Les Belles-Soeurs brings a Quebecois revolution to the Baby Grand

Michel Tremblay’s classic play shows working-class women in Montreal 

Credit: 
Supplied by King's Town Players

One kitchen is all playwright Michel Tremblay needs to show the daily struggles working-class French Canadian women faced in the 1960s.  

This kitchen is the only set in the two acts of Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs belonging to Germaine Lauzon, a Montreal housemaid who’s won a million stamps given out from a grocery store, used to fill out booklets she can trade in for household items.

In the first act, Germaine invites her friends over to help her put the stamps into the booklets, setting off a chain of events that satirizes Catholicism and the limited options working class Quebecois women had outside of marriage.

Many of the characters are related or close family friends to one another and yet the play’s plotline maps out their tendencies to place social standing above these familial ties. 

Whether it’s getting pregnant out of wedlock, marrying the wrong man, drinking and going to a nightclub despite the Church forbidding it or even stealing, these women inevitably face a guilty conscience.

Premiering in 1968, Tremblay’s play was groundbreaking because it showed what life was like for women left behind in French Canadian society in the 60s.

A good example of this is represented in the character Rose, played by Cathy Griffin.

While superficially carefree, Rose also faces daily oppression. In a short monologue, she reveals that her husband uses her for sex twice each day, something she views as being his supposed duty as a husband and a man.[Being beholden to her husband this way makes her exhausted and dejected.

As Rose’s character reveals in the play, the social structures faced by the women limit what they can and can’t do and they are subsequently blamed whenever something goes wrong. 

Griffin performed the best of the monologues and its emotional impact, alongside Tremblay’s juxtaposition with a dirty joke, made the second act really hit home.

Throughout the first act, the ladies helping Germaine fill her stamp books end up stealing some of the books for themselves. They justify the theft and argue that Germaine doesn’t deserve all the million stamps she won because she’s unworthy of them.

The characters claim to be more worthy themselves without explaining why exactly that is – no character is wholly likeable as a result.

As Tremblay shows, the female characters in the production are trapped in these competing power structures as they try to maintain purpose and live a meaningful life. This was the reality for many working-class women in Quebec at the time Les Belles-Soeurs premiered.

Some significant historical context to Tremblay’s work, and part of the reason the King’s Town Player’s decided to put on this production in the first place, is that Les Belles-Soeurs premiered a year after Canada’s centennial.  

That anniversary saw similar debates over Canada’s history as this year’s 150 celebrations.

This play is a more critical lens to view our more recent anniversary, analyzing the oppressive structures French Canadian women faced from a modern day standpoint. It’s no surprise that it was revived for 150.

The flipside of this renewed production is that while many things have changed, it still remains deeply relevant. We see these people tear loved ones to shreds, disown them and even steal from them because they want to appear well-to-do.

The tragic elements of the play only hit harder when you realize it’s not by choice that they act this way. 

 

  

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