I know how to make myself think I am. So what if I look stupid sitting here. I could have done something with my life if I'd wanted to.

She pauses.

But I never did anything. I just sat here in my box.

It does not take much effort to discern the bewilderment which this creature feels when it comes to reflecting on herself. Actually, there is a dialectics of bewilderment, an oscillation between despondency and rage which Berthe sums up in words that might serve as a motto for her monologue. "If I can't dream, I'm gonna suffocate," she more than once says, and quite palpably, dreaming here takes the place of the real understanding of the situation which is denied her.

In an interview in one of those weekly magazines that appear in the newspapers, Tremblay fervently denounced the addiction to daydreaming that characterizes his subjects, and it is clear that this attitude has played a part in his representation of this figure. Yet it is this very ability to daydream with an almost rhapsodic intensity which is one of the most attractive features of Tremblay's characters. If one thinks back to the passage from La Duchesse de Langeais, it is easy to see that one of the most significant components of this monologue lies in the brilliant excessiveness of the reminiscences. Stories flow from Berthe as well. But here it is the other side of the lyricism that makes la Duchesse such a charming figure which is revealed—the utter inadequacy of this lyricism when it comes to productive, cold-blooded reflection on existence. For Berthe, happiness lies in the blissful glamour which communion with friends spreads over life; isolated in her box, she is at times frantically restless. Indeed, one might go even further and say that it is nothing but pure and simple homesickness which Berthe experiences. For the vernacular is like those tropical birds which lose their brilliant colour when they are taken out of their natural environment; it languishes and wilts in isolation. Unlike la Duchesse, who is drunk enough to surround herself with imaginary companions, Berthe must suffer her loneliness. Her garrulity, one might say, is a short rope against which she continually pits herself in an attempt to take hold of her experience, only to be continually jerked back. And the silences which stud her monologue are loud with the perplexed and painful panting of this creature.

Berthe is in some respects an exhausted older version of those female figures in Tremblay's works whose chief characteristic might be described as an irritated voluptuousness. They are women who eat, smoke cigarettes and talk at the same time, who brush out their hair in front of mirrors as if they hated it and often make abrupt and unarguable statements, as though seeking to unsettle the boring world that has so little time for their dreams. If one were vindictive, one would call them ham actors. Certainly they love to display that "dancer's calf" that Roland Barthes speaks of. The glasses Berthe wears are an example of this, as are the theatrically straight back and sensual kick of the foot which one associates with Hélène in En pièces détachées, for instance. Usually one cannot fail to notice the sexuality of these women. They have the flushed, slightly hysterical expressiveness of von Jawlensky's Spanish Girl. In this case, however, all that is left of their high, flaunty, nervous colour is a loud, somewhat self-conscious polemicism. The acutely alien isolation in which Berthe finds herself forces her monologue to take on the barren nature of prattle. She is like the sinners in hell who irritate and bore their tormentors because their agony forbids them an adequate language with which to express it. When one considers the extent to which it is her frustrated theatricality that lies at the root of her problems, it stands to reason that it should be the actual theatre which is presented as the way out of the everyday hell in which she finds herself. And this is indeed the case.

In the companion pieces to Berthe—Gloria Star and Johnny Mangano and His Astonishing Dogs—Tremblay gives us an image of the theatre both as a family setting and as a scene of redemption. These works are, so to speak, detailed and revealing doodles in the margins of his longer plays. What they present that is most their own is not so much what is explicit in them as it is a buried image—that of the illuminated body, made sumptuous and expressive by the fact that the least of its movements is staged and lit by spotlights. The presence of this image explains the characteristic light in which the backstage argument of the Manganos is bathed, a light which combines the depressive hues of a kitchen sink drama with the pastels of those Cocteau scenes in which little girls dressed in pink tights with round red spots on their cheeks and artificially arched and blackened eyebrows hiss and snarl at each other. In the same way Johnny and Carlotta retain an actor's gaiety even as they quarrel, and just as the above mentioned scenes are usually set in what appear to be attic rooms in which cats, bird cages and old, heavy silk dresses abound, so here, too, the couple argue in a milieu of tights, spangles, make-up and pink poodles.

As is often the case with Tremblay, it is the very perversity of this milieu which both causes their argument and enlivens, lights up its play. For in the realm of acting no less than in the realm of the family which we shall discuss presently, perversion and redemption are so closely contiguous as to be inseparable from each other. Thus, while it is nothing but the actor's bitterness over his "difference" that Carlotta expresses in this play, she reveals her calling by the fact that her flourishes of rhetoric are really a form of self-intoxication that allows her to consume her fate in one swallow, as it were, so as to encounter in its dregs the experience which awaits her onstage. Perhaps it is this experience that Tremblay has attempted to present in the figure of Gloria Star. "I offer you the greatest innovation of the twentieth century!" says Gloria Star's producer—known in the play as "the woman"—to a stage manager busy with his lights.

The greatest dancers, the greatest strippers have been in my hands and they have known what Gloria Star knows today. Glory! And it's thanks to their bodies. The human body is the masterpiece of creation…. Look at the Greeks. I've spent my life showing masterpieces to the public…. But … young man, women also want to be provoked and transported…. I see a large open space…. The orchestra playing some savage piece…. Yes, we'll work it out so that you won't have too much trouble taking off your clothes…. You'll appear dressed as an Arab … in the midst of your women, slaves and animals. Superb women, thinly veiled, shiny black slaves and … camels! And slowly you begin to undress…. You take off your burnous, your caftan, you unlace your sandals before an audience of delirious women!

The manager laughs. "But don't stop," he says, "I'm listening with one ear."

The role which marginal figures like the stage manager play in Tremblay's works is worth examining. Unmistakably, they are outsiders, individuals who are only incidentally connected to the circle of figures we have heretofore discussed. And like sons who have developed reserved and orderly lives and are no longer capable of the display of feeling that a deep family tie makes possible, they demonstrate by their shadowy existence how ready is the milieu that draws Tremblay's attention to consign to the attic everyone who has escaped into the larger world. (It is worth noting that only the theatrical successes who have the intensely domestic quality of fairytale figures are exempt from such a consignment.) In the above scene, the woman is clearly tempting the manager to step inside this realm. Abbreviating drastically, one may say that what he hears in her speil is the siren song of Tremblay's families. It tempts him to detach himself from the crowd whose members are all strangers to each other by promising him the piercing pleasure of a difference which is not merely exposed but flaunted, just as the "wink perverse" of la Duchesse flaunts the difference which she turns to such ecstatically theatrical account. The fact that Tremblay appears to equate the unabashed intimacy of his families with the theatricality of those who, like la Duchesse, are stigmatized by their difference determines one of the most illuminating features of his work. Berthe, Hosanna, la Duchesse, the bunglers and perverted ones, crowd together, comfort and protect each other. This is why their silliness is so valuable, and why even the element of depravity that inheres in them is suffused with the image of redemption. Tremblay expresses this in the concluding scenes of Gloria Star, the only place where the dancer makes her appearance:

Suddenly, out of the darkness there appears an extraordinarily beautiful dancer. Striptease music begins. The dancer starts her act. The stage manager seems hypnotized. Little by little, the dancer's act becomes a kind of ritual combining dance steps with slow, disquieting gestures.

The woman begins to laugh loudly. The dancer goes toward Carlotta and with a flick of her hand makes her disappear. The same with Berthe. The dancer turns toward the stage manager, gesturing for him to follow her. He goes toward her dancing.

The woman laughs more and more loudly.

As the stage manager breaks into dance, he enters a world apart—the seductive world in which Tremblay's most fully realized creatures are at home. His sister is Hélène, who curses her neighbours and drunkenly challenges her seedy, broken-down husband to an arm wrestle. "Do you wanna have an arm wrestle with me, Henri? Do you wanna have an arm wrestle? Eh? Do you …??" The voluptuous hysteria which Hélène gives voice to here finds an echo in the woman's laughter which is the most significant of the ritual elements that accompany the manager's transformation. This laughter, incidentally, recalls those places in Tremblay's longer works where the women join together in "chorus lines" whose function is not so much to provide a commentary on events as it is to produce a state of enchantment through what might be described as the mortification of events, the abrupt stiffening of what occurs on stage into ritualistic, significant patterns. The fact that this ritual delimiting of meaning here proceeds by way of hysterical laughter seems especially appropriate when one considers the affinity of such laughter to the sensual possibilities inherent in the various forms of display. For the ritual joke which explodes into convulsive laughter is not the least of the ways by which these possibilities are realized.

Tremblay is never very far away from such laughter. In a recent radio interview, he admitted to being raised "in front of cartoons and theatre," and anyone who is familiar with the large, lower-class households of French Canada will know what is meant by this juxtaposition of terms and what the connection is to that magnificent humour which runs through all of Tremblay's works. As a child, Tremblay may not only have jumped off an armchair with a towel tied around his neck like Superman, but also mimicked the laughing, screaming, lamenting housewives who have again and again claimed his attention. The creaturely display beloved by these women feeds on the gasping laughter and crude jokes in which Tremblay still partakes, and one can imagine that the hiding places from which the little boy looked out on their playacting were not so very different from the front row seats that he coveted at a later age. For the intoxicating memorability of such scenes is as dependent on physical presence as is the language which animates them; indeed, it would be difficult to imagine Tremblay's mimetic gifts developing apart from prolonged immersion in the physical reality he writes of. Incidentally, this may help explain his reluctance to write for television. When asked about this reluctance in the above mentioned radio interview, Tremblay replied, "I have a great deal of lyricism in me," adding by way of elucidation that "an opera is boring on television." This last statement is especially interesting. Far from insisting on the reproductive accuracy which tends to be associated with the mimetic effort exemplified by his work, Tremblay implicitly compares his figures to those of opera. Nor is it hard to see why. In both cases, the presence of living persons on the stage is a major source of the intoxication felt by the audience. We say of a person that he has presence. What is operatic about Tremblay's work is in fact the heightened presence of its figures. The grace notes and trills of the coloratura have an obvious analogue in the colloquial flourishes of Tremblay's characters; both amplify the aura of the figures involved by allowing them to display themselves with a greater intensity. For many readers, the word "aura" will bring Walter Benjamin to mind. His insights regarding the contemporary decline of the aura, in which "photography is decisively implicated," illuminate Tremblay's resistance to television, as well as his need to enhance the presence of his figures in the ways that have been described.

"If, while resting on a summer afternoon," Benjamin says,

you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction…. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose 'sense of the universal equality of things' has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.

Since television is the medium which enables one to experience the loss of the aura at its sharpest, it may seem surprising that in the last play in this collection, Surprise, Surprise, Tremblay should present us with a slapstick situation of the kind which is the stock-in-trade of television comedies—the very place where the uniqueness and authority of the living person shrivels into nothing. To understand this, it is worth-while to take a closer look at these comedies. What characterizes the situation comedy on television is its continual delineation of a joke which is continually fed by the performance of the actors. Every movement presented by the camera ideally either anticipates the joke or underlies it—in other words, makes it as obvious and effective as possible. This deeply affects the nature of the characters who are shown on the screen. Popular figures, such as Archie Bunker and his wife, are really a bundle of unchanging idiosyncracies which provide immediate visual and dramatic gratification when presented by the camera. The wife's shrill, enthusiastic entrances, and Archie's expressive way of looking at someone who displeases him are examples of these idiosyncracies; their well-nigh inevitable appearance on each show demonstrates that the ambiguous, constantly changing presence of an actual living person would be out of place in a situation in which the joke is to be continually fed.

The nature of the dialogue is affected as well. At no point in these comedies can the characters speak eloquently or at length. This is because language plays a decisive role in establishing the aura of the human creature and in a very literal sense would impede the joke's effectiveness if it were allowed free play. As a result, one finds dialogue formulated down to the least intonation and presented in short bursts which pace the action in such a way as to allow the camera to continually move in for close-ups—either to anticipate the joke, as when Archie looks with disgust at his son-in-law, or to emphasize it, as when Archie's face visually embroiders the sarcasm he unleashes on this same son-in-law. The camera's reproduction of the situation resembles that which his binoculars permit the opera-goer; both turn the actor's living person into material feeding an obsessive outside interest.

