French-Language Theatre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


French-Language Theatre

 Catholic Opposition All performances during the French regime were by amateurs, and there is no mention of professional actors or troupes in the entire history of the colony.
Michel Tremblay, writer
Michel Tremblay's diverse writings include novels, plays, musical comedies and translations (photo by Andrew Danson).
Théâtre Denise-Pelletier
Georges Groulx, Gilles Pelletier and Françoise Graton, 1964, the founders of Théâtre Denise-Pelletier (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).
Théâtre de Neptune
First play in Canada, 1606, imaginary reconstruction by C.W. Jeffreys, pen and black ink over pencil on cardboard (National Archives of Canada/C-106968).
Le Cid
Le Cid by Corneille, directed by Serge Denoncourt, 1997. In the photo: Patrice Godin, Celine Bonnier, Annick Bergeron, Pierre Chagnon (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).
Iphigénie by Jean Racine, with Georges Groulx, Denise Pelletier, Anne Lauriault and Françoise Graton, 1963-64 season (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).
Molière's L'Avare, production by Gaëtan Labreche, Elisabeth Chouvalidze and Gaston Lepage, 1980-81 season (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).
Lepage, Robert
Thought by many to be the most brilliant theatre director of his age, Lepage has also directed opera and film (photo by Graham Law).
Un Simple soldat
Un Simple soldat with Gilles Pelletier, Yves Letourneau, Nicole Filion, Robert Rivard and Claude St-Denis, 1968-69 season (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).
Le Malade imaginaire
Le Malade imaginaire by Molière, with Yvan Canuel, Yvon Dufour and Françoise Graton, 1977-78 season (courtesy Théâtre Denise-Pelletier).

Theatre, French-Language

The first recorded theatrical performance in French took place on 14 November 1606, on the sheltered waters and along the shore near Port-Royal in Acadia. Members of the tiny French colony, some disguised as native people, others as mythological beings (Neptune and his Tritons), performed Marc LESCARBOT's light-hearted THÉÂTRE DE NEPTUNE EN LA NOUVELLE FRANCE to celebrate the return of the colony's founders from a dangerous expedition. There are no further references to the stage until 1640 in Québec, but thereafter theatrical activity, both public and private, seems to have become fairly common.

Catholic Opposition
All performances during the French regime were by amateurs, and there is no mention of professional actors or troupes in the entire history of the colony. For public theatre, the players were generally members of the administrative and military staff of the resident French governor, and the plays performed were recent successes in Paris, the works of Corneille, Racine and Molière being especially favoured. Private (in this instance, religious/pedagogic) theatre was performed as an essential part of the curriculum in schools established by the Jesuits and the Ursuline nuns, following European tradition.

But the Catholic hierarchy was opposed to public theatrical performance, and this opposition eventually led to a memorable confrontation between civil and religious authority in the famous affaireTartuffe of 1693-94, pitting Governor Frontenac, an enthusiastic patron of the public stage, against Bishop Saint-Vallier. The bishop bribed the governor handsomely in exchange for the latter's promise not to stage Molière's Tartuffe, famous for its attack on religious hypocrisy. But the real loser was public theatre, which Saint-Vallier soon banned throughout the colony. His prohibition prevented the development of any native theatrical tradition for the rest of the French regime in Canada.


Soon after the Conquest, however, theatre in French returned - staged, ironically, by British regiments stationed in Montréal and Québec, and offering mainly Molière's plays as their fare. Garrison theatre of this sort continued well into the 19th century, with regimental players often joined onstage by local amateurs without overt interference from the Church. In the late 1780s a recent French immigrant, Joseph QUESNEL, founded with six others a limited-subscription "Society Theatre" in Montréal, following models long popular in France. In their first season, 1789-90, they offered a mixture of established classics and contemporary works - including one, Colas et Colinette, composed by Quesnel himself.

