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Sidebar: The Opening Act of Francophone Theatre in Québec

THE OPENING ACT OF FRANCOPHONE THEATRE IN QUÉBEC

Charles Farhood arrived in Québec with his father George in 1895, following the death of his mother in Lebanon. During their first years as immigrants to Canada, the father and son team saved all they could from their work as peddlers. Adapting to the French culture and language, the Farhoods began to imagine a future in Francophone theatre. In 1912 they opened the Théâtre Chanteclerc on rue Saint Denis. It was one of the earliest homes of Francophone theatre in Québec. And it remained over the years, in various incarnations, as an important house in Québec theatre's development and growth that remains to this day.

The earliest Francophone theatre performance is thought to have taken place on November 16, 1604, along the shore near Port-Royal in Acadia(Go To: Season I, "Acadian Spirit"), as members of the tiny French colony celebrated the return of the colony's founders from a dangerous expedition.(1) Theatre performances occurred sporadically under the French colonial regime, with plays usually imported works from France.

Francophone theatre did not flourish, however, for years and years to come. The French population was too small and sparse, scattered over such a vast region. The Catholic Church was in opposition to such forms of entertainment and imposed strict restrictions against it. Theatre and drama were thought to distract parishioners from their religious practices and prayers.

History worked against the development of Francophone theatre in Québec. The Conquest and the Treaty of Paris meant that the province's largest cities of Montréal and Québec City were dominated by an English-speaking elite.(2) The 1825 opening of the first English house Théâtre Royal, increased dramatic production in French as well as English. And dissident intellectuals fleeing political turmoil in France in the 1830s also expanded Québec repertoire. Firmin Prud'homme, for example, brought Shakespeare in translation to French-Canadian audiences.(3) French Canadians were still very much in the political minority, however, and would have to wait a while yet before their own theatre would take root.(4)

Québec theatre received some encouragement by visits of touring companies, some of them from France, who were now able to reach Québec via the construction of the railways. The frequent tours of Sarah Bernhardt, starting in 1880, exacerbated the church's hostility, especially with her provocative repertoire. The Divine Sarah's performances attracted overflow audiences, which created the foundation, and demand, for the growth of Quebec's own theatre. A local star system had also evolved in Quebec, whereby the showcased international actors would be joined onstage by a supporting cast of less expensive local actors. This in turn was the beginnings of a pool of semi-professional actors in and around Montréal.(5)

In the 1890s, native professional theatre made its debut appearance in Quebec with the appearance of the first career actors. Over 340 Francophone shows were produced during this decade. By 1893, the Empire Theatre, although managed by Anglophones, had become the province's principal French-language theatre. Soon after, in 1894, the first Francophone theatre was established by the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society: Le Monument National.(6)

The Monument National was located on rue Saint-Laurent; a four-storey building with a hall that seated 1,496 spectators. It featured mostly amateur companies such as the production of "Soirees de famille," presented by Elzear Roy and Jean-Jacques Beauchamp. Another of its early productions was put on by prominent actor and playwright of the day, Julien Daoust. He directed a production of Edmon Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" at the Monument National after he returned from a tour in the United States.(7)

Daoust was determined to promote the development of Canadian theatre and in 1900 he founded the Théâtre National with two friends. It was billed as "a theatre where Canadian talent will be able to flourish" and it became the centre of dramatic art in Montréal. By 1903, it was Québec City's turn to acquire its own theatre, L'Auditorium (later Le Capitol), which attracted both professional shows from Montréal and amateur local groups.(8)

Francophone theatre was in an upswing. Theatres and companies multiplied: the Nationoscope, the Canadien-Francais and the Farhood's Chanteclerc in 1912. The Saint-Denis opened in 1916, and the Arcade in 1918. And in 1923 the Québec government gave a show of support for native theatre by awarding its first grant for the study of professional acting to Antoinette Giroux.(9)

The Giroux sisters were among the ensemble of early-guard Francophone actors who called the Théâtre Chanteclerc their first home. Charles Farhood -- newcomer to French society and culture, an immigrant from Lebanon -- had succeeded in making the actors feel comfortable and supported at his Chanteclerc. It was a neighbourhood theatre that staged nearly every style of Francophone production: drama, melodrama, comedy, vaudeville (later to develop into a distinctly French version of burlesque called "joual"), bye-bye shows similar to the modern traditional "year in review", and French adaptations.(10)

By 1918 the Chanteclerc was a big success. Farhood sold it and took a break from the business, only to return ten years later in 1928. His second act in the theatre, however, wasn't so successful. He had branched out into smaller Québec towns where technical provisions, such as electricity, were not sufficient. And, the Catholic clergy were still an opposing force. To make matters worse, few new plays for live theatre were able to compete with the advent of radio drama and moving pictures. And the Depression slowed down even the most established and popular productions. Farhood's Chanteclerc was the exception. Now under new ownership and with the new name of Théâtre Stella, the Chanteclerc remained as one of the pillars of Francophone theatre that withstood the times and helped professional Québec theatre survive.

Another early and enduring element of Francophone theatre was the genre of Théâtre Éngagé, also known as L'Engagement or "Commitment." At the end of the 19th century when French-Canadian theatre was in its infancy, there was a strong movement to make it committed to building and maintaining Québec's cultural identity. Many playwrights, companies and shows promoted this patriotic style by dramatizing the great moments of Québec's history, with themes focusing on the origins of New France, the Conquest, the 1937 Rebellion and the celebration of great heroes like Dollard des Ormeaux and Montcalm.(11)

The Commitment genre later took on the proportions of propaganda, preaching the benefits of colonization, abstinence, electoral behavior, French survival in North America and the value of missionary work. A new branch of Commitment developed in the 1950s and 1960s with the more populist works of dramatists such as Jean Barbeau, Jean-Claude Germain and Michel Tremblay. And from this, alternative and political elements in Québec theatre began to emerge and grow through to the 1980s when economic crisis put the crunch on many of the smaller companies, forcing them out of business.(12)

From its days of scarcity, Francophone theatre in Québec has struggled in recent times with the problem of there being too many companies competing in a market that hasn't expanded proportionately. Modern theatre was ushered in with Gratien Gelinas' "Tit-Coq" in 1948, a story about an illegitimate orphan and the hardships he suffered in challenging contemporary Québec values. With this encouraging precedent set for modern theatre, litters of "theatre de poche" or pocket theatres opened such as the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde(1951 and Théâtre de Quat'Sous(1955).(13)

Even today there are some 110 professional and at least 400 amateur theatre companies operating in Québec. The Farhood's contribution to the culture of francophone theatre has held up over the years. The Théâtre Stella became the Théâtre Rideau Vert during the emergence of modern theatre. And after many overhauls and major renovations, it still exists as an active theatre to this today -- on the same spot where the Chanteclerc once stood, one of the oldest and enduring pillars in Québec theatre.(14)

Numerous directors, actors, dramatists, designer and playwrights have also emerged from Quebec's francophone tradition in theatre. Robert Lepage is perhaps the best known figure from the world of Québec theatre, famous and in demand world-wide for his experimental, multi-lingual and multi-media approach to theatrical production.(15) Abla Farhoud, niece to Charles Farhood, has carried on the family tradition as one of Québec's foremost playwrights whose early works reflect her immigrant experiences of loss and regrowth.

Footnotes:
1,3,5,10,12,13,14
The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1998)..

2,4,6,7,8,9,11,15
The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly, eds,
(Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1989).


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