Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1982)

CHANTAL HÉBERT, Le burlesque au Québec - Un divertissement populaire. Montréal: Editions Hurtubise HMH, Cahiers du Québec (Collection Ethnologie), 1981. Préface de Yvon Deschamps, 302 p, illus, $15.95.

Barbara McEwen

Burlesque has not received much attention from theatre critics over the years, although it has enjoyed great success with the public. Snobbery among the elite, traditional attitudes, or justifiable neglect? Chantal Hébert weighs in heavily on the side of popular culture with her careful study of burlesque as a valid and significant social art form. Her thesis - for this work is based on research for a master's degree at Laval - gets underway somewhat awkwardly, since academic format dictates that the subject chosen be first justified and defined at some length. Once this is accomplished, the purpose of the book emerges: the description and analysis of the lively history and functioning of burlesque and burlesque companies on the Québec scene.

To support her contention that burlesque deserves serious study as theatre, Mlle Hébert picks up Peter Brook's comment:


 
'Mon unique critière, au théâtre, est le souffle qui doit passer entre ceux qui font le spectacle et ceux qui le regardent. Je préfère une pièce de Boulevard de bas étage où tout le monde rit à une oeuvre intelligente mais froide ou rien ne vibre.'1


Yvon Deschamps' preface emphasizes the sociological approach:


 
Recherche constante du contact, de la communion avec le public. Art pur s'il en est, puisque lorsque cc contact se crée, la forme même transcend le fond, et c'est là que le public trouve sa vérité, son miroir, son âme.


It is a curious echo of Gratien Gélinas' popular approach to his own craft.

Equally important is the author's own straightforward observation that someone should examine this form of entertainment before it is too late. It is a telling argument. A number of artists who starred in burlesque when it was at its height are still alive, and their help in providing first-hand information about a genre which is strongly oral is invaluable.

The book is divided into two lengthy chapters: the first dealing with the evolution of the genre in Québec, the second with its components, that is, the players, the productions, and the repertory. Mlle Hébert discusses the early period (1914-1930) which was notable for the general use of English and the predominating influence of American companies and repertory. Gradually, the more venturesome pioneers, particularly Oliver Guimond Sr and Arthur Petrie, changed the speech into popular French in response to the demand of their audiences, while at the same time keeping the pace of the act close to the American original.

A golden age from 1930 to 1950 follows, 'golden', not necessarily because of the quality of the entertainment itself but because of the remarkable attendance (p 45). The fortunes of the Théâtre de Montréal are recounted as well as those of the touring companies, for the hard economic times saw the hey-dey of touring. But finally, despite the lingering popularity of the Gayety, the Radio-Cité, and the revival of the Théâtre des Variétés, the author finds that the overwhelming competition from cabarets and television caused the decline of burlesque. She is not optimistic that there can be another revival despite obvious enjoyment by audiences: there is simply no one remaining to carry on the tradition of the earlier star turns.

The second chapter of the book draws heavily on personal interviews with now-retired performers, transcriptions of interviews from radio and television, and accounts given in two very informative books on the subject; Quand on revoit tout ça by Juliette Petrie, and La Poune by Phillipe Laframboise. This chapter completes, without repeating, the information of the first.

Burlesque may be an unusual topic for a thesis, unusual at least for one in 'ethnology' which the series' title would seem to indicate. But whatever its classification it is a first-rate work in an area which has been little documented until now. As an excellent thesis it deals very capably with a vast amount of information. As an excellent thesis it contains almost as much information in the copious notes - and many amusing and revealing tidbits as well. The question of the Church's concern for public morality is raised in the notes: while the 'ligne de filles' was common to burlesque in Québec as well as in the US, 'le strip-tease intégral' was forbidden in Québec. The proscription was generally followed, but some theatres on 'the Main' found ingenious ways around it! The Church's scruples about burlesque are understandable, but Chantal Hébert notes that there could also be co-operation between the Church and the touring companies at the practical level. Her information comes from an interview with Léo Rivet:


 
'on jouait dans les sous-sols d'Eglise et mêne dans l'église (sic). On enlevait les Saintes Espèces. On ne jouait rien d'osé; mais on jouait nos "bits". On jouait 60-40. Tant pour le curé, tant pour nous. On allait là à pourcentage.' (note 86, p 103)


The parish priest, adds Jean Grimaldi, even announced from the pulpit the arrival of the company.

The critical apparatus is extensive, for in addition to the notes there are appendices which include a lexicon of terms, names and stage names of players, lists of companies and theatres, texts of some of the comedy routines staged, and a solid bibliography. Equally informative, and very enjoyable, are the many illustrations throughout the book. The author has obtained these not only from the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, but has had access to private collections, so there are photographs of productions, players, programmes and publicity posters. The 'still shots' make a vivid record.

The only weak feature concerns the basic definitions of burlesque. There is nothing particularly informative here, nothing which distinguishes Québec burlesque from other forms of vaudeville, music-hall or variety theatre. After several pages of quotations from traditional sources, the final definition arrived at neither clarifies nor illuminates: "Le burlesque est un spectacle de variétés oû les différentes parties ne sont pas liées au tout. C'est un art de l'instant' (p 9). Patrice Pavis' concise paragraphs in his Dictionaire du théâtre are far more to the point, even if his purpose is different.

While the definitions may not be satisfying, this in no way diminishes the worth of the other parts of the book. The factual data is most useful; the author raises pertinent questions and supplies reasonable answers. She probes related questions: for example, her evidence links burlesque and melodrama, and the appeal of melodrama to Québec audiences has been noted.2 It is doubtless impossible to change the fundamentally hybrid nature of burlesque. Indeed any such attempt would only falsify the description. What Mlle Hébert has done is to give as painstaking and complete a picture, impeccably arranged, as anyone could wish.

Notes

CHANTAL HÉBERT, "Le burlesque au Québec - Un divertissement populaire." Montréal: Editions Hurtubise HMH, Cahiers du Québec (Collection Ethnologie), 1981. Préface de Yvon Deschamps, 302 p, illus, $15.95.

Barbara McEwen

1 Quotation preceding text, from CAROLINE ALEXANDRE, 'Peter Brook, paisible génie', L'Express (Paris) No. 1426 (du 4 au 11 novembre 1978), p 25
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2 As, for instance in JACQUES GODBOUT'S Le Réformist: Textes tranquilles, 'Le mélodrame ... nouse colle à la peau comme la neige colle à nos bottes l'hiver ... (p 59).
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