Rebel, Rebel

Richard Sanger on Robert Lepage, Quebec and forgetting

Robert Lepage

Robert Lepage

HOW DO YOU rebel against the rebels? Ever since the great political and artistic upheavals of the 20th century (Communism, Postcolonialism, Dada), it’s been a question politicians and artists have had to face. But it’s also a question that Canadians, and Quebeckers in particular, have confronted for even longer, ever since the American War of Independence drove the United Empire Loyalists north, and the French Revolution sent shock waves through the parishes of Catholic Quebec. In his new play, 887, which premiered in Toronto this July and opened at the Edinburgh Festival on August 13th, Robert Lepage provides a fascinating, multi-facetted answer to the question that has haunted both countries he belongs to. It’s his most personal and most political play yet.    

At the start, opposing revolution in Canada and Quebec simply meant retaining pre-revolutionary allegiances—to the British Empire, and to the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that these allegiances were definitively broken when a generation of cultural nationalists themselves rebelled, taking control of the national institutions and creating a new sense of nation. For Canadians, this meant a Canada that was neither British nor American, one whose most obvious distinguishing features were bilingualism and multiculturalism. For Quebeckers, it meant a Quebec neither British nor French nor (many hoped) Canadian—one where the Catholic church no longer ruled supreme. If Canadians saw bilingualism as a defining feature of their country, Quebec nationalists wanted the French language to be their essential characteristic. During the 1960s and 1970s, these cultural nationalists founded theatres, publishing houses, magazines; they took over broadcasters, newspapers and universities; they created a new national narrative and syllabus. In short, they accumulated a lot of power, and then they grew old. It was inevitable that the next generation would react.  But how? How do you rebel when your rebel parents have created the institutions and the national narrative? When they have, in effect, created your country?

At the start, opposing revolution in Canada and Quebec simply meant retaining pre-revolutionary allegiances

Although these questions may not be Lepage’s natural subject matter, he has had to navigate them from the very start of his career. The great international star of Quebec and Canadian theatre, famous for productions that combine spectacular visual effects with ambitious plot-lines (as well as a controversial recent Ring at the Met), Lepage was born in 1957 and is a generation younger than the Quebec nationalists of the heady 1960s and 1970s. 887 is his elegiac and open-ended reckoning with their legacy. It comes at a moment when the political side of that legacy has been sadly—and, it seems, definitively—tarnished. In 2014,  former Quebec premier Pauline Marois tried to use a divisive “Charter of Quebec Values” to exploit xenophobia in her re-election campaign. This was roundly rejected by Quebec voters and resulted in her nationalist Parti Quebecois being turfed from office, and her losing her seat. Most recently, the election of strike-breaking media baron Pierre-Karl Péladeau as her successor in the PQ leadership has made clear just how desperate the once-progressive party and its aging supporters have become for one last shot at their dream of a fully independent Quebec.   

Billed as a “journey into the realm of memory”, the new play begins with a familiar paradox. In street clothes, Lepage comes out on stage to deliver the now obligatory please-turn-off-all-your-devices spiel in person. Except that the notoriously busy director does it with a bit more charm than usual.  He then pulls out his own phone and tells us it contains his schedule for the next 4 years…but he can’t remember the number. Though he still remembers his childhood phone number in Quebec City. And his street address—887 Murray—hence the title. The play, of course, isn’t just concerned with the way we outsource the work of memory to digital devices, or how short-term memory decays with age—it’s also (and mainly) about memory and Quebec, both the city of his childhood and the rebellious province of his coming of age. As he tells us later, it’s a place where a former state terrorist (aka FLQ member) drives to work at his law office every day across a bridge named for one of his victims (Pierre Laporte) in a car whose license plate bears the motto “Je me souviens”. Such are the ironies and paradoxes at the heart of the play. 

It was inevitable that the next generation would react. But how? How do you rebel when your rebel parents have created the institutions and the national narrative?

