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Michel Tremblay 1942–
French-Canadian dramatist, novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter.
Tremblay is considered one of Quebec's outstanding dramatists. His plays, which are noted for their intense, acerbic dialogue, reveal Tremblay's separatist politics and paint sharp portraits of French-Canadian culture. Some of his recurrent subjects include self-alienation, incest, sadomasochism, and absence of choice, which most critics interpret as metaphors for the problems of Quebec society.
Tremblay's best-known dramas include Les belles-soeurs (1973), a diatribe on the cultural plight of French-Canadian women, and Hosanna (1974), an intense study of a homosexual couple struggling with self-loathing and self-denial. But for all of the pessimism which prevails in Tremblay's writing, he consistently ends his dramas on a defiant and triumphant note. Although he portrays social conditions in French Canada as harsh and oppressive, he does not cast them as insurmountable. In some of his dramas, Tremblay endorses the continuing French-Canadian struggle for self-awareness and autonomy by occasionally allowing his characters to transcend their misery through relentless introspection and perseverance.
Tremblay has also produced critically successful fiction. La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte (1981; The Fat Lady Next Door Is Pregnant) is an imaginative semiautobiographical novel in which Tremblay uses a protean narrative technique similar to that of James Joyce in Ulysses. Contes pour buveurs attardés (1966; Stories for Late Night Drinkers) is a collection of short stories which combine social commentary with a touch of the macabre.
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Though ["Hosanna"] goes over homosexual materials with which we are twice too familiar, and while it tells more than it shows, the play creates a fully believable character in an emotional situation that changes his life before us. That, I believe, is a major element of high drama.
"Hosanna" takes place just after its title character has been humiliated, which naturally sets it up to reveal the humiliation two hours later. I am not about to tell you exactly what it was and that's just as well since the event itself is a letdown. But between these two factors, Tremblay tells the story of a self-contemptuous drag queen who is tortured by his own wits and perceptions. He knows just how ridiculous he looks in drag, knows just how stupid the queens around him are, knows the degradation and vulgarity about him. He masochistically wallows in it. He detests every sequin on his garish gown but admits that in all its crudeness it is precisely how he imagined it. He is at the mercy of his gay scene.Having made his reputation as a bitch, he is living with a stupid motorcycle stud on whom he can shower insults, knowing that the stud must accept them (being financially dependent) and if not, hoping for a nice sadistic beating. There is an awkward moment when Tremblay has Hosanna psychoanalyze all this for himself … but in the end the queen must confront a more real truth. This comes after a huge and magnificently written soliloquy based, believe it or not, on the theme of Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra." It leads to a crest of palpable honesty—when a man who was always sure he wanted to be a woman realizes that he cannot be, doesn't have to be and doesn't want to be. When Hosanna accepts himself as a man, a homosexual and a man, the play swims.
Mind you, this is still a play that relies on homosexuality (the way old ones relied on murders) as a substitute for plotting. There is nothing more to the story than jealousy …, the soliloquy and the self-realization. Once the story about the humiliation is told, the beginning of the play makes no sense. If there is any relationship between the play and its author's strong feelings for separation between the French and the English Canadians, it is oblique to say the least.
Yet "Hosanna" is truly moving and it has been written by a real playwright who can write poetic prose, handle literary technique and create character…. "Hosanna" may not be to a gay liberationist's liking in its affecting cross-section of a homosexual's unhappiness, but it does feel truthful and is ultimately noble.
Martin Gottfried, "'Hosanna' Opens at Bijou," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of The New York Post; © 1974 New York Post Corporation), October 15, 1974 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXV, No. 16, October 21, 1974, p. 216).
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The title character of Saint Carmen of the Main is a woman, and not a writer but a popular singer in a sleazy nightclub in the East End of Montréal. But when Carmen comes back from a trip to Nashville full of revolutionary ideas for her act, the parallel will be recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of Québec theatre. When Carmen says that she's tired of the old country-music formulas, that she wants to sing songs with fresh lyrics that relate to the everyday troubles of the audience, it's obvious that she's creating just the sort of stir Michel Tremblay himself created in the theatre when he rebelled against the old formula of farces and melodramas and put on the stage the lively, bizarre street-people of the Main….
The triumphant return of Carmen to her old stomping ground has unfortunate echoes of Hello, Dolly!, but Carmen becomes a martyr in the cause of artistic integrity that would be beyond the wildest fantasies of the writer-characters in Nothing to Lose and The Splits. The bad old days of Québec pop culture are represented by a whorish old singer named Gloria …, who specializes in garish Spanish production numbers, and when Carmen comes to a bad end, it's a big setback for folk art. For some reason, it takes a lot of courage to let Carmen do things her way. Maurice, the boss at Carmen's club, is a sinister character tied up with the underworld, and artistically he's a coward. He thinks that Carmen's innovations are dangerous—that once people start hearing authentic songs about life, they'll wake up enough to stop going to sleazy nightclubs. And Maurice is in cahoots with a paid assassin named Toothpick who is out to get Carmen for making fun of his tiny penis. Saint Carmen of the Main is partly redeemed by Tremblay's entertaining facility for street vernacular and by the vitality of the outlandish misfits he's so fond of. But the self-serving parable makes one blush for the author. What he's telling us is that the world hasn't had the guts to give Michel Tremblay his due, and is falling back instead on the bad old forms that flourished before Saint Michel of the Main came along to show us our very souls. By the time Carmen meets her Fate in true Greektragic style, you may wish this were Hello, Dolly! When a writer starts seeing himself as a martyr and a saint, he's in big trouble with himself—even if the audience laps it up. (p. 62)
Martin Knelman, "The Playwright As Star of the Play" (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 93, No. 3, April, 1978, pp. 59-60, 62.∗
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Overeating is just one of many obsessions Tremblay explores in La Grosse Femme (the full title means "the fat lady next door is pregnant"). The book is a day (May 2, 1942) in the lives of 20 or so working-class Montrealers ranging in age from two to 72 and in species from cat to Fate. That's right, the novel features the inner dialogue of Duplessis the cat (all political allusions intended) as he patrols his garbage cans and valiantly defends them against scavenging mongrels. On a more classical level, three immortal sisters and their mother sit on a walk-up balcony knitting booties for the fat lady's future child, invisible to all the characters except Duplessis and the occasional madman.
A writer who plays games like these has grandiose schemes in mind, and this is apparently only the first of an extended cycle of novels. The themes introduced here are familiar from Tremblay's plays; foremost among them is the corruption of human relationships by political and cultural oppression. The Second World War is on, same as the First, and the Québécois are again rebelling against conscription despite the blandishments of official billboards ("Give me your husband and I'll give you 20 bucks") and the golden opportunity of dying for les maudits anglais. But hope springs eternal in the female womb—fathers of large families are exempt from military service, hence the proliferation of babies in the novel and the fat lady's condition. Rather than an expression of love, creating life becomes a necessary means of evading death.
