044: Gratien Gélinas: One of Our Own
March 28, 2018
Listen Now [46.3 MB, length: 50:12]
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 speak with Anne-Marie Sicotte, granddaughter of Gratien Gélinas, who tells us about his life and legacy.
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Gratien Gélinas: One of Our Own
Geneviève Morin (GM): Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
Gratien Gélinas is considered one of the founders of modern Canadian theatre and film, having worked as a playwright, director, actor, filmmaker, and administrator of cultural organizations. His personifications of the common man paved the way for many of Québec's leading scenarists and gave a voice, at home and abroad, to French Canadian culture and society. Gélinas' oeuvre has been undeniably etched into the cultural history of Canada.
On today's episode, we travel to St. Bruno, near Montreal, to speak with Anne-Marie Sicotte, granddaughter of Gratien Gélinas. As a writer and historian, Anne-Marie has written just under twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction, including an in-depth biography of her grandfather that kick-started her career.
For the actual sit down interview with Anne-Marie at her home in Montreal, we sought the talents of Théo Martin. Théo is an archivist at LAC working in the Literary, Music and Performing Arts section. He is a big fan of Gratien Gélinas. Théo has studied theatre and history at university and has been active in his local community's theatre scene for over twenty-five years. As you can imagine, Théo was quite pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the life and legacy of Gratien Gélinas with our guest, Anne-Marie.
[Translation of excerpt from La Dame aux camélias, la vraie:
Woman: Come in… [Scream] Ah!
Man (narrator): He enters, she sees him, and for the first time, the woman who is so beloved feels desire.]
Théo Martin (TM): So, hello, Anne-Marie.
Anne-Marie Sicotte (AS): Hello, Théo.
TM: How are you?
AS: Fine, thank you.
TM: Thanks for letting us into your home.
AS: It's an honour and a pleasure for me.
TM: Anne-Marie, how would you describe the legacy of Gratien Gélinas for those who are not familiar with him or his work?
AS: My grandfather Gratien has with good reason been called the father and—since the 2000s, the grandfather—of Quebec theatre. As a playwright, he put Quebec on the world scene by creating characters and plays like Les Fridolinades, Bousille et les justes and Tit-Coq. He brought the language and reality of Quebec onto the stage beginning in the 1930s. I believe he also had an unequalled spirit of professionalism in his era. As a result, he documented himself a lot.
In New York—he went to New York—and even in Paris before the Second World War—because pleasing the public and giving them his best was very, very important to him. So he did that, and he also brought his talents as a producer. He was a producer and we should remember this part of his work as an artist. He was a rather audacious producer in the world of theatre and stage revues.
TM: Absolutely. What was the relationship—your relationship with your grandfather when you were a child? Were you aware of his celebrity at that time?
AS: Yes, certainly. I was aware of it because television crews would come to see him, film him. I had already participated in a few shows in the 1970s—
AS: —live on Radio-Canada or elsewhere. And I was known in my own environment—at school, as the granddaughter of Gratien Gélinas, even if people didn't necessarily know exactly what he had done. Because by that time, in the 1970s, he was definitely less active. There was a whole new generation of playwrights, such as Michel Tremblay, Marcel Dubé and Françoise Loranger, who had replaced him.
So, he had been forgotten a little, but at the same time, he was still famous as the founder of playwriting. And so, I was very aware, but at the same time, I lived 100 metres from his house because he lived on a large piece of land in Oka, where he had two houses.
And my brothers, my mother and I lived in one of the two houses, and he lived in the other. We were sort of caretakers of the property, really. We took care of the pool, and we mowed the lawn.
So I saw him often, on a daily basis, as a grandfather, the grandfather that he was, because I was among the oldest of his grandchildren. And he had, I think, 18 grandchildren, so …
I really saw him in action as a grandfather when we went to his house for parties to eat corn on the cob … and Christmases, and all that. So it was really his indulgent grandfather side that I knew.
TM: Oh, what a treasure, really. That gave you some great memories at least.
AS: Those are some very, very nice memories. He was a reassuring presence for me. At the same time, he was a man who didn't let people get too close to him personally. So I didn't have a lot of personal contact with him. But on a family level, yes, a lot … with his good side and his less-good side. All families have secret closets with skeletons in them.
TM: Of course, of course.
AS: But in general, for me it was truly a great treasure. Also, at my house, at my mother's house, we had a really large collection of books, with many plays among the books.
That's not common. We had a lot of novels, essays, but also plays that Gratien had left my mother—I don't know why—a series of French and American plays. So, as a young teenager, I read plays by Arthur Miller, Paul Claudel and Jean Anouilh. And I loved them. So that probably had an effect on my development.
