St. Carmen of the Main: A Study on Form and Content

jackie richardson
photo by bruce zinger
At the Opening Night gala for Canadian Stage’s current production of Saint Carmen of the Main director Peter Hinton spoke about how playwright Michel Tremblay originally wrote this play in 1976 in support of Quebec’s separation from this country. He went on to say that Tremblay noted that he could not have imagined that thirty five years later this play would be presented, in English translation, in theatres in Toronto and Ottawa. Indeed, it is fascinating how time makes classics of what at one time seemed so radical and avant-garde. But does this rob a work like Saint Carmen of the Main of its once acute political edge?
In this production, with a new translation by Linda Gaboriau, which plays first at Canadian Stage here before transferring to the National Arts Centre, it is the play’s form, and not its content, that take center stage. Inspired profoundly by the conventions of Greek Tragedy, Saint Carmen of the Main is constructed as a fable centering on Carmen, a Country and Western singer from the seedy and impoverished red light district of Montreal’s Boulevard St. Laurent and Rue Ste. Catherine who returns from modest success in Nashville in attempt to reconnect with her community and to find a more authentic means of expression that reflects the daily life of her home.
Through his use of the conventions of Greek tragedy, Tremblay presents this tale as at once of its own very specific time and place and also of the mythic more universal human experience. His characters are all allegorical, which divorces them completely from realism as they are deliberately larger than life and speak with an affected grandness, much in the same way as classical figures such as Oedipus and Antigone. Tremblay also uses a Greek chorus of hookers and drug addicts to represent the community that Carmen seeks to serve. They speak in unison in passionate love and desperation yet their ignorance and vulnerability to corruption and deception is powerfully clear as well.
The effect of these conventions of the audience can be aliening in a very Brechtian way and can also be frustrating because I think that audiences have become conditioned to empathising and connecting immediately to characters like Carmen and her plight, yet Tremblay makes it difficult for us to follow that impulse as the heart of the piece is so shrouded by the style. So much of the story, both events and emotions, is narrated to us by the chorus, in beautifully poetic language, but we are robbed of experiencing moments for ourselves and instead we have all of our sensations mediated through a wall of red licentiousness. Laara Sadiq, as Carmen, speaks so often in a forced presentational manner, which breaks all pretence for the audience’s suspension of disbelief. There is one instance where the aging diva, Gloria (played magnificently by Jackie Richardson), gives a captivating monologue to Carmen, who then analyzes it for the audience. This convention, also borrowed from the Ancient Greeks, makes it even more difficult for the audience to absorb and interpret the information being presented for themselves without the play continually interfering.
The result of all this alienation is that Tremblay is encouraging his audience to think critically about his play rather than simply submerging itself mindlessly into a fictional experience. This experience is mirrored in the play, as Maurice, the corrupt club manager who represents power, commerce and cultural assimilation, alludes to the chorus as being a sleeping throng, blindly following the status quo and entirely disengaged from their own potential to shape their destiny. Mostly, this production examines the idea of “authenticity” and the idea of singing one’s song in her own voice. Designer Eo Sharp has Carmen dressed reminiscent of 1970s Cher as a cowgirl, which captures nicely the sense of all these English speaking Americanized elements that have been lacquered on her for fame, for acceptance, for money, but that have little relationship to the experience of Carmen the individual. The play is constructed in a similar way, with Tremblay adopting Greek elements, foreign to Montreal’s culture yet theatrically viable, and forcing his audience to have to wade through them in order to reach the heart of the matter. Yet, at the same time, as Tremblay is a dramatist, isn’t Greek tragedy a part of his cultural tradition? How do we find what is authentically ours in a world that is so intricately connected? After all, Tremblay began his career writing in joual, the dialect of the working class in Quebec, to give them their own unique voice to rise up against cultural assimilation. Yet now this tradition has been adopted into the larger Canadian experience, as part of a distinctly Canadian voice. Is that still assimilation? There were subtle allusions to Lady Gaga in Carmen as well, an American superstar who has used her larger than life sense of individuality to create an elaborate persona made up entirely of ironic pastiches of celebrity and pop stars. Is it in this artifice that Lady Gaga finds her true authenticity? One could ask the same of Saint Carmen of the Main.
The challenge for dramatists seeking to alienate their audience is that they run the risk of creating characters and situations that the audience doesn’t invest in and if there is no investment for the audience than most of the time people simply say “what’s the point” and give up on trying to connect to the work. I found that the power of Tremblay’s language began to ardently captivate me with the entrance of Jackie Richardson’s Gloria and with the poignant monologues from Diane D’Aquila’s Harelip and the creepy, sinister, disturbing performance of Joey Tremblay as Toothpick that followed, my investment in the main grew steadily as the play progressed.
Tremblay asks a lot of his audience, and director Peter Hinton provides no shortcuts, but unlike in the play, it is refreshing and inspiring to see the industry trusting the chorus with a chance to wake up.
Saint Carmen of the Main plays at the Canadian Stage Bluma (27 Front Street East) until March 5th, 2011. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.368.3110 or go online to http://www.canadianstage.com/. Saint Carmen of the Main will play at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (53 Elgin Street) from March 16 to April 2nd, 2011. For more information or to book your tickets please call 613.755.1111 or go online to http://www.nac-cna.ca/.

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