Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring/ Printemps 1999

YVAN BIENVENUE AND THE CONTE URBAIN

JANE MOSS

This article explores the conte urbain as practiced by Yvan Bienvenue, winner of the Governor General's Award for 1997. This new hybrid dramatic form combines the monologue and the traditional oral tale, using a mixture of popular language and poetic speech. Although marked by their dark vision, obscenities, graphic sexuality, and nightmarish violence, these contes urbains carry clear messages about social values and appropriate human behaviour. By using different linguistic registers, he underscores the tensions that arise when everyday language fails to express inner needs and aspirations. Yvan Bienvenue's work reminds us that popular language--with its vulgarity, anglicisms, grammatical incorrectness, and impoverished vocabulary--reflects the failures of contemporary society and the longing for personal happiness.

Cet article analyse le conte urbain de Yvan Bienvenue, récipiendaire du prix du Gouverneur Général en 1997. Cette nouvelle forme théâtrale est hybride, combinant le monologue et le conte oral traditionnel avec un mélange de langues populaire et poétique. Quoiqu'ils soient caractérisés par leur vision noire, l'expression obscène, la sexualité crue, et la violence cauchemardesque, ces contes urbains transmettent des messages moralisateurs. Par moyen des différents registres linguistiques, Bienvenue souligne les tensions créés par l'incapacité des gens de bien s'exprimer. Son oeuvre nous rappelle que la langue populaire--avec sa vulgarité, ses anglicismes, ses fautes grammaticales, et son vocabulaire appauvri--reflète l'insatisfaction des gens dans la société contemporaine et leur quête du bonheur.

When drama critics talk about contemporary Quebec theatre, one of the names always cited among the promising playwrights of la relève is Yvan Bienvenue. Born in Saint Hyacinthe in 1962, Bienvenue studied playwriting at the École nationale de théâtre in the late 80s and since the early 90s he has become a true man of the theatre--writing, acting, producing and editing not only his own work, but also the work of other young playwrights. In 1992, he co-founded the Théâtre Urbi et Orbi with actor Stéphane Jacques and together they have produced Bienvenue's Histoires à mourir d'amour (February 1993), Règlements de contes (October 1995), Dits et inédits (June 1997), as well as staging a five-night theatrical event entitled 38 (September 1996) which consisted of thirty-eight playlets by thirty-eight different writers (all under the age of thirty-eight), each inspired by one of William Shakespeare's plays. Frustrated by the limited number of new plays published in Quebec--a problem exacerbated by the decision of Les Herbes rouges to discontinue its theatre series--Bienvenue and his friend, Claude Champagne, recently co-founded Dramaturges Éditeurs, a publishing house devoted exclusively to dramatic works.

Although Bienvenue balks at being labelled a playwright of Quebec's "Generation X" (Baillargeon), all of the critics have commented on the dark vision, crude language, graphic sexuality, and nightmarish violence in his work. As in François Archambault's Cul sec (1993), Jérome Labbé's Jusqu'au Colorado (1996), Anne-Marie Cadieux's La Nuit (1995), Jean-François Caron's Aux hommes de bonne volonté (1993), the characters in Bienvenue's plays often turn to alcohol and sex as temporary escapes from the alienation, loneliness, and meaninglessness of modern urban society. While he does not want to be the conscience of his generation, Bienvenue's strong social and political convictions have earned him a reputation as a moralist and political activist. On the question of his engagement, he has commented:

. . .un des drames actuels, c'est que les jeunes refusent de devenir adultes et rejettent les valeurs fondamentales nécessaires pour vivre en commun. Dans ce sens, oui notre société est noire, très noire. Mais je refuse l'autodestruction. [. . .] Moi, je crois qu'il y a encore des causes, des valeurs, qui valent la peine d'être défendues, sans dérision, sérieusement. [. . .] Je ne refuse pas la dérision, mais pour le moment, dans mon travail, je choisis la gravité. (qtd. in Baillargeon)
[. . .one current crisis is that young people refuse to become adults and they reject the fundamental values necessary for communal living. In this sense, yes our society is dark, very dark. But I refuse self-destruction. . . . I believe that there are still causes, values, that are worth being defended seriously, without contempt. . . . I do not refuse to show contempt in my work, but for the moment, I choose seriousness.]1

