- “At the end of everything”:Confession and Critique in Michel Tremblay’s Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra
Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra, the eleventh and final instalment in Michel Tremblay’s Belles-Soeurs cycle, is a damning critique of the social conservatism of the Duplessis era (known in French as la grande noirceur [“the Great Darkness”]). The play comprises two contrapuntal monologues, referred to in the stage directions as “confessions,” delivered by seemingly opposite characters: Manon, the religious zealot, espouses the very conservatism and repression that Sandra, the outlandish transvestite, decries in her hypersexualized excoriation of social convention. By the end of the play, however, it becomes clear that both characters represent equally pathological responses to their circumstances, their physical and existential stasis encoding the legacy of the Catholic Church in Québec. Tremblay’s critique is heightened by the parodic use of a confessional discourse that is, in its originary form, a hallmark of Catholic dogma. By mobilizing the language of confession to speak out against the social repression perpetuated by the Church, Tremblay articulates an inchoate praxis of resistance; although the characters’ confessions record their social entrapment, their parodic redeployment of the dominant discourse anticipates the possibility of social renewal. [End Page 43]
Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra allegorizes the effects of la grande noirceur, a period of extreme social and religious conservatism in Québec under Premier Maurice Duplessis.1 During Duplessis’s tenure, which lasted from 1936 to 1959 (with the exception of a five-year hiatus from 1939 to 1944) the Church maintained direct oversight of education, health care, and social services. Although Church and state were officially separate, “in actual fact the church was deeply involved in promoting and ordering social life” and had a “considerable influence” on the operation of the government (Baum 438). The guiding principles of this era included an emphasis on religion, authority, tradition, and the family; the promotion of agriculture; “fierce opposition” to unionization, communism, and socialist principles; and a “suspicion” of democratic government (Rouillard 25). According to one sociologist, “there are few historical parallels” for a modern industrialized society so determined by Catholic ideology (Baum 438). It was only when a liberal government was finally elected in 1960 that the social climate began to change drastically, precipitating a cultural shift that became known as the Quiet Revolution. Tremblay is one of the artists most closely associated with this period of social regeneration. The premiere of Les Belles-Soeurs at Montreal’s Théâtre du Rideau Vert on 28 August 1968 is commonly cited as a turning point: in the words of one critic, “There is clearly a before and after Les Belles-Soeurs” (Durand 13).
Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra, the eleventh instalment in the Belles-Soeurs cycle, concerns itself with the legacy of la grande noirceur. The social inertia and isolation of this period are formally embodied in the stage directions: Tremblay separates the two characters on stage, placing Manon in her kitchen and Sandra in her dressing room (7). It is from these remote locations that the characters will deliver their “confessions” (10).2 This mise en scène recalls an earlier play in the cycle, Forever Yours Marie-Lou, which is similarly structured by the two parallel (although antagonistic) monologues delivered by Manon’s parents. In that play, the [End Page 44] stage directions stipulate that “Marie-Louise and Leopold never move, never look at one another. They stare straight ahead” (4). The resultant dramatic immobility evokes the deeper social and cultural stasis at which the playwright is taking aim, the theme of which in Forever Yours Marie-Lou is developed in multiple relationships: that of the parents, whose dysfunctional arguments have been repeated throughout their marriage, as well as their child Manon, who is accused by her sister Carmen of being unable to move beyond a pathological mourning for their dead mother. The truth of Carmen’s accusation is revealed in Damnée Manon, Sacrée Sandra (set roughly six years later), when Manon admits that her life’s purpose has been to “perpetuate my mother” (34). Sandra’s trajectory has...