BORN: 1942, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
GENRE: Drama, fiction
Stories for Late Night Drinkers (1966)
Les Belles-soeurs (1968)
Like Death Warmed Over (1970)
The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (1978)
Michel Tremblay is one of the first Canadian playwrights to have won international recognition. His plays have been translated into many languages and performed successfully on three continents. In Quebec, his work is frequently classified as “theatre of liberation” and given political significance due to his introduction of the Montreal working-class French joual (dialect) as a stage idiom, as well as to his merciless naturalism and the political parables that underlie many of his plays. Viewed from a
wider perspective, Tremblay's work is impressive particularly because of its memorable characters, sophisticated methods of dramatic composition, and the richness and complexity of its levels of meaning.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Humble Origins Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942, the son of Armand and Rhéauna Rathier Tremblay. His father was an alcoholic printer and linotype operator, while his mother was an American who was part Cree Indian. Tremblay grew up in poverty in the eastside working-class neighborhood of Plateau Mont-Royal and the rue Fabre district. Raised primarily by five women in an extremely crowded house, Tremblay early developed a hostility toward family life. The oppressive conditions in this impoverished area, along with the glitzy nightlife of Montreal's Main district, later provided the backdrop for much of Tremblay's work. His maternal grandmother was uneducated but a voracious reader who shared her love of reading with her grandson.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Tremblay began writing when quite young. He was inspired to write in part because he realized by the age of twelve that he was homosexual and used writing to help him deal with his outsider status. He wrote a number of short stories with gay themes that were hidden by fantasy elements. By the time he attended the Catholic high school École de Saint-Stanislas, he was seen as a promising student who earned a scholarship to a collège classique (essentially, a prep school).
Unable to endure the elitist attitudes fostered at the school, Tremblay left after only two months to study graphic arts at the Institut des Arts Graphiques beginning in 1969 and become a linotype operator like his father. He worked there until 1966 but furthered his education by borrowing Books from a friend who was taking courses at the school Tremblay had left. The influence of classical Greek drama appears throughout Tremblay's work. He continued to write and, by the time he was eighteen, had completed his first play, Le train. In 1964, the work won first prize in Radio Canada's Young Author Competition.
“Theatre of Liberation” After winning his 1964 prize, Tremblay published a collection of gay-oriented short stories, Stories for Late-Night Drinkers, in 1966. He drew on his Montreal background for a one-act play, Five, which also appeared in 1966. Two years later, Tremblay made Quebec theater history by writing Les Belles-soeurs (1968) in joual, or working-class Quebec dialect, instead of the classical French typically used in works for the stage. This decision signaled Tremblay's desire to supplant the province's traditional French culture with an independent Quebecois culture.
In the 1960s, there was a resurgence of French Canadian separatism, symbolized by a series of cultural agreements between France and Quebec. Tremblay's creative choice to use dialect can be seen as a reflection of the ongoing call for French Canadian autonomy as the author was a staunch supporter of the movement as well as independence for Quebec. He even refused to let Les Belles-soeurs be performed in English until the separatist Parti Québéois won elections in the province in 1976.
Thus, Les Belles-soeurs catapulted the young dramatist to fame and became an important contribution to what is known in Quebec as the “theatre of liberation.” Les Belles-soeurs examines the deepest private thoughts and feelings of fifteen working-class housewives gathered at a party. Through stylized monologues and choral “odes” the characters reveal the banal and repetitive nature of their lives and their inability to achieve emotional or physical fulfillment. The play's overriding theme is the fundamental absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Its popular success allowed Tremblay to devote himself to writing full time.
“Le Cycle des Belles-soeurs” After Les Belles-soeurs, Tremblay embarked on a cycle of eleven plays, set mostly in the Montreal east end locale of the playhouse. The remaining dramas in Tremblay's cycle, known as “Le Cycle des Belles-soeurs, focus on three distinct areas: daily family life in Montreal's rue Fabre neighborhood; the seamy underworld of transvestites, prostitutes, and homosexuals in the Main district; and the realm of pure fantasy. In such plays as Like Death Warmed Over (1970), Forever Yours, Marie-Lou (1971), and Hello, There, Hello (1974), Tremblay portrays the family as a detrimental institution that inevitably traumatizes individuals by fostering frustration, bitterness, ineffectual communication, and emotional sterility. Critics generally regard the family in Tremblay's plays as symbolic of Quebec itself.
