Drama in French

The history of drama -- in its restricted sense of theatrical texts, whether intended or not for performance - began in French Canada in November of 1606, with the hasty composition of Marc LESCARBOT's THÉÂTRE DE NEPTUNE EN LA NOUVELLE-FRANCE.
Michel Tremblay, writer
Michel Tremblay's diverse writings include novels, plays, musical comedies and translations (photo by Andrew Danson).

Drama in French

The history of drama -- in its restricted sense of theatrical texts, whether intended or not for performance - began in French Canada in November of 1606, with the hasty composition of Marc Lescarbot's Theatre De Neptune En La Nouvelle-France. Published in France in 1609, this light, bantering verse-play, representative of a theatrical sub-genre known as the réception, belongs at least as much to the history of French as to Canadian drama. But it is remarkable for its attempt to add local colour: Frenchmen dressed as Native people, using a sprinkling of Micmac words, and offering local fish and game to the leaders of the little colony on their return from a dangerous expedition.

Only 2 other texts survive from the French regime: the Réception de monseigneur le vicomte d'Argenson, written by anonymous Jesuits, performed by their students at Québec in 1658 and notable for its use of various Amerindian tongues; and an untitled work composed by the Jesuit Pierre de La Chasse and performed by female students in 1727 for Bishop Saint-Vallier of Québec. Thus all 3 surviving texts are réceptions, written and performed to mark specific, formal occasions, and owe their survival more to the importance of those occasions than to their intrinsic literary or dramatic merit.

Despite its small population, theatrical activity was a surprisingly frequent phenomenon in New France, particularly in the middle and at the end of the 17th century. Nearly all the plays were imported from France, however, for demography and the increasing opposition of the church militated against the development of a native dramaturgic tradition. To these must be added the fact that printing presses did not appear in French Canada until after the Conquest, so that the sparse dramatic texts produced within the colony would have remained in perishable manuscript form. It was only after the Treaty of Paris (1763), when presses were established and true urban communities began to form, that an indigenous tradition of drama began to take root, a process that would take more than a century to mature.

Drama composed in French Canada before WWI was of 3 kinds: religious/pedagogic, political, and "social," the latter being drama intended for the entertainment, as opposed to the edification, instruction or politicization of its audience. Religious/pedagogic theatre, predominant in New France, reappeared soon after 1763 and was cultivated in the expanding system of collèges classiques during the 19th century, exemplified by Antoine Gerin-Lajoie's Le Jeune Latour (1844), Hospice-Anselme Verreau's Stanislas de Kostka (1855), Camille Caisse's Archibald Cameron of Locheill (1865) (an adaptation of the most important novel of the century, Philippe Aubert De Gaspe's Les Anciens Canadiens) and Jean-Baptiste Proulx's Le Mal du jour de l'an ou scènes de la vie écolière (1870).

Inspired and often composed by clergy, drama of this kind could develop without economic stress or fear of church intervention, and indeed it was the source of most live theatre in the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The second, much more original dramatic form appeared in newspapers, as a forerunner of the closet political drama that would remain one of the most durable genres in French Canada. As political awareness increased, these texts became more and more partisan, especially after the foundation in 1806 of Le Canadien, the first newspaper serving francophone causes.

The choice of dramatized dialogues for propaganda was astute: surviving texts from the 1790s show that some at least were intended to be read aloud at public meetings, at a time when it is estimated that less than 5% of the French-speaking population could read. An apogee of this type of drama came in 1834, with the publication in 2 rival newspapers of a series of 5 satirical playlets now known as the Status Quo Comedies, while tensions mounted that would lead to the armed conflicts of 1837-38.

Thereafter, every major political confrontation to the end of the century elicited a fresh spate of playlets, the years 1848 to 1868 being particularly active. These ranged from the sober prose of the 18th-century examples to rollicking song and verse, and from "paratheatre" (plays not intended for performance) to works enacted with considerable public success: Elzéar Labelle's delightful operetta La Conversion d'un pêcheur de la Nouvelle-Écosse, a satire of both sides in the Confederation debate, was performed frequently in Montréal between 1868 and 1899.

These plays are clear predecessors of the satirical revues (fleshed out with song and dance and stuffed with references to current events) that dominated Montréal repertory in the 1890s and continued well into the 20th century. At times they are also startlingly similar to much more modern texts composed in the wake of Québec's Quiet Revolution, such as Robert Gurik's Hamlet, Prince du Québec (1968).

