The Case of Fraser in Quebec
This paper will explore the critical reception in Quebec of the French translations of three of Brad Fraser’s plays. This case-study of L’Homme laid, Poor Super Man, and, in particular, Des restes humains non identifiés... will attempt to situate the practice of theatre translation into the various theoretical descriptions of it within the Canadian context. The theoretical framework was formed originally from general descriptions in the 1970s by Philip Stratford, amongst others, and later through the more analytical work of Annie Brisset, Kathy Mezei and Jane Koustas in the 1980s, and through critical and practical applications of Louise Ladouceur, David Edney and many others in the last few years. The Fraser plays form a relatively rare cluster of Canadian translations of plays by the same author. They were produced within a few years of each other and the source texts exhibit fairly consistent dramaturgical characteristics. This allows a clearer analysis of the translations in relation to the available theoretical positions.
I will begin with the position Louise Ladouceur articulates in her doctoral thesis and subsequent article, “Du spéculaire au spectacular” that the translation of Fraser’s plays mark a new acceptance of plays from English Canada in Quebec. She says, “Beyond the imperatif of self-reflection which marked [translations of] the 1970s and 1980s, the success of English Canadian transfers at the beginning of the 1990s seemed to suggest a desire for the ’spectacular’“ (Ladouceur 1997, p.192). Ladouceur notes the success of Judith Thompson and Brad Fraser as contrasts to the “plodding American-style naturalism” which she cites as Ray Conlogue’s explanation for the lack of interest in English Canadian plays in Quebec to that point.
However, as I demonstrate in my own statistical analysis of a broad range of theatre translation events, translation in Quebec has been dominated by American and British source plays, the majority of which seem to fit just the type of play Conlogue and others describe as unpalatable (Neil Simon, Lee Blessing, Murray Schisgal; Noel Coward, Ray Cooney, Agatha Christie). Indeed, I would concur more strongly with the position pointed out by many critics such as Robert Nunn, Edward Blodgett, Kathy Mezei, Annie Brisset, as well as Ladouceur that the reason for rejecting English Canadian source material was not the style, so much as underlying ideologies. With Fraser’s plays in Quebec, there appeared a notable gap between what the critics had to say about the plays and the popularity of the plays “on the ground.” I would suggest that this split is a manifestation of the split between the mass appeal of certain kinds of plays in translation and the “official” ideological reaction to them as cited above. The critical reception of Brad Fraser’s plays in Quebec in translation demonstrates the tension between ideological reservations and popular interest, and for that reason is an important case to consider.
The first ideological aspect of theatre translation in Quebec which is relevant to Fraser’s plays is the well-documented matter of ethnocentrism. In 1988 Annie Brisset (who would eventually publish her Sociocritique de la traduction in 1990) cites Claude Levac’s introduction to the 1969 publication of Le Chemin du roy: “Respect for the written text, for the specific thoughts of a playwright should only be of interest to servile and lazy crafters of the third order... strict reproduction [of the structures and specifics of classical texts] is pure complaisance to satisfy a small audience of literary dilettantes, spiritual voyeurs; it is a luxury and not a necessity, and theatre only draws life from necessity” (16). This sentiment supports Brisset’s description two years earlier of theatre translation in Quebec as reflecting an interest “less in introducing the public to the “otherness” of a work, than offering the public the chance to recognize themselves in it” (154). Ten years later (that is, spanning the period of Fraser’s translations in Quebec) this position was still the basis of Bernard Lavoie’s discussion of Quebec translations of American theatre which he cites were done in the “secular spirit of vraisemblance, of territorial identification” (4) in order to “create a rapport as strongly with the Montreal audience as the original texts created in the American public” (13).
