Women, History, and Theater in Quebec

by Jane Moss
Women, History, and Theater in Quebec
Jane Moss
The French Review
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Women, History, and Theater in Quebec
by Jane Moss
IN ASOCIETYthat adopts "Notre maitre, Ie passe" as a slogan and puts "je me
souviens" on its license plates, it is not surprising to find that the obsession
with history extends to literature and theater. In a recent issue of Leiires
quebecoises (numero 64, 1991-92), Francine Bordeleau documented the continuing
popularity of the historical novel in a dossier entitled "La Nostalgie
des origines." Citing historical novels that have reached the best sellers list
in recent years, Bordeleau pointed to the preference for stories set in New
France, during the Patriots Rebellion, and the late nineteenth to early
twentieth century (5). But the comments of various Quebec historians and
publishers interviewed by Bordeleau suggest that these recent historical
novels convey a different understanding of history and the historiographical
process. Pierre Filion (literary director of Lemeac) preferred to speak of
"la litterature de la mernoire" (5). Louis Martin Tard claimed that it was the
"saga familiale" (5) that interested the Quebec reader. Jean-Pierre Wilhelmy
pointed out that the historical novel showed "l'imaginaire au service de
l'Histoire" (6). Marcel Trudel's comments blur the lines between history
and fiction in a way that seems informed by the recent debate about the
subjectivity of all historical accounts: "Et que font les historiens? Ils ecrivent
ce qui a probablement ete. Les romanciers ne font pas autre chose" (6). While
the nineteenth-century historical novel concentrated on the heroes glorified
by the nationalist ideology of the clerico-political elite, the late
twentieth-century historical novel seems more interested in the recreation
of everyday life from a past period.
The move away from heroes and authoritative accounts toward subjective
recreations of the past has often been led by feminist writers and
historians. But let us be clear on one point: lila nostalgie des origines" is
rarely the sentiment that motivates feminist historical writing. In the issue
"Femmes scandales 1965-1985" of La Nouvelle barre du jour 196 (1987),
Micheline Dumont, Michele Jean, Marie Lavigne, and Jennifer Stoddart of
the Collectif Clio explained that the impetus behind their enormously successful
Histoire des femmes au Quebec depuis quatre siecles (1982) was the desire
to historicize and politicize women's everyday experience:
Paraphrasant l'ouvrage du chanoine Lionel Groulx, Notre maitre Ie Passe, nous
avions failliintituler notre livre:Notre maitre l'a passee. Cetait la resumer en peu
de mots ce que nous voulions mettre en evidence: les Quebecoises avaient une
histoire dont la diachronie patriarcale n'avait pas tenu compte. Nous allions
done corriger cette erreur methodologiqueet, en quelque sorte rendre manifeste
Ie temps des femmes, mettre en evidence Ie quotidien, reconstruire la courtepointe.
Chacune, par des voies differentes, avait deja contribue a rendre visible
la parole et les gestes des femmes, ales faire sortir de l'insignifiance. Chacune, a
travers ses actions et ses ecrits, avait fait emerger de l'ombre quelques pans
occultes du passe des femmes. En ce sens, chacune avait porte un discours
manifestaire en divers forums et ainsi aide a creer Ie "nous" des femmes.
Reunies, nous sommes passees a l'ecriture. Faire sortir, en tant que telle, la
parole des femmes de I'aire du prive, la politiseren quelque sorte, n'etait-ce pas
donner ses lettres de creance au placotage? (12-13)
France Theoret's essay "Eloge de la mernoire des femmes" in La Thiorie,
un dimanche (1988) clarifies the feminist use of history as a politicized collective
memory that can bring about social change:
... la memoire des femmes est la capacite d'associer des etats de conscience
passes a ce qui a lien au temps present..... Le feminisme est aussi une
conscience d'etre dans l'histoire.Lefeminismeoeuvre a changer la conditiondes
femmes. . . . ny a dans Iefeminismedes connaissancesessentielles concernant
les situations des femmes au passe et au present pour la comprehension du
sens de la realite,Lefeminisme offre l'occasion de briser les images du moi ideal
si ce n'est deja fait. Par les connaissancesqu'il vehiculeau sujet du moi-realite, il
permet l'identification a d'autres femmes et fait emerger Ie nous des femmes.
