Last month the Canadian Theatre Critics Association announced that the 2021 recipients of the Herbert Whittaker Award were the playwright and director team, Michel Tremblay and André Brassard. This biennial award from the CTCA honours individuals for outstanding long-term contributions to the Canadian stage.
Tremblay responded with enthusiasm to the announcement, saying, “This is a great honour, I liked Herbert Whittaker very much. We both received honourary degrees from McGill University on the same day in 1991.”
In making this announcement, interim CTCA president, Martin Morrow noted that, “The choice of Messieurs Tremblay and Brassard is no surprise. The only surprise is that it has taken us this long to honour them with the award. Their work together had a huge impact on our theatre and helped to put us on the map internationally.”
In fact, their foundational play, Les Belles-Soeurs, which premiered at Théâtre du Rideau Vert on August 28, 1968, also took awhile before it found its way to an English language premiere at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on April 3, 1973, in a production translated by Bill Glassco and John Van Burek. The play, which featured Candy Kane, Elva Mai Hoover, Monique Mercure and others, strikingly depicts the lives of Montreal’s working class and gay demimonde in its own native dialect, joual, while provocatively addressing Quebec’s religious and cultural tensions. Bill Glassco, the long time director of Tarragon Theatre, was also a past recipient of the Herbert Whittaker Award.
1973 was also a formative year in my own life as a young person who had emigrated to Canada from the United States the previous year. An aspiring arts journalist, my first outlet for publication was by way of Toronto’s Guerilla newspaper, the so-called underground or alternative news outlet of the period. Far from subterranean, the paper’s offices were located on two floors at 201 Queen Street East just down the block from the fledgling CITY-TV building. Along with putting out a weekly broadsheet, at one point we were approached by CITY-TV to produce a weekly half-hour news/interview show for the station which we did for a 26 week run.
Although not a very lucrative gig, it did afford me the opportunity to be an up close observer and commentator on the huge explosion of art and cultural activity occurring in Canada “back in the day.” Here then, from digging deep in my personal archives, is the review of Les Belles-Soeurs that I filed after seeing the English language premiere of the play in Toronto lo, those many years ago:
Les Belles-Soeurs is an interesting play by Michel Tremblay. First presented in 1968 at Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal, it is the story of fifteen women who come together for an evening to paste one-million trading stamps into books. Germaine Lauzon, the main character, is an energetic, slightly more than middle-aged French woman who has called all of her friends together to impress upon them all the wonderful gifts she is going to derive as a result of their labor.
At the beginning of the play, the characters form a kind of chorus-like appearance with each woman giving a brief, rhythmic description of her day to day routine. The work, the drudgery and the labour of their every day existence begins to take form as each character takes a seat to face the audience and improve upon the former’s remarks.
Bringing fifteen women together on stage for two and one-half hours to paste trading stamps into books might sound a bit boring at first but this production, directed by André Brassard (who has collaborated with Tremblay in almost all of his work) has some unique facets. The play is set in East Montreal and regrettably much of the pathos and humor that is so real and immediate to a Quebec working class audience becomes a bit misplaced in the affluence of southern Ontario. Bill Glassco and John Van Burek have struggled admirably to give the translation the life and vitality of the original language which is, of course, Quebecois. But as one French critic put it – “the language of East Montreal is not the language of East Toronto.”
Certain themes are apparent throughout the play and are revealing given the social and cultural origins of the work. The recurring subject of the church and religion, which even today holds so much power in Quebec, is most notable in short outbursts. For instance, when one woman chastises Linda Lauzon for her modern morality with, “I don’t believe in all this free love – I’m a Catholic.” Or in another conversation one woman reminds the others that “you’re never too old to sin.” Men are mentioned infrequently throughout the evening and never in a very positive light. “Ode to Therese” is a brief musical interlude dedicated to the character of that name for her steadfast endurance in the care of her aging mother-in-law. The mother-in-law herself is a most grotesque creature, thrown into a wheelchair like a sandbag and told to stay there and keep quiet for the majority of the evening.
Les Belles-Soeurs must be the most progressive work the St Lawrence Centre has attempted this season and as such they should be applauded for it. The opening night audience showed their appreciation by responding warmly with a standing ovation and bravos for the director and the playwright.
Also from my archives circa summer 1972, this story:
“THE TORONTO SENIOR PRESS SOFTBALL ASSOCIATION ended its regular season last Saturday with a game that turned out to be an upset as the heavily favored Guerilla team was defeated by the Oakville Journal 22 to 2. All in all, Guerilla put in quite a season ending up with a zero and thirteen record (to the non-sports fans, there is a difference between 0 and thirteen, and thirteen and 0). Unfortunately, our record was not good enough to allow us into the playoffs but it was a fine summer.”
BACK ROW: L. to R. Tom, Robin, Wendy, Russ; kneeling: Mike & John; Front Row (seated); Phil, Terry, Ron. Absent: Cecil, Doug, Jim, Phil, Vic and Jose.