The first of Fraser’s plays, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, was translated and directed by André Brassard in the spring of 1991 at Théâtre Quat’Sous in Montreal. I would suggest that André Brassard’s treatment of Fraser’s Human Remains was strongly influenced by this underlying current: that the translation practices of the day stressed the accommodation of the source text to the target conditions at the expense of all other factors, and that the critical reception of the first Montreal production was strongly informed by minimal tolerance for remnants of alterity in the translation text. Brassard’s desire to change the setting to Montreal followed the dominant practice for translations (indeed the attitude towards geographical transition is a main point in Ladouceur’s argument), but this was stopped by Fraser, who saw the Edmonton setting as intrinsic. More significantly, Brassard’s radical realignment of scenes and monologues was an attempt to create a play more suitable for an audience used to watching Michel Tremblay’s works which tend to use monologue very heavily. That is, Brassard saw “translating” in terms of making Fraser look as much like Tremblay as possible. Interestingly, Tremblay’s translations of Aristophanes, Dario Fo, or Paul Zindel strongly resemble Tremblay’s own plays. The connection to Tremblay is, of course not accidental. Brassard has had a career-long collaboration with Tremblay. Benoît Melançon, reviewing for Jeu, is quite explicit in linking Fraser, Brassard, and Tremblay, and crediting the resemblance in their plays to Brassard’s input as translator and director, as well as to the potential of the plays to speak OF the Quebec audience as well as to it.
Brassard revealed his attitude through his treatment of language in addition to the structural aspects. In comparing the language of the translation to that of Fraser’s play, and to the treatment of language by the translators of Fraser’s later two plays, it is quite shocking how Brassard de-characterized it both semantically and rhythmically. Not surprisingly, Brassard’s treatment of Fraser’s language is very much like that of Michel Tremblay’s treatment of Aristophanes’ language in his translation of Lysistrata in 1968. As Ylang-Nguyen Phi describes in his 1996 analysis of Tremblay’s translation, “the Quebec playwright has so well purged the original of its shocking sexual images that the play has become hardly recognizably aristophanic” (102). Similarly, Brassard “purged” Human Remains.
According to Benoît Melançon, the Crow’s Nest English-language production of Human Remains was so full of four-letter words that “one could certainly see what a task of adaptation and thus of appropriation Brassard was obligated to take on” (152). Melançon, like the other reviewers, was very positive about Brassard’s translation, and partly because he “purged” the text. Moreover, the translation method reduced the strangeness in the text, making it more familiar even if that meant making it quite unlike the source itself.
Without exception, the critics of the first production all saw Fraser’s play in terms of Tremblay’s work, in particular his Hosanna, and within that comparison saw Fraser as not up to Tremblay’s standard. In other words, although there is really very little similarity between Human Remains and Hosanna except the presence of gay men on stage, the critics insisted on seeing the play in terms of what self-reflections had already been created in the target theatre. But then because Brassard’s version, although noticeably Tremblayesque in its deformation, was still not Tremblay, it did not fit the preconceived “rapports” and so “failed.” There is notable circularity in this self-reinforcing condition of ethnocentrism: by erasing otherness and making Fraser into a Tremblay, it encourages the critics to view the play in terms of what they know, and thereby fail it because it isn’t what they know.
However, because the acts of translation and reception are subject to the theoretical conditions of the target community, explicit or implicit, changes in those conditions mean changes in the reception. Reviews of remounted productions of Brassard’s version in1993 and 1995 tended to begin to question certain “maladresses” in the language and structure of Brassard’s text (Charest 1993 and 1995).
The second significant ideological element affecting the translation and reception of Fraser in Montreal, is the longstanding prejudice against English Canadian theatre in Quebec. From Philip Stratford’s observations through to my own statistical work, many assessments of theatre translation in Canada have pointed out the relative imbalances in the practices of the English and French Canadian theatre translations. Although my latest analysis points out that perhaps the misrepresentation of the two is less apparent than what appears at first, all observers note the bias against English Canadian theatre in Quebec translation practices.
In this light, Melançon begins his 1991 review of Des restes humains by outlining how Quebeckers often have a rather simplistic and often not very complimentary picture of English Canada, and that these myths tend to endure. Certainly part of this myth package is that English Canadian theatre is not worth watching. Indeed, Louise Ladouceur cites this perception as fundamental to her thesis of transition. With Brad Fraser and Judith Thompson, among others, however, English Canadian theatre began to be perceived as worthwhile, therefore precipitating a change in translation practices. Robert Nunn cites the Quebec director Claude Poissant’s surprise that Judith Thompson was “Canadian English... It’s like she wrote with our energy” (17). He then goes on to explain how Poissant still proceeded to effectively erase any sense of “otherness” in the production of Thompson’s I am Yours which he directed in 1990.