For much of this period the third category, mainstream "social" drama, remained a backwater in Québec. French-born Joseph Quesnel composed a successful operetta, Colas et Colinette, performed in Montréal in 1790 and revived occasionally thereafter, most recently in 1968. Pierre Petitclair was the first native-born author of this type of drama, for though his 1837 publication Griphon, ou la vengeance d'un valet was never performed, 2 later plays were staged in Québec City with considerable success, La Donation (1842) and Une Partie de campagne (1857; published 1865). Louis-Honoré Frechette adapted his Félix Poutré (1862) from the memoirs of a self-proclaimed Patriote hero. The play became a great success, particularly with amateur groups; its strong nationalistic fervour emerged as the salient characteristic of mainstream Québec drama for the rest of the century. Extracts from a wide variety of these plays are included in Étienne F. Duval's Anthologie thématique du théâtre québécois au XIXe siècle (1978).

Until the late 1860s the drama composed in Québec was heavily indebted to outdated European models. Petitclair's 3 plays, for example, are heavily influenced by Molière and Regnard, with an increasing component of melodrama visible from one work to the next, as it is visible also in Fréchette's drama. Gérin-Lajoie's Le Jeune Latour is modelled -- slavishly, at times -- on the classic tragicomedies of the great Corneille, and the moralizing plays of Verreau, Proulx and the others are clearly derivative of the dramas composed for Jesuit schools in France.

But when a north-south railway system began to develop after 1858 a new source of inspiration appeared, as French professional troupes crossing to the US began to add Montréal and occasionally Québec City to their itinerary. This led to an injection of lighter, more modern repertory, which in turn soon fostered a sharp revival of amateur activity in both cities and led eventually to the establishment of the first professional troupes in Montréal in the 1890s. The new amateur companies were not satisfied with traditional fare, and they soon found local playwrights or adaptor/translators to accommodate their tastes.

In 1869 Félix-Gabriel Marchand published Fatenville, the first of his 5 plays, all of them visibly influenced by imported tastes, bringing welcome variety to a nascent dramaturgy that had otherwise fallen out of step -- and out of favour -- with its audiences. The best-known drama by Marchand (who would become premier of Québec from 1897 to his death in 1900) is Les Faux Brillants, a verse comedy (the genre is rare in French Canada) written and set in Québec in the mid-1880s. It was performed with considerable success in 1905 (and was revived in an adapted version by Jean-Claude Germain in 1977).

Soon playwrights like Ernest Doin and J. George Walter McGown were adapting successful Parisian fare to less worldly local tastes, thereby adding scores of ephemeral titles to French-Canadian repertory. Similar in inspiration but much more original are the dramas of Régis Roy, in popular comedies such as Consultations gratuites (1896) and Nous Divorçons (1897).

In the last third of the 19th century a serious rift thus becomes visible between dramatic composition and public performance in Québec. The theatre-going public preferred lighter, amusing fare as epitomized in Parisian théâtre des boulevards and its emulators, Doin, McGown, Roy and others; the majority of native dramatists, on the other hand, stuck stubbornly to traditional patriotic and historical themes. And this tendency increased: of the 41 plays published in 1868-80, only 18 (44%) were performed; of 75 published in 1881-1900 only 22 (29%) are known to have been staged.

At the turn of the century, and indeed well into the 1930s, the most fertile source for dramatists was the history of French Canada: the heroic age of exploration, as in Joseph-Louis Archambault's Jacques Cartier, ou Canada vengé (1879); the Conquest of 1759-60, in Laurent-Olivier David's Le Drapeau de Carillon (1901); the Patriote uprisings of 1837-38, in Fréchette's Félix Poutré (1862) and his Papineau (1880); contemporary national concerns such as the suppression of the French-speaking Métis under Louis Riel in 1885, which inspired in the following year 2 plays on the topic, one written in collaboration by 2 recent French immigrants, the other by Québec-born Elzéar Paquin.

The period 1898-1914 is often described as the "golden age" of theatre in Montréal, but the glitter came almost exclusively from imported sources, English and French -- only about 3% of the titles performed in the period were by French-Canadian authors. Conscious of the threat posed by this cultural imperialism, some theatres attempted to encourage local writing, notably Montréal's Théâtre National which in 1903-04 sponsored a competition, promising to stage the winning entries.

The enthusiastic response that this engendered surprised its sponsors, but produced no memorable drama (Louvigny de Montigny's Boules de neige is the only title that remained for a time in the repertory, including a film version in 1953). Indeed, the first 2 decades of the 20th century saw a decline in native dramaturgy, concomitant with the rise of 2 serious competitors for scarce entertainment dollars: American-style repertory theatre (revue, burlesque and vaudeville) and film.

