Playwright/translator born in a working class family in Quebec in 1942, Michel Tremblay is probably the most-produced playwright in Canada and arguably the most important playwright in the history of the country.
His first widely produced play, Les Belles-soeurs, opened the floodgates of theatre, both francophone and anglophone, in a number of ways. First, it introduced a theatre that was from here and that could not be mistaken for theatre from anywhere else. The language Tremblay used in the work - joual - was still a rare thing in Quebec theatre but the work used it in a frank, often brutal, way. Moreover, the language was not simply used for shock value - the piece also set out to prove that the language of the streets was a beautiful thing; there is a hilarious and lovely oratorio in the play that speaks about the game of Bingo. Belles-soeurs also signalled a challenge to the censorship traditionally exercise by the clergy. The swearing in the play (like much of Quebec-French swearing) was based on religious terms. With its all-women cast of characters, it championed Quebec working-class women, who, until well after the Quiet Revolution, had been repressed by the strictures of the Catholic Church and of the patriarchy. This work and subsequent plays also signalled the emergence of the Nationalist movement in Quebec. Indeed, questions of identity (sexual, cultural etc.) are constant themes in Tremblay's entire oeuvre.
Tremblay's early works, particularly Hosanna and La Duchesse de Langeais, though seen as separatist metaphors, are also early instances of openly Gay characters in Canadian theatre. Indeed many of his works, then and later, featured Gay characters with no apology. It was soon after Tremblay became a household name that he, too, announced his sexual orientation and he became a hero of the Gay movement.
What is also important is that the works of Michel Tremblay, both fiction and dramatic, have proven their exportability not only to the rest of Canada but world-wide. His plays have been adapted and translated into dozens of languages and have seen huge success in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle-East.
Tremblay's mother was born in Providence, Rhode Island to a Cree mother (cotton factory worker) and French father (a sailor). He was raised in a series of apartments in the section of Montreal known as Le Plateau, a working-class district that since has been gentrified. In many cases, the apartments were shared with a number of relatives outside of the immediate family. Much of his childhood, particularly his touching relationship with his mother, is chronicled in the autobiographical sketches contained in several books including Douze coups de théâtre and Les vues animées. He was an ardent reader early on and secretly began to write, as a teenager.
In 1959 he entered the Institut des arts graphiques, following in his father footsteps as a printer and linotype operator. He worked as a linotypist between 1963 and 1966 while composing his first play, Le Train, which won first prize in 1964 in the competition for young authors sponsored by Radio-Canada. The play was performed twice. In 1966 he published his first novel, Contes pour buveurs attardés and also produced a work in one act called Cinq which was performed in 1966.Cinq would be reworked to become En pièces détachées. Even in these early works he began to incorporate aspects of his own life and the lives of his family and friends. There is still speculation about how much of his Le Plateau plays and characters like Édouard, Thérèse, Albertine and Marcel are based on the real relatives with whom he shared his roof.
On a Canada Council grant, Tremblay went to work in Mexico and there wrote a fantasy novel, La cité dans l'oeuf and the first of his Gay works La Duchesse de Langeais, a monologue about a transvestite (Edouard, who appears in many other works of drama and fiction) who uses quick wit and panache to survive a humdrum life.
Tremblay had, by this time, struck up a friendship with the young André Brassard who had run into him at theatres around town and with whom he would occasionally walk home after a play, discussing theatre all the way.
In 1968, Les Belles-Soeurs received a public reading at the Centre des Auteurs Dramatiques and was picked up by Yvette Brind'Amour, artistic director for the Théâtre du Rideau Vert. Brassard directed the work and has directed all of the Tremblay premieres since. Tremblay's play changed the style and content of Canadian theatre with its use of colloquial speech (joual) and cursing; the people of the play (working-class with no future); and the fact that the play dared to frankly depict the lives of women, including sex and even abortion.
From then on, new professional productions of Tremblay works became practically an annual affair. His plays were being performed in revival, or on tour, or in English translation. Since 1968, several professional companies in Canada are performing his works every year.
His plays have been performed in many of the country's top venues including the Stratford Festival; Centaur Theatre (the Scottish adaptation of Belles-soeurs-Guid Sisters, translated by Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay - played Centaur in 1994); Tarragon Theatre; Citadel Theatre; Neptune Theatre; Le Théâtre du P'tit Bonheur; Théâtre du Rideau Vert; Théâtre de Quat'Sous; Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Compagnie Jean-Duceppe; Espace Go (perhaps the most exciting revival of a Tremblay work occurred here in 1995 when Martine Beaulne directed an all-star cast in Albertine, en cinq temps); the National Arts Centre; Saidye Bronfman Centre (and Les Belles-soeurs in Yiddish with the Yiddish Theatre at the Saidye Bronfman); Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui; Théâtre Populaire du Québec; and hundreds of alternative, amateur and school companies.
