The onand offstage life of a boy wonder

At twenty-eight Marcel Dubé is the hottest playwright in French Canada. He's also the least predictable bon vivant in Montreal’s table-hopping set—as dramatic in person as he is on paper

KEN JOHNSTONE November 22 1958

The onand offstage life of a boy wonder

At twenty-eight Marcel Dubé is the hottest playwright in French Canada. He's also the least predictable bon vivant in Montreal’s table-hopping set—as dramatic in person as he is on paper

KEN JOHNSTONE November 22 1958

The onand offstage life of a boy wonder

At twenty-eight Marcel Dubé is the hottest playwright in French Canada. He's also the least predictable bon vivant in Montreal’s table-hopping set—as dramatic in person as he is on paper


At 8.30 on Saturday evening, May 31 of this year, the curtain went up on a play at Verdun High School, near Montreal. The play was entitled Zone, and it was written by Marcel Dubé. A half hour later the lush gold-fringed red curtain at the Comédie Canadienne, Gratien Gelinas’ superb new theatre in Montreal, rose to open another play. It was called Un Simple Soldat, and it was written by Marcel Dubé. And just five and a half hours earlier the curtains at the Théâtre Parc Royale in Brussels had parted

to begin a performance by the touring Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. They presented Le Temps des Lilas, a play by Marcel Dubé.

This triple event, unique in the history of the Canadian theatre, was precipitated by a short, burly, curly-haired young man of twenty-eight with the face of a mischievous angel which had earned him the childhood nickname of P’tit Ange (little angel), and a mercurial disposition which had earned him the later and more accurate tag of P’tit Bœuf (little bull).

The achievement came as no particular surprise to those who have been watching the rise of Marcel Dubé as a playwright. It began in 1952 when his play, L’Autre Côté

du Mur (Other Side of the Wall) won three major prizes at the Western Quebec Drama Festival. Within five years four more of his plays captured eight additional awards, including two for television drama.

This young man who has come so far so fast is as fascinating a character as any he has created. His gentle, almost timid manner, his shyness in a crowd, his painful modesty that sends him fleeing from a theatre when the audience shouts “author,” and his cherub-like face with its surmounting mop of rarely barbered and unruly hair makes you think of the story-book poet, lost in his own dream world. But on those occasions (fortunately rare) when, usually after a couple of drinks, his eyes flash and his voice thunders raucously in argument and he takes off abruptly across restaurant table-tops, you know why nobody now dares call him P’tit Ange, and why a few friends dare call him P’tit Bœuf.

Marcel Dube is full of complexes and contradictions. He hates crowds but he is afraid of being alone. He shrinks from travel, by train, plane, boat or automobile. But he drives a car at breakneck speed, and he recently left for France on what he learned to his horror was one of the oldest liners still in commission, the He de France. When he stays at a hotel he always asks for a room on the first floor, as he fears heights. But he travels by plane when he has to. He hates to participate in sports but he was a brilliant

hockey goalie; recently he took up skiing and quickly became good at it. He prides himself on his regular working schedule but his wife claims that he doesn't adhere to it and in fact is likely to start working at any hour of the day or night and at any place; he spent his honeymoon writing scripts for a radio serial. He earns about twenty thousand dollars a year, but he manages to spend it as fast as he gets it; sometimes faster. Then he works harder to get out of debt. Unlike many French Canadians he is fascinated by the English and delighted by their accent. He prefers England to France as a place to visit, and he feels closer as a writer to the American and Scandinavian tradition than to the Latin. He wants to own an English-styie cottage with leaded windows. He hates to see a woman work and for this reason he rarely

invites friends to his home. He likes to pic ture his wife sitting sewing by the fireside— but he has no fireplace. He sees poetry in all women, even those of ill repute. He adores his wife slavishly; when she was away for a one-week holiday recently he was morbidly lonesome and refused to sleep alone in the empty apartment. Each night he drove ten miles across town to sleep at his parents' home. But his wife cheerfully observes: “Marcel falls in love with every girl who takes a leading role in one of his plays.” This man of many moods and many talents, who has been called the Marcel Pagnol of Quebec and the Canadian Chekhov, as well as a morbid muckraker, came out of the working-class East End of Montreal, and he brought with him a sharp ear for the dialogue and a rare

