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Félix Poutré

Drama by Louis H. Fréchette, first performed in three acts with prologue, 22 November, 1862, at the Salle de Musique, Quebec City, Quebec, published nine years after its initial performance in four acts. Performed, after its premiere, across the province including in Montreal, 1929. Revived as a public reading at the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui, 1968, directed by André Brassard.

Based on "historical" events, it has as its source the title character's "biography" Echappé de la potence. Souvenirs d'un prisonnier d'État canadien en 1838. The problem with the source material is that, after scrutiny, the "hero" may have actually been a traitor (at worst) and a shirker and a coward (at best) in the great battle against English rule in Lower Canada. However, when the memoirs were first published, they were devoured by the public and seemed a logical jumping off point for a drama. Though Fréchette rarely acknowledged his debt to the memoirs, there are whole sections of the play which are lifted verbatim from Poutré's work.

Controversy aside, this is still an oddly charming work with hugely funny moments and others which, if played with great skill, would touch profoundly (great skill as the writing itself teeters on the edge of bathos).

There's no denying that the central figure is fascinating. His first appearance, as the possible salvation of the Montreal Patriotes, is grandly announced by pages of text telling the spectator just how wondrous this fine young man is. There is a subplot involving a spy in the midst of the Patriotes, Camel, who gets his comeuppance not once but twice. There is a touching scene between father Poutré and Félix, and a pair of delightfully silly scenes involving an English doctor which must have, at the time, brought down the house. There are, too, the requisite ringing speeches about the oppressor (including in Act III, Scene 2*), following the execution of several brave men: "My friends, let us admire the stoic courage with which our comrades have endured this final torture, and, if we must submit to the same fate, let us all vow that we will die like them, head high and the word liberty on our lips."

But at the core of the work is Poutré's plot to escape the hangman: he feigns madness. This gives the character a chance to beat up on his enemies, lord it over his betters (he "believes" he is the governor), and, ultimately, be released.

The work established Fréchette and he never repeated its success with his other plays. As an example of early Canadian drama it is immensely readable and might still be performed with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

*Readings: Louis H. Fréchette. Félix Poutré. Montreal: Leméac, 1974.

Commentary by Gaetan Charlebois

Last updated 2015-06-05