RENATE USMIANI, Michel Tremblay Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre (Studies in Canadian Literature 15), 1982. 177pp

Judy Rudakoff

Examination of a playwright's work is often focused on two main areas: structural analysis and thematic development. In Michel Tremblay's writings, these two fields of study are difficult (if not impossible) to separate. Renate Usmiani, in her book entitled Michel Tremblay, explores the dramatic structure and theatrical form, and the recurring themes and characters in Tremblay's plays and early novels.

Tremblay's plays and novels tend to emphasize the inability of a society to accept with any ease the amoral or rebellious upstarts who cannot integrate with the norm. In her study of Tremblay's oeuvre, Usmiani rightly identifies the point at which all of Tremblay's protagonists converge, no matter what their social environment might be - all are isolated by their marginality and seek to escape this alienation through attaining love and acceptance.

At her strongest when analyzing the style of theatre which Tremblay has come to represent in Canada, that is, a highly theatrical form expressing multi-level imagery, Usmiani catalogues the formal elements of each play with precision. Particularly useful are her delineations of Les Belles-Soeurs and Forever Yours, Marie-Lou and her definitions of the 'inner' structures (or musically based composition of the plays), and 'outer' structures (or conventional theatrical composition of the plays) of Tremblay's dramatic work.

In terms of thematic study, Usmiani explores the hybrid nature of Tremblay's writings, with its masterful mingling of seemingly diverse elements: the universal and the particular, the sacred and the profane, the moral and the immoral. On occasion, Usmiani's individual discussions of specific plays seem to avoid major points in the development of theme and plot; for example, in her analysis of Bonjour, là, bonjour, Usmiani never recognizes the vital fact that though Nicole and Serge may share a physical relationship and rely on each other emotionally, Nicole does not actually possess her brother, or even truly communicate with him. The only character in this play to communicate fully and reciprocally with Serge is his ailing, deaf parent, Gabriel, with whom there is no pressure of sexual contact to taint an otherwise elevated passion. Another instance of such an omission is found in Usmiani's interpretation of Gloria Star. More than merely the surreal ending which Usmiani sees as an absurdist statement 'debunking unrealistic dreams of glamour and fame,' the climax of this play seems clearly to be an example of Tremblay's views regarding the absolute power of sexuality and its influences on stardom and audience reaction.

I must also question Usmiani's repeated use of the term 'action' as a synonym for activity, which leads to such statements as 'The essence of the play lies not in action, but in dialogue', (p 32) or '... the plot is almost exclusively psychological, there is no physical action'. (p 65) These imprecise uses of a particular theatrical term lead to possible misinterpretation; certainly dramatic action is conflict, and conflict is the essence of drama.

Usmiani's interesting discussion of Tremblay's negative portrayal of the family cell seems weakened, to a degree, by her assertion

... reaction against an idyllic treatment of the family occurred with greater violence in French than in English Canada, simply because the myth of the 'holy family' had been imposed upon that society for a considerably longer period, and with much more force. (p 52)

Surely David Freeman's vitriolic condemnation of the myth of the family is at least as violent as that of any such condemnation in French Canada.

The most disturbing element of this book is its consistent lack of any summary statements. Each chapter purports to deal with a specific element of Tremblay's work, as expressed in a selected group of his writings. However, Usmiani never ends these discussions with any conclusive remarks, often leaving the reader with a distinct sense of business unfinished. The book itself reaches no climax, merely stopping when all the works chosen have been examined.

Despite its flaws, Usmiani's book does provide the reader with an introduction to and basic understanding of Tremblay's world and its recurring characters and themes, and his dramatic structure and techniques. As a result, it is a useful resource, and represents a healthy step towards the establishment of a body of reliable and substantial criticism of major dramatists in Canada.