Michel Tremblay’s Sainte Carmen de la Main, even more than his other plays, is rooted in time, place and language. So you’d think that changing any of the three would rob the play of its meaning. The time could only be Quebec in the mid-’70s, when the preponderance of big (and necessarily English) business had long dulled premier Jean Lesage’s rallying cry of “Maîtres chez nous.” Place: Montreal’s St-Laurent Street, the Main, particularly the scuffed and dirty stretch between Dorchester Boulevard and Sainte-Catherine Street. Language: French, more spat than spoken, as scuffed and dirty as the Main itself.
A bit odd, then, that the National Arts Centre has translated the play and plunked it onto a stage in downtown Toronto, complete with a Pakistani-Canadian lead and Icelandic throat singing. Re-baptized Saint Carmen of the Main, the play will show in Toronto from Feb. 7 to March 5, then move to Ottawa between March 16 and 31. It tells the story of Carmen, a country and western singer, and her return to the Main, where she dreams of singing her own songs instead of yodelling old country standards. She convinces the marginal types who populate her life that they, like her, are beautiful and have every right to be heard. Carmen’s cri de coeur is as dangerous as it is empowering, and she is beaten down mentally—and ultimately physically—by the powers that be. The allegory is as easy as it is prescient: Quebecers elected the Parti Québécois with a flourish mere months after Carmen opened. The win marked René Lévesque’s biggest triumph before his ultimate failure: the 1980 referendum.
But Tremblay himself is supremely happy with the new translation by Linda Gaboriau, the first for the stage since John Van Burek’s in 1978. “Carmen was much more political in 1976, when I wrote it, than it is now,” says Tremblay from his dacha in Key West. (Like many smart Quebecers, Tremblay goes to Florida every winter.) “Strictly political theatre doesn’t age well, but the work endures if the characters are more human and less about the ideas they encompass.”
There are certainly nods to Tremblay’s Main in the production. At a recent rehearsal, the men and women of the play’s chorus—a gloriously seedy ensemble of queers, trannies and reprobates—clopped about in blood-red platform shoes. A giant pair of bullhorns signals that this is the Rodeo, the bar where Carmen plies her trade. But they are only nods. This Carmen isn’t Québécoise; she’s portrayed by Torontonian Laara Sadiq.
“We didn’t want to be nostalgic,” says director Peter Hinton. “It’s not a period piece. The play is really about what happens when people wake up, and I want to be able to show how that speaks to people here, outside of Quebec.”
The English translation is an unavoidable compromise. There is simply no way of translating Tremblay’s street French—moé (me), frette (cold), suyers (shoes)—into English. “You lose a bit of colour,” says the American-born Gaboriau. But the Main as Tremblay wrote it lives mostly in memory anyway. There are far fewer dark corners, for one: the entire western side below Sainte-Catherine and north of what is now Boulevard René-Lévesque will soon be part of Quartier des spectacles, a square kilometre of big, bright, tourist-friendly venues. (There is one stubborn holdout: the two-storey strip club and bar Cabaret Cléopatra, which might well be a hangout for Carmen’s chorus.)
Tremblay is remarkably unsentimental about the Main of yore. “It’s gentrification. It’s not totally normal, but it happens everywhere. Look how people are buying up houses in Harlem today. Fifty years ago those same people would have been scared to death of Harlem. Change happens. It’s as inevitable as the little bit of pain it causes.”
Tremblay himself has changed. In 2006, he aired his misgivings about the necessity of sovereignty, the rough equivalent of a Catholic bishop questioning the existence of God. One prominent sovereignist said Tremblay “should have kept his mouth shut,” while former PQ premier Bernard Landry said he’d never again see another one of his plays.
Some things really don’t change.