Interview with George Rideout

Oct 06, 2011

Your plays reflect a fascination with cross-cultural relationships, particularly as they exist in times of great social change. What in particular fascinates you about these relationships? Why?
On one very important level Michel & ti-Jean is not about a cross-cultural relationship. Both writers, Michel Tremblay and Jack Kerouac, have their roots in Québec. Although Kerouac was born and raised in New England, his parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Québec and he, like Tremblay, grew up in a household in which French was the spoken language and the Catholic Church had enormous influence. However, in the United States little is known of Kerouac’s Québecois heritage. He is the author of On the Road, the face of the Beat Generation, and the iconic presence in the GAP ad for khaki trousers. He is an American writer whose ethnic roots have largely been forgotten. So the cross-cultural relationship in Michel & ti-Jean is about two writers of similar origins, nurtured in similar households, but formed as artists by the very different national identities of the lands in which they live. Kerouac is an American writer; Tremblay is a Québecois writer. And one question lightly touched upon in the play is this: Had Kerouac grown up in Québec, would he have been treated (in his lifetime) as a literary figure first, and a pop icon second?
The play is set in the fall of 1969, a time of great social change in both the U.S. and Québec. The Americans have landed a man on the moon, the civil rights and anti-war movements are gaining momentum, the Quiet Revolution in Québec is becoming less quiet. Kerouac, the King of the Beats, will be dead in a month from chronic alcohol abuse and Michel Tremblay, with his ground-breaking play Les Belles Sœurs, has taken Québec by storm. That’s an awfully theatrical backdrop for a conversation between two literary giants.
What attracted you to Jack Kerouac’s work? Michel Tremblay’s work?
My father was a socialist leaning professor who taught at African American universities in the southern U.S. and was greatly involved in the civil rights movement. This meant he was booted out of more than one university, so our family seemed to be constantly moving from one end of the country to the other. I discovered On the Road when I was in my teens and we were living in Texas. Something about criss-crossing America in cars struck a chord with me. Later, I read Kerouac’s “youth novels”—Dr. Sax, Visions of Gerard, and Maggie Cassidy—which depict his Franco-American upbringing. I could relate to those novels as well because they presented a closely knit family that was not the prototypical American dream family. I encountered Tremblay’s work after I moved to Canada. I was drawn to his plays by their perfectly drawn characters, their pure emotional power, and the inventiveness of Tremblay’s craft.
As a writer or in general, what do you have in common with Tremblay and Kerouac?
Like Kerouac, as a boy I passed a great deal of time playing imaginary baseball games.
You wouldn’t submit the play for production until you had Michel Tremblay’s approval. Tremblay said that he liked the script immediately. Were you nervous to send the play to him? Describe that experience.
Of course, I was very nervous about sending the play to him. It’s one thing writing about a person who is no longer living, and quite another to write about someone who is not only living, but represents in a very real sense the cultural transformation of Québec.
When did you start writing plays and what attracted you to the art form?
Theatre is the only means to truly capture life through living, breathing human beings. That’s why, despite its marginal status in the world of popular entertainment, it remains so attractive to writers. And that’s why theatre can impact an audience in a way a movie never can. There’s so much more at stake. With all the devices of theatre, it is still real in a way that a film can never be. An audience will leave a movie and think “that was great” or “that was a piece of shit”, but a theatre audience reflects on the dramatic action while it is happening and they relate it to themselves. If the script is strong and the performances are compelling, they will sense how little difference there is between theatre and “real life.” A bad play, on the other hand, makes you want to shoot yourself.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest attribute a writer can have and why?
A writer must tell the truth and that is a very difficult undertaking. It involves craft, insight, and a great deal of courage. Tremblay and Kerouac both tell the truth and that’s why they are such great writers.