(185; 188)
It is this insistence on the subjectivity of historical knowledge, the necessity
of exploring the everyday reality of women's condition through time,
and the powerful political potential of collective memory that marks many
of the feminist historical plays of the last fifteen years. Women dramatists
have used the theater to rewrite historical legends, correct the exclusion of
women from the old version of Quebec history, critique the sexism of
traditional ideology and institutions, and underscore the continuing need
for solidarity. In reworking the historical play form, they have historicized
the social, economic, and political condition of Quebec women. Bybringing
the words and gestures of everyday women to the stage, they make it clear
that they are writing for women theater-goers whom they invite to identify
with past generations of women. By creating female subjects, they also
create female spectator positions.
In order to define the differences that characterize feminist historical
drama, we should briefly recall that nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury
historical drama usually glorified the heroes of New France (Cartier,
Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeaux, Jesuit martyrs, etc.) or PostConquest
rebel leaders (Papineau, Chenier, Riel) for the purpose of stirring
patriotic, nationalist, and religious sentiments.' The carnivalized historical
dramas of the post-Quiet Revolution period subverted the theatrical conventions
and the traditional ideology of the historical play genre in an effort
to demythify the past, decolonize the theater, and create an authentic
popular culture that accurately reflects the collective identity of Quebec.'
Jacques Ferron, Jean-Claude Germain, Rejean Ducharme, and the collective
groups that authored avant-garde historical plays were motivated by a
radical political class consciousness, but not by any sense of gender oppression.
By contrast, feminist playwrights have tended to avoid the official
history that idolizes figures from Quebec's past and legitimizes power by
documenting military and political victories. They have left the battlefield
and public forum for the more private spheres of home and school. It is
particularly interesting to note that there has been no rush to dramatize
the lives of Jeanne Mance, Marguerite Bourgeoys, Marie de 11ncarnationperhaps
because these women have become symbols of the patriarchal
ideals of female self-sacrifice and sexlessness."
There have been some notable exceptions to heroine avoidance, but we
should point out that the plays that recast historical and legendary female
figures have not been produced on the stage, either because they were
written as radio plays or because of challenges posed by large casts, set
changes, and supernatural elements. Charlotte Savary tried to demystify
the life of Mere d'Youville in her 1959 Radio Canada drama, La Plus Belle de
ceans, and the result was a scandal. As Lucie Robert has pointed out, by
restoring Mere d'Youville's body, voice, and sexuality, Savary was questioning
all of the mythification of Quebec history (82). Anne Hebert has
written two plays that could be described as feminist rewritings of history.
Her 1974 play, ['lIe de la demoiselle (performed for France-Culture but never
staged in Quebec) is based on an incident from the early 1540s recounted
soon after by Marguerite de Navarre in the sixty-seventh story of ['Heptameron
and later by the cosmographer, Andre Thevet.4 It is the tragic tale
of young Marguerite de Nontron who embarked for New France under the
tutelage of Monsieur de la Roberval and was marooned on a barren island
in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence for having preferred the love of a
handsome young carpenter to that of her rakish but powerful guardian.
Joined by her faithful servant and her lover, Marguerite gives birth to a son
only to see her dream of founding a New World colony based on social
equality and love become the nightmarish reality of fear, hunger, and
isolation. Marguerite survives to bury her husband, son, and servant. In
her lonely delirium, she hallucinates about punishing Roberval for his
cruelty (234). When rescued by passing fishermen, she learns that her cruel
guardian was brutally murdered, much as she had envisioned in her vengeful
dream (245). Reviewing ['lIe de la demoiselle, Micheline Cambron notes
that Hebert borrows from historical and fictional versions of the incident,
but gives her drama a new feminist moral (201-03). Hebert's Marguerite is
transformed from a faithful wife saved through prayer to a sensual, liberated
woman who calls upon dark forces to punish her enemy.
Fifteen years after reworking the Marguerite de Nontron story, Hebert
wrote a feminist dramatic version of the Corriveau legend which she called
La Cage (1989). Once again, the sources are both historical and fictional.