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The onand offstage life of a boy wonder

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“When Dubé saw his first play he got a job as an usher. Hockey lost a promising goalie”

sensitivity for the feelings, hopes, aspirations and despairs of his people. And his people are many, for Montreal’s East End is a melting pot containing the bulk of the city’s working force, leavened by sons of farmers fleeing the soil of agrarian Quebec, daughters escaping the stifling boredom of small towns and villages, refugees from the ailing mining industry of northern Quebec, ex-loggers deserting a fickle forest, and all the other elements of that inevitable migration from country to town. It is of these people that Dubé writes so eloquently. He grew up among them, lie listened to them and he observed them, and in his plays he tells their stories with an authenticity that startles and fascinates his audiences.

He was born on January 3, 1930, on Logan Street, in the parish of St. Vincent de Paul, third in a family of eight children and the only one thus far to turn to literature. His father, Eugène Dubé, a paymaster-accountant with Dominion Linoleum, was able to send Marcel to the College Ste. Marie, a school run by the Society of Jesus and offering a curriculum heavy in the humanities but light on the atom bomb and guided missiles. It turns out countless incipient doctors, lawyers, notaries, priests and politicians. Furthermore the Jesuit college boasts a basement theatre, the Salle de Gesu, where some of the finest offerings of a lively French-language stage have been performed, including Fridolin’s celebrated

Ti-Coq, numerous plays by the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, the Théâtre-Club, L’Equipe, and the pioneer company of them all, Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, founded by that versatile priest, Father Emile Legault.

Dubé had started at the college when he was twelve, and had survived a long succession of fist-fights brought about by his angelic appearance. He had taken to the nets in hockey because it involved the least skating, but he became so good that he was scouted as a professional prospect. At sixteen he wrote a poem that was published in the class paper, and the next year he published a whole book of poems, a single copy of which he laboriously typed himself although then as now he preferred to write in longhand. That year he won a poetry prize at college.

Forgotten Hop

The following year, v/hen he saw bis first play, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone performed by the Compagnons de SaintLaurent, he was so entranced that he overcame his natural aversion to physical work and got a job as an usher. Hockey lost a promising goalie.

For the next couple of years Dubé fooled around with the idea of writing a play, and even wrote a few tentative dialogues which he found on rereading to be hopelessly bad. But he read all the plays he could get his hands on, and studied them for plot structure, technique

and dialogue. He finished school in 1951, wrote his first play, Le Bal Triste (The Sad Ball), and even helped produce it. Today he claims he can’t even remember the plot; only that it was a flop. The following year he wrote a second one-act play, L’Autre Côté du Mur, and entered it in the Western Quebec Drama Festival where is was judged the best one-act play, the best Canadian play and the best French-language presentation. As a oneacter it could not qualify for the Dominion Drama Festival in Saint John, N.B., but it was performed there by special invitation.

Now Dubé had tasted his first success and there was no holding him. The next year he wrote his first three-act play, Zone, a tale of cigarette-smuggling, which was a popular sport in Quebec province until the RC'MP plugged tip most of the holes in the Quebec-American border. Then as now, Dubé’s characters were drawn from the environment that he knew so well, and the language was vivid and real. The play won the Calvert award as the best production, as well as another award for the best French-language production. and in Victoria that year it won the Calvert award for the best production in the Dominion Drama Festival and the Sir Barry Jackson Trophy for the best Canadian play.

This spectacular success brought him to the notice of the Quebec government authorities, and he was awarded one of the annual provincial grants made to

promising artists, to give him a year’s study abroad. It came at a very crucial time, for Dubé had been deeply shocked by the tragic death of a talented young poet and friend, Sylvain Garneau.