WWI brought an immediate and drastic decrease in theatrical activity, as international tours ceased and resident French and Belgian professionals returned home. A few hyperpatriotic dramas date from these years -- Joseph-H. Lemay's L'Espionne boche and Aimé Plamondon's Âmes françaises (1916); Anne-Marie Huguenin-Gleason's jingoistic En pleine gloire (1919) and La Belge aux gants noirs (1920); and Alexandre Huot's surprising Le Songe du conscrit, dealing with the delicate issue of compulsory service, performed only 4 months after Québec's conscription riots of 1918.

Onstage, burlesque sketches, comic monologues and revues continued to dominate. Since these are topical and heavily dependent on improvisation, few scripts have survived -- Paul Coutlée's 2 volumes of monologues (Craches-en-un, 1920; Mes Monologues, 1926) and Henri Letondal's collection of sketches (Fantoches, 1922) being rare exceptions.

A nostalgic, revisionist and strongly nationalistic approach to Canadian history (usually identified with Father Lionel Groulx) continued to have pervasive effects on Québec's culture until the 1960s, and is visible in the themes chosen by native dramatists in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus the 17th-century adventurer Dollard Des Ormeaux, glorified by Groulx, is the inspiration for no less than 7 plays published between 1920 and 1938; other historical figures are honoured as well: Charles Le Moyne (1925), a college play by Brother Marie-Victorin; Brébeuf (1931) by Fathers Jean Laramée and Antonio Poulin; the opera L'Intendant Bigot by J.-Ulric Voyer and Alfred Rousseau, performed with considerable success and published in 1929. The British Conquest and the Patriote Rebellion attracted other dramatists, as did more recent confrontations such as the struggle for French-language rights in Ontario, presented in Armand Leclaire's Le Petit Maître d'école (1929).

Polemical/political drama survived as well, as represented by anti-communist works by Catholic priests Antonio Poulin (Le Message de Lénine, 1934) and Hervé Trudel (Le Signe de la bête s'efface, 1937). And a newer but unexciting vein was opened: agriculturist drama idealizing rural society, so dominant in French-Canadian literature since the 1860s, now depicted in a dozen forgettable plays between 1919 (Alonzo Cinq-Mars and Damase Potvin's Maria Chapdelaine, adapted from Louis Hémon's famous novel) and 1935 (Paul Guillet's La Terre conquise). The gap between composition and performance remained, with serious dramaturgy threatening to become primarily a literary genre.

The few dramas that have survived from this period, or that deserve to, manage to escape these restrictive categories: Rodolphe Girard's Les Ailes cassées (1921); Jean-Aubert Loranger's L'Orage, the first known Canadian play to have been performed in Paris (1923); Léopold Houlé's Le Presbytère en fleurs (1929), performed more than 200 times throughout French Canada; and Yvette Mercier-Gouin's Cocktail (1935).

The sudden rise of French-language radio in the 1930s presented first a threat to live theatre, then a golden opportunity for dramatists since, with the pervasive popularity of the new medium and its inexhaustible appetite for dramatic texts (see Radio-Drama, French-Language), talented writers could for the first time earn a living from their craft. Some, like Robert Choquette, author of hundreds of radio plays and sketches, established brilliant careers on the foundation of their broadcast dramas; others passed easily back and forth between the new medium and the old, the outstanding example being Paris-born Henry Deyglun, an established author of melodramas before his radio debut in 1933. From that point until the arrival of television in the 1950s Deyglun composed some 30 000 pages of radio scripts, finding time also for more than a dozen stage plays -- several, like Coeur de maman (1936), written for radio, then adapted -- and 2 novels. Others wrote more or less exclusively for radio (Robert Charbonneau, Henri Letondal, Claude-Henri Grignon).

Still another important phenomenon of the 1930s was the revival of religious-pedagogical drama and its expansion beyond the educational institutions to which it had hitherto been confined. This expansion was primarily due to prolific writer-directors like Fathers Laurent Tremblay, Gustave Lamarche and Georges-Henri d'Auteuil. In this area Lamarche is the outstanding dramatist in the history of French Canada, both in quantity (35 published plays, plus some 15 unpublished) and quality. Performances of his vast, medievally inspired pageants, such as La Défaite de l'enfer (1938), Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (1942) and Notre-Dame-de-la-Couronne (1947) involved hundreds of actors and attracted scores of thousands of spectators for a single performance. Considered by purists as marginal to traditional drama and theatre, these ambitious productions nevertheless served to sensitize an entire generation to the evocative potential of dramatic arts.

