Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1982)

JEAN-MARC LARRUE, "Le Théâtre a Montreal à la fin du XIXe siècle" Montreal: Fides, 1981. 141 p

Elaine F. Nardocchio

This is a very disappointing book in spite of or perhaps because of some positive first impressions. The author is careful to point out immediately the limits of his study in which he will deal with plays, playwrights, playhouses and theatre groups and to put aside such matters as the role of the press, the influence of the clergy and any legal or political matters relevant to the theatre. The table of contents also augurs well as it indicates that the book is carefully organized and full of information about three main topics: anglophone and francophone theatre activity in and around Montréal before 1890 and between 1890 and 1900 and a profile of indigenous theatre during the latter period.

The reader is quickly disappointed, however. The eight pages that make up Part I give almost no precise information about the plays, playwrights or companies that were active before 1890. And even if the reader is willing to accept this part as merely a general overview, satisfaction will be short-lived. To begin with the figures provided by the author on the number of college productions and the number of plays written between 1800-1810 and 1880-1890 are not substantiated by any lists of people and/or plays. The reader, therefore, can have no idea how these figures were compiled or indeed if they are correct. Nor can the exact regions involved be ascertained; Larrue states in his Avant-Propos that his study includes not only Montréal but also a few surrounding towns such as Sainte-Thérèse, Saint-Hubert, Rigaud and Pointe-Claire.

To add to the reader's frustrations, the first section, like those that follow, is full of apparently contradictory assertions. Larrue declares, for instance, on page 19, that members of the clergy, such as Monseigneur Fabre, had a negative influence on francophone theatre. Then, on page 20, he remarks that it was thanks to people like Monseigneur Fabre that college theatre flourished after 1850. No doubt with a few more details, Larrue could clear up the confusion but he rarely gives explanations.

This lack of clarity and precision in the presentation is particularly annoying in the second and main part of the book. Here the author tries to draw conclusions about the 1899 productions he claims were put on between 1890 and 1900. He points out, for example, that only 2 % of plays presented in French were tragedies. Unfortunately, he fails to be convincing as his figures are not backed up in any way. Moreover, once again, he contradicts himself, this time by stating that lyrical and sad theatre ('théâtre triste') were equally popular among francophones, that is, each representing 30% of total productions. Perhaps sad theatre, drama and tragedy are understood by the author to mean three different genres but as he fails to define his terms the reader can only guess at his reasoning. And the list of exasperating imprecisions and inadequacies goes on.

Since this work is a shortened version of Larrue's MA thesis (McGill, 1979) many critical remarks could have been avoided if most of his research had been published or at least if he had listed in an Appendix the 1899 productions in question. Larrue's efforts at converting his thesis into a book pale in comparison to the recent publication of Chantal Hébert's Le burlesque au Québec, another MA thesis (Laval, 1978). While, in spite of a few minor problems, Hébert's book is well worth the purchase price and definitely contributes to theatre history in Canada, Larrue's work limps along, the unhappy result of an obviously unsuccessful attempt at cutting and pasting.

All is not futile reading, however, if one can decipher and trust the author's figures. Larrue demonstrates, for instance, that statistically very few local actors and writers appeared on the scene between 1890 and 1900, that American drama and vaudeville were very popular during this period and that a large and varied repertoire was presented on Montreal stages at the end of the nineteenth century. There is also a very interesting section on the most produced local writers of the day: James McGown, Félix-Gabriel Marchand, Régis Roy, Rémi Tremblay, Pamphile Lemay, Josephine Dandurand, Edouard-Zotique Massicotte, J.-A.-D. Tougas, Joannès Iovanné, Louis Naopléon Sénécal, Félicien David and Pierre-Georges Roy. Larrue's short discussion of some, but not all, of the period's popular, foreign theatre and opera stars is equally worthwhile. The visits described include those of Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Albani, James O'Neill, DeWolf Hooper, Fanny Davenport, Julia Marlowe, Thomas Keene, Coquelin Sr, Mounet-Sully, Jane Hading, Adeline Maria Clorinda Patti, Lewis Morrison, Mapelson Schrimmer, Dan McCarthy and Gowon Go Mohawk. In fact, this part of the text in which Larrue does not attempt to give figures and analyse data makes for enjoyable reading. It is unfortunate that the same cannot be said of the rest of his book.