Once again, the woman harshly punished by an unjust and hypocritical
society is rehabilitated and avenged. The story is well known to Quebecois:
Marie-Josephte Corriveau was found guilty of killing her husband by an
English court in 1763. After hanging her, the authorities placed her corpse
in an iron cage and left it on public display in the town of Levis as a warning
to the newly conquered French Canadians. Over the years, the story of La
Corriveau became part of Quebec folk history; she became a kind of homegrown
witch, duly punished for her crime. While Victor-Levy Beaulieu
used the legend as an excuse to dramatize the storytelling tradition of
Quebec folk culture in his 1976 play La Corriveau, Hebert radically transforms
the folk legend into an allegory of good and evil with a fairy tale
ending. Her heroine, Ludivine Corriveau, is a poor farm girl forced to
marry a brutish widow whom she kills accidentally. Ludivine's real crime
seems to be the challenge to patriarchal institutions and power that she
unwittingly throws down by opening her home and heart to various social
outcasts whom she adopts as her family. Additionally, she repels the sexual
advances of John Crebassa, the English magistrate who will later condemn
her. This feminist morality play portrays men as misogynist persecutors,
marriage as imprisonment, and women as victims deprived of the right to
maternal and erotic love. Hebert's contribution to feminist folk history is a
rewriting of the tragic ending of the Corriveau tale. In La Cage, the White
and Black fairies who watch over the ironically parallel lives of Rosalinde
Crebassa (the English magistrate's wife) and Ludivine Corriveau, save the
condemned woman from the gallows and kill her judicial tormentor (11012).
While La Cage makes for interesting reading as a closet drama, the use
of supernatural characters (White and Black Fairies), allegorical characters
(the Seven Deadly Sins), and two parallel plots makes the play difficult (and
expensive) to stage.
Michele Lalonde, best known for her poetry, dramatized the everyday
heroism of ordinary Quebec women in Derniers recours de Baptiste aCatherine
(1977). This historical play reviews key moments of Quebec's past in
order to write women into history. Like the popular, nationalist, and revisionist
historical plays written during the 1970s by Jean-Claude Germain
and others, Lalonde's piece blames the French for abandoning Quebec, the
British for political and economic oppression, and the Catholic Church for
keeping the Quebecois in fear and shameful ignorance. What distinguishes
Lalonde's play from the works of male revisionist playwrights is that she
creates dramatic space for women. Her archetypal Quebec habitante, Catherine,
appears as a defiant, strong, proud woman who does not hesitate to
reproach French-Canadian clergymen and nobles for their cowardly collaboration
with the English.
In addition to the rewritings of Quebec history and folklore, the feminist
historical play has occasionally taken the form of dramatized biography."
[ovette Marchessault's 1981 play, La Saga des poules mouillies is an imaginary
encounter between Laure Conan, Anne Hebert, Gabrielle Roy, and Germaine
Cuevrernont during which these pioneering Quebec literary women
talk about their lives and the socio-ideological climate in and against which
they wrote. Other women's plays have focused on famous women from
other countries and other epochs, but generally, the feminist historical play
has tended to represent the collective rather than the individual experiences
of women. "Les lundis de l'histoire des femmes" of the Theatre
experimental des femmes illustrates the problems raised by the attempt to
replace the "Great Man" approach to history with the "Great Woman"
approach. In 1980-81, Pol Pelletier (one of the founders of the TEF) invited
a number of women to speak on the topic, "Mon heroine." Pelletier explains
her idea in the "Preface" to the published version of the lecture series:
Pour moi, "heroine" signifie: une femme qui a fait des choses hors du commun.