Another aspect of Bienvenue's work that has attracted critical comment is his use of language which one critic called "résolument jouale, mais comme ennoblie par un indéniable don poétique" (Baillargeon). The playwright explains:

On l'a fait collectivement le combat du joual, mais le mien n'est pas encore fini. Je viens de la poésie et j'ai besoin de nommer les choses, les émotions, les idées, pour les faire vivre. J'aime jouer avec les mots, même les plus durs, même les plus crus. Notre monde est noir, difficile, souvent désespérant, et notre langue "maganée" en témoigne bien. (qtd. in Baillargeon)
[We have collectively fought the joual battle, but mine is not over yet. I come from a poetry background and I need to name things, emotions, and ideas, to make them come alive. I love to play with words, even the harshest, even the crudest words. Our world is dark, difficult, often hopeless, and our exhausted language shows it.]

Praised for its virtuosity, ferocity, and vividness, Bienvenue's use of language refuses limits and taboos (see Godin 1995, 1996; Bérard; O'Neill-Karch 1995-96, 1996-97). From (porno)graphic sex to allusions to Saint-Denys Garneau, Lapointe, Villon, and Nerval, he mixes the language of sleazy bars on "la Main" with poetic lyricism in a manner that inspired Le Devoir critic Robert Lévesque to gush "C'est rimbaldien." Diane Godin has astutely observed that much of the dramatic tension in Bienvenue's texts results from his use of language, from the juxtaposition of the poetic voice with the hyperrealistic slang (Godin 1996 75-76).

Montreal critics began to notice Bienvenue in February 1993 when Histoires à mourir d'amour was staged at the Salle Fred-Barry. The production consisted of Lettre d'amour pour une amante inavouée and In vitro, two short three-person plays, in which traumatic encounters with death transform the characters. Lettre d'amour opens immediately after three young Montrealers sharing a ride are involved in a car crash in the Laurentians. The crash kills a unicyclist who turns out to be a poet, husband, and father. As they wait for the police to arrive, Suzanne reads the victim's poems aloud while the driver, Richard, wonders if he could have avoided hitting the man, and Alain fantasizes about the sexy date waiting for him in Jonquière. The accidental death provokes a meditation on the absurdity of life and an almost desperate need to combat the spectre of death with the life force of erotic passion. The second work, In vitro, opens with a bang--literally. Having just killed his girlfriend and her doctor at a Montreal abortion clinic, François bursts into a farmhouse kitchen, pumps a shotgun blast into the ghettoblaster playing Christian speed metal music, and demands a Mason jar into which he empties the fetus he has been carrying in a wastepaper basket. This eruption into the lives of Isabelle and Benoît, two Jesus freaks leading a chaste and quiet existence in the countryside, leads to a tense siege and a dramatic exploration of domestic violence, the need for love, and the search for personal fulfillment in the contemporary world. Unfortunately, the search ends with two bloody ax murders in this "huis clos." To free herself from Benoît, the man who would save her soul to satisfy his spiritual needs, and François, the man who would use her body to fulfill his desire for paternity, Isabelle must make sure that both die.

These two plays are interesting portrayals of the violence and absurdity of modern life in which Bienvenue also dramatizes how language--vulgar, poetic, religious--reveals or masks inner reality. One could do a close reading of the texts to analyze how the author juxtaposes slangy popular speech and the purified discourses of poetry and religion in a way that suggests that the reality of everyday life impedes the quest for happiness. What I would like to concentrate on in this article is Bienvenue's use of the monologue form in a series of short theatrical pieces he labels contes urbains.

In the early 1990s, Bienvenue and his collaborator actor/producer Stéphane Jacques mounted annual collective shows they called contes urbains. The first collage was staged at the Théâtre Biscuit in December 1991 and included Bienvenue's Les Foufs. His Joyeux Noël Julie was part of the 1994 edition at the Théâtre Licorne. The longer monologue Règlements de contes received a solo production by the Théâtre de Quat'Sous in October 1995 and the six pieces of Dits et inédits (including Les Foufs and Joyeux Noël Julie) were performed at La Licorne in June 1997 as part of the Festival de théâtre des Amériques. Bienvenue's notion of the conte urbain seems to be a renewal of the nineteenth-century conte oral--a tale told on dark winter nights to scare Quebec peasants into behaving well. Instead of rural dialect, Bienvenue's storyteller speaks the language of contemporary urban Quebec--filled with anglicisms, swear words, and explicit sexual terms. Most often, he replaces the fantastic elements of the traditional conte with a kind of hyperrealistic grotesque. While the overt Christian theme may have disappeared, Bienvenue's updated versions do carry clear messages about social values and appropriate human behavior, aspects of his work that remind critic Solange Lévesque of the moralistes who wrote fables and proverbes.

