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Humor and identity in Québécois theatre

Humor and identity in Québécois theatre

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Théo Lepage-Richer. Originally submitted for Canadian Drama and Theatre at McGill University, with lecturer Erin Hurley in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Théo Lepage-Richer. Originally submitted for Canadian Drama and Theatre at McGill University, with lecturer Erin Hurley in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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Humor and identity in Québécois theatre
 From burlesque to self-depreciationCase study of 
Cabaret neiges noires
  Abstract - Humor has often been snubbed as a trivial or minor form of artistic expression bythe academic scene and its relation to concepts as central for humanities as
 has mostly been ignored. That being said, if we consider Québécois theatre of the 20
 century, interesting insights can be drawn on the nature and the evolution of the Québécoisidentity and its crises if we consider what kind of humor was popular at a given moment. Infact, to understand the nature and the evolution of this crises, one must understand the lowsocial status of the French Canadian population during the first half of the 20
century andhow, despite its social and economical emancipation of the 1960s, the Québécois populationhas always struggled to articulate itself as a culture between its French roots and itsgeographic situation in an Anglophile continent.This text establishes a spectrum of the two most important styles of humor in Québécoistheatre, burlesque of the 1920-1950s and self-depreciating humor that emerged in the 1970s,and discusses the cultural meaning of these styles of humor in the social context in which theybecame popular. For the first part on burlesque, this text considers some texts focusing onQuébécois burlesque of the 1920-1940s (Aird, Hébert, Moss) and a text by one of the mostimportant figure of early Québécois humor, Jean Narrache. This part discusses the social roleof burlesque in creating the roots of a Québécois identity by triggering a spectatorship basedon identification, showing for the first time in Québécois history characters that wererepresentative of the reality of Québécois people.On the other side of this spectrum of Québécois humor, this text considers as its example of self-depreciating humor the play
Cabaret Neiges Noires
written in 1994 by two of the mostimportant contemporary Québécois playwrights, Dominic Champagne and Wajdi Mouawad. Inthis part, the play is used to illustrate how, despite its reductionist nature directed toward theself, the emotional detachment triggered by self-depreciating humor as an alienatingtechnique (Brecht) tends toward a spectatorship based on a just medium between empathyand detachment (Hume, Sandis) in understanding one’s history and cultural baggage; a
approach that permits further self-articulation as opposed to the more past-orientedaesthetic of burlesque that tends to inhibit such constructive reflection upon one’s culturalhistory and identity in favour of a stagnant celebration.The Québécois culture has historically cultivated a privileged relation with the comic and comedies. FromJoseph Quesnel’
to Gélinas’
as well as Robert Gurik’s
Hamlet, prince du Québec 
,comedies have been in the first major plays written by Québécois for Québécois and they played animportant role in the articulation of a Québécois culture and a Québécois identity. Indeed, this role of “beingfunny” has become a profession
 per se
and many comedians such as Yvon Deschamps have also played apredominant role in the rearticulation of the Québécois identity over time. However, it does not mean that thecomic has become simply secondary in theatre – it rather became paradoxically a privileged means toexpress various serious issues such as existential absurdity and social inequities. Because of thepredominant place it had in the Québécois culture during the first half of the 20
century and the way manymodern Québécois plays find their roots in it, this text will first discuss the implications of burlesque and itsstyle of humor in the articulation of the Québécois culture. Then, by taking the example of the play
Cabaret neiges noires
, it will explore how Québécois theatre’s style of humor has evolved toward self-deprecationand how this evolution can be read as both ensuing from an existential crisis and being its resolution. To do
so, burlesque’s humor will be analyzed in terms of the way it was prompting the identification of theaudience to its dominated, yet sympathetic characters and self-deprecation humor in terms of the self-dissociation that is at the core of its aesthetic.While burlesque was also made of dance, music and strip-tease, this text will refer by burlesque to itstheatrical tradition “inherited from the United-States […], which can evoke comedies from American silentcinema […] or even
commedia dell’arte
, since it is based on comedies and sketches improvised on simplecanvases […] and to which is added […] variety numbers
” (free translation, Hébert, 6). In her book
Leburlesque au Québec 
Burlesque in Quebec 