This time the Church reacted, attacking the troupe - and public theatre in general - from the pulpit. When some members of his flock protested, the bishop directed a change in tactics: there would be no more public denunciations, but rather skillful use of the confessional and refusal of sacraments to those who supported or attended performances. This ensured that public theatre would remain marginal, sporadic and amateur almost to the very end of the 19th century in French Canada.

The opening of the first modern buildings devoted to stage arts, the THEATRE ROYAL in Montréal in 1825 and the Royal Circus (soon named Theatre Royal as well) in Québec City the same year, led immediately to increased dramatic production, in French as well as English. The first known professional company from France, that of Scévola Victor, played in Montréal and Québec in 1827, arousing the Church's hostility and eliciting little public support. In the early 1830s theatre received more lasting inspiration from abroad, as dissident intellectuals arrived, fleeing political turmoil in France.

The most notable of these were the professional actor Firmin Prud'homme, the journalist-author Hyacinthe Leblanc de Marconnay and his fellow journalist, Napoléon Aubin. Prud'homme brought Shakespeare (in translation) to French-Canadian audiences, offered acting lessons, and participated in amateur performances, introducing Montréal theatre-goers to a new, modern style of delivery as opposed to the artificial declamatory style traditional to the classic stage. Leblanc de Marconnay helped organize a Dramatic Society in Montréal, writing for and performing with it for several years. Swiss-born Napoléon Aubin did the same for Québec City, establishing a troupe, LES AMATEURS TYPOGRAPHES, which would continue to invigorate theatre in the capital for 3 decades.

More Widespread Changes

More widespread changes in the types and frequency of theatrical activity came with the development of a North American railway system, encouraging visits by touring companies, some of them from France, via the US. After the late 1850s these tours became fairly regular, and they aroused predictable reaction from the Catholic hierarchy against the modern, "immoral" repertoire offered by these "godless" troupes.

There were memorable confrontations between Church and stage in 1859 and 1868, and the Church's hostility was exacerbated by the frequent tours of Sarah Bernhardt, starting in 1880. Despite the clergy's fulminations against her and the provocative repertoire she offered, however, the Divine Sarah's performances in Montréal and Québec drew overflow audiences up to her last tour, in 1916-17. As a "star system" evolved, with only one or 2 internationally known actors arriving, to be joined onstage by inexpensive local players, a pool of semi-professional actors developed, especially in Montréal .

Occasionally members of touring professional companies stayed on, as did Alfred Maugard in Québec City, where his troupe, "La Compagnie lyrique et dramatique française des Antilles," opened in 1871 at the Théâtre de la Place Jacques-Cartier. In this case the Church's hostility again forced Maugard to discontinue the venture after a few years. But despite the clergy's best efforts, the style and repertory of touring French companies were soon emulated by local troupes and playwrights, as evidenced in the theatre of Félix-Gabriel MARCHAND, Régis Roy, Ernest Doin and Louis-Honoré FRÉCHETTE. Admitting the impossibility of preventing all public theatre in French, in the 1890s the Church finally decided to support for the first time an alternative to the worldly repertoire offered by touring professional companies, giving its overt approval to a series of programs called "Soirées de famille," organized by local actors Elzéar Roy and Jean-Jacques Beauchamp.

This wholesome fare was offered in Montréal's Monument National which, since its opening in 1894, has played a central role in the stage arts in French Canada (it now houses the colingual National Theatre School). In that decade and the next, the first local, fully professional French-language companies were established, such as Léon Petitjean's Théâtredes Variétés (1898), Julien Daoust's Théâtre National (1900), the Théâtre des Nouveautés (1902) in Montréal, and in Québec City L'Auditorium (1903), ably directed by Paul Cazeneuve in a building that would continue as a centre of cultural activities until 1982. Although only some 15% of theatrical activity in Montréal in the 1890s was francophone, companies like these helped create what has been called the first Golden Age of theatre in Montréal , described by J.M. Larrue in his Le Théâtre à Montréal à la fin du XIXe siècle (1981).