Michel Tremblay could never be accused of subtlety, and his latest work includes blatant diatribes against the church and its sordid dialectic of angels vs. whores. But the novels and the plays are redeemed by an emotional power that arises from convincing situations in which real characters are revealed as if they themselves, not the Fates or Michel Tremblay, were in control of their own destinies. (p. 44)
Mark Czarnecki, "Of Fat Cats and Fates and Quebec's Moby Dick," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 14, April 2, 1979, pp. 42, 44.∗
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In slightly more than a decade of sustained productivity, Michel Tremblay created no less than eleven plays set in the working-class environment of east-end Montreal. With the advent of Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra, he announced that the collection was in fact "un premier cycle" and now complete. The series comprises Les Belles-Soeurs (1968), En pièces détachées (1969), La Duchesse de Langeais (1969), Troit Petits Tours (1969), Demain matin, Montréal m'attend (1970), A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou (1971), Hosanna (1973), Bonjour, là, bonjour (1974), Surprise! Surprise! (1975), Sainte Carmen de la Main (1976), and Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra (1977). Tremblay's failure to clarify his intentions at the outset has led critics to treat the scripts in piecemeal fashion; and no comprehensive analysis of the cycle has appeared since the playwright underscored its coherence. As a modest and preliminary step in this direction, it may be useful to identify one of Tremblay's major themes and to examine systematically, if somewhat superficially, its theatrical metamorphoses from the first play to the last.
Fairly early in his career, Tremblay declared his commitment to a theatre dedicated to social inquiry and, implicitly, social animation…. Like Ibsen, Chekhov, and Sherwood Anderson, he places a relatively small and self-contained society under an artistic microscope. In the grey shabbiness of life on the rue Fabre, strait-jacketed by religious and social sanctions, and the garish glitter of the Main's (St. Lawrence Boulevard's) Clubland, with its siren-song of freedom, he discerns local truths with universal validity. His findings, although uniquely stated and especially germane to Quebec, are reflected and magnified in international Humanities and Social Sciences literature since World War II.
Tremblay's sociological orientation, like that of contemporary sociology itself, evinces a keen awareness of the inter-relatedness of psychological and social processes. Specific areas of his psycho-social concerns may be usefully illuminated by the work of Freud, Erikson, Adorno, Goffman, and others; but the theories of social psychologist Erich Fromm permit a more comprehensive overview of the cycle, and a remarkably coherent interpretation of the diverse, enigmatic, and unorthodox components of the constituent parts. Indeed, the plays may be read almost as theatrical explorations of the dilemma of the alienated self, both individual and societal, classically mapped by Fromm in his Escape from Freedom (1941) and The Sane Society (1955). (pp. 44-5)
Tremblay's cycle, begun in the early years of Quebec's Quiet Revolution and completed shortly after the accession to power of the Parti Québécois, may be read literally as a series of case studies of alienated individuals, most of whom, when faced with the challenge of self-realization, opt to escape from it. At the level of allegory or parable, the cycle depicts and indicts a society (or nation) which rejects its birthright rather than confront the perils inherent in self-responsibility. Tremblay's vision, if bleak, is nevertheless not entirely pessimistic. Among a host of commonplace prisoners of their own fears, he highlights a few bizarre marginals who, through an act of will, break their defeatist patterns and learn to respect themselves and to love others. Their feats of self-conquest, however trivial and grotesque, signpost the route to be taken by a more conventional populace in search of personal and national liberty. (pp. 45-6)
Les Belles-Soeurs, the first play and the cycle's cornerstone, is a horrifying group-portrait of the rue Fabre's alienated females. To the kitchen of Germaine Lauzon, at some time during the 1950's, Tremblay brings fifteen married and single women, ranging in age from adolescence to advanced senility. Throughout an evening spent pasting into books the million trading stamps won by Germaine in a contest, the women bemoan their bondage and powerlessness; yet they remain, in Fromm's phrase, "quite incapable of experiencing the feeling of 'I want' or 'I am.'" The seven married women consider themselves victims of sexually-insatiable husbands and demanding families. But the spinsters are hardly more liberated. Des-Neiges Verrette, demoralized by aloneness, orders her life about the monthly visits of a brush-salesman. The ghoulish crones, Rhéauna and Angéline, bondslaves to a death-wish, forge a cannibalistic attachment to each other. Pierrette, although she defies neighbourhood conventions and finds work in a Main nightclub, wins at best a Pyrrhic victory. Intimidated by the prospect of freedom, she becomes the mistress of her employer, only to find herself rejected at the appearance of the first wrinkles. The teenagers, Linda, Lise, and Ginette, are doomed, for want of positive models, to repeat the negative patterns of their elders.
To assuage the anxieties of individuation without self-strength, the women compulsively seek refuge in what amounts to an authoritarian sisterhood: and their individual and collective practice of masochism and sadism, the two major types of authoritarian behaviour noted by Fromm, give the play its heartbeat. The expressionistic soliloquies and choruses are exercises in masochistic release, while the realistic dialogued sequences reveal the sadistic impulse rampant. (p. 46)
In ninety minutes of black comedy, Tremblay explodes two centuries of popular belief, ecclesiastical teaching, and literary myth about Québécois women. Far from being the traditional guardians of religious and moral values, happy progenitors of large families, and good-humoured housekeepers, they stand revealed as malevolent misfits, consumed with hatred of life and of themselves. The corrupt wellspring of female neuroticism. Tremblay argues, infects the whole of Québécois society; and its malign effects are traced in detail in the plays which follow.
Although Les Belles-Soeurs may be viewed simply as a psychosocial case study, it yields additional resonance when considered as a political parable. The 1950's era seems to represent for Tremblay the nadir of Québécois self-esteem; and the stifling despair of Germaine Lauzon's kitchen mirrors allegorically Quebec's cultural alienation during the Duplessis regime's final years. The traditional male traits—independence, adventurousness, and strength—are absent. Creativity, nurture, and love—customarily associated with the female—have degenerated into sterile authoritarianism. The ills of Québécois society, like those of the rue Fabre women, derived, Tremblay seems to suggest, less from external forces than a subjective inability to assert its identity, to accept self-responsibility, and to risk moral aloneness. Inexplicably, self-strength failed. The maintenance of Canadian ties offered escape from the fear of freedom; yet the sense of powerlessness evoked by such a choice drove the Francophone community to cannibalize itself in frustration. Tremblay's allegorical intent is transparent in the concluding moments of the play as Germaine's predators triumphantly warble "O Canada." It is devastatingly appropriate that the song which celebrates the demise of Germaine's aspirations to self-respect should be the anthem which symbolizes for Quebec nationalists the victory of hostile dependency over cultural integrity. When Germaine, in a fit of masochistic abandon, dries her tears and lifts her voice with the authoritarian sisterhood. Tremblay's bitterness is almost palpable.
In En pièces détachées Tremblay again returns to the Duplessis era, and now places a rue Fabre family under his psycho-social microscope. Alienated from their individual selves, each other, and the community, the aging Robertine, her daughter, Hélène, and her son-in-law, Henri, vent their frustrations behind closed venetian blinds. Meanwhile, like a Greek tragic chorus, the neighbourhood women, in apartment windows opposite, deride their aloofness and mouth the virtues of conformity. (pp. 47-8)
The authoritarian females of En pièces détachées differ little from their counterparts in Les Belles-Soeurs, and warrant no detailed comment. It should be noted, however, that the women of both plays, despite their insecurities, maintain their role-functions. Henri and Claude, precursors of a succession of alienated males, do not.
