A tribute to Hedwige Herbiet and Jean Herbiet
Presented in Academic Hall for the event organised by Tibor Egervari for the Department of Theatre on February 12th 2009.
Hélène Beauchamp (Co-initiator of the teaching of theatre at Ottawa University, friend and colleague of Hedwige and Jean Herbiet.)
Jean and Hedwige Herbiet arrived in Ottawa on April 2nd 1957 (according to documents kept by their daughter Isabelle Herbiet). Hedwige was 23 years old. In her suitcase, she carried a first prize in diction and dramatic arts from Brussels' Académie de musique et d'art dramatique. Jean was 27 and he had a certificate in administration from Brussels' Institut polytechnique, and training in diction and dramatic arts from the Institut belge du théâtre. He was also the founder of a company which functioned as a research and training studio where he worked on Molière's Le Malade imaginaire in a way that allowed each of the participants to explore many of the characters and to study different possible interpretations. This was where Hedwige and Jean met, and decided to marry and emigrate to Canada.
Settling in Ottawa, they quickly start gathering information on the local theatre scene. They quickly realize that the fabulous theatre years of Hull and Ottawa had ended with the Second World War, and the local artists were finding it very difficult to take the art of theatre to new heights. The Ottawa Little Theatre, on King Edward Avenue, did its best to present amateur productions in both French and English and to accommodate the first editions of the Dominion Drama Festival. The National Gallery was then located in the Victoria Building (now housing the Canadian Museum of Nature). There were no concert halls in Ottawa except for the Capitol cinema on Bank Street and high school auditoriums of 700 and more seats which were not necessarily fit for theatre presentations.
But Jean and Hedwige had come here to do theatre. They therefore decide to explore the region further. Jean writes: “Having rapidly, and by chance, solved our problems of domestic organisation and alimentary survival, I set out, with my wife Hedwige, to do the inventory of existing possibilities. At that time, five companies served the art of theatre: the Pont-Neuf with Jean Belleau, recently established in Le Grenier in Hull; the Dévots de la Rampe, directed by Pierre Patry; the École d'art dramatique de Hull, founded and directed by René Provost; the University of Ottawa's Société dramatique; and the student company at Collège Saint-Alexandre in Limbour” (bibliographical references are at the end of the text).
Jean and Hedwige quickly understood that it was the University of Ottawa that could provide them with the means necessary to do the theatre they aspired to. This institution had housed the Société des débats since its inception, directed until 1945 by Léonard Beaulne, actor and director extraordinaire, and then by Laurette Larocque-Auger (Jean Despréz), Hull born author and director, and by Florence Castonguay, a great pedagogue and teacher of diction. This Société, having changed its name to Société dramatique, then presented its annual productions in Academic Hall / Salle Académique, a venue of very interesting dimensions. But Jean and Hedwige had first of all to give proof of their talent, by presenting themselves “theatrically” to their new community. “We contacted Jean Belleau, who immediately accepted our offer to work with the Pont-Neuf…,” writes Jean. The repertoire of Québécois and international plays explored by this company interested them, as well as its artistic choices. And it was within this company that they would meet Jean-Louis Fujs, Gérard Gravelle, Aldo Marleau, Gilles Provost, and Jeanne Sabourin, their first and very faithful collaborators and allies.
Belleau also proposed that Hedwige and Jean give theatre classes. They gladly accepted and their success was such that the news of the quality of their work spread rapidly. In a few weeks, the number of their students grew from six to fifty-two. They gave classes in phonetics, diction, dialogue improvisation and mime.
Jean and Hedwige then set about to found the Théâtre de la Colline with Gilles Provost and to produce and present Le Mariage forcé by Molière and Mademoiselle Julie by Strindberg. These productions were seen by Father Bernard Julien, OMI, then chair of the University of Ottawa's Département de Français and an extraordinary champion of university theatre. He was quite impressed by the artistic quality of the work, and offered Jean the position of professor of phonetics and artistic director of the Société dramatique as of September 1958. From this date on, Jean and Hedwige would bring to Ottawa a new sense of excitement, innovation and quality that theatre lovers discussed with excitement.
Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière
"Herbiet drew frequent applause for his histrionics, which included at one point the simulation of six different voices." The Ottawa Journal
"A great actor and a most competent director." Le Droit
Les précieuses ridicules by Molière
"The two précieuses, Hedwige Herbiet and Claire Major, and the two servants of the lovers, Jean Herbiet and Jean-Louis Fujs have kept their spectators in a gay and youthful atmosphere, each according to their talent, their personality, but with a homogeneity no doubt due to the director." Le Droit
Antigone by Jean Anouilh
"A thousand bravos to all the artisans of what was given for us to see, the most beautiful in the last few years on the stage of Salle Académique of Ottawa University. A tour de force. An action sustained until the end." Le Droit
Le Légataire universel by Regnard
"A show not to be missed." Le Droit
Tueur sans gages by Eugène Ionesco
"Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the University of Ottawa's Société dramatique has given a brilliant interpretation of Tueurs sans gages. This play is not easy. It is mainly composed of long scenes, dialogues and monologues, held together not by action but by verbal content."
Le Malade imaginaire by Molière
With sets, costumes and wigs, the production is presented to full houses and offered again the following week because too many spectators had been turned back at the doors.
In an interview given in 1972 and published in 1976 in Le Théâtre canadien-français, Jean retrospectively analysed his journey from the moment of his arrival in Ottawa. “It is useless to say that I have known collaborators, companies, failures, successes, comings and goings, conflicts, folklore, camaraderie, enmities. (…). We were not gentle with one another, but it was rarely nasty or malicious, and our small trifles and doings were recounted daily in Le Droit and brought about endless commentaries in our local theatre circles.”
As for Hedwige, she was now writing scripts for radio and television, acting in Strindberg's Mademoiselle Julie for the Théâtre du Pont-Neuf and La Maison de Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca for the Théâtre de la Colline. In 1959, she was hired by Radio-Canada-Ottawa for the television programmes “À vue d'oeil” and “À la carte”. She acted as researcher, animator, commentator and author of sketches. She also taught diction and initiation to dramatic arts at Pensionnat Notre-Dame de Lourdes and at the University of Ottawa. In 1960, she directed La Belle au bois by Jules Supervielle. Jean directed dramas for CKCH radio. He also wrote four television dramas for CBOFT, two of which were aired nationally. He interpreted eleven characters on stage while continuing to teach French phonetics, diction and dramatic arts at the University. From 1960 on, he would specialise in directorial work.
One has to remember that there were no direct links at that time between the training given at the university and the work required for the production of plays by the Société dramatique. The actors were referred to as “semi-professionals”, coming from the Ottawa-Hull community and from different university programs. The Société dramatique then functioned as do today's non-profit companies. Jean directed and designed the sets; Hedwige acted in all the productions with the intensity and the quality that always characterised her work. She also designed makeup and costumes, and supervised their realisation. She administered the very small budgets then available with an exemplary transparency, and publicized the productions. She established all the necessary links with journalists, guests, professors and high school teachers. She was responsible for the printing and selling of tickets, and most importantly, she coordinated the writing and illustration of the very elaborate programmes published for every major production. Professors from different disciplines contributed to these Cahiers,which gave the productions their visual signature and their theoretical frame.
But Jean and Hedwige nourished a very legitimate ambition. They wanted to show their productions on national and international tours. But at that time, only the most important productions from France and Montreal would take that kind of risk. Nevertheless, their dream would come true in 1963.They had in hand a production which had received excellent reviews: La Cantatrice chauve by Eugène Ionesco. In order to leave on a tour from the Atlantic to the Pacific, they co-founded the Théâtre des Deux Rives, a company with a constitution signed by its twelve members. The objectives were to “present good theatre, in French, in many cities from Ottawa to Vancouver”. Its members agreed to pay their share of expenses and, if the situation should arise, to benefit from the profits. I was then a member of the company and of the cast of this Ionesco production.