For the critical reception of Fraser in Quebec, the negative view of English Canadian theatre pervaded and strongly influenced the reviewers. Robert Lévesque of Le Devoir fell right into the “it’s from English Canada, therefore it must be old-fashioned” camp by describing the “out-of-date character of the 1970s-style theatricality” of Des restes humains (C8). This would seem to contradict the idea that English Canadian theatre style had changed, and one has to wonder how much of this “old-fashioned style” is actually a result of Brassard’s influence. However, ideology does not ask such questions.
Lévesque followed this up two months later when he compared the Brassard production with that of Crow’s Nest Theatre which appeared in Montreal as part of the Festival des Amériques. He began his review by wondering aloud how unimaginable it would be to find an English-Canadian production of a Michel Tremblay play that would have more force or meaning than a production done in Montreal. His point is that the inverse was exactly what the case of Fraser showed -- that the Brassard production was so superior to that of Crow’s Nest, that, obviously, it took a Brassard to show English Canada how to produce Fraser. Even more condescending was the review by Jean Beaunoyer of La Presse whose feeling was that Fraser “must be an exception” in English Canada because the play was actually interesting.
Against this background is it any wonder that the reviews tended to focus on Brassard’s input as translator and director (hardly even noticing Fraser or his work except to say that he’s from Alberta), comparing Human Remains unfavourably to Tremblay’s work, and finding it largely interesting, but generally of more topical that theatrical interest. In this ideological climate, Fraser is exotic, quaint and unusual, but the translation is of more importance, and how it was similar to what is already known. The piece was only validated in terms of its target relevance, not its origins or otherness.
Brad Fraser’s second play to appear in translation in Quebec, L’homme laid (The Ugly Man) was translated by Maryse Warda and also presented at Théâtre Quat’Sous in April 1993. As I discuss elsewhere, this translation and that of Robert Vézina’s Poor Super Man are profoundly different from Brassard’s work with Human Remains. Both of the later translations, and especially that of Vézina, go out of their way to reproduce Fraser’s original text on all levels.
Interestingly, the critics had very little to say about L’homme laid, except to rant about the perceived violence. For example, Beaunoyer concluded that since the violence “occurs at every level . . . for that reason [it] is insupportable” (E3). He calls the play “the most violent, the most vulgar, the most horrible [he’d] ever seen” (E3). Lévesque calls it “aggressive, perverse, simplistic and splashy” (B9). No mention is even made of the text; they simply couldn’t get passed the stage production, except for one (Melançon) who said it lacked the humour of Des restes humains! The only analytical comment came from Derek Goldby, the director who is quoted extensively in Gilbert David’s article in Le Devoir. Goldby explains the text in terms of its generic originality and powerful integration of popular and “high” culture, and its ability to reach a younger, newer audience (David, Le Devoir C7). This is, I think, a key to another reviewer’s worries and underscores the central idea of this essay.
Jean Beaunoyer in his review is preoccupied by what he perceives as the audience’s insensitivity, its lack of a sense of scandal or indignation about the play. This review with its avoidance/incomprehension/misunderstanding of the text as played, plus the rather patronizing attitude towards the audience, who happen not to share his feelings of revulsion, points to the gap between the “critics” and the audience. Indeed the distance between “elite” critics and general popularity of Fraser is underscored in Petrowski’s later review of Poor Super Man, whose very negative attitude is introduced by a discussion of the crowd’s overwhelming approval of Fraser (a fact that does not go unnoticed in other reviews as well). Jane Dunnett in her article in Traduction, terminologie et rédaction makes an important point about Tremblay’s adaptation of Dario Fo’s Mistero Buffo: “[it] demonstrates the aptness of translated texts to draw on social discourse, a necessary strategy perhaps if they are to be sufficiently relevant to their new audiences” (160). This has powerful connection to Fraser’s outspoken interest in speaking to his own peer group and generation in contrast to “the people who work in the theatre, who are so insular and desperate to make a little money, and elitist that we had lost touch with telling stories in a language that people born after 1960 could be engaged by” (Fraser, “Letter” 27). It would seem that in the case of Fraser, the audiences had left the critics behind. The audiences had found the “rapport” and were seized by the necessity and relevance of the plays, regardless of the critic’s ideologically informed view.
