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The Orphan Muses/Les Muses orphelines

Play written in French by Michel Marc Bouchard; premiered in 1988 at Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, Montreal, Quebec; dir. André Brassard, with Anne Caron as Catherine, Dominique Quesnel as Isabelle, Roy Dupuis as Luc, and Louse Saint-Pierre as Martine.; set and costume design by Meredith Caron. The published English translation is by Linda Gaboriau.

The plays of Michel Marc Bouchard have had a wide appeal in Quebec and Europe in their original French, and in English translation across Canada. His imaginative vision plays well outside of Canada: it is not limited by national politics, although it is informed by the social and religious strictures of Quebec in the Duplessis years of the 1950s.

Like Quebecois playwrights René-Daniel Dubois and Normand Chaurette, Bouchard turned in the 1980s to traditional themes and images, but in a highly imaginative dramaturgy. He offers a poetic vision, suggesting rather than demonstrating, creating an allegorical universe populated by symbols: "Je pense, tout comme Genet, que le théâtre est un lieu de symboles et de codes, que les symboles touchent davantage parce qu'ils appartiennent au poétique et non à l'utilitaire" (quoted in Lesage).

According to Marie-Christine Lesage, his plays assault ideas of normalcy, of disposition, of truth, insofar as they are determined by our society and our culture. His characters reside on the margins of established society, and are often victims of an ossified environment. However, they are not angry, self-destructive victims or anarchists: "Ces personnages sont des marginaux qui communiquent quelque chose; ce ne sont pas des gens qui crient ‘ vive l'anarchie ! ’. En fait, ces êtres hors norme poussent les autres à devenir eux-mêmes au lieu de suivre ce que la société leur dicte. Fondamentalement, je crois qu'il n'y a personne de normal, il n'y a qu'un compromis social" (Bouchard, quoted in Lesage).

"Dans Les muses orphelines, c'est Isabelle, considérée comme l'attardée de la famille, qui va les bousculer tous, les remettre en question. Ce que je cherche à dire par là c'est que la vie serait peut-être beaucoup plus jolie si on avait le courage de nos propres poésies. Mais il est vrai que j'ai beaucoup parlé des victimes, des gens oppressés. Et j'ai l'impression que ces personnages touchent les gens parce qu'ils s'identifient à leur blessure, à celle que tout le monde a en soi. Mais actuellement je me demande si j'ai besoin que tous mes personnages soient des écorchés vifs pour parler. J'émane d'une culture où il existe beaucoup d'identification aux victimes, et je réfléchis en ce moment sur le pouvoir tyrannique des victimes. Maintenant, j'ai envie de me servir de l'oppression ou de la violence comme déclencheur d'action qui va révéler beaucoup plus l'agresseur que la victime" (Bouchard, quoted in Lesage).

Bouchard recognizes the importance of myth, the larger pattern which informs, shapes, or provides meaning to individual lives. And life has meaning only in relation to the spiritual and sacred. Theatre is a realization of myth in terms of symbols. It tries to represent what is inexplicable: "Le mythe est essentiel en ce qu'il ramène au sacré; je pense que notre vie doit être en relation avec le sacré, que nos décisions, nos gestes ont une dimension beaucoup plus importante qu'on peut le penser. Et le théâtre, à la différence du réalisme qu'offre le cinéma et la télévision, permet de renouer avec une vision symbolique du fait que c'est avant tout une construction et une convention avouée. De toute façon, le théâtre, comme la plupart des arts, vient de la religion ; il tente de représenter ce qui est inexplicable" (quoted in Lesage).

Even though he remains an idealist, Bouchard strongly believes in the necessity of dreaming and imagination in a disenchanted and utilitarian world. However, his characters seem to prefer an unbridled imagination to reality: "Mais autrement idéaliste, Michel Marc Bouchard affirme avec force la nécessité du rêve et de l'imaginaire dans un monde désenchanté et trop imprégné d'une mentalité utilitaire. D'ailleurs, ses personnages semblent préférer les débridements de l'imaginaire à la réalité."

His plays express a vision in which truth and reality appear unattainable, where living comprises game-playing and a succession of roles: "Mais qu'est-ce que vivre sinon passer son existence à apprendre des rôles ! Je crois que le seul rôle qu'on n'apprend pas c'est celui de mourir. Et tous ces rôles constituent en fait des cages qui donnent envie de fuir. Si j'écris, c'est probablement parce que la vie ne m'intéresse pas telle qu'elle est. Et je pense que le théâtre doit être porteur de poésie comme de liberté. Mes personnages sont marginaux, idéalistes et mythomanes parce qu'au fond ils sont plus purs. Et j'espère que leurs rêves, ou la double réalité de leurs fantasmes, offrent une ouverture" (Bouchard, quoted in Lesage).

