Riches For The Little Rooster
Canada's No. 1 man of the theatre, Gratien Gélinas, the idol of Quebec, is as good at figures as he is at writing, directing, producing and starring in his smash hits. Now he's got Broadway producers interested in staging his sensational play, "Tit-Coq"
GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON
LAST SPRING a diminutive Canadien with a melancholy pierrot face arrived on Broadway with a neatly typed three-act play under his arm. He stayed two days.
In those two days he listened calmly as some of the biggest men in show business bid against each other for the privilege of presenting the play in New York. Then he went back to Montreal without signing up with anybody.
Though this sounds like patent madness, to anyone who knows Gratiën Gélinas it is not at all surprising. For Gélinas, creator of the fabulous “Fridolin” and authorproducer-director-star of the record-smashing Canadien play, “Tit-Coq,” is as good at figures as he is at dialogue. He simply played the big shots off one against the other to eventually get the best possible deal for Gélinas when the English version of “Tit-Coq” is finally ready for Broadway.
Theatrical rumor has it that he is now arguing terms through his agent, William Morris, with Arthur Schwartz, a leading producer, for a Broadway opening early next year. It’s possible Gélinas will be a partner in the investment.
This big-time finagling is all the more impressive when it’s realized that Gélinas’ “Tit-Coq” (pronounced tee-cock; means “little rooster”) has only had a few Montreal performances in English. But the French version is already legendary in Quebec. Since its Montreal première in May, 1948, it has been performed 213 times for an audience of 208,600 (a fifth the population of Montreal), grossing more than $400,000. It has earned for Gélinas an estimated $175,000 before taxes, a string of awards and prizes, an honorary degree and critical acclaim that leaves him unapproached'as Canada’s No. 1 man of the theatre.
Satisfied that the French version was accepted by Quebecers as a work of art, and declining early Broadway offers, Gélinas set about the year-long job of translating his first full-length drama into English. It wasn’t only a matter of making money; he had to be sure it would survive as art away from its home environment, that it had the universal qualities needed to make it a success on any stage.
The New Yorkers Were Startled
When the translation was done Gélinas called his original Canadien cast for rehearsal in April. He was determined to produce the same play with the same cast in a second language. Several of his players spoke only a little English; some none at all. Only a death in the cast made a replacement necessary.
Opening night was probably the toughest Gélinas will ever have to face. He had purposely planned an all-Englishspeaking audience to test reaction. Most of them had had the genius of “Fridolin” shoved down their throats by their French-speaking neighbors ever since the first of the annual “Fridolinons” revues 12 years ago, and many of them came with a show-me attitude. Also present were the English reviewers, traditionally tough-minded toward Canadien theatre. Gélinas had tried to dissuade New York people from coming but, in spite of his efforts, nearly a dozen, including three producers, turned up to scout “TitCoq” and Gélinas for Broadway.
The cast was terribly nervous; even the usually letterperfect Gélinas fluffed a couple of lines, but by the end of the first scene he had the audience wrapped up and was never behind from then on.
In his dressing room after the performance he said, “I’ll be surprised if the critics like it.” When he read the papers next day he was a little overwhelmed. “Undoubtedly the finest work of dramatic art that has yet come from a Canadian pen,” one reviewer wrote.
The New Yorkers thought likewise. Gélinas’ acting really startled them. He speaks English with only slight accent and plays with tremendous conviction and sincerity. They compared him with Chaplin in his ability to evoke tears with laughter. Milton Shubert, nephew of Lee Shubert, said he hadn’t been so moved in a theatre for years.
Gélinas felt there were still many things wrong with the play and he wanted to fix them before he offered it anywhere again. He tape-recorded three complete performances and,
during a rewrite this summer,
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played them through several times, using the audience reaction as a guide to revision and cutting. When people told him how wonderful “Tit-Coq” was he quizzed them for its faults. He spent hours digging through comments, asking friends to analyze the play and the acting. Then he added up all the criticisms and, where several people agreed on a point, he marked that down for serious study.
A Gamin from a Game
“Tit-Coq” is built around a soldier of illegitimate birth who, feeling his bastardy deeply, longs for a wife and family to give him the home life he has never known. How he finds the right girl, only to lose her to a civilian while he is overseas, and his subsequent fruitless struggle against the existing order of things, provides an ironic tragedy as moving as it is artistic. Written in the traditional French manner it keeps the audience laughing at the “little rooster’s” dilemma until the final act, when their mirth is quickly converted to tears.
Canadien audiences found it moving and profound. From Prime Minister St. Laurent, who mentioned the play in the House of Commons as an example of first-rate Canadian art, to simple country girls who wrote seeking advice, “Tit-Coq” has made its influence felt. Thousands of letters poured into Celinas’ Montreal studio, congratulating and thanking him. A Quebec City obstetrician wrote to say he had promptly adopted the next illegitimate infant he delivered after seeing the piay.
