Set in Montréal, À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou is Québécois Michel Tremblay's most famous play, and it strongly impressed me with its Beckettian overtones.
The language is perhaps the first thing that impresses, with its use of elision, idiosyncratic spelling and Québec-specific words: 'yeule' ('gueule'), 'marde' ('merde'), 'toé' and 'moé' ('toi and moi'), 'chus' ('je suis'), 'astheur' ('à cette heure'), and 'ciboire' and 'câlice' (two oaths of religious derivation): for me, it's as though the ground is being set for a different experience, and this play certainly is different. Like Beckett's plays, it's also disturbing.
I'm unfamiliar with any of Tremblay's other work, so the quite lengthy Introduction by Michel Bélair is of great use. He subtitles it 'ou quand Michel Tremblay se permet d'espérer', or 'or when Michel Tremblay allows hope in'. Perhaps, but then I can only imagine how bleak his earlier stuff must have been if that's the case.
The main point here is that the play almost throughout is set in two different periods of time in which the dialogue alternates between two pairs of characters – Léopold and his wife Marie-Louise (who are speaking ten years before their deaths), and their daughters Carmen and Manon (who are – almost entirely – speaking ten years after the death of their parents).
Like his wife, Léopold is in his forties. His manual work brings him little pay and he grumbles about spending money on Marie-Louise's peanut butter, although all he does is drink beer when not working; he goes to the bar but has no friends there so drinks alone. He also criticises his wife for her complete lack of interest in sex.
Marie-Lou spends her time watching television while knitting, and one of her survival mechanisms is to verbally attack her husband. Her mother taught her to steel herself against sex by lying rigid and bearing the onslaught until it passed: sex is merely 'good for animals'. In addition to Carmen and Manon they have the very young Roger, but the audience learns later in the play that she is pregnant, and although Léopold doesn't have the money to feed a new mouth, and there isn't enough space in the home, Marie-Lou refuses to have an abortion: religion is another survival mechanism, although in this instance it is obviously self-defeating.
Manon, 25, has no existence apart from through her dead mother, and stays in the house worshipping God. Her slightly older sister, 26, returns to try to convince her that there is life outside, that she has escaped the familial impasse by embracing life, and embracing the many lovers she has at the 'Rodéo', where she sings 'cowboy songs' on stage. It is because of the existence of Carmen and her positive choice the Bélair calls the play more hopeful than Tremblay's others. But, trapped in her imitated religious behaviour and the memories that she refuses to shrug off, Manon merely calls Manon a 'Boulevard St-Laurent prostitute'.
At the end of the play, Léopold asks Marie-Lou to join him that evening in a suicide car crash, and although she says nothing, the obvious implication is that his wife agrees. The final word – in the stage directions – is 'noir', and that (for all the hope it may contain) is my impression of the play: noir, but deliciously so. I loved Tremblay's power to convey the despair and the (self-)alienation, the holes that people carve themselves into and from which they can't escape. Remarkable stuff.
I read Marie-Claire Blais's very odd Une saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel (1968) a few months ago and more recently Suzanne Jacob's in some ways even odder L'Obéissance (1991) and I'm left really interested in learning how much French Canadian literature is like this, but that's for me to discover and not strictly relevant to this post.