In many of the plays in the cycle, individuals also try to escape from the despair of their environments by advancing toward new sexual or social realms. Two of the plays—La Duchesse de Langeais (1970) and Hosanna (1973)—feature gay characters, a new development in serious theater at the time. But Tremblay was living in the midst of a profound transformation in Quebec. He came out as a gay man during a 1975 television interview, but reported few instances of overt hostility or discrimination afterward.
Turned to Film and Novels During the 1970s, Tremblay began working in film, often with friend André Brassard. Their film Françoise Durocher, Waitress (1972) won three Genie Awards at the Toronto Film Festival. While the pair collaborated on two other films, Tremblay also translated and adapted various English-language plays for the Quebec market, including various works by Tennessee Williams, whose plays and subject matter have much in common with Tremblay's. While Tremblay continued to write dramas over the years, his most characteristic mode of production from the late 1970s onward was the novel.
Beginning with the novel The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant (1978), Tremblay wrote a group of six novels set in his childhood neighborhood in Montreal and included strong autobiographical elements. Known as “Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal,” the novels, which included Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel (1980), The Duchess and the Commoner (1982), and News of Edward (1984), deal with the destructive effects of family life. Tremblay continued to write new novels into the early 2000s.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Tremblay's famous contemporaries include:
Pierre Trudeau (1919–2000): Perhaps the most dominant political figure in twentieth-century Canadian politics, Trudeau served as prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1984. Highly polarizing politically, he was noted for his outlandish personality, his jet-set lifestyle, and his iconoclasm.
Dan Akroyd (1952–): A Canadian-born actor and comedian, Akroyd was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. Since leaving the show, he has found success in movies and music.
René Lévesque (1922–1987): Founder of the political group Parti Québécois, Lévesque was an active advocate of Quebec's political independence, which he attempted to achieve through popular referendum. He served as premier of Quebec from 1976 to 1985.
Harry Turtledove (1949–): American historian-turned-novelist Turtledove has made a career for himself as author of a wide range of historical, fantasy, and science fiction novels.
More Plays and Television Work While Tremblay wrote few plays in the 1980s through early 2000s, he did produce some of his best-known works in this time period. They included The Real World (1987), in which he looked back on and questioned his own artistic uses of the milieu in which he had grown up. Tremblay wrote about rural Quebec in the play The Suspended House (1990), a multigenerational saga. With his For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again (1998), he honored his mother and the influence she had on his artistic personality. In the early 2000s, Tremblay moved into television by writing scripts for a series on French Canadian television, The Open Heart. This was the first series on Quebec television to explore an ongoing gay relationship.
Tremblay has remained a firm French Canadian separatist throughout much of his lifetime, but raised separatist eyebrows in 1999 when he accepted the Governor General's Award for Drama from the Canadian government. While this award was the highest literary honor given to authors, it came from what many French Canadian separatists consider their enemy. Tremblay again stirred up controversy in 2006 when he seemed to waver on the issue of Quebec separatism by criticizing the sovereignty movement for its focus on economic issues to the exclusion of cultural ones. Despite such statements, Tremblay has remained a resident of the province and a firm devotee to the idea of Quebec's independence.
Works in Literary Context
Tremblay combines a basically naturalistic view of the world with a variety of stylistic devices that reflect his chief models: Greek tragedy, Shakespearean monologue, and theater of the absurd. His originality lies, in part, in his method of composition. He conceives his plays in the manner of musical compositions, as “scores” for voices rather than as conventional dialogue. This method of composition gives his drama a poetic quality and puts the burden of visual interpretation of the text on the director. The musical quality of his plays is in no way hampered by his use of joual or of the somewhat less extreme Quebecois dialect. Also influenced by the tradition of psychosocial drama begun by Gratien Gélinas and Marcel Dubé, Tremblay has transcended the work of his predecessors, achieving a successful synthesis between realism and theatricalism in style, the regional and the universal in theme, naturalism and lyricism in dramatic idiom.
