Œuvres complètes. Tome I by Normand Chaurette

By Michel Guénette

The Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada exhibition presents an unpublished work by Normand Chaurette entitled Œuvres complètes. Tome I. This work was chosen by our specialist Michel Guénette, a performing arts archivist.

Who is Normand Chaurette?

First, a profile of the author, to understand his creative context: Normand Chaurette is a Quebec playwright who was born in Montréal in 1954. Along with Michel Marc Bouchard and René-Daniel Dubois, he is in the generation of post‑referendum writers who turned away from the nationalist and realist theatre of the 1960s and 1970s, and instead created dramatic works that focused on artistic and linguistic renewal. Chaurette’s play Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j’avais 19 ans (1982) was a huge success and established his name. His theatrical career includes La société de Métis (1983), Fragments d’une lettre d’adieu lus par des géologues (1986), Les Reines (1991), Le Passage de l’Indiana (1996), Le Petit Köchel (2000) and Ce qui meurt en dernier (2008). His plays have been performed abroad as well, including the Comédie-Française’s 1997 production of Les Reines. He is also well known for the widely popular play Edgar et ses fantômes (2010), and its 2018 adaptation in France, Patrick et ses fantômes.

In addition to plays, Chaurette has also written a book, short stories, film scripts, translations, radio scripts and an essay. His work, which transformed the theatrical and literary landscapes, has earned much respect across the Canadian and international artistic world. Chaurette has received numerous awards, including four Governor General’s Literary Awards, four “Masques” from the Académie québécoise du théâtre, and a Floyd S. Chalmers Award. He also received a writing bursary from the Association Beaumarchais in Paris. Chaurette was appointed to the Order of Canada in the fall of 2004.

Black-and-white photo of a young man sitting with a sweater across his shoulders.

Portrait of Normand Chaurette around 1976; photograph by Linda Benamou (e011180592)

Œuvres complètes. Tome I

The Normand Chaurette fonds acquired by Library and Archives Canada includes documents about his career and personal life. The majority of the documents are annotated manuscripts and typescripts, outlines, drafts, notes and final versions of his writings. They include the original of Œuvres complètes. Tome I, which is in perfect condition.

The work is a kind of artist’s book, an illustrated book containing handwritten texts, drawings, watercolours and cut-out images. This magnificent book is divided into sections, including “Les dieux faibles,” “Orgues,” “Lettres au superbe,” “Texte de Londres,” “Nouveaux textes de Londres” and more. Chaurette began writing this early work in 1970 at the age of 16 and completed it in 1975; he later added some more pages in 1977 and 1978.

We might assume that Chaurette had literary ambitions at this time; the book is both strange and fascinating, with enigmatic and repetitive sentences. Readers might even see the influence of automatists like Claude Gauvreau and surrealists like Guillaume Apollinaire. But such assumptions would be erroneous. Chaurette had no artistic ambitions as an adolescent. In an email dated April 19, 2018, he explains that he had dropped out of school and did not dream of becoming a writer, at least not until 1976, when he won an award for a radio script, Rêve d’une nuit d’hôpital, that was broadcast on Radio-Canada.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I (MIKAN 4929495)

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I.

Images of two pages of Normand Chaurette’s book Œuvres complètes. Tome I (MIKAN 4929495)

So why did he fill page after page of a book with tiny words when he had no expectation of publishing it? Chaurette was going through a difficult time in his life: he had dropped out of school, was questioning his future and wanted to be out on his own. With the help of certain substances, he searched for his identity and retreated into his own world. As he explained in a telephone conversation, this was the time of the October Crisis, strikes, demonstrations and schools being closed down; it was a dark and very uncertain time for him. He could not talk to his parents about his fears or share some things in his life, so he took refuge in writing, drawing and painting, where he expressed all of his uncertainties and fears. He spent sleepless nights sketching and writing in books that served as his diaries.

