01 THE MONUMENT-NATIONAL IN THE CITY
Officially opened on 24 June 1893 by the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montreal (the present-day Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste), the Monument-National used to play and still does play a central role in Montreal life. Located at the historical interface between the Francophone neighbourhoods (to the east) and the Anglophone areas (to the west), it also found itself in the heart of the Jewish and Chinese sections on the most multiethnic street in Montreal.
At the time, the Francophones, who had been the largest population group in Montreal since 1861, did not have the benefit of a decent-sized community hall of their own, nor even a theatre, whereas the Anglophones had three large theatres, a massive concert hall and a host of multi-purpose halls for their social and cultural activities. Also, while Canada's metropolis already contained ten or so monuments honouring British heroes, nothing in the city's streets or squares recalled the courage of the founders of New France and the city itself.
It was these twin omissions that the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste wanted to rectify by erecting this huge complex. Designed to serve as both a community facility and a cultural and artistic centre, the Monument-National was the first "monument," as such, to celebrate the glory of the French-Canadian "nation" and this was why it was called the "National Monument."
02 A COMMUNITY UNDER THREAT IN A CHANGING WORLD
Initially planned for a site in the present-day Old Montreal, the construction of the Monument-National actually began in 0891 in the centre of the new city. The idea behind the project was certainly ambitious: in addition to demonstrating the audacity and technical mastery of French-Canadian engineers and architects (the building was not only one of the biggest in Montreal at the time, but also the first whose frame was made entirely in steel), the Monument-National also set itself apart from all the other big Victorian-style buildings of the time because of its appearance and design. Once completed, the Monument-National's huge auditorium and Neo-Renaissance façade were a visible symbol of the determination of its designers and backers to make it a unique site in Montreal.
The Monument-National was part of a vast, never-completed project to build a national boulevard in Montreal, similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris, which was to link Saint-Denis Street to Saint-Laurent Boulevard, At the far west end of this thoroughfare would stand the Monument-National, while at the far east end would be the Opera-National, an edifice that was, in the end, never built.
The aim of this grandiose project was to consolidate the French-Canadian presence on Saint-Laurent and stem the English Canadian districts in Montreal from spreading to the east of this symbolic axis.
03 THE EARLY YEARS: THE MONUMENT'S "OPEN ARMS"
From the moment of its inauguration in 1893, in the heart of what was in the process of becoming the Jewish district, the Monument-National established itself as a hotbed of creativity, innovation, debate and performance that made it one of the most important multiethnic community and cultural centres in America. Besides the Francophones who adopted it right away, the Jews, the Chinese, the Irish, and even the members of Anglophone high society came to events there and "rubbed shoulders" with Francophone Quebec artists, Jewish comedians, the Canton Opera's Chinese stars, Italian singers and so on.
Apart from the huge auditorium on the first floor where the big celebrities of the late 19th century performed, the Monument-National contained, on the ground floor, a 200-to-300-seat burlesque theatre called the Starland, and in the basement, the Eden, a wax museum and a small amusement hall. The Monument-National also housed around 20 meeting and assembly rooms that it made available to the various non-profit associations and societies that contributed to the vitality of Montreal's social and cultural life.
04 THE MONUMENT-NATIONAL AND THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT
Francophone Quebec feminism was born at the Monument-National in the late 19th century. Grouped around Marie Gerin-Lajoie within a committee called the "Dames patronnesses de l'Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste," the most prominent Francophone women in Montreal at the time undertook a massive, vigorous campaign to promote French-Canadian women in all sections of the country's social, cultural, economic, and political life. With the help of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, these women would set up the first public training courses for women, encourage women to group within social and cooperative organizations, demand that women have access to post-secondary education, and create mutual-aid networks for women. This movement, which worked tirelessly towards the recognition of the legal status of women, also struggled, from the start, for women's right to vote. Educator and journalist Idola Saint-Jean, a well-known single woman and a militant "from the get go" was the figurehead personality of Quebec's suffragettes. For almost forty years, the Monument-National thus served as the seat of the Francophone women's movement in Quebec.
