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Michel Tremblay’s joual

The Quebec literary darling discusses the transformation of Belles Soeurs into a musical

Michel Tremblay and the cast and crew of Belles Soeurs: The Musical. Credit: Segal Centre for Performing Arts

There’s a ton of buzz in Montreal surrounding the English-language world premiere of Belles Soeurs: The Musical, based on Quebec literary darling Michel Tremblay’s landmark 1965 play Les belles-soeurs, about 12 working-class women. Renowned director René Richard Cyr is at the helm after adapting the wildly successful 2010 French-language original. This time around, Montreal’s French media are absorbed by English Montreal’s love-affair with Tremblay, who tells Xtra he has no plans to take Belles Soeurs: The Musical to Broadway.

Xtra: Does the English-language version of Belles Soeurs: The Musical lose something with the absence of Québécois joual?

Michel Tremblay: I always say it is not joual that is being translated; it’s the play. Chekhov has to be better in Russian, and Shakespeare has to be better in English. Tennessee Williams in French is wonderful, but we miss the twang of the southern United States. They all lose something in translation. You know you’re going to miss it, so you just have to forget about it. It is not joual that is being translated; it is the characters in the play. When you take away the language, what is left are the human beings. So fuck joual!

Are there plans to take this English-language adaption to Toronto, New York or London?

I never planned for the play to travel afterwards. When we did it in French, we started in a small 250-seat Montreal theatre and said, “We’ll see what happens. Maybe somebody will buy it.” Then we took it to Paris and it was a triumph. But that was not planned. For this run, we aren’t planning to take it to Broadway or off-Broadway because New York is private money. Will people risk their millions to produce Belles Soeurs? That’s the big thing about New York: people invest money in a show to make money. So I don’t want to dream about that. Besides, I’ve already been on Broadway twice. The last time was 30 years ago and I said, “I never want that pressure anymore!”

After my name, being gay is the most important part of my identity. How about you?

Yes, probably, but I don’t think about it. I accepted my sexual orientation when I was very young. I don’t make a thing out of it because everybody knows [I’m gay]. It’s not important for my country or my people — they don’t care. They haven’t in 40 years. I don’t want that kind of identity. I think it’s passé.

Does your gay sensibility inform your work?

Yes it does. If I wasn’t gay, I would not have written what I wrote or lived what I lived. I remember once in Seattle this feminist theatre asked for the rights to Belles Soeurs, and I was very proud that they didn’t know that I was a man. They thought Michel Tremblay was a woman. So it’s interesting [to me] that you ask me about gay sensibility in my work, because these women — these feminists — read a play by Michel Tremblay and never thought he was a man.

You told me in your 2010 interview for Xtra that Montreal’s arts scenes are rich because essentially, the city is poor. Do you still feel that way?

I don’t know if I still believe that, but in a way it’s like my characters. They are courageous because they do not have a choice, and I think we [also] create [art] because we don’t have the choice. If we were rich, it would be very dull. When things are missing from your life, you have to be courageous. The women in Belles Soeurs do not know that they are courageous; they just have to survive.

How do you feel about called a living legend?

Well, as long as I’m not dead yet! It’s very flattering, and it’s not like I don’t like it, but who cares?

You are ideal sugar-daddy material! Do young men throw themselves at the feet of Michel Tremblay?

Oh my god, no! I’ve been living with the same man for 18 years, and I have this quality where from day one I can sense if someone is interested in me for who I am. I’ve never fallen into the trap, not once in my life, because I don’t want to feel like I’m ridiculous. So I don’t fall into that trap. I’m immune to flattery!