It would take a Kremlinologist of the Quebec state to explain all the ins and outs and fluctuations in Lepage’s relation to Quebec cultural nationalism.  What was so refreshing about the young Lepage who emerged in the 1990s, apart from all the jaw-dropping theatrical magic, was his openness and willingness to go beyond the tired dichotomies: he embraced complexity, he found connections, he unearthed the forgotten imperialisms of history— the silencing of First Nations, the destruction of Quebec City’s Chinatown. And he found English Canada interesting: he put on a bilingual Romeo and Juliet in Saskatchewan, he made a film version of John Mighton’s play Possible Worlds, he created plays that used French, English, Cree, Cantonese, Japanese. In short, he rebelled against the Quebec theatre that preceded him not only by incorporating new technology and stunning visual effects into his work but finding a new subject matter that included stories from outside the earlier “pure laine” (or pure Quebecois) narratives that focussed on the rural habitants and the urban working class. (At the same time, the English-Canadian publishers of the 1980s and 1990s presided over a jubilant discovery of multicultural narratives.) And he became an international star. All this, of course, made him, for time, a federalist darling in Canada—and not exactly a poster boy for the hard-line sovereigntists.

In 887, we meet with a very different Lepage—the monstre sacré of the Quebec culture scene.  After worrying that his reliance on his phone may be ruining his memory, he introduces the dilemma that frames the play: he’s been invited to recite the iconic Quebecois poem, “Speak White”, at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous March 1970 Nuit de la poésie in Montréal. Of course, that night in 1970 wasn’t just about poetry—it was both a coming of age and proud affirmation of Quebec culture and the French language in Quebec just as the independence movement was gathering real power, both as an armed struggle espoused by the Front de Libération Quebecois (FLQ) and as a democratic option championed by the Parti Quebecois (PQ). But that was 45 years ago. The Quebecois have since become maîtres chez eux and the sovereigntist flames are burning low. So there’s a commemoration organized to restoke the fire. One can imagine exactly the organizers’ excitement at getting Lepage to appear, and then their joy at having him agree to recite “Speak White” from memory, just as the poem’s author, Michèle Lalonde, had done forty years before. Veterans of such events will also know how chaotic and badly organized they can be, precisely because they are conceived of as causes—here, Lepage supplies a few details, some at his own expense (he gets snippy because he’s the last reader and there’s no food) and others mocking the older generation (the event starts late because the “hippies can’t find parking for their SUVs”). Any cultural bureaucrats hoping to co-opt artists for their own purposes in the future should read poet Don Paterson’s wonderfully caustic pre-referendum essay on “Creative Scotland.”

The problem is that he can’t seem to learn the words of Lalonde’s angry poem, and he can’t help remembering all kinds of other things, most importantly, the years 1960-70 when the Lepage family lived in one of eight apartments at 887 Murray Avenue, in Quebec City’s upper town facing the Plains of Abraham, the very battlefield where the British defeated the French in 1759. It was to this upwardly mobile and bilingual Montcalm neighbourhood that his father, originally from the poorer French basse-ville, moved his family in 1960 in the hopes of improving their lot. A WWII veteran-turned-taxi driver who left school very young, Ferdinand Lepage realized that the English he’d learnt in the army (and maintained by listening to American radio stations) earned him big tips in his taxi business, and naturally saw it as the way to get ahead for his children.  

A former state terrorist drives to work at his law office every day across a bridge named for one of his victims in a car whose license plate bears the motto ‘Je me souviens.’

Like the hero of Sebastian Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom, the Dublin police chief (based on Barry’s own great-grandfather) who remains loyal to the British throughout the Irish Civil War, Lepage’s father seems a good man caught on the wrong side of history in Quebec. His federalism (like the family apartment at 887 Murray) is something he can maintain only at obvious personal cost—though he doesn’t end up in an asylum like Barry’s great-grandfather, we often see him retreat to his taxi to decompress with his radio. It is this struggle to improve his children’s prospects that carries the play’s emotional weight—the son is finally coming to understand the father, this lonely figure trying navigate his taxi through the night. And the curious thing is that, in artistic and political terms, Ferdinand Lepage’s federalism makes him a throwback to an earlier generation—the Oedipal fathers against whom the young Robert seeks to distinguish himself (if not rebel) at start of his career are the nationalists of the 1970s.

