Les Belles-Sœurs | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Les Belles-Sœurs

Playwright Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-Sœurs is a major work of theatre that revolutionized the conventions of Quebec drama and created controversy from its very first reading. For the first time, joual ― the language spoken daily by working-class Quebecers ― was used on stage (see also French Language in Canada.)

The story is about 15 women who gather at the home of Germain Lauzon, a Montreal housewife. She won a million Gold Star stamps with which she will be able to buy a variety of household items, but first she must glue all the stamps into her booklets. So she invites her neighbours over to lend her a hand. The guests don’t share Germaine Lauson’s joy; rather, they’re jealous and covet the stamps, which they end up stealing from her. Les Belles- Sœurs is a resolutely feminist play that reveals, with humor and brutality, the alienating living conditions of women in the working-class neighbourhoods of Montreal in the 1960s.

Les belles-Soeurs

How the Play Came About

In 1965, André Brassard and Michel Tremblay went to see a Quebec film. When they left, they agreed on one thing: they hated the movie. They found that no one connected with the language in the movie. It speaks to French speakers neither in Quebec nor France. Tremblay also realized that the fantasy stories and novels he’d written to date were set in places other than Quebec. So he decided to take on the challenge of writing a short play in joual, something that had never occurred to him before.

In the outset, there were only two characters: two old ladies leaving a funeral home. The dialogue used when they spoke is in the language of the women who inhabited Tremblay’s daily life since childhood. After a few days of writing, the script grew in scope. It went from having two characters to having fifteen. It was a revelation. The language gave Tremblay a freedom, an openness that removed all modesty. With his new heroines, he painted a realistic portrait of society without complacency or self-censorship.

Public Reading

However, Michel Tremblay decided it would be impossible to produce the play on an established theatre stage because there were too many characters. However, the Centre d’essai des auteurs dramatiques organized a public reading of the play. It took place on 4 March 1968 on the Apprentis-Sorciers theatre stage (later renamed as Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui). This event is still considered a pivotal moment in the Quiet Revolution. The feeling of witnessing a historic moment was palpable in the auditorium. The audience’s reactions were lively.

Michel Tremblay

The reading was filmed by cameras of the Aujourd’hui program, which broadcast excerpts on 7 March 1968. The following day, excerpts from the play were featured on the news.


Opinions in the theatre world and among the general public soon became polarized. The play’s realism and the use of joual offended some people.

At the time, the theatre rarely appealed to the working class because it was performed in international French and was seen as elitist and complex. (See also French Language in Canada.) Two decades earlier, playwright Gratien Gélinas had staged characters from the working class background, but it was Michel Tremblay who portrayed it most aptly. Les Belles-Sœurs is humorous, of course, but it also tackles the themes of both economic and social poverty. The harshness of the language was unprecedented. With Les Belles-Sœurs, theatre was no longer only for the elite. In an interview, Tremblay says: “We’re going to stop being ashamed and we’re going to make everyone speak like they do in real life.” Although joual was widely spoken in Quebec, it was scorned by a part of the population. Tremblay defended his choice saying:

“Joual remains a language from here, from home, our language. We’ll never see philosophical writings in joual, but to express some fundamental realities, you have to do it in joual.”

The controversy is predictable. In the play, the character Lisette de Courval alone embodies the opinion of those who disparage the joual language and that social class:

“I despise every one of them. I’ll never set foot in this place again! Leopold was right about these people. These people are cheap. We shouldn’t mix with them. Shouldn’t talk about them… They should be hidden away somewhere. They don’t know how to live!”

By daring to depict marginalized characters expressing themselves in joual, Tremblay sparked the hostility of many, including Quebec’s Minister of Culture Claire Kirkland-Casgrain. In 1972, she refused him a grant that would have been used to publish his work abroad. The Minister wanted to give preference to authors who wrote in “proper” French. However, the decision was contrary to the recommendation of the jury that selected the recipients.


Following the public reading, Michel Tremblay signed an agreement with Théâtre du Rideau Vert directors Yvette Brind’Amour and Mercedes Palomino. Les Belles-Sœurs, directed by André Brassard, premiered there on 28 August 1968. It was such a success that the theatre included Les Belles-Sœurs in its 1969, 1971 and 1973 theatrical seasons.


Les Belles-Sœurs has been adapted several times since 1968. In 2010, René Richard Cyr and Daniel Bélanger adapted the play into a musical. In 2018, they also presented a new version at the Place des Arts for the play’s 50th anniversary.

The play has also been translated into some forty languages worldwide.

Reacting to the surprise of this success in Quebec, Michel Tremblay explains:

“It’s new that our texts are crossing borders. For 200 years, we’ve been told that we’re fools and can’t create anything interesting because our culture came from elsewhere.”