Unfortunately, these foundations were laid at a precarious time for live theatre - just as its most serious competitor, cinema, began to make its appearance. After a decade of struggle, exacerbated by the economic effects of WWI, stage arts in Québec underwent a long period of decline, the clearest symptom of which is visible in the repertory that dominated in the 1920s and 1930s. Satirical revues, monologues and burlesque prevailed, interspersed with populist melodramas of little aesthetic quality, such as Aurore l'enfant martyre by L. Petitjean and H. Rollin, which would continue to attract huge audiences for 30 years.


Burlesque (the word has quite different associations in French, based mainly on humorous monologue and improvisational sketches, depending far less on chorus lines than the American version, and rarely including striptease) was the dominant stage form from 1920 until its eclipse by television in the 1950s. Initially English-speaking and heavily influenced by the American vaudeville tradition, its remarkable success in French - in the popular, heavily anglicized urban Québécois version later called JOUAL - is due almost exclusively to 2 performers: Olivier Guimond père (stage-named "Tizoune"), the most famous comic of his day, and somewhat later, Rose-Alma Ouellette ("La Poune"), who had learned her art from Guimond and would remain queen of burlesque until its demise as a live theatrical genre.

Professional tours by major Parisian companies resumed in the 1920s (notably the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin and the Théâtre de l'Odéon), but they attracted only passing attention. It was the advent of radio that led indirectly to a rekindled interest in theatre, for the new medium made it possible for authors and actors to ensure their immediate livelihood, allowing them to channel remaining energies back into the more precarious live stage (seeRADIO DRAMA, FRENCH-LANGUAGE). The most notable example of this is the Théâtre Stella, founded in 1930 by actors Fred Barry and Albert Duquesne, offering a variety of fare that could compete, for the first time, with touring companies from abroad. The Stella also offered a venue for the first Québec actors trained in Paris with government support, Antoinette Giroux (who would eventually direct the company) and Jacques Auger.

Birth of Contemporary Drama in Québec

Although opposition by the Catholic Church to the public performance of theatre had always been one of the principal obstacles to its development in French Canada, it was, paradoxically, generally the clergy who, by their encouragement of drama as a pedagogic tool, had also inculcated the knowledge and appreciation of dramatic forms that are prerequisite to the success of a public stage. The birth of contemporary drama in Québec can thus be traced in large part to the clergy, for it was the dedication of dynamic priests such as Émile LEGAULT, Georges-Henri d'Auteuil and Gustave LAMARCHE that helped rescue theatre from stagnation in the 1930s; the first 2 as catalysts and impresarios for student troupes in the colleges of Saint-Laurent and Sainte-Marie, and the third as author-director of some 50 religious and pedagogic plays that caught the attention of students and eventually of Québec's population at large, despite intense continuing competition from radio, cinema and burlesque.

Legault's contribution is more enduring because of his formation (1937-38) of a small company of dedicated amateurs, the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, and his success in restoring to drama its freshness and magic. He and his group set out to free the stage, to poeticize, refine and Christianize it. In this he was directly influenced by attempts at revitalizing theatre then current in Europe, where he studied (1938-39), and in particular by the work of Henri Ghéon and the new theories of stagecraft espoused in France by Jacques Copeau and the famous "Cartel" that shared his aims.

The most important role of Legault and d'Auteuil was that of inspiring and training future leaders in the renewal of stage arts in French Canada: Jean GASCON, Jean-Louis ROUX, Pierre Dagenais, Guy Hoffman and many others. Some went on to found their own professional companies such as Dagenais's l'Équipe (1942) and Roux and Gascon's THÉÂTRE DU NOUVEAU MONDE (1951). The TNM set professional standards in acting and in stage, set and costume design for a generation, remaining the most stable and most influential theatrical company in Québec.

