Ever since Glasgow's Tron Theatre staged The Guid Sisters and took it back to Quebec, Scotland has shown the world how to do MICHEL TREMBLAY. That's why the Montreal playwright is eagerly awaiting the Scottish premiere of A Solemn Mass For A Full Moon In summer. Words: Luc Boulanger Main Photograph: Kevin Low
ON 27 MARCH, MICHEL TREMBLAY. THE WORLD'S BEST known Québe’cois playwright, published an article for World Theatre Day 2000. The universal appeal of a play. he wrote. has nothing to do with the place it was written. ‘but with the humanity it releases, the relevance of its subject matter. the beauty of its structure.’ It doesn’t take a big city to have big ideas, he argued. ‘You are no more universal when you write in Paris or New York than you are in Chicoutimi or Port—au-Prince.’
Since 1965. Michel Tremblay has written 23 plays. But the geography of his theatre barely covers'ten streets in two working-class Montreal districts; the red light district and the Plateau Mont-Royal. Into this urban microcosm. the author has transposed the lives of his larger-than-Iife characters who you’ll now find right across the globe speaking more than 25 languages.
A Solemn Mass For/i Full Moon In Summer presents us with eleven characters on their balconies one evening during a Montreal heatwave. Their voices overlap and echo in a ritual incantation. ‘Solenm Mass is an acknowledgement of failure.’ says Michel Tremblay speaking in Florida’s Key West. the beloved refuge where he has spent every winter for the past seven years. ‘I wanted to portray people [the Quebécois] who have done their external housework. but have neglected to do their interior housework. l was thinking of the yuppies who have become homeowners on the Plateau Mont-Royal who would rather renovate the outside of their buildings than look within themselves. In Solenm Mass these people come before us and show us at which point they suffer internally. It is a requiem. And surely the blackest play I have ever written — or even seen — in my life!’
The play was less than well received by the critics at its premiere in February I996 at Montreal’s Jean-[)uceppe Theatre. For that reason, the forthcoming Traverse Theatre production and the translation of Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay offer a welcome second chance for the author.
‘When I saw The House Among The Stars again in Edinburgh. I realised it was much better than some .[Que’bécois] critics had thought,’ he says. ‘It only remains for Solemn Mass to be rehabilitated in the same way . . . the greatest pleasure for a playwright is to be astonished and surprised by the theatrical presentation of his plays. The surprise is all the greater when it’s a foreign production.’
In addition to his prodigious output of drama and fiction. Michel Tremblay has put his name to nearly twenty translations and adaptations of foreign plays. As someone whose work has been so frequently translated. he knows how hard the job is. A good translation. he reckons, is much more difficult than an adaptation. ‘A translation is more faithful to the author.’ he says. ‘Using his own language. a translator must respect the spirit. the personality and the style of a foreign author. The style is what distinguishes a good translation immediately. even if the
20 THE UST 27 Apr—11 May 2000
'He sensed he was fully alive during this short bout of sexual intercourse.’ Michel Tremblay
language is unknown to the translator. When I saw The Guid Sisters in Glasgow, I noticed that the Scottish audience reacted in exactly the same places and in exactly the same way as the Québécois public.’
Of all his plays, Solemn Mass was the most painful for him to finish. ‘I tore my soul apart and cried buckets while I was writing it.’ he admits. It’s also his most formally complex dramatic work. ‘It’s often said that my characters are on the verge of “singing” their parts.’ he says. ‘Here, I wanted to push the lyricism as far as possible to explore something totally new. So my idea was to transpose the various parts of a traditional Catholic mass into a play. The whole range of human feeling is represented in a mass. In three-quarters of an hour, you go from the greatest spiritual heights to the depths of the abyss, from light to great darkness. That is paralleled in the emotional state of the characters in Solemn Mass.’
AIDS is one subject Tremblay has always refused to tackle (he’s dealt with the virus only in his novels The Heart Discovered and The Broken Heart), but in Solemn Mass, he decided to speak about it through the tragic tale of an old gay couple. ‘A good play about AIDS is one in which the disease is not named,’ he says. ‘A playwright must avoid setting his work too precisely in time. For example, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. a play created in 1985 in New York, has a great first act, but a very bad second act. In the second act, the playwright lapsed into melodrama by putting AIDS at the centre of his work.’ I
He continues: ‘The disease will never be a dramatic topic. Any disease. The Lady Of The Camellias by Alexandre Dumas is not a play about tuberculosis. AIDS can appear in a play which has another subject — anger. revolution, fear of death etc — but it shouldn’t be its principal subject.’
Tremblay also declares Solemn Mass to be ‘politically incorrect’ because it exposes taboo subjects which society and the media generally overlook. The character of the AIDS sufferer. for example. refuses to express any regret to his lover for his past (he had anonymous sex with a beautiful young man who transmitted the virus to him).
‘The ten minutes of pleasure he gained from his furtive adventure made his suffering worthwhile,’ says Tremblay. ‘This is because he sensed he was fully alive during this short bout of sexual intercourse. These are not things you often hear. Nowadays, we prefer to talk about safe sex. abstinence, hygiene or ﬁdelity . . .’
The theatre of Michel Tremblay is often compared with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; one play ﬁts into another to form an image greater than the sum of its parts. In this way. Solemn Mass ForA Full Moon In Summer adds a tragic hue to Tremblay’s vast impressionist canvas. '
A Solemn Mass For A Full Moon In Summer. Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 2-Sat 13 May.
Luc Boulanger is theatre, dance and visual arts editor of Montreal's Journal Voir and author of Pieces a conviction, a book on Michel Tremblay to be published in October.