Evidemment, la nature de ces choses "hors du commun" peut etre interpretee
de facons fort diverses. Mais la rencontre avec cette heroine, ce personnage
"pas ordinaire", quelle qu'elle soit, me semble primordiale. Le moment
d'eblouissement, la revelation de quelque chose de decisi[ et en merne temps de
tres personnel-profond-proche de moi, et l'admiration, et le ravissement, et la
provocation, et la fierte, La fierte-d'etre-une-fernrne. Le personnage qui fait
naitre toutes ces choses, elle doit exister, en quelque part, dans Ie passe ou le
present, oui, elle doit exister. (9)
But when she asked feminist writers to address the topic, she encountered
strong resistance to the notion of heroines. Pelletier paraphrases the typical
Une he-ro-ine ... ? Remarque, c'est vrai, en y pensant, j'ai des femmes importantes
dans rna vie, oui, c'est vrai ... Mais des heroines . . . ?;" Ecoute Pol, c'est
ridicule, on ne va pas devenir comme les hommes. Creer des hierarchies, des
cultes, des normes, dire: '1a est la verite, la est la solution" et s'embrigader en
armees derriere le personnage-sauveteur. (10)
Pelletier interprets this adversion to naming feminist heroines as an effect
of an educational system that did not valorize women and a social system
that encouraged rivalry among them (10).
There are two plays directly inspired by the work of women historians
that name names and chronicle the struggles waged by the first leaders of
the women's movement in Quebec. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary
of women's suffrage in 1980, a group of theater professionals
including Jocelyne Beaulieu, Josette Couillard, Madeleine Greffard, and
Luce Guilbeault wrote a docudrama entitled L'lncroyable Iutte que quiequesunes
ont menee pour obtenir Ie droit de vote pour toutes in collaboration with a
research group led by UQAM historian, Yolande Pinard. The play narrates
the history of women's legal status in the province, listing important dates
and citing the misogynist words of politicians, Church leaders, and journalists.
It also presents suffrage leaders, union organizers, social reformers,
and pioneering professional women such as Marie Lacoste Gerin-Lajoie,
Idola Saint-Jean, Therese Casgrain, Florence Fernet-Martel, and Yvette
Charpentier who fought for women's rights for over twenty years. The
use of a chorus of unnamed "commeres" underscores the message that
solidarity and collective action are essential in the continuing fight for
gender equality. The play is less concerned with theatricality than with
history: it telescopes time, alternates narration with brief scenes, and employs
symbolic props rather than stage sets." The fact that women's voices
express the outdated, male chauvinist opinions of premiers, politicians,
priests, and editorialists points to the satirical intent of the playwrights.
Perhaps because of the unflattering portrayal of the archconservative political
and religious establishment of the early twentieth century, the Parti
Quebecois refused to allow a performance of the play at its official celebration
of the fortieth anniversary of women's right to vote. But the feminists
refused to be censored and staged a public reading with an all-star cast at
UQAM, reviving it for the fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1990 (Beaulieu,
Couillard, Greffard, and Guilbeault 8-9). While this play is a powerful
exercise in feminist political consciousness-raising for the audience, it is
more narrated history than aesthetic experience.
The same enthusiasm for Quebec women's history that inspired L'lncroyable
lutte led to a second dramatic work on the same historical material,
Madeleine Greffard's Pour toi, je changerai Ie monde (1981). In the "Avantpropos,"
the dramatist explains that she wanted to portray not only the
leaders of the feminist movement, but also the poor living conditions of
ordinary women who were not yet politicized. Greffard then makes the
point that dramatizing the old debates about women's rights reminds us
that in many areas (day care, equal opportunity in the workplace, health
care, income) women have still not achieved equality. Pour ioi, je changerai Ie
monde, labelled "fiction prehistorique," takes a self-consciously theatrical
approach that reflects the historicization process. In the "Prologue," the
author and actresses acknowledge that as 1980s women who have lived
through the social changes of the 60s and 70s, the attitudes expressed by
the historical figures in the play are going to seem outmoded, patriarchal,
and contradictory (7). Having established this Brechtian distance from the
socio-historical tableaux she is about to present, Greffard's author confesses
that despite the age difference, she identifies with Marie CerinLajoie:
"Et quand je lis les textes de cette epoque, je suffoque, j'ai la nausee, C'est date
du debut du siecle, mais je retrouve l'esprit, les mots merne de l'education qui
fut la mienne, alaquelle j'aiern. Et savez-vous ce qu'il ya de pire? Ce que je dis
d'elle, c'est rien compare ace que je devrais dire de moi: feministe par instinct,
mais trop sceptiquepour m'engager dans la lutte, bourgeoise par une education
trop bien reussie, janseniste dans le fin fond de la conscience et reformiste par
peur du veritable bouleversement social." (8)
The play attempts to present a portrait of the female condition in early
twentieth-century Quebec that cuts across class lines. It focuses alternately
on privileged women, union organizers, poor rural women, and factory
workers. It raises a wide range of issues including the right to vote, property
rights for married women, equal parental rights for mothers, childcare
for working mothers, and healthcare for children. To recreate the ideologi980
cal climate (the "mentalite") of the 1890-1940 period, Greffard lets us listen
to politicians, theologians, priest educators, and journalists as well as to the
leaders of the women's movement. As an added pedagogical aid, she adds a
bibliography of "Lectures convergentes" to the published text (69). While
interesting from a feminist point of view, the play fails to find a balance
between didactic intent and dramatic effect.
