Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

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Quebec City, Le Soleil, Saturday, September 29, 1984


Little Aurore Back on Stage

Montreal (PC).— It isn't easy to slip into the character of Aurore, the child martyr. Adèle Reinhart has known this since she began devoting herself to this victim character, who has now become part of folklore, and whom she plays on the stage of the ‘‘Quat’sous.’’

by Pierre ROBERGE

"Restraint, submission, a faltering voice and heart-rending cries are all required" when she is martyrized, says the actress in an interview. "When the rehearsal goes well, you come out of it drained and you feel better. Otherwise, you have a lump in your throat."

The sad reality at the outset is the death of little Aurore Gagnon in 1920, in the district of Lotbinière. The cruel stepmother, Marie-Anne Houde, saw her sentence of death commuted and died, two years later, in the psychiatric section of the Kingston prison in Ontario.

Barely a few months after the sensational trial, the tragedy was brought to the stage. This melodrama -- into which comical scenes or sections of silent films were sometimes inserted -- was performed more often than any other play in Quebec, perhaps 5 000 performances, until the time it was adapted for cinema (1952).

The actress, originally from Hull and whose last role was in Tremblay's ‘‘Les Belles-Sœurs,’’ includes in her work the pursuit of a sort of state of grace of unhappiness "after which the body follows."

She also underlines Aurore's ambiguity, residing in her fatal lack of energy and, at the same time, in the energy of despair she displays in the face of death.

Reinhart adds that beyond the brutal contrast between good and evil, between Aurore and her cruel stepmother (performed by Louison Danis), the director, René-Richard Cyr, wants to go further and show the grey zone, where we find a child who may well have been born a victim.

Aurore doesn't understand her destiny and hesitates a bit when the blows rain down. But the educational model in this milieu, at this time, prevails each time over the basic survival reflex, "And if she were to run away from home, where would she go?"

Among the exhibits at the trial is a letter of explanation to the teacher, "When a child doesn't act right, she has to be straightened out..." writes the cruel stepmother who, ultimately, was acting for the good of the little girl.

‘‘Whether she says yes, no or maybe, she will be hit," says the actress. "And yet she is intelligent, even if her only defence is to say nothing, to take refuge in her black hole.’’

Repeated violence

There is a touch of exoticism in the tragedy: slices of bread spread with soap, hands placed on the wood stove. But, as Reinhard emphasises, the point isn't to insinuate that this was all a long time ago and that there aren't any more mistreated children.

‘‘In a recent case of cigarette burns, the child on his hospital bed said he loved his father, to the point of excusing him, 'I was perhaps being bothersome,' he said."

Despite all the darkness of Aurore l’enfant martyre (Aurore the Child Martyr), the actress sees the tragedy as a valid means of communication, in the same capacity as a comedy or a variety show, "The moments of violence will release tensions in the audience."

Perhaps worse than the violence is the indifference of those who knew the family, the fear of meddling in what is regarded as a private affair. In the play, the parish priest (Jean-Louis Millette) is aware of everything, but he learned about it in the confessional, and there is the famous confidentiality of confession.

‘‘Nowadays, there are all sorts of reasons not to intervene. In the street, you can simply step aside, leave the small drama behind, and life continues without a problem," explains the actress playing the part of Aurore.

The new manager of the Quat’Sous, Louise Latraverse, chose this melodrama to mark the beginning of her term at the head of this small Montreal theatre. She knows that this story is still very present in the collective consciousness.

The current text also required reconstruction work. For decades, theatre troupes performed Aurore using only a basic framework and rough dialogue written on pieces of paper that actors passed back and forth to one another.

René-Richard Cyr collaborated with the writer Alonzo Le Blanc, who had himself recorded the memories of former actor Marc Forrez, who died in 1981. They also based themselves on the feature-length film and the court records, from which, however, important documents are missing, such as the deposition of the accused.

Source: Pierre Roberge, "La petite Aurore remonte sur scène," Le Soleil (Québec), September 29, 1984.

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