GM: Among the private archival holdings at LAC that pertain to arts and culture, the Gratien Gélinas fonds is one of the most abundant, varied and complete. There are many annotated scripts of his first radio shows, his annual revues Les Fridolinons and his iconic plays, such as Tit-Coq and Bousille et les justes. Along with an incredible number of annotated manuscripts and typed texts, the fonds includes all of the notes, correspondence, scripts, drawings, outlines and screenplays of this multidisciplinary creator. Moreover, this fonds contains a considerable number of audiovisual recordings and over 4,000 photographs. The fonds also has documents regarding his career as an administrator of the arts and a promoter of Canadian artists as well as multiple honours and awards that he received for his work.
Théo asked Anne-Marie how researching her grandfather's fonds here at LAC helped in knowing his personality and character.
AS: It was certainly absolutely essential.
Without that fonds, I would never have been able to do what I did: write his biography, La ferveur et le doute, and then two other works and also images to disseminate a little more information that I had found because—well, Gratien was rather talkative about his professional life. He had told us a lot of things. But there were still holes, still things missing.
But in terms of his personal life, it was more difficult. I really had to fill in the holes by digging into his archives. Also, Gratien tended to keep everything. And this everything—his archives—was stored in the basement. He had made a vault in the basement probably in the 1970s—it was made of concrete, safe from fires, earthquakes and floods. And it was sealed with a very thick door.
And for us—for me personally, anyway, but maybe also for some of my cousins and brothers—it was what an attic is for other families, in other words, a treasure trove of family memories.
So, when I began to interview him—because I started to see him aging, and I thought, when that man is gone, a big part of our collective memory will also be gone.
And so, I started little by little. It's not the kind of thing that one starts very quickly, unless there are unforeseen circumstances. But for me it was really—I was in my twenties—it was really something I did slowly. So, little by little, I interviewed, asked him questions.
And after one or two years I realized that not only was I fascinated by his life, as he told it to me, but that there were still a lot of holes. That's when I asked him, Gratien, grandfather, may I see your archives? He said yes, which surprised me because he was a secretive man, and I thought there might be some things that he would prefer me not to know. But he said yes.
And so I went into the archives. I started to dig into his collection, which was enormous. It was a gold mine for anyone interested in his life. So, it was using this collection that I wrote his biography.
The archives were really crucial. It is truly a great gift that he gave to future generations. It was first of all a gift to us, to the family, because I admit that I was doing that work in large part for myself.
I had a very selfish interest. To understand my family, to understand how things came to pass, who this patriarch was who had left very good things, but also awkward things and secrets. What were these secrets? And then I told myself, if all this work could benefit the community, that would be a good thing, and that's what happened.
TM: Why do you think he gave you that opportunity at that time?
AS: I never asked him. I never asked him why. Unfortunately, this response is not very noble. He was certainly starting to experience the dementia that would lead to his death. So, I think he was not very aware of what he was doing. But at the same time, I hope that it was also because he was giving me a gift.
It was a gift from him. I believe he was starting to detach himself from what he had—from his stress, because Gratien had a lot of stress in his life, the stress of living and the stress of being. And I think he was starting to detach himself from that, to let it go a little.
I want to believe it was part of that path, but regardless, I jumped at the opportunity.
TM: Of course.
AS: I didn't ask questions about it.
TM: Of course. But what a great gift, what a wonderful act of trust.
AS: Yes, yes. He trusted me. I think that was clear. He had known me since my birth. We had been discussing, talking for two years. We did interviews, we talked. I was also his oldest granddaughter.
I was the third grandchild, the oldest granddaughter, the daughter of his daughter who had already passed away. My mother, Sylvie, was already dead at that time. So maybe he was recreating a little connection between us bypassing my mother. Somewhere, maybe he understood that if I was interviewing him, it was to understand my mother, to understand what my mother had experienced with her father and everything. There are a lot of aspects to this type of inquiry. There is a whole network, a web of emotional connections and emotions.
[Translation of excerpt from interview between Anne-Marie Sicotte and Gratien Gélinas:
AS: … Me too. Wake me up if I doze off. This is from the interview of March 7, 1992.]
GM: During this episode, we're going semi-meta! Throughout the interview with Anne-Marie and Théo, we'll be playing some audio clips of Anne-Marie, interviewing her grandfather. These were done on cassette tapes, during the 1980s and 90s. As Anne-Marie will mention later, these are stored in her fonds at LAC.
[Translation of excerpt from interview between Anne-Marie Sicotte and Gratien Gélinas:
AS: If you just want to talk about your career, tell me, and we'll stop there. I have to say, it's not your career, your career interests me because of the way things turned out...but not...essentially...
Gratien Gélinas (GG): Yes, I can tell you it doesn't stir up anything inside me.
