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Yesterday, Michel Tremblay received the Medal of Honor of the National Assembly of province of Quebec in Canada. M. Tremblay is hardly a stranger to awards and honors, but I thought this might be an occasion to introduce his work to those who are not already familiar with it.

photo of Michel Tremblay at the Salon du livre 2007 by Mathieu Goulet via Flickr

Tremblay, a writer, is one of the most significant figures in Quebecois theatre. During the early 1960's Quebecois society underwent a change known as the Revolution tranquille, the Quiet Revolution. This change was marked by an increase in prosperity, a growing secularization of society, the birth of the nationalist movement and an assertion of Quebecois pride. In many ways, Quebecois arts and culture came into its own during this period.
Tremblay's work broke down barriers in Quebec society. His plays are written in Joual, which was ground breaking at that time. His characters were working class. For the first time, the lives and language of the ordinary people of Quebec were seen as a fitting subject for high art. Joual is a French dialect which is spoken among the working class in Montreal. The name is derived from the pronunciation of the word "cheval" (horse) in the dialect.
My first encounter with Tremblay's work came about by accident. Walking by the used bookstores on West 18th Street, I noticed a French language book on one of the tables on the sidewalk. On impulse, I bought it. Much to my dismay, when I opened it, I could barely make head or tails of the words. The next time I spoke to a French Canadian friend, I asked him if he'd heard of the play, "Les Belles-soeurs". Why, of course, it was only the single most important Quebecois play ever written! When he heard of my inability to understand he told me that it was written in dialect. Reading it aloud helped, but it would be another two or three years before I could read it easily enough to finish it.
Linda Laplante
Linda Laplante in a production of Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges directed by Gill Champagne at the Théâtre du Trident in Saint Jean-Baptise, Quebec, QC (my old neighborhood!)

photo by Arnaud Anciaux via Flickr

Another barrier Tremblay helped to break down was that of sexuality. Tremblay has been openly gay since the beginning of his career and many protagonists in his plays and novels are gay.

Upon recieving the award, Tremblay said, "This makes me think of the 15 year old teenager who, 55 years ago, had started to confide to the blank page all his troubles, his questions, because he couldn't share them." His interest in literature was not encouraged. "I decided to continue because for a long time that was the only way to talk about my problems."

Article in Le Devoir
Article in Le Journal de Quebec

Dr. Gilles Julien was also honored yesterday.

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