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Modern Theatre in Context: A Critical Timeline

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Poster for the Montreal production of "Les Belles Soeurs"

The 1968 production of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs in the working-class Quebecois dialect of Joual was a seminal theatrical event in the province. Tremblay's women established the typical characterization of Quebec drama in the 1970s, whose figures from the ranks of the dispossessed represented the anti-heroic remnants of a society searching for its place. But still more important was Tremblay's aim of providing a language for all Quebecers, a "We, the People" for his contemporaries. It achieved an instantaneous shock of recognition, and an immediate identification between Quebecois audiences and the play.

The language itself represented issues of geopolitical power and dominance, legitimating the authority of the local culture. Up to then Joual was understood as a non-literary mongrel language restricted certain lower-class areas. After Les Belles Soeurs, in which Tremblay's entirely-female cast spoke to each other in the familiar Montreal working-class dialect, Joual came into its own - though more as a literary style than a language - defining itself as the speech of distinct society.

Later in the same year Tremblay's lead was followed by √Čloi de Grandmont, whose adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion for the Theatre du Nouveau Monde used joual instead of a Cockney dialect for Eliza Doolittle's character (in deliberate contrast to earlier French translations, where Doolittle spoke in a species of "Parisian argot"). Joual had come into its own, both as a rejection of the social norms dictated by "legitimate" continental French or Canadian English, and as an authoritative speech identifying any theatrical - or indeed political - performance as unequivocally Quebecois.

Its use also underlined the way traditional Quebecois culture makes little distinction between individual and the community, and formed a nationalistic, introspective theatre that carried through from the late 1960s to the 1980 Referendum, with playwrights like Jean-Claude Germain personifying the drive toward defining a unique Quebecois cultural identity in A Canadian Play / Une plaie canadienne, which seeks to rewrite Quebec's cultural history by giving voice to figures from the past. For the first time critiques of the spiritual and social wasteland left by the Catholic Church's opposition to social progress, urbanisation, and gender equality in the province appeared on the Quebec stage.

Following on the success of Juliani's Savage God Company in Vancouver (founded in 1966), alternative theatres begin to multiply across Canada, reflecting the new "Flower Power" radicalism of the year.

In Ontario Theatre Passe Muraille is founded by Jim Garrard in the basement of the alternative educational institution, Rochdale College, near the University of Toronto. Similarly, in the West the Nellie Mclung Theatre is founded in Winnipeg, dedicated to bringing feminist work to a wide audience, while in the East The Open Group forms in St. John's, Newfoundland, and over several years produces the premieres of most of the plays of Michael Cook.

Lord Beaverbrook donates the Playhouse in Fredericton to the Theatre New Brunswick (TNB) founded by Walter Learning, who becomes its first artistic director. A condition of the gift is that the company tour its work throughout the Province; and in 1969 TNB establishes the only provincial touring network of Canada's Regional Theatres.