AS: Let me move on to another question. But I really want to ask you about what I want to know, but I'd prefer if you told me. I don't know if I'll ever know if you don't know or...not, you know?
AS: You can say you don't know but then realize ten minutes later that there actually is a memory that comes back to you. But if there are things you don't want to talk about, that's different. I do think there are some things... I mean, about your parents' separation. I think you don't want to talk about that... There's still something there.
GG: I don't like talking about that sad thing from my childhood, you know. Probably the only sad thing from my childhood, that was it.
AS: But do we, are we not obliged, do we not talk about things we don't like in a biography? I mean, isn't a biography, doesn't it mean talking about our life, even we don't like it?
GG: Yes, but it's more, it's more painful.
AS: Yes, I understand it's painful. But I mean, a biography, it's not just the good things, the good parts of a person's life...
AS: It's also... Especially when it's things that are, that you have absolutely no responsibility for, when you're the victim, there are limits; I mean, tell me when you're feeling uncomfortable, but don't tell me you don't remember, or that it irritates you, because it's not, that's not why; because essentially it's painful for you, and I respect that, more than you saying it irritates you; that bugs me.
GG: Great detective work.
AS: That's it.
GG: It rises to the surface, you know.
AS: That's it. So... Except that at a certain point...]
TM: It must not have been easy to go through all of that either. There must have been many highs and lows as well. Just exploring his life as he wrote it, as he lived it, and going to see him to talk about it. That must have been quite something.
AS: For me, that process was very liberating, very serene.
When I started off on this adventure, it wasn't distressing. Instead, I felt like a detective who was putting a puzzle back together, and trying to extract information that shouldn't have been hidden, that had to be found, so I had to rebuild myself a little through all of that, simply build myself as an adult.
So, by setting aside some darker parts of our family history, but at the same time capitalizing on all his incredible heritage that he left us as an artist and a man. Because for me, the work that I wanted to do was to really understand what had fed this artist's soul and what—as a man and as a human being—showed through in his work and in what he left us as an artist and as a man. So, it's all that—it's that essence that identity that I tried to give back to people so they would understand that a man like Gratien was a human being in all his splendour, with his strengths and his weaknesses. And Gratien had mastered the art of capitalizing on his suffering and his weaknesses to create dramatic power.
Also, like a lot of artists, he went searching for what he was missing, for his suffering and his difficulties, to transform them and turn them into a creative force. And that's what I tried to seek out.
TM: Yes. That's true. It's the human aspect of the creator. And how to discover our own humanity as well, not just to bypass it.
AS: I had an incredible opportunity, being his granddaughter, being close to him, knowing everyone in the family, knowing the secrets, knowing that if someone told me certain things, I knew that they weren't true. Or I knew I had to dig deeper.
But I was also distant enough as a granddaughter not to be too emotionally involved with him, to create a slightly professional connection with him still, to have a certain distance.
So I have the impression that I also jumped at the opportunity because of that. That connection put me in an ideal position to do the research, the interviews—well, writing is something else. Apparently I have some talent because I succeeded.
TM: Of course.
AS: But that's it. I really had the distance, but at the same time, the ideal closeness to write his biography.
GM: Anne-Marie went on to tell us about Gélinas' transition into working fulltime in radio and theatre. Throughout the Great Depression, he worked as a secretary to the president of an insurance company, while continuing to be involved in the performing arts. Just before the Second World War, Gélinas began establishing himself in the theatre scene and was able to land a contract for the radio show that eventually would become Fridolin. This contract allowed Gélinas to leave his job with the insurance company and make a career change that immediately had him earning four times more than his previous salary.
TM: It's really something when you think about it, because it was radio. Today, I don't know if radio allows you to live that well. But at the time, it was something. It was brand new, and people were asked to participate in radio. I think your grandfather participated in several projects.
AS: Without radio, Gratien would not have become who he became. Today, we can't imagine the radio environment of the 1930s. It was what the Internet is today. It was exhilarating. There were all sorts of positions created, CKAC, after that Radio-Canada, and so on. And the playwrights, writers, authors and actors maybe didn't earn all of their living on the radio, but a good part of it anyway, because there was so much being created, daily serials and all types of comedy shows. Comedy wasn't invented in the 2000s! It already existed at that time. So, a whole theatre environment was formed, which was put in place thanks to radio and the money invested by sponsors who paid for radio shows, and so the government started things like Radio-Canada. There were private radio stations like CKAC. There were also sponsors. So Gratien was able to earn his living as an actor and writer for radio thanks to sponsors such as Valiquette furniture.
