The Théâtre de Société and Opera

Theatricals were performed in colleges and garrisons soon after the Conquest. As early as 1780, governor Haldimand gave the Jeunes Messieurs Canadiens troupe permission to play Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin (Scapin's Treachery) in the abandoned Jesuit church. The troupe was directed by Joseph Quesnel, who left St. Malo (France) around 1779. On 11 November 1789 Quesnel, Pierre-Amable de Bonne, Joseph-François Perrault and a few others signed a contract with painter Louis Dulongpré who founded the Théâtre de Société in Montréal. This transformed the Jeunes Messieurs Canadiens (Young Canadian Gentlemen) into a professional company financed on a subscription basis. Among other associates were numerous Freemassons from the new francophone Frères du Canada lodge. Four performances were held at Dulongpré's residence. He also provided the accessories and painted the woodland, bedroom and street backgrounds. This type of light bourgeois entertainment, featuring Molière's and Jean-François Regnard's comedies, quickly led to a confrontation with the priest of Notre-Dame parish. The first Canadian opera, Quesnel's comedy entitled Colas et Colinette, was performed all the same. It received a favourable review in the Montreal Gazette on 21 January 1790.

The fact that this unsigned painting of unknown origin bears no inscriptions made its identification and attribution all the more difficult. It is nonetheless in good condition, its original appearance virtually preserved. It was initially thought to be a portrait of the first mayor of Montréal, Jacques Viger, but an engraving and a charcoal drawing, copies from the late-19th century, enables us to identify the subject as Joseph Quesnel. Other more recent copies of this portrait probably exist in private collections. Louis Dulongpré, a friend of Quesnel and a partner in the Théâtre de Société, was long believed to be the painter of is portrait, but it is now attributed to Gerritt Schipper, active in Lower Canada between 1808 and 1810.

Attributed to Gerritt Schipper (1770-1825), Joseph Quesnel (1746-1809), ca 1808-1809, oil on canvas pasted on wood, 31,4 x 23,1 cm, Vaudreuil, Musée régional Vaudreuil-Soulanges, X973.963. Photo Robert Derome.

Joseph Quesnel's contemporaries considered him to be an accomplished poet, playwright and musician. He started writing a new comedy, complete with ariettas, entitled Lucas et Cécile many years after the successful Colas et Colinette. On 3 December 1808, the Courrier de Québec announced under the headline "for the Benefit of the poor [free translation of French]" that the Société des Messieurs Canadiens would play Colas et Colinette and Lucas et Cécile for its season-ticket holders. It remains unknown whether they were in fact performed. A single copy of Lucas et Cécile has survived and it contains only the ariettas, bereft of their musical accompaniment. The musicologist John Beckwith completed its orchestration in 1991. The libretto was archeologically reconstructed by Pierre Turcotte in 1999.

Joseph Quesnel, "Lucas et Cécile", 1808, manuscript score, 31 x 25 cm, Québec, Musée de l'Amérique française, Archives du Séminaire, fonds Verreau, P 32/45/3. Photographic reproduction of page 26.

Attributed to Louis Dulongpré (1759-1843), Joseph-François Perrault (1753-1844), oil on canvas, 73 x 54,2 cm , Montréal, Château Ramezay Museum, 1998.916, donation of Mrs. F. D. Leroux born Perrault, Varennes November 1915, through Mr W. D. Lighthall. Photo Robert Derome.

P. R. Casgrain after Louis Dulongpré, Joseph-François Perrault (1753-1844), engraving published in Philippe Baby Casgrain, La vie de Joseph-François Perrault : surnommé le père de l'éducation du peuple canadien, Québec, C. Darveau, 1898, 176 p., frontispiece. Signature: b.l. « P. B. Casgrain delt »; b.r. « Dulompré pint ». Photo Robert Derome.

This unsigned portrait belonged to a Perrault descendant. The artist was identified by an engraving published in Perrault's biography in 1898. In 1789, Perrault was a partner in the Théâtre de Société, where he became acquainted with Dulongpré. Although Perrault was declared "dangerous to the government and Canadians" and Judge de Bonne's henchman, his necrology pronounced him "the Father of Education of the Canadian people [free translation of French]" for his work to provide poor children with bilingual public schools.