Groundbreaking Montreal writer David Fennario, who died Saturday at age 76, once picketed his own play at Place des Arts in support of striking ushers.
“My dad’s ethics were very, very strong and very pointed, and obviously you don’t cross picket lines,” his son Tom Fennario said in an interview. “Even though it was his own play, he ended up picketing it and not going in. That’s how he’d want to be remembered.”
Fennario was facing several health issues and died of organ failure, his family said. He had been battling the effects of Guillain-Barré syndrome since 2002.
He is best remembered for his classic play Balconville. It captured life among anglophones and francophones in blue-collar Pointe-St-Charles in the 1970s. The work followed the popular success of two previous plays, On the Job and Nothing to Lose.
Eda Holmes, Centaur Theatre’s artistic director, said Fennario will be remembered for his ability to tell the story of Montreal on stage.
“His voice was very, very precise to the place he was coming from, and he was a voice for the working class,” she said.
“He was a staunch defender of the working class, and the stories he chose to tell revealed the inequities visited upon the working class by corporate society. He was a very, very passionate, unique theatre artist.”
Balconville, at the time one of Canada’s rare bilingual plays, was first performed at the Centaur Theatre in 1979, a tumultuous time in Quebec history.
The Parti Québécois had recently come to power for the first time and was about to launch Quebec’s first sovereignty referendum.
Fennario made waves by “talking about what it was like to live side by side, English and French people in one building,” Holmes said. “How you both fight and find common ground, living side by side. And that defines Montreal.”
Centaur Theatre founder Maurice Podbrey met Fennario in the mid-1970s after someone at the Argo Bookshop suggested Fennario’s book, Without a Parachute.
“I got to Page 20 and I said this guy is a natural playwright and I called him up,” he recalled.
Podbrey invited him to the old stock-exchange building, the Centaur’s home in Old Montreal, and showed him around.
“I told him of my plans and dreams and he was amazed. I remember his statement — he said: ‘You mean, one can have a life doing things that are important to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if you’re very lucky and you think about it deeply, I think you can.’ And I hope I helped him do that, and he certainly helped me do that.”
The two would go on to become collaborators and friends. During Podbrey’s 28 years as artistic director, the Centaur would put on a half-dozen of Fennario’s plays.
It was Balconville, which set box-office records, that put Fennario on the literary map.
Podbrey said the play resonated so much in part because having English and French on the same stage was unheard of at the time.
“That was David — he brought the two communities together, struggling to make a living, dealing with phoney politicians, struggling to escape. There were two families, French and English, living side by side.”
Podbrey, who retired from the Centaur in 1997, said he’s grateful Fennario introduced him to a part of Montreal he knew nothing about.
“Montreal was always north of Sherbrooke St. (for me), but there was a considerable amount of English-speaking life south of Sherbrooke, and for David, of course, that was his home,” he said.
“That’s what he brought onto the stage and made me appreciate and understand as well. He introduced me to a level of life in Canada, in Montreal, that I would never have understood or ventured into without him leading me, showing me, demonstrating.”
He described Fennario as “a guru and a very good friend.”
“People like David come along very rarely,” Podbrey said. “He was an example of a marvellous artist and a guy who was true to his beliefs. I just wish to God he had had less illness and could have enjoyed his life.”
A Marxist who ran for Québec solidaire in the 2007 Quebec election, Fennario was a champion of the underdog.
Born in Verdun in 1947, he was “proud to be from a working-class area,” his son said. “Some people are raised to be proud of ethnicity. But my father was actually kind of proud of his class in a funny way.
“I think he felt like his whole life growing up, he was sort of just being prepared to be measured for a shovel and to get a regular Joe job and do nothing with himself. And I think he wanted to rage against that.”
As a youth, Fennario hitchhiked to the United States and spent time “bumming around,” Tom Fennario said.
“But in the end, I think he found his voice back home in Verdun and in the Pointe, where he also spent many years.
“Michel Tremblay on the francophone side was an inspiration to him,” Fennario added.
“And he realized, hey, we don’t have anyone doing that on the English side here in Montreal — telling stories about us. Theatre was all tales of the fur trade and British romantic misunderstandings and stuff. He thought that was bullshit and he wanted to do something that was true to where he came from. I guess there was a market for it and the timing was perfect.”
Fennario was “a tremendous entertainer and educator and was full of life,” said filmmaker Martin Duckworth, a longtime friend who in 2014 made a documentary about him, Fennario: The Good Fight.
“He was one of the most lively people I’ve ever known. Just full of imagination, full of knowledge of what’s going on in the world, full of love for the human race, caring deeply about the fate of the human race and of Canada and Quebec and Montreal.”
Fennario never complained about the debilitating effects of his rare nerve disorder, Duckworth said.
“He always insisted on living a full life, even though he was restricted to this wheelchair and couldn’t stand on his feet anymore.”
Fennario “conducted himself around the streets of Verdun and around his own apartment, while continuing endlessly to comment on the state of the world and the state of Verdun and the state of his family and friends, and the state of his imagination — all the works that he had in mind, all the plays he still wanted to write. You know, he never slowed down.”
Fennario’s original name was David Wiper. He took Fennario as his nom de plume from a folk song adapted by Bob Dylan, Pretty Peggy-O.
Fennario’s later plays included The Death of René Lévesque; Joe Beef; Condoville, a sequel to Balconville; and Motherhouse.
But nothing matched the reception that Balconville received.
In an interview when the play was performed at the Hudson Village Theatre in 2017, Fennario said anglo-franco relations have improved since the 1970s.
“Things have settled a bit,” he said. “We’re getting used to each other and making adjustments. We’re more comfortable with each others’ languages.
“There was very little mixing of the solitudes back then. The French went to Catholic school and the English went to Protestant school. So it wasn’t just segregation in the workplace — English working for an English boss — there was segregation along religious lines, too. We’ve benefited from leaving all that behind.”
Fennario also gave Montreal Gazette readers a laugh and a pronunciation lesson.
“We’re going to teach all those West Islanders how to say the ‘f’ word,” he said. “In the Pointe, we say it with an ‘a,’ not a ‘u.’ Fa** you!”
Fennario leaves behind his wife, Elizabeth, and three sons, Tom, Joel and Joseph.
His family is planning a private funeral. A public memorial will take place at a future date.
Fennario: The Good Fight captures Montreal playwright’s world view
Balconville in all its linguistic fury comes to Hudson