Tuesday, February 25, 2014

After Dark, February 25, 2014

I Swear!
No little old ladies...
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

I had the great good fortune of working with the grande dame of theatre, Gisèle Schmidt, in Toronto. She was performing in a play of mine and we were both put up in a grotty convenience apartment building, across the hall from each other. Each morning, Giséle would come over for breakfast. She was still in sleepwear and a nightgown but her hair and makeup were done. My fondest memory is teaching her how to make poached eggs. Over breakfast we would discuss everything. Despite a 40 year difference in our ages it was easy conversation. Of course, I behaved myself (as Gisèle was an icon - my parents never hesitated to tell me). I didn't swear around her and even in my play there was just one swear word and it was used to make a point about swearing.

One morning Gisèle told me that, as much as she admired him, she would never play in a work by Michel Tremblay. His language was simply too coarse. We never argued about it. She was of another theatre age - indeed from the start of modern Canadian theatre when everyone was amateur. 

It was surprising to me, then, a few years later, when I heard Gisèle was appearing in the world premiere of a Tremblay work. Not just any work, either: Albertine, en cinq temps - arguably his greatest work. But it is, too, a work that has no shortage of "language". It was, reportedly, one of her great performances. I later saw her in yet another Tremblay piece: Marcel poursuivi par les chiens and she, like the play, was brilliant. Again..."language". 

Thing is, things change and Gisèle was not a dunce and she was, after all, in theatre and it was in full evolution.

A friend of mine was irked by my own foul language in public, once, particularly because there were little old ladies about. I reminded my friend that these very same ladies had been young women in the 60s and had seen and heard far worse than my flurry of F-bombs. 

So imagine my dismay, this week, when one of our more cluckish columnists wrote about a magnificent Radio-Canada series, drawing cluckish attention to how many times swearing had been used in each episode. Really! She counted the instances for each word! 

Now, as much as you wonder which convent the woman stepped out of (as TV in Quebec has been pretty raw for two decades), you also wonder why she does not get context, in the case of this series. 

Swearing, well-used, is thrilling. I am not just talking about the cloaked, but vulgar, bon-mot someone like Stephen Fry might utter; I am also talking about colour - the cascade of well-chosen and delightfully horrifying words that come out of the mouths of rural people, urban people, angry upper class twits, and cross matrons. I get a frisson when a C-bomb lands right on its target. I relish a play where the writer has captured the way some people use the F-word in all its forms and often - its perfect banality. Oh! And I so like taboo words. 

More and more this is our language. Our everyday language. The Fs, the Cs, the MFs, are all part of it now. It's how we connect. And the arts is how we connect too - it's all one!

Yes, there might be a couple of clucks who are offended. But shall we live our lives to accommodate the clucks? But what about the little old ladies, you may ask! Well, sadly, they're dead. 

If they're not, fuck 'em, the twats.


  1. I don't consider myself a "cluck" and see a lot of theatre. For me, the occasional expletive is tolerable, but as with any repetitive dialogue, the more it's used the weaker it becomes. As for the old ladies, the fact that they were exposed to vulgar cretins in their youth is not a justification for people not to keep a civil tongue in their heads today. I agree with your friend.

  2. I both partially agree and partially disagree. I think that what you say about repetitive swearing does indeed weaken - however it is this very weakening of the impacts of the individual words that can actually make expletive-laden dialogue lyrical. Some of the ugliest words - in terms of meaning - have luscious sounds. (The Guinness Book of Records once said that linguists decided the word "gonorrhea" was the most lyrical word in the English language.) Also, the point I made to my friend was not that the little old ladies had been submitting to cretins, rather that many of the ladies themselves used the same language in their everyday speech. Anyone who came of age in the 60s is now a retiree and these retirees were the flower children and libertines of the sexual revolution.


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