An important milestone in the evolution of contemporary drama was the 1948 premiere of Gratien Gelinas's Tit-Coq, performed at least 200 times in Montréal alone over the next few years. Gélinas had written for radio and was well known for his humorous sketches, collectively entitled Fridolinades from their main character, Fridolin, played by the author himself. Gélinas would add 3 more plays to Canadian repertory, Bousille et les justes (1959), Hier, les enfants dansaient (1966) and La Passion de Narcisse Mondoux (1986), all 4 translated into English and frequently performed. Tit-Coq was just finishing its long first run when television, a formidable competitor to live theatre and drama, was inaugurated by Radio-Canada in 1952. As with radio, television's influence has been pervasive and not always positive, but in enabling playwrights to earn a secure living writing for the performing arts, it has strengthened Canada's dramaturgic tradition (see also Television Drama, French-Language; Television Programming).

The playwright most successful in adapting his craft to the new medium was Marcel Dube, whose prolific career has spanned 35 years and produced some 40 plays, many of them now considered classics, such as Zone (1953), Un Simple Soldat (1958) and Au Retour des oies blanches (1966). By 1960 there were for the first time enough playwrights of merit (Éloi de Grand-Mont, Yves Theriault, Paul Toupin, Pierre Perrault, André Langevin) to represent, along with Gélinas and Dubé, what was perceived as an establishment in dramaturgy, which in turn fostered successive waves of "new" (anti-establishment) drama.

The first wave of what in Québec is called nouveau théâtre had been prefigured in the works of Jacques Ferron (Les Grands Soleils, 1958) and Jacques Languirand (Les Insolites, 1956), the latter strongly influenced by European Theatre of the Absurd. The early 1960s are synonymous in Québec with the Quiet Revolution, signalled by the election of Jean Lesage's Liberals in 1960. The decade also proved to be the most remarkable ever for drama, the period when native dramaturgy finally came of age.

Françoise Loranger already enjoyed a solid reputation as a novelist and scriptwriter for radio and TV when her psychological drama Une Maison ... un jour (1965) was produced, followed the next year by Encore cinq minutes, one of the first feminist plays. Her own evolution followed that of Québec itself, growing more and more expressly political in works such as Le Chemin du roy (1969), written in collaboration with Claude Levac, and parodying, in the guise of a hockey game between Québec City and Ottawa, the confrontation caused by French President Charles de Gaulle's provocative visit in centennial year; and Médium saignant (1970), which focuses on the problem of language rights in the embattled Montréal suburb of Saint-Léonard.

A similar spirit underlies Robert Gurik's Hamlet, prince du Québec (1968), a savage satire of the individuals and institutions embroiled in the ongoing federal-provincial struggle. The most blatantly political drama was written, or rather improvised, by Le Théâtre Euh! (1970-78), deeply committed to populist causes and Marxist ideology, performing throughout the province and improvising its "nontexts," such as its version of Léandre Bergeron's Histoire du Québec (1972) and A bas le plan Trudeau! (1978).

But for the general evolution of drama in Québec, in many ways the most important event ever was the performance in 1968 of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-Soeurs. Blending stark realism with an almost lyrical compassion, this play portrays the frustration of 3 generations of women in working-class Montréal. Here, for the first time, the diction and the unalloyed accent of popular Québécois speech are faithfully reproduced, the language itself becoming a symbol of the characters' frustrations and a powerful tool for the author's purposes.

Tremblay's excursion into Joual, the language of the semiliterate working class, was immediately followed by many others, most notably Jean Barbeau (Manon Lastcall and Joualez-moi d'amour, 1970; Ben-Ur, 1971). Jean-Claude Germain (Diguidi, diguidi, ha! ha! ha!, 1969), Victor-Lévy Beaulieu (En attendant Trudot, 1974) and Michel Garneau (La Chanson d'amour du cul, 1974). This linguistic democratization did not escape strenuous protest from French Canada's intellectual and cultural elite, a protest sometimes evidenced in the decisions of municipal and provincial funding agencies not to allocate funds for such works (eg, for the performance of Les Belles-Soeurs in France).

By 1970 half the annual dramatic production in Québec was of indigenous works, a nationalization of repertory accompanying one of the most dynamic periods of nationalist fervour in the province's history. The 1970s then witnessed a decline of traditional authored texts, as collective creation and improvisation came to the fore, followed by a diminution and virtual disappearance of politically inspired drama in the wake of the Parti Québécois victory of 1976.

