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15 Seconds

François Archambault’s 15 Seconds, in a translation by Bobby Theodore, movingly effects a cultural crossover between French and English-Canadian theatre. The locale of Montreal, with its miscommunications and misunderstandings, becomes a larger metaphor. It provides the living space for an unusual ménage à trois of “Generation X’ers”: Charlotte — an ad writer; Claude — an unemployed bodybuilder; and his brother Mathieu, who has cerebral palsy. The possibilities and limitations of their relationships are played out in a series of short scenes which mimic the “sound bites” of an ad campaign, each with a twist and a punch line which is usually ironic or anti-climactic.

The first scene comprises an exchange between Charlotte and the boyfriend, Richard, from whom she is becoming alienated. She informs him about the genetic changes that can be effected in a tomato to preserve the red colour, and delay the rotting. Although she seems earnestly interested in the possibilities for tomatoes, she concludes by stating that she doesn’t like tomatoes anyway. Richard is obviously disinterested in tomatoes and irritated by her. This odd little scene establishes an important theme in the play: contrary to Charlotte’s marketing philosophy, packaging and appearance are not sufficient; perception is not reality.

Charlotte’s attempt to find some significance in a relationship results in a one-night stand with Claude, and her decision to move in after she is ejected from Richard’s apartment. She is only briefly disconcerted to discover that Claude’s brother, Mathieu, lives with him. In their conversations she begins to understand that Mathieu’s “packaging” belies his inner possibilities. Claude, on the other hand, whose physique is much more appealing, is vacuous and self-centred. He blames society in general for his lack of success in material terms. He is “fine the way [he is]. It’s other people who piss [him] off.” Claude finds Charlotte’s curiosity and imagination annoying, whereas Mathieu is very attracted to her. He makes a deal with Claude — that he will pay the rent for six months if Claude will give him a chance to win over Charlotte. The test of her feelings for Mathieu arrives with the intrusion of Richard, whose threats provoke her into claiming that she has left him for Mathieu. He challenges her to prove this: she must kiss Mathieu for fifteen seconds.

Fifteen seconds has been a critical amount of time for Mathieu before: he was deprived of oxygen for fifteen seconds at his birth because the doctor was drunk. The play explores the ramifications of time in many dimensions. Charlotte loves authors such as Dostoyevsky because the light from their words shines across time into her life like the light from distant stars.

The comic mood of 15 Seconds is shot through with moments of insight and poignancy as Charlotte and Mathieu articulate their perceptions of their possibilities and their limitations. It becomes increasingly apparent that Mathieu is the only one of the four who is not “handicapped.” Even the brief exchange between Richard and Claude in a bar, each oblivious to the fact that they are both Charlotte’s lovers, exemplifies not only the limitations of male interaction, but also provides a comic metaphor for life as a baseball game. For Richard, baseball proves that anyone can win; for Claude, it shows that anyone can lose.

In 15 Seconds everyone loses to some extent, but there are also some important wins — a demonstration of the affection and friendship that Charlotte has for Mathieu, and of the loyalty and the brothers have for each other. There is no resolution: the kiss does not turn the frog into a prince.

15 Seconds won the Governor General’s Award for a French play in 1998. It is also very rewarding to read in English, published by Talonbooks.

Commentary by Anne Nothof

Last updated 2020-04-24