“Violette Leduc may be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but nobody knows it.”
– Jovette Marchessault
Jovette Marchessault (Montreal, 1938 – Danville, 2012) was a self-taught painter, sculptor, novelist and playwright whose work is informed by her feminist consciousness and inhabited by her love of women. Her writings and artworks alike pay tribute to women from all walks of life, particularly women artist and writers. Garnering prize after prize, her works of fiction and plays alike have left a unique mark on the cultural history of recent decades.
Born into the working class, Jovette Marchessault worked in a textile factor as an adolescent, where she encountered women factory workers from a range of backgrounds. These encounters would have an impact on the young artist and eventually on her body of work. She then went on to jobs as a public servant, a clerk at the publishing house Éditions du Jour and an assistant in the credit department at Grolier. In the late 1950s, she went on a long “initiatory” journey across the Americas on a quest for her identity and spiritual roots.
Embracing her artistic vocation, she quit her job in 1969 to dedicate herself to painting and sculpture. Her approach favoured Nature’s even-present and spontaneous spirits, made manifest in sculptures inspired by the animal world and infused with a new mythology. She exhibited frescoes, masks and telluric figures at Montreal’s Maison des arts La Sauvegarde, and then in some thirty solo shows in Toronto, New York, Paris and Brussels.
Next, Marchessault threw herself into writing fiction, publishing Le crachat solaire, the first book in her trilogy Comme une enfant de la terre, in 1975, which would earn her the Prix France-Québec the following year. The second book, La Mère des herbes, was published in 1981, and the third, Des cailloux blancs pour les forêts obscures, in 1987. Dramatic monologues, poetry and several plays would follow.
From that moment on, the writer’s activism and passion found voice in her cosmic, feminist plays. In 1980, Marchessault produced a collection of monologues under the title Tryptique lesbien. These writings reflected a current of feminist thought that sought to reframe the mother-daughter relationship within its political, symbolic and ideological context. Containing three short texts – Chronique lesbienne du moyen-âge québécois, Les Vaches de nuit and Les Faiseuses d’anges – the book denounced the Church and the patriarchy’s restrictive attitude towards the female body and desire.
In 1979, Marchessault and Nicole Brossard organized the show Célébrations, which was presented at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) to celebrate women writers. From that point on, her voice resounded onstage. That same year, actress Pol Pelletier performed Marchessault’s dramatic monologue Les Vaches de nuit at the Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes, a powerful work that would be translated into English, followed by another monologue, Les Faiseuses d’anges, in 1982. In April 1981, Michelle Rossignol starred in La Saga des poules mouillées at the TNM and then in Alice & Gertrude, Natalie & Renée et ce cher Ernest at the Atelier Continu in 1984. These productions were followed by La terre est trop courte, Violette Leduc; Anaïs, dans la queue de la comète; Madame Blavatsky, spirite; La Pérégrin chérubinique and Le Voyage magnifique d’Emily Carr, which earned Marchessault the Governor General’s Award for Drama in 1990.
Marchessault’s plays put the spotlight on great women artists, such as Gertrude Stein, Germaine Guèvremont, Gabrielle Roy, Anne Hébert, Natalie Barney, Renée Vivien, Anaïs Nin, Emily Carr, Violette Leduc, Simone de Beauvoir, Alice Toklas, and so on. By recreating imagined spaces, the playwright attempted to render women’s contributions visible, to rewrite History and to construct a collective memory in which women could find their own models.
According to Marchessault, writing for the theatre was the manifestation of her feminist consciousness. The stage became “a public, political space, a place where possibilities proliferated: possible bodies, words, images, and, above all, the unfettered depiction of women’s culture. By women’s culture, I mean all of our inventions, visions, emotions, aspirations and memories. . . . My weapon is historicization: a political experience of history, of our history.”1
In addition to her artistic career, Jovette Marchessault co-founded the international publishing house Squawtach Press in 1980. In January 1989, she initiated and coordinated the exhibition 8 Montréalaises à New York [8 Montreal Women in New York]. She wrote for the newspaper Le Devoir and the magazines La Vie en rose, La Nouvelle Barre du Jour, Fireweed and 13 Moon. In 1999, she was named an honorary member of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research, whose mission is to support and promote theatre and performance-studies research in Canada. Last but not least, she taught feminist playwriting at the graduate level at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
In 2015, this multitalented woman was posthumously named a Companion of Quebec’s National Order of Arts and Letters by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ), where she served as a member of the Board from 1993 to 1998.
The City of Montreal paid the artist its highest tribute by naming a park after her, the Parc Jovette-Marchessault, located at 1621 Plessis Street, in Montreal’s Ville-Marie borough.
On November 5, 2019, the Conseil des arts de Montréal (CAM), in partnership with the Théâtre ESPACE GO and in collaboration with the Théâtre de l’Affamée, Imago Theatre and the Femmes pour l’Équité en Théâtre (F.E.T.) movement, inaugurated the Jovette Marchessault Award, intended to increase the recognition and visibility of women artists’ contribution to the Montreal theatre scene. The award includes a cash prize of $20,000, bestowed upon the winner by the CAM.
Book trilogy Comme une enfant de la terre
- Le Crachat solaire (1975) / translated by Yvonne Klein as Like a Child of the Earth
- La Mère des herbes (1980) / translated by Yvonne Klein as Mother of the Grass
- Des Cailloux blancs pour les forêts obscures (1987) / translated by Yvonne Klein as White Pebbles in the Dark Forests
- L’odyssée des enfants pionniers des Cantons (2010)
- La Pérégrin chérubinique (2000)
- Madame Blavatsky, spirite (1997)
- Lazare de Miramichi (1996 – 1999)
- Le Lion de Bangor (1992)
- Le Voyage magnifique d’Emily Carr (1990) / translated by Linda Gaboriau as The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr
- Demande de travail sur les nébuleuses (1986 – 1987)
- Le Repos des pluies (1985)
- Anaïs, dans la queue de la comète (1984 – 1985) / translated by Suzanne de Lotbinière-Harwood as Anaïs in the Comet’s Wake
- Alice & Gertrude, Natalie & Renée et ce cher Ernest (1983)
- La Terre est trop courte, Violette Leduc (1981) / translated by Suzanne de Lotbinière-Harwood as The Edge of the Earth Is Too Near, Violette Leduc
- Les Faiseuses d’anges (1979)
- La Saga des poules mouillées (1979) / translated by Linda Gaboriau as The Saga of the Wet Hens
- Célébrations (1979), written with Nicole Brossard
- Les Vaches de nuit (1978 – 1979) / translated by Yvonne Klein as Night Cows
Awards and distinctions
- Prix Jean-Hamelin (later Prix France-Québec) for Le Crachat solaire (1976)
- Finalist for the Governor General’s Award for La Terre est trop courte, Violette Leduc (1982)
- Journal de Montréal Grand Prix de théâtre for Anaïs dans la queue de la comète (1986)
- Sherbrooke’s Grand Prix littéraire for Demande de travail sur les nébuleuses (1989)
- Governor General’s Award for Le Voyage magnifique d’Emily Carr (1990)
- Compagne of the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec (2015)
Book about Jovette Marchessault
- De l’invisible au visible, L’imaginaire de Jovette Marchessault, sous la direction de Roseanna Dufault et Celita Lamar, Éditions du remue-ménage, 2012
1Interview in JEU revue de théâtre, 1980
Image: Odetka Tuduri | Pictures: Télé-Québec