En pièces détachées, a morality play populated exclusively by vices, finds Tremblay's confidence in Quebec's cultural future wellnigh non-existent. Where, he demands allegorically, are the robust male virtues to be discovered?… To seek selfhood through invisibility (which Claude believes is conferred by the wearing of sunglasses) and foreign speech is the counsel of manifest lunacy; yet the madman's formula was consistently adopted by hosts of Québécois, male and female, as a survival strategy from Montcalm's defeat onwards. And the outcome, Quebec nationalists argued, could only be cultural annihilation.
In La Duchesse de Langeais, a monologue spoken by a sixty-year-old transsexual, Tremblay depicts another mode of escape from male impotence—the resort to what [Erik] Erikson terms a "negative identity." This psychological mechanism, close to the ultimate form of masochism, involves the adoption of a role precisely the opposite of the one normally expected…. Tremblay makes little effort to explain the origins of the Duchesse's identity shift. Her femininity is simply there, absolute and irrevocable. Sexually active with males since the age of six, and a prostitute since twelve, the Duchesse can scarcely conceive of a time when she was not female.
The role-models adopted by the Duchesse were not those offered by the drab submissive rue Fabre sisterhood; rather she chose as her exemplars the show-business queens—women like Tallulah Bankhead, Esther Williams, and Mae West—who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of glamour, and used it to buy power. Materialistic prosperity, social status, and international travel, the lodestars of the Duchesse's existence, were readily to be found within the homosexual subculture; and a forty-year career as a prostitute and female impersonator brought her a fair measure of all three. But her success did not come cheaply. Her sadistic exploitation of wealthy admirers … necessitated the systematic dehumanization of both herself and the objects of her conquest. Now drunkenly sunning herself at a southern resort, with only memories of her erstwhile triumphs to solace a desolate old age, she endures the consequences of a loveless past.
Tremblay's account of one man's flight into negative identity as an antidote to weakness is shrewdly observed and poignant. But its parabolic import is infinitely more telling; for the plight of the Duchesse mirrors in microcosm the fate of a society which forgoes its identity in favour of an alien mask. Quebec's virility crisis, Tremblay graphically argues, cannot be solved by an effeminate surrender to North American materialism and its meretricious cultural trappings. Such a course amounts to prostitution and evokes an even greater alienation. Tremblay is not yet prepared to suggest a viable alternative; but his rejection of the ludicrous, and ultimately pathetic, strategy adopted by the Duchesse, and thousands of his Quebec compatriots, is virulent and total.
A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou sees Tremblay return to domestic life on the rue Fabre, where he now explores with sustained precision themes only outlined previously. In a complex dramatic structure composed of two intermeshed time planes, the sisters, Manon and Carmen, visit together at their childhood home, while their parents, Léopold and Marie-Louise, simultaneously relive the marital hell which culminated in their murder-suicide ten years earlier. The daughters alternately participate in the past action, analyze it in the present, and attempt to assess its influence on their future. Tremblay's intricate and sensitive analysis of the conflict-ridden union of Léopold and Marie-Louise at once clarifies the source and nature of the male-female hostility evident in earlier dramas, and charts its effect on the next generation.
Rue Fabre inhabitants, male and female, are, Tremblay suggests, victims of a societal structure which places a higher value on role-identity than on personal identity. Women are categorized as mothers and housekeepers, and men as fathers and providers. Words like individuality, will, and self-realization have no place in the local vocabulary. (pp. 49-51)
A toi, pour toujours is not only a devastating psychosocial analysis of the traditional working-class Québécois family, but an eloquent allegorical appeal for national Emancipation from a destructive authoritarian past. (p. 52)
Carmen's assertion of the right to shape her own destiny marks but the beginning of her quest for Fromm's desiderata—love and productive work. Tremblay will report on her progress later. Meanwhile, in Hosanna, he undertakes another study of the male identity crisis, a bizarre account of the stresses within a homosexual union. Out of a relationship fragmented by individual alienation, the play's protagonists create a harmony unknown to heterosexual couples in previous dramas.
Claude Lemieux, a rural youth dominated by a mother who preferred to have him homosexual rather than attached to another woman, migrates to Montreal where he assumes the negative identity of Hosanna; and, like the Duchesse, adopts the trappings of American movie heroines to lend glamour and status to an otherwise sordid existence. Her lover, Raymond Bolduc alias Cuirette, has equally thorny identity problems. His sense of maleness is present, if precariously so; but he is unable to accept his homosexuality. Compulsively bolstering his masculine image with leather suits and a motorcycle, he seeks sexual release with transvestites or the half-invisible males who haunt the unilluminated toilets of Lafontaine Park. Four years of sado-masochistic cohabitation bring Hosanna and Cuirette close to the desperation of Marie-Louise and Léopold. Promiscuous sexual contacts outside their relationship yield no satisfying alternative liaison; yet their life together has become intolerable.
In the course of the play, the illusions upon which both predicate their survival are shattered. Hosanna enters a transvestite masquerade contest dressed as Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Cleopatra. When she discovers that, in collusion with Cuirette, the entire community has donned the same garb, her humiliation is complete. Cuirette suffers a comparable trauma when the city erects lights in Lafontaine Park and robs him of a major source of sexual satisfaction.
Out of the shattered fantasies of both, however, comes a rebirth. Hosanna refuses, despite her shame, to be cowed by her enemies. In an unwonted act of self-strength, she takes the stage in her turn and endures the unavoidable ridicule. Simultaneously she comes to recognize her escapist fancies for what they are…. Cuirette also makes discoveries. At the moment of Hosanna's inner triumph, he realizes that he loves her—not as Hosanna, but as Claude. And her female disguise is no longer essential to their relationship. Claude acknowledges that he is a man; and Raymond accepts the fact that he loves a man. For the first time in the cycle, one human being admits to love for another.
Claude and Raymond are social deviants and will always be so; but marginality, they come to realize, need not imply alienation. Their recipe for relatedness requires as its key ingredient acceptance of, and respect for, one's own individuality…. A sense of self-worth in turn creates for the protagonists the freedom to love others, to engage in what Fromm describes as "an experience of sharing, of communion, which permits the full unfolding of one's own inner activity." The nationalistic moral of Tremblay's fable is transparent. Québécois society may be a North American minority and comparatively powerless, but it need not be alienated. Its salvation lies not in a submissive retreat into negative identity or aggressive displays of mock-virility, but in an acceptance of its uniqueness, and the cultivation of love and respect for itself. Only through confidence in its own integrity can it achieve ties of solidarity with the world outside.
"What matters," Fromm maintains, "is the quality of loving, not the object." In Bonjour, la, bonjour, as if to test the implications of Fromm's assertion, Tremblay explores the plight of a man who discovers that the object of his love is his sister. So compelling, however, is his need for love, the ultimate remedy for alienation, that he defies society's strictest taboo in order to attain it.
The mother of the play's hero, Serge, died when he was barely out of infancy, leaving him to the mercies of a father (Gabriel) who, like Léopold, sought in the tavern escape from family duties and the tedium of factory labour. Three older sisters—Lucienne, Denise, and Monique—became surrogate mothers to Serge and his youngest sister, Nicole. From early childhood the senior sisters encouraged an excessive intimacy between their youngest siblings; and, with adulthood, the relationship ripened into incest. Serge, at twenty-five, and Nicole, at thirty, finally confront the long-term implications of their involvement, and decide to separate to contemplate their options. After a three-month European vacation, Serge returns with his mind made up.