Knowing this creative context sheds new light on the book and explains certain passages. The dark tone of the prose aligns with what Chaurette was experiencing, as this extract from his poem “L’ode au désespoir” illustrates:

Ma parole est une prison

Ma parole est carrée comme une prison dont le rebord noir perce les pages de ce recueil…

 

My words are a prison

My words are like a square prison with black edges that pierce the pages of this book …

[translation]

Readers are given access to the writer’s private thoughts. We also learn that the titles in this work are meaningful. For example, Chaurette had family in London, England, and he went to the city to learn English. So it is not surprising that some of his writing was done there. Chaurette envisioned a second volume, but the heavy demands of the first one led him to abandon this idea. With the passage of time, he moved on to other projects.

Chaurette wrote his texts in code, in tiny, almost illegible letters, worried that his journals would be discovered. He destroyed most of them as he went along so his parents would not find his compositions. Only the book Œuvres complètes. Tome I survives. Chaurette is pleased that Library and Archives Canada will preserve and make accessible to researchers the confidences of a troubled youth who became a major author. We can already see in this work the talents of a young writer who would develop over time.


Michel Guénette is a performing arts archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “Gratien Gélinas: One of Our Own.

Our latest podcast episode is now available. Check out “Gratien Gélinas: One of Our Own.
Black-and-white photo of Gratien Gélinas, with his head in his hands, holding a cigarette.Gratien Gélinas is considered one of the founders of modern Canadian theatre and film. He was a playwright, director, actor, filmmaker and administrator of cultural organizations. His personifications of the common man paved the way for many of Quebec’s leading scriptwriters, and he gave a voice, at home and abroad, to French Canada’s culture and society. On today’s episode, we travel to Saint-Bruno, near Montréal, to speak with Anne-Marie Sicotte, granddaughter of Gratien Gélinas, who tells us about his life and legacy.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

The Treasure Trove of a Great Performer: The Gratien Gélinas Fonds

By Théo Martin

It took Library and Archives Canada (LAC) over 20 years to acquire the archives of Canadian theatre great and creator Gratien Gélinas. Between 1973 and 1997, many national archivists and archivists at the National Archives of Canada worked hard to convince Gélinas to donate his documents. Active to the end of his life, he simply never had the time to focus his full attention on donating his archives.

Through one of his sons, Michel Gélinas, the National Archives of Canada finally acquired the documents in the Gratien Gélinas fonds in 1997, two years before the artist’s death. Thanks to a family member’s initial work in sorting Gélinas’s archives, the documents were already arranged in an organized, logical order when LAC received them, making them all the easier for researchers to consult. LAC archivists performed the final task of processing, describing and detailing conditions governing access between 1999 and 2004.

Black-and-white photograph of a man dressed in a suit, with his arms folded and his left hand resting on his cheek, smiling and looking up to his left.

Portrait of Gratien Gélinas by Yousuf Karsh, 1942. Credit: Yousuf Karsh (MIKAN 3591652)

Black-and-white composite photograph showing Gratien Gélinas’s expressive hands in various poses. The bottom of the image shows a man looking up at his hands crossed over his head.

Gratien Gélinas by Yousuf Karsh, March 29, 1945. Credit: Yousuf Karsh (MIKAN 3916385)

The Gélinas fonds contains 16 series on different aspects of Gratien Gélinas’s career and personal life.

For example, it contains a series on his literary works comprising several metres of handwritten text or typed manuscripts. It also includes scripts from radio broadcasts written by Gélinas that entertained a generation of French-speaking Canadians in the 1930s, like Carrousel de la gaieté or Train de plaisir, which aired on CKAC and Radio-Canada and eventually gave rise to his trademark character, Fridolin. Fridolin would later become the central character in the Fridolinons, an annual review produced by Gélinas and his team between 1938 and 1946 (and later 1956) at the Monument National, in Montreal.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man dressed as a boy in short pants with suspenders, a sweater and a cap, sitting on a chair with his legs extended out in front of him.

Gratien Gélinas playing Fridolin in a scene from “Fridolinons,” March 1945. Photo: Ronny Jacques for the National Film Board (MIKAN 4318078)

The fonds contains manuscripts of seminal theatrical works by Gratien Gélinas: Tit-Coq; Bousille et les justes; Hier, les enfants dansaient; and La passion de Narcisse Mondoux, his last dramatic creation, written in 1985 essentially for himself and actor Huguette Oligny whose archives are also at LAC.