While L'Incroyabie Iutte and Pour toi, jechangerai Ie monde will never become
theater classics, they do illustrate how the feminist historical project encourages
women to identify with the collective experience of female ancestors,
to replace the master narratives of history with the personal
anecdotes of women's memory. We might even go so far as to suggest that
they prove that the less feminist historical plays deal with historical facts
and individuals, the more they succeed in eliciting spectator cathartic engagement.
Women playwrights seem most successful when they concentrate
on recent periods of Quebec history (1920s-1970s) and use the
docudrama form and realistic techniques, not to re-enact historical events,
but rather to historicize social conditions. To illustrate this approach, we
could look to a number of plays performed in the 1980s such as Marie
Laberge's lIs eiaien: venus pour . . . (1981) and Ceiai! avant Ia guerre al'Ansea
Gilles (1981), Elizabeth Bourget's En ville (1984), Maryse Pelletier's A qui Ie
p'ii: CCEur apre« neuf heures et demie (1980) and Du poil aux pattes comme des
aoac's (1982), Marthe Mercure's Tu faisais comme un appel (1989), and Anne
Legault's Conte d'hiter 70 (1992).
lIs etaient venus pour . . . is a musical drama recalling the twenty-five year
history of Val-Jalbert, a northern Quebec town built around a factory
opened in 1902 and abandoned when the plant closed in 1927. The dramatic
structure is epic in scope, featuring forty-three characters in a specific
historical context. Laberge never forgets that the history of a collectivity is
made up of individual histories. Against the large picture of working class
Quebecois exploited by foreign capitalists with the collaboration of the
Church and labor unions, Laberge depicts poignant personal tragedies. The
two most moving scenes are monologues that place the female condition
within this historical context. In the second Tableau, a solitary woman
remembers the deaths of her husband and children during the Spanish
influenza epidemic of 1919 and in the fifth Tableau, a lovesick husband
sadly ponders the departure of his wife who left him because she could not
bear children and felt guilty about having sex without the hope of procreation.
Although the message of this play is more nationalist than feminist, it
is clear that Laberge is determined to represent the role of women in
Quebec's past.
