The French Canadian writer Michel Tremblay (born 1942), in the words of the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia website, "is probably the most-produced playwright" in Canada "and arguably the most important playwright in the history of the country."
Tremblay's writing was motivated at first by his status as a closet homosexual, and some of his plays and prose works have addressed gay themes. But he first became well known for his portrayals of a larger outsider group: the working class residents of the province of Quebec itself. Until Tremblay began to gain attention with his writings in the late 1960s, Quebec had little in the way of independent theater; French-language dramas were mostly imported from France. Tremblay's life and work have also been closely bound up with the efforts of Quebec nationalists to bring about the province's separation from Canada and its emergence as an independent nation. For all their appeal to these specific constituencies, however, Tremblay's plays have demonstrated a universal appeal
Tremblay was born on June 25, 1942, and grew up on Montreal's French-speaking, working class east side. He recalled his upbringing in a memoir, Un ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle (Horned Angel with Metal Wings). Tremblay's family was poor, and his childhood, though troubled by poverty, was colorful and culturally rich. His father, a heavy drinker, worked as a printer and claimed to have formulated the ink mixture used on Campbell's soup cans. Tremblay's mother, born in Providence, Rhode Island, was part Cree. His maternal grandmother, though largely uneducated, was a voracious reader who introduced him to books of all kinds, including the French-language Tintin adventure comics, mass-market novels, and a story called L'auberge de l'ange-gardien (The Inn of the Guardian Angel), which fascinated the young Tremblay because it had sections in dramatic dialogue like a play.
Tremblay came early to a realization of his homosexuality, which in heavily Catholic Quebec in the 1950s was cause for severe discrimination. But it also inspired him to experiment with writing on his own. "When you're 12 and you sit and write something, it's often about something you have to hide from the rest of society," he observed to Matthew Hays of the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide . "I don't know if you have this expression in English, but in French we say that we have to confide to the white sheet." He felt alienated as well by his linguistic heritage; as he learned more about literature he realized how few writers had emerged from predominantly French-speaking Quebec as compared with the rest of Canada, or with other countries.
Tremblay attended a Catholic high school, the Ecole de Saint-Stanislas, in Montreal. A talented student, he earned a prep school scholarship but after a short time decided to follow his father into the printing profession instead. He enrolled at the Institute for Graphic Arts in 1959 and worked until 1966 as a linotype operator. "I saw that if I stayed on at that school and then went to university, I would have to reject my roots, my background—to forget where I came from," he explained to Harry Eyres of the London Times . "After that I became a sort of auto-didact."
While still a teenager, he began writing short stories in which gay themes were disguised by fantasy elements. These stories were published in 1966 by the pioneering Quebec house Les Editions du Jour as Contes pour buveurs attardés (Stories for Late-Night Drinkers). Tremblay also entered a play, Le train , in a Radio Canada contest for young writers. It won, and was performed twice, earning Tremblay a grant from the Canada Council. A one-act play called Cinq (Five), later reworked as En pièces détachées (In Detached Pieces), appeared in 1966 and provided an early example of Tremblay's ability to make compelling drama out of his own Montreal east-end background.
In 1968 Tremblay scored his first major triumph with the play Les belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law), which he had written in 1965. The play was given a public reading at Montreal's Center for Dramatic Authors; picked up by the commercial Théâtre du Rideau Vert, it became a hit. Les belles-soeurs was unlike anything else that had been presented on Quebec stages up to that time. It was written in the working-class Quebec dialect of French known as joual , previously considered unsuitable for literary expression. (Tremblay demolished that supposition with a lyrical speech about bingo.) The play treated previously taboo topics such as sex and abortion, and the characters employed profanity in a realistic way. And most unusual of all was its dark comic plot, which centered on trading stamps: a group of Montreal housewives gather for a stamp-pasting party and fall into a nasty morass of competition and recrimination.
Les belles-soeurswas at once a play that was specific to Quebec and one that dovetailed with new trends in world theater; Tremblay's Quebec housewives were counterparts of British playwright Harold Pinter's terse but poetic British working-class characters. The play soon made Tremblay famous. It was presented in Paris in 1973 and won an award for best foreign play of the year. Les belles-soeurs was also translated into English, and even at one point into Scots dialect, but Tremblay refused to allow it to be performed in English until the separatist Parti Québécois won elections in the province in 1976. He was a staunch supporter of independence for Quebec, and his works helped to define a cultural sphere in Quebec that helped nurture separatist sentiment. But he avoided openly political themes.
