'Swollen with lightning revolt, bursting anger [...] they dance wild dances': Theatre as Transgressive Space in Quebec Women's Writing in the 1970s

Catherine Scott

Abstract


Catherine Scott’s paper travels beyond European spaces to lead to the scene of Quebec Women’s theatre of the 1970s. Looking in detail at Denise Boucher’s Les Fées ont soif (The Fairies are Thirsty) and at La Nef des sorcières (A Clash of Symbols), written and produced by a collective, Scott highlights two of the first feminist plays which became of central importance for future theatrical activity in Quebec in the 1980s..

Many women playwriters regarded the established theatre as an institution, which ‘consolidated society’s misconceptions’ of women. Like other feminist writing of the 1970s in North America and Western Europe, these two plays posed questions about female identity by acting from a female-centred space. In making language and the patriarchal system of thought a centre of feminist intervention, Quebec women playwrights aimed at interrupting ‘the structure of accepted forms of communication’ and its ‘phallocentric order’.

As other writings of the time, the texts were indebted to contemporary French feminist theories (e.g. Hélène Cixous’s) which provided a framework for theorising questions of language, the body and female desire. Theatre in its physical specificity that incorporates the body, provided spaces to transgress social norms in a public way. Quebec women used theatre, Scott argues, as a ‘tool’ to analyse the ‘nature of representation’ in patriarchal discourse, and to make deformations physically visible – presenting bodies ‘tattooed with signs and symbols’. In Boucher’s play, for instance, the ‘Virgin Mary’ was represented as a statue, and so ‘Woman’ and the images of her collapsed on stage.

The political impact of these attacks on the Catholic Church, the institution of marriage, the judiciary and, not least, the class character of Quebec society, perceptible in the politics of language, was mirrored by the sharp public reaction which Boucher’s Les Fées ont soif provoked. Cultural objections against the arrival of Montreal working class accents on stage were based on notions of ‘standard’. Religious objections led to a blasphemy trial which was expected to impose a ban. As a matter of irony, Scott demonstrates, the objections brought up in court in terms of ‘censorship’ and ‘freedom of expression’ revolved around ‘central themes’ of the play. It is interesting, however, that the plays staging body politics on a large scale and raising issues central to radical feminist politics, functioned institutionally, as Scott shows, within mainstream theatre. Whereas Quebec literature during and after the Quiet Revolution tried to create a ‘Quebec space’, concerned with constructing a national identity, Quebec theatre women abstained from seeking a place in this national movement.

In times of backlash – as some would argue – Catherine Scott’s paper is a timely reminder of the social impact feminism as a political movement had - an impact which reached far beyond the academy and aimed at social change; at the same time the paper shows with hindsight what has been gained on the journey from the debates of the 1970s, when feminism became feminisms.


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New Readings — ISSN: 13597485

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Published by: Cardiff School of Modern Languages