], Chantal Hébert traces the history of burlesque and discussesits place in the Québécois culture. Hébert explains how burlesque has mostly been ignored by the academicand intellectual sphere because of “the recurrence of the burlesque themes [… and] the way these playsreferred to taboo subjects in order to guarantee their success” (free translation, 221). That being said, sheemphasizes that “if burlesque has emerged, evolved and prospered in Québec, it is obviously because itanswered to the expectations of an important part of the Québécois population” (free translation, 222).Indeed, as opposed to the French theatre valorized by the Québécois elites that was unrepresentative of theQuébécois day-to-day reality, burlesque plays were gravitating around “stereotypified types, such as thedrunkard, the prostitute, the cuckold, etc. […] as mirrors a specific categories. Stuck in fix roles, they weredriven […] toward an adventure through which was expressed fundamental aspects of human passions”(free translation, 198). In that sense, these burlesque plays were in the first modern artistic Québécoisartifacts to be actually representative of the Québécois people’s reality and of categories they were familiar with.Hébert writes that “away from any desire of educating or inducing a reflection, it is in a candid spirit thatburlesque proposed to its public pure entertainment with simple content” (free translation, 163). That beingsaid, burlesque’s playful and candid nature doesn’t diminish its role in its historical context. Let’s consider apassage from
Les bals de charité
[Charity balls] by Émile Coderre (aka Jean Narrache – a word playmeaning “having a hard time”):“We got to be grateful for them for taking the risk of having an indigestion by dancing, eating LauraSecord chocolates and drinking good booze. It is for the love of our good rabble that these ladies
The texts by Aird and Hébert were written in French and are not available in English. The translatedquotes are free translations proposed by the author of this paper.
wear their fancy clothes… with each dress being worth enough in cash to wintering my wholefamily, God damn it!
” (free translation, quoted in Aird, 24)In this example, by mocking the bourgeois, the bosses, etc. based on their false social conscience,burlesque permitted to the working class “the vicarious pleasure of a transgression that offends a rule [they]have secretly wanted to violate, but without risk” (69), as stated by Mascha in
Political satire and hegemony 
.In her text, she discusses how humor permits socially disempowered groups to relieve themselves of the“accumulated elements of 
hidden within the unconscious” (75) that result from their low socialstatus. For his part, in his text
Joking cultures
, Fine explains how humor is an important part of theconstruction of a group’s idioculture considering humor’s referential nature that presumes “that the partiesinvolved share references […] by which they make sense of the implicit meanings of this jocular interaction”(3-4) and humor’s functional nature, as illustrated by the way it “serves to smooth interaction, to buildcohesion, to create norms of action, or to set boundaries [of the in-group]” (6). In
Les bals
, even if thepopulation indeed benefits to a certain extent from these events, Narrache emphasizes the non-
bona fide
 nature of such charity and the way it in fact legitimizes the bourgeois’ domination by creating the image of capitalism with a human face. In that sense, through burlesque and humor, he establishes the limits of thein-group; an in-group that excludes the falsely generous elite.Nonetheless, even if the last paragraphs have illustrated the way burlesque has permitted to create an initialsense of cohesion toward Québécois popular culture, one can ask if the caricature of dominant figures andthe representation of familiar types are enough to create a sense of empowerment and to encourage further self-articulation over simply creating some form of stagnant commemoration. This idea is explored in the text“Never Again” in which Little stresses that “commemoration – if it is to avoid an inward-looking historicalfocus that risks perpetuating trauma – must be somehow linked to a forward-looking engagement with“never again”” (5). In light of this nuance, burlesque’s type of humor becomes problematic in the way thatone can ask if its structure is more inward looking or forward-looking. Hébert explains that the public “took atheart whatever was happening on the scene and was moved as much by the dramas as the comedies” (freetranslation, 163-164). This quote illustrates how the burlesque was based on the creation of a strongemotional link between the audience and its characters. Furthermore, in his text
De Coutlée au stand upcomique
, Aird underlines that the triggering of such empathy was part of burlesque’s fundamental aesthetic
For Jean Narrache and
Cabaret Neiges Noires
, I tried to propose free translations that convey the themesof the texts, but I didn’t not try to translate Québécois joual into English slang considering my limitedbackground in translation. That being said, you can find in the appendix section the original French versionsas a complement if you are fluent enough in Québécois French.

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