“I don’t know why the past always smells so good.”
How did I miss reading his work in my expensive theatre history education? If you have never read Les belles-souers, the play that birthed Québécois theatre on 28 August 1968, I would encourage you to do so before you cross the border. Just this play alone is worth your time.
McGill professor Erin Hurley has a whole chapter of her book National Performance: Representing Quebec from Expo 67 to Celine Dion dedicated to Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs. Her chapter is also worth reading as we proceed with conversations about identity and political.
I’ll give you one more reason as educators to run out and read Les belles-souers right now. The number one question I get asked is “Do you know any plays with a large casts and roles for women?” We could get sidetracked by a discussion if Les belles-souers has age-appropriate roles for college age actresses, as this is a multi-generational play. But between the absurdity of the boring task the women perform and the ending where the entire cast sings O Canada as stamps rain down on the tearful Germaine, why wouldn’t you want to introduce this play to your students?
However, I’d like to jump into these conversations about Montréal playwriting with his 1981 play Remember Me instead.
Set in the basement of the home of a French professor while he’s marking student papers, two ex-lovers eviscerate each other with their memories. In the short space of the play, we cover a lot of emotional terrain, as Luc has been tending his father’s bedside at the Notre Dame de la Merci. I knew as soon as Luc mentions that his father has been staring out the window at Bordeaux prison, the building unfortunately placed next to the hospital, that I was immediately thrust into a world where the living characters were also trapped by their own prison walls.
Jean-Marc is a professor, Luc is an actor. These are professions that are instantly recognizable and universal. Jean-Marc and Luc, while they have moved on to other lovers, are both currently struggling with the fear of mediocrity. Jean-Marc’s youthful hope that his writing will change the world has now been replaced the self-realization that no one will remember him for his prose, but for his “disciples”. Luc is struggling with his recent rise to fame as a lisping character on television in a straight-romantic role and is being approached by fans who don’t want to see him as a gay man with the perfect classical French diction from his training at the National Theatre School. While Jean-Marc reminds him that no one has to know about his private life, Luc resents his television character persona and is looking forward to performing in an alumni production of de Musset’s Le Chandelier to regain a sense of integrity. Professionally, they are both performing on a larger stage: Jean-Marc as the “second-rate” teacher of the young and talented, and Luc frustrated states:
“I play a deathly boring character in a deathly boring series and people can’t get enough of it!”
I find these specific cultural references like a compass orienting me through the deeply personal memories Jean-Marc and Luc use as weapons against each other. As ex-lovers, the desire to return to their past relationship is strong, especially for Luc as he daily sits bedside by his dying father, yearning for a supportive partner to help him through it. And because Tremblay takes us down the into the depths of their personal fears and desires, there’s no doubt in my mind that even the most mundane phrase can be interpreted with a larger, metaphorical meaning about the Québécois experience and identity.
Perhaps thanks to decades of playwriting using realism and the actions of everyday life, we might overlook this two-character conversation and miss how it resonates poetically. I’m sure there’s also a historical context at work, perhaps the nationalistic energy that was driving Quebec during Tremblay’s early career as a dramatist had shifted by the early 1980s. To that end, I will soon introduce Alison Bowie, a Montréal-based dramaturg, who will be contributing to this blog and adding further perspectives.
So in a play about past regrets, memories, dying fathers, linguistic concerns over the French language, and fear of mediocrity, the past certainly smells better than the present. Although, it’s not happy nostalgia for the past either:
Jean-Marc: What really amazes me is that my cologne seems to remind you of nothing but happy memories.
Luc: On the contrary, it doesn’t just remind me of happy memories. I said that the past smelled good…which is not the same. The past in general.
Jean-Marc: And the present?
Luc: Not so fast! You’ll have to wait a bit. It’ll come soon enough.