Gratien Gélinas (1909-1999) is considered one of the founders of modern Canadian theatre and film, having worked as a playwright, director, actor, filmmaker, and administrator of cultural organizations. His personifications of the common man paved the way for Quebec’s leading scenarists and gave a voice, at home and abroad, to French Canadian culture and society. Gratien Gélinas’ oeuvre has undeniably been etched into the cultural history of Canada.
From the time he began his classical studies, Gratien Gélinas was interested in theatre. In 1931, he founded the Troupe des anciens du Collège de Montréal with some friends. After that, he acted with a number of companies, including the Montreal Repertory Theatre. He was also on the radio station CKAC where, in 1937, he created the character “Fridolin” for a series originally called Le Carrousel de la gaieté, which later became Le Train du plaisir. Because of its popularity in Quebec, the character returned in the Fridolinons revue, which launched Gélinas’ theatre career. The show was presented at the Monument National theatre in Montreal from 1938 to 1946, with the exception of 1939, when it was shown at the Théâtre Capitol in Quebec City. Due to its enormous success, the National Film Board produced the film Fridolinons’45 and, in 1956, the show returned to the Orpheum Theatre in Montreal as Fridolinades ’56. In 1942, Gratien Gélinas brought Fridolin to film in La Dame aux camélias, la vraie, which he wrote, directed and starred in. It was one of the first talking colour films in Canada.
After the final performances of his revues, he continued to act in theatre where, in 1946, he shared the limelight with Miriam Hopkins in St. Lazare’s Pharmacy, presented at His Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal and in Chicago for a period of several months.
In 1948, Gratien Gélinas wrote his first play, Tit-Coq. Often considered to be the first true piece of French Canadian drama, the play was an overwhelming success. Presented in French and English in Canada and in the United States, Tit-Coq was performed 542 times by 1951, an all time record. The following year, Gélinas adapted the play to the screen, and it premiered on February 20, 1953, at the Théâtre Saint-Denis in Montreal and won Film of the Year at the Canadian Film Awards the same year.
In 1954, Gélinas worked in television at Radio-Canada as a writer and principal actor for the series Les Quat’fers en l’air. In 1956, he acted at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V. In 1957, he founded the Comédie Canadienne at the Montreal Theatre, which he directed until 1971.
In 1959, Gratien Gélinas wrote and produced his second major play, Bousille et les justes, which he also acted in. It played more than 300 times, in English and in French, in twenty-six Canadian cities. Le Diable à quatre, presented in 1964, was the eleventh revue of current events in the series. His third play, Hier, les enfants dansaient, was written and brought to the stage in 1966, and presented in English with the title Yesterday the Children Were Dancing at the Charlottetown Festival the following year. The play was also presented on the public broadcasting network in the United States in 1971. The first performance of his fourth and last play, La Passion de Narcisse Mondoux, in which he acted more than 300 times, was held in Toronto at the Théâtre du P'tit Bonheur, on October 2, 1986.
His plays have been translated into many languages and have been performed in the United States, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
In 1969, Gélinas translated, adapted, and directed a French-language version of George Ryga’s 1967 play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. He also translated and adapted the musical Hair, by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, in 1970.
His passion for the cinema led him to a variety of administrative positions. He was president of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (currently known as Telefilm Canada) from 1969 to 1978. He also had roles in the films Red (1969), by Gilles Carle, Bonheur d'occasion (1983), by Claude Fournier, Agnes of God (1985), by Norman Jewison and Les Tisserands du pouvoir (1987), also by Claude Fournier.
Gratien Gélinas received many honours, including becoming a member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1958, the Ordre national du Québec in 1985, and the Order of Canada in 1989. He also received honorary degrees from more than ten Canadian universities for his achievements in Canadian theatre and film. In recognition of his great contribution to La Francophonie, he was named Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Pléiade de l’Assemblée internationale des parlementaires de langue française, section du Québec, in 1991, and section de Paris, in 1994.
Gratien Gélinas died in March 1999, in Oka, Quebec.