Why we don't need another revival of Michel Tremblay's Hosanna
Trans writer Morgan M Page argues that in 2017, the play feels less nostalgic than it does retrogressive
"She is a cheap transvestite, touching and sad, exasperating in her self-exaltation."
— Michel Tremblay describes his titular character the stage directions in the English translation of Hosanna
First staged at the Théâtre de Quat'sous in Montreal, Michel Tremblay's Hosanna was groundbreaking for its time — pushing audiences' boundaries by bringing nudity, profanity, gay relationships and trans lives to the stage, all told in the working class joual characteristic of Tremblay's most important work. But a lot has changed in the intervening decades, and as Montreal's Centaur Theatre prepares to mount another revival of Hosanna next spring, it may be time to ask ourselves: do we really need to see this play again — now?
Hosanna follows one late night in the life of its titular character — the "cheap transvestite" Hosanna, who has styled herself after Elizabeth Taylor — and her rough trade boyfriend Cuirette. Though Hosanna may be dressed to play Taylor in Cleopatra, she and Cuirette seem to be rehearsing scenes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as they viciously tear into each other's insecurities. "You oughta know, you make me sick," Cuirette spits at Hosanna. What a romantic.
The pair are struggling to admit that they're aging. Cuirette obsesses over the gentrification efforts that are wiping out the site of his glory days in the cruising grounds at Parc La Fontaine. And Hosanna, more importantly, is wrestling over her desire to be a woman.
Hosanna may have been innovative for its time, but 44 years later, perhaps it's time for Hosanna to hang up her beaded gown and make room on the stage for a new generation of plays and playwrights.- Morgan M Page, writer
"When I dress like a man, I'm ridiculous. When I'm dressed like a woman, I'm ridiculous. But I'm really ridiculous when I'm stuck between the two, like I am right now, with my woman's face, my woman's underwear and my body," Hosanna tells Cuirette.
"You don't know if you're a man or a woman, Hosanna. You know it's stupid to call yourself a woman," Cuirette volleys back.
As the evening wears on under the neon glare of a pharmacy sign outside her window, Hosanna is pushed and taunted for her femininity by Cuirette and her friends, eventually leading her to break down and reject being a woman in favour of her 'true' life as a gay man. The plays ends as Hosanna, defeated, repeats over and over, "Look, Raymond, I'm a man... I'm a man..."
In an October 1974 review of the play, the New York Times quoted Tremblay as saying, "I do not want to be a transvestite in my own country." Tremblay wrote Hosanna as an allegory for Quebec's relationship to anglophone Canada. Richard Monette, who originated the role of Hosanna in its first English-language production at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, expanded on this to the CBC at the time: "What he is really saying in it is that Quebec should not dress up as something she is not. She should be what she is — she should not wear the garb of other nations."
Perhaps in 1973, this ham-fisted metaphor could pass as edgy. But we're now in a post-"Transgender Tipping Point" world, in which trans people have made incredible strides into the public sphere. We live in a world where you can hardly avoid tripping over the accomplishments of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, or hearing about the federal government's inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act. In this context, Hosanna feels less nostalgic than it does retrogressive. It features the most obvious of stereotypes and tropes of trans womanhood — Hosanna typifying what's become known as the "tragic transsexual," a character whose tawdry, misspent trans life is used as an object of pity and whose story may only end in erasure, whether by death or detransition.
The new production of Hosanna follows a 2015 revival at the MainLine Theatre that swept up four awards at the Montreal English Theatre Awards that year, including best actor for the cis man who played the trans lead. Meanwhile, though Quebec is home to some of the country's most important trans playwrights, performers and artists — such as Mirha-Soleil Ross, Kama Lamackerel and James Diamond — one is hard-pressed to remember the last time a major theatre here mounted a production of any of their work in French or English.
There are many things to like about Hosanna, namely Tremblay's cutting wit and the time capsule into 1970s gay culture the play represents. But Tremblay's skillful playwriting cannot absolve the play of the transphobia built into its central message: that trans women should shrug off the perceived artifice of our femininity and embrace our "true" selves as gay men. Hosanna may have been innovative for its time, but 44 years later, perhaps it's time for Hosanna to hang up her beaded gown and make room on the stage for a new generation of plays and playwrights.