Histories of broadcasting in Britain tend to have a distinct London bias–in other words they all but completely ignore developments in Scotland –and yet the early broadcasting infrastructure ensured that each regional centre could advance the boundaries of radio in more exciting and challenging ways (certainly in different ways) than the production centre in London. This critical bias, however, is perhaps only symptomatic of a more general social tendency to displace diversity within British culture and to focus on a metropolitan vision, a core-legitimized version of culture which discounts the regional and the local as parochial. This tendency is thrown into relief at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when social and cultural requirements, technological and political contexts reset the role of the state and its institutions (and the BBC is one of the most powerful in the system) as fundamental to the dissemination of culture. In this indigenous and local cultural activities may fall outwith the legitimized cultural capital of the state, and yet be fundamental to the identity used and referred to by the region. This is the perceived lack for ‘Scottish culture’ within the context of British arts. Increased centralization and bureaucratization of the arts community and cultural institutions towards the metropolitan core can produce an intractable gap between the respectable culture of the centre and the barbaric, parochial, dangerous arts of the periphery: a periphery which may then be recast as ‘other’. Within that context, however, the same technological, political and social advances are imposed and experienced but they will be interpreted and used with reference to the local and the indigenous as well as to the national and the international. To discount the distinctiveness of much of Scottish culture is, within a centralist model, justified.
The purpose of this article is to examine theatre in Quebec as the site of transformation of its collective images as they have evolved through theatrical texts over the past twenty years. Quebec society, in a constant state of mutation as it searches for its national identity, has been particularly receptive to forms of theatre that emphasize the theme of the family. For example, the first important work of this ‘new theatre’ which dared to liberate the language from its French model was Tremblay's Les Belles-Sœurs, a play where all the action is located in a kitchen and whose characters are all women. In the development of Tremblay's work, we see how the discourses of women are taken over by masculine characters, mediated through the transvestite within a homosexual theme and finally liberated from the feminine model by the affirmation of the homosexual couple. In other more recent works, playwrights such as Normand Chaurette and Michel Marc Bouchard, have incorporated the search for a patrilinear descent into the very heart of the family conflict where the mother is put to death in a ritual killing, presented either as a ceremony (Chaurette), or as the unfolding of a myth (Bouchard).In all these cases, the evolution of the fictive family structure is the projection of social transformations taking place in Quebec where the maternal heritage, represented historically by France, is necessarily damaged and eventually eliminated in order to lay claim to a political structure which confirms the rights of the father.
Jean-Pierre Ronfard's Vie et mort du Roi Boiteux, an impressive six-play cycle telling the story of King Richard ‘Premier’ (i.e. ‘The First’, but Premier is meant here as a family name, as would be Jones or Smith), was created in 1981 and has been seen ever since as a landmark in the recent evolution of Québécois drama. It starts out as games played by children in a back lane and focuses on a limping boy who will be king. The limping king whose story is told as a ‘play-within-a-play’ refers to Oedipus's club foot as well as to Shakespeare's deformed Richard III. The story is heavily parodic, set simultaneously in all parts of the world and at all times, so that Marilyn Monroe and Queen Nefertiti can meet, as well as Brecht and Aristotle. Each play has been staged separately, but the full cycle was occasionally done in succession, a spectacular event lasting fifteen hours. The subject of this article is the very first full-length production, done partly outdoors, on 24 June 1982, in Montreal.
Odd though it may seem, the most popular contemporary playwright in Scotland over the past few years—judged in terms of frequency of productions—has not been a Scot but a Quebecer. In the four years from 1989 to 1992 there will have been four Scottish productions of Scots translations of plays by Michel Tremblay, as well as a revival of one of these shows. Glasgow's Tron Theatre staged The Guid Sisters (Les Belles-Sœurs) in 1989, revived it in 1990, and mounted a double bill of The Real Wurld? (Le vrai monde!) and Hosanna (Hosanna) in 1991; and Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre is staging The House Among the Stars (La Maison suspendue) in the autumn of 1992.
The Scottish National Players were the most interesting and important group in Scottish theatre in the 1920s, and the ‘national drama’ which they produced defined Scottish theatre for almost two decades. The SNP, as they were known, became the focus for the aspirations of young people wanting to progress to a professional career within theatre and were responsible for training a whole generation of Scottish actors. Later theatre groups, such as the Curtain and the Gateway, were greatly influenced by the Scottish National Players, who also made a major contribution to the early years of broadcasting in Scotland. Though mainly an amateur group, the SNP recognized the necessity for a national theatre company to tour as widely as possible, and in doing so helped to fire the enthusiasm for amateur drama which swept Scotland in the thirties. Many of the problems and debates which confronted them in their attempt to provide Scotland with a national theatre, such as the vexed question of whether production should be restricted to Scottish plays, irrespective of quality in the hope of better things to come, are still relevant issues.
In short, the drama is in ours, and in most civilized countries, an engine possessing the most powerful effect on the manners of society.Thus the idea of theatre is political … it must make possible the enactment of an actual political world in the midst of painful and complex transformations within and between politics.
7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company was launched in 1973 through an epoch-making tour of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, pioneering small-scale touring theatre in Scotland. The arrival of the company coincided with a more general resurgence in indigenous theatre and its success heralded the rise of touring companies as an integral part of the theatrical scene. During the 1970s, its reputation was established as a campaigning left-wing company which combined music and documentary in shows touring to popular audiences throughout Scotland. Although 7:84 had been a revenue-funded client of the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) since 1976, in January 1988 SAC announced that it was to withdraw the company from the list of revenue-funded clients from April 1989. On 22 July 1988 John McGrath, writer, director and co-founder of the company resigned as Artistic Director, levelling allegations of political interference at SAC because of this proposal. The company was taken over by David Hayman, Gerard Kelly, and Jo Beddoe. By the beginning of 1992, Jo Beddoe had left the company and the intention of Kelly and Hayman to resign had been made public.
My dear Mackenzie, the fact is—my plays are too liberal for the aristocratic illiberals of Ireland.… My plays breathe the noble sentiments of the influential classes of Ireland.… But I am going to a place where the feelings and the reality of liberty exist in their most glowing form—and not the form alone, but the embodied spirit. I am going to America.
During the twenty years separating Gratien Gélinas's Tit-Coq in 1948, a play considered a foundation piece of Québécois (as opposed to French-Canadian) dramaturgy, and the 1968 creation of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-Sœurs which opens the era of ‘new’ Québécois dramaturgy, Quebec society underwent a radical change. It was no longer traditional, religious and rural, but had become fully urbanized.A quarter of a century later, Michel Tremblay has published over twenty books—novels, plays and screenplays—composing an original body of work which reflects, sometimes almost clinically and through the use of joual (the idiomatic French spoken in the working-class district of East Montreal) the local Québécois reality. At the same time, it has a universal value: to a typically Montreal universe, Tremblay's creation integrates dramaturgical influences ranging from Greek tragedy to Tennessee Williams. The result is a unique and strong combination of a musical language, with powerful monologues and vivid dialogues, and of innovative dramatic structures reflecting (in a lucid and ironic manner) a society in quest of its identity, torn between traditional values centred on the family unit, and the liberating, dream world of the theatre.