To a certain extent, Tremblay also injects an idiosyncratic element into his characters; indeed, his popular appeal is probably due to his willingness to accommodate the television experience which has become part and parcel of the experience of the community which is the real source of his creativity. However, to the delight found in the delineation of the pure joke, Tremblay adds the intoxication inherent in creaturely ecstasy pushed to its limits. Hence the overwhelming presence of his figures, the degree of which casts into relief the limitations of television, and at the same time renders these figures unsuitable for representation by that medium. "I can see it now," says one of the characters in Surprise, Surprise:

I can see it now … I come into the restaurant. They're all there, having their party for that stinking corpse, Madeleine Simard! I hide behind a flower pot like a panther. I leap out at their table so fast they don't know what hit them. "Surprise!" And then … Down we go, Madeleine's head right in the cake! Her ugly puss all covered with cream! Then I pull off her wig, whack her across the face with it two or three times and smear it around in the other's plates! What else could I do to her? What? I'll slap her face! That's it, some nice big slaps across her face! POW! POW! POW! Maybe I'll take some Javex and wash out her mouth … Or a shotgun! Or maybe a butcher knife! That's it, a butcher knife, and I'll mix her blood around in buckets full of Bar B-Q sauce!…

If, to paraphrase Benjamin, we designate as aura the poetic associations which tend to cluster around the object of a perception, then its analogue here is the linguistic experience that makes palpable the creaturely ecstasy of this figure. The camera simply cannot do justice to an experience so essentially tied to a unique, individual presence. One need only think of the reaction of an animated family gathering to someone who wishes to take their picture: the uneasiness, even hostility which greets the camera demonstrates how completely it forces one to abandon the display of the self which alone permits communion with others and which is analogous to the above-mentioned experience in order to face up to the test that the camera proposes.

It is precisely this communion with others which is central to the mimic, and nothing illuminates Tremblay's creativity more than the realization that his highly developed sense of community is what gave rise to his mimetic gifts. For what distinguishes mimicry is the fact that it takes for granted the existence of a community. Only when it can draw on a shared linguistic and gestural repertoire can such an impulsive, creaturely art be successful. It is hardly an accident that a large part of Tremblay's appeal lies in the fact that his characters express not only themselves, but also the linguistic genius of their community—that they are, in other words, "operatic" from the start. One senses the mimic's affection and enthusiasm in the heightened expressiveness of even the least of these creatures. Perhaps this is why the soliloquy is unknown to Tremblay. Even where he deals with a disturbed creature like Hosanna or Berthe, the solitude of such a figure has nothing in common with the isolation that characterizes Hamlet's contemplation of suicide, for example. In Shakespeare's great soliloquies the thought wears the language which gives it expression as if it were a rich but frightening mask. This makes it easy to see what differentiates these soliloquies from the speech of a figure like Hosanna. While the former are discourses which may occasionally take their audience bodily, and, as it were, gasping, straight into the chilly forecourts of language, the latter is lyrical and ecstatic conversation, and thus lends itself to mimicry, which by its very nature must communicate the experience of a figure in the most natural and immediate way that comes to hand.

This kind of representation is and will always be opposed to that of the camera. For it bears in its substance traces of the very community which made possible the experience it offers, just as a Navajo rug bears in its crudities and imperfections the stamp of the community which permitted its creation. And the perception of these traces—the experience offered by Tremblay' s works—is none other than that of the aura which disappears in technical reproduction, whether it be as a mass-produced rug, or as a figure represented by technical, mechanical means. The lyricism that gives Tremblay's works their beauty and authenticity is the result of a creativity that refuses to sever its 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. And it is precisely because they do justice to this experience that Tremblay's works occupy a special place in Quebec literature.

Principal Works

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Le Train (drama) 1964
Messe Noir (drama) 1965
Cinq (dramas) 1966; adapted for television as Trois Petits toursContes 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.

Pierre Gobin (essay date 1983)

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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, and a collection of short stories have been published; he has also translated into French four contemporary American plays, produced an adaptation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata (1969), and coproduced a movie, Il était une fois dans l'Est (1974), with André Brassard, his favorite director. Well received by the Québécois public, Tremblay has also succeeded in attracting a large audience outside of his native province, especially in France and English-speaking Canada. He has been recognized by the critics and is clearly a force to be reckoned with. General agreement dates the birth of Québécois theater from the first performance of Les Belles-soeurs in 1968; before that date there was French-Canadian theater, to be sure, but it was the success and the scandal of Les Belles-soeurs that "launched" a theater which was truly Québécois in its form as well as its thematics. Moreover, Tremblay has succeeded in gaining recognition without giving up experimentation, and in becoming a sort of classic whose themes, subjects, and writing are grounded in marginality. At the hinge of the readerly (lisible) and the writerly (scriptible), Tremblay's texts can be seen at one and the same time as representative (since they lend themselves to an explanatory study), exemplary in their operation (requiring them to be considered in the light of their own uniqueness), and subversive because their very entrance onto the literary "scene" prompts a reexamination of all the ideological postulates of culture of Québec. These quasi masterpieces owe their status and their power as constant reminders of the impossibility of masterpieces to a paradox: Tremblay, the idiot-sage, forces the reader-spectator to consider the most commonplace problems of daily existence, those most closely linked to the preoccupations of all of us, by presenting characters and situations which at first might seem uncommon, odd, deviant, or bizarre. It may well be his Brecht-like ability to "discover the exception in the rule"—and in return to make his audience reconsider the rule after they have reacted to his portrayal of the apparent exception—which explains the unexpected relevance of his works.

However, I should like to examine here another characteristic feature of the theater and novels of Tremblay, namely the internal intertextuality of his works. By this I mean the "interrelation (croisement) of utterances taken from other texts" by the same writer. It is not a question of quotations, excerpts, transpositions, or rewriting from "exterior or synchronic utterances" (of which one can find many examples in Tremblay's work), but of the reactivation of elements drawn from the same corpus. This procedure would be far from original or peculiar if the activated elements were at different levels of textual elaboration: every writer uses over and over again more or less the same motifs, the same obsessive metaphors, and the same structures (in the organization of syntax itself, as well as in the narrative and/or actantial structures, indeed even on the scale of microelements, along with the verbal tics of writing itself); every writer has recourse to notes, notebooks, "logbooks," and papers, in short to his work in progress.

But Tremblay has formulated certain aspects of his own fundamental myth, an activity in itself less than common. Success in such an undertaking presupposes a sustained effort, a vigilant observation of the outer world and the self's own universe, whether the texts produced appear to be discontinuous (Mallarmé) or more or less continuous (the great novelistic frescoes of Balzac and Zola; those sagas bathed in myth such as Faulkner's Yoknapawtha county or Hardy's Wessex). The texts resulting from this complex form of internal intertextuality are developed in reduced spatial and temporal dimensions; that is why it has been possible to study them in terms of "histories" or "geographies" of the imaginary (e.g. André Ferré on Marcel Proust or more recently, Pierre L'Hérault's study of the Québécois writer Jacques Ferron). Tremblay's literary production also lends itself to this type of study. Nevertheless, I shall not deal with work of a transtextual nature at the heart of a collected ensemble of which all parts are of the same general category (i.e., a collection of poetry, a series of novels, a theater-cycle, etc.), any more than work of a "pretextual" nature on texts that are at different levels of composition (i.e., sketches, rough drafts, projects, avant-textes, extratextual material, etc.). Rather, what is at stake is a very specific form of internal intertextuality in which we are dealing with utterances by the same writer at the same level of textual development, but belonging to different genres.

To put it more precisely, these texts do not present themselves as translations of one and the same raw material nor as different developments of the same "hypotextual" outline, such as the ones that are found, for example, in Cocteau's work in which "Le coup de poing sur des boules de neige / Que donne la beauté vite au coeur en passant" ["A blow of the fist on mounds of snow / That beauty quickly delivers to the heart in passing"] is taken up in the poetry of the theater, the poetry of the novel, and the poetry of the cinema, or, in a more systematic but also more limited fashion, in Courteline's work, when he rewrites short stories into comedies (La Hache/La Peur des coups). In Tremblay's work, at least in the case of the group of plays that he calls "Le Cycle des Belles-soeurs" and the series of novels called "Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal," we are dealing with a sustained and coherent internal intertextuality, in which the utterances are not parallel, "osculatory" in the mathematical sense, or resulting from bifurcations, but truly interwoven in every sense of the word, since rewriting is more detectable at the point of their intersection than at the point of their convergence. It is as if the plays formed the woof (trame) of an intertextual weave whose warp (chaîne)—long since woven, though revealed only afterwards—would be given in the novel cycle.

A strange paradox has been created by the current usage of the term trame. In fact, its derived meanings, ("a group of details that form a kind of background, an entire groundwork upon which conspicuous events stand out," and in the graphic arts, "a squared grid … that changes the unbroken design of the original … into a series of dotted lines), seem to have combined the original meanings of warp and woof (warp: "group of regularly spaced parallel threads that are distributed lengthwise in a piece of fabric"; woof: "group of threads that weavers interlace, by means of a shuttle, with the threads of the warp already fixed in place on a loom"). Classical French usage substituted outright the term trame for chaîne in expressions like that of Bossuet (which Le Grand Larousse cites as an example): "il a coupé ma trame dès le commencement de mes jours" [he cut off the fabric of my life at the very beginning of my days]. Now it seems to me that me paradox involved in the use of these terms illuminates the relationship between the plays and the novels in the two parts of Tremblay's work which are the objects of this study.

The dramatic texts crisscross the span of the oeuvre, already forming, as if superimposed onto the unbroken design of experiences and observations, the framework on which certain types of characters will stand out, perceptible only from dialogue which appears fragmented. Tremblay accentuates this characteristic of his theater by his handling of dialogue: as in the improvisations of a jazz ensemble, he leaves room for the chorus, counterpoint, and the "break," that virtuoso solo in which a performer reveals himself isolated from his partners. The playwright insists equally on the capacity of the frame to allow for embellishments of the here and now, and on the unity of tone, atmosphere, and action that the frame establishes. Evocations of somewhere else, projections toward the past and into the future that are allowed for by the dialogue in La Duchesse de Langeais or the mise en scène of A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou impart to this theater a dimension other than itself, but one which is necessarily made manifest by a series of ruptures. All in all, the works of Tremblay confirm what the entire modern theater repertoire leads us to understand, and what the theory and practice of the well-constructed play or the well-spun plot attempted to hide: the marvelous ability of the theater to partake of the arts of time and space (as "spectacle" in Kowzan's terms, as "a density of signs" in Barfhes's); an ability which no other literary genre can claim, for it can only be practiced in a format of discontinuity. Drama only finds its continuity in an imaginary reconstruction; its subject matter is masked by conspicuous events—dramatic ones—which stand out against this backdrop. Furthermore, the threads of the woof can only become a reality when woven on the support of those warp threads already in place, which they in turn hide and are hidden by.

Thus, the narrative threads (chaîne) are an inescapable necessity for his theater; this, however, does not explain their appearances (except in those cases where the drama is presented as a chronicle, giving precedence to temporal development, or as a tableau, giving precedence to progression in space). On the contrary, the novel readily develops chronicle and tableau alike (in a consecutive manner, by a syntagmatic linking), by following a linear course. The very title of Tremblay's novel cycle is revealing in this respect: we are dealing with a distinct day by day chronicle—dates head each section of La Grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte (May 2, 1942, etc.) as well as Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges and La Duchesse et le roturier—of the life of a group of people occupying a precise, though relatively large, geographical area: le plateau Mont-Royal, a sizeable area north of le Parc Lafontaine, a working-class section of Montréal which can be recognized by several crucial streets, la rue Fabre (N-S) with the street that runs parallel it to the east, la rue Papineau, and, cutting them both at right angles, la rue Gilford and le boulevard St-Joseph.

Other indications confirm that Tremblay is sensitive to the specificity of prose texts in general, and to those which he is in the process of writing in particular. The presence right beside the "realistic" characters, in the house next door to the one in which the fat woman and her relatives live (notably Victoire, the fat woman's mother-in-law, Victoire's descendants, Albertine, whose husband is away at war, the latter's children Thérèse and the strange little Marcel, and fat Edouard, a confirmed bachelor), of three old maids (Rose, Violette and Mauve) and their mother Florence—all of whom are invisible except to poets, the crazy, and the dying—this "presence" then establishes a fantastic element and acts as a catalyst for the heterogeneous, the sacred, the strange. However, the fantastic element also furnishes the reader with links between episodes (the four women harbor little Marcel and give him back his cat, Duplessis, restored to life; they appear to old Josaphat-le-Violin who "makes the moon rise" with his music), and reminds us metaphorically of the structure of the novels: seated on the front porch, the three daughters knit baby clothes destined for all those who are to be born on la rue Fabre, beginning with the child of the fat woman; they establish the status of characters who are still curled up in their mothers' wombs by superimposing the thread of destiny onto the umbilical cords. They need neither to spin nor to cut this thread of destiny; by winding it into skeins, by hooking it onto their spindles and knitting needles, by weaving it into fabric destined to adorn "live" bodies, the knitters assume the role of the Fates—frank, discrete, charitable, but also disquieting.