I think this is an active case of what David Edney calls “trust” in the act of translation. David Edney is a prolific translator of Molière and other French plays, as well as a critic of theatre translation in Canada. In his 1996 article on problems of translating Moliere into North American English, he describes how he learned through experimentation that making the text accessible to a target audience does not need to mean radical simplification or accommodation. Indeed, he stresses that the key to exciting translation is in trusting the quality of the source text and trusting the ability of your audience to take it in. I think that is a way of looking at the difference between Brassard on one hand and Warda and Vézina on the other. The latter two trusted the power of the text they were translating, and let it speak directly to an audience they had confidence in. And it is clear the audience rose to the challenge, even if the critics didn’t.
Robert Vézina’s translation of Poor Super Man appeared in April 1995 also at Théâtre Quat’Sous. By 1995 the reconditioning of the critical response had begun, but was far from complete. Lévesque who had found Des restes humains “old-fashioned” and Fraser a writer of “errance sentimentale [wandering sentimentality]” was able to pronounce Fraser “the most current of theatre writers” (B11) in his 1995 review of Poor Super Man. His attention and opinion would seem to have shifted, but he then goes on to complain that Fraser’s work promises more than it delivers because it is basically “naive, simplistic, linear, and melodramatic” none of which adjectives I would say fit the play particularly well unless, as Fraser asks himself, “haven’t people ever heard of irony?” (Charles S5).
Benoît Melançon goes to great lengths to argue in his review of Poor Super Man in Jeu that the play is simply an updated version of very traditional bourgeois theatre à la Diderot. Melançon at least is now treating Fraser, not the translator, so the “other” has gained enough stature to warrant attention, but not understanding beyond that informed by the cliché that if it’s from English Canada it must be old-fashioned. The translation now warrants a more complex argument, but the fundamental idea is the same.
But the most depressing critical response was that of Nathalie Petrowski in La Presse who drags out all the old clichéd warhorses, including comparing the play, negatively of course, to Tremblay’s Hosanna, mocking what she perceives as the play’s failed provocativeness, for Montreal is, she believes, the “most open city in Canada” and “it takes more than just seeing two men in bed to shock us.” For Petrowski, the only saving grace was the Quebec direction of the play because it takes “an André Brassard... to free Fraser’s plays from the limits of their author” (D10). While Petrowski is, mercifully, an exception in her narrowness, it is enlightening to see that even four years after Fraser’s first production in Quebec translation, the critical response could still be informed by the same underlying clichés and theoretical attitudes.
There had been change. The plays were now being translated, not adapted with the otherness erased and there was some attention being paid critically to the texts and to the author, but these changes were still rather hesitant. The overwhelming public interest in Fraser’s plays indicated that indeed his works expressed a current and palpable necessity, in any language. The presence of his plays in translation on stage in Quebec does reflect shifts in interest and attitude; however, the critical reception demonstrated the gap between public and ideological interests, and the continuing ambiguity in the nature and role of theatre translation in the target community.
Beaunoyer, Jean. “Des coups et des douleurs, on ne discute pas...,” La Presse 27 mar 1993, E3.
Beaunoyer, Jean. “Dur, cru, vulgaire, sale, mais toujours vrai,” La Presse 23 mars 1991, D5.
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Charest, Rémy. “Des restes humains sans sexe!” Le Devoir 20 février 1995, B5.
Charest, Rémy. “Un chant de désespoir et de vie,” Le Devoir 15 octobre 1993, B3.
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Phi, Ylang-Nguyen. “Lysistrata d’après Aristophane, texte de Michel Tremblay: étude comparée de l’adaptation et de l’original,” Voix et images 22.1 (Automne 1996): 95-103.
St.Hilaire, Jean. “Moignons de mots et restes d’amour,” Le Soleil 28 mai 1991, B9.