Re­flec­tions on the world­wide hit

Montreal Gazette - - CULTURE - JIM BURKE

It has been 50 years since the 15 ladies of Michel Trem­blay’s Les Belles-soeurs be­gan lament­ing their “mau­dite vie plate” in a Rue Fabre apart­ment. Since that first pro­duc­tion, di­rected by An­dré Bras­sard in Au­gust 1968 at Théâtre du Rideau Vert, the show has played all over the world in count­less lan­guages, in­clud­ing Yid­dish, Ja­panese and Scots, the lat­ter in a cel­e­brated 1989 ver­sion called The Guid Sis­ters (which Serge Denon­court di­rected in Ed­in­burgh in 2012). Most re­cently, it was adapted into an Ir­ish ver­sion called The Un­man­age­able Sis­ters, which played at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre this year.

As part of the play’s gold­e­nan­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions, René Richard Cyr and Daniel Bélanger’s fran­co­phone mu­si­cal ver­sion (which pre­mièred at Théâtre d’Au­jourd’hui in 2010) ar­rives at Place des Arts next week. Kath­leen Fortin stars as the iconic Ger­maine Lau­zon, whose win of a mil­lion Gold Star stamps launches an evening of squab­bles, crushed dreams and price­less ban­ter.

Below, Trem­blay shares his mem­o­ries of the play’s ori­gins, while five other artists talk about how they have been touched by Les Belles-soeurs.


“I first got the idea for it when An­dré Bras­sard and I went to see a very bad Québé­cois movie. We were won­der­ing why we hated it so much, and we re­al­ized it was be­cause it used a mid-At­lantic French that no­body any­where in the world spoke.

“Af­ter­wards, I said: ‘What if I tried to write just a lit­tle 15-minute play about two ladies com­ing out of a fu­neral par­lour, and in­stead of hav­ing some kind of a washed Québé­cois, I try to use lan­guage from the real world?’

“Af­ter writ­ing for three days, I had 15 char­ac­ters in­stead of two. It over­whelmed me. It was so much fun. What’s great is that, like any revo­lu­tion, it was in­vol­un­tary. It was just a kind of stylis­tic ex­er­cise — it wasn’t in­tended to be­come what it be­came.

“It was such a scan­dal, we didn’t even un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple got used to my face be­fore they knew what I had writ­ten. Only 400 peo­ple saw the play ev­ery night, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple saw me on TV de­fend­ing it, so that helped me.

“I saw a very un­usual pro­duc­tion of it in Seat­tle at the end of the ’80s. A very fem­i­nist theatre asked for the rights, and my agent called them and said: ‘Do you know that Michel Trem­blay is a man?’ They said no be­cause, for Amer­i­cans, Michel is a girl’s name, like in the Bea­tles’ ‘Michelle, ma belle.’ But not only did they de­cide to do it, they in­vited me, and it was the most rad­i­cal pro­duc­tion of the play I’ve ever seen. The set­ting was a three-ring cir­cus, and they all had a red nose around their neck. When they had some­thing im­por­tant to say, they put the nose on and screamed it at us. It was so pow­er­ful. I love it when some­one tries some­thing dif­fer­ent. I al­ways say I love my cage to be rat­tled.

“I thought about (a cross­gen­der ver­sion) with my di­rec­tor about 40 years ago, but at the time it didn’t seem nec­es­sary, so we never did it. I’m not against it, as long as it’s good and it’s not stupid. It’s pos­si­ble it’s been done by now. There have been (so many) pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tions of it around the world, so if there was a drag ver­sion some­where, I don’t know.”


Fortin plays Ger­maine Lau­zon for the sec­ond time in the mu­si­cal ver­sion com­ing to Place des Arts next week. Last year, she played brothel owner Betty Bird in Trem­blay’s De­main matin, Mon­tréal m’at­tend at Théâtre du Nou­veau Monde.

“The play has en­dured be­cause these char­ac­ters are so hu­man. What’s sur­pris­ing is that when Michel Trem­blay wrote this piece, he was a very young man: I think he was 22, 23 years old. But at this young age, to be a wit­ness to these lives, to have this sen­si­tiv­ity to write about these women, was quite amaz­ing.

“I think what still strikes us so much is to see the num­ber of women on­stage to­gether talk­ing about their mis­ery, their de­sires, their anger, their daily lives. They look like us; they share our DNA. We rec­og­nize in them, no mat­ter where we come from in the world, our moth­ers, our aunts, our grand­moth­ers, our cousins. I think it’s the sense of hu­man­ity that emerges from the play that touches us the most.

“At the same time, we can see how far we’ve trav­elled as women over the last 50 years, and also how far Que­bec as a whole has trav­elled. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done.”


The pro­ducer be­hind Copa de Oro Pro­duc­tions, whose English ver­sion Belles Soeurs: The Mu­si­cal pre­mièred at the Se­gal Cen­tre in 2014. The pro­duc­tion has gone from strength to strength, tour­ing Canada and be­yond.

“I’d ba­si­cally re­tired when I got a call from Nathalie Good­win, Michel Trem­blay’s agent, telling me that Les Belles-soeurs had been turned into a mu­si­cal and that Michel had specif­i­cally asked me to come and see it. I was afraid of what was go­ing to hap­pen: ‘If I love the mu­si­cal, what do I do?’

“I went to the show (at Théâtre d’Au­jourd’hui in 2010), and it was noth­ing like any­thing I’d ever seen. It made you laugh, it made you cry, the mu­sic was phe­nom­e­nal. My wife looked at me at one point as I was hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing. She said, ‘You never do that.’ I said, ‘Oh my god, this has got into my soul!’