Lepage being Lepage, we get all kinds of techno wizardry—here it has a thematic resonance, beautifully evoking the world of childhood through its playful changes of scale and use of perspective in live video projections. The building at 887 Murray is represented by a giant doll’s house and, as Lepage introduces us to the inhabitants of each of the eight apartments and their Tremblayesque foibles, we watch these little figures going about their business on little blurry screens. A tiny De Gaulle puppet delivers his “Vive le Quebec libre” from a breast pocket and, in the play’s most poignant image, Lepage, as a young paper-boy during the FLQ crisis, is filmed retreating from a camera placed on the ground between the two enormous boots of a soldier, as the October maple leaves tumble from the sky. These childhood vignettes are juxtaposed with Lepage’s struggle to learn the Lalonde poem. One spin of the doll house and we’re in his slick kitchen, watching his one-sided conversations with Fred, the old theatre school friend he’s enlisted to help him learn the poem, now barely hanging on to his job at Radio-Canada.

Of course, there’s a big irony here: how can he possibly have learnt all the words in this two-hour one-man show and not learn Lalonde’s poem? Early on, he suggests it’s because “Speak White” is in free verse, and we realize—well, some of us—that a lot of the play we’re listening to, particularly the childhood vignettes, is actually written in iambic pentameter, with alternate lines rhyming. Here is the paper-boy encountering the soldier in October 1970:  

I stand up slowly under his hostile glare  
And walk away, although I’m seeing red--
I hold my tongue, but want to shout “Idiot!
The bombs aren’t in my bag, they’re in my head”.

Lepage spoke the verse, expertly translated by Louisa Blair, with such ease and confidence in English that many in the audience didn’t even realize it was verse or rhymed. (The strong caesuras helped). In Lepage’s original French alexandrine quatrains, the ABAB rhymes are more insistent and obvious, and the inspiration may be as much rap as Victor Hugo:

Je m’relève lentement / sous son oeil de guerrier
Pour détendre l’atmosphère / accepte de faire la paix
Mais chaque fois que j’repars/ j’ai juste envied’crier :
« sont dans ma tête mes bombes… /pas dans mon sac, épais! »

There’s a subtle artistic point being made here that’s illuminated by an exchange earlier in the play when Lepage returns to his old theatre school to see a production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs and is so impressed he stays to congratulate the director. Remembering the theatre fads of his student days, Lepage praises how well the students spoke the verse (while secretly suspecting they just want to work in TV). The director responds that it’s because they all come from good (i.e. middle-class) families, and Lepage, now affronted, realizes that this means someone from his background wouldn’t get into the school nowadays. The evocations of childhood in verse obviously serve a mnemonic purpose (vis à vis “Speak White”), but they also make the argument that Lepage’s lower-middle class upbringing is as worthy of verse and he as capable of reciting it as any rich kid.

But the real difficulty Lepage has in memorizing Michèle Lalonde’s sarcastic exhortation to “speak white comme à Wall Street”, we begin to suspect, is psychological—it’s the difficulty he has in rejecting his father and aligning himself with Quebec nationalists. Only when he really believes the poem will he learn it—the entire play is about his reconciliation, his coming to terms with Quebec nationalism. As such, the play is also, for Lepage, a return to language, to French, the language of La nuit de la poésie. Here again the ironies and paradoxes proliferate:  I saw Lepage perform the world premiere in English in Toronto (although a French version was previewed in Nantes in February). Does this mean that Lepage is “speaking white”? Yes…and no. There’s still a lot of French in the play—all the encounters with Fred, the archival FLQ and De Gaulle footage, and then the final scene are given in English surtitles. It’s only when Lepage addresses us directly that he speaks English, and the English he speaks is not his own but a translation of his French (a detail missing from the Toronto programmes). This means what Lepage is speaking is English-as-French, although Louisa Blair’s translation is so natural and note-perfect in its idioms (not to mention those deft quatrains) that it’s often hard to imagine that there is an original French. In other words, this is a play that uses French as an artistic medium translated into an English that seeks to recreate the same effects and meaning. Of course, the fact that Lepage performs the English translation himself and adapts it to his own way of speaking English adds another layer: both English and French versions become, in effect, original productions.

