A common language

Not everything is your mother's fault, says the controversial French-Canadian playwright, whose new play opens at the Peacock…

Not everything is your mother's fault, says the controversial French-Canadian playwright, whose new play opens at the Peacock today. Michel Tremblay and Montreal theatre director, Gordon McCall, talk to Peter Crawley

"Who lives in the mid-Atlantic?" scoffs Gordon McCall. "Let's meet those people." The artistic director of the Centaur, Montreal's leading English-language theatre, is directing Michel Tremblay's For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again for the Peacock, in Dublin.

His remark is an objection to inauthentic language. It is a term of derision that Canada shares with Ireland, albeit from opposite sides of the disputed territory. Halfway between the countries, the mid-Atlantic is the shameful non-location of affected speech. It's also what started Tremblay, Quebec's leading dramatist, writing in the first place.

Today, Tremblay will become the first Canadian writer to have a play staged at the National Theatre. There are faint echoes of the riots that greeted The Playboy Of The Western World when you consider Tremblay's infamous theatrical début, in 1968. Incensed by the affected French in what purported to be an authentically Québécois film, Tremblay wrote Les Belles-Soeurs in joual, the urban vernacular of Montreal. The ensuing furore made Tremblay a household name, as he defended his play almost nightly on television and radio. It was a hell of a beginning.


Today, however, Tremblay is at a far remove from the iconoclast who launched a nationalist movement. In fact, at the moment he is not in Montreal at all. For four months of the year he makes his home in a tranquil neighbourhood in Key West, Florida. "It's 26 degrees outside at 10 in the morning," he says. He can't bear winter any more, and although he finds snow wonderful, "it's only wonderful for six hours".

Much like this change in climate, For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again registers a change in temperament. "It's a good introduction for the mild me," Tremblay says. "It's not the play of an angry young man any more, but I think it's a good introduction to the kind of characters I always described."

Tremblay has always described ordinary people, those whose stories usually remain untold. Since Les Belles-Soeurs, Tremblay has married seemingly banal plots with poignant tragedy. But where the vigour of his early work made nationalism and politics its focus, his latter plays are based squarely on the personal.

"I think that when you get older, instead of judging other people, you ask yourself questions," he says. "When you're young, everything is other people's fault. Society is rotten because of this and that and you write about it. Things that are unjust make you mad, and this is what makes you write."

You wonder if the transition from challenger of the status quo to figurehead of the establishment might also have tempered his politics. He says the idea is the subject of his play State Of The Premises, the next to be staged by the Centaur Theatre. "It's quite nasty," he says. "It asks questions that people in Quebec don't want to hear these days."

Involving an opera diva who returns to Montreal after suffering a flop in Paris, it is not, he claims, based on his success. "I never left Montreal, so that example is an extreme. It's a 'what if'." He mentions Robert Lepage, the renowned Quebec theatre artist. "What does he think about what is happening in Montreal when he comes back? It's a sociopolitical play."

For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again, on the other hand, is intensely autobiographical. A duologue between a son and his mother, it was written for the 30th anniversary of Les Belles-Soeurs. In resurrecting his mother through theatre and recounting the turning points of his youth, Tremblay intended to reach back further than his theatrical influences.

"He's influenced by Samuel Beckett, he's influenced by Molière," says Gordon McCall. "But before you are able to discern what influence is, there's a moulding influence, and that's what he calls his mother."

What does McCall think made Tremblay's early work so controversial? Was it just a question of language? "Not 'just'," he says. "It is a question of language. The very character and culture of Quebec is based on language, and their need to have their own language is at the soul of everything that happens."

The act of translating once seemed explosively sensitive. Tremblay refused to allow translations of his plays until 1976, the year the separatist Parti Québécois was elected to government. "Up to that point," says McCall, "he was saying to the English-speaking people: 'You have to hear how we speak, so you have to hear it in joual, and if you can't understand it, well, I can't help you.' When the Parti Québécois came to power he said: 'You take the torch, I'll just be the playwright. You win the day.' " Political theatre doesn't stay around too long once its goals are achieved.

But do his plays lose something in translation? "We have a saying in French," says McCall. "You can produce Molière any way you want, but Molière always wins."

Tremblay puts it quite differently. "Even the great geniuses lose in translation. I hope that Chekhov is even better in Russian than he is in French or in English . . . Everybody loses in translation - it's not a reason to say no to the world. As long as the human beings in the plays are still human beings, who cares about the language?"

It seems the Scottish do. Described by one critic as "the greatest Scottish playwright Scotland never had", Tremblay found a natural affinity for his use of urban vernacular in Glasgow, where Les Belles-Soeurs was translated as The Guid Sisters in 1988. Tremblay says it had the same effect in 1980s Glasgow as the playwright's 1960s début did in his own city.

"I was there on the opening night," he recalls. "I thought I was back in Montreal 20 years earlier. The people who hated it hated it in the same way. The people who loved it loved it exactly the same way. It was the first time that somebody used the eastern Glaswegian language on the stage. It was the first time that people were hearing themselves talk."

Whether Tremblay will find further resonance in another postcolonial nation depends more on the universal mother-child relationship than the echoes of urban vernacular. J. M. Synge and Sean O'Casey paved the way for reflecting Irish idioms, and contemporary writers such as Enda Walsh, Mark O'Rowe and Paul Mercier continue the tradition. An austere play, like much of Tremblay's work, For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again lays bare the context and mechanics of theatre to explore a personal interest. If the title appears solipsistic, Tremblay sees the play as the reversal of a broader trend. "In North American theatre, everything is always the mother's fault. This play is the contrary of that."

McCall sees another intention, served by the playwright's gift. "That's to give her the gift that he couldn't give her when she was alive. And that's an ending without suffering."