Staging Québécité

Reviewed by Pamela V. Sing

What comes to mind when you read or hear the expression “distinctly Québécois”? Would Expo 67 or Michel Tremblay’s play Les belles-sœurs qualify as possibilities? How about Céline Dion? Exactly how, why, and according to which or whose criteria does something or someone come to mean and matter as Québécois, even when it, she, or he does not appear to correspond to the national Québécois imaginary? Erin Hurley’s inventive and innovative award-winning book—in 2011, National Performance: Representing Quebec from Expo 67 to Céline Dion garnered the NeMLA Book Prize, the International Council for Canadian Studies Pierre Savard Award, and the Ann Saddlemyer Award—seeks answers to those questions in the field of theatre and performance, and in so doing, effectively “revises the terms by which performance defines its relationships to the nation” and raises important questions regarding historiographic practices in studies of national performance.

Hurley’s study focuses on the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s, when the concept of Quebec-ness or québécité having taken root, the “idea of Quebec-as-nation solidified in cultural, political, social, and economic practices.” Paying close attention to the formal operations as well as the reception of chiefly five emblematic theatre or performance productions, the latter englobing a broad spectrum of framed or displayed human actions, the essay examines how, “in response to altered hemispheric economic relations and an increasingly globalized cultural field,” the notion of québécité has evolved and required that critics and audiences reassess and redefine their consideration of what constitutes theatrical québécité. The importance of the question stems from chiefly two facts: first, that as a nation without a state, Quebec has often relied on its cultural production in order to establish its nation-ness, and second, each of the performance case studies to be discussed has attracted international attention to Quebec. These are the three mentioned at the beginning of this review, i.e., Expo 67, Les belles-sœurs, and Céline Dion, but also “immigrant and polyglot author Marco Micone’s” 1980s triptych of plays about Quebec’s Italian immigrant condition as well as his manifesto poem “Speak What” and Carbone 14’s image-theatre. Hurley’s discursive analysis of each performance, discussed in relation to that performance’s critical reception by different interpretive communities, reveals interesting and ofttimes surprising insights about the perceived legitimacy or illegitimacy of the national image deemed to have been projected by each of them.

The eight-page introduction specifying the book’s intentions and objectives includes two black-and-white photographs of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67, a national project whose Quebec-ness is conventionally accepted without question. Its preliminary discussion allows Hurley to confirm that the two dominant figures used for the theorization of performance-nation relations are reflection and construction, and that through the introduction of three new figures, she intends to alter “not only what can be recognized as national, . . . but also the conditions of perception for national performance.” The second chapter, entitled “Marginals, Metaphors, and Mimesis,” provides a clear explanation of the study’s conceptual and historical groundwork. Some historians of national performance establish a “naively mimetic relationship between cultural production and ideas of nation” by postulating that culture “represents” nation, and that, therefore, national cultural productions “mirror” various aspects of a nation, such as its “geography, language(s), aesthetic(s) and ethnicity(ies).” By eschewing the requirement of reproductive or imitative iconicity as a governing principle, Hurley is able not only to study complex cases involving productions that are not immediately perceived as depicting the nation’s “real-life” likeness, but also to recast hitherto neglected social categories that, most often, have been relegated to object positions deprived of agency.

While reminding us that cultural productions predicated on realistic social mimesis cannot but portray a culturally dominant national self, the essay underscores the fact that such productions tend, perforce, to jettison “women and marginalized others” to the nation’s periphery. Interpretative models rooted in the search for likenesses between performance and nation see socially sidelined figures merely as metaphors for marginalized social categories, and therefore fail to create or produce new meanings or ways to imagine the nation in “feminist, anti-racist [or] otherwise non-reductive terms.” Hurley’s theoretical model revises conceptions of the national by including three alternate figures: metonymy, simulation, and “affection,” a term used to refer to that oft unmarked aspect of national labour known as “emotional labour,” which “makes, manages, and distributes relationships through affective appeals; it draws people and objects, real and imaginary, into affective webs,” thus creating “national sentiment.” By effectively exposing woman and her emotional labour as constituting the infrastructure of Québécois national performance, the introduction of these figures enables an interpretive shift that liberates “woman—as fictional figure and lived reality—from a limited and stereotyped form of national ‘service.’”

The following chapters, as their titles indicate, chart a critical history of performance’s national labours, grounding the discussion of each case study in one of the five figures. Chapters 3 and 4, entitled respectively “National Construction: Quebec’s Modernity at Expo 67” and “National Reflection: Michel Tremblay’s Les belles-sœurs and le nouveau théâtre québécois,” reveal the gendered terrain favoured by nationalization’s common figures. Thereafter, the discursive analysis of productions characterized by “increasingly oblique and strained” links between performance and nation is grounded in one of Hurley’s alternate figures, whence the last three chapters, entitled respectively: “National Simulation: Marco Micone’s culture immigrée,” “National Metonymy: Arresting Images in the Devised Works of Carbone 14,” and “National Affection: Céline Dion.” The essay tellingly concludes with a study of Quebec’s feminist experimental theatre of the 1970s and 1980s, which portrayed women not as representations of men’s imaginings, needs, or desires, but in relation to “women’s bodies, emotions, and experiences,” that is to say, in terms of uniquely female realities that prevented the appropriation of woman for other purposes.

This compelling and lucidly written study makes an important contribution to Quebec and Canadian Studies, as it is certain to change the way we will henceforth recognize a performance as being “national.”

This review “Staging Québécité” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 173-75.

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