In a series of encounters during Serge's first evening at home, Tremblay juxtaposes the socially-accepted authoritarian destructiveness of the rest of the family with the socially-reprehensible happiness of the illicit lovers. Gabriel, Serge's father, withdraws into deafness. The aging aunts, Albertine and Charlotte, measure out their days in illness, self-pity, and mutual hate. Serge's elder sisters are equally maladjusted: Lucienne seeks solace for an unhappy marriage in a succession of young lovers; Denise eats incessantly to compensate for spiritual hollowness; and Monique downs tranquillizers with abandon to dull the pain of loneliness. If this be normality, Tremblay demands implicitly, what is deviance?
Fortunately Serge eludes the authoritarian toils which enmesh the rest of the family, and stoutly resists any attempt to entrap him. He doubts neither his male identity nor his heterosexuality. Such anxieties as he has are prompted less by the unorthodox object of his love than by his concern for the quality of his feeling. His attachment to Nicole was initially, indeed, predetermined; but as an individual possessed of reason and freewill he refuses to be the creature of blind authoritarianism…. After long and careful thought, he concludes that he loves Nicole not out of compulsion but volition; and to reject his chance for happiness would be foolhardy. By the deliberate exercise of reason and will, the brother and sister assert their right to choose their destiny and their readiness to accept the consequences of their decisions. Inevitably a high price must be paid for flouting social convention; but their happiness justifies it. (pp. 52-4)
The nationalistic import of Tremblay's incest metaphor needs little explication. His impatience with the alienated destructiveness which passes among Québécois for normalcy is self-evident. The play is a clarion call to renounce negativism, and, through the deliberate employment of reason and will, to seek love—if only within the cultural family. Such a love, far from being aberrant, is positive and productive. It allows not only fulfilment today, but reconciliation with yesterday. To say "Popa, j't'aime" to the past is to understand it, to forgive its errors, and to accept responsibility for the future. It is, in short, to discover a sense of historical identity. Tremblay's use in the play's title of the salutation, "Bonjour," a word spoken in Quebec both at meeting and parting, signals at once the birth of love and the death of alienation.
In Sainte Carmen de la Main Tremblay resumes the tale of Carmen, who achieves at last Frommian freedom only to be martyred by the social forces which thrive on human bondage. This, the penultimate play of the cycle, simultaneously celebrates Tremblay's belief in man's potential for self-realization and betrays his fearful conviction that in modern society the odds are heavily against its fulfilment.
Over the years since A toi, pour toujours Carmen's career on the Main has prospered; and in recent months she has journeyed to Nashville to improve her vocal technique at the expense of her lover, Maurice, proprietor of the Rodeo nightclub and underworld kingpin. As the play opens, she is about to make her second début at the Rodeo, an event eagerly awaited by local transvestites, prostitutes, and other denizens of the area. She begins her performance with translations of Western "hits"; but toward the end switches to songs she has written herself about the lives of Main-dwellers. Her lyrics are hymns to the value and beauty of the human spirit, and the redemptive power of self-strength…. Overnight Carmen becomes a heroine to her public, and a material threat to Maurice, whose lifestyle is supported by the very weaknesses Carmen decries. When she refuses to heed either her lover-employer's pleas or warnings, her career as social animator is cut short by two shotgun blasts; and her place is filled by her rival, Gloria, a purveyor of Latin American schmaltz.
Arguably Carmen is not perfect. She is naive, over-confident, and impulsive; worse still, her alliance with a brutal hood makes her the indirect author of her own destruction. Yet the splendour of her love redeems all faults. It now goes beyond the love of self or a particular individual and embraces an entire society…. Carmen cares profoundly; and her art (Fromm considers art a "prototype" of productive work) is the inevitable and happy effect of her altruism…. This consummate synthesis of love and productive work, in an environment implacably hostile to both, at once precipitates Carmen's ruin and vindicates her claim to sainthood.
As an object lesson in humanism, Sainte Carmen functions admirably; but at the level of allegory it disappoints. According to Tremblay, the piece was designed as a parable dealing with "la place de l'artiste dans la société"; and when read thus, it smacks more of self-conscious posturing than passionate conviction. Can the playwright be seriously suggesting that the socially-committed artist inevitably suffers destruction at the hands of hostile authority? Such has not been his lot at any rate. Nor can one give much more weight to his simplistic conclusion that escapist art (represented by Gloria) must prevail over higher forms (epitomized by Carmen). Does Tremblay believe in art as an instrument of social reform at all? His decision to kill Carmen before her work comes to fruition conveniently evades the question altogether.
Sainte Carmen completes Tremblay's exploration of man's need for Frommian "rootedness" and "relatedness"; and, in the final play of the cycle [Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra], he turns to a third human drive noted by Fromm—the impulse towards transcendence. (pp. 55-6)
The protagonists are familiar figures from previous plays. Manon, the God-ridden recluse of A toi, pour toujours, and Sandra, a transvestite who is mentioned in Hosanna and appears in Sainte Carmen, occupy houses facing each other on rue Fabre. Both lived in the area during the period of En pièces détachées when Sandra was the small boy, called Michel. Exactly the same age, they developed a close childhood friendship, the nearest thing to love either was to know. Now about thirty, living in physical proximity but long estranged, each pursues in isolation her own mode of transcendence. Sandra views herself as gross flesh, the passive instrument of an omnipotent sexual drive, and seeks transcendence through erotic fantasy in the play's early sequences. Manon considers herself pure spirit, the yielding plaything of God, and pursues a metaphysical union with the Deity through faith and unrelenting self-abnegation. In the course of the drama each protagonist is increasingly reminded of past links with the other; and both come to recognize themselves as alter egos. Simultaneously their transcendental obsessions begin to intermingle. Manon's spiritual devotion is tainted and hindered by sensual distractions, while Sandra's mirages take on religious overtones. (pp. 56-7)
Considered as allegory, Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra is a sensitive and openhearted account of the playwright's own passion for transcendence. Sandra is clearly Tremblay himself; indeed, prior to her adoption of a negative identity, she bore his name. His plays, like Sandra's Batman fantasies, are not only efforts to animate a society mired in despair, but also attempts to transcend through creativity the sense of having been created. Manon's awareness of her origins in the will of the author … echoes Tremblay's recognition of his own plight; and in her successful flight into transcendence he vicariously realizes his own aspirations…. Manon's mode of transcendence cannot, of course, be his, however attractive it may seem at times. His lot is to attempt through art to transcend his existential pain in a gift of hope to his society. (pp. 57-8)
When compared with the best of contemporary plays dealing with human alienation, it must be admitted that the Les Belles-Soeurs cycle pales alongside the work of Miller, Albee, Beckett, Pinter, or Genet. Tremblay's commitment to nationalistic allegory inevitably obliges him to sacrifice breadth of social observation, complexity of psychology, and catholicity of appeal. His weakness as a world-class dramatist, however, is precisely the source of his power as a Quebec playwright. His dramas were not designed as universal theatrical statements, but as works of social animation for a specific place and time—Quebec during the Quiet Revolution. And no one understood better, or articulated more poignantly, the national psychology of the period. His recreations of particular segments of Quebec life were authentic and revealing; and his allegorical message was apt, comprehensible, and effective. The impact of his theatre upon Quebec's cultural evolution over the past decade defies measurement. (p. 58)
John Ripley, "From Alienation to Transcendence: The Quest for Selfhood in Michel Tremblay's Plays" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 85, Summer, 1980, pp. 44-59.
