MICHELINE LA FRANCE, Denise Pelletier ou la folie du théâtre. Montréal: Editions Scriptomédia, 1979. Price: $7.95 (pbk)


Denise Pelletier was the first professional actress in Quebec to have a lifelong career there in theatre. The energy, talent and dedication to excellence that she displayed in all her theatrical activities for almost 35 years on the stage, in radio, television and film make her an outstanding figure in Canadian theatre history. The range of roles she played was very broad. She made a major contribution thereby to the flourishing of theatre in Quebec after World War II. She rediscovered the richness of classical roles; she presented for the first time in Quebec many of the most exciting roles of the modern international stage; she created several new roles in contemporary Quebec theatre. She was the respected friend and colleague of all members of that adventuresome and dynamic generation of theatre people in Quebec who founded the theatre companies and definitively established the internationally respected quality of Quebec theatre that we accept today without question.

Micheline La France has done an immense service for theatre buffs who recognized Pelletier's great talent but who were perhaps not aware of her importance in the history of an exciting period of theatre in Canada. The book is a pleasure to read with its many personal anecdotes and chatty, familiar style. The reader is taken behind the scene to meet the woman Denise Pelletier, whose life was theatre, and to meet those in her family who knew her best.

As stated right at the beginning, La France's main purpose in writing the book is to bring out the different facets of Pelletier's personality, a personality so sensitive, volatile, dynamic, intense and focused on theatre that it is well represented as 'la folie du théâtre.' The main sources of information used by La France for background material were interviews. These can be grouped as follows:

1 published and broadcast interviews granted by Pelletier during her lifetime to critics and journalists;
2 recent interviews with friends and family members such as Pelletier's mother (Marie-Reine Pelletier), her brother (Gilles Pelletier), her sister-in-law (Françoise Graton), her son (Stéphane Zarov).
3 recent interviews with Quebec theatre people who worked closely with Pelletier: Yvette Brind'Amour, Jean Duceppe, Jean Gascon, Paul Guèvremont, Emile Legault, Monique Miller, Jean-Louis Roux, among others.

In addition to its relaxed and affectionate style, the book's attractiveness is further enhanced by fine photographs, both on the cover and inside. Those taken from her last two performances, La Divine Sarah and Une Femme, plusieurs personnages are particularly good. These are the work of Basil Zarov, a professional photographer and husband of Denise Pelletier.

Reproduced on the back cover and recurring as a theme throughout the book is the statement: 'I am alive, I will always be alive. The theatre keeps me alive. The theatre and ... you (the audience).' Pelletier attributed this statement to Sarah Bernhardt in the concluding lines of her portrayal of the great French actress. It is equally attributable to both, and Pelletier seems to have been aware of this. La France's presentation is designed to convince that while theatre is the most fleeting of the arts, its very lack of permanence makes it closest to the essence of human existence. The death of Denise Pelletier is not seen as having left a void but a living presence in Quebec theatre, a presence felt by all who knew her, played with her or attended her performances.

Those who read Denise Pelletier ou la folie du théâtre for precise information on her career as an actress may be disappointed, since such information is not presented in any systematic way. The book has no table of contents, index, chronological tables, or bibliography. Notes are sketchy and precise dating is not always easy. La France has certainly managed to bring together a good deal of information on Pelletier's career, yet this information remains incomplete and is sometimes almost lost among details of her day-to-day activities.

It is perhaps unfair to reproach La France for her presentation, since it was clearly her intention to write primarily of the person Denise Pelletier. Nevertheless the person was above all the actress. I must admit my own frustration that this first biography of a woman whose contribution to the evolution of contemporary Quebec theatre was so significant remains virtually inaccessible for reference purposes.

Some of the high points of Denise Pelletier's extraordinary career can be appreciated in the following chronology that I have drawn up on the basis of some of the information provided in the La France biography.

22 May 1923 Birth of Denise Pelletier 

Parents: Marie-Reine Vaugeois and Albert Pelletier (respected literary critic and editor)
22 Mar. 1925 Birth of Gilles Pelletier
1941-42 Studies in dramatics at Montreal Repertory Theatre and with Sitta Riddez.

Beginnings with L'Arcade (Henri Letondal) and La Comédie de Montréal (Paul L'Anglais, Marcel Provost).
1942-46 Participation in Vie de famille, a radio drama in 2130 episodes presented by Radio-Canada (1938-46) - out of this also developed at least two touring shows annually.
1943 Participation in A La Croisée des chemins - a full length propaganda film directed by Paul Guèvremont for les Pères des missions étrangères.
1943-46(?) Work with French director Madeleine Oseray in a company formed to do productions at His Majesty's Theatre and Monument National.
1946 Joined L'Equipe (an excellent young theatre company formed in 1943 by Pierre Dagenais, playing at la salle du Gesù in 1946).
1946-50(?) Performances with Les Compagnons de Saint Laurent, as visiting actress, not company member.
1950 Role of la folle in Giraudoux's La Folle de Chaillot at His Majesty's.