The tragedy left Dubé with a profound feeling of depression; he lost confidence in himself after the success of Zone, and felt he would never be able to write anything again. He sailed for France, and since he feared boat travel almost hysterically, spent most of his time and money in the ship’s bar. He said later: “When I began to see butterflies fluttering around my cabin and trying to crawl info bed with me, I decided to go on the wagon, and when I counted up what was left of my scholarship money, I knew it was a practical necessity.” Even at that, his projected year’s stay was cut to six months, in which he managed to visit Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Austria and, of course, Paris. He claims that his happiest moments were in Vienna, sitting alone in cafés sipping wine and unable to understand a single word of the language spoken around him; too, he saw a lot of theatre.

In May of 1954 Dubé returned to Montreal and an outburst of creative writing, for radio, television and the stage, that has shown no sign of slackening since. In four years he turned out a total of seven stage plays, seven television plays, one television translation and several hundred radio scripts. His stage play, Chambre à Louer, cost him

three thousand dollars to stage, but he swept the boards with it at the Dominion Drama Festival, carrying off the award for the best French-language production as well as the Sir Barry Jackson Trophy. And in 1957 he collaborated with the imaginative Louis-Georges Carrier in writing Pour Cinq Sous d’Amour, which Carrier produced on television to win the Frigon Award.

But the most important event of that year for Marcel Dubé was his marriage. He had wandered into An 400 restaurant, a favored rendezvous of the Montreal artistic crowd, one day looking for a companionable drink. Monique Miller, a popular and talented actress, was seated at a table with a tiny girl with large eyes, who looked like an escapee from a convent. Dubé hailed Monique happily and ordered drinks. “A ginger ale for Mademoiselle?” he enquired politely. Mademoiselle Nicole Fontaine accepted. Then she just as politely enquired: "You are the author of Zone?” Marcel beamed. “I am.”

“There are many weaknesses in Zone, don’t you think?” she asked blandly.

Marcel stopped beaming. “What do you mean?”

Then she proceeded to give him a careful scene-by-scene criticism of his most important play to date, the play which had been translated into English by Mac Shoub and presented over television on the General Motors Theatre program. Dubé listened to her, at first restively and then completely absorbed.

Finally he beamed again. She thought he showed great promise.

The shy and painfully sensitive Dubé had found a girl who talked to him easily, laughed at his foibles, and made him forget his thousand fears. They spent hours on end together talking over a glass of wine at the La Salle Hotel, and when Marcel was not with her or talking to her on the telephone he worked. By actual count, he managed to see Nicole Fontaine every single day for six months until, on April 2, 1956, realizing it would make life a lot simpler, she married him. It was time. He had lost forty-five pounds during the courtship and she had slipped from a hundred and ten pounds to ninetyfive.

Nicole Dubé is a remarkable girl, the youngest of five beautiful sisters, all married, all charming, all witty. Three of them, Terry, Giselle and Nicole, live in Montreal. Lucille is married to Didier de Fossey, French consul in San Francisco, and Colette is married to Bernard Gauy, who is in the pharmaceutical business in Toronto. The three sisters living in Montreal have similar problems, which they handle gaily. Terry married Joffrc Dechene, a former newspaperman now in public relations for a paper company. Giselle married Denys Gagnon, a television producer at CBC. And then Nicole married Marcel Dubé. The three husbands became fast friends and boon companions. They had a number of things in common; a love of good food and wine, an enormous capacity for both and

Names you'll see in the next Maclean's

Hugh MacLennan presents a section of his new novel that won’t appear in book form until next year. Powerful and unusual, it combines tragedy and tenderness in a New Brunswick setting.

Peter C. Newman interviews James Hoffa, the Teamster czar, and discusses the influential role that Hoffa hopes to play in Canadian affairs.

Blair Fraser will conclude his intensive report, Where Do We Stand In Defense? He will particularly examine the problem of maintaining Canadian sovereignty in continental defense.

Sybil Shack, a Winnipeg schoolteacher, lets fly some wellaimed barbs in an article entitled, A Teacher Speaks Up To Parents.