“Some five years later, we opened (the English ver­sion) at the Se­gal. It was a phe­nom­e­nal hit. Michel Trem­blay was in the au­di­ence. He was as ner­vous as a puppy dog. All the French pa­pers came to cover it. I think he was afraid they would look at him as a sell­out. But they all came up to him and said, ‘It’s won­der­ful!’ So once he heard that, he wasn’t afraid any­more. The French re­views were phe­nom­e­nal.

“It’s a show that takes place in Mon­treal, but the mes­sage — about the abuse of the women, about the church, the hus­bands — it’s universal. It could be Chicago — it could be any­where.”


Past-pres­i­dent of the Dora Wasser­man Yid­dish Theatre. She played Marie-Ange Brouil­lette in the Yid­dish ver­sion of Les Bel­lessoeurs, Di Shvigerins, which played at the Se­gal in 1992.

“We played the char­ac­ters as real French-Cana­dian house­wives. We didn’t pre­tend to be Jewish. Michel Trem­blay not only came to see it, he also came along to some re­hearsals and helped us with the Catholic el­e­ments, with the Je vous salue Marie and the scene where the women lis­ten to the novena on the ra­dio and we have to pray along with the rosary beads. The funny thing is, we had a cou­ple of cast mem­bers who were more religious than the oth­ers and they wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t cross them­selves. Most of us didn’t mind.

“Michel loved our pro­duc­tion; he thought it felt very au­then­tic. We loved do­ing it, and I guess it showed. We un­der­stood these women. That may not have been our lives, but it felt like our par­ents’ lives — the way the women had to be sub­mis­sive, had to wash clothes for eight peo­ple in the bath­tub with a wash­board. We un­der­stood their jeal­ousies, their gos­sip­ing, their snob­bery. We just got it.”


Along with his Scot­tish writ­ing part­ner Bill Find­lay (who died in 2005), Ver­dun-raised Bow­man trans­lated eight Trem­blay plays into the Scots ver­nac­u­lar. Most fa­mous was The Guid Sis­ters, a trans­la­tion of Les Belles-soeurs, which pre­mièred at Glas­gow’s Tron Theatre in 1989 and played Cen­taur Theatre in 1992.

“Some peo­ple have mis­taken the lan­guage we used in The Guid Sis­ters for Gaelic, but it’s not that. It’s the de­motic lan­guage of the Low­lands of Scot­land. It’s what Robert Burns was writ­ing in the

18th cen­tury. The mod­ern equiv­a­lent would be Trainspot­ting.

“Our idea of trans­lat­ing Michel Trem­blay into Scots came from the sim­ple rea­son that the lan­guage of joual found its ex­act equiv­a­lent in what was spo­ken in Ed­in­burgh, Dundee, Glas­gow. When we trans­lated his 1990 play La Mai­son sus­pendue as The House Among the Stars for the Tra­verse Theatre in Ed­in­burgh, one critic wrote that it ‘speaks in­ti­mately to the Scot­tish soul.’

“Bill came to Mon­treal for the pro­duc­tion of The Guid Sis­ters at Cen­taur. We both went to visit Trem­blay — at that point, he lived in Outremont. We spent the evening talk­ing with him about his work. He was ab­so­lutely com­mit­ted to the project and was de­lighted it was hap­pen­ing. He said that al­though he couldn’t un­der­stand the lan­guage, he could tell from the au­di­ence’s re­ac­tion how good a trans­la­tion it was.”


Théâtre du Rideau Vert’s artis­tic di­rec­tor played Rose Ouimet, Ger­maine’s sis­ter, when Les Belles-soeurs pre­mièred at the same theatre in 1968. She also di­rected it at Théâtre Du­ceppe in 1993.

“The first time I read it, I cried, I laughed, I rec­og­nized my fam­ily, my neigh­bours, peo­ple on the street where I lived. It was very pro­found. It was a beau­ti­ful play — I knew it was some­thing very spe­cial.

“Trem­blay wrote the play, but he left it alone af­ter that. It was Bras­sard who de­cided ev­ery­thing, ex­cept for one mono­logue that I have. That one came about three days be­fore the première. I’d said: ‘Come on, Michel, what’s the mat­ter? Ev­ery­one has a mono­logue and I don’t have one.’ And he wrote me such a beau­ti­ful mono­logue, called Mau­dit cul — you un­der­stand what that is? Oh, gee! It was about this woman who has to sleep with her hus­band ev­ery night, and she’s sick and tired of it, but did it be­cause she had to, be­cause of re­li­gion, be­cause of this and that. It was so sad. Many women rec­og­nized them­selves in that mono­logue.

“Me, I was very shy hav­ing to say ‘mau­dit cul’ on the stage. My good­ness, I went red through my makeup. Af­ter two or three times, I saw what it did to the au­di­ence, and I was very happy to have done it. And peo­ple talk about that mono­logue to this day.”

I first got the idea for it when An­dré Bras­sard and I went to see a very bad Québé­cois movie.


Kath­leen Fortin, cen­tre, leads the cast of Les Belles-soeurs: théâtre mu­si­cal. “I think what still strikes us so much is to see the num­ber of women on stage to­gether talk­ing about their mis­ery, their de­sires, their anger, their daily lives,” Fortin says of Michel Trem­blay’s play.


“It was such a scan­dal, we didn’t even un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing,” Michel Trem­blay says of the ini­tial re­ac­tions to Les Belles-soeurs.


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