His plays have amused and enraged a generation of Quebecers. Produced in five languages on four continents, they have placed Michel Tremblay at centre stage in the world’s image of Canadian theatre. But Tremblay himself says that only last year did he fully grasp his success. “I was watching my play Saint Carmen of the Main being performed in Finland, not understanding a word,” he recalled,
“and it suddenly struck me how far my little characters had come without ever leaving the Montreal roots I created for them.”
The same could be said for Tremblay. With a new play, Le Vrai Monde, opening this week at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, and his new novel, La Coeur Découverte (The Revealed Heart), published earlier this year, Tremblay, 44, is riding a wave of success unprecedented for a Canadian playwright. His plays, written in the rough-edged street French (jouai) of Montreal’s gritty inner city, have been produced in English and Japanese as well.
Last year, his play Albertine en Cinq Temps (Albertine, In Five Times) played in English at the Edinburgh Drama Festival; this year a Spanish version will tour South America. Said Ian Herbert, editor of The London Theatre Record, Britain’s theatrical bible: “If you asked someone here to name a Canadian playwright, Tremblay is the one.”
Such acclaim is all the more remarkable because Tremblay’s settings and themes are removed from the middle-class mainstream. His protagonists, drawn from the blue-collar east end of Montreal where Tremblay grew up, include transvestites, embittered octogenarians and a one-legged prostitute. His work also documents his personal interest in the fate of francophones in North America. But Tremblay says that their distinctively Québécois character is their strength. “I write about the concerns, people and places I am most familiar with,” he declared. “If my work is a success, that is one of the major reasons why.”
Tremblay’s sovereigntist ideas were apparent even in his early work. His
1965 play, Les Belles Soeurs, reflected his despair over what he saw as Quebecers’ collective denial of their heritage. The plot revolved around a middle-aged woman who calls in 15 friends to help her paste trading stamps in order to win prizes—a metaphor that portrayed Quebecers as having a shal-
low and parochial vision of a world beyond their grasp. Now, despite his disappointment in the decline of nationalist sentiment in the province, Tremblay said he remains optimistic. “It would be so easy for us [francophones] to just disappear,” he said. “But I now believe we have shown we are ready to fight for the survival of our language.”
Indeed, his recent work lacks the political overtones that colored his earlier plays. His new novel, La Coeur Découverte, is an account of a love affair between a man in his 40s and a youn-
ger man with a child—a striking parallel with Tremblay’s own life. Although he insists that the novel is not autobiographical, he calls himself “a stepfather of sorts” to the nine-yearold son of his male lover, who lives with him in the Montreal neighborhood of Outrement. The novel is being made into a film for television; French director Claude Berri is discussing turning it into a feature-length film.
Le Vrai Monde also underscores Tremblay’s shift to the realm of personal relations. The lead character is a 23-yearold man who writes a play based on the characters in his family. The play-within-a-play structure allows Tremblay to explore the difference between reality and the playwright’s conception of it. The real world, he seems to be saying, is an exceedingly complex place that yields no monopolies on wisdom. The play, Tremblay says, is one of the most challenging things he has done.
But whether Tremblay is novelist or dramaturge, his work reflects the profound sense of alienation he has felt as an individual and as a francophone in largely anglophone North America. As a teenager, Tremblay recalled, he decided not to drink, smoke or drive cars because “those were the type of things a ‘real man’ was expected to do, and I rejected that sort of image nonsense.” True to his adolescent vows, he maintains a quiet life: he seldom socializes, drinks wine sparingly and weighs 50 pounds less than he did 10 years ago. Indeed, Tremblay confessed during an interview with Mac-
lean's in a downtown Montreal deli, his greatest vice is probably smoked-meat sandwiches: “I can’t stay away from them.”
Still, Tremblay angrily rejects suggestions that his writing has lost its socially conscious edge and become more self-centred with age. “I do not write the way I did 20 years ago because things are not now what they were then,” he said. “Society changes. Why should I be stuck in the same place?” The playwright’s focus may have shifted, but the fire of his passion is undimmed. □
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