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Although practically unknown to theatre audiences in this country, Tremblay is one of Canada's leading dramatists. Bonjour là Bonjour (1974), received sharp criticism for its dialect, and also because it dealt with an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. The eight-character drama takes up the return of a young man, Serge, to his Montreal family. While treating the brother's and sister's relationship sensitively, the play also explores the situation of their widowed father, who comes to live with them. (pp. 392-93)
What is remarkable about Tremblay's treatment [of the incest theme] … is the way in which the play deftly avoids any pathological focus on the lovers. Instead, it uses their love as a touchstone for exploring the structure of the modern family and the religious-cultural influences upon it.
Significantly, all the characters are continually onstage in designated areas, each of them (except for the spinster aunts) interacting with Serge only as he moves from one to the other. Changes in situation and locale are assisted by lighting, and frequent simultaneity of playing occurs. Thus the son's search for a meaningful life connects the individual situations, and all the family members and their values are neatly distinguished and criticized. Tremblay presents all his characters, except for Monique the lover/sister and Gabriel the father, as dissatisfied with their lives and stifled by societal influences.
While much of the play deals with personal, individual problems, the real focus of Tremblay's commentary rests upon social conformity, and he celebrates those who opt for a lifestyle in defiance of societal codes. He conveys this idea, of course, mainly by the affection between Serge and Monique, but, surprisingly, of all the scenes given over to Serge and the members of his family, the moments shared by the lovers are the most brief. They become revealing through the ways in which the others fracture those moments, pulling Serge away by cynical comments, pleas for assistance, accusations, and the like. Additionally, Tremblay connects Serge and Monique's situation to that of their father, forced to live with his two bickering sisters. These three ultimately choose to live on the margins of "respectable" society, but their choice is shown to be far more meaningful through its contrast with the family situations of the others. (p. 393)
Roger Ellis, in a review of "Bonjour, là, bonjour," in Theatre Journal (© 1980, University and College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 32, No. 3, October, 1980, pp. 392-93.
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The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant … lives up to the promise of its marvellously evocative cover—a hand-tinted photograph, from a family album, of the author's mother smiling out a window. The fat woman of the title is Tremblay's mother, pregnant with him. Homework. "I wrote this book," he said, "to tell these people how much I love them." He certainly succeeds at that.
The novel takes place on May 2, 1942; it's spring on la rue Fabre in Plateau Mont-Royal. There's a large cast, of assorted ages, that includes a cat and a dog. Many of the humans are related, some are eccentric, a few invisible, all the married women are pregnant. The book is a series of rhythmically interconnected sketches; if at times it displays a touch more languid whimsy than fictional drive, on the whole it's a delightfully effective, lyrical memoir.
It's a book about women, chiefly—about their youth and age, maternity, affection, sexuality. Men are baffled, irrelevant accessories to the poised expectant fertility that, in Tremblay's view, turns the world. The language of The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant—it's properly heard as a novel for voices—creates a neighbourhood tuned to the harmonines of pregnancy, to the awe of life about to be lived. There are some lovely, moving scenes. Tremblay is nothing if not eloquent, and he's found a deft poetry to speak his tribute here. (p. 28)
Douglas Hill, "First Impressions" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 11, No. 2, February, 1982, pp. 28-9.∗
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In 1978 Tremblay abandoned the dramatic form and published La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte, the first novel of his proposed trilogy, Chroniques du plateau Mont-Royal. In effect a continuation of the cycle of Les Belles Soeurs, with a similar decor, language, and some of the same characters, seen now as children, this trilogy here offers its second volume, Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges. As in the preceding novel, one notes the use of short récits, dialogues in joual, biting caricatures, and the fantastic. One also meets again Albertine, sister-in-law of la grosse femme, although the emphasis is now on her daughter, Thérèse, and on her friends.
Thérèse et Pierrette is prefaced by a significant quotation from John Irving's The World According to Garp on the preference for imagining rather than remembering. Tremblay's novel, however, is a successful mélange of both mental activities. It is divided into four chapters, called movements, and each one represents both one day and one movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony, with characteristic notations of allegro, andante, and the like. Its action occurs one month after that of the first novel: 1-4 June 1942 in Montreal.
Exuding Tremblay's typical cynical humor and obscenity, the work is a delightful chronicle of a trio of pre-adolescent girls, "Thérèse pis Pierrette": the pretty Thérèse, Pierrette with her protruding teeth, and Simone, the hair-lipped child miraculously attractive after an operation. Their friendship, personal and familial relationships, and daily lives at a religious school are all skillfully interwoven by the author.
It is precisely that school, along with its mother superior, teaching nuns, and parish priest, that is the main object of Tremblay's satire. He condemns both the school and its convent, where there reigns a network of ambitious, hypocritical women choosing sacrificial submissiveness and living in a repressive atmosphere. Their prototype is the unforgettable mère Benoîte des Anges, "mère Dragon du Yable," who hates children and enjoys humiliating and terrorizing others. Her male counterpart is monseigneur Bernier, a wicked, political manipulator who loves personal victory. This couple is placed in conflict with the gentle, doubting soeur Sainte-Catherine, her dearest friend, soeur Sainte-Thérèse, the obese soeur Sainte-Philomène, and soeur "Pied-Botte." All are deeply involved in the preparations for the altar that will be the highlight of the annual procession for Corpus Christi. Cynically portrayed as "presque paien" and "presque funèbre," this procession is predictably ruined in a final scene of pandemonium.
Although excited about their chosen roles in this religious ceremony, the schoolgirls are equally concerned with other matters: Thérèse's vague sexual awakening, as she is lustfully desired by an adult man; and their families, with Simone's devoted mother and the complaining, bitter, and yet pitiful mother of Thérèse.
And then, described by his mother as either crazy or a future poet, there is Thérèse's four-year-old brother, Marcel, who, along with his great oncle, Josaphat-le-Violon, and his grandmother, Victoire, consoles himself with his imaginary, talking cat, Duplessis (adversary of the dog, Godbout, in La Grosse Femme), and with the stories and music of four imaginary women. Refusing to accept repressive Catholicism, imposed upon them by Jansenist priests, this sensitive group prefers to dream, as they listen to the beautiful oral legends of their homeland.
Michel Tremblay's latest novel is an exceedingly enjoyable book; we should anxiously await the publication of La Duchesse et le roturier, the third novel of this commendable trilogy. (pp. 444-45)
Paula Gilbert Lewis, in a review of "Thérése et Pierette à l'école des Saints-Anges," in The French Review (copyright 1982 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LV, No. 3, February, 1982, pp. 444-45.
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Even in translation, it is obvious that [Tremblay] is a formidable wordsmith. His dialogues are spare and forceful. Words are used not just to explain character but to express it. When Manon in Damneé Manon, Sacreé Sandra says to the statue of the Virgin Mary, "Your Son asks too much of me …", it is both audacious and pitiable and shows us the deep passion of Manon's faith. Or even in his worst play to date, Sainte-Carmen de la Main, crisp lines like "Gloria is the music I liked yesterday" speak tomes.