The company did leave on tour, first to Anglophone Ontario. We performed at the University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre where we were awarded the Special Honorary Award of the 13th National Festival of Interuniversity Theatre. We went on to McMaster University in Hamilton where “An enthusiastic full house of about 300 spectators received the play warmly. Several times they interrupted the Ionesco production with applause and at the end gave the French Canadian performers five curtain calls. […] The actors were so much of a team that it is difficult to single any one of them out,”wrote Rex Deverell in a local newspaper.
But instead of continuing on to Vancouver, the company did a complete turn east, all the way to Nancy (France), where they had been invited by Jack Lang for the second edition of his Festival mondial de théâtre universitaire. Our participation at this festival would confirm the talent of Jean Herbiet as director, and the professional scope of the company's work.
Six curtain calls for this show that will remain for us and for the public one of the most attractive moments, the most joyfull, of the festival, writes the journalist of Le Républicain Lorrain. And it is not the sets, nor the costumes nor the special effects that have contributed to our admiration. The merit of the company is therefore greater as it has manifested itself solely through its mise en scène, the intelligent understanding of the text and a very sure interpretation, percussive even.
We bring back to Ottawa the Festival's second prize, together with the gold medal of the Fédération des Sociétés françaises du théâtre amateur and the memory of a private meeting with Eugène Ionesco. In the above mentioned 1972 interview, Jean remembers:
I am happy with quite a few things, unhappy with many others. It is said that the best I have done is La Cantatrice chauve, presented in Nancy, and Le Roi se meurt. But one has to beware of theatre memories, as much as of childhood memories. It was never as beautiful as we remember and never as ugly… Great moments of theatre always occur in the encounters between a play, the way it is directed and a given public…
And he adds :”For La Cantatrice chauve, we had gone to the end of something, to the limit of the participants' possibilities, of the material means of the University of Ottawa”. To go “to the end of something”…”to the limit of possibilities”… was then and would remain the only way for Jean and Hedwige to engage in their work. It was their way of naming the prodigious creative energy and intelligence with which they always served theatre.
In 1965, they assessed their artistic work of the previous seven years: 21 productions, 18 plays, 1 recital, 2 conference presentations; 141 characters, 68 actors; 111 performances 95 of which were given in Ottawa and 16 in international venues; 30 000 seats sold, therefore 4,285 spectators a year, 2,142 per production and 270 per performance. Very rare were those who could say as much then. They nevertheless decided to:
- augment the quality of their productions;
- have a rigorous work discipline; and
- participate in festivals and conferences.
From 1965 to 1971, productions happened at a very impressive rate: Les Justes by Albert Camus, Comédie by Samuel Beckett, the world premiere of Jet de pierre by Paul Claudel, an Ontario and Québec tour with Georges Dandin by Molière, the television presentation of Pique-nique en campagne by Fernando Arrabal, the Canadian premiere of En regardant tomber les murs by Guy Foisy, Les Troyennes by Euripides for the Festival de théâtre expérimental organised during Expo 67, and also Dis Joe by Samuel Beckett, Terre des hommes by Jean Herbiet, La Soif et la faim by Eugène Ionesco, Monsieur Fugue ou Le Mal de terre by Liliane Atlan and Victor ou Les Enfants au pouvoir by Roger Vitrac.
This artistic work, done without respite, accompanied the building of a solidly structured university programme in theatre, and of a reputation of quality which would extend to the artistic community, the theatre profession itself and the whole region.