Literary theorists and anthropologists stress the point that the traditional conte oral retells the physical and intellectual testing of a hero in a manner that reflects upon and justifies his actions and conduct, thereby reinforcing the morality of the group (see Gase-Poulin 97-103). When the hero fails or commits an error, the need for reparation can become the source of tragedy (104). In the re-telling of the tale, aggressive and hostile acts are narrated rather than acted out. Narration replaces violence so that what the audience witnesses is a language act (94, 97).

Unlike the traditional conte oral, Yvan Bienvenue's stories do not recount heroic or admirable exploits and his antiheroes suffer accordingly. These contes urbains expose the gap between the traditional morality of conservative Quebec society (what we see in the tales of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, father and son, Honoré Beaugrand, and others) and contemporary urban, post-industrial society. Instead of proving their maîtrise de soi, Bienvenue's characters demonstrate a lack of control over aggressive and sexual instincts that leads to dire consequences. These individual breakdowns of values signal the collapse of the value system of the collectivity and it is this moral anarchy that the playwright presents and denounces.

What truly intrigues me about Bienvenue's work is the decision to stage the conte urbain--in other words to marry the narrative form to the dramatic. The performance of the narrative creates a drama of language that represents images of action rather than action. But as the playwright reminded me, Racine and the classical dramatists used the same technique, that is they used long speeches to recount action that took place off stage (Personal interview, June 1997). What I see here (and in different forms in the work of Larry Tremblay, Norman Canac-Marquis, Pol Pelletier, etc.) is a renewal of the monologue form. It is as if Quebec playwrights have recognized that conventional realism is best done in visual media such as film and television so they should concentrate on language and direct communication with the audience. In their 1980 anthology, Monologues québécois 1890-1980, Laurent Mailhot and Doris-Michel Montpetit called this genre "notre forme de théâtre la plus spécifique, la plus populaire, la mieux engagée" ["our most specific, popular, and committed theatrical form"] (11). Tracing the history of Quebec monologues, Mailhot and Montpetit call it "la forme la plus ancienne et la plus moderne du théâtre québécois" ["the oldest and the most modern form of Quebec theatre"] (11). It is an "antidiscourse"--delivered in popular language by a lower class character (Yvon Deschamp's average man or Gratien Gélinas's Fridolin) to counter élitist discourses (religious, intellectual, political) in purified French (Mailhot et Montpetit 358). Being a solitary speech act, the monologue allows for the invention of an individual language that is free to deviate from the norms of dialogic speech in creative ways (Frieden 20-21). In other words, the monologue is a "parole personnelle" that becomes "un langage vu, objectivé, spectaculaire" ["a spectacle language, seen and objectified"] when staged as a dramatic performance (Mailhot et Montpetit 8, 31). While music hall monologues were often satiric, since the 1960s the form has become a vehicle for poetic protest (as in the case of Marie Savard's Bien à moi) or for the exploration of personal identity (as in Larry Tremblay's La Leçon d'anatomie).

Bienvenue describes his writing as exploring ways of combining narrative and poetry in order to invent a contemporary poetic language for theatre. Poetry inspires the liberated use of language in the contes urbains, its transgressive quality, but also the dramatist's reliance on traditional poetic techniques such as rhythmic meters, repetition, allusion, imagery, and antithesis. Syntax, rhythms, and vocabulary imitate popular speech because Bienvenue wants "une langue qui colle à la peau des personnages" (Baillargeon and Personal interview). The published texts, with few if any stage directions or punctuation marks, look more like long poems than theatrical scenarios since the goal is poeticized orality.

Paradoxically, monologues are not at all monologic and Bienvenue's are no exception: the conteur/actor speaks directly to the audience, creating an intimate bond. Sometimes the story seems torn from the pages of the tabloids, sometimes it is the kind of self-revelation formerly reserved for the confessional. Because they reveal vulnerabilities, admit to base and degrading behaviour, and accept the consequences of their actions, Bienvenue's characters elicit audience sympathy. The behavior may be violent, obscene, shocking, or distasteful, but the moralistic point of view reassures us.