Or other entities that were financing radio shows. And that shot him to stardom in a few months in 1937, as an undisputed radio star, and everyone around him, a lot of actors, Ovila Légaré, all the actors he would later hire, Fred Barry, whom he would hire for his revues, really got a lot of experience in radio.
So you can't forget about that aspect. It should be better known, more highlighted in our archives, in our collective history, because it's very important.
TM: But as an aside, I myself used the transcripts, the writings for your grandfather's radio serials, a lot. We're talking about Carrousel de la gaieté, Le Train de plaisir, Fridolin, and I had the opportunity to act in some excerpts, some of the scenes that were with the singer—who was it?—Lionel Daunais. And …
AS: Was Albert Cloutier in those?
TM: Albert Cloutier and everyone. And it's there, in our archives, these riches. But what surprised me is that there was a lot of it. Your grandfather wrote those scripts, if I understand correctly, and there are hours and hours of recordings.
AS: If we consider that between 1937 and 1940, he did three seasons of radio, one show each week before a live audience, it was also a Montréal theatrical event and so that means it really adds up to a lot. And it's fascinating to read those texts, which are a whole social critique and a critique of the events of the day. So I think it would be a real immersion in history if we took advantage of those texts to discuss what interested and mobilized people, what bothered them, just before the war and at the beginning of the war, in Montréal and Québec.
TM: So, your grandfather was almost a sociologist. [Laughter]
AS: He was a very close observer of the news, of his world—there was also a lot of collaboration in those texts. We can't forget that. There were writers who helped him, and he also relied quite a bit on the reactions of his team to improve and refine the texts. He must have also had to integrate comments, jokes and all sorts of things from his team. It really was co-operative work. It's worthwhile to highlight that aspect too.
[Translation of excerpt from Fridolinons 40:
Fridolin: Mr. Pruneau was supposed to come tonight to talk to you about the use of the possessive pronoun in the time of the pharaohs. Fortunately, he wasn't able to, so I'm happy to come here in his place. We will be talking about women – if you wish to, of course. This is a hot topic and people always enjoy it. Women: their advantages, their uses. A lot has been said about this topic, but it's always good to come back to it! Judging from certain monuments and postcards, a woman should be very pleasant to look at in her natural state. Women feature most prominently in love. Every once in a while you come across a playwright who's a woman, but that's a very unfortunate thing.
There are two types of women: the good ones and the ones who aren't so good! But for the quarter of them who are good, the fact remains that men tend to prefer the ones who aren't good. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is!
One of the main points in a woman's education is the kiss. Here we're embarking on a very fine topic. Speaking for myself, I've never been opposed to kissing – definitely not. Of course, there are some who say that you can pick up germs from kissing. Maybe. But the germs you get from kissing, I would have to say they must be lovely little pink germs.]
TM: So tell us a little bit about the Fridolin character. In your opinion, what was your grandfather's inspiration for this timeless character?
AS: I believe that Gratien's inspiration for Fridolin was himself. Fridolin goes back to Gratien's childhood, I think, from the time when he started writing little sketches that he acted out. He created this character, an adolescent who is rebellious, hypersensitive, always looking for love, but at the same time gifted with a very, very good eye and a sharp tongue to remark on his entourage, his society and the things that were happening around him.
Gratien also told me during our interviews that his mother was quite a social snob and didn't like to see him play with the little bums in the street.
And so she made him play on the balcony at the house. And that balcony, I think, was for him an extremely interesting observation post for watching the behaviour of the people walking by on the streets, the young people playing nearby. And so I think that Fridolin himself came out of all that. Both from Gratien's desire to be a little bum, a repressed desire to be a little bum, and from his inability to become one.
And at the same time, all the sensitivities that an adolescent can have, a kind of freedom of speech also. With adolescents, we're not as strict as we are with adults. Adolescents have more of a right to say silly things, for example, to say rude things, to exaggerate or to be dramatic.
So all of that put together is where I think Fridolin comes from. And from the start of his career, he capitalized on this character. As soon as he started doing sketches, at all types of events—because he did a lot of them before creating Fridolin—he relied on that character. And the first sketch that he wrote was Le Bon petit garçon et le méchant petit garçon, which was a powerful representation of Fridolin.
So a young boy who has both a good side and a side that is like a little bum. Both sides are fighting within him. That's basically it. He ended up creating Fridolin in 1937 after having worked long and hard, and often, to refine him in everything that he did.
GM: In 1937, Gélinas created the character Fridolin for a series originally called Le Carrousel de la gaieté, which later became Le Train du plaisir. Because of its popularity in Quebec, the character returned in the Fridolinons revue, which launched Gélinas' theatre career. The show played at the Monument National Theatre in Montreal from 1938 to 1946, with the exception of 1939, when it was shown at the Théâtre Capitol in Québec City. Due to its enormous success, the National Film Board produced the film Fridolinons '45 and, in 1956, the show returned to the Orpheum Theatre in Montreal as Fridolinades '56. In 1942, Gélinas brought Fridolin to film in La Dame aux camélias, la vraie, which he wrote, directed and starred in. It was one of the first talking colour films in Canada.