By the time they disbanded in 1952, the Compagnons had succeeded in forming a large, sensitive and demanding audience capable of appreciating genuine professional skills and talent. In conjunction with the emergence of Montréal as a true metropolis and with the burgeoning self-awareness of the province of Québec, this enthusiasm would lead to the vigorous theatrical activity that characterized the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern Theatre

The premiere of Gratien GÉLINAS's Tit-Coq in 1948 is seen by some historians as marking the birth of modern theatre and drama in Québec. Despite the obvious significance of the event, this interpretation requires considerable caution, since Gélinas himself was a product of the factors at work in the 1930s, when he first began to write and perform his annual satirical sketches, Les Fridolinades, and since the cast that performed Tit-Coq included actors whose theatrical experience went back to the beginning of the century in Montréal. But certainly Gélinas's depiction of the illegitimate orphan Tit-Coq and the defeat he suffers in his challenge to contemporary Québec values managed to touch a sensitive chord in his audience, as attested by some 200 performances of the play in Montréal alone over the next few years.

Tit-Coq's success was soon emulated by other Québec writers in the 1940s and 1950s, and accompanied by a healthy proliferation of tiny "théâtres de poche" as well as more traditional theatres and troupes (the Théâtre-Club, 1953-64; La Poudrière, 1958-82), especially in Montréal. Along with the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (1951) and the Théâtre de Quat'Sous (1955), the most enduring of the latter is the Rideau Vert, established in the disused Théâtre Stella in 1948 by Yvette Brind'Amour and Mercédès Palomino, and still flourishing today. It was in the 1950s that the first regular summer theatres also made their appearance, Le Chanteclerc in the village of Sainte-Adèle and Le Théâtre de la Fenière (L'Ancienne-Lorette) in 1957, followed in 1960 by the best-known of these, Le Théâtre de Marjolaine, in Eastman. Since then, despite frequent financial difficulties, the number of summer theatres has grown, numbering in the 70s today.

All of this promising renewal was taking place just as television, a formidable competitor to live theatre, was inaugurated by Radio-Canada (1952). As with radio in the 1930s, television's influence has been pervasive - and sometimes nefarious - but in overcoming the basic problem of demographic dispersal it has enabled playwrights, actors, designers and directors to earn a living through the performing arts, thus contributing significantly to the health of French Canada's stage arts as a whole.

Public Financing

It was partially to counterbalance television's perceived threat to live theatre that the first 2 public agencies financing cultural activity, the CANADA COUNCIL and Montréal 's Regional Arts Council, were created in 1957, followed in 1961 by Québec's provincial Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their conjoined influence has profoundly affected the development of theatre through their diverse strategies of subsidizing theatrical companies. While there has been an impressive increase in the number of these companies, sometimes at the expense of quality, a theatre "establishment" has tended to receive most of the funding. This imbalance has encouraged a "counter-establishment" that has proven exceptionally rich and productive in Québec.

The QUIET REVOLUTION of the 1960s infused unprecedented vigour and a new sense of confident professionalism into theatre arts, with the number of new troupes in Montréal alone trebling between 1959 and 1968. Many of these were short-lived, but others survived long enough, in one form or another, to exert an influence still tangible today: Gélinas's COMÉDIE-CANADIENNE (1958-70), for example, dedicated originally to the productions of Canadian playwrights, and Les Apprentis-Sorciers (1955-68) and Les Saltimbanques (1962-68), members from both of which have remained active in Montréal 's seminal Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui (1968- ).

Other troupes founded in the turbulent 1960s continue to thrive today, 2 of the most important being the Théâtre Populaire du Québec, founded in 1963 with the support of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs as a touring company, bringing professional theatre - mostly plays by Québécois dramatists - to small towns in Québec as well as to Ontario, New Brunswick and New England; and the Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, founded in 1964 and now firmly established in 2 venues in Montréal , the Théâtre Denise Pelletier and the Salle Fred-Barry. No fewer than 5 new acting schools for professionals also opened in the period 1955-70, most notably the National Theatre School/École Nationale du Théâtre in Montréal, with Canadian Jean Gascon as its first executive director and France's internationally renowned Michel Saint-Denis as artistic director.