After “Tit-Coq’s” 100th performance the Dramatists’ Society awarded Gélinas its cherished Grand Prix. Two days later Gélinas received the first honorary degree ever awarded a playwright for his work in this country a doctorate of letters from the University of Montreal.
Success in his hometown was no novelty to Gélinas. For nearly 10 years his revues, featuring a puckish creation named “Fridolin,” played to everincreasing aud enees in the 1,400-seat Monument National theatre. “Fridolin,” a ragged gamin, grew from monologues Gélinas wrote and recited for the amusement of friends and relatives. He was first introduced to the public in 1937 when Gélinas was hired to write, produce and star in a weekly half-hour local comedy broadcast. Taking the character of his monologues as a starting point he fashioned a 14-year-old rowdy who threw satiric rocks at politics, religion, modern art, national unity, Canadians and Canadiens, pomposity and pretentiousness.
The program was a smashing success and moved the following year to a network spot, where the outrageous youngster was able to spread ^ his heresies throughout the entire province of Quebec.
“One of the Great Talents”
During the early months of 1938, with money he had made from his radio program, Gélinas decided to finance a stage revue featuring Fridolin. Carrying a slingshot and dressed in short pants, a tattered Montreal Canadien hockey sweater, running shoes and a battered peak cap he sparked a variety show which featured monologues, songs, high - kicking chorines, and humorous sketches of Canadien life. In his first attempt
Gélinas extended an expected oneweek engagement to 25 performances, establishing a new record for variety in Canada.
After three years Gélinas couldn’t continue both radio program and the revue. He took the gamble and decided on theatre full time and the long shot paid off. During the years 1940-46 “Fridolinons”grew to 75 performances in Montreal and Quebec City, playing to nearly 105,000 cash customers a year. The little roughneck had parlayed $250 a week into an estimated yearly net of up to $75,000.
This would probably have been enough to satisfy most revue artists but Gélinas felt a strong challenge to transcend the purely local fame imposed by language. That is probably the reason he allowed Eddie Dowling, a New York producer, to talk him into accepting (at a mere $1,000 a week) a supporting role in “St. Lazare’s Pharmacy,” a tepid drama designed as a comeback vehicle for Miriam Hopkins. The ill-fated production closed in Chicago 14 weeks after its December, 1945, Montreal opening, but not before Chicago’s critics had time to label Gélinas “one of the great talents of our contemporary stage.”
Gélinas has worked with singular purpose and industry for 14 years toward one goal—establishing Gratiën Gélinas as a significant force in a living Canadien theatre. To his task he brings unerring theatre sense plus a microscopic study of every angle—artistic and commercial—that might improve his work, his reputation, his chance of ultimate success.
Chaplin Is His Champion
Last winter, when he was preparing the text of his play for publication in book form, he spent about six months editing and changing phrases, checking and rechecking idioms to make sure they would be understood in France as well as Canada. He hired four proofreaders to check the plates of his book, then went over every page himself. The first printing of 10,000 sold out 48 hours after it reached the booksellers. A second edition, the same size, was just off the press as this article was written. The standard printing of a book by a Canadian writer is 2,000 copies and anything over 5,000 sales considered a best seller.
Offstage, the man who has created these records is a sincerely modest and retiring person. A wiry 5'3" and 120 lbs, his greatest physical asset is his face which is capable of expressing just about every emotion. His deep-brown eyes in a heavily furrowed face, highlighted by large flat cheekbones and a slightly retroussé nose, can startle with their penetrating frankness, wither with their disapproval, or warm with their twinkling good humor.
The essence of Gélinas’ comedy is the near-tragic dilemma of the little man at odds with the world, exciting laughter which is never very far from tears. His ability to reduce audiences to helpless hilarity is no easy talent. From the broad comic sweep of an arm to the delicate nuance of a raised eyebrow, each movement, every line, is the product of exhaustive study, labor and research. No natural wit or glib gagster, Gélinas abhors Americanstyle comedy that depends strictly on superficial wisecracks. As “Fridolin” the humor of his monologues was based always on serio-comic situations —like the time “Fridolin” for weeks had interpreted every overheard remark as an indication that a mammoth surprise party was being planned for his birthday; then, when the day came, he was left alone, a cold supper in the icebox, his anniversary forgot-
ten altogether. Gélinas’ comic ideal, to the surprise of no one, is the man to whom he is often compared, Charlie Chaplin.
Gélinas catches up on latest developments in international theatre by frequent visits to European and American drama centres. He admires the work being done in New York by Elia Kazan, director of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and by Joshua Logan, director of “South Pacific.” His favorite entertainers include Chevalier, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Pierre Fresnay and Fred Barry (a Montreal actor who co-directs and plays in “Tit-Coq”).