All the main characters of Tremblay's theater were born or are going to be born on la rue Fabre. Now it is there that Tremblay himself came into the world on "June 25, 1942." It is also there that Les Belles-soeurs, En Pièces détachées, and A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou take place. And it is also there that the metaphorical chain of destiny, which restores liberty to those whom it binds, is linked or has been linked, in the novels as in the plays. It is by virtue of this bond that the aging Victoire finds the courage necessary to face death at the end of Thérèse et Pierrette: "Pour-quoi c'que je mourrais? Pour quelle raison j'me laisserais aller de même, sans me défendre? Parce que la folie s'en vient? Qu'a vienne! C'est toujours ben mieux que de finir dans un trou" [Why should I die? Why should I let myself go like that, without defending myself? Because I'm going crazy? Then let it be! It's better than ending up in a hole], thus repeating/announcing the challenge of her grandson Marcel at the end of En Pièces détachées. To all of his relatives who complain, "Chus pus capable de rien faire!" [I can't do anything anymore], he proclaims: "Moé j'peux toute faire! J'ai toutes [sic] les pouvoirs" [I can do anything, man, I am all-powerful].

The novels recreate after the fact a kind of prehistory of the characters who appear in the plays, as well as a geography of their activities and dreams, defining on the basis of "real" coordinates the precise location of the staging, and of the "other stage." The novels are centered around dates which are well anchored in the domain of the referential, but which also allow the staging of the temporality of dramatic, as well as mnemonic and imaginary re-presentation. The novels of the (fictional) plateau underpin the actions played out on the (theatrical) plateau and their structure brings to light an important part of any theatrical production.

In other words, the narrative threads (la chaîne), implicit or presumed in the plays, or which at least are revealed in them only by means of certain contrivances (stories or the analyses of situations, flashbacks, mises en abyme, intervening breaks), are set in place in the novels, and their continuity is initiated and announced to us (by means of complementary strategies, such as forward projections, a widening of the field of action, and suggestive parallels that would necessitate a detailed study in and of itself). By establishing or making explicit the narrative threads, the novels have recourse to certain effets de réel that propel the fictional elements in the direction of the referential, whereas the plays effect an "iconic leap" toward the "as if." It is precisely this leap that allows for a practical closure in the theater and the unity of the plays in terms of their individual plots (trame). That is not to say that the trame is not present in a novelistic work (which, by unfolding a continuous chronicle also effects a deictic actualization of characters in one time and one place). However, in Tremblay's work theater and the novel are presented as complementary, and they give a privileged place, respectively, to the woof and the warp of a complex fabric whose production and composition it is now appropriate to examine.

Tempted by the numerous comparisons that can be drawn between the frame of Tremblay's own life experiences and the one which he assigns to his characters, one could of course infer that the chronicles are more or less autobiographical, and, like the memoirs of Goldoni for example, explicitly narrate and define episodes or circumstances already treated by the plays. But the Québécois playwright is at one and the same time too cunning to hand over his professional and personal secrets in such a naïve way, and too modern to be duped by the referential illusion or even to accept any kind of mimetic reductionism. He teases and entices his audience by implying that the physical and moral striptease in which so many of his theatrical characters indulge themselves may well be just a (barely disguised) transposition of the author's own scenario. But he escapes identification in his theater by a mythic reinforcement of character (for example, the Duchesse de Langeais) and by a series of artifices and what Sartre calls tourniquets, by the arrangement of corresponding voices (Claude and his lover Cuirette in Hosanna; the separated homosexual couple in Les Anciennes odeurs [1981]). This is also true of his entire work by the introduction of variations and substitutes (privileged relationships between brother and sister in Bonjour, là, bonjour, or between sister and brother in En Pièces détachées and in the novel cycle where Thérèse, so clearly distinct from her creator, seems to be stealing the show) or by making use of the fantastic, either global (La Cité dans l'oeuf [1969]) or accessory, favorable to a flight toward oneiric and marginal speculations.

Furthermore, Tremblay warns the reader of Thérèse et Pierrette twice that the chronicle in question is imaginary. In the epigraph of the novel he quotes John Irving's The World According to Garp: "Imagining something is better than remembering something." And in the dedication: "To Denise Filiatrault. Michelle Rossignol and Amulette Garnau, whom I tried to imagine as children for the parts of Thérèse, Pierrette, and Simone," he goes even further. In fact, the three women to whom he pays homage are the actresses who already brought to the stage the adult characters whom the young girls of the novel have/will become.

During the second running of Les Beltes-soeurs (at Le Théâtre du Rideau Vert in 1971), the action of which is set in 1965, Michelle Rossignol played the part of Pierrette Guérin, the sister of the protagonist Germaine Lauzon. Rose Ouimet, and Gabrielle Jodoin. Pierrette is regarded as a kind of black sheep because she works for a nightclub on "La Main," "une maison malfarmée"; however, in spite of her misfortunes ("damn Johnny" who seduced her has just "dropped her like a hot potato" after "making her lose ten years of her life, the bastard!"), she is the only one who tries to defend Germaine in the face of all the "virtuous" women who steal as many of her green stamps as they can gel hands on. The dedication therefore suggests that through the (real life) spokesman of a fictitious dramatic character of marginal status of a tolerant morality, Tremblay is attempting to imagine in his novel what will be the destiny of a special child, both more intelligent and more sensitive than those of her own family.

Among other roles, Amulette Garneau has taken that of Bec-de-Lièvre in Sainte Carmen de la Main, the little wardrobe keeper who is "damned" (she is a lesbian), disinherited (because of the scar that disfigures her upper lip), rejected, and cruelly treated by her brother Maurice, who has become a leader of the institutionalized underworld. Here again we are dealing with a character from a damned milieu who nevertheless remains loyal to the sacred heroine, Carmen, the country-and-we stern singer who, because she wanted to compose her own lyrics, assume responsibility for her own destiny, free her female companions, and enlighten an entire nation of wretches (paumés), will be murdered by an unfeeling and impotent assassin of the underworld. In Thérèse et Pierrette, little Simone, who has just undergone surgery in order to correct her harelip, finds herself in the middle of conflicts that are tearing apart a respectable religious community; she is intimidated by the authoritarian and narrow-minded mother superior and protected by Soeur Sainte Catherine, an intelligent and charitable woman. Once again we are dealing with a character who is representative, yet marked by her peculiarity. In the novel, Simone is a paradoxical child who wants to affirm her newly found beauty but who suffers the persecutions entailed by that affirmation. She is caught in the middle of a trio of young girls, surrounded by friends who are at the same time jealous and protective of her. Simone does not get a big part in the Corpus Christi tableau put on by the sisters, nor is she included in the title of the novel. In the play she is torn between loyalty to her brother Maurice, a persecutor and profiteer, and her platonic adoration for Carmen, liberator and martyr.

As for Denise Filiatrault, although she brought to the stage several important characterizations in Tremblay's repertoire (in particular, that of Rose Ouimet in Les Belles-soeurs, and that of Lola Lee in Demain Matin), the part of Thérèse in En Pièces détachées was not entrusted to her. However, Denise Filiatrault does constitute a kind of myth in Tremblay's universe. In Les Héros de mon enfance, la Fée Carabosse, who terrorizes all the other heroes, appears under her guise:

     Dans le rôle de Lola Lee et celui de Rose Ouimet
     Dans le rôle de Carlotta et celui d'Pierrette
     Elle était tellement bonne la grande Filiatrault
     Que tous disaient? Allons, Denise, vraiment c'est trop!

     In the part of Lola Lee and in that of Rose Ouimet
     In the part of Carlotta and in that of Pierrette
     She was so tremendous the great Filiatrault
     That everyone said: Come on, Denise, you're really too much!

Now for Tremblay, Carabosse is not the hideous old witch whom she traditionally represents but a being who is both fascinating and dangerous, wicked yet unhappy, of great beauty yet shameful, supremely intelligent yet dissatisfied. Like Thérèse in the televised version of En Pièces détachées and in the novels, she lives on the border between dreams and nightmares: She is a fairy who resembles a witch, just as Thérèse is an angel who to a large extent resembles a devil. The following is the way in which the chorus of neighbors describes her on her wedding day:

Mme Lheureux: ça faisant ben drôle, une mariée en velours bleu avec les cheveux rouges!

Mme Tremblay: A l'avaitpas l'air d'un ange, al'avait l'air d'un démon!

Mme Monette: Pis on s'est pas gêné pour y dire, nous autres, les femmes!

Les femmes, en variant: Maudite démonne!

Mme Lheureux: It looked real funny, a bride with red hair, dressed in blue velour!

Mme Tremblay: Didn't look like an angel, looked like a demon!

Mme Monette: And we weren't bashful in telling 'er, us ladies!

The ladies, in different voices: To hell with her!

Like the Fairy and like Thérèse, Denise Filiatrault has an inordinate talent ("Elle était tellement bonne" [She was so tremendous]) that can trigger catastrophes ("vraiment c'est trop" [really that's too much]): in short, she runs the risk of shifting from the gestural representation of a character who is a prey to Hubris, to the incorporation (actualization) of that arrogance into her own personality following the mechanism of possession described in Sartre's Saint Genet comédien et martyr.

Thérèse's misfortunes, her social and physical degradation, the humiliation which she experiences as she attempts to escape through divertissement and alcohol, and her descent into despair only appear in the plays. But many of the personality traits of this woman appeared in the young girl of the novels. In them she is already a proud being, defiant and secretive, sensitive to the power struggles at the heart of society yet oblivious to what they really imply, extremely talented yet poorly educated. Eleven-year-old Thérèse is already like Thérèse at age forty, precariously perched between good and evil, wrenched between the homogeneous world of school and work on the one hand, and the heterogeneous universe of shady pleasures, whether they be those offered in le parc Lafontaine or on "la Main," on the other. Above all, she is already the mouthpiece for characters without a future, "all screwed up" (pognés), and trapped in their cramped milieu, for individuals marked by the seal of insanity—artists like her great-uncle Josaphat-le-Violin or eccentrics like Marcel, her younger brother.

By the choice which Tremblay made of the three people to whom he dedicated Thérèse et Pierrette, one can see that he associates the iconic and deictic re-creation of his plays (work and play on the trame) with a process of diegetic invention aimed at producing effets de réel (putting in place the narrative threads of la chaîne). Other indications can be found in the novels where one sees at work a strange kind of circuit in which the interior and the exterior, metalanguage and the poetic message are combined in order to formulate yet another type of interweave. However, I shall limit myself to the intersection of the threads in the two generic parts of the work sharing the same status. Nor shall I study the manner in which the "realistic and fantastic intermingle," except to sketch a description of their topical composition, for I shall limit my analysis to the way in which "Tremblay recreates certain characters with whom we have already become familiar in his previous work," to cite once again the back cover of La Grosse femme.

We have already noticed that in his novels Tremblay does not have his characters come back to life "downstream," namely in a subsequent state of their lives; rather he places them "upstream," much closer to their wellspring as if the course of their lives flowed down the slopes of le plateau Mont-Royal toward the "waterfall" that plunges them dramatically into the maelström of "la Main," or on the contrary loses itself in the swamps of the East End not far from their point of departure. The use of such hydrographic metaphors—which reminds one of a parodic Carte de Tendre—could perhaps account for the space and the time lived by the characters in the novels as well as the impression of catastrophic haste produced by the plays (the tragic plays of "la Main" with their catatonic depressions; the plays about the East End with their "infratragic" tendencies). It would allow equally for questions concerning the destinies of the characters that are interiorized in their ethos or psyche ("Tu peux sortir la fille de l'est, mais pas l'est de la fille: [You can take the girl out of the East End, but you can't take the East End out of the girl]). However, it would not draw our attention to the production, that twofold textual work: the construction, by the interweaving of threads and of bunches of threads, both horizontally and vertically, of a fabric, a cultural artifact, a kind of megasignifier whose signified would be Tremblay's poetic universe.

The characters in the novels are brought back to life again in a very peculiar fashion, one that resembles A la recherche du temps perdu more closely than Vingt ans après or Le Vicomte de Bragelonne. Similarly, if the realistic and the fantastic intermingle in Tremblay's novels, it is not by chance or even contingently, but according to a well-defined plan. The realistic narrative threads are sometimes associated with the fantastic narrative threads, as in those passages where we are shown the fantasies of Victoire, the old woman who has resisted the Fates all her life but who eventually becomes conscious, at first in an anguished way, and then in a liberated manner, of the presence of her faithful neighbors, thus crossing—before her death—the border between realism and fantasy, between everyday homogeneity and sacred heterogeneity.

