A VISIT WITH GRATIEN GELINAS
FAMOUS FAMILIES AT HOME
What sacrifices must a dedicated showman demand of himself and his family? The patient and of ten lonely Madame Gelinas knows the answer: the famed Freneh-Canadian eomie is never really out of the theatre no matter where he goes
In public life Gratien Gelinas is a showman. He is often compared to Charlie Chaplin, not entirely without reason. In private life he is still a showman, as I learned when I talked through an afternoon with him and his wife, Simone, in their Montreal duplex.
He is also, to be sure, a family man with five sons and a daughter. But he plays this role — to burden a figure of speech — by bringing his stage back home with him and casting his family as supporting players in The Gratiën Gelinas Story. Simone Gelinas is a lonely woman, and like other gamblers' wives (a showman, particularly one who produces his own scripts, is as surely a gambler as any horse-player) she has learned how to wait under strain, sometimes for months, until the gamble is won or lost. Gelinas has staged winning productions more often than not, but there is always, his wife observes, “next time, and then it is just as bad.”
She can count the number of hours she spends with her husband in most weeks, and when they re together they usually talk over his current script, his current role, or the current crisis at his theatre. Their daughter, Sylvie, recently married a young Montrealer named Bernard Sicotte who performs his own comedy material, a clear case if there ever was one of environment showing the way to romance. The three youngest Gelinas boys are at boarding school but their older brothers, Michel and Yves, are both apprentice showmen themselves — the early stirrings, perhaps, of a Canadian version of the Barrymore dynasty. They sometimes wait up for Gratiën after the night curtain of his current play. If he clears away the next day’s problems at the theatre in time to reach home before two or three in the morning, they sit around for a while and talk shop. There are, after all. only between seventeen and twenty working hours in Gelina’s overcharged day, and for the last quarter-century he has been reluctant to squander a working hour on anything outside his craft. The quarter century — to touch only the high points — has gone like this:
In the late Thirties and early Forties he produced an annual series of comedy revues in Montreal called the Fridolinades. He also wrote them, directed them and starred in them. They set some kind of longevity record for revues by reappearing in fresh and funny editions tor nine years running.
At the end of the Forties he supplanted Fridolin, the harassed but gallant street urchin who was the title character in his revues, with Tit - Coq, the homeless ex-soldier who was the title character in his first full-scale play. In Tit-Coq Gelinas tripleteamed himself again, as star, director and producer. The play broke all attendance records for a theatrical production in Canada with three hundred performances in French and a couple of hundred more in English.
In 1958, he created, out of his own excessive momentum and with the money of a well-heeled art patron, the Dow Brewery, a permanent theatre in Montreal for producing, when possible. Canadian plays — La Comédie Canadienne. He is the Comédie’s artistic director and its business boss. (A Montreal critic once called Gelinas "that rare thing, an artist who knows the score.”) The theatre's most successful production so far is its current one, a comedy called Bousille et Les Justes, by G. Gelinas. The star of Bousille is the same G. Gelinas. So. it goes without saying, is the director. As a showman, Gratiën Gelinas is a one-man gang.
To catch him at home and temporarily stationary I had to wait for a Monday, the one day of the week his theatre is closed and he is out of grease paint. (In Montreal. Sunday is a legitimate and busy working day for entertainers of every stripe, from strip teasers to string quartets and, of course, comedians.)
The Gelinas’’ seven-room apartment in Outremont. a Montreal sub-community just north of Mount Royal, is in an anonymous stone - faced duplex that looks like an insurance salesman's residence. The day I called there the photographer who came along, Sam
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“Where is the theatre audience? Watching television and movies”
Tata, asked if I was sure we had the right place. I checked, then pushed the bell for the lower right-hand apartment. Gratiën Geiinas. all five-fect-four of him. swung open his door.
Geiinas is not the kind of actor whose features melt into his make-up, altering his appearance from role to role. Both Fridolin and Tit-Coq, those famous if fictional French Canadians, were there in the flesh in the resilient b'ttlc man who showed us into his parlor: lank hair the color of gingery old brass; a corrugated forehead, the right eyebrow almost constantly cocked above the left; a leathery lantern jaw; a long face, melancholy, as clowns’ faces are. in repose.