The same determination is evident in Ceiai! avant Ia guerre al'Anse a
Gilles (1981) which won the Governor General's Award and has become a
classic of the Quebec theatrical repertoire. It evokes small town life in 1936
without ever leaving the kitchen where Marianna Bedard, a twenty-nineyear-
old widow entertains her friends and earns her living by taking in
laundry. Her circle of intimates includes Rosalie, a naive nineteen-year-old
orphan who works as a maid for a rich lawyer; Honore, a gardenerhandyman
in love with Marianna; and Tante Mina, a narrow-minded
widow who finds fault with everyone except the parish priest. Laberge
recreates the atmosphere of rural Quebec during the Duplessis period
through the conversations of her characters. Beneath the gentle humor
and caricatural portraits, Laberge accuses the Church and State of social
injustice, political inequality, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. In the political
debate at the beginning of the second part of the play, Marianna shocks and
horrifies Tante Mina by saying she would like the right to vote. Mina
responds by echoing the Church's anti-suffrage, anti-Communist, antiprogress
The nostalgic comic tone changes abruptly halfway through the second
part when a distraught Rosalie seeks refuge at Marianna's after being
raped by her employer. When the village bourgeoisie covers up the sexual
assault and falsely accuses the orphan maid of theft and promiscuity, Marianna
decides she must leave l'Anse aGilles for the city, taking Rosalie with
her. Toward the end of the play, Marianna explains this decision to her
rejected suitor, Honore, by reading the famous passage from Maria Chapdelaine
in which the three voices tell Maria that she must stay on the land
because everything must remain the way it has been in Quebec for three
hundred years. While Honore finds the passage beautiful, Marianna is
enraged. Her angry outburst signals a critique and a rejection of the past:
... Chus tannee du passe, Honore, chus tannee de t'nir el flambeau pis de
trimer pour des croyances que j'ai pas: j'pense que queque chose meure, moe,
j'pense que nous aut' les femmes, on meurt dans l'silence pis l'ordinaire. On
porte not'passe comme un etole de fourrure, collee dans l'cou, la face enterree
d'dans, pis on voit pus rien. J'veux pas elever des enfants dans un passe qui dit
qu'monsieur peut battre pis violer sa sarvante sans s'inquieter: j'veux pus voir
des Rosalie defaites pis brisees pour toujours parce que c'est la loi du desir pis
d1'homme, j'veux pas continuer l'regne de l'ennuyance, l'regne du temps egrene
entre la misere pis nos marees, pis les lavages, pis les silences pis les chapelets.
['veux pas rester dans une place ousqu'on veut que rien change, parce que j'ai
pour mon dire qu'on a droit aplusse qu'une robe de georgette rose pis des
fleurs plein l'eglise el jour de nos noces, pis ljour d1a levee du corps. Pis c'est
pour ca que jrn'en vas, Honore. Pis j'amene Rosalie. Ptete ben que c'est pareil
ailleurs, p'tete ben que l'silence pis la priere menent partout dans l'monde, mais
au moins je l'saurai parce que je l'aurai vu ... (116)
Elizabeth Bourget's En ville (1982) almost seems to be the sequel to
Ceiai: avant la guerre in the sense that the central character, Violette, is a
twenty-year-old country girl with feminist ideas who migrates to the city
to escape the dismal prospect of an unhappy marriage. Set in Montreal at
the beginning of the Great Depression, Bourget's play is more direct in its
critique of the social, political, and economic exploitation and injustice in
Quebec's past. Through the changing character called "le Joker," the playwright
speaks directly to the audience in comments that describe social
conditions, ridicule conservative attitudes, and narrate the action of the
play. By introducing Violette to Mme Filion, a middle-class shopkeeper's
wife, and Mme Grothe, the wife of a wealthy factory owner, Bourget is
able to present a tableau of the female condition in Quebec that crosses
class lines and suggests the need for solidarity based on mutual concerns.
The play raises feminist issues such as equal pay for equal work (39),
women's ability to do "male" jobs (91), financial compensation for domestic
work (ISS-56), women's suffrage (201), and participation in government
(210). As Laberge's Marianna had suspected, life in the big city is not free of
sexism and oppression. Yet, the spectator/reader comes away with the
impression that Bourget's women characters have learned lessons about
how money and politics work that will enable them to work together to
improve the female condition in the future.
Other women playwrights took up the project of dramatizing the history
of the female condition in Quebec in plays that display feminist consciousness,
but no militant didacticism. Maryse Pelletier's A qui Ie p'ti! caur apres
neuf heures et demie? presents a group of women in the mid-1960s taking a
critical retrospective look at the 1950s convent education that made them
emotionally dependent on men and sexually ignorant. In Du poil aux pattes
comme les aoac's, Pelletier shows how the experience of serving in the army
during World War II liberated four French-Canadian girls from diverse
backgrounds, giving them the confidence to pursue rewarding careers.