But what is commendable in a sentence can be noisome in thought. Three of Tremblay's recent plays, the two already mentioned and The Impromptu of Outremont,… suffer from a constriction of ideas. They have no ambiguity, no true clash of values, and consequently they have characters who never jump from the page.
Tremblay's apostasy from angry young man to gentle philosopher has made room for a more circumspect writer. In Damneé he examines, as the book cover says, "the sacred and the profane". With The Impromptu Tremblay tells us of the empty life of the rich. And in Sainte-Carmen we are witness to a tale of cultural revolution. But only in The Impromptu can we watch an idea being considered, tested and fought over. When it happens in Sainte-Carmen with Maurice telling the eponymous heroine that the people will soon forget her, it is too brief to be meaningful.
What is clear in each play as well is that a single idea, a singular, almost dogmatic, purpose, governs everything at the expense of tension and character building. Neither Manon nor Sandra are real and admit so at the play's end. Carmen is a mouthpiece for the change popular artists should go through if they are to better represent their people. And the sisters in The Impromptu are caricatures created to represent various sides of a political problem. They come on stage whole, as interpreters of their creator's viewpoint, and they leave or die representing the same thing. In Impromptu, where there is some transformation, some step towards a better understanding of the world, the rigidity of Tremblay's simplistic view of tightassed rich people vs. laid-back workers prevents us from enjoying the process. A world used to live on one small street in Tremblay's early plays, but that world has now devolved into one much too tidy and obvious idea per play.
Boyd Neil, "Canadian Plays Lacking Ideas and Critics" (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire and the author), in Quill and Quire, Vol. 48, No. 4, April, 1982, p. 29.∗
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From the beginning, [Tremblay] managed to achieve a double synthesis: a synthesis of the major theatrical traditions which, at least potentially, come together in contemporary French Canada, and a synthesis between universality and solid regionalism.
A young playwright working in Montreal in the sixties could not but be aware of three totally distinct theatrical traditions: the local tradition of realistic theatre developed by Gélinas and Dubé; the tradition of the American theatre, too close to home to be ignored; and the classical and modern European tradition, rejected by the more radical groups, but present nonetheless as a matrix and source of archetypes. While other dramatists felt compelled to make a choice between traditions, Tremblay instinctively took the path of synthesis, taking from each what it could contribute towards the aesthetic completeness of his own work.
Within the creative process, of course, the fusion of elements occurs on the level of the unconscious. Nevertheless, Tremblay is very much aware of the importance, to his work, of those he calls his "maîtres à penser." The themes, settings, characters and language of his plays clearly demonstrate his concern for the "regional"—in the sense of a realistic, slice-of-life—representation. He is also very much aware of the close ties between French-Canadian and American culture, stressing that the identity of the French Canadian does not depend upon a rejection of the American element in his life, but rather on a fully conscious acceptance of that fact…. Of American writers, the work of Tennessee Williams has been an especially important factor in Tremblay's artistic growth; one can also detect certain similarities with Edward Albee. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not feel compelled to cut himself off from the classical European tradition, or even that of France, in an attempt to flaunt his anticolonialism. On the contrary: as a schoolboy, Michel, who did not attend the cours classique, but had a friend who did, avidly read all the classical works he could borrow. He has always retained an enormous admiration for the formal perfection of Greek tragedy, especially the choral tragedies of Aeschylus. Without this classical background, he would never have been able to achieve the complex musical structures, largely based on choral techniques, which constitute the major artistic merit of his plays. As for the French classics, in one of his early works, La Cité dans l'oeuf, he went so far as to try to emulate Racine by restricting himself to a list of one hundred adjectives in an effort to achieve the simplicity of the neoclassical style. Of the more recent European playwrights, Beckett is his favourite. Although Tremblay's essential naturalism is far from the abstract style of Beckett, one can see in even these naturalistic plays a level where the imagery assumes a symbolic character not unlike that found in absurdist drama.
The second, and more important, synthesis achieved by Tremblay is the blending of universality and "québécitude." He himself feels very strongly that there is no contradiction between these terms; on the contrary, the more a writer is rooted in the realities of his own time and place, the more universal he may become. However, the universality of Tremblay's themes has not always been recognized by Quebec critics, who tend to gauge his work only in terms of the local and contemporary context, and to emphasize its "political" significance. In fact, the multiple levels on which his plays operate can be simplified into three basic categories: the story or anecdotal level (and on this level almost all of his work is regional/naturalistic); the socio-political level (which is present, in varying degrees, in all of his naturalistic plays and is strongly rooted in the problems of contemporary Quebec); and a universal/mythological level. (pp. 15-16)
The settings of Tremblay's plays also reflect this division into threefold levels of meaning. If we survey his opus from a topological point of view, we find a universe consisting of three distinct spheres, at decreasing levels of naturalism, which together form the basis for a mythology in the making.
1. Rue Fabre: daily life, the family
The street on which he grew up, the people on that street and, in particular, the noisy, crowded quarters where he was forced to spend his childhood left an indelible impression on Michel Tremblay. Rue Fabre to him is not just a street: it is a way of life….
Tree-lined rue Fabre, in northeast Montreal, impresses the visitor as a typical lower-middle-class neighbourhood, not without a certain charm, with its outside staircases, balconies and postage-stamp size front lawns. Tremblay, however, focusses on the promiscuity of life along the back alley, with its filth and stench, peopled by colourful, but desperate characters. (p. 17)
As a source of poetic inspiration, the street achieves its ultimate potential in Tremblay's most recent play, Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra, in which we find Sandra, the transvestite prostitute, and Manon, the old maid religious fanatic, pursuing their individual obsessions next door to each other. Rue Fabre also provides the background for the cycle of novels starting with La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte (1978). The entire series will be highly autobiographical, with the author himself the child to be born from "la grosse femme."
2. The Main: nightlife, prostitution, homosexuality
This is a world of false glitter and real pathos: the world of La Duchesse de Langeais, of Hosanna, of Berthe, Carlotta and Gloria Star in Trois Petits Tours; a world of no exit where the only escape possible comes through illusion; where illusion is quickly shattered, as in Demain matin, Montréal m'attend, and heroism is stamped out, as in Sainte Carmen de la Main. (p. 18)
It is not impossible to cross over from the world of rue Fabre to that of the Main, and several of Tremblay's characters have made the transition—most notably, Carmen (from the household of Léopold and Marie-Louise in A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou to the Rodeo café in Sainte Carmen de la Main). Sandra the transvestite takes the opposite route when he/she eventually returns to the street of his/her childhood. For the women who are caught in the emotional and physical trap of frustration that the family constitutes within the limitations of an inbred neighbourhood, the Main stands for glamour, freedom, life itself. However, seen within its own context, the world of the Main turns out to be ultimately as inbred, frustrating and limiting, in its own kinky way, as the petty household world around rue Fabre. The desire to escape towards something better, a greater, more fulfilling type of life, is felt just as strongly by the nightclub artists and male and female prostitutes as it is by the rosary-reciting belles-soeurs. All the glory of the Main is but illusion, its inhabitants eventually are forced to realize, as the author uncovers layer after layer of self-deception…. (p. 19)
While the people of the rue Fabre escape into dreams of the Main, and the people of the Main into dreams of glory and fame, the author of both of these worlds has created a private escape for himself—the third and least realistic sphere of his universe, a world of fantasy and transcendence.