The room he led us into is small and carefully uncluttered, just big enough to hold a chesterfield, a couple of easy chairs, a scarred upright piano and a record player. On the music rack the score for a Liszt nocturne stood open; on the mantle, a leather-bound copy of Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire beside a porcelain figure of a Chinese equestrian knight; on the record player, a pile of boxed opera recordings, from Mozart to Menotti; on the walls, four or five good but not costly Canadian paintings, including a couple by Alfred Pellan. the chef tie file of Canadien painters; nothing else. The room, that day, was so artfully dressed it had the feel of a stage set with props carefully picked and thoughtfully placed to convey culture without ostentation.
I learned later that the Geiinas family, if they are house-proud at all, reserve their enthusiasm for their country place at Oka near Montreal. "We're lucky there —we have a vast estate with a mountain at the back and a lake in front, ideal for the boys." Simone Geiinas told me. “Hold on." Gratiën broke in. "You don't realize how ‘vast estate' sounds in English." He turned to me. "It's just big enough to be comfortable," he said.
For the first hour of my visit Simone Geiinas was resting in a bedroom at the rear of the apartment and the boys were away at school or at work. Geiinas had a quiet stage all to himself, and not unnaturally took command of it for a monologue on the theatre. At fifty, he says he is "midway” in his one-man-gang assault on showmanship. He explained that at the moment he was working on an English translation of Bousille; that Bousille stood a chance of repeating the extraordinary box-office success of TitCoq. but he wouldn't make a firm guess one way or the other; that the first thing a showman needs is an audience; and that the audience of about fifteen thou-
sand that an average Canadian play now draws isn’t nearly big enough to pay a playwright to do a workmanlike job or a producer to stage a competent production. In five minutes we had moved from the front doorstep to the heart of Geiinas’ angriest convictions about showmanship.
"Where is the audience?” Geiinas asked.
"Watching television and movies,” Geiinas answered.
"Why?” Geiinas asked.
“Because the theatre is forgetting the things that made it—suspense, passion, laughter, pathos," Geiinas answered.
For holding just these views, and putting them to work in his plays, he is called a lowbrow by some theatrical theorists. I mentioned this.
"There are people in the theatre who want to compete with television and the movies by bleeding the stage of everything but ideas," he said. “They're like a woman who thinks she can stop being attractive to her husband because another woman is doing it for her. No! This is the moment when she must make herself more seductive then ever. In the theatre, for tiie time being anyway, we have to forget about the brain and seduce the emotions."
What test for success?
Geiinas warms into a conversation like a marathon runner warming into a race, and by now he was in full stride. His voice is strong and able, but has none of the juicy cleverness of a "trained” voice — say a television announcer's. His ribbed forehead, his features, his shoulders and arms, his hands and fingers, all get behind his words and push.
1 said, "There's a common idea in Quebec — I've heard it from Frenchspeaking university professors and bellhops — that an ambitious French Canadian has a strike against him before he starts, no matter what he wants to do. How does this sound to you?"
Geiinas laughed. "Although I like painting and music and I read as much as I can. I dislike—in fact I refuse—to pose as an expert in the arts. If by success you mean money, that's a job for the economists.
"I know only one thing, one craft: how to stage a show. My nose is close to the earth, sniffing my own small path. But a show? A show' can succeed in French or English—Tit-Coq proved that. And for myself, Montreal is where I work. New York or Paris or Hollywood, no. My ambitions are here."
Here, too, was his u'ifc, who joined us at that moment. Standing, Simone Gclinas’s smooth dark head is almost precisely level with her husband's gingery one; seated, she soon drew her legs up beneath her and curled comfortably in her chair. Her olive-toned face is shaped by a strong nose, and she wore a plain but becoming brown silk dress a shade lighter than her eyes. I asked her if she had been an actress.
Before they were married, she said, Gratiën had arranged for her to play a few small roles on the ground that she should know what she was getting into, but she had never been a professional. On the contrary, the circumstances of her courtship, as she recounted them now with apparent pleasure, contrasted so absurdly with the casual mating habits usually ascribed to theatrical people that they sounded like a folk tale from another. stricter time:
A girl. Simone, who is eighteen, is taken by her mother to have tea with the mother of a young man. Gratiën. His mother is impressed by the girl, and the parents arrange a party at which the two will meet. The purpose of the party is a secret, but of course the young people see through this subterfuge and are painfully self-conscious with each other. Despite their unease, within a few weeks they are informally engaged.