Marthe Mercure's docudrama, Tu faisais comme un appel, takes the form of
interviews conducted with four women bonded by a shared past. All four
were illegitimate children raised by nuns at the Mont-Providence orphanage
during the 1950s. As they recall the bitter and the sweet memories of
their childhood, they remind the spectators of the social and sexual attitudes
that prevailed in Quebec under Duplessis. While their words evoke
social reality, Mercure's dramatic structure deliberately disrupts theatrical
realism in order to avoid miserabilism (14). Four middle-aged women sit
facing the audience, speaking to an unseen interviewer (the audience) while
four adolescent girls circulate behind them, punctuating the memories with
choral interventions. By representing the past and the present of the four
women, Mercure underscores the point that they survived the awful experiences
of the orphanage and they did so together. In Anne Legault's Conte
d'hioer 70, we see the situation of one woman and her family set against the
October Crisis and its aftermath. The action takes place quite literally on
two levels: in the second-story rented room of the FLQ terrorist responsible
for the death of Pierre Laporte and in the backroom of Marguerite
Deslauriers's grocery store. The dramatic political events that shook Quebec
and Canada in late 1970 share the stage with the personal tragedies of
the Deslauriers family. While the FLQ terrorists justify their actions with
separatist rhetoric, Marguerite struggles valiantly against the social and
economic injustices they decry. Her family history is a dismal story: an
abusive alcoholic father, a cold traditionalist mother, a brother in prison for
manslaughter, a husband dead from drinking polluted water, three young
daughters to raise. Others may see her as a financially independent, liberated
woman; she sees only the realities of trying to keep her family together.
For Anne Legault, the point of dramatizing Marguerite Deslauriers's
life is that official history ignores everyday experience. This
notion is summed up by an epigram in the published version of the text:
"Une amie me disait l'autre jour: IL'Histoire, ce sont les anecdotes, pas les
evenernents'" (9).
Since Quebec women have historically been excluded from power, traditional
historical play forms cannot fully represent their past roles. Therefore,
women playwrights determined to historicize the female experience
or to retrieve lost heroines have taken different approaches to the genre.
For the most part, women's historical plays are less interested in subverting
authoritative discourse than in inviting emotional and intellectual engagement
on the part of the spectator. In dramatizing the experiences of ordinary
and extraordinary Quebec women, they project contemporary
feminist concerns onto past situations in ways that critique the oppressive
power of ruling elites (economic, political, legal, and religious) and remind
us of the need for solidarity. In creating dramatic space for women, they
remind us that the personal is not only political, it is historical. In focusing
on the reality of women's lives, they create gendered spectator positions for
women that are not subservient. Rejecting historical mythification, they
prefer memory and anecdote to master narratives and they celebrate survival
rather than defeat.
lLucie Robert's interesting article "Reflexions sur trois lieux communs concernant les
femmes et Ie theatre" points out that women playwrights such as Laure Conan, Magali
Michelet, Eva Circe-Cote, and Marie-Emma Morrier wrote historical plays that mirror the
conservative nationalism of works by male authors. On the topic of historical plays, see
Jacques Cotnam, "Du sentiment national dans Ie theatre quebecois." Ie Theatre canadien[
raniaie, ed. Paul Wyczinski (Montreal: Fides, 1976) 341-68; L.E. Doucette, Theatre in French
Canada: Laying the Foundations 1606-1867 (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984); John E. Hare
"Panorama des spectacles au Quebec: de la Conquete au XXe siecle," Ie Theatre canadien[
rancais, ed. Paul Wyczinski, et al. (Montreal: Fides, 1976) 59-107.
2See my paper "Playing with the Past: Quebec Historical Plays from the Quiet Revolution
to the Referendum."
3In Laure Conan's Aux jours de Maisonneuve (1920), a dramatic adaptation of her historical
novel, L'Oublie, Jeanne Mance and Marguerite Bourgeoys make brief appearances as unidimensional
saintly women, devoted to caring for others.
4Micheline Cambron's review of the published text of Hebert's plays gives full citations of
the original sources of L'Ile de la Demoiselle.