Generally the areas or zones affected by the fantastic and the characters associated with it do not become confused with the realistic areas; the Fates are the neighbors of Victoire's family, and even those to whom they appear must visit them (little Marcel and Duplessis the cat) or greet them (old Josaphat). The Fates do not haunt the area of realism; instead they accompany it like a shadow, or better still, like a beam of light. Their presence bestows a different texture onto the ensemble yet without interfering in the chronicle of the homogeneous.

Along with the series of realistic threads—the most important because it is between these strands that the threads of the plays will be interlaced—and the fantastic series which sometimes serves in a parallel fashion as its lining or adornment, it would also be appropriate to recall a legendary series that goes beyond the initially woven threads which form the plots of the novels and which have a quasi-dramatic nature.

The disclosures and hints of recognition of characters in La Grosse femme at the time of their encounters on la rue Fabre or in le Parc Lafontaine at the beginning of May, 1942, as well as the telltale conflicts in Thérèse et Pierrette surrounding little Simone, l'Ecole des Saints-Anges and the Feast of Corpus Christi in June of the same year, are, in fact, already arranged crosswise to the chronicle of the families whose members are identified with the pattern (trame) of those actions that are specifically theatrical (e.g. the evening of premium stamp pasting in Les Belles-soeurs, the crisis in Marie-Lou and the retrospective view of that crisis, etc.) Tremblay is perfectly conscious of the parallelism of these structures and chooses to emphasize it, as for example in the remarks of Dr. Sanregret concerning the Corpus Christi street altar which for him is no more than a pagan mascarade. One could even consider that the woof threads in the chronicles already dramatize that which will be made explicit in the plays, but which remains implicit in the novels (e.g. Thérèse's loss of innocence, Marcel's transition to madness) or which remains in the mythical form of a recreated primary scene.

Be that as it may, the dramas that are inscribed in the novels—the first threads of the textual fabric—postulate as contiguous to the realist threads strung together by the chronicles but preceding them a mythical series, a repertory of popular legends. Examples would be the tales told by Josaphat-le-Violin, which recall a mysterious family history, the secrets that old Victoire confides to her son Edouard, and the story of Ti-Lou, "La Louve d'Ottawa" who howls her last, defiant cry in the face of death at the very moment two other characters assume their destinies, namely when Béatrice, a whore without style, becomes Betty Bird, the grandest callgirl in all Montréal and when Edouard, a bashful homosexual transforms himself into a stunning transvestite, la Duchesse de Langeais.

Thus, along with the realistic and fantastic developments (the family and convent chronicles and their association with the Fates), the narrative threads contain elements from exemplary or mythical accounts that bolster the narrative and its double. In addition to the action of the plays, these interweaving threads include in the very framework of the novels' dramas, in a more or less potential form, that could well be regarded, after the fact, as the beginnings of the actual plays.

If some of the characters presented in the novels do not appear in the plays (although sometimes their talk, as in the case of Dr. Sanregret, furnishes a kind of ideological and aesthetic commentary on the entire oeuvre), and if others function only as variants of other more complex figures (Béatrice/Betty Bird, who, parodied by La Duchesse in Demain matin, serves as the model for Lola Lee and her sister Lyla Jasmin), there are also other characters who are developed and whose dramatic careers in and of themselves form a complete cycle, such as Edouard/La Duchesse, whose monologue constitutes an entire play (no doubt the most remarkable of the entire corpus), who reappears in Demain matin, is evoked or invoked again in A toi, pour toujours and Hosanna, and whose murder foretells and foreshadows that of the heroine in Sainte Carmen de la Main. In Edouard's case, it is his prehistory before he "comes out" as la Duchesse that we find in the chronicles. The same goes for the children whose lives are "invented" or recreated by the narrative threads and who, when adults, function as key dramatic characters: Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone, little Marcel, and, to a lesser extent, Maurice, Simone's brother. The novels originate a type of predramatic woof for all these characters that is not noteworthy when considering the adult characters in the novels for whom the dies are already cast. When these latter characters have important parts in the plays, they are passive "infradramatic" figures, such as the Guérin sisters in Les Belles-soeurs or Robertine in En Pièces détachées, for they are too entrenched in their resentment or too contorted by their frustrations to attempt to alter the course of events.

There are, however, several exceptions which deserve to be considered: on the one hand, Marie-Lou Brassard and her husband Léopold, whose confrontation in A toi, pour toujours is intense and overt and ends up in violence; Gabriel (named after the archangel-messenger), the husband of the fat woman, whom we rediscover as a positive character in Bonjour, là, bonjour and as an inspiration in Les Anciennes odeurs. But before examining their function in the novels and plays in which they appear, it may be useful to draw attention once again to a third group of characters, alongside the future but as yet unproclaimed heroes and of those for whom les jeux sont faits: the reader may have surmised that this group is comprised of the seven children to be born to the women portrayed in La Grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte.

Some of these awaited babies do not appear to have any subsequent dramatic career (although their presence supplies Tremblay with a reservoir of characters and situations which he can tap if he wishes to come back to "le cycle des Belles-soeurs"): those expected by Germaine Lauzon, Rose Ouimet, and Gabrielle Jodoin are at the very most topical allusions in Les Belles-soeurs, or they are mentioned in the remarks made by the neighbors in En Pièces détachées; the baby Claire Lemieux is expecting disappears altogether; Laura Cadieux's furnishes us with some indirect glimpses, and functions as an adventurous adjunct to the mother's reflections and ruminations in the novel C'tà ton tour Laura Cadieux. But Marie-Louise Brassard's pregnancy lays the foundation for a complex dramatic cycle, since the story of Carmen (the child expected in La Grosse femme) will be "constructed" on the basis of A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou and Sainte Carmen de la Main to which will be added Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra (since Manon is Carmen's younger sister). As for the pregnancy of the fat woman herself, it seems to provide the key for the entire work if, as I believe to be the case, the child to be born is Michel Tremblay himself.

It is worth noting that the pregnancies of Marie-Lou and the fat woman are the only ones that are marked to the extent that their characteristic traits could be contrasted word for word. Already the mother of two children, the fat woman knows "what is awaiting her." On the contrary, Marie-Louise is almost unbelievably ignorant: despite the doctor's explanations, she believes that her child will come into the world by bursting through her navel, since otherwise the birth would be an excretion. The fat woman has chosen to be pregnant; her condition seems beautiful to her ("elle avait voulu cet enfant, elle en avait besoin, et elle était belle") [she had wanted this child; she needed it, and she was beautiful], and she greets her unborn child by singing. Marie-Louise detests "le fruit de (sa) nuit de noces, la seule (passée avec son mari), horrible" [the fruit of (her) wedding night, the only one (spent with her husband), horrible], and she utters an atrocious incantation: "va-t-en, va-t-en, p'tit fatigant ta mère te veut pas, pis ton père est un fou …" [go away, go away, you little tiring thing your mother doesn't want you and your father's a jerk…]. The fat woman enjoys love, life, and people; she dreams of faraway lands as marvelous horizons; she submerges herself in books; she welcomes everyone (it is at her invitation that the six other pregnant women gather together with her on the balcony at the end of the novel); she opens herself up to the universe. Marie-Louise withdraws into herself, afraid and bored to death; she rejects her husband's every advance; in short, the life that surrounds her "chokes her like an asphalt cape." For one, expecting a child is a truly blessed event; it is a participation in the cosmos and an experience of the divine; for the other, it is a defilement, a damnation, a foretaste of the torments of hell. One can suppose that the world view of children carried under these circumstances will be based on this inheritance, accepted (the "author" himself) or rejected (Carmen whose life will be a continual rebellion and a conquest of freedom). In contrast to Sainte Carmen, who rediscovers purity through a dialectical rejection of her mother's puritanical nature, corresponds a wise Michel, who accepts his congenial heritage while transcending its limitations.

The husbands of the two women also react to these attitudes toward pregnancy and their reactions undoubtedly explain their roles in the plays. A disappointed Léopold will withdraw into himself, taking refuge in alcohol, and once on the verge of insanity will look for a means of escape in confronting Marie-Lou. However, when she spurns him, he speeds toward his death, taking her and their son with him, by smashing their car "into a concrete post on Metropolitan Boulevard." What we have here is a catastrophic dramaturgy, but one which is enclosed in a "dubious liberation," to use Raymond Joly's expression. The Gabriel in Bonjour, là bonjour, widowed at an early age with five children (and here we are dealing with four girls—a fact that is not literally consonant with the sequence of events in the chronicles where he at first has two sons and expects a third), is portrayed as awkward and timid in dealing with his children and rude with those of his own generation. He seeks refuge in a tavern "pour y régler le sort du monde" [in order to determine the fate of the world] (like the Gabriel of La Grosse femme); he uses his deafness as an alibi for his misanthropy. However, in the end he succeeds in exchanging words of trust and understanding with his son Serge, the youngest of his children. When the curtain falls, the play opens up with an ambiguous greeting—all the more ambiguous since the Québécois use Bonjour upon leave-taking and also since the title can be interpreted as a translation of Ave atque vale!—but one that nevertheless represents the starting point of an exemplary step toward communication.

A study of Tremblay's theater has everything to gain by being coupled with the study of his "chronicles." Such a study allows one to resituate the characters in view of their "prehistory" and their "mental geography" (both being subject to retouchings, since they are quasi-referential constructions of the imaginary). It is possible to connect 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. We begin to perceive how the events of the plays rely upon the narrative threads told in the chronicles, which the plays could only relate in a fragmentary manner (cf. Bec-de-Lièvre's monologue in Sainte Carmen, the commentaries by the chorus of neighbors in En Pièces détachées). We also discover that the apparent action (trame manifeste) performed on the stage often parallels a hidden action that runs through the novels (Thérèse's "fall" and her discovery of coquettishness; the career of La Duchesse and the encounters of Edouard).

On the other hand, it is only by familiarizing himself with the plays that the reader can appreciate the irony contained in the novels as well as all that interrupts the continuity of the storyline: evocations of faraway places (the fat woman's daydreams of Acapulco will be adapted to La Duchesse de Langeais), sequences of improbable events (the powers of the Fates will be claimed by a child), and philosophical reflections (the doctor's comparison of the street-altar to a brothel explains Pierrette's religious reverence for "la Main" and the mystification of the characters in Demain matin). In short, it is only by coming to know the plays that one can have an idea of what is being woven in the novels.

The coherence of Tremblay's work, which rests on the internal intertextual intersection of two groups of texts that are at the same level of elaboration but belonging to different genres, is thus quite extraordinary. The formula that he has adopted, and which I believe to be unique, deserves to be placed next to those used by Zola and Galsworthy (a treelike expansion in which the structure of the work follows that of genealogical development), Balzac and Faulkner (tapestries of the imaginary woven on a loom borrowed from reality), Henry James and Proust, Mallarmé and Cocteau (the construction of armillary spheres in order to locate imaginary constellations), to illustrate the production of literary texts whose vocation is the pursuit of totality.

Further Reading

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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 21, No. 1 (February, 1992): 29.

Favorably assesses La Maison suspendue and a re-issue of Hosanna.

Kellaway, Kate. Review of The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant. Observer Review (27 January 1991): 58.

Notes that "it's impossible not to warm to [Tremblay's] world; the problem is there is so little to support exuberant characters who badly need the narrative equivalent of a corset."

Manguel, Alberto. Review of Albertine in Five Times, by Michel Trembtay. Books in Canada 16, No. 4 (May, 1987): 22.

Considers the relevance of memory in Albertine in Five Times.

McGrath, Carmelita. "Caught in Suspension." Books in Canada 24, No. 2 (March, 1995): 38.

Review of The First Quarter of the Moon, observing that "Tremblay's particular gift … [is] to simultaneously enlarge a day into a world, and compress a world into a day."

Messenger, Ann P. Review of La Duchesse de Langeais and Other Plays. Canadian Literature 76 (Spring 1978): 101-04.

Briefly considers the various ways Tremblay uses the opportunities afforded by the short play genre.

Mitchell, Constantine. "Vues Animées." Canadian Literature 134 (Autumn, 1992): 171-73.

Finds Les Vues animées "an important contribution to understanding Tremblay's mature works."

O'Connor, John J. "Tremblay's Troupe." Canadian Literature 98 (Autumn 1983): 76-9.

Reviews translated editions of The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, The Impromptu of Outremont, Damnée Manon Sacrée Sandra, and Sainte-Carmen of the Main. Also includes positive review of Les Anciennes Odeurs.