3. The Great Beyond ("Le Grand Ailleurs"): gods, sinners, and fantasies
Tremblay's novel of pure fantasy, La Cité dans l'oeuf, came out in 1968, the same year as Les Belles-Soeurs—a fact that illustrates perfecty the dual aspect of his opus: naturalism and fantasy, materialism and spiritualism, immanence and transcendence. Other works of fantasy include a collection of short stories, Contes pour buveurs attardés, and the plays Les Paons and Les Socles. As opposed to the stark naturalism of the two worlds described earlier, Tremblay's fantasy world is a place of dreams, where the laws of time and space are suspended. It is, nevertheless, a self-contained universe having certain recognizable and recurring features: the mysterious land of Paganka, starting point of the journey towards the Great Beyond; idols who come to life; fallen gods, and men who achieve divine status through the initiation ritual of crime. The underlying theme of the fantasies is a desire to break through the barrier of immanence into a state of transcendence; however, all such attempts end in tragic frustration.
This brief survey clearly illustrates the enormous diversity of the Tremblay opus. In genre, it extends to drama, novel and short story; in theme, to everyday and family life, to the life of the outcasts of society, to dream, fantasy and nightmare; in technique, it ranges from naturalism to the use of every stylization device known to modern theatre, and leans heavily on classical models as well. There is diversity even in language, for in spite of the fact that Tremblay has become known as the pioneer of joual on stage, he has also used pure "classical" French (in all the works based on fantasy). In spite of this wide spectrum, the dramatic opus as a whole shows an underlying unity, with each individual play contributing another facet in a mosaic-like construction.
On the literal level, the three spheres (rue Fabre, the Main, the Great Beyond) have little in common: each one forms a perfect unity in itself. Tremblay has been attacked for using the same characters and settings in the various plays that make up each of his "worlds." The criticism is totally unjustified because it fails to recognize the mythopoeic intention of the author, which is less to create individual, self-contained "plots" than to produce a mosaic or epic of his people. The mythologizing intent is obvious as we follow the same characters, in the same basic setting, through play after play. Numerous other writers have used similar techniques; a familiar example is Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. (pp. 19-21)
If we examine the plays on the "moral" level of socio-political allegory, the overall unity of the work becomes much more apparent. Although primarily concerned with aesthetic considerations, Tremblay is enough of a Brechtian to reject any purely "culinary" type of theatre: … ("I don't want to give people a pleasant evening at the theatre…. I want them to react, to be afraid, to cry, to laugh, to tell themselves 'This has got to change'"). His avowed purpose is to use the theatre as a "sociological instrument." In the rue Fabre cycle of plays, he does this mainly by exposing the ugly realities behind traditional myths and façades and by forcing the audience to recognize the truth of facts and situations which they would prefer to ignore. The shock of recognition produced by such plays as Les Belles-Soeurs should logically lead to a heightening of consciousness (Brecht's "this has got to change") and, possibly, to action. Some of the plays convey a message directly, through the symbolism inherent in the characters or situations. (p. 21)
[All] the basically realistic plays of Tremblay share the same socio-political intent: to destroy the conscious and unconscious taboos of his society and bring about a liberation on the level of the individual as well as the community. We find no such clearly spelled out message in his fantasy world, though the flight into fantasy is, in itself, one more illustration of the awareness, common to all his "realistic" characters, that life, such as it is, is not acceptable. On the universal/mythological level, all of his work comes together in a total unity of spirit.
Tremblay considers himself something of a mystic. This may come as a surprise to the casual reader. However, if we accept Ben-Ami Scharfstein's definition of mysticism as "a name for our infinite appetites," the term can apply equally well to every part of the Tremblay universe. The most general underlying theme of all his works is the universal desire of the human being to transcend his finite condition. It is the same elementary drive of the spirit that animates the archetypal Doctor Faustus. As with Faustus, Tremblay's search for the absolute, for the Ultimate Experience, takes him through realms of sensuality as well as into the world of spirits. (pp. 22-3)
In the face of plays as starkly materialistic as Les Belles-Soeurs or A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou, such a mystical approach to the works may seem inappropriate. There is, of course, a basic difference in the manner in which the soif d'absolu, the desire for transcendence, manifests itself in the more realistically conceived characters as opposed to the characters of the fantasies. Whereas the realistic characters are only dimly aware of any such need within them—their need is largely unconscious—the characters of the fantasy world are fully conscious of their metaphysical desires and set out methodically to escape from the barriers of finite life.
With the characters of the rue Fabre, the element of the spiritual is so palpably absent that it becomes, in fact, a presence. Watching the fifteen women of Les Belles-Soeurs as they reveal sordid detail upon sordid detail, the pettiness, prejudices and claustrophobic narrowness of their everyday lives, one is tempted to cry out, like Tolstoy's Akim in The Power of Darkness, "You have no soul!"… The rebellion against life that these women feel has nothing to do with poverty—there is, after all, food to be cooked, clothing to be washed, shopping to be done…. By forcing upon the audience an almost unbearably vulgar accumulation of materialistic detail, on the one hand, and by reinforcing the impression with various stylization techniques on the other, Tremblay makes us painfully aware of the missing dimension in the lives of his characters. "Maudite vie plate" does not only mean daily drudgery and a less than affluent lifestyle; first and foremost, it means emotional and spiritual starvation. On a more tangible, physical level, this starvation corresponds to the sexual frustration which is a permanent feature of life in this particular milieu.
Moving to the Main, we find that the characters achieve a somewhat higher level of awareness: they have, after all, broken out of the original prison of family life. Yet in moments of lucidity they realize the tawdriness of their existence; they, too, are filled with a dimly understood need to escape into another world which they suspect must exist somewhere beyond the Main. Instead of rebelling against the maudite vie plate, however, they manifest their dissatisfaction in dreams of glory and greatness; in other words, they take refuge from reality in a fantasy world of daydream and illusion…. Of all the characters of the Main, only one, Carmen, achieves the ultimate in human experience: understanding and love. It is with good reason, therefore, that she becomes "Sainte" Carmen, saint and martyr in every sense of these words, including the Christian. Of Carmen, it could truly be said that she has found her "soul." She understands the needs of others and her duty towards them as an artist. When she tries to put her newly gained understanding into practice, she is instantly put to death by the forces of the Establishment, personified by Maurice, king of the Main. She thus becomes a true Saviour figure, and the play a universal, and desperately pessimistic, parable about art, life and salvation. (pp. 23-5)
For a satisfactory solution to the meaning of mysticism in the work of Michel Tremblay, we must look to the last play of the cycle, Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra. It is here that all his themes finally converge. We are shown two possible escape routes from the maudite vie plate, curse of mankind: Sandra the transvestite has chosen the way of sexuality, Manon the prude, that of religious mysticism. However, it soon turns out that Sandra's pursuits are as mystical as those of Manon, while Manon's religious fervours carry heavily sexual overtones. The message comes through loud and clear: sexual and religious experience are both forms of devotion which manifest in slightly different ways the same basic desire for mystical experience and its ultimate achievement, ecstasy.
