Jean Gascon, CC., actor, theatre and opera director (born 21 December 1921 in Montréal, QC; died 20 April 1988 in Stratford, ON). A founding member of the Montréal theatre company Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, he was also its first artistic director. Through his passionate nature and great charisma, Gascon made important contributions to the development of theatre in Québec.
Education and Early Career
One of 14 children, Gascon studied the classical curriculum at Collège Sainte-Marie in Montréal. It was there that he trod the boards for the first time, as a member of the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, an amateur theatre troupe directed by Father Émile Legault of the Congregation of Holy Cross. In 1942, Gascon appeared along with Jean-Louis Roux in Paul Claudel’s play L’Échange, directed by Ludmilla Pitoëff. (At the time, both Gascon and Roux were studying medicine at the Université de Montréal while continuing to act with the Compagnons.) In 1946, Pitoëff cast them again in two plays that she was directing (Phèdre and Le pain dur). The encouragement provided by Pitoëff, but most of all the end of the Second World War, inspired the two young men to go to France to pursue professional theatre studies.
With the help of a scholarship from the French government, Gascon studied the dramatic arts together with Jean-Louis Roux at the École du Vieux-Colombier, in Paris, under the supervision of Professor Julien Bertheau. During this stay in France, Gascon toured with Ludmilla Pitoëff’s company, acted for a season at the Centre dramatique in Rennes, and appeared with the Parisian theatre company Grenier-Hussenot.
Founding of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde
In 1950, Gascon and Roux returned to Montréal with the dream of forming a theatre company and making it a gathering place for Québec artists. In 1951, they realized their dream when they founded the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) together with fellow theatre people such as Éloi de Grandmont, Guy Hoffmann, Georges Groulx and Robert Gadouas. They were supported by Gascon’s brother André, who became manager of the company, and Mark Drouin, who became the first chair of its board of directors. Jean Gascon assumed leadership of the company as its artistic director, a position that he held until 1966. The first TNM productions were presented on the stages of Le Gesù, the Orpheum Theatre, and the Théâtre Port-Royal at Place des Arts (since renamed the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe). It was not until 1972 that the company, under the artistic direction of Jean-Louis Roux, moved into its own theatre on Montréal’s Sainte-Catherine Street, in a historic building designed in 1912 by the architectural firm Ross & MacFarlane (see Ross & Macdonald).
Acting and Directing Career
The first play presented by TNM, on 9 October 1951, was Molière’s classic L’avare (The Miser). The production was directed by Jean Gascon, who also played Harpagon, the miser of the title. TNM quickly made a name for itself as one of the foremost French-Canadian theatre companies.
TNM founded its own theatre school in 1952; it was superseded in 1960 by the National Theatre School of Canada, which Gascon headed from 1960 to 1963. Until 1966, he also continued to serve as TNM’s artistic director and to appear in major roles in such plays as Don Juan and Richard II. At the same time, he directed acclaimed productions of Molière’s Tartuffe and the French Canadian musical Klondyke, as well as French-language versions of the English Restoration tragedy Venice Preserv'd and Bertholt Brecht’s “play with music” The Threepenny Opera. Under Gascon’s leadership, TNM participated in many festivals and, in 1958, toured Europe, the United States and Canada.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Gascon also directed productions of several operas for the Radio-Canada musical television shows L’Heure du concert and Concerts pour la jeunesse. These works included Oedipus Rex, Une mesure de silence, Le Jeu de Daniel, La Vie parisienne and Gianni Schicchi.
After having appeared in the play Henry V at Ontario’s Stratford Festival in 1956, Gascon returned there to direct Othello (1959), The Comedy of Errors (1963), The Marriage of Figaro (1964-1965), The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1965), Don Giovanni (1966) and Così fan tutte (1967). In 1968, he succeeded Michael Langham as the festival’s artistic director, a position that he held until 1974. In 1977, he left Stratford for Ottawa, where he served as artistic director of the French theatre at the National Arts Centre until 1983. He subsequently directed the operas The Barber of Seville and Tosca for the Opéra de Montréal, in 1986 and 1987, respectively. In 1988, he returned to Stratford to direct the musical My Fair Lady and died there suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 67.
Honours and Awards
Jean Gascon received the very first Prix Victor-Morin from the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Montréal in 1962, as well as the Molson Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 1965. A member of the advisory committee for the performing arts for Expo 67, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967, then promoted to Companion in 1975. In 1985, the Québec government awarded him the Denise Pelletier prize for theatrical arts (see Prix du Québec). Lastly, in 1989, Place des Arts in Montréal honoured him posthumously by giving his name to the main foyer of the Théâtre Maisonneuve.
Every year, the National Theatre School of Canada now presents the Gascon-Thomas Award to two young artists (one francophone and one anglophone) who have made exceptional contributions to the growth of Canadian theatre. The award is named after Jean Gascon and British actor Powys Thomas, two of the school’s founders.