Like Alison, I have had a hard time posting regularly and I recognize I will most likely be short of my goal of reading 30 plays before our ATHE conference in Montréal next week. Even though it was an ambitious goal to set in a summer where I’m happily employed on many time-intensive projects, it’s still worth the effort to continue the discourse right up to the bell. So onto play number five and we’ll see how many more chapters I can write before the conference begins.
This summer, I have been employed to dramaturg two new plays for PlayPenn, the new play development conference in my home city. To date, it’s been rare that I get to work at home and on the SEPTA train rides back and forth to work, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be working at home. I actually have the time now to build stronger friendships with artists I’ve admired around the city for years. I’ve also had the chance to host playwrights visiting my city, welcoming them into my home; the backstage of my life. Perhaps you are someone who regularly hosts friends for dinner but I don’t. During the year, my travel schedule barely affords this pleasure. So, picking up the comic play An Anglophone is Coming to Dinner, it’s been a reminder that a simple event like hosting a dinner can speak volumes about character—and this play uses the situation to the fullest to make a statement about the referendum for an independent Québec.
When I first read the synopsis for this play, I couldn’t stop laughing at the premise. A Lubbock, Texas community theatre has commissioned a translation of sorts of a new Canadian play and then performs that play in a Texas-sized way in English for a Montréal audience—so the French characters speak with a Texas twang and when they speak to their guest L’Anglophone they speak in French—hilarious as well as subversive. Also, the playwright George Rideout, born in Texas before moving to Québec, takes full advantage of how the Texas culture likes to identify as its own separate country as the Lubbock community theatre plays Montréal characters who are serious about the historical moment of the referendum. What seems to be such a silly premise has a way of opening a deeper conversation. As L’Anglophone guest says late into the dinner party:
“It’s funny, I felt the same way during the referendum when I thought our country was going to be torn apart. ‘Separation,’ it’s such a hurtful word.” (Rideout, pg. 58)
And at the same time, the play drips with irony when Junior, the son in the family and the representative of the younger generation refusing to accept the political compromises and still fighting for a separation from English culture, drops out of the family’s attempt to speak to the Anglophone in French to argue in English, “I’m a citizen of the country of Québec. My flag is the Fleur-de-Lys and my language is French.” (pg. 70). It’s a big risk for the Francophones to share their home, the backstage of their lives, with their enemy the Anglophone, someone they’d much rather kick out of their country. There are many American farcical plays that we see on summer stages that are built too big to fail and easily get the audience laughing, so many companies turn to them time and time again. You know which ones I mean—the Neil Simon plays, Noises Off, Lend Me a Tenor, and the list goes on. Doors slamming, characters find themselves in compromising positions with strangers or trapped somewhere in their underwear. But in this play, instead of slamming doors and mistaken identities, we receive the humor made popular by Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman. Jim Bob is the director of the Lubbock community theatre performing this play for us. He explains his love of Canadian theatre and why a Francophone family is awkwardly hosting L’Anglophone (whose name is London) for their dinner.
In Jim Bob’s direct addresses the audience, he describes how difficult it is to speak in French (‘just like riding a buckin’ bronco’) and warns us that the ending is rather strange for a comedy. And it is—the grandmother sabotages the appropriate dessert and serves L’Anglophone her specialty: a JELL-O Man configured to resemble the Canadian flag. L’Anglophone turns out to be delighted and the cultures are brought together, symbolically, over JELL-O. Director Jim Bob shrugs that he doesn’t get it:
“…dessert is clearly a big symbol of somethin’ and I figure we’d better leave it in. When we were doin’ the play in Texas sometimes I’d get the feelin’ that there were things goin’ on that I was missin’, that the characters knew something that I didn’t.”
Yet, even though I’m still just getting to know Montréal playwriting and culture, George Rideout’s play always lets me in on the jokes. The writer doesn’t leave me behind. The agendas of all the characters are extremely clear and the humor helped me understand the dicey situation this Francophone family is in hosting an Anglophone. I can sense the immediate condescension the Francophone family feels once L’Anglophone steps into their home. I’d much rather see this comedy, which uses language so ironically, then the typical farces that grace our summer stages. If I had more time, I would have laid out a little more clearly how each character represents a specific point of view about the desire to live in an independent Québec. However, I also want to mention that this play is also poking fun at the theatricality particular to Québécois theatre. When L’Anglophone makes his first appearance in the play, it’s in a heightened, non-realistic sequence where he’s wearing a full theatrical, cartoonish mask while ‘a faint, Philip Glass-like version of ‘O Canada’ can be heard.’ If that’s not a reason why you should add this play to your summer reading list, I don’t know what else I can say to convince you to give Québécois theatre a try, because I find it highly enjoyable and insightful.—H.H., dramaturg P.S. When I mentioned I was reading a play with the above stage direction, a colleague referred me to this Philip Glass composition. For your enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvC9em5j2Y0