To these must be added important college and university training centres and the excellent apprenticeship opportunities for actors and other theatre professionals offered by several influential troupes since then, notably Carbone 14, le Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental de Montréal, Omnibus and Le Théâtre Repère. From the combined influence of all of these, a distinctive "Québécois style" in acting, directing and design has developed, eclectic and freed of its former subservience to European and American models.

Alternative Theatre

In the 1960s there also developed a phenomenon now known as "Alternative Theatre," largely in opposition to what was perceived by many as a growing theatre "establishment" that threatened originality and improvisation. The movement began innocuously as a country-wide Association Canadienne du Théâtre d'Amateurs, numbering as many as 27 amateur francophone troupes across Canada at the height of its success. Its definition soon widened, however, to include professionals and semiprofessionals, as its aims and policies focused more finely on Québec's nationalistic political aspirations.

In 1972 ACTA changed its name to the Association Québécoise du Jeune Théâtre, as the remaining troupes from outside the province departed. From then until its dissolution in 1986, the AQJT was a dynamic, usually partisan, and sometimes chaotic force, its broad umbrella including companies devoted to populist and collective creation (Le Grand Cirque Ordinaire, 1969-77), to Marxist social reform (Théâtre Euh!, 1970-78), to broad and often brilliant experimentation (L'Eskabel, 1971- and Carbone 14, 1975-), and to mocking, omnidirectional iconoclasm (Jean-Claude Germain's Théâtre du Même Nom, 1969-72).

Yet another product of the artistic effervescence of the 1960s was the Centre d'Essai des Auteurs Dramatiques, a loose organization of young theatre professionals established in 1964 whose activities continue to prove catalytic today. Initially the CEAD served as another mouthpiece for the discordant voices of those opposed to the directions that established theatre appeared to be taking, their opposition expressing itself most noticeably in an attack upon the traditional supremacy of the dramaturgic text and of the iniquitous "star system" that militated against young actors. Since the disappearance of the AQJT in 1986, the CEAD has been the most important organization for playwrights in the province of Québec.

After the election in 1976 of the independentist Parti Québécois government, the aggressive political stance frequently visible in text and performance since the early 1960s was almost immediately softened, since the party in power represented, nominally at least, the interests of those seeking radical reform. The energies of Québec's dynamic theatre communities were instead directed elsewhere, to more universal concerns. In the 1970s the first all-female troupes appeared, staging collectivist works created by and for women, the most notable being, in Montréal: the Théâtre des Cuisines (1973-81) and the Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes, which broke away from the Théâtre Expérimental de Montréal in 1979 and continues as the most important feminist company in Canada; and in Québec City the Commune à Marie, founded in 1978.

Sometimes painfully didactic in their beginnings, and occasionally infuriating the Church and other conservative social institutions (the staging of Denise Boucher's provocatively antireligious Les Fées Ont Soif in 1978 caused great public controversy, leading to the withdrawal of subsidies to the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde from the Montréal Arts Council), these troupes now concentrate on raising women's individual and collective consciousness, leading the continuing struggle for improved working conditions and salaries, for a more equal role in child-rearing and domestic responsibilities, and against sexual harassment and domestic violence.


Since the late 1970s women have also moved into more influential roles as designers, administrators and artistic directors - the post where programming decisions are made - in major theatrical companies, including Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, Le Théâtre Populaire du Québec and le Théâtre du Vieux-Québec.

The 1970s also saw a remarkable expansion of theatre for young audiences, in the wake of the first Festival Québécois de Théâtre pour Enfants in LONGUEUIL in 1973. Children's theatre had previously been offered, mainly as a sideline, by major theatrical companies, beginning with the Émile Legault's Compagnons de Saint-Laurent in the 1940s, and continuing with Québec City's l'Estoc (which in 1965 had established Le Théâtre pour Enfants de Québec, the first troupe to devote itself exclusively to young audiences), Montréal's prestigious Rideau Vert and La Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale. In 1973 alone 3 new companies appeared, specializing in this field (Théâtre de Carton; Théâtre de l'Oeil, specializing in puppetry; and currently the most prominent of all, Montréal 's Théâtre de la Marmaille), followed by no fewer than 5 others over the next 3 years. Most of these are still active today, providing rich fare that no longer relies on watered-down theatre for adults, but instead based on children's own values and experiences, on a universe recognizably their own, without the patronizing condescension that too often permeated early offerings. Since 1984 practitioners and patrons of this theatre have had their own organization, the Maison Québécoise du Théâtre pour l'Enfance et la Jeunesse.