In addition, entire files of notebooks and annotated drafts perfectly illustrate how Gélinas developed and wrote his plays. They show the additions, deletions, impressions and scribbles of an artist constantly creating and questioning himself.

A personal note handwritten in French. [Translation] “I have to get my life organized in the next few months so that everything I do, say and think is centred on this ultimate, magnificent goal. A play that will be the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Tit-Coq”—personal notes made during the writing process, around 1946–1947 (MIKAN 2402016)

Because Gratien Gélinas usually produced and directed his own plays, he also accumulated many written documents that map his creative process. Researchers can explore not only his production records but also different versions of texts adapted from his plays for film, radio and television, along with English translations.

The fonds contains a large amount of multimedia materials, including extremely rare films, and very early Canadian short films like La dame aux camélias, la vraie (produced by Gélinas in 1942) and the feature-length Tit-Coq (produced in 1953). Incidentally, LAC has managed to convert most of the films in the fonds to digital format. Also included are a number of sound recordings dating as far back as the 1930s, with reviews, radio programs and shows produced by Gratien Gélinas. The fonds is a true treasure trove of information for any researcher interested in Canadian theatre and film.

Black-and-white photograph of a film scene showing various people gathered around a camera.

Filming of Tit-Coq, around 1952–1953 (MIKAN 3919038)

Added to this body of work are over 4,000 photographs, some of which document Gélinas’s early days in radio and on stage as well as all the theatre productions he participated in during a career spanning more than 60 years. Specifically, the fonds contains stunning photos by the National Film Board of Gratien playing Fridolin in 1945, other beautiful shots of him at the Stratford Festival in the 1950s and multiple photos from his private life and personal universe.

Equally remarkable about the Gélinas fonds are its visual arts materials: costume drawings and watercolours, set mock-ups, publicity drawings and collages that add a vibrancy and a visual element to the fonds as a whole. It becomes clear just how extensively Gélinas surrounded himself with many artists to produce and promote his performances throughout his career. We need simply consider the colourful, image-rich drawing by Robert LaPalme used as a set mock-up for Fridolinons ’45.

Brightly coloured painting of stylized figures and various objects.

“Bon voyage” by Robert LaPalme, for Fridolinons ’45 (MIKAN 3926980)

A watercolour depicting a stylized silhouette of a man smoking a cigarette.

“Tit-Coq” drawing mock-up by Robert LaPalme. Original drawing used for the play’s poster and program (MIKAN 3010586)

Many other documents also illustrate his career in Canadian arts and culture. Engagement contracts, correspondence and various promotional documents are also part of the fonds. Other papers relate to his work as an arts and cultural activist, including his involvement in the Union des artistes, or his career as a director of cultural institutions, such as La Comédie-Canadienne, which he founded in 1957, and the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which he chaired starting in 1969.

Adding special interest to this fonds are the documents related to his personal life. We discover a more intimate side of the multi-talented artist: notebooks, travel logs, various correspondence, photographs and works of art that offer a deeper insight into the person and his relationships with family and friends. In addition to correspondence with his family are a number of letters to or from figures from the world of arts or politics, such as Jean-Louis Roux, Lionel Daunais, Émile Legault, Jean Despréz, Robert LaPalme, Jean Drapeau and more.

Finally, we should mention that LAC also owns the fonds of Gratien Gélinas’s granddaughter, novelist Anne-Marie Sicotte, who wrote several biographies on Gélinas (La ferveur et le doute – Éditions Québec/Amérique 1995–1996; Gratien Gélinas, Naïve de Naïve Fridolin – XYZ Publisher, 2001), based in particular on archives in LAC’s possession. During her research, Sicotte not only transcribed various archival documents but also produced several audio recordings and transcripts of interviews with her grandfather.

The Gratien Gélinas fonds (and the related fonds conserved by LAC) portrays the life and work of a pioneer of Canadian theatre and broadcasting. It represents a veritable treasure trove of rich and varied documents accumulated over the lifetime of an unsurpassed artist and creator. This documentary jewel conserved by LAC awaits discovery and rediscovery by researchers and devotees of the performing arts from Canada and abroad.

Related resources


Théo Martin is an archivist in the Literature, Music and Performing Arts Archives Section at Library and Archives Canada.