Instead, Tremblay embarked on a cycle of 11 plays, set mostly in the Montreal east end locale of Les belles-soeurs , in which individuals try to escape from the despair of their environments by advancing toward new sexual or social realms. Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra (1977) depicted two women, one of whom tries to lose herself in sexual experiences while the other turns toward mysticism. Several characters appeared in more than one play. Two of Tremblay's plays, La duchesse de Langeais (1970) and Hosanna (1973) featured gay characters, a new development in serious theater at the time. But Tremblay was living in the midst of a profound transformation in Quebec society. After coming out as a homosexual during a 1975 television interview, he reported that he had faced very few instances of overt hostility or discrimination. "Maybe it's because we [Quebeckers] were so closed, like a press, for so long, that when we opened, we opened up wide," he mused to Hays. "What saved us in Quebec is that we have a big monster living to the south, but we have our own language. We don't get the pressure the rest of Canada does constantly from the American culture."
Tremblay began to work in the medium of film in the 1970s, often working with a friend, director André Brassard. Françoise Durocher, Waitress (1972) won three Genie awards at the Toronto Film Festival. Tremblay and Broussard joined forces once again for Il était une fois dans l'est (Once Upon a Time in the East, 1974) and Le soleil se Lè en retard (The Sun Rises Late, 1977). Tremblay also translated and adapted various English-language plays for the Quebec market, including the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and various works by Tennessee Williams, whose oblique treatments of homosexuality and working class life, as well the dramatic gift that drew general audiences to his works, showed affinities with Tremblay's own works.
Although he continued to write drama, Tremblay's most characteristic mode of production from the late 1970s onward was the novel. He has written 14 novels, among the most famous of which was a tetralogy (a linked set of four) published between 1978 and 1984 under the title Chroniques du plateau Mont-Royal (Chronicles of the Mount Royal Plateau). The title referred to Tremblay's own childhood neighborhood east of Mount Royal in downtown Montreal, and the novels had strong autobiographical aspects. The four novels in the tetralogy were La grosse femme d'a côté est enceinte (The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant), Thérèse et Pierrette a l'école des Saints-Anges (Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel), La duchesse et le roturier (The Duchess and the Commoner), and Des nouvelles d'Edouard (News of Edward).
Tremblay was less prolific as a playwright in the 1980s and 1990s, but he produced some of his best-known works during this period. These included Le vrai monde? (The Real World?, 1987), in which Tremblay looked back on and questioned his own artistic uses of the milieu in which he had grown up, and La maison suspendue (The Suspended House, 1990), a multigenerational saga that, unlike the vast majority of Tremblay's Montreal-based works, was set in rural Quebec. Tremblay's For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again paid tribute to the influence the playwright's mother had on his artistic personality. It was mounted in the United States in a 2002 production starring Olympia Dukakis in the role of Tremblay's mother. Tremblay himself named Albertine en cinq temps (Albertine in Five Times, 1984) as his personal favorite among his plays; it depicted five stages in the life of an old woman, with dialogue among the figures representing the phases of her life. The play was one of several that transcended the specific themes of Tremblay's earlier work.
In the early 2000s Tremblay branched out into the television field with scripts for a series called Le coeur découvert (The Open Heart), the first on Quebec television to explore on ongoing gay relationship. By that time his plays had been translated into more than 20 languages, including Spanish, Yiddish, and Polish, and had been staged at Canada's Stratford Festival among other prestigious international venues. Tremblay stirred up controversy in 2006 when he seemed to waver on the issue of Quebec separatism, criticizing the sovereignty movement for its focus on economic issues to the exclusion of cultural ones. He had already raised separatist eyebrows by accepting Canada's Governor General's Award in 1999, but he continued to express his devotion in general to the ideal of Quebec independence. Given his continued high rate of literary production and the growing international popularity of his plays, Tremblay's reputation as one of Quebec's—and Canada's—greatest cultural figures appeared secure.
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