"That was in 1930." Gratiën broke in. "I was studying, trying to find my way into show business, working in an insurance office like my father and selling shoes at night. I had to court her for five years before I could afford to marry her. She was the only girl I ever went with.”
His wife smiled. "First love,” she said, fondly but with a trace of mockery at the cliché.
During much of their five-year engagement they had an arrangement by which they saw each other only on Sunday nights; Gratiën was "running too hard in too many directions" to spend more time on courtship. Since then the score has tipped only slightly in Simone’s favor. Last spring and winter, for a characteristic season of loneliness, he moved to their country house at Oka to write Bousille et les Justes, a job for which he needed complete solitude. In Montreal she read, attended mass and waited. She saw her husband only on his rare trips to town, made not to visit his family but to attend to the Comédie Canadienne's business.
Geiinas. for his part, worked little less than twenty hours a day. "When I'm writing I stop only to eat and rest. For
food, I open cans. For rest, I’ve taught myself a little trick. When I'm tired I lie down and go to sleep—for ten minutes, twenty, half an hour. At Oka I lie on a couch; in the theatre I lie on the bare floor during intermission, if necessary. Anywhere.”
“Like Napoleon,” his wife said.
“It makes her laugh when I say I'm going to hurry up and get a fast rest,” he said. “But it works.” It made me laugh, too, and in the break in the conversation Gelinas slipped out to the kitchen to pour some drinks.
While he was gone his wife said softly, to herself as much as to me, “It has been hard and even painful to be so much alone. When the children were young I was always busy, but now . . . We have no time for social life; a few opening nights, now' and then a movie for relaxation, a few friends we don't see enough of. Still, Saint Exupéry (a French novelist, not a canonized churchman) writes that to love is for two people to look, not at each other, but forward in the same direction.”
Gelinas returned with the drinks and I asked them about their children. The eldest, Sylvie, who is twenty-three, graduated last spring from the University of Montreal. She has played bit parts in her father’s productions but wants to be a writer, and is now working as a women’s page reporter on Montreal’s big French daily, La Bresse. Last summer Sylvie married Bernard Sicotte, who is in his last year in the letters faculty of the U of M and who writes, directs, and plays much of the comedy material in the university’s musical revues. “I told her she would have a lonely life like mine,” Simone Gelinas said, “and she laughed.”
The oldest boy, Michel, is twenty-two, a business administration graduate from the U of M's school of commerce and now a part-time post-graduate student in business administration at McGill. He is a sort of rotating apprentice at the Comédie Canadienne, where he has worked at everything from the year-end audit to hammering the tin number tags on the seats, and intends to make himself a theatre executive of a new kind, one who can handle everything from tax problems to stage lighting with a professional hand.
At twenty his brother Yves is set on a theatrical career too; he is halfway through the degree course at the Quebec Conservatory of Dramatic Art, and is a polished-enough technician to be stage manager for Bousille et Les Justes. “At the theatre I’m harder on them—more demanding — than I am on other employees,” Gelinas said. "They have to earn respect by their work. They manage. Yves hasn't let anyone miss an entrance — not even a cue — in Bousille yet. Lord help him when he does.”
The three younger boys are all boarders at Collège Brébeuf, a classical college just around the corner from the Gelinas’ duplex. Bierre, who is seventeen, is much concerned with designing and mockingup stage sets that are as yet, his father says, too ambitious to fit inside a theatre. Fifteen-year-old Alain is “the clown of the family. When he was five,” Gelinas recalled, obviously not for the first time, “he said he was going to be an actor like father—only funny.” Bascal, the youngest at thirteen, is the “family poet” and the only one of the boys who has taken his school work seriously. “A great consolation for his mother,” Gelinas said, clearly hoping to draw a rebuttal that didn’t come.
With several examples in mind, I asked if their father’s fame had made the boys hard to handle. “They take it
pretty calmly,” Simone Gelinas said. Gratiën explained that he had told the boys, early on, that he belonged to “a craft that needs fanfare and publicity to live. It is no more honorable than any other craft — only noisier.”
They have used only one guideline in raising their family, a simple one: they forbid nothing. They try to demonstrate why some choices are better than others, and leave the choices to the kids. This has worked out reasonably well, although it has left them with their share of the usual problems. Bierre. for instance. tried living at home for a while early this fall but he couldn't “separate himself from the television set long enough to do some work,” so he is now back at boarding school.
