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Tremblay grew up in the Plateau Mont-Royal, a French-speaking neighbourhood of Montreal, at the time of his birth a neighbourhood with a working-class character and joual dialect, something that would heavily influence his work. Tremblay's first professionally produced play, Les Belles-Sœurs, was written in 1965 and premiered at the Théâtre du Rideau Vert on August 28, 1968. Its impact was huge, bringing down the old guard of Canadian theatre and introducing joual to the mainstream. It stirred up controversy by portraying the lives of working class women and attacking the straight-laced, deeply religious society of mid-20th century Quebec.
The most profound and lasting effects of Tremblay's early plays, including Hosanna and La Duchesse de Langeais, were the barriers they toppled in Quebec society. Until the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s, Tremblay saw Quebec as a poor, working-class province dominated by an English-speaking elite and the Roman Catholic Church. Tremblay's work was part of a vanguard of liberal, nationalist thought that helped create an essentially modern society.
His most famous plays are usually centered on homosexual characters. The women are usually strong but possessed with demons they must vanquish. It is said he sees Quebec as a matriarchal society. He is considered one of the best playwrights for women.
In the late 1980s, Les Belles-soeurs ("The Sisters-in-Law") was produced in Scotland in Scots, as The Guid-Sisters ("guid-sister" being Scots for "sister-in-law"). His work has been translated into many languages, including Yiddish, and including such works as Sainte-Carmen de la Main, Ç'ta ton tour, Laura Cadieux, and Forever Yours, Marilou (À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou).
He has been openly gay throughout his public life, and he has written many novels (The Duchess and the Commoner, La nuit des princes charmants, Le Coeur découvert, Le Coeur éclaté) and plays (Hosanna, La duchesse de Langeais, Fragments de mensonges inutiles) centred on gay characters. In a 1987 interview with Shelagh Rogers for CBC Radio's The Arts Tonight, he remarked that he has always avoided behaviours he has considered masculine; for example, he does not smoke and he noted that he was 45 years old and did not know how to drive a car. "I think I am a rare breed," he said, "A homosexual who doesn't like men." He claims one of his biggest regrets in life was not telling his mother that he was gay, before she died.
His latest play to receive wide acclaim is For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again, a funny and nostalgic play, centered on the memories of his mother.
He later published the Plateau Mont-Royal Chronicles, a cycle of six novels including The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant (La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte, 1978) and The Duchess and the Commoner (La duchesse et le roturier, 1982).
The second novel of this series, Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel (Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges, 1980), was one of the novels chosen for inclusion in the French version of Canada Reads, Le combat des livres, broadcast on Radio-Canada in 2005, where it was championed by union activist Monique Simard.
Tremblay worked also on a television series entitled Le Cœur découvert (The Heart Laid Bare), about the lives of a gay couple in Quebec, for the French-language TV network Radio-Canada.
In 2005 he completed another novel cycle, the Cahiers (Le Cahier noir (translated as The Black Notebook), Le Cahier rouge, Le Cahier bleu), dealing with the changes that occurred in 1960s Montreal during the Quiet Revolution.
In 2009 The Fat Woman Next Door was a finalist in CBC's prestigious Canada Reads competition.
For many years, Tremblay has believed that the only reasonable solution for Quebec is to separate from Canada. Once the Parti Québécois was elected in Quebec, he softened his views on allowing his plays to be produced in English there. He made it clear, however, that that did not mean that he agreed with bilingualism, calling it "stupid" and stating that he thought it ridiculous to expect a housewife in Vancouver to be fluent in both English and French.
Despite his often outspoken views in public, Tremblay's treatment of politics in his plays is subtle. Speaking of politics and the theatre in an CBC interview in 1978, Tremblay said:
"I know what I want in the theatre. I want a real political theatre, but I know that political theatre is dull. I write fables."
In April 2006 he declared that he did not support the arguments put forward for the separation of Quebec. But he clarified his thoughts some time later by saying he was still a supporter of Quebec sovereignty, though critical of the actual state of the debate, which in his opinion was too much focused on economic issues. In response to this, the columnist Marc Cassivi of La Presse wrote that "there was only one closet a Quebec artist could never exit and that was the federalist one."
He received the Lieutenant-Governor's award for Ontario in 1976 and 1977. Tremblay was named the "Montréalais le plus remarquable des deux dernières décennies dans le domaine du théâtre" (the most remarkable Montrealer of the past two decades in theatre) (1978). In 1991 he was appointed Officier de l'Ordre de France, and in the same year, Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Québec. He is also a recipient of the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France (1994).
In 1999, he received a Governor General's Award for the Performing Arts. This produced controversy when several well-known Quebec nationalists suggested that he should refuse the award. While he did not do this, he did admit, for the first time, that he had refused the Order of Canada in 1990.
Note: Most titles also available in English translations
Note: Most titles also available in English translations
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