Montréal play #6: BALCONVILLE by David Fennario

I arrived in Montréal for the ATHE conference late last night and was able this morning to walk around and get a sense of the neighborhood. I’ve spent some of my career in Pittsburgh and there were aspects to the downtown that felt like a working-class, post-industrialized neighborhood. I am hoping to explore the city more today, but I sense that like Pittsburgh, gentrification has taken over major sections of the city and there are few remnants of the industrial past in this post-industrial age. It reminded me of when I was literary manager in Pittsburgh, I worked on a series of new plays by resident playwright Rob Zellers about the characters struggling with the steel mills closing in Youngstown, Ohio.

So when I sat down to read David Fennario’s Balconville, while I was at first a bit intimidated by this bilingual play, I immediately recognized the neighborhood. Even though I couldn’t read the French sections of the play, it was easy to intuit the world of the play—the factories are moving to Taiwan, unemployment is high (40%), and there’s a yearning for either the past or some ways and means to escape. Premiering at the Centaur Theatre (where we will start our day tomorrow) in 1979, it’s written in the moment where industry is quickly discarding many cities across the rust belt, leaving the immigrant populations who first settled in the industrial slums to work in the factories stranded.

Point Saint-Charles, Montreal (1967) Gabor Szilasi

Point Saint-Charles, Montreal (1967) Gabor Szilasi

As we’re exploring the dramaturgical role of place on these Montréal plays, this is a clear example of a play where the neighborhood of Pointe Saint-Charles is the protagonist. According to the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling’s project: “From Balconville to Condoville: The Politics of Urban Change in Post-Industrial Montreal”, this neighborhood in particular rallied to inspire activism and resistance.  That’s certainly clear in Balconville, where neighbors are trying to encourage each other to battle unemployment by attending a series of political action meetings. And it’s a neighborhood that has bonded together by their tough economic circumstances, as they sing proudly and drunkenly at the top of Act Two:

“We don’t care about

All the rest of Canada,

All the rest of Canada,

All the rest of Canada,

We don’t care for

All the rest of Canada,

We’re from Pointe Saint-Charles.”

The set design for this play is clearly theatrical, as neighbors argue from balcony to balcony. The walls are thin here, everyone knows each other’s business. There’s also a sense of foreboding as they talk about the fires threatening other nearby neighborhoods. At the end of the play, the audience watches the neighbors create a relay system to rescue their belongings from going up in flames. As much as they are trying to rally together and resist the forces pushing them down, there’s not much optimism that this neighborhood will ever be the same.

A moment that drew me immediately into the play was a bit of business over a broken step. Thibault, a neighborhood delivery guy who has the misfortune to have a bike with a flat tire, delivers beer to the neighborhood men but keeps tripping over a broken step leading up to the balcony apartments. Claude Paquette, who loses his factory job in Act Two, has put up a sign that warns “Prenez garde.” What first appears to be a comic bit of business becomes the warning for the whole neighbor to “Watch their steps.”  Yet, Thibault also replies simply after he trips:

“Sure. I remember everything. Everything. Everybody forgets but me. I don’t. It’s funny, that, eh?”

As we explore the conference theme of remembering, it’s clear that like many American cities devastated by de-industrialization and later gentrification, the only thing these neighbors have left is their ability to remember the past. They sing pop songs and dance to Elvis. They do their best to recreate what the neighborhood was like in their youth, when at least they had jobs. There is both joy and sorry in remembering, because focusing on the present has no options or choices open to them for survival. Even when Tom Williams tries to escape to a better life in New York City, he is stopped at the border and sent back. There’s no other choice then to try to take some comfort from the past, since their future is “Apocalypse Now.”

At the time of its premiere, playwright David Fennario received the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1980 and resonated immediately with audiences, receiving favorable reviews. As we discuss these plays during ATHE, one of the many questions we should raise is if this play from across the border and written in a specific moment in the process of de-industrialization will resonate with our current generation of students.—H.H., dramaturg

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