Parker, Peter. "Sebastien Lives with Matthieu and Jean-Marc." The Listener 123, No. 3152 (15 February 1990): 34.

Denigrates Making Room as "sentimental, cliché-strewn and hollow."

Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. Review of Stories for Late Night Drinkers. Fantasy Review 9, No. 5 (May 1986): 25.

Praises the collection's "[wide] variety of characters" and "finely-honed construction and phrasing."

Solomon, Charles. Review of Making Room. Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 April 1991): 14.

Comments briefly on four-year-old Sebastien's role in the novel.

Townsend, Martin. Review of The Real World?. Quill & Quire 55, No. 3 (March 1989): 77.

Claims that "The Real World? reads a lot like Pirandello mired in melodrama."

Yhap, Beverly. Review of La Maison suspendue. Quill & Quire 58, No. 1 (January 1992): 28.

Finds the play "a brilliant accomplishment … but its brilliance is heightened further when seen in the context of a marvellous body of work."

Jane Moss (review date Winter 1984)

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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 the characters of his plays act out their past in the author's old neighbourhood near la rue Fabre. The second volume of this "comédie humaine montréalaise" focuses on a trio of eleven-year-old girls who will play lead roles in the elaborate Corpus Christi celebration put on for the Saint Stanislas de Kostka parish during the first week of June 1942.

Divided into four movements like the Brahms Fourth Symphony named as inspirational background music, the novel's action begins with the school day on Monday morning, June 1, and reaches its climax during the Corpus Christi procession on Thursday evening, June 4. During those four days, a number of events occur which change the lives of the characters and foreshadow the major transformation of Quebec Society during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960's. The plot is set in motion by Simone Côté's return to school after an operation to correct the harelip which had marked her life as well as her face. Her best friends, Thérèse (the future alcoholic waitress of En pièces détachées) and Pierrette (the worn-out prostitute of Les Belles Soeurs) welcome Simone back joyfully. The school principal, Mother Benoîte, a mean-spirited tyrant whose harsh discipline has earned her the nickname Mother Dragon Devil, takes note of Simone's improved looks by angrily threatening to expel her from school. Her anger stems from the incorrect assumption that the Côté family had paid for the cosmetic surgery after years of claiming they were too poor to pay extra school fees. The principal's overreaction provokes others to rebel against the religious educational system she represents. Simone's teacher becomes insubordinate in her defence of the girl and is threatened with banishment from the school. Sister Sainte-Catherine's dispute with Mother Dragon Devil disrupts the entire school community, and her eventual decision to become a lay teacher presages the demise of the Church's monolithic control over education. Simone's mother reacts by verbally assaulting the nun who humiliated her daughter, and the whole system which teaches shame and hypocrisy. Madame Côté's outburst, witnessed in silent approval by the humanitarian doctor who paid for the harelip operation, is an anachronistically early version of the virulent anticlerical attacks of the 1960's. Despite the unsettling events of Monday, the preparations continue for the gaudy repository which has brought fame to Saint Stanislas de Kostka parish. Sister Sainte-Catherine oversees the pageant, making sure that costumes, statues, and props are all readied and choosing the Grade Six students who will figure in the tableau vivant. Pierrette is named to play the Virgin's role with Thérèse as Bemadette Soubirous at her feet and Simone as an angel suspended by a rope over her head. As the procession nears, tension and excitement mount in the neighbourhood, in the community of nuns, and in the three little girls. Just as the parish priest is about to begin mass a tremendous storm breaks, soaking everyone, destroying the repository, and terrifying the little hanging angel.

Within a tightly structured chronological sequence of events, Tremblay follows the three girls back and forth from home to school in a way that allows him to present a realistic tableau of the life of average Montrealers during the war years, a fantasy world accessible to a chosen few, and a mordant satire of Quebec Catholicism. Thérèse's homelife is already familiar to the readers of La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte (1978), the first volume of Tremblay's "Chroniques." In this second volume, her aunt the Fat Lady is in a hospital Maternity Ward, grandmother Victoire is slowly dying, and Thérèse discovers sexuality in her encounters with the handsome but dull-witted Gérard Bleau. Those familiar with Tremblay's play, En pièces détachées, will remember Gérard as Thérèse's cartoon-loving husband and her brother, Marcel, as a madman. In Thérèse and Pierrette, the four-year-old Marcel enters the invisible realm of madness by visiting the empty house next door peopled by Rose, Mauve, Violette, and Florence (the knitting Québécois Fates) and the resuscitated cat, Duplessis. Beyond the mixture of realism and fantasy which characterizes life on la rue Fabre as he remembers and imagines it, Tremblay is interested in denouncing the Catholic Church's repressive control over the collective conscience of Quebec. Beneath the satiric comedy of his portrayal of the school nuns and the vulgar Corpus Christi repository, readers sense that Tremblay shares Charlotte Côté's anger. The religious procession becomes a symbol of the shallow ritualism and base hypocrisy of an institution concerned mainly with conserving its own power. But if the Church was all powerful in real life, the author is omnipotent in fiction and Tremblay uses his power to send the winds and rain which ruin the celebration. Building toward this cataclysmic finale, Tremblay skilfully combines numerous characters, subplots, and themes into a unified work, delightful to read.

Sheila Fischman has done an admirable job in translating the novel into English. Rather than translating word for word the often ungrammatical, often obscene, and blasphemous "joual" dialogue, Fischman chooses to make the characters speak the kind of colloquial language that lower-class anglophone Montrealers might have spoken in 1942. Thus, "maudite marde" becomes "shoot," "Mon Dieu" becomes "jeepers" or "Holy Cow," and "chus pas mal tannée" is translated "what a drag!" Purists could quibble over a few awkward expressions, but the overall effect is exceedingly good. Once again, Sheila Fischman has given English-speaking Canadians an opportunity to read a brilliant novel which depicts Quebec society on the verge of change. Tremblay himself metaphorically announces the end of the old era at the beginning of Thérèse and Pierrette when one of the girls says: "The lilacs are finished, but the / bleeding hearts'll be out soon. / I like bleeding hearts better."

Volker Strunk (review date January-February 1986)

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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 the confessional mode is the focal point of the piece, a large, wornout leather armchair in and in front of which Luc and Jean-Marc alternatively sit and kneel as they demonstrate strate that the need for affection is mutual.

The two had been living together for several years until the younger one, Luc, tired of being Jean-Marc's "cute little joyboy" and "disciple," decided to spread his wings. Evidently he didn't get very far; just back to "that darkness you'd hauled me out of," and that wasn't all fun and games. The setting he evokes smacks of Baal's ("I keep moving like a river, discharging my refuse into the sea!"), but unlike Brecht's amoral, polymorphous, perverse degenerate in search of orgiastic wriggles, Tremblay's Luc finds no celestial bliss in radical hedonism, since his pleasures in the gutter are circumscribed by his need to belong. That's why this bird returns to his former prison, his "big cage."

The master/slave relationship in this cage is acted out with an Oedipal vengeance since Jean-Marc, the dominant lover, college teacher by profession, also doubles as a father figure. In a gesture designed to signify his independence from his "father," Luc had moved out, though it's not long after re-entering his former prison that he feels "as if I'm talking to you like a son to his father … once again. It's true when all's said and done, you would have made a good father." In due course the prodigal son cries on "daddy's" shoulder and implores him to "Tell me a story like you did when I used to get depressed. Pretend you're my father one last time. When he's dead, I won't ask you again."

"He" is Luc's terminally ill real father, reportedly incapable of attending to his son's "stories," yet craving a proper send-off from Luc's lover. As a solution to parental despotism this is of course bound to fail, but the ending is not all bleak because Jean-Marc conveniently undermines his own status as surrogate father by becoming a fellow sufferer, a "brother," as it were, and thereby seems to prepare the ground for true companionship.

All this is about as undramatic as it can get, since the real conflict between Luc and his surrogate father just withers away as Jean-Marc discovers that he, too, is tired of playing games. But is this really what the play is all about? Has Tremblay been writing a silly little naturalistic milieu study demonstrating that not all is well in fairyland? Not one bit. Although the play can be approached as a realistic specimen, it makes its far greater impact as a rather sinister monodrama.

The prospect of a happy ending to this many-mirrored play is somewhat diminished by the fact that the place of the action—Jean-Marc's basement study—is a spatial pretext and that Luc's entry ("My goodness, a ghost!") is that of an unappeased ghost in the subconscious. The translator must have known what he was doing when he chose the title Remember Me, which recalls the ghost of Hamlet's father. The title is appropriate in a different sense, too. The man whom we see in the beginning marking papers has left no other mark. Rapidly approaching 40, the teacher/writer with one "utterly boring," "utterly useless" novel to his credit, yearns "to leave some indelible mark on the world, whereas in fact nobody will remember me, they'll just remember my 'disciples'—as you so snidely refer to them, since you're one yourself."

The "rotating" confessional mode the play adopts serves as the great leveller: in the realm where all are mediocre, none is, and that could be the premise of a renewed friendship. But a somewhat different picture begins to emerge if we see Luc's confessions—indeed his whole character—as the projection of the man in the basement who had always wanted to become what Luc is: an actor. Instead he has become a spectator, or more precisely, since he is self-conscious to a fault, a voyeur of himself. He used to get through the worst moments of his childhood by "watching myself on an imaginary screen playing my own role in an endless adventure film." But that doesn't work any longer, because "Whenever I try to recapture that state of grace which once did wonders for me, it's you I see, playing my role." And how does one cope with such an apparition, how does one accommodate one's envy of "the other" who has left his mark on the world? Well, one turns this mark into a stain—or better still, lets Luc himself turn the mark and imprint he made into a "stain," a "blemish." And finally one reduces him to the non-entity of one's mirror image: at the end we see Luc at Jean-Marc's desk, marking papers and repeating Jean-Marc's opening line, "Two mistakes in the title alone…. Incredible!"

Remember Me is a fine monodramatic miniature. One would like to see this translation performed soon, though one would also like to see the playwright break out of the miniature mold.

Catherine A. Paul (review date Winter 1988)

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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 impossible) to find an English-language dialect that could serve as an equivalent to joual. The end result is that the standard English of Albertine in Five Times reads smoothly enough on its own but it does seem somewhat flat and unevocative when compared to the original French text.

Linguistic considerations aside, it must be said that the English version of this play clearly reflects the complex character-structuring of the original. The key to this unusual structure lies in the main character who is deflected into five different roles, representing Albertine at five different stages of her life. Thus, on stage, we have the bizarre situation of five actresses each playing the part of Albertine at a different phase of her life (30, 40, 50, 60, and 70 years of age). The only other character in the play is Madeleine who, in her role as confidant to the five Albertines, performs a precise function in the dynamics of the play. It is her role which holds the disparate strands of dialogue together in a tentative but coherent fashion. The result is quite remarkable on stage, given that the bits and pieces of dialogue span a 50-year period and several different locations.

The thematics of Tremblay's penetrating rendez-vous with the five faces of Albertine are not uplifting. For Albertine, there is no evolution to a finer state of being, only nuances of her despair. There is a strong social commentary as the causes of Albertine's misery and rage unfold, fragmented, through the warp of time. We are faced with the ugliness of patriarchy from a woman's perspective—physical and sexual abuse, exhaustion, drugs—and an expanding anger that is ultimately tranquillized and thus leads nowhere. Even the fragile edifice of Albertine's brief spell of happiness is broken asunder by her daughter's death and the mother's subsequent feelings of guilt and responsibility. Thus Albertine must expiate her decision to give primacy to her own life.

Initially, I was astounded by the perspicacity and sensitivity of Tremblay's evocation of Albertine's situation. However, the action in the play is ultimately cyclical; Albertine's anger is exhausted, transforming itself into a hollow despair. Thus, despite the innovative qualities of Albertine in Five Times, the play has much in common with the theatre of the absurd. There are no images of creation, no spirals to evoke the possibility of constructive change. The five Albertines are really joining hands in the same fate; they represent variants of the same woman who throughout her life remains caged in the webs of patriarchy. Ultimately, Albertine's sense of failure and nothingness is a problem belonging only to herself: "I've raised two kids for nothing and I feel guilty because I know I did it badly. That's my problem."

Tremblay's play is nonetheless brilliant in its conception and characterization. Certain feminist concerns are delicately presented, inasmuch as they play a part in Albertine's life at different stages. However, the play is confined by its realism. Albertine is still struggling in vain within the limits of a male order. Her anger leads only to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. On the contrary, in feminist writing, we tend to find characters who are not trapped but empowered to establish the validity of their own values.