TM: Why did Fridolin manage to win the hearts of Quebecers? Why has this character withstood the test of time?
AS: As soon as Gratien put his character Fridolin on the airwaves in Le Train de plaisir in 1937, that character won the hearts of Quebecers through the radio in just a few weeks. And I can't explain to you exactly how because I wasn't there when it happened.
But I think that character worked really well for Gratien.
He knew how to play him so well, also his speech, because there was a specific way of speaking in the 1930s involving rolling one's r's, the way the character spoke. I think he knew how to perform him so well, and he gained a lot of attention from everyone. That adolescent gained a lot of attention in the way that he spoke and in the way that he shared his life experience.
And that was not common at that time. He was revealing a lot about himself. I think there were few people doing that on the radio. So for all of those reasons, in just a few weeks, the character of Fridolin became beloved and popular, and as of that moment, people rushed to the Théâtre St. Denis to see and hear him. For that reason, and also for the quality of the texts.
When Gratien started on stage, he had already been writing his radio shows for a few months. But straight away, he told himself, well, it's working so well that I'm going to do a stage revue show.
And right from the start, the texts were of high quality, much superior to most of what was being written in that field. Even though it's not always easy to judge because we don't have all of the texts. But when you read what he wrote, when you see the work that he put into it, the group effort that it was as well, I think we can be fairly sure that his texts were really far above average. The jokes were good.
He depicted the social environment well. The skits that he performed—because the revues were not just commenting on current events, but also depicting the life and customs of Quebec.
In all sorts of ways: city life, country life, traditions, but also modernity, the effect of the war—the Second World War—conscription … all of that. It actually makes for a rather incredibly vibrant social portrait. And I think that those two aspects—with the very carnal and visceral way that Gratien performed Fridolin—on stage—contributed to the vibrancy of the social portrait that came out of it in the end.
And what makes that work of art—the 10 years of Fridolinons—for me, it's Gratien's best work, in my humble opinion. I prefer it because it's incredibly vibrant socially, on a human level, and in terms of how it reflects Quebec and also its theatrical and dramaturgical professionalism …
TM: [Laughter] It's rather funny that you mention all these elements, the work it took to perform these Fridolinons. It's for that reason, and others, that they are so well known. I believe that at Library and Archives Canada, we have all of these texts or just about …
AS: The archival holdings at Library and Archives Canada contain, I believe, all of the texts and the disks as well.
AS: So Gratien—who was a huge fan of technology—started to film with an 8 mm camera, I believe. This was well before most people, because Gratien was a seasoned amateur filmmaker. He would have loved to be a director, but in Quebec before the war, this was just not possible.
So he filmed a lot and also did all sorts of technical and technological experiments. And he recorded on vinyl records—I don't know if it was vinyl at that time. Anyway, it was a rather hard plastic. We have audio recordings of all the revues, which is, once again, a pretty incredible wealth of content. I don't believe that there are many other radio shows or stage revues from the war period on disk.
TM: Ah, well, that's fascinating. I didn't know about that. Well, it's really a wealth of content because we have the texts, the audio—we have Gratien's whole universe with us.
AS: And an incalculable number of photographs, which—I mean, with everything that is at Library and Archives Canada, we can document incredibly well this theatrical work of the revues. I think it's the revues that are the jewel of this fonds. I don't think there are many other theatrical works where—the documentation relates to such a body of work.
TM: In such a complete way.
[Translation of excerpt from Tit-Coq:
Marie-Ange (M-A): I won't be dancing any more.
Tit Coq (TC): What…
M-A: I'll dance with you when you come back...not before.
TC: That'll be a big sacrifice for you.
M-A: Too bad!
TC: I'm not asking that much of you, you know.
M-A: I won't be able to dance with anyone else.
TC: Thanks anyway, for that and for all the happiness you've given me since...
GM: Tit-Coq has become a classic of Québécois cinema. Based on a play written by Gélinas in 1948, Tit-Coq tells the story of a young French-Canadian man who falls in love with the sister of a friend only to find that she has married another man while he was away fighting in the Second World War.
When LAC acquired Tit-Coq in 1997, a collaborative team of AV experts took on the initiative of restoring the film. The restoration process was quite complicated, despite the fact that we had the original negative of the film. Because the negative was so fragile, our restoration team had to make a new print of it by copying one frame at a time. Next, they decided to make a subtitled version, which came with its own set of challenges. The original subtitles ran by too quickly, not giving viewers enough time to read them, and had to be extended.