It’s not quite the same as Nancy Huston, the Franco-Canadian novelist, arguing (as she once did) that her English version of the novel she wrote in French is also a work of original creation, and not a translation.

Only when he really believes the poem will he learn it—the entire play is about his reconciliation, his coming to terms with Quebec nationalism

Eventually, Lepage does recite “Speak White” but only after we’ve witnessed his retelling of Quebec history and the slow awakening of his national consciousness. He is reliving as an adult the experiences he went through as a boy. Thus we witness De Gaulle’s famous 1967 visit, when the French president proclaimed “Vive le Quebec libre,” here recreated with toy cars and model figures. The rapturous crowd’s response is contrasted with the disapproving thoughts of Lepage père. (As the veteran of an army that helped liberate France, he would no doubt sympathize with Lester Pearson’s sharp rejoinder to De Gaulle:  “Canadians do not need to be liberated.”) But the most memorable moments in 887 are the affronts Lepage suffers: “shared suffering bonds a people more than joy does,” as Ernest Renan wrote. Very few of these come in confrontations with the Canadian state, such as the paper-boy and soldier. In fact, the play’s strongest argument is that Quebec nationalism was grounded in economic disparity. Accordingly, the worst affronts are class-related: the theatre school director’s comment; the scene where he learns that, despite his excellent marks, the Jesuit college won’t accept him because his father is a taxi driver. And one, at least, comes from the hands of presumable cultural nationalists: through his old friend, Fred, Lepage is able to get a copy of the advance video obituary Radio-Canada has prepared for him and is scandalized to hear all his theatre work reduced to a few platitudes as they air a clip from one of his films. It’s a play about memory, and one of the paradoxes of theatre is that, while it relies on memory more than any other art form (actors have to remember their lines, the crew their cues), it is also the most ephemeral and quickly forgotten. You have to be there. It is the anger from these accumulated affronts, no matter what their source, that will enable Lepage to learn and recite “Speak White.”

The final scenes bring together the two poles of 887: Ferdinand Lepage, who believes that speaking English will allow his family to get ahead, and Michèle Lalonde’s poem, which equates speaking English with selling out (“une langue riche…pour se vendre à perte d’âme”). As the FLQ manifesto is read out loud on TV, Ferdinand Lepage comes around (perhaps a bit quickly) to acknowledging that their words (though not their actions) may be justified. At the same time, however, family history intrudes: Ferdinand’s mother, who shared their cramped apartment until her Alzheimer’s made it impossible, has died that very night in a home. Her death, of course, carries a symbolic weight: the old subservient federalist Quebec which forgot and forgave the slights of her Anglo masters is gone. From now on, Ferdinand (and Robert) will remember—ils se souviendront.

We then move to Lepage’s searing performance of “Speak White”: the strength of the poem is its furious sarcasm (as can be heard in Lalonde’s original recitation on Youtube) and its explicit association of the oppressed Quebecois with the contemporary civil rights and liberation struggles in the US and Vietnam:

Nous sommes un peuple inculte et bègue
Mais ne sommes pas sourds au génie d’une langue
Parlez avec l’accent de Milton et Byron et Shelley et Keats
Speak white!
Et pardonnez-nous de n’avoir pour réponse
Que les chants rauques de nos ancêtres
Et le chagrin de Nelligan