In Albertine in Five Times, we are witness to the different shades of hopelessness and impossibility throughout the main character's life span. Ultimately, Albertine at 70 is left with nothing: "Nothing will happen now … Mind you, that's just as well … an empty woman in front of an empty television in an empty room that doesn't smell good. Is this what you call a full life?" It seems that Tremblay is following the tradition of Waiting for Godot, only this time the protagonists are women and the original text is in joual.

Eva-Marie Kroller (review date Spring 1991)

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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 reassures himself of his friend's elusive presence by drawing his portrait over and over, suddenly finds his works riddled with holes. Together with Duplessis, the Fates are about to disappear and leave the apparently abandoned house which has been Marcel's refuge for many years. Marcel himself has evolved from the enchanting four-year-old in La Grosse Femme to a sweaty adolescent unfit for school and tormented by the other children. He is also given to epileptic seizures, an illness which his family shamefully tries to conceal from the neighbours. At the same time, he partakes of a world of fantasy and dream which remains largely closed to his cousin, "l'enfant de la grosse femme"—Michel Tremblay himself. A star student, "l'enfant" still senses his limitations, and the day covered by this book, June 20, 1952, painfully reveals some of them as he writes his end-of-year examinations. As in the previous books, Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges in particular, school is above all the place where the power of language is taught, but also often abused. As her son agonizes over his French test, "la grosse femme" graduates from reading to television, an invention she considers capable of breaking through the reader's and radio-listener's solitude, particularly extreme in her sister-in-law Albertine, "renfermée, buckée, bougonne." Here, Tremblay may locate the origins of his own fascination with television as a potentially effective popular art form: recent statistics have confirmed that popular serials are the top-ranking shows in Québec, compared to sports broadcasts in English Canada. This day in 1952 may also be Tremblay's awakening to the importance of joual as he watches his classmates yawn at their teacher's assurance that "le français … c'était une langue passionnante dont il fallait être fier, que les règles, compliquées au début, se simplifaient au fur et à mesure qu'on les comprenait …" This book is a chronicle of despair then, as Marcel and "l'enfant" relinquish their childhood dreams, and Marcel attempts to mark his grief with an apocalyptic burning of the Fates' abandoned house. At the same time, this day marks a beginning, "le premier quartier de la lune," and the book concludes with a brilliant evocation of the images of flight which permeate the "Chroniques" as a whole, whether it be the "chasse-galérie" in La Grosse Femme or the little hanging angel in Thérèse et Pierrette: "Au creux du croissant de lune, un petit garçon était étendu, bras dernière la tête, jambe croisées; il semblait rêver; au bout, suspendu dans le vide par le col de sa chemise qui risquait de déchirer à tout moment, était accroché un adolescent qui se débattait."

Kathy Mezei (review date Winter 1992)

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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, echo the Symbolists he admired, and with a few, striking exceptions are set in an oneiric rather than a localized world. His renowned sonnet, "Le vaisseau d'or," which sinks "dans l'abîme du rêve" has been set to music, choreographed, and used as the name of a restaurant operated by former Montreal mayor, Jean Drapeau. As Jean Larose's astute study, Le mythe de Nelligan, pointed out, Nelligan, handsome, tortured, perfectly symbolized a national schizophrenia—French patrimonie versus anglophone North American context. His was the sad story of a young man devoted to poetry, who wrote fervently from age 16 to 19 (1896 to 1899), at which point he was incarcerated in mental institutions for 42 years and thereby forever silenced. He prefigured many Quebec literary heroes who dreamed heroically, but failed, sinking dismally, like Nelligan's ship of gold, like his own youthful spirit. Think of Hubert Aquin's protagonists.

It was therefore a splendid idea to create an opera about Nelligan, and most appropriate that Michel Tremblay, by now another Quebec "mythe," produce the libretto. The well known Quebec composer, André Gagnon, wrote the score and collaborated with Tremblay. The debut of this opera was eagerly anticipated and surrounded by lavish publicity. Performed by the Opera of Montreal, it opened first in Quebec City in February 1990, and then in March in Montreal. Always interested in the twists and turns of "le mythe de Nelligan" I had wanted to hear the Opera. Luckily fate brought me to Montreal at the right moment.

As a spectacle, NELLIGAN was an inspired performance—rich costumes, a simple but powerfully choreographed set, an impressive cast including Louise Forestier (Emilie, Nelligan's mother) and Renée Claude (Françoise). But although the performers were impassioned in their delivery, the opera was a disappointment. Quite simply, Gagnon's music, Tremblay's libretto and presentation of the story were cliched and tainted by a superficial and unconvincing nineteenth-century veneer. A stronger sense of Nelligan's milieu, and indeed of his troubled personality could have been developed (what comes through are merely childish petulance and adolescent alcoholism). Instead, we were presented only with the banal threads of a tragic story, which is still not fully understood, since by Quebec law psychiatric records are not open to the public.

Tremblay's libretto opens, effectively enough, with a professor come to visit the elderly Nelligan just before his death in the hôpital Saint-Jean-de-Dieu. Nelligan then obligingly and pathetically attempts to recite "Le vaisseau d'or," but falters, misremembering his own lines. (Tremblay draws his material from Paul Wycznynski's detailed biography, Nelligan, 1879–1941, and from Bernard Courteau's more idiosyncratic Nelligan n'était pas fou). Then while the elderly Nelligan watches, the last few months before the young Nelligan's incarceration are enacted. These unfortunately are stylized, predictable set pieces, redeemed only by the pathos of the older Nelligan observing events roll to their ineluctable end, and trying vainly to intervene. A series of scenes involve his mother, Emilie, a Quebecoise with whom Nelligan has a particularly close relationship (though she was much troubled by the direction of his poems and may have destroyed some), his father, David, who speaks mainly in English (he was played by a former American, Jim Corcoran), his two sisters, his bohemian friends, Charles Gill and Arthur de Bussières, the priest, Eugène Seers (later Louis Dantin, who posthumously published Nelligan's poems), and Françoise, a journalist and kindred spirit.

Tremblay's lines do not rise to his usual exuberant eloquence, they remain pedestrian, hobbled by flat end rhymes: for example, listen to Emilie: "Pourquoi nommez-vous folie / ce qui n'est que mélocolie / d'un poète." These lines reflect banal notions of a tormented poetic soul. Most disturbing, however, is the tremendous importance of the French-English/mother-father conflict in Nelligan's unhappy life. Tremblay carries Philip Larkin's "they fuck you up, your mum and dad" to simplistic, annoying extremes. David Nelligan is forced to sing idiotic lines like "I don't want this son of mine to destroy everything. I worked hard all my life! A poet! For God's sake! Why not a murderer! Why not Jack the Ripper!" The young Nelligan responds later, equally inanely, with "La seule chose que vous me dites en français, c'est que je suis fou…." While obviously librettos are constrained by the need for repetition, often exacerbated by hackneyed end rhymes, surely Tremblay with his wonderful ear for the cadence of speech, could have been more inventive. This opera was produced in the midst of Quebec's language war, but to present Nelligan's sad fate as a consequence of the conflict with his English-speaking (and pugnaciously philistine) father, and of the quarrel between French (mother) and English (father) seems to me by now a battered platitude. This disappointing interpretation is all the more puzzling since there seems to be an autobiographical element in Tremblay's portrayal of Nelligan. He obviously identifies with the poet's dilemma—the absent father who works in English, the mother to whom he is warmly attached, and the defiant embracing of a career as writer. Nelligan's psychosis and his undiminished significance to the people of Quebec deserved better. Alas.

Renate Usmiani (essay date Spring 1995)

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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 a half millennia, contemporary Native playwrights are forced to work in a genre without direct antecedent in their culture—although theatrical elements are present, of course, in many aspects of traditional ritual and story-telling. In the best plays to emerge so far, the authors have successfully grafted the techniques of Euramerican postmodern theatre onto this traditional matrix of ritual and storytelling. The result is a theatre which shares all the surface aspects of Western postmodernism, but differs essentially in spirit. A comparative study of Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters (1988) and Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs (1968) illustrates this point vividly, because of the exceptionally close parallels between these two sister plays.

The parallels are immediately apparent on the levels of subject matter and dramatic techniques; there are also less apparent parallels with respect to the authors. Both Les Belles-soeurs and The Rez Sisters are first productions which catapulted their young authors, and with them the society they represent, into the spotlight of national and international attention; both plays marked the beginning of a new and original dramaturgy, the "nouveau théâtre québecois" in the case of Tremblay, Native Canadian theatre in that of Highway.

Both plays focus exclusively on female characters. In both plays, these characters are closely related, as indicated by the respective titles. In both plays, the characters are struggling against poverty, as indicated by the respective settings: East Montreal in one case, the Wasaychigan Hill reserve in the other. In each play, Bingo represents a central experience in the characters' lives.

The critical statements which were made about The Rez Sisters not surprisingly parallel many comments made earlier about Les Belles-soeurs. Daniel David Moses, for example, points to "the spiritual malaise which is the subject of the play"—a clear parallel to Tremblay's much-commented "maudite vie plate" motif. Moses also states that "The accomplishment of The Rez Sisters is that it focusses on a variety of such undervalued lives and brings them up to size"—a point much emphasized in the reception of Les Belles-soeurs. Finally, the two plays share a central image: Bingo, symbol and illustration of the consumerism of the women represented and the spiritual emptiness of their lives.

Dramatic Techniques

Both playwrights have developed an original and highly effective way of combining bold superrealism, verbal and nonverbal, with theatrical techniques, most importantly, the use of spotlit inner monologues and surrealistic effects. Dramatic structures in both cases reflect the two authors' passionate interest in music. Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs has been referred to as an oratorio, his Forever Yours, Marie Lou as a string quartet, Sainte Carmen of the Main as an "opéra parlé," Similarly, Daniel David Moses says of Highway's plays: "He structures his theatre pieces according to models of musical composition. He uses characters like themes and thinks of character conflict in terms of counterpoint and contrast." Pennie Petrone states that Highway combines his "knowledge of Indian reality in this country with classical structure, artistic language. It amounted to applying sonata form to the spirit and mental situation of a street drunk"—words that catch Tremblay's mixture of lyricism and naturalism exactly.

Given the fact that Highway himself has stated his admiration for the work of Michel Tremblay, one might be tempted to look upon The Rez Sisters as a purely derivative work. Nothing could be more wrong. On the contrary: close analysis shows that the surface similarities actually help to bring out more dramatically the deep seated differences between the two works. These are, of course, rooted in the basic difference in Weltanschauung on which the plays are based: Les Belles-soeurs reflects the negativism, nihilism and spiritual void of Western postmodern society; The Rez Sisters, in spite of the similarity of its dramatic matrix, reflects the essential humanism, life-affirming and hopeful world view of Native peoples.

The striking parallels between the two plays might therefore seem paradoxical. However they can perhaps be explained by the fact that, historically, both works stand as early monuments to postcolonial emancipation and self-assertion, each appearing in the wake of a—more or less—"quiet revolution": that of Quebec in the 1960s, that of native people in the 1980s. Politically, Native demands for self-government echo Québécois demands for separation. Just as Tremblay's use of the joual was in itself a political act in 1968, the very emergence of a Native dramaturgy represented a political act in 1988. The choice of all female characters in both cases underlines the oppression of the respective societies and their desire for empowerment. Each play brought in its wake a veritable explosion of theatrical activity—in the 1970s in Quebec, in the 1980s with Native people. The political impact of these cultural revolutions became clearly manifest in a change of nomenclature from colonial to independently assertive: "French-Canadian" to "Québécois", "Indian" (the colonizers' term) to "Native" or "Aboriginal." An oft expressed and deep-seated nostalgia for the precolonial heroic past accompanies the cultural and political revolution in both cases. In Quebec, it is a nostalgia for the pioneering glories of the period before the British conquest; with Native peoples, it is the memory of pre-contact lifestyles, free from the psychological tutelage and social and physical ills imported by the colonizers. One might offer the hypothesis, then, that obvious similarity in the "moment" within the historical evolution at which the two plays were written accounts for their many parallels, while the equally obvious essential differences between the two societies living through this "moment," would account for the differences. Let us proceed to an examination of these two aspects of the "sister plays."