Bouchard believes that in art is the world’s hope for peace, for more enlightened societies. We have a great need for spiritual values; material values are inadequate. He extols loyalty, freedom and openness, even if what one thinks is hard to accept. If he abnegates his values, he would become one of the many “yappers” or carpers whom he despises. It is too easy to complain, to blame others, to behave like victims. We need constructive values. Bouchard thinks that one reason The Orphan Muses has been well received is that Isabelle decides not to kill herself, but instead to change the order of things. Her baby is her muse, inspiring her to a better life. According to Bouchard, “L'avenir se bâtit sur le choix de faire vivre ou de détruire les enfants.”

The Orphan Muses is set in 1965, on the last day of Lent – Holy Saturday – the day before Christ rose from the dead. Three sisters and a brother have come together at the invitation of the youngest, Isabelle, who announces that their mother, who has abandoned them years ago to run away with a Spaniard, is returning. Isabelle, considered “slow” by the others, has been raised by the domineering oldest sister, Catherine. Martine has joined the army, and Luc has pretensions as a writer – the subject being his mother’s romantic life. The return of the mother - like the arrival of Godot in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play, Waiting for Godot – represents the family’s hopes and dreams for freedom from a haunted and unhappy past. Her return will vindicate her departure from a living death is a stifling, bigoted community. But at the end of the play, Isabelle announces that their mother is not returning, and that she has orchestrated a hoax in order to free herself from the family.

The mother in her role as liberated woman and artist (she played the church organ and “spoke beautifully”) has inspired in her children a need to free themselves from the limitations of their own lives. Isabelle extends her vocabulary so that she can understand the world better, and she assumes the role of her mother in making her own departure to begin a new life, inspired by a new muse – her unborn baby. She functions as a variation of the “wise fool” in the play, who orchestrates the reunion, and who is most in touch with the emotional needs of the family members. Although her language may be limited, her imagination is not. She may act like a child, and speak like a child, but she is neither childish nor mentally challenged. In effect, the “child” of the family redeems her surrogate parents.

Although Martine replays the role of the father in the family drama as the tragic victim, she also has found her own way to express her desires. Her apparent military demeanour and intransigence are, like her uniform, a camouflage for a passionate lesbian relationship.

Catherine’s attempt to play the role of the mother is repressive and limiting, rather than nurturing, particularly in respect to Isabelle, yet, ironically, in her financial support of Luc, she has also played the role of “muse” to his art. She is painfully sensitive to community attitudes, and deplores uninhibited behaviour and extroverted feelings, playing the role of social reactionary, enforcing “community standards,” but she has an alter ego as the town slut, since she has had a liaison with almost every available male.

Luc has also imaginatively recreated his mother, but his “story” is a delusion, and his attempt to replay her departure ends in disaster. He is much further beyond the social pale than is Martine, flagrantly flouting gender roles by dressing in his mother’s Spanish skirt, and outraging the community by appearing in full drag at the church service. He in effect wants to become his mother – reliving her gestures of freedom in an oppressive town. And he has rewritten her life as a novel. His discovery that she has not in fact lived as he imagined is devastating. His role in the family as the imaginative, liberated artist is undermined by his self-delusion and selfishness. He has exploited his sisters as his muses. But, ironically, in replaying his mother’s gestures towards freedom, Luc discovers that they were his own creations, and his own possibilities. Even in his failure as an artist he has inspired in Isabelle a desire for freedom. The final scene, after the departure of Martine and Isabelle, ironically reconfigures the family scenario, and replicates the “pieta” of Mary holding the body of Christ in her arms. It is an ambivalent image, suggesting love and forgiveness, but also a continuation of the family trap of dependence and need.

The reluctant revisiting by the “orphan muses” of the circumstances of their abandonment by their mother as children is an investigation of the ways in which truth is constructed or subverted. The siblings “play out” the family history, as each assumes a role from the past. Only through a disinterring of the truth can there be any emancipation or resurrection.

Source: Marie-Christine Lesage. “Michel Marc Bouchard: Entre le rêve et la tourmente,” (entrevue). Nuit Blanche 61 (Sept 1995).

Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University

Last updated 2022-01-18