Vol. 9 No. 1 (Spring 1988)

JONATHAN M. WEISS, French-Canadian Theater. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1986. 179p


In spite of English Canada's appreciation of French-Canadian playwrights, there is a surprising shortage of comprehensive, critical resource material available in English. John Weiss attempts to meet this need by providing an introductory overview of French-Canadian theatre for English readers. As the ambitious but somewhat misleading title suggests, the author endeavours to study more than three hundred years of theatre history by discussing general social and literary trends as well as the importance of individual plays and authors. However, Weiss has made a somewhat arbitrary selection: the book concerns itself almost exclusively with Quebec playwrights of the 1970s. The main problem with this book stems in fact from the ambiguity of its intended scope and readership. For the general public or student looking for a highly readable introduction to modern Quebec theatre, this proves worthwhile reading. Theatre scholars, however, may object to the omission or summary treatment of noteworthy playwrights and the author's failure to mention, at least in a footnote, important related studies.

Weiss begins with a brief account of theatre in Quebec up until the 1960s. This decade was certainly a turning point, but to affirm that it is only since then that theatre has become an important national art form in Quebec is to minimize over 300 years of theatre history. Furthermore, the choice of 1650 as a starting point precludes any discussion of the noteworthy Théâtre de Neptune(1606). This interesting and concise summary does, however, set the stage for the study of Michel Tremblay and subsequent playwrights, and it is in fact the Tremblay era that really interests the author. Weiss links the emergence of the 'new' Quebec theatre to the province's political and social evolution as well as to the development of new theatre companies and theatres. He states that by 1968 both the material and social framework were in place for a truly national dramatic art.

Michel Tremblay, Jean Barbeau and Michel Gameau are credited with having brought new realism to the Quebec stage. Weiss stresses in particular the tremendous influence of Les Belles-Soeurs and the introduction of  joual. Tremblay's reasons for using  joual are discussed, but the term is imprecisely defined as 'Montreal slang.' Though the author's reluctance to undertake a socio-linguistic study can be understood, a more complete definition stressing the importance of social, political and economic factors as well as references to other studies dealing with the subject would have been useful. Weiss focuses on Les Belles-Soeurs, A toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou and Damnée Manon, sacrée Sandra. These plays illustrate the themes of degradation and alienation, the inadequacy of the family and the Church, and the possibility of escape either to the Main or to the oneiric world of religious fanaticism which Weiss associates with Tremblay's work. The selection is curious, however, given the popularity of other plays such as Hosanna.

The study of Barbeau concentrates on Ben-Ur which brings to light the struggle of the individual in Quebec society and hence the concept of the anti-hero; and on Le Théâtre de la maintenance, which considers the role of theatre primarily with respect to language issues. It would-perhaps have been more appropriate to analyze Joualez-moi d'amour or Manon Lastcall to illustrate this. An entire chapter is dedicated to the study of Réjean Ducharme, Weiss identifies the problems of defeatism and the loss of identity as being central to Ducharme's theatre and indeed to theatre in general during this period, while pointing out as well the otherworldliness of Ducharme's plays. Ducharme's contribution to Quebec theatre is succinctly stated as being primarily on the level of structure and technique. After a brief overview of Acadian history, Weiss focuses his study of Antonine Maillet on La Sagouine and Evangéline Deusse. Both are analyzed as protest plays which deal with the struggle for personal and cultural identity and question l'évangélisme,' the myth according to which the Acadians are an heroic but primarily martyred and humbled people.

The discussion of Jean-Claude Germain's plays emphasizes the importance the playwright places on culture and myths as a source of personal and collective identity. Germain's work is seen as being basically a questioning of old myths, especially those which portray Quebeckers in terms of  'the other,' meaning the dominant anglophone population. The suggestion that both Maillet and Germain set out to denounce traditional myths is certainly justified, but the similarity between the two playwrights would seem to end there. It is curious, therefore, to see them discussed together in the same chapter. Furthermore, focusing on this one aspect precludes any discussion of the political and social criticism central to Germain's work.

Weiss prefaces his treatment of the drama of Robert Gurik, Françoise Loranger and Jacques Ferron, all of which he classifies as political theatre, with the observation that these plays are not the only ones to contain political overtones and that they are not necessarily entirely political. This being the case, the classification is perhaps misleading. Weiss does, however, accurately describe Loranger's work as a sort of collective exorcism of fears and complexes related to the linguistic conflict and draws a useful comparison between Gurik and Brecht. He portrays Ferron as a dedicated nationalist of extensive and varied literary talents and interests whose love of his country and language is reflected in his rich contribution to Quebec literature.

In the final chapter Weiss concludes that little has happened to Quebec theatre since the 1970s, and links this perceived inactivity to the decline of the Parti Québécois and the failure of the Referendum. Theatre, deprived of its nationalist inspiration, is said to be in decline. Weiss does briefly discuss three areas of activity: experimental theatre, women's theatre, and a third group into which he classifies Jean-Pierre Ronfard, Daniel Dubois and Normand Chaurette. No mention is made of new trends in comedy such as those introduced by Rémy Girard, Claude Meunier or Louise Roy, nor of the increasing popularity of dance and mime theatre. More careful attention could have been paid to new developments and playwrights as well as to more recent works of established writers such as Michel Tremblay.

Readers intending to pursue further study may find the treatment of reference material somewhat frustrating. A selected bibliography is provided but it does not include information such as the translators' names or the titles of many of the plays discussed. Articles mentioned in the footnotes are referred to only under the heading 'Secondary Sources.' Only the titles of journals are listed, with no dates or references to specific articles. One wonders whether Weiss intends to address a scholarly audience who would require complete references or the general public for whom broad guidelines may be adequate.

Though not a comprehensive analysis of all French-Canadian theatre as the title might suggest, Weiss's book is a highly readable and concise introduction to Quebec theatre of the seventies. The anglophone reader looking for a quick overview, tracing general trends while highlighting important moments in the history of a theatre to which he has limited access, will find this worthwhile and enjoyable reading.