(we are an ignorant and stammering people
but we’re not deaf to the genius of a language
so talk in the accent of Milton and Byron and Shelley and Keats
speak white
and forgive us for giving no reply
but the strangled songs of our ancestors
and the chagrin of Nelligan)

The poem seeks to equate the Quebecois with les damnés de la terre, the oppressed of the earth, but it succeeds in doing so only by stacking the deck, by opposing a single Quebecois poet’s name (Nelligan) to its great catalogue of famous Anglo-saxons. No educated francophone (particularly one at a Nuit de la Poésie) could possibly listen to Lalonde’s poem without compiling in their head their own counter list of great French authors from the Pléiade   It is these perhaps contradictory impulses—to identify with the oppressed, to have the great monuments of one’s culture recognized—that make the poem so effective. The menacing final line “Nous savons que nous ne sommes pas seuls” not only suggests that the revolutions then sweeping the US and the Third World are coming to Quebec, but also hints that in this cultural war against the Anglo-saxon oppressor, the Quebecois have plenty of heavy artillery left—all those famous French names the poem has neglected to mention.

If the play ended there, the story might be fairly straightforward: how Lepage returned to the fold as a Quebec nationalist. Beneath its elegiac portrayal of childhood, it argues that Quebec nationalism was based on class inequality and the attendant sense of cultural inferiority that the poem articulates. The true successor to “Speak White” may be Larry Tremblay’s 1995 play The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi, “written in French with English words”: after a violent incident that reveals his sexual tendencies to himself, the protagonist has decided he wants “to be in not to be out” and ceased to speak French. The English he speaks, though, is a kind of imperfect Happy World English behind whose inadequate phrasings and platitudes (“the world is a bunch of problems”), we imagine a whole lost culture and way of feeling: it’s a péquiste’s worst nightmare put on stage. But that was 20 years ago. Since then, a younger generation of theatre artists has arisen in Quebec that reproaches the old guard for their unhealthy obsession with the past. Olivier Choinière, current enfant terrible and winner of this year’s $100,000 Siminovitch Theatre Prize, describes his macabre rap satire Mommy in these terms:

“Mommy est représentatif d'une génération. De ces gens qui ont tout vécu, qui laissent croire qu'après eux, c'est le déluge; qui sont les victimes absolues, qui ont toujours raison, qui sont convaincus d'être LE Québec.»

“Mommy represents a whole generation:  all those people who like to believe they’ve lived through it all, that after them, c’est le déluge; that they are the real victims, that they’re always right, and that they are Quebec”

Choinière, in short, is taking direct aim at the generation that Lepage has slowly learned to love—those erstwhile rebels who have confused their personal fate with their nation’s. (“Speak Red”, a YouTube updating of the poem for the 2012 student protests features 50 uniformly Caucasian faces and ends with exactly those words: “nous sommes le Quebec.”)

But 887 doesn’t end with “Speak White.” After performing the angry poem, it’s no surprise that Lepage’s thoughts immediately turn to his federalist father, who’s not in his grave rolling over but in his taxi, mourning the death of his mother. In the final tableau, Lepage gets into the taxi, and then slips into the driver’s seat to become his father. He turns on the radio, it’s playing a French song, and he switches to the American station that’s playing the original version in English. It’s Nancy Sinatra’s sickly sultry “Bang Bang” about a woman who marries her childhood sweetheart who then leaves her, and then is haunted by the game they used to play as kids: “Bang bang, my baby shot me down.” Ferdinand Lepage is mourning the death of his mother, and presumably of his federalist Quebec at the hands of the nationalists in 1970. By turning on the radio and then switching to the American station, he’s reminding us that there’s another, larger world out there, much as his son would at the start of his theatre career. Forty-five years later, in this intimate, ambitious play, that son is now mourning the passing of that nationalist Quebec. 


RICHARD SANGER's plays include Not Spain, Two Words for Snow, Hannah's Turn and Dive. His collections of poetry are Shadow Cabinet and Calling Home