The final 35mm subtitled version was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, 2000, and again as part of the Canada 150 program with TIFF in February, 2017.
Théo next asked Anne-Marie why she thinks the film Tit-Coq remains a Canadian classic after all these years.
AS: The film Tit-Coq, which was made in 1953, benefitted from all of the work on the play, which started in 1945–1946. The play was performed on stage in 1948, and it was performed some 350 times in the following years, in French and in English. Following the initiative of Alexandre de Sève, it was made into a film. So that work already ensured that the film would be of above-average quality, let's say, because Gratien had plenty of time to refine, polish and improve his text. It is also one of the first Canadian and Quebec films. As such, it is an incredible part of our heritage.
It is also a testament, I think, on a visual level, in terms of the cinematic or stage work, of tremendous cultural richness—for example, we see the streets of Montréal, Saint-Louis Square and Windsor Station in 1953. It also shows some very significant social concerns, such as the war, the post-war era … and an important Quebec phenomenon: religion and the weight of religious hypocrisy. Tit-Coq couldn't marry his Marie-Ange because she married while he was gone, and divorce was not recognized in Quebec at that time. And that's what created the drama for that couple.
And so all of that combined makes this not only a unique and exceptional work, but also a very important portrait of Quebec society in the 1950s, sociologically, anthropologically and ethnologically.
TM: Yes, and your grandfather was a bit of a trailblazer. He allowed himself to do that. He was audacious, pushing the limits of society, of what was acceptable.
AS: I think that because of his experience with the Fridolinons revues between 1938 and 1946, he had allowed himself to speak a lot more freely, since the Fridolinons revues were also revues of current events and social satire. He did not hold back from criticizing and performing on stage some of the unhappier, uglier, more limiting aspects of Quebec morality. Also, I think that he had personally suffered from this morality because of his parents, because his mother had to say she was a widow and not divorced.
And he himself had to hide being the son of a man who fled, who was divorced, who fled. And I think that he endured and suffered from that morality, being forced to hide the truth, to live a lie in a way. And I think that through his plays and his work, he allowed himself to criticize and denounce that, but obviously doing it in an intelligent manner without having it be offensive, without having it cause problems, meaning reproaches from the Quebec elite, the Quebec church.
It was the same for the war. He allowed himself to criticize the war quite a lot in his Fridolinons, and the Canadian and Quebec governments' war efforts a little as well. And the censors came to see him, but they told him—they said, you are making some strong statements, but people are laughing. So we can't really intervene because that would create an outcry.
So that's it. It was his strength to say the things that needed to be said, but couched in a way that made them untouchable, let's say.
[Translation of excerpt from interview between Anne-Marie Sicotte and Gratien Gélinas:
GG: Ah, yes... La fille de Roland, we had adapted that play, which had been adapted from Le fils de Gamelon.
GG and AS: [Laughter]
GG: And I played a young boy who had no lines, I was an extra.
GG: But I was the understudy for another little kid. I prayed really hard for him to be sick but...he wasn't sick.
AS: You were the understudy for another role that was more substantial.
GG: Yes, at least he had some lines.
GG: And I remember, I went up to the wardrobe person who was...on the last, the last floor of the school. I had picked out a costume – “That one's mine,” I said. I didn't realize it was probably one of the first indications of my profession as a man of the theatre.
GG: That's what I want – that particular costume, that particular set, that's it.
AS: You were criticized for that, because people said it was selfishness or something, it was...
GG: Not selfishness, but brag..., not bragging, but –
GG: – vanity. And my sister Rolande and I, we did performances, you know.
AS: But, but what was it about that time that you got so caught up in?
GG: Oh…I don't know. It was probably that it was my...destiny.
GG: – to go into theatre, you know.
AS: Yes. And performing like that...there must be something that...
GG: Putting yourself out there, and being listened to.
AS: Being listened to!
GG: And probably admired, you know, if possible! [Laughter]
AS: That's all a person could want, eh?]
TM: In your book Gratien Gélinas en images: Un p'tit comique à la stature de géant, you talk about “the darker side of Gratien's personality,” which he wanted to hide from his contemporaries. Can you tell us something about this little-known part of his personality?
AS: Gratien had a difficult childhood with parents who fought, parents who ended up separating, who engaged in what we would today call child abduction, the abduction of their own children to remove them from—from their spouse, from their ex-spouse—and bring them somewhere else. Having experienced all of that, I think, he developed certain wounds that revealed themselves later in his life, professionally and personally. He had a quick temper. He didn't like conflict or criticism. He didn't like being questioned, even about rather mundane things, by his spouse or his children. He didn't like it when his authority was questioned.
