The man under the spotlights on the stage of the renovated pig barn moved with an ease that belied his 78 years. The graceful movements and dramatic delivery on Aug. 10 earned legendary Quebec actor and playwright Gratien Gélinas three opening-night curtain calls as he starred in the Quebec première of the English-language version of his latest work, The Passion of Narcisse Mondoux. The setting: the aptly named Piggery Theatre in North-Hatley, Que., an anglophone community 190 km east of Montreal. The play, when first performed in French in Toronto in October, 1986— again with the playwright in the lead role—marked Gélinas’s return to the theatre after a 20-year hiatus. And in North-Hatley, the enthusiastic applause given Gélinas and his costar and wife of 15 years, actress Huguette Oligny, clearly showed that the actor had lost none of his appeal—nor his ability to succeed in either francophone or anglophone environments.
Indeed, during the English-language version’s July test run at the Chester
Theatre Festival in Nova Scotia, Narcisse Mondoux was described as a “five star hit” by the Halifax Chronicle Herald—a tribute to Gélinas’s talent for poking fun at Quebec culture without ridiculing the subject. For Gélinas, once chairman of the Canadian Film Development Corp.—which has funded
For Gélinas, appealing to Canada's two solitudes has been a constant goal of his work during his long career
such films as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—appealing to Canada’s two solitudes has been a constant goal of his work since he left his job as an accountant during the Depression for a theatre career. Said broadcaster Patrick Watson: “You would have to go a long way to find a cultural barrier he couldn’t cross.”
Gélinas became a popular hero in his province in 1937 with the introduction of the radio character Fridolin, a humorous figure who spoke in popular Quebec patois rather than the correct French customarily used on air. “It marked an entirely new departure,” said former Canada Council chairman and longtime friend Mavor Moore. Fridolin became the basis of a musical stage revue, Les Fridolinades, which ran annually in Montreal until 1946 and introduced Gélinas’s best-known creation, Tit-Coq. An illegitimate, irreverent Quebecer, Tit-Coq became immortalized by Gélinas in over 500 performances in the late 1940s and in numerous revivals since.
Throughout the 1950s, Gélinas continued to perform in both Quebec and English Canada, including the 1956 season at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. He also wrote his first dramatic play, Bousille et les justes (Bousille and the Just), which was produced in 1959, followed by Hier les enfants dansaient ( Yesterday the Children Were Dancing) in 1966, Gélinas’s last play before Narcisse Mondoux. It dealt with both sides of the separatism question and established Gélinas as one of the few federalists in the Quebec artistic community at the time. “He disappointed a lot of separatists,” recalled Moore, who translated and
codirected the English version with Gélinas, “because of his insistence that the country stay together.” Added fellow Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay: “Politically, I was against the play. But I still recognized that it was a good play.”
Still, Gélinas remained committed to Quebec and its culture. Watson, for one, remembers an incident in 1971 when he and Laurier LaPierre, his cohost on CBC TV’s controversial weekly public-affairs program, This Hour Has Seven Days, submitted a screenplay to the Canadian Film Development Corp., which Gélinas headed from 1969 to 1978. The plot, Watson said, was based on the FLQ crisis of October,
1970, and concerned a woman journalist who discovers that the provincial government has been misleading the Quebec population. But Watson recalled that when he and LaPierre met with Gélinas, “he lectured us for 20 minutes on how it was politically unacceptable to say that Quebecers could be misled by their government.” For his part, Gélinas said that
he could not remember the incident. “Maybe the dramatic development in that one was not what it should have been,” he said.
Clearly, there are few problems with Narcisse Mondoux—a comedy about a
small-town plumber who begins wooing an old love interest at her husband’s wake—which Gélinas said that he wrote with his wife in mind. “I wanted to tailor the part to her qualities,” he added. “She is a beautiful, bright person who my character con-
siders the most important person in the world.” The plot takes a twist
when, in an effort to win the widow’s
hand, Mondoux decides to run for mayor-only to discover that she will seek the office herself. Mondoux finally confronts the frightening realization that he can “admire a woman for her grey matter instead of her physical parts.”
The current run of Narcisse Mondoux is being held over into September. Gélinas and Oligny have performed the French version two nights a week, the first French-language production at The Piggery since the early 1970s. In North-Hatley, long a summer sanctuary for wealthy anglophone Montrealers, that is clearly a measure of Gélinas’s enduring popularity. “We were so honored to have them,” said Walter Massey, councillor and chairman of the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association’s Montreal advisory committee and cofounder of The Piggery, of Gélinas and his wife. “They show the rest of us what true class is.”
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