HÃ‰BERT, CHANTAL. Le Burlesque quÃ©bÃ©cois et amÃ©ricain. (Vie des lettres
quÃ©bÃ©coises, no 27.) QuÃ©bec: Presses de l'UniversitÃ© Laval, 1989. Pp. 335.
Chantai HÃ©bert'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 QuÃ©bÃ©cois
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 QuÃ©bÃ©cois burlesque texts, HÃ©bert went to the aging artists themselves; among those
contributing materials were Rose Ouellette and Juliette PÃ©trie.
In the introductory chapter of her book, HÃ©bert 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 risquÃ©, QuÃ©bÃ©cois 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. HÃ©bert 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, HÃ©bert follows a comparative approach,
grouping American and QuÃ©bÃ©cois canevas according to theme. There are, she demonstrates, two
main burlesque themes: 1 ) the "rÃ©cit de demande en mariage," the most popular type in Quebec, and
2) the "rÃ©cit de tentative de cocuage," the most common type in the United States. The QuÃ©bÃ©cois
"rÃ©cit 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, QuÃ©bÃ©cois burlesque appears
considerably more conservative, but as HÃ©bert points out, both types of burlesque are fundamentally
subversive forms because they advocate a reversal of societal norms. In QuÃ©bÃ©cois 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 dominÃ©s (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).
HÃ©bert 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 RÃ©volution 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 HÃ©bert'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 HÃ©bert 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,
HÃ©bert includes several complete texts, both QuÃ©bÃ©cois and American, in an appendix at the end of
her book. Until a library is found to house the 75 QuÃ©bÃ©cois canevas that HÃ©bert has amassed, her book