By Jake Bleiberg
If you walk down the Main — south of St. Catherine, where, despite the creation of the Quartier des spectacles, the boulevard still holds onto some of its seedy past — you might look questioningly at the grand building on the west side of the street. You might think to yourself, that the resplendent façade at 1182 St. Laurent, which is the front of the Monument-National theatre, seems out of place couched between strip clubs and run-down Chinese restaurants.
And you would be right.
The theatre is a throwback. It’s something that’s held on from a city past. It’s an anachronism. However, it’s certain that the colorful history of this once Montreal landmark, can teach some lessons to the Montreal and Quebec of today.
The idea for the Monument-National was born in the early 1880s by the l’Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (the present day St-Jean-Baptiste Society). Its purpose was, as a Holy Father and association member put it, to be the “le coeur de notre nationale… le boulevard inexpugnable de notre langue, de nos institutions, de nos lois et, dans certain mesure, de notre religion elle-même.”
The Association carefully chose the location for this center of French-Canadian culture on St. Laurent, the historic junction between the city’s Francophone east and Anglophone west. This choice, at a time when Montreal’s English population dominated the city economically and culturally, represented a sort of drawing of a line in the sand. But in classic Montreal form, the building of the Monument-National was massively delayed. By the time it opened on June 24th, 1893, the ‘impregnable boulevard of French Canadian culture’ was at the heart of the city’s Jewish immigrant neighborhood.
It is one of those historic ironies, too funny to be fiction, that the openness and inter-cultural exchange of which Montreal is so proud, was born, in part, from the city’s woeful construction record.
The Monument-National, four stories and half a block of imposing Victorian stone, was, at the time of its completion, the largest building in the city. To offset the cost of its drawn-out construction and ruinous upkeep, l’Association decided to rent it out to a number of the Yiddish theatre troops that were on the rise in Montreal’s Jewish quarter. It would remain a community center and home for French theater, but the bills needed paying. This economic necessity, made for some odd bedfellows at the Monument, but it also enabled some very real and very important exchange between Jewish and French Canadian culture.
On October 16, 1910, the Monument-National hosted a mass rally organized by its regular tenant, the openly anti-Semetic, L’Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française. This rally — which proceeded to march down to Champs de Mars to hear a speech in which Henri Bourassa made reference to blood libel and ‘the two-thousand-year-old battle of the enemies of the Christian religion — ’ displayed anti-Semitism on a scale and with an intensity not before seen in North America. Just a few weeks later the Monument’s theatre was again packed. This time, the people pressing up against the rafters were Jews, rich and poor, speaking in a mix of Yiddish, Russian, and occasionally English. They had gathered to see a play starring Esther Rokhl Kaminska, known as the Mother of Yiddish Theater.
Surely there is something perplexing in this sequence of events. These gatherings don’t belong under the same roof. What were Jews doing in “le coeur de notre nationale?”
The surprise here is that it was more the October 16th rally than the Yiddish theater that was out of place in the Monument. Although complex, the Monument’s history is dominantly one of amicable Jewish/French-Canadian relations. On the boards of l’Association’s theater, friendships were formed between Jewish and French-Canadian performers, most notably between legendary Quebec playwright Gratien Gélinas and Yiddish director Maurice Schwartz. French-Canadians and Jews shared use of the building, traded theater techniques, and were even known to attend each other’s performances.
It went further though, for many years the Monument-National was rented out to serve as a Synagogue during the Jewish high holidays and its theater was also home to Chinese opera. It is certainly true that there was antagonism and conflict between Jews and French-Canadian, but the fact that there was also cooperation and cultural exchange should not be neglected. l’Association was genuinely pleased that the theater was serving multiple communities, and not just because of the money it made them.
Following World War II, as lower St. Laurent began to gain its seedy reputation as prostitution, gambling, and trafficking moved into the neighborhood, the Monument fell into disuse. In the wake of the Quiet Revolution, and in the same year Montreal hosted the Olympics, the St-Jean Baptiste Society moved out of the building, and the once proud Monument fell into disrepair and oblivion.
Decades later the building, which had miraculously escaped demolition several times, was taken over and restored by the National Theatre School of Canada. Today, it is once again a center for performing arts, and the oldest continually operating theatre in Quebec. So perhaps the Monument is not such an anachronism. Perhaps its history — as a place where people of different cultures, languages, and religions could not only live and work together, but learn from each other — has a very important lesson to teach to the Montreal and Quebec of today.