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Synopsis from playwright Michel Marc Bouchard's  official website

1965. The setting is an isolated village near Lac Saint-Jean, Québec. Three sisters and a brother are reunited for the first time in many years. Their mother, who abandoned them when their father failed to come home from World War II, has written to announce her return. While they wait for their mother's return, they probe the secrets of their past in which the older siblings tried to rewrite family history to protect the youngest sister. Yet it is she who will force them to face reality at last.

This was the very first production of this play, which has since been translated into several languages and performed all over the world.  It has also been made into a film with Céline Bonnier in the role of Martine.


The review below from theatre magazine Cahiers de théâtre Jeu contains explicit details of the plot.

Cahiers de théâtre Jeu

Les Muses orphelines (The Orphan Muses)

Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui  7th September – 15th October 1988

Review by Louise Vigeant

Text : Michel Marc Bouchard
Director : André Brassard (assisted by Roxanne Henry)
Set Designer : Mérédith Carron
Lighting : Yvon Baril
Music : Pierre Moreau

Catherine : Anne Carron
Luc : Roy Dupuis
Isabelle : Dominique Quesnel
Martine : Louise Saint-Pierre
The mother : Jacqueline Tanguay

The muses are orphaned.  By their mother. But what do these words imply? The inexpressible.  The incomprehensible.  A mother has abandoned her children.  For the love of a man.  She has chosen her own pleasure, her freedom; duty no longer weighs heavily on her.  The muses are still orphans twenty years later.  As if time had stopped the day the mother left; as if, ever since that day, this act of desertion is the only thing that has sustained the lives of these abandoned children.

The muses are orphaned for Luc who, from the age of ten, has never stopped imagining his mother’s life: running off with a Spanish immigrant, she has become rich and beautiful, owner of an estate near Barcelona!  His words invent a reality that compensates for his ignorance of his mother’s real life, compensates for the lack of love.  He is writing “Letters from a Spanish Queen to her Beloved Son”.  He cannot endure the shock of disillusionment when he learns that she works in a factory in Quebec!

Words also play an important role for Isabelle, the youngest, who is a bit slow-witted. She too has her notebook; in it she writes down all the unfamiliar words that the others use so that she can build up her vocabulary and, who knows, maybe one day she will be able to talk about what she has been feeling since her mother abandoned her at the age of seven. Neglect, loneliness, guilt – her words and those of the others reflect the outcomes of their own particular suffering.  She learns words and the words teach her about her own life.  These words, she believes, are keys that “open doors”.  While Luc creates an imaginary mother based entirely on the past, Isabelle’s relationship with words is quite different.  She collects them as a means of claiming her past and of understanding it, but more importantly she collects them to envisage the future.  For these words, “the nice and the not so nice”, are her only hope of declaring her freedom.  Isn’t “emancipate” a new word for her, as she looks for the meaning in the dictionary as well as in her life?

Michel Marc Bouchard’s family drama demonstrates the weight of the past on the present, shows the meanness and hostility reserved for those who dare to break the mould … and succeeds in making any mother feel guilty.  (So when does the freedom of a few ever fail to lead to the misfortune of the many?)  This genre is now portrayed so often, you find yourself wondering when these grim stories of families composed entirely of neurotics will become established classics.

André Brassard’s direction – through well controlled, stylised acting, well selected and gauged sound and visual elements, and a meaningful stage space – stops the play descending into melodrama.  Which admittedly it could have done, as the plot flirts with an attention-grabbing pathos: a mother falls in love with her immigrant Spanish lodger, flaunts the relationship in front of the whole village and abandons her children to have a love affair, after which her husband enlists to escape the dishonour and shame (this is 1945). Add to this a gallery of characters with rather a lot of baggage: Luc, the homosexual son who antagonises the village by going around dressed in his mother’s old skirts, the elder sister, mistress of the school and practically all the men in the village; Martine, the other sister, a lesbian who is a soldier in Germany (wasn’t her father killed at Dieppe?), and Isabelle, the youngest, an employee in a neighbouring park.  And what about the ending where Isabelle, somewhat miraculously since all along she is the character who appears naïve and incapable of understanding all the reasoning behind the situation, turns out to be the one who has schemed up this meeting of the four children, bringing Luc from Montreal and Martine from Germany to this remote house in the depths of the savannah somewhere around St John’s Lake!  Pretending that their mother has telephoned to announce a visit, she holds them in her power and, substituting herself for the ungrateful mother, tells them that she too is leaving, that she’s breaking free of them, and to crown it all, that she’s carrying a child … which she will cherish.  This ending causes some confusion, as it borders on being a lesson in morality. But could you not call it immoral?

Directed by André Brassard, the four actors have successfully created these characters that could easily have become caricatures.  Dominique Quesnel, for example, is a revelation in the difficult role of Isabelle.  She must be convincing as a rather backward child and at the same time as a young woman on an exploration of her life.  Louise Saint-Pierre is very sound; endowed with a rather cynical sense of humour which gives the audience some good moments, her character Martine, the lesbian soldier, is the one who best knows how to find her personal equilibrium.  The same cannot be said for the characters of Catherine and Luc.  The former, the eldest and the guardian, played by Anne Caron, has to manage her inappropriate maternal instinct and her frustrations; while Luc, well portrayed by a sensitive Roy Dupuis, immerses himself and gets lost in his fantasies.

André Brassard has made his characters perform in a sort of pit, not of sand but of dried black and white beans (!), bordered by large strips of black wood that hide the props.  So their encumbered movements add to how the characters show their grief, collide with each other, and cling on desperately to their relationships.  The imagery is clear and effective.  This black hole that they are sunk into illustrates well the fix they are in.  But it also conjures up the image of a musical-box.  On seeing the set I was reminded of a black lacquered jewellery-box of my childhood, which when opened showed, in addition to its soft cushions, a dancer revolving to the sound of a little tune.  Here, the dancer is Spanish.  She has pride of place at the middle of the black table (hiding a piano from which the music suddenly appears), like at the centre of the musical-box, at the centre of the world of the mother in love with the handsome Spaniard, and so at the centre of the world of her children.  This little musical-, jewellery-, souvenir-box, simultaneously reassuring and stifling, is the perfect setting for this drama where the family, even without a mother or because of her absence, becomes a magnetic centre of attraction, a living cell, a refuge, and at the same time a suffocating trap.

Brassard’s direction, based on a complicated acting style that permits distortions and exaggeration that play particularly successfully on this set, gives Michel Marc Bouchard’s text a symbolic interpretation that amplifies its impact.

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