1. The Bingo Game

In both plays, the authors focus on a group of disadvantaged women whose lives revolve around bingo. In The Rez Sisters, "THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD" actually provides the axis on which the action of the play revolves, from news of the impending event, to preparations for the trip to Toronto, to the event itself and its aftermath. In the earlier play, the importance of bingo in the women's lives is presented more subtly, through one of the two stylized Odes which create the leitmotifs for each act. In act one, it is the Maudite Vie plate recitation, a summary of the belles-soeurs' frustrated and meaningless lives. In act two, the Ode to Bingo mobilizes all of the women's latent energy and enthusiasm. For one brief moment, hostilities cease and they are all united in their common panegyric to the supreme stimulant of their lives. Even senile old Olivine Dubuc is overcome with excitement at the mention of the word "bingo."

The women's bingo mania gives both authors a wonderful opportunity for satirizing their cheap consumerism and materialistic attitudes. In the Tremblay play, the high point of this satire occurs with Germaine's litany of all the household goods she will be able to order, now that the entire catalogue is within reach of her unlimited greed. Highway outdoes the vulgarity of Germaine's monologue by focussing on the particular wish fantasy of one woman, Philomena:

"Myself, I'm gonna go to every bingo and I'm gonna hit every jackpot between here and Espanola and I'm gonna buy me that toilet I'm dreaming about at night … big and wide and white"; and after she has won the money to make her dream come true: "… But the best, the most wonderful, my absolute most favorite part is the toilet bowl itself. First of all, it's elevated, like on a sort of … pedestal, so that it makes you feel like … the Queen … And the bowl itself, white, spirit white—is of such a shape, such an exquisitely soft, perfect oval shape that it makes you want to cry. Oh!!! and it's so comfortable you could just sit on it right up until the day you die!"

Women waxing rhapsodic over the shape of a toilet bowl or the Mickey Mouse pattern on their wallpaper obviously lack ordinary emotional, physical or spiritual fulfilment. Bingo represents the ultimate escape—more pathetic even in the case of the belles-soeurs whose rewards seem hardly worth getting worked up about ("plaster dogs, floor lamps") than for the rez sisters, who are true gamblers at heart, always expecting the big jackpot that will take them out of their misery. Neither Tremblay nor Highway chose to present an actual bingo game realistically on stage. The stylization of the Ode to Bingo, and surrealistic quality of THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD clearly emphasize the preeminently psychological reality of bingo in the lives of the women.

2. Use of Language

For both Tremblay and Highway, the creation of a dramatic idiom represents a political statement of self-assertion and identity. Each play mirrors the language spoken by the people, rather than the literary idiom. Tremblay actually created his own idiosyncratic spelling to transcribe an oral language to the printed page. His use of joual, highly controversial at the time, forced a breakthrough in Quebec dramaturgy and brought about the evolution of a new stage idiom, totally different from "literary" French. Highway's problems in creating a dramatic idiom are obviously even more difficult than those faced by Tremblay. Like other Native writers, he finds himself trapped between the desire to express himself in his own language, which he loves and admires, and the practical need to use the language of the colonizer ("forced appropriation") in order to have his plays produced before a wider audience. In The Rez Sisters, he has achieved a double compromise: small portions of the dialogue are actually written in Cree and Ojibway, with English translations in footnotes; the bulk of the dialogue however, reproduces the "village English" spoken on the reserve, an idiom whose relationship to literary English parallels the relationship of joual to literary French. Although Highway is clearly more reticent than Tremblay about abandoning "correct" grammatical structures, his choice of vocabulary and sentence patterns do convey the feeling of spoken English; his abundant use of swear words amply matches the sacres found in Tremblay. Tremblay discovered the poetic qualities of his own vernacular early on in his career and has defended it from the start: "Le joual est très pres de la musique, très lyrique…." Native writers sometimes find it difficult to dare embrace this non-literary type of language. As Maria Campbell says:

A lot of my writing now is in very broken English. I find that I can express myself better that way. I can't write in our language, because who would understand it? So I've been using the way I spoke when I was at home, rather than the way I speak today … what linguists call "village English." It's very beautiful … very lyrical, but it took me a long time to realize that … it's more like oral tradition.

3. Superrealism

Both authors use superrealism—a grotesque extension of naturalism—verbally and as part of the action. With Tremblay, it is the combination of faulty grammar, mispronunciations, clichés, formulas, and swearwords—especially those with religious connotations, the sacres—which give the dialogue a superrealistic quality; in the Highway play, it is the totally uninhibited use of offensive language. To give just one example, Emily Dictionary's outburst during the riot scene [in The Rez Sisters]:

Emily: (to Philomena). So damned bossy and pushy and sucky. You make me sick. Always wanting your own way. (To Veronique.) Goddamed trouble-making old crow. (To Pelajia.) Fuckin' self-righteous old bitch. (To Marie-Adèle.) Mental problems, that's what you got, princess. I ain't no baby. I'm the size of a fucking church. (To Annie.) You slippery little slut. Brain the size of a fuckin' pea. Fuck, man, take a Valium.

Violence, scatology and sex as part of the stage performance are the hallmarks of superrealism. Because of the absence of men in the plays under discussion, sex is not shown, although verbal references are made quite frequently. Violence on stage, however, appears prominently in both plays. In Les Belles-soeurs, the physical violence is mainly centered around the helpless, pathetic Olivine Dubuc. This unfortunate old lady takes a tumble down three flights of stairs in her wheelchair, an additional fall in Germaine's kitchen afterwards, and is mercilessly beaten over the head by her "saintly" daughter-in-law Thérèse. None of the other women expresses the slightest sympathy for her. General violence erupts at the end of the play, when the "sisters" finally openly admit their rage at Germaine's good luck and not only reveal all the booklets of stamps they have stolen, but start fighting for more stamps among each other like a horde of wild animals, with the old lady gleefully riding her wheelchair amidst their vicious antics.

The most striking examples of superrealism in The Rez Sisters occur in act one, as the women meet at the store. Philomena is shown sitting on the toilet, at the back of the store, in full view of the audience; later, she comes forward, slowly pulling her clothes back on. The riot scene that follows exceeds the violence of the riot scene in Les Belles-soeurs, which is fully mimed; in The Rez Sisters, physical aggression is matched by verbal aggression, as illustrated in the quotation mentioned earlier.

4. Theatricatism

Again, the type of theatrical techniques used in the two plays are strikingly similar: both plays focus on individual characters with stylized, spotlit monologues, and on key motifs with highly stylized scenes. In Les Belles-soeurs, the stylized monologues reveal the deepest concerns of the women, concerns they are unable and unwilling to verbalize and share: Yvette's obsession with her daughter's wedding and obvious craving for a closer relationship; Mademoiselle Des-Neiges Verrette's secret, hopeless love for the brush salesman; Lisette de Courval's snobbery and disdain for the other women; Rhéauna and Angéline's obsession with illness and death; Angéline's admissîon of her only, and sinful, pleasures at the "club"; and Rose's bitter denunciation of marriage and her husband's unending demand for his sexual "dues."

Highway uses stylized, spotlit monologues in act one, spotlit duologues in act two. The speeches in act one, by Annie, Marie-Adèle, and Veronique are all framed by the refrain WHEN I WIN THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, and express each woman's greatest dream. For Annie, it is to be able to buy records, and to sing with the band of her idol, Fritz the Katz; Marie-Adèle fantasizes about a lovely island of her own; and Veronique sees total bliss in a new kitchen stove, just like the one used by Madame Benoit on television. Similarly, Highway uses characters isolated by spotlight in act two; however, here, in the van en route to Toronto, the women do not speak singly, but in pairs revealing themselves to each other in moments of total intimacy: Annie with Marie-Adèle, Philomena with Pelijia, Emily with Annie and Marie-Adèle. Thus, we learn about their underlying troubles, fears and anxieties, not normally mentioned: Marie-Adèle's fear of what will happen to her husband and children after her death from cancer; the trauma of Philomena's past, the white man who left her, the child she had to abandon; Emily's tragic loss of her best friend in a motorcycle accident.

Unlike the spotlit monologues and duologues, which reveal the thoughts and feelings of individual characters, the stylized scenes illustrate their collective concerns. In Les Belles-soeurs these take the form of choral recitations: the Maudite vie plate chorus in act 1, the Ode to Bingo in act two. In the Maudite vie plate recitation, by five women, a solo voice alternates with the chorus in a litany enumerating the endlessly repetitive daily chores of everyday life in a loveless family setting. The entire piece is framed by the play's leitmotif, the "maudite vie plate" refrain. "Chus tannée de mener une maudite vie plate! Une maudite vie plate! Une maudite vie plate! Une maudite vie plate! Une maud…." The Ode to Bingo is similarly set in a leitmotif frame: "Moé, l'aime ça, le bingo! Moé, j'adore le bingo! Moé, y'a rien au monde que j'aime plus que le bingo!" The recitation itself is done by a chorus of four voices, with four other women shouting out bingo numbers in rhythmic counterpoint.

While Tremblay's stylized scenes operate entirely on the verbal level, Highway's are based exclusively on movement and sound. As in Les Belles-soeurs, each act features one major stylized scene. In act one, the superrealistic scene in the store fades into a highly theatrical, mimed finale, accompanied by sound effects:

The seven women have this grand and ridiculous march to the band office, around the set and all over the stage area, with Pelajia leading them forward heroically, her hammer just a-swinging in the air. Nanabush (the Trickster figure) trails merrily along in the rear of the line. They reach the "band office"—standing in one straight line square in front of the audience. The "invisible" chief "speaks": cacophonous percussion for about seven beats, the women listening more and more incredulously. Finally, the percussion comes to a dead stop.


Pelajia raises her hammer to hit the "invisible" chief, Nanabush shrugs a "don't ask me, I don't know," Emily fingers a "fuck you, man." Blackout.

A similar pattern appears in act two. Following the women's (realistic) planning session in Pelajia's basement, a series of highly theatrical sequences—seven "beats"—illustrates their superhuman fundraising efforts for the trip to Toronto. Musical effects accompany their frantic activities, mimed at ever accelerating speed:

And the women start their fundraising activities with a vengeance. The drive is underlined by a wild rhythmic beat from the musician, one that gets wilder and wilder with each successive beat, though always underpinned by this persistent, almost dance-like pulse. The movement of the women covers the entire stage area, and like the music, gets wilder and wilder, until by the end it is as if we are looking at an insane eight-ring circus…. Pelajia's basement simply dissolves into the madness of the fundraising drive.

As a final, and obvious, parallel, the theatrical, rather than realistic, conclusions to both plays must be mentioned: Tremblay's surrealistic rain of gold bond stamps to the tune of "O Canada," Highway's Trickster figure Nanabush in a triumphant dance on the roof of Pelajia's house. Both authors have thus chosen to end their basically realistic play on a highly unrealistic finale. However, the feeling we are left with in each case is totally different. Underneath the surface parallels, the two sisters plays are poles—or rather, cultures—apart.


The rain of gold bond stamps at the end of Les Belles-soeurs reinforces the consumerism which is being satirized throughout the play. It also serves to make a political statement: material bliss (unlimited stamps) is linked to toe-ing the patriotic party line (singing of O Canada). On both levels, the author's cynicism is complete and absolute. In contrast, the appearance of the Nanabush character at the end of The Rez Sisters, not just dancing, but dancing "triumphantly," points to the underlying spirituality, affirmation of life and joie de vivre which characterize the play as a whole—a far cry from the spiritual and emotional aridity of Les Belles-soeurs. This essential difference between the Quebecois and the Native "sisters" play can be easily demonstrated by examining the different treatment of settings, representation of characters and representation of religion and morality in the two works.

1. Settings

The obvious difference here is the single setting of Tremblay as opposed to the multiple settings of Highway. Tremblay achieves the oppressive atmosphere of his play largely through classical concentration. Not only does all the action take place within the confined space of Germaine's kitchen; concentration of time is also used, to the point where acting time in fact parallels real time. Even the division into two acts is carefully engineered so as not to break this unity: the beginning of act two reiterates the final lines of act one, so that the linkage is complete.

Corresponding to the greater spirit of freedom in the Highway play, a variety of settings is used, both indoor and outdoor: on the roof of Pelajia's house, in front of Marie-Adèle's, inside Emily's store and Pelajia's basement; in the "van," the bingo hall, by the "graveside." Some of these are realistic, others, such as the van, the bingo scene and the grave scene, only indicated. Some of the transitions take the form of conventional scene changes, others are built into the action in such a way that imaginary settings are created through mime and movement on stage: the march to the store, the march to the band office, the shift from van to bingo hall and from bingo hall to Marie-Adèle's porch and graveside. Tomson deals as freely with time as he does with space. Time zones are telescoped and crossed as he cuts from one scene to the next without transition. These technical differences in dramatic structure create a diametrically opposed "atmosphere" for each of the two plays. In, Les Belles-soeurs the audience is drawn into the oppressive, almost claustrophobic ambiance in which the characters conduct their lives; with The Rez Sisters, we feel a sense of fluidity, movement and greater freedom.