A few pearls of forgotten dramatic works at Library and Archives Canada

By Théo Martin

In its published documents collection, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has several old dramatic works in French by authors unfamiliar to new generations of Canadians. Although these plays are clearly inspired by the melodramas and vaudeville shows of Europe, they nevertheless represent the beginnings of French-Canadian dramaturgy. These plays include copies of printed works by French‑Canadian authors from the Ottawa–Gatineau (formerly Ottawa–Hull) region who enjoyed both local and national success from 1886 to 1935.

One example is the play Exil et Patrie by Jesuit priest Édouard Hamon (1841–1904). Although this work was not created by an Outaouais writer, it was one of the first plays presented in 1884 by the Cercle d’art dramatique de Hull, one of the first theatre companies in Hull, Quebec. This play deals with a very topical theme of the era: the exodus of French‑Canadians to the United States in the late 19th century. LAC holds a very rare copy of this work.

A colour image of the cover of a book entitled Exil et Patrie and bearing the title and the names of the author and the publisher, all printed in black on yellowed paper.

Exil et Patrie by Édouard Hamon, circa 1882 (AMICUS 12504589)

The LAC collection also includes plays by Hull prothonotary Horace Kearney (1848–1940), who wrote and produced La Revanche de Frésimus in 1886. This play, which combines vaudeville and satire, was one of the most performed plays in the Outaouais, eastern Quebec and even the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Other plays by Kearney are preserved at LAC as well, including Amour, Guerre et Patrie (1919).

Two-page image, side by side: on the left is the cover with a black-and-white photograph of the playwright, and on the right is the first page of the first act.

La Revanche de Frésimus by Horace Kearney, 1886 (AMICUS 2767145)

There are also several plays, melodramas, comedies and vaudeville acts by Ottawa author Régis Roy (1864–1945), including La tête de Martin (1900), Nous divorçons! (1897), L’auberge du numéro trois (1899) and Consultations gratuites (1924). Roy had a career as a public servant in the federal Department of Agriculture and the Department of Naval Service.

A black-and-white picture of an older man wearing a bow tie and glasses.

Régis Roy, photographed by Jules Alexandre Castonguay, circa 1930 (MIKAN 3229816)

Rare copies of plays by another Hull playwright, Antonin Proulx (1881–1950), can also be found in the LAC collection, including Le coeur est le maître (1930), L’enjôleuse. Dévotion et l’amour à la poste (1916) and De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! (1930). Proulx worked as a library curator and journalist during his career.

Cover of a play showing the title, author’s name and price of 25 cents, in black print on yellowed white paper.

De l’Audace, Jeune Homme! by Antonin Proulx, circa 1930 (AMICUS 11378035)

After the 1930s, the authors of these plays, after several decades of success, seem to have been forgotten. Fortunately, LAC holds a few copies of their works, for the great enjoyment of theatre lovers of today and tomorrow!


Théo Martin is a literature, music and performing arts archivist with the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

It’s not easy putting Canada on stage – The Centennial Play

By Théo Martin

A little over 50 years ago, Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies co‑wrote The Centennial Play to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1967. In 1965, with financial support from Canada’s Centennial Commission, Davies began writing the bilingual play featuring Canada’s history with four other renowned Canadian writers: W.O. Mitchell, Arthur L. Murphy, Eric Nicol and Yves Thériault.

A black-and-white photograph of a man smiling while holding a cat near his shoulder.

Robertson Davies and a cat, 1954. Photo: Walter Curtin. Walter Curtin fonds (MIKAN 3959842)

The play was divided into many scenes depicting the regions and provinces of Canada and involving fictional characters and dancers representative of Canada’s diverse linguistic and cultural communities. The play was accompanied by an original score written by Canadian composer Keith Bissell.

Handwritten page with drawings in red ink.

Handwritten draft of the cover page of a draft version of The Centennial Play, with drawings by Robertson Davies, circa 1965 (MIKAN 128551)

Typewritten text with annotations in red ink.

Typescript of The Centennial Play annotated by Robertson Davies, circa 1966 (MIKAN 128551)

Continue reading

Subscribe to the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season

At the turn of the 19th century, the theatre scene was languishing in Canada. Some plays were a huge success, such as Colas et Colinette, which was performed between 1790 and 1807 and was written by Joseph Quesnel, one of the first playwrights in the country. However, it was often too expensive to maintain theatre companies on a permanent basis. Moreover, the companies faced the disapproval of the Church, which did not like these types of performances.

