Quebec Studies

Book Reviews

Quebec Studies (1991), 12, (1), 171–189.

Abstract

BOOK REVIEWS LITERATURE HÉBERT, CHANTAL. Le Burlesque québécois et américain. (Vie des lettres québécoises, no 27.) Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1989. Pp. 335. Chantai Hébert's book makes an important contribution to the field of Quebec studies by examining a hitherto neglected subject: the burlesque theater that flourished in Montreal between 1920 and 1955. Unlike present-day Quebec theater, le burlesque never received government subventions, yet it attracted huge audiences. (In the late twenties, for example, there were a dozen burlesque theaters in Montreal that could accommodate approximately 7500 spectators.) Although Quebec's burlesque theater began as a close imitation of its American counterpart (early Québécois burlesque was even performed in English, using scripts, or canevas, borrowed from American sources), it quickly evolved into a distinct form of its own in order to please Quebec audiences, whose values and concerns were different from those of American spectators. Because there is no existing library collection of Québécois burlesque texts, Hébert went to the aging artists themselves; among those contributing materials were Rose Ouellette and Juliette Pétrie. In the introductory chapter of her book, Hébert demonstrates that while American burlesque consisted of a series of variety acts, including singing, dancing, jokes, and a short comic skit that was often quite risqué, Québécois burlesque came to focus on a single comic play lasting 45 minutes to an hour. Although this play might contain material that was highly suggestive, the sexual content was always masked by word play and quiproquos. Hébert does not discuss the language in which these canevas are written, but it is certainly of interest to specialists in Quebec theater that they are written in joual. One wonders whether the language of these plays explains in part their enormous popularity. In the second and third chapters of her book, Hébert follows a comparative approach, grouping American and Québécois canevas according to theme. There are, she demonstrates, two main burlesque themes: 1 ) the "récit de demande en mariage," the most popular type in Quebec, and 2) the "récit de tentative de cocuage," the most common type in the United States. The Québécois "récit de demande en mariage" features a young couple who overcome parental opposition and get married, while the American "tentative de cocuage" portrays people who are already married and are seeking sexual satisfaction and monetary gain. On the surface, Québécois burlesque appears considerably more conservative, but as Hébert points out, both types of burlesque are fundamentally subversive forms because they advocate a reversal of societal norms. In Québécois burlesque, the young couple, who ought by all rights to be obedient to their parents, manage to get their own way, usually through trickery; thus les dominés (the children) triumph over les dominants (the parents). Similarly, in American burlesque, those who in everyday life are in power (husbands, police and other authority figures) are instead humiliated by less powerful societal types (wives, prostitutes, tramps). Hébert suggests that the subversive message of burlesque theater helps account for its popularity in the repressed society of pre-nineteen-sixties Quebec; she further hints that this form of popular entertainment may well have been a harbinger of the Révolution tranquille, since it permitted theatergoers, who were predominantly working-class women, to indulge in "fantaisies de triomphe" (123). One of the most intriguing aspects of Hébert's book is unfortunately never developed: she suggests that Quebec society's elite feared burlesque theater because of its dangerous subliminal message of revolt (29), but the reader waits in vain for details. Were the members of Quebec's elite hostile, indifferent, or oblivious to this type of theater? What was the Church's attitude to le burlesque1. Perhaps Hébert intends to make these questions the focus of her next book. In addition to her analyses of canevas and her discussion of the history of burlesque theater, Hébert includes several complete texts, both Québécois and American, in an appendix at the end of her book. Until a library is found to house the 75 Québécois canevas that Hébert has amassed, her book

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