2. Characters

The essential difference between the two plays becomes even more apparent if we take a closer look at the depiction of the characters. The "sisters" of the two plays differ considerably in their attitude towards each other. Tremblay's belles-soeurs detest each other with a vengeance; although they try hard to maintain a facade of polite behavior, their underlying hostility, envy, and aggression shows through at all times, occasionally erupting into vicious quarrels and bouts of insults. The only time they seem to be able to act in unison is in a collective act of disloyalty as they embezzle all of Germaine's gold bond stamps. The rez sisters, too, have their often violent disagreements and their anger often flares up. However, an underlying spirit of cooperation and genuine sisterhood permeates the play. The women work together, rather than against each other, and thus manage to carry out their ambitious project of going to Toronto.

Highway has chosen not to deal with the generational conflict in his play. Tremblay, on the other hand, includes three young women to illustrate the tragic mother/daughter relationship among his belles-soeurs. The play opens with dialogue between Germaine and her daughter Linda, and the antiquated form of address they use (Linda says "vous" to her mother, Germaine "tu" to her daughter) already indicates the existence of a hierarchical relationship that can only lead to tension. Intolerance and total lack of comprehension on the part of the older generation creates resentment, rebellion and often, as in the case of Lise, despair for the younger women. Both playwrights have included a black sheep in their roster of characters. In Les Belles-soeurs, it is the unfortunate Pierrette, who works in a "club"; in The Rez Sisters, the infamous Gazelle Nataways, "who's got them legs of hers wrapped around big Joey day and night." The rez sisters look upon Gazelle with a certain amount of amused disgust; but the belles-soeurs, rejoicing in their moral superiority and Pierrette's inevitable eternal damnation, feel justified in ostracising her fully and refusing all help, even when she reveals her desperate situation. Their lack of tolerance is absolute.

A similar pattern applies in the treatment of the old and handicapped, nonagenarian Olivine Dubuc in Les Belles-soeurs, Zhaboonigan Peterson, the 24-year old mentally retarded adopted daughter of Veronique in The Rez Sisters. Tremblay's vitriolic representation of the women's heartless treatment of the old lady contrasts sharply with the rez sisters' friendly acceptance and mothering of Zhaboonigan. The belles-soeurs' uncharitable attitude is further aggravated by their hypocrisy. Although they are all exasperated by the presence of the senile old woman, only Rose, the most outspoken of the group, openly voices what they secretly think: "Est assez vieille! Est pus bonne à rien!" Meanwhile the others vie with each other in their hypocritical encouragement of Thérèse's self-indulgent martyr complex:

GERMAINE: Mon Dieu, Thérèse, que j'vous plains donc!

Des-Neiges Verrette: Vous êtes trop bonne, Thérèse!

GABRIELLE: C'est vrai, ca, vous êtes ben que trop bonne!

THÉRÈSE: Que voulez-vous, y faut ben gagner son ciel!

MARIE-ANGE: On pourra dire que vous l'avez gagné, vot'ciel, vous!

THÉRÈSE: Ah! Mais, j'me plains pas! J'me dis que le bon Dieu est bon, pis qu'y va m'aider à passer à travers!

LISETTE: C'est ben simple, vous m'émouvez jusqu'aularmes!

THÉRÈSE: Voyons done, Madame de Courval, prenez sur vous!

Des-Neiges Verrette: J'ai rien qu'une chose à vous dire, Madame Dubuc, vous êtes une sainte femme!

Nobody objects, of course, when the object of their adulation administers vigorous blows to the old woman's head, her normal method of keeping Madame Dubuc senior in line. Zhaboonigan, too, often makes a nuisance of herself; but one of the women invariably finds a way to distract and control her in a casual and friendly manner. There is little self-pity on Veronique's part, and certainly no undue praise given by the other women.

Intolerant, narrow-minded and emotionally stunted, Tremblay's women are naturally unable to form intimate relationships with each other. We learn of their real lives only through the stylized monologues. In contrast, Highway, by spotlighting not only single characters, but also pairs, emphasizes the openness and intimacy between the women.

In both plays, the consumerism of the women depicted is heavily satirized. However, even here there is a difference. In The Rez Sisters, crass materialism is tempered by some more humane ideals: Veronique dreams of a shiny new kitchen stove, but she also plans to use it to cook for all the motherless orphans on the reserve; Marie-Adèle's utopic private island will provide an ideal spot to bring up a happy family. In contrast, the belles-soeurs' greed is unmitigated: Germaine has no intention of sharing a single item of her windfall with anyone.

In the pursuit of their materialistic goals, the two groups of women also show essential differences. The belles-soeurs live in a state of resignation. They may curse their "maudite vie plate," but do nothing to improve their lot. They can only count on good luck to improve their fate: a windfall of gold bond stamps, or maybe a win at bingo. The rez sisters, too, set all their hopes on the chance of winning at bingo. However, once they find out about THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, they display enormous energy to get what they want (the fundraising drive). In fact, the author emphasizes his characters' active, resolute commitment to self-help by beginning and ending the play with the image of Pelajia, hammer in hand, repairing the roof of her house. The conclusions of the two plays also sharply contrast the belles-soeurs' inertia with the practical, no-nonsense approach of the rez sisters. At the end of Tremblay's play, nothing has changed for his group of women. At the end of The Rez Sisters, a number of positive developments have taken place: Philomena has the coveted new toilet; Annie gets to sing backup with the band of Fritz the Cat; Emily is carrying a child; Véronique cooks for the widowed Eugene and his fourteen children. Just like the differences in dramatic structures, the differences in the depiction of the characters reveal the almost polar opposition in attitude between the two cultures.

3. Religion and Morality

Both plays depict societies which have retained just a faint echo of the profound spirituality of the past; and where winning at bingo, rather than religious ecstasy, has become the ultimate metaphysical experience. However, the way the two authors deal with this loss of spirituality is essentially different. Tremblay puts on stage the ossified remains of a defunct Catholicism to which the belles-soeurs still adhere, oblivious to the emptiness of their religious practices: novenas and rosaries at home, faithful attendance at all parish events outside. Tremblay's regular stage designer, André Brassard, captured this spirit of excessive, but spiritually bankrupt, religiosity in his stage set for the original production of Les Belles-soeurs: Germaine's kitchen appeared cluttered with cheap plaster saints and holy pictures, in cynical counter-point to the less than Christian behavior of the assembled parish ladies.

In contrast, Highway's rez sisters show no interest in organized religion—other than Church-run bingo games, of course. But the author has chosen to give them a steady, if largely unrecognized, spiritual companion, Nanabush, the Trickster figure of Native mythology. Looking at the two plays under discussion, one must agree with his own basic distinction between native and non-native theatre: "The use of underlying native mythology is the distinctive feature. Native mythology is so alive, electric, passionate … the relationship in Christian mythology is so academic by comparison … [in] native theatre that spirituality is there. It is magic." The Nanabush figure in The Rez Sisters indeed conveys that sense of magic. According to the author's production notes, he is to be played by a male dancer, "modern, ballet or traditional." He appears in three guises: a white bird (joy); a black bird (death); and as the glittering bingo master (wish fulfilment). Only Zhaboonigan, the retarded girl, and Marie-Adèle, sick with cancer and close to death, have some inkling of the spirit within the bird. When Nanabush first appears, a white seagull outside Marie-Adèle's house, the author immediately makes the connection between native mythology and native language: Marie-Adèle addresses him in Cree in the longest Native language passage of the play. Subsequently, Nanabush appears in his multiple roles. As a joyous, comic trickster, he accompanies the women on their march to the store, to the band office, and playfully joins his own antics to their frantic fundraising efforts. In a moving scene with Zhaboonigan, he proves the only confidante to whom she is able to tell the story of her traumatic childhood experiences. Full of trust, she concludes with a childlike: "Nice white birdie you." In the surrealistic bingo scene, Nanabush becomes the glitzy bingo master who, however, fails to call out the much-wanted number, B14. Nanabush as the black bird visits Marie-Adèle, and finally comes to take her away in the midst of the bingo riot:

And out of this chaos emerges the calm, silent image of Marie-Adèle waltzing romantically in the arms of the Bingo Master. The Bingo Master says "Bingo" into her ear. And the Bingo Master changes, with sudden, bird-like movements, into the nighthawk, Nanabush in dark feathers. Marie-Adèle meets Nanabush.

Nanabush, then, stands for the joyful, life-affirming spirit of Native mythology, as well as for a calm and fearless attitude to death. As Highway points out, contrasting these attitudes to the Christian ones, "One super-hero is stating that we are here to suffer and the other basically says we are here to have a helluva good time … One was crucified, the other wasn't; so we have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about…." The two plays provide a perfect illustration of these basic differences. All the women of the older generation in Les Belles-soeurs are deeply steeped in a sense of sin and guilt. Trying to have a bit of innocuous fun at a club brings tragic consequences for Angéline Sauvé, as she is told "mais c'est péché mortel" and "le club, mais c'est l'enfer" by her self-righteous best friend Rhéauna. Angéline's spotlit monologue reveals the full pathos of such oppressive Puritanical altitudes, as she comments on her joyless upbringing: "J'ai été élevée dans des salles paroissiales par des soeurs qui faisaient c' qu'y pouvaient mais qui connaissaient rien, les pauvres! J'ai appris à rire à cinquante-cinq ans! Comprenez-vous! J'ai appris à rire à cinquante-cinq ans!" Similarly, the belles-soeurs show total intolerance and lack of compassion for any young girl who has "fallen" from the straight and narrow path. Lise Paquette is driven to the edge of suicide by their vicious self-righteousness, summed up by Rose, speaking for all of them: "Non, pour moé là, les filles-mères c'est des vicieuses, qui courent aprés les hommes." The problem does not arise in The Rez Sisters; even Emily Dictionary, the toughest of them all, accepts the fact of her pregnancy quite stoically.

Just as the excessively developed sense of sin and guilt leads to a total condemnation of all pleasures, it brings with it an almost hysterical fear of death and the threat of eternal damnation. This is well demonstrated in Les Belles-soeurs as Rhéauna and Angéline contemplate their own death on their return from the funeral parlour:

ANGÉLINE: … J'veux mourir dans mon lit … avoir le temps de me confesser …

RHÉAUNA: Pour ça, non, j'voudrais pas mourir sans me confesser! Angéline, promets-moé que tu vas faire v'nir le prêtre quand j'vas me sentir mal! Promets-le moé!

ANGÉLINE: Ben oui, ben oui, ça fait cent fois que tu me le demandes …

RHEAUNA: J'ai tellement peur de mourir sans recevoir les derniers sacrements!

The contrast to the attitudes about death in The Rez Sisters is absolute. Marie-Adèle's last words, spoken, significantly, in Cree, convey only trust and serenity:

U-wi-nuk u-wa? U-wi-nuk u-wa? Eugene? Neee. U-wi-nuk ma-a oo-ma kee-tha? Ka. Kee-tha i-chi-goo-ma so that's who you are … at rest upon the rock … the master of the game … the game … it's me … nee-tha … come … come … don't be afraid … as-tum … come … to … me … ever soft wings … beautiful soft … soft … dark wings … here … take me … as-tum … as-tum … pee-na-sin … wings … here … take me … take … me … with … pee-na-sin …;

Who are you? Who are you? Eugene? Nee. Then who are you really? Oh. It's you, so that's who you are … at rest upon the rock … the master of the game … the game … it's me … me … come … come … don't be afraid … come … come … to … me … ever soft wings … beautiful soft … soft … dark wings … here … take me … come … come … come and get me … wings here … take me … take me … with … come and get me.

In conclusion, we see how Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway, writing at similar points in the historical evolution of their society, and choosing a similar dramatic matrix, have created two totally dissimilar plays, each reflecting its own culture. Tremblay's cynical treatment of the topic echoes Western postmodern nihilism; Highway's idealization of characters and retention of a humanistic value system indicates a society in which hope has not yet died. Highway sums it all up in the funeral speech, given by Pelijia at Marie-Adèle's grave:

Well, sister, guess you finally hit the big jackpot. Best bingo game we've ever been to in our lives, huh? You know, life's like that, I figure. When all is said and done. Kinda silly, innit, this business of living? But. What choice do we have?… I figure we gotta make the most of it while we're here. You certainly did. And I sure as hell am giving it one good try. For you. For me. For all of us. Promise. Really. See you when that big bird finally comes for me.




Tremblay, Michel (Vol. 29)