Ah, vacation time! “Going anywhere this summer?”
David Fennario’s iconic play was commissioned by and first produced in 1979 at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. Its premiere came three years after the election of Rene Levesque’s sovereignist Parti Quebecois, a stunning victory that panicked anglophones and paved the way for the first of two referenda (so far) on the province’s succession from Canada.
Balconville was a fully bilingual creation. It took years for other dramaturges to catch up — think 2006’s hit film, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, and just this year, the disco-fuelled Funkytown (criticized by one La Presse newspaper reviewer for not being half and half, but rather 60-40 in favour of the English; imagine how carefully she must have totted up each syllable…). Balconville’s French is the joual of the streets (recall Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay’s electrifying insistence on bringing the language of the people to the theatre), making the written play Balconville one that almost needs to be read out loud to capture the phonetics of the French.
But what’s it all about? It’s 32 degrees in the shade and a group of neighbours are hanging on their balconies, stewing in the Montreal heat, stuck in their own and in each other’s lives. Young and old, employed and not, drunk and sober, men and women, anglo and franco. All are working class, all trying to get by in the fraught 1970s, with a recession leaving many barely able to afford a cigarette, much less a construction holiday plane flight to the beach.
And for playwright Fennario, it’s the economy, stupid. He seems to dislike Quebecois nationalists and Canadian federalists alike, clearly showing his characters living crappy lives of poverty, ignoring the real issues while fighting over language and identity. Anyone who cares about nationalism — of whatever stripe — will find that Balconville packs an angry jolt. It will make you think about how passions are manipulated by the political classes.
This is also a perfect time to read up on Wilfrid Laurier, the seventh Canadian prime minister and the Dominion’s first Canadien-with-an-e prime minister — the first Quebec-born francophone, and a Roman Catholic. He was a Rouge, a reformer who maintained ties to his church though he was denounced from the pulpit, a man who wanted to build Canada and (perhaps naively) set aside the linguistic battles between French and English, while calling for free trade with the Americans at the expense of absolute allegiance to the Mother Country, who nonetheless called himself very British.
Journalist, historian and later Liberal Senator Laurier LaPierre(now retired from the Upper Chamber) presents his namesake in Sir Wilfrid Laurier And The Romance Of Canada (1996). Laurier is a vascillating man plagued by ill health who rarely managed to make a decent living in his chosen profession (he was a lawyer). But he grew into a nation builder, becoming prime minister in 1896. (Interestingly, he became leader of the opposition in 1887, lasting rather longer than did Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff before he finally turfed the Conservatives.)
Writes Lapierre: “Two centrifugal forces — Canadian nationalism, with its emphasis on closer ties with the British Empire and on building a British country in North America, and nationalisme Canadien, with its emphasis on affirmation and protection — plagued Laurier all through his political life. He sought to reconcile them, to merge them into one Canadian nationality without destroying their inner core. Too often, Canadians of both “races” tended to be paranoid and fearful of the intentions of the other. Threats were issued and mischief was done. Laurier believed in a Canada of two “races”, the dominant forces of which were Quebec and Ontario. He didn’t give much thought to what happened to those who were of neither of British nor French origin.”
Laurier’s quest led him to difficult decisions — such as what to do when Manitoba forced Catholics into Protestant schools, and how closely to bond with the United States.
Anglos feared he would give Quebec too much power; the clergy and rightwing francophones considered him a traitor. Where did he belong? He spoke English with a French accent; and French with an English accent.
His politics were filled with contradictions and calls for conciliation that nonetheless never solved the real issues. And he had solid Eastern Townships connections, representing Drummond-Arthabaska for many years before defeat sent him to the greener pastures of Quebec-Est (author Laurier LaPierre, by the way, is another Townshipper, born in Lac Megantic). Laurier’s life was a time of vicious politics and an important time for Canada. It’s good to read up on that history.
– Eleanor Brown, July 29, 2011