Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Les Belles-Soeurs" -- Fifteen Squabbling Quebecoises

After reading and enjoying Michel Tremblay's play Albertine, in Five Times, I decided I should read his most famous work for the stage, Les Belles-Soeurs. Les Belles-Soeurs

Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-Soeurs is raucous, energetic, and boisterous -- and, because women so rarely get to be boisterous onstage, it’s revolutionary. The play plunks you down in the kitchen of Germaine, a middle-aged housewife in 1960s Montreal. She’s just won a million department-store coupons in a contest, and she’s invited fourteen of her neighbors to help her paste the coupons into booklets. Gossip, squabbling, scandal, and even a brawl ensue.

John Van Burek and Bill Glassco have translated Tremblay’s working-class Quebecois French into working-class North American English. Generally, it’s effective, but sometimes it makes the characters sound like refugees from a 1930s B-movie: “Sure, he promised me the moon. We were gonna be happy. He was raking it in, I thought everything was roses.”

There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Les Belles-Soeurs. At times, Tremblay seems to mock these women and encourage the audience to feel superior to them. Yet the play ultimately blames the women’s faults -- their small-mindedness, their hypocrisy, their catty jealousy -- on the society they live in. Poverty, Catholicism, provincialism and patriarchy have conspired to make these women what they are. The high point of the play is the monologue where Rose, a self-described “class clown,” drops her façade and reveals her underlying rage and despair: “Goddamn sex! It’s never that way in the movies, is it? Oh no, in the movies it’s always fun! Besides, who cares about a woman who’s gotta spend her life with a pig ‘cause she said yes to him once? Well, I’m telling you, no fucking movie was ever this sad. Because movies don’t last a lifetime!”

I don’t think I’d like to spend a lifetime with Germaine and her friends, either, but I didn’t mind spending two hours with them.

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