In Règlement de contes, the character, Stéphane, tells us how he fought with a gang of skinheads who were desecrating a Jewish cemetary.2 His long monologue, filled with digressions, is a passionate denunciation of all forms of hatred--antisemitism, neo-nazism, racism, homophobia--and a humanistic defense of poetry, music, and love as weapons to combat existential anguish. From the beginning, Stéphane underscores the shared experience of despair and condemns his own rash behavior:

Si vous saviez. . .
Si c'tait pas d'toute la marde. . .
hein?
Toute notre crisse de marde de désespoir d'ostie d'câlice
L'ostie d'vie comme une chienne sale
hein?
On est toutte dedans
tout un chacun
Pourquoi j'ai faite ça?
J'aurais pu crever
J'aurais pas dû faire ça
J'aurais pas dû
J'aurais pas dû mais faut qu'quequ'un l'fasse un
            m'ment d'nné
Faut qu'on s'réveille ciboire
                            (Règlements de contes 10-11)
[If you knew . .
If it weren't for all the shit. . .
huh?
We're all in it
every one of us
Why did I do that?
I could have died
I shouldn't have done it
I shouldn't have
I shouldn't have but someone's got to do it at
            some point
We have got to wake up damn it]

But violence cannot be an answer to violence and Stéphane pays the price for attacking the skinheads: at the end of the monologue, we find out he was killed.

The female character of Joyeux Noël Julie3 also recounts a tale about righting wrongs with violence. She tells us how the victims of a vicious rapist banded together to punish him after the death of Julie, the thirtieth victim. Since the criminal justice system set him free after a mere four years in prison, the women decide that it is up to them to halt his crime spree by imposing a punishment to fit his crimes: torture, genital mutilation, and death. The gruesome details reveal the depth of the women's rage--against the sadistic rapist and against the misogynist justice system that refuses to deal seriously with violence against women. Here are the conteuse's final words:

Y est mort y'a queques heures
Pis l'25 on va aller l'livrer
Comme des pères Noël
Sul perron d'un juge
Tsé le juge qui disait
Les lois c'est comme les femmes
C'est faites pour être violées
Pis dans carte on va écrire
Certains juges comme les violeurs
Sont faites pour être lynchés

Joyeux Noël Julie
                                (Dits et inédits 50)

[He died a few hours ago
And on the 25th we're going to deliver him
Like Santa Clauses
On the doorstep of a judge
You know the judge who said
Laws are like women
They are meant to be violated
And on the card we're going to write
Some judges are like rapists
Meant to be lynched

Merry Christmas Julie]

In Les Foufs, the narrator tells the story of Yannick, a university student unable to return to his girlfriend Julie for New Year's Eve due to a blizzard. Yannick feels guilty about the lovers' quarrel he provoked after too much alcohol on Christmas day. He also feels very alone in the big city at holiday time and jealous because Julie is at a party. He decides to pass the time by going to a porn movie and then a noisy bar called "Les Foufs" (note that foufounes is Quebec slang for fesses). There he spots a young girl, a beautiful skinhead, all alone and crying. When he sees her sexy figure, all thoughts of Julie fly out of his head, replaced by erotic fantasies that he proceeds to act out. After some heavy foreplay in the bar bathroom, they adjourn to a fancy hotel room paid for by the sexy skinhead. They drink champagne and scotch between bouts of lovemaking until Yannick passes out. When he wakes up three days later in a modest hotel room, the pain in his back and an eight-inch incision are signs that one of his kidneys has been removed! The tale ends as the shocked audience contemplates the heavy price Yannick has paid for his infidelity.

Although Bienvenue exploits the prurient and sensational aspects of this sordid tabloid tale, he turns it into a poetic cautionary tale from the opening lines. A few quotations will illustrate how Bienvenue poeticizes popular language and (post)modernizes the conte oral. In these opening lines, note how the repetitions and rhythms entrance the listeners. Note also how direct address and the familiar tu create both a bond between conteur and audience and sympathy for the character while leading to a statement of the moral illustrated by the tale:

Au milieu d'la nuite
Y s'passe toujours des affaires
Plein d'affaires
Souvent
J'dirai's même presque tout l'temps
On s'en rend pas compte
Ou on dort
Ou on est trop occupé ou
Préoccupé à ou par aut'chose
J'aimera's vous raconter l'histoire
D'une histoire qui finit pas
En tout cas qui finit pas vraiment
Dans mon histoire
Pis qui finira p't'ête vra'e mais ça
C'est comme dans toute
Ça peut toujours ête vra'e
Même les histoires qui font peur
Peuvent ête vra'es
Ç'pour ça qu'a font peur
Ç'pour ça qu'a peuvent pas jusse ête
Mais qu'a sont vra'es
Mon histoire c'pas une histoire de peur
C't'une histoire d'amour
C't'une histoire d'amour pis d'frette
C'qui r'vient à dire
Qu'c't'une histoire de solitude l'hiver
Quand l'amour est loin du centre ville
Loin d'la ville même où tu t'traînes
La bedaine de bière
Parce que tu t'ennuies
Ou tu fa's des conneries
Parce que t'es tu-seul
Parce tu veux pas mourir                             (Dits et inédits 21-22)
 
[In the middle of the night
Things always happen
Lots of things
Often
I'd even say almost always
We don't notice
Or we're asleep
Or we're too busy or
Preoccupied with or by something else
I'd like to tell you the story
Of a story without an ending
In any case it doesn't end
In my story
And it'll be maybe true but that
Is like everything
It could still be true
Even scary stories
Could be true
That's why they're scary
That's why they can't just be
But they must be true
My story isn't a scary story
It's a love story
It's a story about love and cold
Which comes down to saying
It's a story about winter loneliness
When love is far from downtown
Far from the same city where you drag
Your beer belly
Because you're bored
Or you do stupid things
Because you are all alone
Because you don't want to die]

At this point, the conteur introduces Yannick and sets the stage for the story he describes in terms that evoke the Biblical Fall of Adam:

Mon histoire c'est l'histoire de Yannick
C'est p't'ête une histoire de conneries
Ça c't'à vous aut' à décider
Ça s'est passé y a pas longtemps
En ville
Une veille du jour de l'an à Montréal
Faisa't frette
Faisa't pas chaud
Faisa't frette
Faisa't qu'y faut
Yannick ta't dû
Les maudites histoires de gars
Avec leu besoin délirant d'se répandre
Du moins d's'délester l'homme
La p'tite portion cylindrique d'être homme
Élevée vers le ciel en prière
Qui rampe
Damnée comme un sarpent
A charcher queque enfer
Dans l'chaos urbain
Histoire de chute sans doute
Archange dins vidanges
Amour dans l'détour (22)
[My story is the story of Yannick
It may be a story of stupidity
That's for you to decide
It happened not long ago
In the city
New Year's Eve in Montreal
It was cold
It wasn't warm
It was cold
Must have been
That Yannick was due
Damn stories about guys
With their crazy need to let it all out
At least to shoot off
The little cylinder that makes them men
Raised toward the sky in prayer
It crawls
Damned like a serpent
In search of some hell
In the urban chaos
Story of a fall no doubt
Archangel of the drain pipes
Love on a detour]

Looking at the written text of this passage, we see Bienvenue transcribing orality--dropping vowels and consonants, deforming vowel sounds--while using religious images and poetic descriptions. It is also common for Bienvenue to use anglicisms, swear words, blasphemy, and (porno)graphic sexual language. Unlike the vulgar vocabulary of François Archambault's Cul Sec, the crude language of Les Foufs is somehow redeemed by the emotional charge, psychological depth, and moral undertone of the conte. Here, for example, is how the conteur describes Yannick's encounter with the skinhead in the bar bathroom:

J'm'imagine une orgie à deux
Aicque la déesse trop belle pour ête divine
L'ange noir trop pur pour ête diable
Peu importe Yannick avance quand même
Pour la r'joindre aux chiottes du fond
Qui s'barrent
Les p'tites chiottes du fond
Où tu pourra's mourir
Sans qu'on s'souvienne de toé
À peine qu'y rentre dins chiottes
Qu'la fille le frenche
Y zombise sur place
Y capote
Y bande
C'trop fort comme trip dissident
Yannick c'pas l'genre
Yannick dans les chiottes de bar aicque une skin
Qui a l'air d'une sirène
Crisse
Même ben gelé t'hallucines pas des affaires de même
Histoire de peur ou histoire d'amour
C'est trop beau pour qu'ça finisse pas mal
Mais mal finir
Si on r'pense au r'mords d'apras
On s'dit qu'c'est trop laid
Pour qu'ça finisse pas ben (29)
[I imagine an orgy for two
With the goddess too beautiful to be divine
The black angel too pure to be the devil
It doesn't matter Yannick goes ahead anyway
To meet her in the toilet in the back
They lock
The toilet in the back
Where you could die
Without being missed
As he enters the toilet
The girl french kisses him
He turns in to a zombie on the spot
He loses it
He gets hard
It's too much for an unexpected adventure
Yannick isn't the type
Yannick in the bar toilet with a skinhead
Who seems like a siren
Christ
Even when freezing you couldn't hallucinate something like that
Scary story or love story
It's too beautiful not to end badly
But to end badly
If you think about the remorse after the fact
You tell yourself it's too ugly
Not to end well]