In the 1980s the trend away from narrow, politically inspired dramaturgy continued, with such remarkable creations as French-born author/director Jean-Pierre Ronfard's fascinating 7-play cycle, Vie et Mort du Roi Boiteux (1981-82). Vaguely inspired by Shakespeare, it is a vast, sprawling, bloody saga presented in a carnivalesque atmosphere and depicting the fictional life of an antihero, King Richard, and his various enemies. Despite some 150 roles and a playing time of 15 hours, the complete cycle has been presented at the Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental in Montréal, at the Festival Lennoxville and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Other highly successful productions have been apolitical comedies such as the bilingual Broue/Brew , which opened in 1979 and continued for more than 1000 performances. Written in collaboration by 7 authors, it is situated entirely in a men's tavern in working-class Montréal.

Another interesting phenomenon has been the Ligue Nationale d'Improvisation. Spectacularly successful on stage and TV, its "matches" spoof National Hockey League games, with uniformed teams and referees and an improvisational format that recalls both commedia dell'arte and American vaudeville. Developments such as Broue, the LNI and the return to favour of comic monologuists like Clémence Desrochers, Yvon DESCHAMPS and Guy Latulippe worry many observers, who see in them a trivialization of the public stage.

Elsewhere, artistic directors at other major theatres have turned to more universal human concerns and more and more frequently to established international authors. This has allowed Québec's gifted directors to showcase their talents for the world, most prominently in the case of Robert LEPAGE, perceived by many as the most brilliant young director of his age.

Lepage first came to the fore as actor/director at Théâtre Repère in Québec City, where his Circulations (1985) and La Trilogie des Dragons (1987) immediately caused a sensation in the theatrical world. He has since been invited to direct major productions of Shakespeare in London, Paris, Munich and Tokyo (5 plays in the latter, 2 in French and 3 in Japanese), of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung for the Canadian Opera Company, of Strindberg's classic A Dream Play in Stockholm in 1994-95, as well as his own transdisciplinary, multilingual spectacles in Ottawa, Toronto, Edinburgh, London and elsewhere. Among other Québec directors invited to work abroad are Gilles Maheu of the troupe Carbone 14, Gabriel Arcand and André Brassard, the latter famous for his remarkable creations of the works of Michel TREMBLAY.

Theatre of the 1980s and 1990s

Yet for the theatre, the 1980s and 1990s have also been characterized by persistent financial problems arising from years of curtailed support from public granting agencies and a generally depressed urban economy. Even the venerable Théâtre du Nouveau Monde was beset by financial difficulties and labour problems in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-1990s, forcing it to close its doors for a time and threatening its very survival. Most observers agree that there are far too many companies competing in a market that has expanded very slowly (there are at present about 100 professional and at least 400 amateur companies operating in the province), and that some reduction is inevitable, given current economic conditions.

As Québec enters the 21st century, its stage remains, neverthless, vibrant and innovative, its vigour emanating from the current generation of dynamic authors, directors, actors and designers whose talent will certainly ensure the survival of francophone theatre in Canada. Perhaps the best symptom of its healthy state is its current openness to texts and troupes from other cultures, remarkable in the 2000-2001 season, when plays by Strindberg, Goldoni, Schnitzler, Chekhov, Ionesco and Shakespeare (there were 2 translated versions of Macbeth running concurrently in March 2001) and others share the spotlight with troupes from Israel, Argentina and elsewhere.

The Maritimes

After the performance of Lescarbot's Théâtre de Neptune in 1606, some 260 years passed before dramatic activity in French returned to ACADIA. Soon after the foundation in 1864 of the Collège St-Joseph in Memramcook, NB, a literary and dramatic society was established and theatre became a regular occurrence there.

