In Defense of Historical Context

Feb 15 • Blog • 1910 Views • No Comments on In Defense of Historical Context

The past few months I’ve been acting again for the first time in a long time (five long years… now the Colin James song is stuck in my head…)

I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a production of Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay’s first play, Les Belles-Soeurs (“The Sisters-in-Law” if you translate directly to English) at a local community theatre. I’m surrounded by enormously talented women (and a few brave men) in the cast and crew, and I really think – all modesty aside – that we have a damned good show. It’s not an easy play – it uses monologues, Greek Chorus-style sections, and the ending is well, different. It was absolutely groundbreaking in its time: it not only used the joual dialect common among Montrealers at the time, but it portrayed working-class women as they really were, without any soft light to round off rough edges. It was controversial when it was first produced in 1968. 

The original cast of Les Belles-Soeurs at  Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal, 1968.

The original cast of Les Belles-Soeurs at Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal, 1968.

As our cast and crew have found out: it’s still controversial today.

I should say straight out that from what I understand the theatre has received as many, or more, complimentary emails, phone calls, and letters as they have complaints. The people who have loved the show have had no problem telling us just how much they loved it, and why. But there are those who have been shocked: by the language, and by the depiction and discussion of physical and mental abuse among other things (I won’t go into detail, even though I suppose 50 years is long enough that “spoiler alert” shouldn’t be applicable.)

My own character tells a joke that I’ve always found somewhat uncomfortable, and I have heard – unsurprisingly – that some audience members have found it distressing. There are discussions of unwed mothers, of abortion (illegal and extremely dangerous at the time), incest, religion, and of rape and a husband’s “rights.”

"I saw the same suit at Reitmans for $14.98!" - Gabrielle Jodoin, Les Belles-Soeurs

“I saw the same suit at Reitmans for $14.98!” – Gabrielle Jodoin, Les Belles-Soeurs

It’s uncomfortable. It’s shocking, and I don’t blame audience members for wanting to turn away.

But at no time have I ever thought that it needed to be censored. It depicts a time, a place, and a mentality that we may not be comfortable with today, but our discomfort does not change the reality of it. These women are real and their thoughts, feelings and actions are real. We can’t pick and choose our way through history, and look at only the happy parts. It does us no good to look back through rose-coloured glasses at “the good old days.” Every era has its good points, its not-so-good, and its shame. Changing the script doesn’t change the reality.

Until the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s, education was not a right in Québec. Women had a right to vote federally in 1918, but it wasn’t until 1940 that they could vote in their own provincial elections. They didn’t have a right to own property, and often passed from being a possession of their father, to a possession of their husband. Their husbands had their “rights” and birth control wasn’t allowed by the Catholic Church. It wasn’t uncommon for women to have grandchildren older than their youngest children. Options were limited, and most women fell into the same pattern that their own mothers and grandmothers before them had done. These are facts, and they help to put into context the anger, and the hopelessness that many of the women portrayed in Les Belles-Soeurs may have felt.

Like people protesting Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain for its use of the “n-word”, we can choose to ignore what makes us uncomfortable about our history.

Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal, where the play is set.

Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal, where the play is set.

We can pretend that no one used that sort of language, or lived that sort of life. We can pretend that women like these characters didn’t exist at all.

But if we refuse to acknowledge the past, how can we see the progress we’ve made (or where we still need to improve)?

The women in this play, despite their faults, are not monsters. They were strong, and fighting their way through lives that were often full of drudgery and pain. They are a product of their time, and they don’t deserve to be forgotten or censored. They deserve our empathy, and our respect.

For our own sakes, and for those who come after us, we need to remember them as they really were – “F-bombs” and all.

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