The other contes of Dits et inédits also create the effect of tabloid news stories revealed in confidence. In Ordonnance de non publication, the conteur tells his public that they must never breathe a word of the story he is about to tell. The reason is simple: he is a member of the jury hearing a murder case against a butcher who killed his best friend, dismembered the body, and stuffed Thanksgiving turkeys with ground-up human flesh. The butcher committed this grizzly act to avoid paying off a bet on the outcome of the 1995 referendum. Drinking heavily as they watched the vote count, one friend bet on the YES side and the other picked the NO to win. The winner's payoff would be the right to have sex with the loser's girlfriend! With some macabre political humor, the conteur describes his tale as:

Une histoire qui sans avoir de rapport
Tourne quand même autour d'la politique
Parce que comme en politique
Y a toujours quelqu'un qui . . .
Dans toute bonne histoire
Y a toujours quelqu'un qui s'fait fourrer (8)
[A story which without having any connection
Still turns on politics
Because as with politics
There is always someone who . .
In every good story
There is always someone who gets screwed]

Being a sore loser, the butcher welched on the bet and might have gotten away with the murder had it not been for the fact that the turkeys (farcies de fédéraliste) that he donated to an old folks' home made everyone sick. The conteur, who has demonstrated his moral uprightness by denouncing sexism (10), the mistreatment of senior citizens (19), and the immorality of the bet (12-13), concludes the story with this advice:

Si jamais vous êtes invités
À manger d'la dinde d'une maison d'vieux
Faites attention (20)
 
[If you're ever invited
To eat turkey in an old folks' home
Be careful]

The monologue of the old woman in Cocaline also combines sex, substance abuse, and death for humorous effect. With great embarrassment, this resident of an old folks' home tells us how Tino, the handsome male prostitute who specialized in satisfying a clientele of senior citizens (she calls him "le messie des p'tites vieilles" ["the messiah of little old ladies"]--80), died of a cocaine overdose in her bed. The sordidness of this misadventure is redeemed by the honest, emotional connection the narrator makes with the audience. When she confides that she still has needs despite her advanced age (77), that it is hard to be an old woman (79), and that she is ashamed of what happened, it is hard not to be moved.

The supernatural elements of the two stories written especially for Dits et inédits recall the traditional fantastic tale. Indeed, Bienvenue tells us that La Complainte de Jean-Pierre Beaudry is an adaptation of Honoré Beaugrand's 1875 tale, Le fantôme de l'avare (5) in which a miserly farmer is punished by God for having refused hospitality to a weary traveler on a cold, snowy night. After his death, he is condemned to purgatory until he can earn his salvation by performing an act of hospitality. Bienvenue's Complainte is a lovely story told in language that tries to recreate the oral speech of 19th century rural Quebec. It is filled with poetic repetitions and descriptions, religious imagery, and old-fashioned morality. Early on, the storyteller reminds his audience that the old stories are handed down and repeated "Pour nous garder pur/ Pour nous faire marcher drette" (52). He updates the tale by commenting that every generation must find its own stories, stories that help people understand their purpose in life (54). And according to Bienvenue, that purpose is to do good:

. . .y faut toujours faire c'qui est juste
[ . . .]
Même si quand t'es né pour un p'tit bien
Tu peux pas casser l'mal pour tout l'monde
Même si t'as l'impression que ça changera pas grand chose
Fais c'que t'as à faire (54-55)
[. . . you must always do what is right (. . .)
Even if when you're born for small things
You can't ease everyone's pain
Even if you think it won't change anything
Do what you have to do]