05 THE MONUMENT-NATIONAL: A BREEDING GROUND OF NEW IDEAS AND A MULTIETHNIC CULTURAL CENTRE
For almost sixty years, the Monument-National served as an important centre of continuing education. Started in 1895, the "cours publics du Monument" trained tens of thousands of people in engineering, law, accounting, hygiene, physics, the arts, history, and literature. Later key institutions like the École polytechnique, the École des Hautes Etudes, the École des beaux-arts and the Conservatoire d'art dramatique, all had their origins in the Monument-National. The "Monument" was also the first home of the domestic science school founded by the "Dames patronnesses" in 1904 to teach women the basics of hygiene, dietetics and household and financial management.
The Monument-National's action program —and through it, that of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste — also fostered the labour movement by housing a host of workers' groups representing all sectors of the economy— commercial clerks, factory employees, salesladies and so on. In this role, the Monument-National contributed to the rise of unionism in Quebec. It was with a similar rationale, that the Monument also helped the emergence of mutual help societies at a time when banks were refusing to lend to the less well-off. In fact, the cooperative movement in Montreal started at the Monument-National.
By virtue of its location, large auditorium and the many social and community organizations that it housed, the Monument-National was an integral part of all the far-ranging political debates that marked Quebec right up to the early 196os. From Honoré Mercier, who delivered his last speech in 1893, up to Pierre Bourgault in 1966, the voices of all the great orators of Quebec and Canada resonated in the Monument's main hall.
The Monument also hosted the first Canadian Jewish Congress in 1919, and served as a speaker's platform for dominant personalities on the international scene, like David Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister of Israel.
The Chinese, Syrian, Italian, Black and Irish communities all, from time to time, benefited from the Monument-National's hospitality and support, as did the Jews for whom the Monument was the main Jewish community centre in North America outside New York. In this way, the Monument established itself as one of the first and most important multiethnic community centres in America.
06 ON STAGE AT THE MONUMENT: INNOVATION AND AVANT-GARDE
From 1895 on, the main auditorium of the Monument-National hosted its first concerts and theatrical shows. Yiddish theatre was born there in 1896, the biggest Anglophone stars of North American theatre appeared on its stage, as did the top personalities on the operatic and international music scene, such as Quebec opera singer Emma Albani (Emma Lajeunesse) and pianist Ignacy Ian Paderewski.
While the Monument-National was the most important venue for Yiddish theatre outside New York until the late 1940s, it also played an essential role in the development of Francophone theatre in Quebec. It was at the Monument-National and in its theatrical troupe, the Soirees de famille — founded in 1898 — that the pioneers of Francophone professional theatre in Quebec received their training. The first mass-audience Quebec shows, like La Passion by Germain Beaulieu with Julien Daoust, were created at the Monument, attracting as many as 10,000 paying spectators per week. Thanks to the support of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the Monument-National was much more than a place for producing and performing theatrical works, it was also a remarkable centre of artistic innovation and experimentation. Starting in the early 1920s, small local experimental groups (like Les Compagnons de la petite scène and Théâtre intime) or their foreign counterparts (like the Vilna, the avant-garde Lithuanian group that acted in Yiddish) brought modern theatre to Montreal.
07 ON STAGE AT THE MONUMENT: ECLECTICISM AND POPULAR SUCCESS
From 1898 to the late 1940s, the Monument-National's two main stages (the main auditorium and the Starland) hosted thousands of shows and attracted millions of spectators from Montreal and the surrounding area. From Olivier Guimond, father and son, to La Bolduc (Mary Travers), from Gratien Gélinas to the famous Jewish comedian Menasha Skulnick, from Édith Piaf or Charles Trenet to Molly Picon and Alys Robi, there wasn't a national or international celebrity in theatre, song or variety that did not stop over or spend a few days or weeks at the Monument. Acts or groups like Les Veillées du Bon Vieux Temps (1923-1943), the Canadian Operetta Society (1921-1933), Lionel Daunais and Charles Goulet's famous Variétés lyriques (1937-1955). Gratien Gélinas' Les Fridolinades (1938-1946), Pierre Dagenais' astonishing Équipe (1942-1947), and New Yorker Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre not only played at the Monument-National. they stayed there for long stretches.