From their foundation in the 1890s, the Collège Ste-Anne in Nova Scotia and the Collège du Sacré-Coeur in New Brunswick also introduced plays performed by students as a central part of the academic year's activities. Choice of texts ranged from "expurgated" classics to plays written by clerics in France for college theatre, but there are references as well to works written specifically for these occasions by members of the faculty, such as the verse drama Subercase by French-born Alexandre Braud, performed at Ste-Anne in 1902. Acadian patriotism and loyalty to French Catholic origins are the inspiration of this play (Daniel d'Auger de Subercase was the last French governor of Acadia), as they were to be for another French native, Father Jean-Baptiste Jégo, also an instructor at Ste-Anne. His Le Drame du peuple acadien was performed at the college with great success in 1930, was awarded a prize by the Académie Française and published in Paris (1932).

Less didactic and more militant were the works of another priest, James Branch, the first native Acadian dramatist whose works have survived. His 3 best-known plays were written and performed before his ordination, while he was still a student at Bathurst's Collège du Sacré-Coeur: L'Émigrant acadien (1929), Jusqu'à la mort ... pour nos écoles (1929) and Vivent nos écoles catholiques! ou La Résistance de Caraquet (1932).

Theatre continued to survive in Acadian colleges throughout the 1930s and 1940s, with little evolution visible before the bicentennial (1955) of the Deportation, which caused a flurry of dramatic activity in Moncton, now considered Acadia's cultural capital.

In 1956 Laurie Henri founded the first semiprofessional company, the Troupe Notre-Dame de Grâce (it was renamed Le Théâtre Laurie Henri after his death in 1981), producing several plays by local authors, notably Germaine Comeau's Les Pêcheurs déportés and Antonine MAILLET's Les Crasseux, both in 1956. The foundation in 1963 of the Université de Moncton, amalgamating New Brunswick's francophone colleges, strengthened this second Acadian renaissance, its dynamism reflected in music, poetry, fiction, history and theatre. Its highwater mark was probably Maillet's La Sagouine (1971), a series of 16 dramatic monologues by an illiterate but philosophic Acadian charwoman, first written for a Moncton radio station, performed with great success in Montréal , and highly popular with television viewers across Canada in its French and English versions.

Maillet is now recognized as Acadia's outstanding writer, particularly after she was awarded France's prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1979. She has since written a dozen important plays, notably Évangéline deusse (1975), in which an 80-year-old Acadian exile in Montréal expresses eloquently the trials and the aspirations of her nation. This preoccupation with past sorrows and their distillation into present struggles is the central theme of Maillet's theatre, as it has become for other Acadian playwrights (Laval Goupil and the prolific Herménégilde Chiasson in particular). La Sagouine had been staged by Moncton's Les Feux-Chalins, a troupe founded by Father Jean-Guy Gagnon and others in 1969, with Viola Léger in the title role, one she has repeated on radio and television in both languages (she currently heads her own troupe, La Compagnie Viola Léger).

Among the various other theatrical groups, many of them of short duration, should be mentioned Caraquet's Productions de l'Étoile (1974), renamed Le Théâtre Populaire d'Acadie in 1976; Jules Boudreau's Les Elouèzes in Maisonnette (1975), which has produced many of his own plays such as the well-received Louis Mailloux (1975); L'Escaouette in Moncton (1977), which tours francophone areas of the Maritimes; and Théâtre-Acadie (1981), which has hosted an annual drama festival in Moncton since 1983.


Ottawa-Hull was the birthplace of French-language theatre in Ontario, its genesis well documented by Edgar Boutet in his 85 Ans de théâtre à Hull (1969). The first theatre was constructed under the auspices of the Oblate order in 1884, and theatrical activity has continued since then with little interruption. Encouraged by the clergy and by the University of Ottawa, amateur activity has been constant, its repertoire generally modelled on that of Québec, with as yet little regional tradition of composition.