The apartment, while we talked, had been completely undisturbed—not a buzz from the unlisted telephone, not a murmur from a maid (“I could never keep one,” Simone Gelinas had said. "Our hours are too unpredictable”), not a knock on the door. I asked her if she often saw her family together in one place, and she told me it sometimes happened that they gathered for lunch on Sunday. Gelinas saw my meaning. “We could probably arrange it next Sunday,” he said hospitably, "if you'd like to come by and meet them. Make it after lunch but before I have to leave for the theatre.” I said I'd enjoy meeting them, — and as it turned out, 1 did.
No leg room for Bernard
Sam Tata was composing a group picture when I arrived on Sunday. The starched, combed and blue-suited boys had just returned from high mass with their father, and looked it. The family resemblance among them is noticeable but not remarkable—they are all within a couple of inches of their father’s fivefoot-four, but the only child with his gingery hair is Sylvie, the daughter. Her husband, Bernard Sicotte, a loose-jointed six-footer who was having trouble finding leg room in the crowd, looked even longer than he is among the short Gelinas.
When the photographs were disposed of, I asked the three younger boys (who were clearly unwilling to make peace with either their stiff collars or the English language) if they had something more interesting to do. They bolted like flushed game and raced down the basement stairs. I followed, out of curiosity, and discovered a comfortably rumpled room, well furnished with books, that now had a movie screen on one wall, a projector near the other, and half a dozen teenagers slumped between. I had been holding up a private screening of a French feature film that Bierre, Alain and Bascal were showing some friends. For the rest of the afternoon, while we talked upstairs, the sound track rumbled below.
With the second generation of Gelinas on hand to put some youthful topspin into the conversational ball, it bounced faster than it had on our previous visit. The cues, as actors call their speeches, went something like this:
LEFOLII: The younger boys seem to speak English about as well as most Ontario schoolboys speak French—lamely. Have you gone out of your way to teach them English?
GELINAS: Sylvie went to Ontario three times on exchange visits. The best we could do for the boys was a subscription to Maclean’s. (Loud laughter.) BERNARD: So far a bilingual Canadian has usually been a Canadien who speaks English. But I see some western schools are beginning to teach French as a sec-
ond language. Maybe the walls are coming down. If they are. we have to help by tearing down our own false traditions. MICHEL: At school we study three hundred years of false history. Our books are written by brothers with a big B who make a saint out of a roisterer like Champlain and a hero out of a bandit like Dollard des Ormeaux.
BERNARD: We don’t need bad nationalism like the St. Jean Baptiste Parade (a yearly display of Canadien sentiment that attracts several hundred thousand spectators in Montreal every June). We don’t have to defend our language and our culture better, we have to use them better.
MICHEL: English-speaking Canada has a few false traditions of its own. Take the royalist nonsense—it means absolutely nothing to us.
SYLVIE: I think there are some new
ideas, some new excitement, among French-Canadian women, too.
SIMONE GELINAS: For us, there was love and the instinct to bear children. They taught us nothing else.
SYLVIE: We want to live our own lives, and live them while we're young. LEFOLII: Isn’t this really a matter of the church’s attitude to birth control? BERNARD: Of course. My mother was one of eighteen children. When she married, the priest told her she couldn't refuse her husband—it was a sin. SYLVIE: But as I understand my own priest, the church is changing. The objection is only to some methods; there seems to be no objection to natural birth control. I’d like to have more than one child, but I’m not going to have more than three or four.
BERNARD: Oh. (General laughter.) In any case, it’s a matter of arithmetic. No-
body can afford to raise eighteen children today in Montreal. Nobody. GELINAS: The times are changing.
Michel and Bernard are just starting in the theatre; 1 see for them a different theatre from the one we know. They will have to know how to mix film into stage productions, how to play to a camera for closed-circuit theatre audiences, how to handle techniques we haven't invented yet. For myself. I believe it is time I made movies in Canada. We’re just at the beginning in this country.
We were back where we started, in the one place where Gratiën Gelinas is really at home, in the theatre. It was time for Bernard and Sylvie to escort Simone Gelinas to mass. We left with them, and from his doorstep Gelinas called chance. He went back inside to look at a script before it was time to dress for the theatre. ★