Québec 1759 – 1867: Summing up over 200 years of French-English relationship in Montréal in one post? (Deep breath.) Here we go.

My name is Alison Bowie and I am a bilingual theatre artist and scholar working and living in Montréal, Québec. I want to begin my blogging for this project by positioning myself in the conversations regarding Canadian and Québécois theatre identities.

Let me be clear: I do not claim to be an expert in all things Québécois or French Canadian. I am originally from Kingston, Ontario – about a three-hour drive from Montréal. My family is Anglophone, but attended school in French until university through the French Immersion program. I attended Queen’s University, an English institution, for undergrad and studied history, including some Canadian history. I then moved to Mississauga, ON (near Toronto) and was immersed in the Franco-Ontarian culture and community, as my job was to develop a French educational arts program for an Anglophone arts centre. Through my research and the professional relationships I built, I learned a great deal about the history of the Franco-Ontarian struggle to maintain French in Ontario.

I decided to go back to school and entered the Dramaturgy MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, another Anglophone institution. By stepping outside of my own country, I was able to get perspective on the rather similar pluralities of identity that exist within Canada and myself. I identify as culturally and linguistically bilingual. I do not see myself as having one singular identity. I have spent my life weaving my way between the French and English worlds that have existed around me and in me, and they both make up who I am today. This realization opened me up to seeing the identity crisis that has existed in Canada for most of its existence because of the settler culture and multiplicity of voices in Canada (French, English, First Nations), all of whom have been vying for language rights, cultural claims and power for centuries. My thesis project at UMass explored the linguistic and cultural stakes of translation in Canadian theatre texts. I have now returned to Canada, to Montréal specifically, to continue my research as a PhD student at Concordia University.

That brings me to today. Professor Louis Patrick Leroux is my lead advisor for my PhD studies and he connected me with Heather for this project. I am excited to provide some context for the plays that you are going to read. I cannot emphasize enough that there is no one way of looking at the history of Québec. There is no way to look at each and every side to each and every event that has happened through the history of Québec and Canada. Therefore, I am not even going to try. My goal is to explain the political and cultural crises that were occurring around the time that these plays were written. I am going to explain what the ideas were and who were the main players. I am going to offer a way into these plays that is based in a historical context and seeks to spark conversation and questioning. I will provide a timeline of events and biographical information about the creators.

Now it is my turn to ask: Where do I begin? The cultural conflicts that exist in many of these plays, i.e. those plays that deal with French-English relationships, politics, and/or language rights, are rooted in the history of the French-English relationship from 1759 and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. I can’t sum up two hundred years of history in one blog entry and even remotely do justice to the complexity of the issues at hand. But I will try to give you an understanding of what happened. Québec City and Montréal were founded in 1608 and 1642 respectively. The French set up trade roots, commercial enterprise, and their lives, in that area. On the eve of September 13, 1759 the British attacked Québec City – and won. A year later, in 1760, after several more battles, the French had been pushed back into Montréal and on September 8 Governor Vaudreuil officially surrendered to the British army on the terms of a treaty of capitulation. In 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris (Seven Years’ War), France gave New France to the British.

Throughout the remainder of the 18th century, various acts were passed granting or withdrawing religious, political, language, and land rights to or from the French. Paired with an influx of British colonists, it was decided in 1791 and ratified by the Constitutional Act of 1791 that the colony be divided in two: Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Québec respectively). I would suggest looking at the terms of the Act, as they are far too complicated to explain here. The important cultural phenomenon that came out of the Act was that it created an English-Protestant province (Upper Canada) and a French-Catholic province (Lower Canada) each with their own separate governing bodies. This created an us/them dynamic with strict boundaries. The division of the province of Québec and the institution of two governing bodies did nothing to lessen the fissure between the French and the English. Not only were there two provinces in the same colony operating side by side under vastly different social, economic and political systems, but there was even disparity within the provinces themselves. In Lower Canada (Québec) in particular, the government’s Executive branch became known as the Chateau Clique, a small group of upper class families who controlled not only the government but also a great deal of the mercantile industry in the province. These families were primarily English even though the majority of the population of the province was French. The frustration with the government prompted the Rebellions of 1837, which took place in Upper and Lower Canada as they each had their own problems.

On November 1st, Seigneur Louis Joseph Papineau led the French Canadian nationalist group known as the Patriotes into a bloody battle in the streets of Montréal with British troops and English volunteers. The Patriotes were swiftly defeated, which led to widespread looting and burning of French Canadian settlements. Over three hundred people died during the rebellion and almost all of them were French. Although the Rebellions of 1937 seemed on the surface to have been failures (the rebel group in Toronto had no more success), they unsettled the British government and prompted the commission of the 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America written by Lord Durham, which called for two things: responsible government and the union of Upper and Lower Canada.

This report led to the Act of Union of 1840, which once again united Upper and Lower Canada, placing French and English in direct cultural and linguistic conflict with one another. The Act of Union not only solidified the political structure, but also the cultural hierarchy. It determined that all government documents and proceedings would be written and performed in English. By the mid-nineteenth century expansion of the colonies required a change in structure, and prompted the British North America Act of 1867. This Act was designed to unite the provinces of Canada (Upper and Lower), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom. What began as Nouvelle France in the sixteenth century (Cartier first landed in Québec in 1534) had metamorphosed into the two independent provinces of Ontario and Québec as we know them today by the mid-nineteenth century. They were given separate provincial government systems, but were also subject to the rule of a central Canadian government controlled by the British Parliament.