Acting has been a rich dream for Gélinas ever since, as a boy who had scarcely learned to read, he picked up a book of monologues. His parents, poor simple-living Canadiens in Montreal’s east end, were amused by their son’s flair for recitation and indulged him in his “turns” at family gatherings. However, at the College of Brothers in St. Jerome, and later at the College of Montreal where he graduated with 'the equivalentof a senior matriculation, his occasional energetic assaults on bit parts in school plays (he was alwaysconsidered too small for a leading role) added little to his stature as an actor. When he eventually settled down to a $40-a-week job as accountant with a Montreal insurance firm his casual radio and stage actingappeared doomed to remain a hobby, his writing and reciting monologues a private diversion.
Then two newspapermen persuaded him to perform one of his monologues at a concert in 1936, thereby bringing public attention to Gélinas the comic. He’s hardly ever been out of the public eye since.
How (Not) to Do It
Gélinas is the father of six children— a 13-year-old girl, Sylvie, and five boys, Pascal, Alain, Pierre, Yves and Michel, ages 3 to 12. His wife, a soft - spoken brunette, is the former Simone Lalonde, an actress who worked with Gratiën when he toiled in a small part in Quebec’s perennial soap opera, “Le Curé de Village.” What little leisure time he has is spent with his family, adding to his motion-picture record of the children, or horseback riding on his five-acre wooded estate at Oka. He tries to spend at least three months each year taking it easy in the country.
Relaxation comes hard to Gélinas. He has been known to corner friends at a party and keep them tied up all evening discussing theatre business. One friend says: “We love him dearly— all of us. But it would do everyone so much good if he could turn off the machine just once in a while.”
Gélinas has no hobbies. He says, “Acting is a hobby with so many people, I feel I don’t need one. It’s like having a wife and a mistress in the same person.” He loves classical music (has it playing most of the time he is writing) and reads just about every play published in English and French. His favorite modern playwrights include Marcel Pagnol, T. S. Eliot, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. He also reads many books on the art of writing plays.
During a visit to New York in 1947 Gélinas looked up the author of one of his favorite “how-to-do-it” books to discuss the outline of the then-unwritten “Tit-Coq.” The expert read the outline with interest, then patiently explained why it was all wrong, how it did not conform to any accepted formula for successful playwrighting, how, if ever it was produced, it would lay a king-sized egg. That interview cost Gélinas $50 and six weeks of sleepless nights. But, luckily, he
ignored the expert and went ahead with his play.
Unlike the usual artist who knows nothing about money Gélinas learned the intricacies of accounting in a three-year trick at night school while working as a $10-a-week blanket clerk in a Montreal department store. During his shows, with a staff of more than 60 (he has five permanent employees), he hires a full-time accountant to handle the books, but his eye traveling over a balance sheet will sometimes spot a transposed figure that’s worried the professional for hours.
Gratiën Gélinas’ organization is probably unique in modern big-time theatre. In spite of the financial perils generally associated with theatrical ventures he has succeeded in forging ahead completely independent of backers. Today, as when he started with his first “Fridolinons” revue, he owns himself, lock, stock and box office. As his own backer-producer he is able to enjoy complete freedom of action, a freedom that’s almost an obsession with him.
His business headquarters is a twofloor apartment and studio in Montreal’s St. Denis Street. Here he writes much of his material, will sometimes coop himself up for days.
Most of the studio is devoted to a carpenter shop, where his sets and properties are built, and a five-set rehearsal hall, acoustically treated with old cardboard egg cartons. Here, ■working at top nervous pitch during his rehearsals, Gélinas is an exacting perfectionist, sometimes drilling his players to the point of exhaustion. He has been known to burst into tears when he couldn’t get a proper interpretation. He sometimes gives vent to his rare displays of temperament, outbreaks for which he is invariably apologetic once they have passed.
By Canadian theatre standards Gélinas pays his actors well; some get substantially upward from a $100 weekly minimum for seven performances.
Any summary of Gélinas’ future plans must be based on the assumption he will consider the revised English version of “Tit-Coq” good enough after its Montreal reopening with three important cast changes to take on tour this year. As a matter of principle Gélinas refused to make that assumption in advance. But if things go as everyone (except Gélinas) confidently predicts they will, Toronto may get a look at the new work before Christmas, then Ottawa, and possibly Chicago, before a New York opening early in 1951. After New York Gélinas would likely bring the show back to Canada and tour it in English and French through as many cities as possible. London and Paris would come next, before he-converts the script into a movie scenario and sets out to start all over again.
Gélinas’ friends refuse to believe he will be swallowed up by New York or Hollywood. He has made it quite clear that no matter what success “Tit-Coq” may have in the States his country is Canada and his home is Montreal.
This spring, while he was touring New York’s theatres trying to decide which one he’d like for “Tit-Coq,” Gratiën Gélinas told a friend: “Fifteen years ago I used to walk past the front of the Monument National in Montreal and think it would fill my wildest dreams if I could walk on that stage in a bit part. Now I am asked to pick my own theatre in New York. Does it make sense?”
It shouldn’t. But it does. k