L'Ange exterminateur is a brief piece about a modern day urban angel whose earthly mission is to bring sympathy and compassion to the lonely and unhappy people he encounters in bars. Here again, Bienvenue becomes the "poète du blues" described by the backcover blurb of the published edition of Dits et inédits. The narrator not only tells the angel's story, he also reveals his own existential anguish and forges a bond with those in the audience who have shared his feelings of ennui, hopelessness, and solitude. As he searches for a way to begin, he says:

Vous savez
Tout l'monde a toujours
L'impression d'avoir une vie d'marde
Une vie platte
Pas d'amour
Une vie d'marde
Jusse une vie d'marde
Tout l'monde la même vie d'marde
Pas d'sourires
Pas d'tendresse
Jusse une vie sale à saouler (69) 4
 
[You know
Everyone always
Thinks he has a shitty life
A boring life
No love
A shitty life
Just a shitty life
Everyone has the same shitty life
No smiles
No tenderness
Just a dirty life to drown in booze]

Although the "ange ben ordinaire" cannot change the world, he can save some souls on Judgment Day (75) through the gift of understanding and compassion, symbolized by feathers from his down coat.

When asked by the theatre journal Jeu to ponder his own day of judgment, that is to imagine what he would say before dying, Bienvenue's response was just the kind of explosion of existential angst that fuels his writing:

Je le sais pas c'que serait ma dernière réplique
Je veux même pas y penser
J'voudrais avoir jamais entendu c'te question-là
J'voudrais juste qu'on arrête de me torturer
Avec ce genre de question-là
Je peux pas dire ce que serait ma dernière réplique
J'espère peut-être juste réussir à dire
J'ai pus peur!
J'ai pus mal!
J'doute pus!
J'aimerais croire que j'ai pardonné
Croire qu'on m'a pardonné
J'aimerais pouvoir dire
Je suis en paix! (Jeu 80, 214)
[I don't know what my last words would be
I don't even want to think about it
I wish I had never heard that question
I just wish people would stop torturing me
With that kind of question
I can't say what my final words would be
I hope that maybe I'll be able to say
I'm not afraid anymore!
I don't have any more pain!
I have no more doubt!
I'd like to think that I have forgiven
To believe that I have been forgiven
I'd like to be able to say
I am at peace!]

While it is much too soon to draw conclusions about a playwright as young as Yvan Bienvenue, the work we have seen so far has already earned him a Governor's General Award (1997) and seems to promise a brilliant future. His passionate commitment to Quebec theatre, his strong moral and social conscience, his innovative use of the monologue form, and his blending of oral and poetic language make him a leader among the generation of playwrights that is changing the direction of Quebec drama. Abandoning the conventional structures of realist theatre, Bienvenue and others expand the dramatic possibilities of both the monologue form and oral language. By combining the monologue with the traditional oral tale, Bienvenue reasserts the moral seriousness of literature in a manner that appeals to a wide audience. His monologues are not "juste pour rire," yet they avoid the preachiness of élitist discourse, be it spiritual or political. By using different linguistic registers, he underscores the tensions that arise when everyday language fails to express inner needs and aspirations. As intellectuals continue to debate the political, sociological, and pedagogical aspects of French language usage in Quebec, Yvan Bienvenue's work reminds us that popular language--with its vulgarity, anglicisms, grammatical incorrectness, and impoverished vocabulary--reflects the failures of contemporary society and the longing for personal happiness.


 

NOTES

I would like to thank Yvan Bienvenue for his gracious cooperation in my research. He was kind enough to meet with me in Montreal (June 1997 and July 1998) and to furnish texts of his work.

1 All translations are my own and are intended to aid the anglophone reader. No attempt was made to reproduce Bienvenue's unique mixture of slang, vulgarity, and anglicisms. I leave that daunting task to a professional theatrical translator.
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2 Bienvenue has explained that this aspect of Règlement de contes was inspired by the desecration of Jewish cemetaries in Quebec City and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. The play is very topical, with references to Canadian and American white supremacists, historical revisionists, skinhead and neo-nazi leaders.
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3 Joyeux Noël Julie, starring Sylvie Drapeau, was made into a short film by Jean-Claude Coulbois. The fourteen-minute piece premiered 4 June 1997 as part of the Festival de théâtre des Amériques.
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4 It is tempting to see this passage as an allusion to Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs. It is also tempting to see this story as a reworking of the 1996 film Michael, starring John Travolta as a less-than-angelic angel who expires after losing all his feathers.
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