Dedicated directors and managers of local troupes (Wilfrid Sanche, Léonard Beaulne, Ernest Saint-Jean, René Provost) ensured the survival of a theatrical tradition through the worst years of the 1920s and 1930s until, with the foundation of Provost's School of Dramatic Arts in Hull in 1945, a nucleus was provided for rekindled interest in the stage. The organization by Ottawa-born Guy Beaulne of the Association Canadienne du Théâtre d'Amateurs in 1958 was significant for regional French-language troupes across the country, and the opening in 1969 of the NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE has provided a stable centrepiece as well as glittering inspiration for local theatrical activity.

But if the national capital region has long been the principal focus of Franco-Ontarian theatre, it has not been the only one: in any given year there are some 2 dozen French-language troupes active in the province, ranging from local amateurs to the highly professional plays of the Théâtre Français de Toronto.

Sudbury has been a major centre since the establishment of the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in 1970 by former members of the drama group at Laurentian University, led by André Paiement, a gifted young playwright (La Vie et les Temps de Médéric Boileau, 1974; Lavalléville, 1975) whose promising career ended with his suicide in 1978. Sudbury gave its start as well to the dramatist Jean-Marc Dalpé, whose Le Chien (1988) was considered a major success.

Vanier has been the home of the Théâtre des Lutins (1971- ) and Théâtre d'la Corvée (1975- ), lively troupes offering a variety of French and Québécois plays. Francophone theatre came to Toronto to stay in 1967 with the Théâtre du P'tit Bonheur (its name came from the title of its first production, Québec author Félix Leclerc's Le P'tit Bonheur), which became fully professional in 1973 and changed its name to the Théâtre Français de Toronto in 1987.


Theatre in Manitoba began in the 1870s, again under the auspices of the teaching clergy, in this case the Grey Nuns in their boarding school at St-Boniface. Many of the plays performed in educational institutions were written by members of the local clergy, in particular by Sister Malvina Collette. As the population grew and the school system with it, amateur theatre became a central part of local cultural activity.

When, after 1885, the Jesuits were entrusted with the Collège de St-Boniface, their predilection for college theatre came to the fore, with well-advertised programs that attracted spectators from all the little settlements along the Red River. The formation of amateur theatrical societies independent of schools was the next step, as enthusiastic local troupes sprang up in every settlement during the golden age of 1914-39.

There were parish groups, organizations based on national origin (Le Club Belge, Les Dames Auxiliaires des Vétérans Français, Les Canadiens de Naissance), troupes formed by religious societies (Les Enfants de Marie, la Ligue des Institutrices Catholiques de l'Ouest) and politicosocial groups (Le Cercle Ouvrier, les Amis de Riel, L'Union Nationale Métisse). But the most significant, and certainly the most enduring, was the Cercle Molière, founded in 1925 and still vigorous today, making it the oldest French-language amateur theatre in Canada. Under the leadership of André Castelein de la Lande, Arthur and Pauline Boutal and their talented successors, this organization has attracted to it virtually all those interested in the performing arts in Manitoba. Its success led to the establishment of Edmonton's Théâtre Molière in the following decade, and of Vancouver's Troupe Molière, which flourished between 1946 and 1967.

Despite its title, the Cercle Molière has offered everything from the French classics to light, modern theatre from Paris and Montréal, as well as significant works by Franco-Manitoban playwrights (Roger Auger's Je m'en vais à Régina in 1975; Claude Dorge's Le Roitelet, concerning the execution of Louis Riel, in 1976).

An impressive number of plays has been composed in Manitoba, although relatively few have as yet been published. Auguste-Henri de Trémaudan, a Québécois by birth but educated in France, was the author of 5 published plays, and André Castelein de la Lande, a Belgian immigrant, wrote some 50 popular dramas. More recently, native Manitobans Roger Auger, Roger Legal, Paul Ruest and Rosemary Bissonnette have written and published effective drama. Theatre has been the most visible and most vigorous of Manitoba's cultural manifestations in French to date.


Further Reading