Member of touring company for English version of Gratien Gélinas' Tit-Coq: New York and Canada.
1951 Participation in the first performance of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde: role of Frosine in Molière's L'Avare - the beginning of a significant friendship with Jean Gascon, at least one play each year.
1952-59 Role of Cécile Plouffe in Quebec's first television drama series, Roger Lemelin's La Famille Plouffe.
1953 Title role in George Bernard Shaw's St Joan at Montreal Repertory Theatre.
1954 Performance in Philippe et Jonas at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
1955 Participation in company of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde invited as first Canadian company to participate in Le Festival International de Paris: Molière program, Le Mariage forcé, Sganarelle, La Jalousie du barbouillé (critical acclaim in Paris, no financial support from either federal or provincial governments, only the city of Montreal).
1956 Participation as Queen of France in Michael Langham's production of Henry V at the first season in Stratford's permanent theatre (Henry V: Christopher Plummer, Charles VI: Gratien Gélinas, the members of the English and French courts read like a list of today's who's who in Canadian theatre.)
1956 Role of Athalie in Jean Racine's Athalie, directed by Jan Doat for the 20th anniversary Festival de Montréal.
25 Jan. 1958 Marriage to Basil Zarov; Father Emile Legault officiated.
29 Nov. 1959 Birth of Stéphane Zarov, baptized by Father Emile Legault.
1960 Role of mother in Marcel Dubé's Florence.
1961 Performance in Balsameda at the Théâtre de Percé.
1963 First appearance at the Rideau Vert (theatre founded by Yvette Brind'Amour November 1948, in permanent home of former Stella theatre in 1960). Role of Virginie in television drama by Marcel Dubé, De Neuf à cinq.
1964 Role of Arkadina in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull at Stratford. Participation with company from Le Rideau Vert at Le Festival International de Paris in Marivaux' L'Heureux Stratagème. Role of Iphigénie in Jean Racine's Iphigénie with La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale (formed out of the Conservatoire d'art dramatique in 1963 by Françoise Graton and Gilles Pelletier, educational role chosen for theatre) in Salle du Gesù.
1965 Role of Madame Rosepettle in Arthur L. Kopit's Le Placard with L'Egregore. Title role of Bertholt Brecht's Mother Courage at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
1966 Role of Alice in Strindberg's The Dance of Death at Stratford.
1967 Awarded Confederation Medal
1968 Participation in an adaptation of Marcel Dubé's De Neuf à cinq on Radio Canada.
1970 Awarded Order of Canada Role of mother in Michel Tremblay's adaptation of Paul Zindel's L'Effet des rayons gamma sur les vieux garçons. Directed by Gilles Pelletier at La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale in Eugène Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt.

Role of Gloria Star in television version of Michel Tremblay's Trois Petits Tours.
1970-75(?) Role of France Joyal in television drama Mont-Joye by Réginald Boisvert.
1971 (?) Role of Hécube in production by La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale of Jean-Paul Sartre's adaptation of Euripides' Les Troyennes.
4 Sept. 1971 Death of Albert Pelletier.
1972 Participation in Jeanne au bûcher and La Fille du régiment with Toronto Symphony Orchestra Salle Wilfrid Pelletier (Place des Arts). Role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Oh les beaux jours at the National Arts Centre and La Poudrière.

Directed Les Bonnes at the National Arts Centre.

Participation in La Célestine by Fernando de Rojas at Le Rideau Vert.
1973 Participation in L'Avare, directed by Jean-Louis Roux, in Halifax.

Participation in Halifax radio piece Colette, directed by John Douglas at CBH (awarded Andrew Allan ACTRA award for best radio performance).

Participation in Pirandello's La Volupté de l'honneur at Le Rideau Vert.
1974 Role of Mariaagélas in Antonine Maillet's La Veuve à Calixte at Le Rideau Vert, directed by Roland Laroche.

Role of Lucienne in Michel Tremblay's Bonjour là, bonjour at the National Arts Centre.
1975 Role of mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde with Jean Gascon.

Role of Sarah Bernhardt in simulated interview with Patrick Watson on TVO program 'Witness to Yesterday', directed by Arthur Voronka.

Creation of La Divine Sarah at the Studio Theatre of the National Arts Centre in collaboration with Jacques Beyderwellen, who wrote the script, and Louis-Georges Carrier, director - performance in English, with scenes from La Marseillaise, Rostand's L'Aiglon, Racine's Phèdre and Dumas' La Dame aux camélias in French. Invited talk at L'Institut Canadien de Québec, 'Propos sur le théâtre' - by request, the talk was repeated and then organized into a tour, with 15 of Pelletier's outstanding roles incorporated in it: L'Echange (Claudel), La Veuve à Calixte, Long Day's Journey into Night, Tit-Coq, Un Caprice (Musset), Les Troyennes, Bonjour là, bonjour,

L'Aiglon, Oh, les beaux jours, Les Effets des rayons gamma sur les vieux garçons, Treize à table (Marc-Gilbert Sauvageau), Phèdre, Virginie, La Dame aux camélias, Mother Courage.
25 Nov. 1975 First performance of tour of Une Femme, plusieurs personnages at the CEGEP in Hull, subsequent performances at Drummondville, Roberval, Jonquière, Alma, Chicoutimi.
25 Mar. 1976 to end of April Successful three week run of La Divine Sarah at Centaur Theatre extended for a further three weeks, final week cancelled due to Pelletier's illness.
12 April 1976 Montreal première of Une Femme, plusieurs personnages at Complexe Desjardins, 5,000 in attendance.
24 May 1976 Death of Denise Pelletier

Canada Council announced prior to death that Denise Pelletier had been chosen for Molson Award, accepted posthumously in June by Basil and Stéphane Zarov.
1977 La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale of Gilles Pelletier and Françoise Graton established in new permanent home Théâtre Denise Pelletier.

The creation in 1975-76 of the major performances La Divine Sarah and Une Femme, plusieurs personnages shows Denise Pelletier at the height of her career and reflecting on it. For both shows, she was not only the only person on stage, but the show itself was her concept. The moment seems to have been right for such reflection on both her chosen profession and retrospectively on the many roles she had played. She gave herself to this work with such total dedication that it was undoubtedly a contributing factor in her death.

We are indebted to Micheline La France for having recreated those moments in Denise Pelletier's life when her passion for theatre made all other considerations unimportant. Denise Pelletier ou la folie du théâtre is moving testimony to her living presence in Quebec theatre.