His plays have been produced in over twenty-two languages (including Yiddish, Haitian Creole, Dutch, Lithuanian, Hindi, and Japanese).
Tremblay has received many of this country's and others' top honours, and many honorary doctorates. In 1999, he received a Governor General’s Award and found himself at the centre of a controversy when well-known Quebec nationalists expected him to refuse the award. He did not, though he did announce publicly, for the first time, that he had previously refused the Order of Canada in 1990. In 2000, Encore une fois, si vous le permettez(For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again) won a Chalmers Award and a Dora Mavor Moore Award.
It is a worthwhile exercise to read Tremblay's fiction as well, as in many cases it illuminates the lives of the principal characters of his plays. For instance, the title character of the novel Des nouvelles d'Édouard is the same Édouard we see in La maison suspendue and in La Duchesse de Langeais. Albertine, Thérèse, Marcel and several other characters of the plays make appearances all through the six novels that make up Les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Also, much of Tremblay's fiction speaks of Tremblay's life. For instance his novel, Le coeur décovert, speaks of the birth of a love affair between two men, one of whom has a child; the story is similar, in many respects, to a relationship Tremblay had.
Michel Tremblay divides his time between homes in Montreal and Key West.
He said to the Globe and Mail (April 27, 2000), after a cool critical reception to Encore une fois..., "I'm not humble. I'm everything but humble. But I draw a line at being good and being a genius. You can be wonderful and write beautiful music but you're not Stravinsky. That's all. And when you accept you're not Stravinsky, you can go on in life, and write, and enjoy your writing."
Les Belles-soeurs (also translated into Scots dialect as Guid Sisters); A toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou (Yours Forever, Marie-Lou); Hosanna; Bonjour, là, bonjour; Albertine, en cinq temps (Albertine, in Five Times); Encore une fois, si vous le permettez (For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again).
Le train, Les Socles, Les Paons; En pièces détachées (Like Death Warmed Over or Montreal Smoked Meat); Trois petits tours ("Berthe," "Johnny Mangano and his Astonishing Dogs," "Gloria Star"); Demain matin, Montréal m'attend (musical with music by François Dompierre); La Duchesse de Langeais; Sainte Carmen de la Main (Sainte Carmen of the Main); Surprise! Surprise! Les héros de mon enfance; Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra; L'Impromptu d'Outremont (The Impromptu of Outremont); Les anciennes odeurs (Remember Me); Le vrai monde? (The Real World?); Nelligan (libretto for the romantic opera with music by André Gagnon); La maison suspendue; Marcel poursuivi pas les chiens; En circuit fermé; Messe solennelle pour une pleine lune d'été (The Impromptu of Nuns Island; Bonbons Assortis (Assorted Candies) -- Centaur Theatre 2006).
In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic closed theatres in Quebec and across Canada, he wrote a 30-minute radio play about a couple (played by Denise Filiatrault and Gilbert Sicotte) who had been together for 70 years, and separated at the beginning of the pandemic when one has tested positive for Covid-19. But their love resists the constraints of the virus.
In November 2022, he premiered a new play at the National Arts Centre French theatre: Cher Tchekhov, in which the Russian playwright (played by Serge Denoncourt, who also directs) revisits a script while his actress siblings, their author brother (played by Tremblay) and a critic engage in a verbal sparring match.
Among Tremblay's adaptations and translations are:
Lysistrata (Aristophanes); L'effet des rayons gamma sur les vieux garçons (Paul Zindel, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds); Et Mademoiselle Roberge boit un peu(Paul Zindel, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little); Mademoiselle Marguerite (Roberto Athayde, Miss Margarita's Way); Oncle Vania (Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya)
Le gars de Québec (Gogol, The Inspector General); Six heures au plus tard (Marc Perrier); Première de classe (Casey Kurtti); Mistero Buffo (Dario Fo); La déscente d'Orphée (Tennessee Williams, Orpheus Descending); Les leçons de Maria Callas (Terrence McNally, Masterclass); Grace et Gloria (Tom Ziegler, Grace and Gloria).
He has also written fourteen novels and three books of autobiographical sketches.
Profile by Gaetan Charlebois. Additional information provided by Bruno Lajeunesse. Updated by Anne Nothof.
Last updated 2022-11-15