In March 1970, Jean and Hedwige staged another grand premiere: the Comédie des Deux Rives was invited to the Studio of the National Arts Centre for the creation of Elkerlouille, a play written by Jean inspired by Elkerlick, a Flemish morality play of the XVth Century. He made of it an ironic comedy in four parts, performed like a series of circus acts, and set around the character of Pidouille, a man-clown distressed by the idea of death. According to Jean-Guy Sabourin, first director of Théâtre français at the National Arts Center,
There are few examples in the history of Canadian theatre where a professional company has invited a young company to take part in its season. We are doing it for many reasons. We want to pay homage to those who have prepared, maintained and developed the public before the opening of the National Arts Center. And the Comédie des Deux Rives is presently the oldest company active in the region […] Moreover, I sincerely believe in the work accomplished by the Comédie des Deux Rives directed with tenacity and intelligence by Jean Herbiet.
And what is theatre for Jean Herbiet? In a 1969 interview, given as he was directing Monsieur Fugue ou Le Mal de terre by Liliane Atlan, he explained the fundamentals of his choices.
I like plays that say things in a succinct fashion, very concisely, fast, without superfluous sentimentalism, but with strength, where essential questions are asked over and over. Plays which ask “why ?”. Why man ? Why suffering ? Why love ? When man is naked before heaven, raises his fist or lowers his head … the rest is not important.
And again: “It seems to me that I premeditated all that I was to do at the university. We had to establish theatre as I conceived it. See if it was possible. Make it happen with the means I had access to and which were extremely limited. […] We had to establish a theatrical tradition, start with the classics… Start with productions that were sure to please. It took some time for people here to accept… the kind of theatre that a University must do. Go right to the end… it is also an academic characteristic to go to the end of things… and I don't know if—for me—this is perfectionism… I have to find the essential… go right to the very end…”
In 1971, Jean became director of Théâtre français at the National Arts Centre, a position that he would hold until 1981. He would continue to do his creative work through his fundamental search for new languages for the theatre. His dramaturgical readings would each time go to the essential. With the puppet master Félix Mirbt, he created Woyzeck by Büchner (1974) and Le Songe by Strindberg (1977), productions which were to establish the NAC on the international scene. Afterwards, and for the next four years, he was general director of the Centre culturel canadien in Paris. When he returned to Ottawa, he reintegrated his favourite fields of mise en scène and teaching. For her part, Hedwige continued her work as actress, director, teacher, and author, maintaining a very close relationship to her artist friends in Ottawa and Gatineau.
Both of them, in different and complementary ways, were successful in having the University of Ottawa create and continuously improve programs for the training of theatre artists. It all started with the foundation of a department of Fine Arts of which Jean was interim director, and of an autonomous Theatre department (1979). Links were established and maintained with the professional practise of theatre, thus asserting the necessary relationship between university research and artistic creation.
Hedwige Herbiet and Jean Herbiet were full-fledged artists. They stand amongst the founders of theatre in the Ottawa valley. Their achievements are inscribed in the history of our local theatre which goes back to 1886. They have worked artistically to ensure the resurgence and survival of theatre in French in the Federal capital and to assert its place at the University of Ottawa.
Jean and Hedwige died in 2008: Jean in the evening of the 31st of March, Hedwige during the night of November 25th. They were our colleagues, and most of all, our friends.
Hedwige Herbiet February 28th 1934 – November 25th 2008
Jean Herbiet December 16th 1930 – March 31st 2008
Information and quotations are taken from articles and interviews published in Le Théâtre canadien-français, Archives des lettres canadiennes V, Fides, 1976; from the thesis written by Marcel Fortin, Le théâtre d'expression française dans l'Outaouais des origines à 1967, Université d'Ottawa, École des Études supérieures, 1985; and from programmes and other documents of the Comédie des Deux Rives kept in the Archives of the University of Ottawa and in the Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-française (Fonds Jean-Herbiet).
Publications by Jean Herbiet: Job's Kit (Leméac, 1967); Terre des hommes, (Leméac, 1967); La Rose rôtie (Leméac, 1972)