Stan Leonard, Canada’s current leading golf ace at the ripe old age of 43, asks, “Who says 40 is too old?”t

Thomas R. Waring, a newspaperman from the Deep South, argues that Canadians are not in a position to judge the racial color problem.

All these, and more, in the next Maclean’s


for the joy of living, a wicked and uninhibited sense of humor, a rebellious attitude toward middle-class conventions, and in the case of the two older men, a complete lack of respect for the pet prejudices and weaknesses of others. Joffre Dechene and Denys Gagnon shook Dubé loose from many of his more crippling inhibitions, and they developed his ability to laugh at himself. They were brutally frank critics of his work as well as his appearance, and they gave him no opportunity to sulk. He had to face their comments, and in doing so he matured.

The Dubés spent their two-week honeymoon in Quebec City, where he kept insisting on moving from room to room in the hotel in search of just the right atmosphere for his work. He was writing a radio soap opera. Journal de François Lafortune, and this kept him occupied for most of the honeymoon. Nicole was philosophical about it. She showed an enormous capacity for being amused at behavior that would send most girls crying back to mama. And Dubé’s devotion to her in turn became complete and almost child-like. But Nicole can still match

him in a delightful disregard for the accepted responsibilities of married life. Then he says sadly: “I married a childbride, and I bear my cross in silence.”

As the honeymoon indicated, marriage failed to slow down Dubé’s prolific outpourings for stage and television. On the contrary, it seemed to stimulate him, and the quality and depth of his writing showed steady improvement. For television he wrote Florence, a tender and sensitive story of a girl’s awakening, and it was produced by the gifted Jean-Paul Fugère who then and in subsequent collabora-

tion, ia Dubé’s own words, “made me think and work harder than I ever did before.”

Fugère, who had been the original producer of The Plouffe Family on television, went to work with Dubé—questioning motivations and obscure characterizations, sending Dubé back to his desk to rewrite and improve. Dubé took Fugère’s criticisms thankfully. They collaborated again in the autumn of 1957 for the writer’s most impressive effort to date, Un Simple Soldat, which was the seething and deeply moving story of a soldier who joined up too late to realize himself in war and who could not fit in when he returned to civilian life. Later Gratiën Gelinas persuaded Dubé to write a stage version of the television play. It opened at the beginning of June, 1958, at the Comédie Canadienne in Montreal with almost the same cast as the television version. Directed by Fugère, it provided the theatre with the season’s biggest hit. Last month it re-opened for its second run at the same theatre—this time in an English translation.

When the French-language television awards for 1957 were handed out in May, 1958, at the Gala des Artistes in Quebec City, Dubé won the award for the best script of the year with Florence, and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Gold Medal for the best writing on television with Florence and Un Simple Soldat.

Meanwhile Dubé had written a stage play, Le Temps des Lilas, which was produced by the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde at the Orpheum Theatre in Montreal in the spring of 1958 and, superbly acted, had an immediate and overwhelming success. In June it was presented in Paris and again it was warmly received. The company presented Time of the Lilacs in both French and English during its Canadian tour this autumn.

With all this activity Dubé still managed to write another ninety-minute television play this spring, Médé, the story of a worm that turned. Opinion about Médé among Dubé’s admirers is violently divided. But everyone agrees that it has one of the most horribly funny scenes ever viewed on television: when a mourner gets into the wrong funeral parlor, begins to make the usual condoling remarks about the deceased, and then finds he is talking about the wrong corpse. An English-language version of Médé will be shown on CBC’s First Performance series.

Last summer Marcel and Nicole Dubé went to Europe; Dubé had obtained a four-thousand-dollar grant from the Can-

Answer to

Who ÍS it? on page 41

Claire Wallace, Toronto travel agent who’s also been a radio personality and newspaper correspondent. She's now competing with Miss Post as author of the current etiquette book, Mind Your Manners.

ada Foundation, and his activities of the last eighteen months had surely earned him a rest.