And all of that showed up in his family relationships. So his spouse suffered a little from—you could call it verbal violence. Fortunately, that's all it was, but there was verbal abuse. And his children were also a little mistreated in terms of being told, “You're not good, you're …” It was only on occasion. It wasn't constant. He was often loving, generous and affectionate, but at other times, he behaved stupidly.
And his sons and nieces spoke to me a lot about this side of him. His spouse sometimes wrote about it in letters or small notebooks. And it was also reflected in his professional life. So he could be harsh with the actors. He could sometimes tell them to go away, tell them to be quiet, that they were wrong and he was right, that they had no business doing something.
And even then, it was accepted not only because Gratien was very, very well liked—he provided a lot of work—but because he would pull himself back together. So in other ways, he was generous. He was kind. He paid very well. He was never stingy about anything. He enjoyed teamwork. So, he made up for his bad character, but he did have that character. I was told this very clearly. It was well known.
He was also rather arrogant, with false pride. For example, he had to hire writers to help him at certain times in his career. Because, for example, when he was doing radio and plays at the same time, for Fridolinons between 1938 and 1940, he couldn't manage. So he hired people, also later at the end of the stage series. But he didn't want people to find out. So they had to stay anonymous. He paid them very well, but he wanted it to remain a secret.
Yet needing help takes nothing away from him. But he needed so much love from the public that he couldn't handle the idea of losing any love if someone were to say he was being helped or whatever. So that side of him was less honourable. There were infidelities as well, we have a few scraps of those. We don't know much, but in the archives, Gratien even kept some letters from his mistresses.
TM: Oh, really?
AS: He removed their names. So we have proof of some infidelities. Yet he was also a loving husband. They had a good relationship, Simone and Gratien, a husband who provided her with lots of things. But there were also certain aspects that were less honourable. So that's what we can determine from the archives and elsewhere, and it's important to say it, because he was a human being, like any other. And if he had really been an appalling brute, I probably wouldn't have written his biography, and he probably wouldn't have had the success or longevity that he did. But he had his faults and his weaknesses like all human beings.
TM: There are always two sides to every story.
TM: Can we talk about you, the artist?
TM: Tell us a little bit about your work and the types of projects that you were drawn to.
AS: The biography that I wrote about Gratien was the basis of my long career. I didn't expect it at the time, but it became a long career. So I really see Gratien as a foundation. I studied history. I got a bachelor's degree in history. And while I had my three children, I wrote Gratien's biography.
And little did I know, that biography—and that work—was an incredible richness for me. On all levels—not only on an archival level, but also on a documentary level and in terms of my work as a writer—I really think it was a cornerstone for what I did later. So after that, I continued along the same lines. I did all sorts of projects on Quebec history, Quebec history writing and research. Then the biography of feminist Marie Gérin-Lajoie.
Now I'm working on a biography of Louis-Joseph Papineau. It's a huge project that will take several years. In between, I wrote novels. The series of novels entitled Les Accoucheuses, and then the series on the Patriots, the rebellious country, Les Tuques bleues. And so, all of the research work—and my books of images, including of course on Gratien, but also on various aspects of Quebec history: religion, industrialization and urbanization. And all that because Quebec history—history in general, but I specialize in Quebec history. History and life in the past fascinate me. I find that we deprive ourselves of an incredible richness by not finding out about all those wonderful lives, full of teachings, experience and progress, you could say. So, humans who lived—who left one place and arrived in another and lived through all sorts of things in between, and the societies that they lived in. I find that we deprive ourselves of an incredible human richness by not making that knowledge public, by not telling those stories insomuch that they deserve to be told. Our historical heritage should be highlighted much more than it is today. And I am humbly trying to do it, one project at a time.
TM: Thank you so much for doing that. And I think that the archives are very important for you, at least the archival research.
AS: All types of archives and research in the archives or in old newspapers or in correspondence or in all sorts of things are of course critical to bring to light … and these are what the dead leave. So biographies give us an incredible opportunity—if we have enough documentation on them—an incredible opportunity to bring to light these lives because we can't do it today. You yourself wouldn't tell me details about your personal life unless we were close—or unless you were on your deathbed perhaps.
But people who are dead and have left us an incredible collection of documents, it's absolutely fascinating to bring these lives to light and tell them in detail. And today they give us a rich portrait that we should not deprive ourselves of. If I hadn't had Gratien's archives, if I hadn't known him the way I knew him, I wouldn't have written that biography. The same is true for Marie Gérin-Lajoie. Without her archives, it would have been impossible to write that life. Archives are the cornerstones of the monument that is the history of Quebec and Canada. And it's absolutely critical, but the main challenge is to highlight them, not to let them sit in boxes in a vault, and to have the desire, budget and personnel to highlight them as much as needed.