The Variétés lyriques and Les Fridolinades, like the Canadian Operetta Society, had their offices and rehearsal and production rooms at the Monument.
Until the end of the 1940s, the Monument-National was thus the most important creative centre for the performing arts in Montreal and one of its most important stages.
08 THE LONG SLIDE DOWNHILL
After the Second World War, the Monument-National went into a long downward spiral. The Saint-Laurent Boulevard — or "the Main" — as it was known, developed a bad reputation. Prostitution, gambling, and trafficking of all kinds repelled the Monument's regulars, who then opted for the large, safer, more comfortable and more modern locales on Sainte-Catherine Street. However, the area's bad reputation was not the only reason for the Monument's decline. The war had dealt an almost fatal blow to Jewish theatre, which disappeared in Europe and the United States. The big productions in Yiddish became increasingly rare in Québec, as elsewhere, and were only preserved by efforts of amateur groups with few resources.
The post-war era was also difficult for the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which had succeeded the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste but which suffered serious financial difficulties that prevented it from investing the large sums required for the upkeep of an aging building. Left to itself, the Monument deteriorated rapidly. While a few great international acts, like Édith Piaf, Henri Salvador, and the Compagnons de la chanson, continued to put on a few memorable appearances there, as did Théâtre du Rideau Vert or more ephemeral groups like Theatre-Club or Théâtre du Rire, the Monument had become only a shadow of its former self and its glory days seemed well and truly over. Destined for apparently ineluctable demolition as part of the municipal authorities' various urban renewal projects, the Monument-National sank into oblivion.
09 RENAISSANCE: REBIRTH, CENTENARY
For almost twenty years, from the end of the 1950s to the mid-1970s, the Monument-National remained one of Montreal's best-kept secrets. After miraculously avoiding the wrecking ball on several occasions, and the real-estate speculators' grasp, the Monument was saved in extremis by the joint action of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Québec's Ministère des Affaires culturelles. Officially designated as a protected cultural property in 1976, this heritage building was in such a state of disrepair that the National Theatre School of Canada, which occasionally used the main auditorium in the mid-1960s, did so at its own risk and peril. All the same, this did not prevent the School from gradually setting up shop there, as the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste had other ideas and moved out entirely in 1976. In September 1971, Arthur Gelber, a member of the School's Board of Governors, bought the Monument-National and reached an agreement with the School allowing it to use the Monument for the next seven years, In 1978, the School became the Monument's official sole owner, A few years later, the School, Phyllis Lambert and the "Sauvons Montreal" group launched a massive campaign to save the building, which resulted in its total restoration and eventual full-scale re-opening.
The National Theatre School of Canada was founded in Montreal in 1960, and offers professional training in all the theatrical disciplines: acting, playwriting, directing, set and costume design and technical production in both French and English. Over the years, due to concerted promotional efforts, the National Theatre School of Canada has established itself internationally as a high-quality, one-of-a-kind training facility that combines audacity with tradition, The fact that some of its courses are given in the rich heritage setting of the Monument-National undoubtedly enhances the quality of its teaching. This, and a firm determination to revitalize the Monument and tell people about its history are the two main arguments the School advanced in order to convince various levels of government to restore the building.
And that is how a hundred years later, day for day, after its official opening and thanks to the outstanding work of architectural firm Blouin, Faucher, Aubertin, Brodeur and Gauthier, the Monument-National underwent a remarkable rebirth on 24 June 1993.
Today, its two large auditoriums, the main one, (now called the Ludger-Duvernay Theatre after the founder of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal) and the Studio Hydro-Québec (which now occupies the space previously filled by the Starland and the Eden) combine the latest in technical requirements with the qualities and warmth of a place that has witnessed so much history, Montrealers now consider this venue, to which the Balustrade theatre cabaret was added in 1999, as among the most popular and well appreciated in their city, Each year, the Monument-National welcomes around 70,000 spectators, who come to applaud, like in the old days, the great stars of their time, performing in regular or experimental works in theatre, comedy, song, music or variety,
A young and vibrant hundred-year-old, Montreal's Monument-National is the oldest operating theatre in Quebec and its stages are once again among the most prestigious and dynamic in the country.