Dubé’s rapidly growing popularity with the French-speaking public has not escaped the advertising - agency scouts, ever anxious to find new talent to enlist in the task of selling their products over TV. Dubé recently had an ironic offer to write a television series aimed at replacing The Plouffe Family written by his good friend, Roger Lemelin. He was told that he could name his own figure. He turned the offer down unhesitatingly.

The stage successes of Le Temps des Lilas and Un Simple Soldat, together with the continuing popularity of Zone, which was performed this year in as widely separated places as St. Paul, Alberta, and Shawinigan Falls, Quebec, as well as in English in Verdun, has persuaded Dubé that he can make a comfortable living writing for the stage rather than for television, even though a television series might earn him fifty thousand dollars in a season. This spring when the advertising agencies were on their annual talentfishing expeditions they found Dubé a very wary trout indeed. He received several tempting offers, but he turned them all down.

Gratiën Gclinas has already talked to Dubé about a new play, and the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde wants something from him too. When he has time, he wants to write a novel. And, of course, he is always ready to write a television drama for his good friends, Louis-Georges Carrier and Jean-Paul Fugère.

Looking back over the past seven years at Dubé’s prolific output, it is easy to understand that only intense concentration and a tremendous capacity for work could have made this possible. But he can relax, and sometimes with rather comic results. He won his title of P’tit Bœuf on the occasion of a reception at the Cercle Universitaire in Montreal to honor the celebrated French actors, JeanLouis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. People who were there still vividly recall Marcel’s dramatic entrance. He appeared rather late in the evening but properly attired in dinner clothes and accompanied by Nicole, whom he was then courting. T he couple paused briefly at the top of a short flights of stairs. Barrault and Renaud were at the foot of the stairs, surrounded by admirers. There was a hush, and people paused to look up at the new arrivals. Then Marcel took one step off into space, and tumbled down the stairs, dragging Nicole with him. They came to rest at the feet of Madeleine Renaud. Dubé got to his feet with dignity, picked up his partner solicitously, and then wheeled and offered to fight the invisible man who had pushed him. "It was then that I decided to marry him,” Nicole confessed later.

Dubé is haunted by the people he creates in his plays, and in particular by the scoundrels. They are very real people to him when he is alone, and they frighten him. Sometimes, when he is trying to relax, they come to life and assume the identity of whomever he happens to be with. At least this is the explanation of the black eye he was displaying this spring. Roger Lemelin, who has a very real (and reciprocated) admiration for Dubé, endeavored to pilot his young friend home after one of Dubé’s famed table-top excursions at An 400 restaurant, which had included tipping over the big central pyramid of hors d’œuvres. Lemelin got his man safely into a cab, but on the way home Dubé became convinced that Lemelin was actually one of the tough gangsters from Zone, intent on taking him to a lonely spot in the country for murder and burial. His efforts to

escape this dismal fate resulted in sundry contusions and a broken cab window that cost Lemelin twenty-five dollars. “I saved his life,” said Lemelin modestly afterwards.

Yet, in spite of these occasional outbursts, Marcel Dubé spends most of his time either hard at work or quietly observing the world around him. Periodically he goes on a diet. At five feet seven inches, he tends to put on weight easily, and currently he weighs about a hundred and seventy-five pounds; he would like to lose fifteen or twenty of them. He will

wear the same suit for months without changing it, and he wore one raincoat winter and summer for nearly two years before Nicole pried it off him and had it cleaned. He never wore the raincoat again. His unusually long eyelashes give him a deceptively gentle appearance, although they do betray an essentially kind and warm-hearted disposition.

Everyone likes Dubé; even those whom he detests. Louis-Georges Carrier expressed a common opinion when he said recently: “I admire Marcel as a human being even more than I admire him as a

writer, and 1 thi.ik a great deal of him as a writer.”

Dubé has a very clear understanding of his own abilities; he can orient them in the direction he wants. He knows that he is incapable of writing comedy as such; tragedy is his field, and that arises from his urge to pursue the careers of his characters to the end. In his plays comedy and tragedy alternate as they do in life, and if the endings are invariably tragic it is because Dubé's honesty and sense of compassion are greater than his desire to find a trite answer. if