SMy 1985 article, "Creation Re-enacted: The Woman Artist as Dramatic Figure," American
Review of Canadian Studies 15.3 (1985):263-72, as well as my 1987 article, "Women's
Theatre in France," Signs 12.3 (1987): 548-67, analyzed this form of the feminist historical
play. Alexandre Lazarides examines male and female versions of the biographical play in his
article "Notes sur la 'biographie drarnatisee'," leu 60 (1991):101-06. Since the focus of this
paper is the dramatization of Quebec historical material, I will not deal with plays about nonQuebec
women. We should note that [ovette Marchessault has dramatized the lives of Violette
Leduc (La Terreest trop courie, Violette Leduc 1981); Nathalie Barney, Renee Vivien, Alice
Toklas, Gertrude Stein (Alice & Gertrude, Natalie & Renee, et ce cher Ernest, 1984); Anais Nin
(Anais dans la queue de la comeie, 1985); and Emily Carr (1.£ Voyage magnifique d'Emily Carr,
1990). Jocelyne Beaulieu and Rene-Richard Cyr dramatized the life of Camille Claudel in
Camille C. in 1984, the same year as [ohanne Beaudry portrayed F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife in
Zelda (1984). Recently, Lorraine Pintal staged a one-woman show about Madame de Maintenon
entitled Madame Louis 14 (1988) and Solange Collin put the life of a French explorer on
the stage in 5i je n'hais pas partie . . . Alexandra David-Neel (1990).
6 Furthermore, the published version of the play includes over seventy scholarly footnotes
plus reproductions of the suffrage bills presented to the Assembles Nationale, photographs of
key figures in the debate, and historical illustrations.
Works Cited
Beaulieu, Jocelyne, Josette Couillard, Madeleine Greffard, and Luce Guilbeault. L']ncroyable
luUe que ouelques-unes oni menee pour obtenir ie droit de vote pour toutes. Montreal: VLB
editeur, 1990.
Beaulieu, Victor-Levy. La Corriveau. Montreal: VLB editeur. 1974.
Bordeleau, Francine. "Dossier: la nostalgie des origines," Leiires quebecoises 64 (1991-92): 5-7.
Bourget, Elizabeth. En ville. Montreal: VLB editeur, 1984.
Cambron, Micheline. "La Cage suivi de L'lle de la demoiselle," leu 60 (1991):201-03.
Conan, Laure (pseud. Felicite Angers). 5i les canadiennes Ie voulaient! Aux jours de Maisonneuve.
Collection Theatre Canadien. Montreal: Lerneac, 1974.
Dumont, Micheline, Michele Jean, Marie Lavigne, and Jennifer Stoddart. "Quand CLIO
manifeste" (a propos de l'Histoire des femmes au Quebec depuis quaire siecles) in "Femmes
Scandales 1965-1985," La Nouvelle barredu jour (mars 1987): 11-18.
Greffard, Madeleine. Pour ioi je changerai Ie monde in La Grande Replique 11 (1981).
Hebert, Anne. La Cage suivi de L"lle de la demoiselle. Montreal: BoeralrSeuil. 1990.
Laberge, Marie. C'eiai: avant la guerreal'Anse aGilles. Montreal: VLB editeur, 1981.
___ . lls etaient venus pour . . . Montreal: VLB editeur, 1981.
___ . Pierre, ou la consolation. Montreal: Boreal, 1992.
Lalonde, Michele. Dernier recours de Baptiste aCatherine. Montreal: Lerneac. 1977.
Legault, Anne. Conte d'hioer 70. Montreal.Vl.B editeur, 1992.
Mercure, Marthe. Tu faisais comme un appel. Montreal: Les Herbes Rouges, 1991.
Moss, Jane. "Playing with the Past: Quebec Historical Plays from the Quiet Revolution to
the Referendum," French Review 63.2 (1989): 337-46.
Pelletier, Maryse. A qui Ie p'iit caur apres neuf heures et demie? Montreal: VLB editeur. 1984.
___ . Du poilaux pattes comme les cioac's. Montreal: VLB editeur, 1983.
Pelletier, Pol. "Preface," Mon heroine. Les lundis de l'hisioire des femmes: an 1. Conferences du
theatre experimental des femmes, Montreal 1980-81. Montreal: Les Editions du rernuemenage,
1981. 5-11.
Robert, Lucie. "Reflexions sur trois lieux communs concernant les femmes et le theatre," La
Revue de l'histoire litteraire du Quebec et du Canada francais 5, "Le theatre."(1983). 75-88.
Theoret, France. "Eloge de la memoire des femmes," La Theorie, un dimanche. Montreal: Les
Editions du rernue-menage, 1988. 175-91.
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