Dubé, Barbeau and especially Tremblay continued to build a new dramaturgy, the latter achieving international stature with works such as A toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou (1970), Hosanna (1973) and Sainte Carmen de la Main (1976). In general, there has been considerable movement away from narrow propagandistic works, which sometimes did disservice to the stage, and towards a healthy preoccupation with broader issues.

In the late 1970s the feminist awakening brought perhaps the most promising new direction for Québec's playwrights, following the creation of women's troupes such as Montréal's Théâtre des Cuisines (1973-81) and Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes (1979- ). A few of their early productions now appear too narrowly committed to endure, but women's concerns have since been strikingly portrayed by female writers -- not all of them "feminist" -- like Élizabeth Bourget (Bernadette et Juliette ou La Vie, c'est comme la vaisselle, c'est toujours à recommencer, 1978), Jovette Marchessault (La Saga des poules mouillées, 1981), Marie Laberge (C'était avant la guerre, à l'Anse à Gilles, 1981), Louisette Dussault (Moman, 1981), Denise Boucher (whose Les Fées ont soif in the spring of 1978 led to a resonant legal and journalistic battle that was decided only by the Supreme Court in 1980). As with most healthy innovations, feminist views and values have now won their legitimate place among the central preoccupations of Canadian francophone theatre.

Among the generation of dramatists who came to the fore in the 1980s, Michel Marc Bouchard, Marie Laberge, Normand Chaurette and René-Daniel Dubois stand out. Bouchard has written a dozen plays to date, the best known being Les Feluettes, ou la Répétition d'un drame romantique (1987), translated to the screen as Lilies. Laberge also had more than 10 major plays produced in the 1980s alone, several staged with great success in Europe. Chaurette is the author of the innovative Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j'avais 19 ans (1981) and Les Reines (1990), the latter set in 15th-century England. Dubois, one of the finest actors of his generation, has been critically acclaimed for several works, notably Ne Blâmez jamais les Bédouins (1984) and Being at Home with Claude (1985).

Several foreign-born playwrights have also contributed significantly to Québec's stage, such as Robert Gurik (mentioned above) and Jean-Pierre Ronfard, both born in France. The latter, who emigrated to Canada in 1960, began writing for the Québec stage only in the late 1970s. His most memorable work -- one of the highlights of modern Québec theatre -- is the monumental Vie et mort du roi boiteux (1981-82), a grotesque, bloody, epic series comprising 6 plays and an epilogue, with 150 roles and a playing time of some 15 hours. Hitler, another Ronfard production, written in collaboration with Alexis Martin, aroused controversy and played to packed houses in Montréal in February and March of 2001. The prolific Marco Micone, born in Italy, came to Canada as a teenager and began writing for the stage in 1989, often exploring the problems encountered by immigrants to the province. Director-playwright Wajdi Mouawad, born in Lebanon, has composed some of the most striking drama of the 1990s, in which the violence endemic to his native land is often evoked.

As the new millennium begins, yet another generation of original and highly talented dramatists joins that of Bouchard, Chaurette, Dubois, Ronfard, Micone and Mouawad, along with their predecessors such as Tremblay and Laberge. Most impressive among this generation are Serge Boucher, with plays such as Motel Hélène (1997) and Natures mortes (1999); Carole Fréchette (Les Quatre Morts de Marie, 1995 and La Peau d'Élisa, 1998); Dominique Champagne (Lolita, 1995 and L'Asile, 1999), and the ubiquitous Larry Tremblay, prolific author and performer, mainly of one-man shows (The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, 1994).

To these names could be added dozens of others, for in the first decade of the 21st century drama has become and remains a vital part of the rich fabric of Canada's francophone society. Its role has finally been acknowledged by critics and social historians at home and abroad, and its major works have been translated into the world's major languages. Eclectic, innovative, often boisterously self-confident, drama has progressed, in the course of 2 generations, from being the "weak sister" among the arts to its present prestigious rank in the vanguard of French-Canadian culture.

See also Theatre, French-Language.

Further Reading

  • Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec, vols 1-6 (1978-94); Betty Bednarski et Irène Oore, Nouveaux Regards sur le théâtre québécois (1997); Eugene Benson and Leonard W. Conolly, eds, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre (1989); Jean Béraud, 350 ans de théâtre au Canada français (1958); Leonard E. Doucette, Theatre in French Canada, 1606-1867 (1984) and The Drama of Our Past (1997); Chantal Hébert, Le Burlesque au Québec (1981); Dominique Lafon, ed, Le Théâtre québécois, 1975-1995 (2001); Pierre Lavoie, Pour suivre le théâtre au Québec (1985); Jonathan Weiss, French-Canadian Theater (1986).

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