Jovette Marchessault was from a working-class background. She worked in a textile factory in her youth, alongside women of all origins. She engaged in various minor occupations before leaving Quebec in the late 1950s. She travelled across the Americas in search of herself and her spiritual roots. Her travels would go on to influence much of her writing.
It was primarily through painting and sculpture that Jovette Marchessault expressed herself. For about 10 years beginning in 1970, she exhibited frescoes, masks and sculptures of telluric women (femmes telluriques). During this period, she held some 30 solo exhibitions in Quebec, Toronto, New York, Paris and Brussels.
In 1975, she published her romantic trilogy, Comme une enfant de la terre. For her first novel, Le Crachat solaire, Marchessault won the prix France-Quebec in 1976. The second volume, La Mère des herbes, appeared in 1980, and Des cailloux blancs pour les forêts obscures in 1987.
Beginning in 1979, Jovette Marchessault’s works were presented on stage. That year, actor Pol Pelletier performed the powerful dramatic monologues Les Vaches de nuit (translation, Night Cows, by Yvonne M. Klein) at the Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes (TEF). Pelletier also performed Les Faiseuses danges at the TEF in 1982. These works, along with Chronique lesbienne du moyen-âge québécois, were published in Triptyque lesbien by Éditions de la Pleine Lune in 1980.
During the 1980s, the prolific Marchessault had her works performed by major companies. The Théâtre de Nouveau Monde launched a production of La Saga des poules mouillées (spring, 1981). It was directed by Michelle Rossignol and performed by Charlotte Boisjoli, Amulette Garneau, Andrée Lachapelle and Monique Mercure. The play inaugurated a series of staged works by authors Germaine Guevrèmont, Laure Conan, Anne Hébert and Gabrielle Roy.
La terre est trop courte, Violette Leduc premiered in the fall of 1981 at the TEF. It was repeated at the Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui in 1992. It dramatized interactions between the French novelist Violette Leduc and such writers as Simone de Beauvoir, Clara Malraux, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Genet and Maurice Sachs. This play appeared in English as The Edge of Earth is Too Near, Violette Leduc (translated by Suzanne de Lotbinière-Harwood).
With Alice et Gertrude, Natalie et Renée et ce cher Ernest at L’Atelier Continu in 1984, Marchessault staged American writers in Paris at the start of the Second World War. The following year, she paid tribute to Anaïs Nin in Anaïs dans la queue de la comète at the Théâtre de Quat’Sous. Andrée Lachapelle played the title role. The production received the Journal de Montréal’s Grand Prix de théâtre.
Marchessault won Sherbrooke’s Grand Prix littéraire for Demande de travail sur les nébuleuses (Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui, 1988). She also received a Governor General’s Drama Award for Le Voyage magnifique d'Emily Carr, performed at the same venue in 1990. Presented again in Victoria, The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr (translated by Linda Gaboriau) tells the story of the celebrated painter and her view of the world. Marchessault also published Le Lion de Bangor in 1993 and Madame Blavatsky, spirite in 1998.
Marchessault initiated and coordinated the 1989 exhibition “8 Montréalaises à New York.” She also organized the show Célébration (TNM, 1979) with Nicole Brossard. She co-founded the international publishing house Squawtach Press in 1980 and was a lecturer in the theatre department at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She has also worked for Le Devoir, Châtelaine, La Vie en rose, La Nouvelle Barre du Jour, Fireweed and 13 Moon.
Jovette Marchessault was named to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec in 1993. She was named an honorary member of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research in 1999.