In any event, I use them a lot. And I hope there will be a greater social and global effort in the future to do this.
TM: LAC has a significant fonds from your grandfather. Now it also has your own fonds. Multi-generational links are not common in our collection. Why do you think it was important for your own archival fonds to be kept at LAC?
AS: Actually, my archival fonds is mostly my research fonds on Gratien Gélinas. It doesn't really have personal things about my life. It's simply that when I finished my writing based on the research, someone at LAC approached me to ask whether I would be interested in giving them my research fonds, as an addition to the Gratien fonds, to help researchers document his life. A certain amount of work already done, let's say an absorption or pre-absorption of his documentation.
So, all of the intermediary work there is—when you have an archival fonds, you have to transcribe things, decode, make links, make chronologies, all that. I was told that it would probably be useful to have it at Library and Archives Canada also. And so I did it. But it's really a fonds of work related to the Gratien fonds.
TM: If I'm not mistaken, there are recordings in your fonds, recordings of your grandfather and I believe of other people as well, which you needed for your research and for your publication.
AS: I put all the cassettes in this fonds too. In the 1980s, people used cassette recorders. So it includes all of the cassette recordings that I made with Gratien.
So, for someone who wants to do more research on Gratien, it can certainly be a precious record. Beyond my own work, we have what Gratien said, him speaking on all sorts of things, on the topics that I interviewed him about. It's definitely a complement and an addition, I think, to the documentation that we are familiar with, that we have on Gratien.
GM: We finished off the interview by asking Anne-Marie if one day she would be interested in donating her own papers to Library and Archives Canada.
AS: What is worthwhile, I think, is to have all types of archives in the public archives. We really tend—and it's normal—to give or acquire archives that came from exceptional people. It's fun—and I think that this will increasingly become the trend—that ordinary people—I don't necessarily mean that I'm an ordinary person. Who is not ordinary? Who is extraordinary? That's a whole other question.
But I will surely have something to leave on a creative and research level, and also as Gratien's granddaughter, I imagine. But beyond that, what's truly interesting, I find, is people who leave behind an archival fonds for posterity when we didn't think it would be an important fonds to leave. People who lived regular lives, who were not extraordinary, but who have old photographs, who have correspondence, who have all sorts of things to leave behind that bear witness to a little bit of Quebec and Canadian life.
I think we should encourage that. And if my leaving my archives also encourages that, for sure. But of course, if Library and Archives Canada determines at the end of my long life that my archives are worth preserving, I would do so with pleasure. But at the same time, as I was saying before, what is essential is that it is disseminated, that it is used afterwards. Just keeping them to keep them does no good at all. They really need to be used. So that abundance, I hope that, if I leave it, it will then be used to tell the story of what Quebec was like, what the life of a woman in Quebec was like, and what the life of the daughter of a creator was like, in all its abundance and magnitude.
But it is also important to ask, what are archives worth? Because after all, there are many people who don't know what archives are worth. And they may imagine that they are—how should I say it? A bunch of old papers that are just sitting there, collecting dust. Obviously, I'm exaggerating, because many people love history, many people love digging into the past. And there are a lot of amateur researchers, a lot of genealogists who know the real worth of it all. But it's still worth publicizing and re-publicizing its importance and the importance of highlighting it in civil society as much as possible. And to set aside budgets for that.
GM: To learn more about the Gratien Gélinas fonds at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes, Google Play or the RSS feed located on our website.
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Thank you for being with us. I'm Geneviève Morin, your host. You've been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you”. A special thank you to our guest today, Anne-Marie Sicotte—who also gave us permission to use audio clips from the Gratien Gélinas fonds—and to our guest host, Théo Martin. And thank you to Karine Brisson and Michel Guénette for their contributions to this episode.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox with assistance from Paula Kielstra.
If you're interested in listening to the French equivalent of our podcast, you can find French versions of all our episodes on our website, iTunes and Google Play. Simply search for “Découvrez Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.”
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[Translation of excerpt from interview between Anne-Marie Sicotte and Gratien Gélinas
AS: You're not feeling totally inspired, I think, eh?
AS: Have you had enough?
GG: Kind of!]
La Dame aux camélias, la vraie, Gratien Gélinas (director)
Library and Archives Canada/ISN 307337
Interview with Gratien Gélinas, interviewer, Anne-Marie Sicotte
Library and Archives Canada/ISN 332002
Fridolinons 40, Les Productions Gratien Gélinas Ltée.
Library and Archives Canada/ISN 325140
Tit-Coq, Les Productions Gratien Gélinas Ltée.
Library and Archives Canada/ISN 265729