Most often, it was theatre lovers—members of the social elite composed of French Canadians, military members and British merchants—who arranged venues and presented shows. American actors on tour also entertained audiences in major Canadian cities. When the Theatre Royal opened in Montreal in November 1825, the dramatic arts in Lower Canada were given a new boost.

This watercolour painting of a street scene depicts a four-storey neoclassical building. In the distance, more modest buildings can be seen.

Mansion House Hotel (Theatre Royal), St. Paul Street, Montreal, by Henry Bunnett (1888). (MIKAN 2878039)

Support for the Society of Young Artists

Under these circumstances, shortly after the War of 1812, a company called the Society of Young Artists was formed. Driven by the revival of the theatre scene and the English Theatre’s move to the United States, it launched its first season in fall 1815, performing shows mostly in Montreal. The company promoted its season by printing a bilingual leaflet advertising its first play, Voltaire’s The Death of Caesar.

The leaflet’s main goal was to seek funding from the public through subscribers who committed to paying for tickets each month. For its part, the company promised to give four performances a month, under the best possible conditions, from November 15, 1815, to May 15, 1816. The ticket price was set at one dollar, for a monthly total of one louis (or one Halifax pound).

The Canadian newspapers at that time, such as the Spectateur Canadien dated November 20, 1815 (in French only), also promoted the Society’s shows.

Text printed in French explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in French for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814815)

Text printed in English explaining the subscription’s conditions and the company’s commitment to its audience.

Subscription in English for the Society of Young Artists’ 1815-1816 theatre season. (MIKAN 4814828)

An intriguing list

Interesting fact: a list of items was written on the back of the English leaflet. Valued at 25 pounds (Halifax rating), these items could have been used either on stage or to meet the Society’s needs. The list is very difficult to read, but the following items can be identified: millwork, cloth, a pulley, rope, green flannel, white iron and costumes—in short, the items needed for the company’s activities.

A list of items written in ink that is very difficult to read.

List of items on the back of the English subscription for the 1815-1816 theatre season (MIKAN 4814828)

Repertoire: Molière, Shakespeare and company

Unfortunately, we do not know all the plays performed by the Society of Young Artists. However, in his book L’activité théâtrale au Québec (1765-1825), Baudoin Burger gives us an idea of the repertoire on the French stage at that time. From 1814 to 1819, the Montreal and Quebec City audiences could enjoy the plays of Molière, Beaumarchais, Voltaire, Regnard, Bruyes and Dancourt. On the English stage, the artists performed Molière, James Kenney, and of course Shakespeare, who remained the most popular.

A unique record

Very few archival records remain that document the beginnings of Canadian theatre under the English regime. The leaflets from the Society of Young Artists are therefore important and even unique records of our theatre heritage. They also show the love of art that pushed the Society to take the stage despite financial difficulties and varying levels of attendance. These people are, in a way, pioneers who believed in artistic development in Canada.

 

Spotlight on theatre posters

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has an extraordinary collection of posters promoting theatre in Canada from the 19th century to the present day. These posters are found in a wide variety of private and public archives and collections, including those of Vittorio, Theo Dimson, Guy Lalumière et Associés Inc., Normand Hudon and Robert Stacey.

Theatre posters also feature in the archives of such Canadian personalities as Marshall MacLuhan and Sydney Newman, and even in collections of old documents—for example, the theatre playbills printed on board the ships in the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin (around 1850-1853).

In addition, we must mention the archives of various theatre and stage artists and professionals (Gratien Gélinas, Jean Roberts and Marigold Charlesworth, John Hirsch and others), and of artistic and cultural institutions such as the National Arts Centre, Theatre Canada, the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, the Globe Theatre and the Stratford Festival.

But the real treasure trove of theatre posters can be found in the “Posters” series of the performing arts collection, which comprises about 750 posters and programs, and in the miscellaneous poster collection, which includes about 3,170 posters.

You might say that theatre posters play a starring role at LAC!

For sample posters, please see our Flickr album.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!