It’s Jean Marc Dalpé’s Fault
It’s his fault that I took the biggest risk of my life.
There were 15 of us gathered in a room under harsh fluorescent lights; everyone was tense, especially me. It smelled like burnt coffee and dirty carpeting. This interview, for an academic position, was going to determine the course of my life. I was supposed to give a lecture on Quebec theatre, but I had decided to talk about a Franco-Ontarian playwright.
I talked about parricide, about a Francophone Oedipus dressed in a leather jacket and reincarnated in a village in Ontario. I talked about fatality, and madness, and the merciless cadence of words. Then I quoted some lines from Le chien. The curse words, which in English are delicately called “F-bombs”, crackled in my mouth and beat the same rhythm in my temples. Stunned, the members of the hiring committee looked at me incredulously. If someone had asked me if I had thought carefully before deciding to read aloud from Dalpé, I couldn’t have given a precise answer. It’s only today, as I read through La Queens, that I fully understand my choice.
Dalpé’s universe is populated by working-class people. Many of his characters are from communities in northern Ontario, descendants of farmers or miners who experienced desire and misery in varying degrees. There was Nickel, co-written in 1984 with Brigitte Haentjens when they both worked at the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in Sudbury; then Le chien(1987), which introduced the adventurer Jay and his sedentary family. Later came the breathtaking novel Un vent se lève qui éparpille (1999, published in English as Scattered in a Rising Wind), part of the boreal cycle where “rickety” spruce trees are not enough to hide the dramas and secrets.
Other characters live in urban areas where survival depends on discernment. How do we pinpoint the constantly changing balance of power? How do we recognize our adversaries, our allies? This is a major issue that runs through Il n’y a que l’amour, a collection of stories and writings in which colourful characters rub shoulders and ambush each other. We meet Red, from the urban tale “Red voit rouge,” and Hélène Beaupré, from the wonderful monologue “Give the lady a break,” each of whom has debts to settle and an incandescent rage to appease. Above all, survival is a matter of discursive attacks, counterattacks, dodges and traps. This is undoubtedly the common thread that links the creation of La Queens to the translation of Hamlet (2012). The two plays confirm Dalpé’s fascination for the moments when words trigger and reveal shifts and disruptions.
Admittedly, when I went for my job interview a quarter of a century ago, I was attracted by the alternating codes (“franglais”) that reflected my own bilingualism and a fluid sense of belonging. The music of the words and the emotional and linguistic range were irresistible to me. Dalpé’s universe has always been a space of collision between love and anger, between the sublime and the kitsch. But I now believe that in fact, my decision to talk about his theatre was due not only to the dialogue of the characters, but also to their solitude; to the nuanced portrait that Dalpé offered, and still offers, of people who have to struggle against all odds. Today it is clear to me that Dalpé is the patron saint of underdogs. Underneath the beat of the swear words and their crackling violence, there is a genuine reservoir of compassion and tenderness for anyone willing to take a big risk.