[Editor's note: If you've never heard of Michel Tremblay or Les Belles-soeurs, then it is your civic duty to read the Why this matters section to this article. I can't express enough how important this is to understanding Quebec culture.]
This evening's show starts with company members of a re-imagined musical version of the play that allowed Quebec culture to express itself, Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs. If the original play stirred controversy over its use of joual in higher forums of culture then, it has now managed even to win the hearts and minds of French audiences in Paris, where they're renowned to sneer at more provincial dialects.
Four guests are here to represent the company that played Les Belles-Soeurs in Paris’ Théatre du rond-point: René-Richard Cyr (director), Daniel Bélanger (composer/musical director), Janine Sutto (actor, Olivine Dubuc) and Guylaine Tremblay (actor, Rose Ouimet). Talk went back and forth and between all the guests quite quickly. Here are some highlights:
René-Richard Cyr, Guylaine Tremblay – Yes, we were surprised at how the French received us this time around. With so much history of disliking our “provincial-ness” it was amazing to see how much they enjoyed our patois and joual this time around.
Daniel Bélanger – DB did the music but was not a musician, so why did you go to Paris? To be there, to experience the moment and to help out if needed. It was fun. A small anecdote about the music: when doing the first rehearsals for the music RRC called Michel and invited him over – he said yes. It was a little nerve-wracking to say the least.
Janine Sutto – Janine will be 91 years-old on April 20th! How great is that? Asked if it was important for her to join the troupe in Paris she answers that she needed to be there to support to live to participate. Although the girls didn’t take her out much she still very much enjoyed it. Janine participated in the very first public reading of Michel Tremblay’s oeuvre back in May 1968. When asked to compare her performance then and now, she feels she was less authentic in 1968 and that today, she has more to offer.
The question of ultimate peril: Define alacrity. Well, no one got it. (which I found vaguely amusing). It means, we learn from Guy A., brisk and cheerful readiness, or pep.
Guy A. wants to know about the funding for the upcoming tour – 36 dates, all over Québec in the summer. It would cost a reported $1M. Where does the money come from? In part from Loto-Quebec and they found 3 other companies to help fund the project: CGI, La caisse de depot du Québec and Power Corporation Canada.
What’s next for everyone?
- RRC: looking to put on another Michel Tremblay play. This time, Albertine en cinq temps.
- GT: Filming all summer. Sonia Rochon will replace her as the company tours this summer.
- DB: working on a new album inspired by rockabilly. We hear a clip from his new song (I like it).
- Janine was simply asked how she manages to keep going after losing husband and daughter recently. Her answer, quite simply: You must assume/own whatever happens in your life. I love it.
Why this matters:
Les belles-soeurs was the first of Michel Tremblay's plays ever to be produced.
Who's Michel Tremblay? Well...
- Michel Tremblay is a playwright and novelist, born on the Plateau Mont-Royal in 1942. Far from the trendy neighbourhood we know it as today, the Plateau was a poor, working-class neighbourhood of primarily francophone origin. Like many in the area, he grew up in very modest standing, if not squalor. Writers of Montreal paint an excellent picture:
- Poverty squeezed three families--twelve people--into seven rooms. Until he was six he ate in a high chair; until he was nine, he slept in a crib. He was brought up by six women.
- In 1960, as Quebec begins its cultural revolution, the book Les insolences du Frère Untel is published. Written by a Marist brother, the book laments the Church-dominated educational system and the poor quality of french spoken in Quebec. In writing this, he employs the word joual—a deformation of the word cheval (horse), as in people talking like the way a horse would —to describe the common people's dialect, as opposed to a proper French. Joual is exactly what Tremblay is exposed to growing up on the Plateau.
- The book sparks a firestorm, and is an important factor in the Quiet Revolution that starts at around this time. It raises questions like: what's wrong with the way I speak? The way we speak?
- I'm not finding a webpage to link to that adequately describes the debate over the quality of language, joual vs. le bon français.
- It's in this context that Les Belles-soeurs premieres at the Théâtre du rideau vert (the very same that still stands on Saint-Denis in the Plateau) in 1968. The language his characters use is the language all the women in his house used. It's his mother tongue in the most authentic sense of the word.
- To give you an idea of how it was received, some critical reviews at the time:
- Le Devoir critic Jean Basile "suggested that it was 'a necessary tool to make people aware of their nauseating cultural condition so they can vomit it up once and for all.' One would rather not see "the evidence of our degeneration," he added, but Tremblay's play was collective consciousness raising, difficult but necessary for the people to improve themselves."
- Martial Dassylva of La Presse "asserted that it was wrong to present joual as the national language of Québec, and that in so doing Tremblay broke an unwritten convention of drama writing, and transformed the play into an illegitimate cultural event."
- Tremblay's explanation of joual as a housewife's defense of the French language is beautiful:
- Pour moi, le joual est une chose assez admirable. Parce qu'il est né d'une volonté des femmes du début du XXe siècle de Montréal de rester francophone. [...] À la fin du XIXe, du début de la XXe siècle, les gens de la campagne sont venus s'installer à Montréal parce que c'est ici qu'il y avait les jobs, qu'il y avait des industries, qu'il y avait de l'argent. Mais l'argent était anglais. Alors les hommes allaient travailler en anglais, rapportaient à la maison des mots anglais, mais c'est les femmes qui voulaient rester francophone et c'est à la rencontre des mots qu'on rapportait à la maison.
- For me, joual is a rather admirable thing. Because it was born of the willingness of women in the beginning of the 20th century in Montreal to stay francophone. [...] At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, folk from the countryside settled in Montreal because that's where the jobs were, where industry was, where the money was. But the Money was English. And so the men went to work in English and brought home English words, but it was the women who wanted to remain francophone and met the words that were brought home.
- In 1971, after a very successful run of Les Belles-soeurs in Montreal, a theatre in Paris proposes a production in the French capital.
- But they are unable to secure government funding. The stinger came from Quebec minister of culture who "said that she preferred theatre plays written in correct language and that she could not subsidize a play written in joual to represent Québec in Paris."
- They only made it two years later, with financing from... the federal government!