Although a lot more could be said, I will leave this historical journey at this point. That does not mean that the conflict was over – far from it, in fact. Language rights, cultural oppression, and political influence continued to be (and continue today) sources of intense divergence and struggle, particularly in the multi-lingual and multi-cultural city of Montréal. In the upcoming blogs I will be focussing more on the crises of the twentieth century, particularly the 1960s and 1970s when many of the plays were written. I ask you, however, to keep this history in mind as we move forward towards the present.—-A.B., dramaturg


Montréal Play #1—REMEMBER ME by Michel Tremblay

“I don’t know why the past always smells so good.”

O Tremblay!

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.

—H.H., dramaturg

Prologue: An evening with Cirque Alfonse

Back in October 2014, when I first started to think about what conversations to have at the PACT pre-conference, I was invited by Patrick Leroux to see the Cirque Alfonse presentation at the NYU Skirball Center. I felt this would be a good way to enter the project. Short of flying to Montréal in advance of the conference, here was a Montréal performance on my doorstep. I am also aware in pursuing this exercise of reading plays by Montréal writers that Francophone theatre has a rich tradition in visual storytelling, something I will never be able intuit from the page. What could be better than the non-verbal, visual spectacle of circus? 

Prior to the performance, Concordia professor Patrick Leroux was invited to give a pre-show talk to contextualize the event for American audiences. Leroux explained that given Quebec’s distinctiveness linguistically, circus shouldn’t have been the defining feature of a society trying to position itself linguistically. Yet, one of Montréal’s greatest cultural exports has been the graduates of the National Circus School in Montréal who then perform in larger U.S. venues in Las Vegas. While the performers of Cirque Alfonse could have continued to work internationally, they decided to return home to Montréal and train at their homestead to create their own company of performers. The grandfather played the circus archetype of “the person to whom things happen to”, the wife was a dancer/singer/aerial artist, the husband and his friends performed the most aggressive stunts, and the young toddler ran briefly on stage to charm us with his adorable tricks imitating his parents.

This resonated with me immediately because as playwrights, we are all in search of an artistic home. A few seasons ago, Todd London, the former artistic director of New Dramatist, wrote passionately about this very issue on Howlround (as have many others since) and it’s certainly an important theme of his book An Ideal Theatre. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve personally had at new play development festivals about what dramaturgs and literary managers should be doing to change our current practices to better serve the writer.

Leroux then described how Continue reading

Where to Begin???

In Fall 2014, I asked Erin Hurley of McGill University and Patrick Leroux to send me a list of 30 plays by Montréal playwrights that would be represent their city and the theme of the ATHE conference. What they sent me was a list of almost 40 plays and I’m sure there’s some good ones that have been left off the list. I don’t know if they are all available in English or not, but here’s what I’m working from as this project begins. I’m in the process of tracking these plays down, thanks to Brian Drader, the Director of Playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada and Simon Barry, Head Librarian of the National Theatre School. Everyone has been quick to respond to inquiries and I’m extremely grateful for these resources. Posts will start appearing in May 2015.

Prior to that, I had reached out to the Canadian Association for Theatre Research. After explaining to CATR what my goals were for this project, they directed me to Erin and Patrick. Many thanks to Erin & Patrick for all their help and guidance. As educators, hopefully this is a page you can bookmark as a resource for a listing of Montréal plays to share with your students. The list is currently in chronological order and I’ll make updates to the page as I work through this list with more information.

—HH, dramaturg

  • Gélinas, Gratien. Tit-Coq (1948)
  • Gauvreau, Claude. The Charge of the Expormidable Moose (1956)
  • Loranger, Françoise. Five More Minutes  (1966)
  • Loranger, Françoise. Playing Double (1967)
  • Tremblay, Michel. Les belles-soeurs (1968)
  • Garneau, Michel – Macbeth (a “translation-adaptation” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth). You could just read the MacDuff scene. (1978)
  • Fennario, David. Balconville (1980)
  • Tremblay, Michel. Remember Me (1981)
  • Bouchard, Michel-Marc. Lilies. (1985)
  • Laberge, Marie.  Before the War, down at L’Anse à Gilles (1986)
  • Chaurette, Normand. Fragments of a Farewell Letter Read by Geologists (1989)
  • Pelletier, Pol. Joy (1990)
  • Jovette Marchessault The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr (1990)
  • Fréchette, Carole. The Four Lives of Marie (1991)
  • Legault, Anne. A Winter’s Tale 70 (1991)
  • Tremblay, Larry – The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi (1993)
  • Ouellette, Michel – Frenchtown  (1993)
  • Lepage, Robert – Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994)
  • Archambault, François – Fast Lane  (1995)
  • Danis, Daniel – Song of the Say-Sayer (1996; 2003)
  • Fennario, David. Banana Boots (1998)
  • Parenteau-Lebeuf, Dominique. The Feminist’s Daughter. (1998/2006)
  • Gale, Lorena – Angélique (1999)
  • Fréchette, Carole. Elisa’s Skin (2000)
  • Brassard, Marie – Jimmy (2001)
  • Rideout, George. An Anglophone is Coming to Dinner (2001)
  • Evelyne de la Chenelière. Bashir Lazhar (2002)
  • Claude, Nathalie and Lin Snelling (text by Nancy Huston) – Limbes/Limbo (2004)
  • Mouawad, Wajdi – Scorched (2005)
  • Varma, Rahul. Bhopal (2005)
  • Evelyne de la Chenelière. Public disorder (2006)
  • Louise Dupré – Just Like Her (2006)
  • Lepage, Étienne – Howl Red (2008)
  • Choinière, Olivier. Bliss. Trad. Caryl Churchill (2010)
  • Berthiaume, Sarah – Yukonstyle (2010)
  • Bouchard, Michel-Marc. Christina, The Girl King (2011)
  • Soutar, Annabel – Sexy béton (2011)
  • Kemeid, Olivier – Me in the Century’s Red Ruins (2013)