The surprise ending of the play reinforces this point. Transported to another level of reality, we discover what we should have guessed all along, that both Sandra and Manon have been "invented" by Tremblay. In other words, the two characters are but physical incarnations, exteriorizations, of the two paths towards ecstasy conceived by the author. All along, it has been clear that Sandra and Manon really represent two complementary aspects of one overall personality. On that level, the world they inhabit, face to face, is not a physical reality on the rue Fabre, but the psychological reality of the poet's own mind.
The ultimate escape, then, comes back to the self: there is no other. The final realization that there is not transcendence beyond that which the self can provide constitutes the real tragedy in the work of Michel Tremblay. It is not the tragedy of the frustrated housewife, or the aging cabaret artist, though these may be real enough: it is the universal tragedy of man's passionate desire for an absolute, and the impossibility of satisfying this desire. Expressed in a variety of modes, styles and idioms, this realization remains the basic unifying idea that permeates the entire Tremblay opus. (pp. 25-6)
Renate Usmiani, in his Studies in Canadian Literature: Michel Tremblay (copyright © 1982 by Renate Usmiani), Douglas & Mclntyre, 1982, 177 p.
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Les Anciennes Odeurs, is a play about feelings, more specifically about the tenderness that remains in a relationship after the passion of love has died. (p. 796)
Luc ended his seven-year relationship with Jean-Marc because he felt Jean-Marc's love was too constraining…. He had had other lovers during his relationship with Jean-Marc, and he continues this lifestyle after the relationship is over. Jean-Marc has gotten involved in another monogamous relationship, but he feels he can never again give the depth of commitment he had given to Luc. He does not want to risk being hurt again.
This is a familiar situation in which almost any two people could find themselves. The fact that it happens to be two men is not terribly significant. This is not a play about homosexuality. The homosexuality depicted in Les Anciennes Odeurs is not the same experience as that of Hosanna or La Duchesse. Luc and Jean-Marc have been able to go beyond disguises and show deep love and respect for one another. It has been said of Canadian media that it projects heroes whose masculinity includes expressing emotions such as tenderness and pain. Jean-Marc and Luc are everyday heroes of this sort, and they are a welcome change from the American macho hero.
Luc and Jean-Marc are not types. They are complex individuals whose relationship is still evolving. Luc is a young, attractive actor who has become a TV idol playing the role of a machotype character. He receives offers of marriage and photographs from female fans. When people stop him in the street, he realizes that in their eyes he is the character whose role he plays on television. And they assume he is in love with the woman who plays his girlfriend. He finds it intolerable to live this lie and would like to tell the world that he is homosexual and not at all like his character. He would prefer to be mocked for what he is rather than be adored for what he is not.
Jean-Marc has been Luc's "maître à penser" throughout their relationship. As Luc has fans who worship someone he is not, Jean-Marc attracts people like Luc who need someone strong to confide in. But he protests that he also has problems and that he would like to confide in someone. This would reverse the role he traditionally plays, however, and he knows the younger men could not accept the change. (pp. 796-97)
Les Anciennes Odeurs is different from previous plays in that Jean-Marc and Luc communicate as few other characters in Tremblay's theater have been able to do….
In Les Anciennes Odeurs it is the realism of the portrayal that affects the reader/spectator. There are no theatrical tricks in this play—no monologues, no choruses, no deus ex machina to solve everyone's problems. Real emotions are displayed in realistic dialogue. The dialogue is lyrical, though not overly poetic. Jean-Marc and Luc speak Michel Tremblay's language, a French that is somewhere between the joual of the Belles-Soeurs and the imitation Parisian preciosity of Fernande in L'Impromptu. This play does not provoke controversy, but compassion. Unlike most of Tremblay's previous plays, Les Anciennes Odeurs leaves the reader/spectator with a feeling that communication is possible between human beings who share experiences common to us all. (p. 797)
Elaine R. Hopkins, in a review of "Les anciennes odeurs," in The French Review (copyright 1983 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LVI, No. 5, April, 1983, pp. 796-97.
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Michel Tremblay's most recent novel, La Duchesse et le roturier, constitutes the third of the "Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal," preceded by La Grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte and Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges. The similarities with the two earlier texts are easily identified: once again we visit with Albertine, Gabriel, "la grosse femme," Edouard, Thérèse, Marcel, all inhabitants of the familiar house on rue Fabre in Montréal. La Duchesse et le roturier, however, distinguishes itself from its predecessors. Structurally, one notes a more refined narrative technique; absent are the plethora of explicative and judgmental commentaries of the Protean narrator (although several are still apparent). La Duchesse shares the fragmented narrative scenes of the earlier texts, but several of these tableaux are more lengthy, more detailed, and function as independent narrative units. The focus in this text is on Edouard who is examined only peripherally in the earlier novels. The title of the volume refers to Edouard who is presented as the roturier, the shoe salesman. Edouard aspires to be a duchesse, a romantic heroine. The text revolves around his attempt to realize this fiction. Parallel to Edouard is Marcel, the younger nephew, who has renounced the "real" world in favor of a fantastical one. Whereas Edouard seeks acceptance of his aspired role, Marcel indifferently retreats to the imaginative realm.
What most markedly distinguishes this text from the two earlier novels of the series is its use of sub-text or literary reference, that is, its implicit (and at times, explicit) play with Balzac's La Cuchesse de Langeais, a component of L'Histoire des treize, a text cited in the epigraph to Tremblay's novel. Allusions to La Duchesse de Langeais are evident from the text's inception. They become more marked as the novel progresses, and culminate in a direct reference to Edouard's desire to be a "Carmélite Déchaussée: Ça c'est un destin! Pis c'est ça que je veux être! Pas un vendeur de suyers!" ["A barefoot Carmelite: Now there's a life! That's what I want to be! Not a shoe salesman!"]… Moreover, the play of sexuality draws a striking parallel with another component of Balzac's Histoire des treize, namely, La Fille aux yeux d'or.
Sub-text and text—two fictional realms—are superimposed on two other polarities, the world of the theater ("le monde du show business") and that of "reality." The polarity suggested in the novel's title becomes highly charged when placed against this backdrop. Tremblay's own role as a master playwright, his preoccupation with the theatre, and in short, with representation factor into the complexity of the text. (pp. 143-44)
"La grosse femme" who holds a titular position in the first novel of the series, plays only a minor role in this novel. Her presence, however, is continuously felt. She remains unnamed (as does her son) and thus unrooted in the "real." Her one evening at the theatre, accompanied by Albertine (Edouard's sister) is described in great detail, for it is during this scene that "la grosse femme" (to the ignorance of Albertine) recognizes Edouard disguised as the Duchesse. The differing perspectives of this scene provide for fascinating narrative analysis.
The polarity suggested in the novel's title is thus metaphorically reproduced on several levels. The intellectual exercise required to identify and sort out the forces at play in La Duchesse et le roturier is challenging yet satisfying for it enables us to appreciate the intricate workings of this beautifully woven text. La Duchesse et le roturier, Tremblay's most brilliant literary work to date, undoubtedly constitutes a major contribution to the development of the Quebec novel. (p. 144)
Ellen R. Babby, in a review of "La duchesse et le routuríer," in The French Review (copyright 1983 by the American Association of Teachers of French), Vol. LVII, No. 1, October, 1983, pp. 143-44.