Reflections on the worldwide hit
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.