Michel Tremblay Tremblay, Michel (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Martin Knelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Mark Czarnecki

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

John Ripley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4103 words.)

Roger Ellis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Douglas Hill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Paula Gilbert Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Boyd Neil

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Renate Usmiani

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2872 words.)

Elaine R. Hopkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Ellen R. Babby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 638 words.)