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Among the many things monolingual Britain is unable to appreciate is the work of one of Canada’s best playwrights. Unlike the Canadian writers whose work we do know, Michel Tremblay comes from Quebec and writes in French. To make matters worse, he writes plays about working-class people in Montreal who speak in a dialect called joual.
His first play, Les Belles-Soeurs (Sisters-in-Law), was written in 1965. More than twenty years later, William Findlay and Martin Bowman found a British counterpart to joual in Glaswegian and translated it as The Guid Sisters. More recently Michael West translated A Toi Pour Toujours, Ta Marie-Lou as Forever Yours, Mary-Lou and set it in working-class Dublin.
There are fifteen characters in Les Belles-Soeurs, all female, young and old, mothers and daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law. Germaine has won a million stamps to exchange for goods in a mail-order catalogue. “A mull-yin ae thum,” she says to Rose when she rings her up to tell her. “Ah cannae even coont that far but ah ken it’s a hoor ae a loat… Ah’m gaunnae git a new cooker, a new fridge, an new kitchen units… Ah’m gaunnae git new pans, new cutlery, a fu set o dishes, a cruet set… Ah’m gettin a colonial style bedroom suite wi aw the accessories…” and so on.
But first the stamps have to be stuck into books. “Ah’ve phoned aw ma sisters,” she explains to Linda, her daughter, “an yir faither’s sister, an ah’ve been tae see the neebors. Ah’ve invited thum aw tae a stamp-stickin pairty the night.”
The action of the play begins with the arrival of the guests and concludes with their departure when Germaine discovers that most of the books have ended up in the other women’s handbags. “My God! My God! Ma stamps! Thurs nothin left! Nuhin! Nuhin! Ma braw new hoose! Ma beautiful furniture! Aw away! Ma stamps! Ma stamps!”
Between the beginning and the end, the women’s lives – their jealousies, their resentments, their disappointments – are revealed in a series of interwoven monologues and dialogues which are the essence of Tremblay’s dramatic method. Marie-Ange Brouillette is the first to arrive. Her monologue is the first and serves to establish the convention as well as her resentment of Germaine’s good luck.
“A mull-yin stamps! Thon’s a haill hoosefu. If ah dinna stoap thinkin aboot it ah’m gaunnae gan aff ma skull. It’s ayeways the wey. The wans wi aw the luck are the wans at least deserves it.”
Four more women arrive during her monologue and sit down, according to the stage direction, ‘without paying attention to Marie-Ange’. But when Marie-Ange stops speaking, ‘The five women stand up and turn towards the audience. The lighting changes.’
“This empty, scunnerin life!” they say, repeating the last line of Marie-Ange’s monologue. “Monday! Ah drag masel up fur tae make the breakfast. Tea, toast, ham an eggs. Ah’m vernear dementit jist gettin the rest ae thum up oot thur stinkers. The bairns leave fur the school. Ma man goes tae his work.”
“No mine,” Marie-Ange interjects. “He’s oan the dole. He steys in his bed.”
“Then ah works like a daft yin till wan a-cloack,” the others go on. “Ah waash shirts, soacks, jerseys, underclaes, breeks, skirts, froacks… the haill loat. Ah scrub thum. Ah wring thum oot. Ma hands are rid raw. Ma back is stoonin. At wan a’cloack the bairns come hame. They eat like pigs…” And so on.
A little later, Thérèse Dubuc arrives, pushing her ninety-three year old mother, Olivine, in her wheelchair. Just before their entry, we hear the sound of the old woman falling out of her wheelchair and her daughter putting her back in it. “Oh my God, wis she hurt bad?” Germaine asks when they come in.
“Naw, naw, she’s yaised tae it,” Thérèse replies. “She faws oot her chair ten times a day.”
The other women all sympathise when she tells them that looking after her mother is “like lookin eftir a bairn”. She recounts an incident in which Olivine overturned a tin of syrup. “Ah hud tae waash doon the table, the flair, the wheelchair…”
“What aboot Mme. Dubuc?” asks Germaine.
“Ah jist left her the wey she wis fur the rest ae the efternin tae learn her. If she’s gaun tae act like a bairn, ah’m gaunnae treat her like wan.”
One by one, the characters of the fifteen women are revealed. They are brutal, selfish and hypocritical, condemned out of their own mouths and by their own actions, as when the old woman spills some water and her daughter ‘strikes her on the head’ after which the old woman ‘calms down a little’. Like Ben Jonson, Tremblay writes ‘in the language men do use’ and, like Jonson and the Restoration dramatists who succeeded him, he shows men and women as they are, or at least no better than they should be.
Tremblay is not, however, a realist. He is a dramatist, not a sociologist. ‘I want a real political theatre,’ he once said, ‘but I know that political theatre is dull. I write fables.’
The interweaving of dialogue and monologue, the juxtaposition of speech and action, the to-ing and fro-ing between realistic and theatrical is even more evident in A Toi Pour Toujours, Ta Marie-Lou. In this play the four characters, husband, wife and two daughters, sit facing the audience and, although they speak to each other, they never look at each other but always straight ahead. Lighting changes and sound effects are used to denote changes in time between the past and the present.
Tremblay is said to have written the play quickly after attending a performance of a Brahms quartet. The four voices are the instruments, playing both individually and as an ensemble. The immediate inspiration might have been Brahms, but the influence was surely Samuel Beckett, especially the Beckett of the short plays – Krapp’s Last Tape, Not I, Eh Joe and the rest. The situation is hopeless, the ending is bleak, the four characters hate each other but, perhaps with one exception, are inextricably bound up with each other. Out of this, Tremblay, like Beckett (and Brahms), makes beautiful music.
I was lucky enough to see Forever Yours, Mary-Lou at the Ustinov Studio in Bath in April 2016. The production was faultless. The four actors, Caitriona Ni Mhurchu, Paul Loughran, Caoilfhionn Dunne and Amy McAllister, were superb. I have not yet seen a production of Les Belles-Soeurs but I am at least able to read it in Glaswegian, which is easier for an English speaker to understand than joual. What are my chances of seeing any of Tremblay’s other plays, of which there are more than twenty?
We have a National Theatre. What we need now is an international one.
Film by Satyajit Ray, story by Rabindranath Tagore
3 August 2016