Family and the Underbelly Tremblay's dramatic world is firmly rooted in his own life experience in Montreal, in the rue Fabre neighborhood where he grew up and in the Main district off Sainte Catherine Street, known for its colorful night life. The first provides the setting for his analysis of “monstrous family” situations. The Main district provides the background for the cheap entertainers, whores, and transvestites who appear in Tremblay's work. In his attacks on the institution of the family, as well as in his fascination with marginal characters, Tremblay is within the mainstream of contemporary drama. His work takes on special significance in the context of Quebec's history and culture, however: the family plays may be seen as conscious efforts to counterbalance the traditional myths of the French-Canadian family created and encouraged by the Catholic Church; and his transvestite characters, beyond their symbolic significance for modern alienated man, carry heavily political overtones. For Tremblay, the transvestite best exemplifies life in Quebec since the conquest, with its foreign dominance, foreign models, and cultural colonialism.
Autobiography and Sexual Orientation Unlike most writers, whose early work reflects the experience of their childhood and early youth, Tremblay creates a world in which the autobiographical element unfolds progressively and by degrees as his universe expands. This is particularly true for the revelation of his sexual orientation. Although the homosexual element is present throughout his work, it first appears in a largely objective manner with the political symbolism of the transvestite figures of his early plays. The central transvestite figure reappears in the novels that make up “Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal.” Finally, in the third phase of the author's work, Tremblay himself takes center stage, first as the thinly disguised Jean-Marc, the professor of French in the play Remember Me (1981) and the novel The Heart Laid Bare (1986), and at last openly in the stories of The Movies (1990), which tell how the boy Michel first discovers and faces his “abnormal” proclivities.
Influence Because Tremblay's works have been translated into more than twenty languages (including Spanish, Yiddish, and Polish), his influence can be seen worldwide on naturalistic authors as well as those who explore gay themes. Because of his importance in French Canadian society, his works also affected several generations of Quebecois writers as well. Prolific and versatile, Tremblay is seen as voicing the frustrations and aspirations of his native Quebec.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Other works that, like Tremblay's, examine the detrimental effects of family life include:
Anna Karenina (1877), a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Often cited as the pinnacle of realistic fiction, Tolstoy's great novel begins with the immortal line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Romeo and Juliet (1597), a stage play by William Shakespeare. The tragedy of the “star-cross'd lovers” is set in motion by the senseless feuding of their two families. It is only through the death of the title characters that the families realize they must finally end their enmity.
A Doll's House (1879), a stage play by Henrik Ibsen. Highly controversial in its day, this Norwegian play's scathing and harrowing portrayal of Victorian married life has made it Ibsen's most well known work.
Works in Critical Context
Recognized as one of Canada's most important contemporary authors, Tremblay has risen to international prominence through his iconoclastic dramas about familial, political, linguistic, and identity problems that are unique to Quebec. Synthesizing local and universal themes and naturalist and symbolist styles, Tremblay has created a body of work that has prompted critic Geraldine Anthony to remark: “Tremblay's deep understanding of human nature and his mastery of dramatic technique are responsible for his position as one of the leading Canadian dramatists today.” Similarly well-received are Tremblay's novels. Both critics and readers have generally praised his novels, especially The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.
Les Belles-soeurs Les Belles-soeurs is the first in what became an eleven-play cycle that, in its entirety, many critics regarded as Tremblay's finest achievement. John Ripley suggested that Quebec's “recent past, characterized by a desperate struggle to replace authoritarianism, negative identity, and destructiveness with self-respect, love, and transcendence, is nowhere better encapsulated than in the Les Belles-soeurs cycle.” Ripley's sentiments were echoed by critic Renate Usmiani, who in his Studies in Canadian Literature: Michel Tremblay stated: “The most general underlying theme of all [Tremblay's] works is the universal desire of the human being to transcend his finite condition.” More specifically, Usmiani proposed that the typical Tremblay character is either trying to escape from family life as represented by the rue Fabre, from the false world of the Main district, or from the limitations of self into a transcendent ecstasy.
Responses to Literature
- Discuss Tremblay's contributions to Canadian theater in an essay. What political views does Tremblay support or oppose? How do his plays deal with the idea of a particular Quebecois identity?
- Explain how Tremblay synthesizes regional and universal themes in his works in a presentation. Can his works be compared with those of other, non-Canadian playwrights? Which of Tremblay's themes are particular to Canada and which are universal?
- In a paper, define joual and explain how Tremblay uses it in his works. Why does Tremblay choose to write in a dialect? How does this affect the audience?
- Discuss in a group how Tremblay interweaves high and low culture in his works. How does he synthesize fantasy and reality?
Bélair, Michel. Michel Tremblay. Quebec City, Quebec: Presses de L'Université du Québec, 1972.
Usmiani, Renate. Michel Tremblay: A Critical Study. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981.