Les Filles Du Roi (now playing at the Cultch, York Theatre, until May 27th) is a trilingual musical of ambitious scope. This epic explores an early period of Canadian history with gorgeous costumes, a focus on important themes, and a musical score that interweaves French, Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) and English.
Les Filles Du Roi began as an idea of Julie McIssac, a director and performer who also plays Marie-Jeanne Lespérance, a strong and spirited French woman and one of the play’s central characters. Realizing that she wanted to include the perspectives of the First Nations, McIssac sought out the director and composer, Corey Payette, to co-write the book and lyrics. On opening night at the York Theatre, Payette received the 2018 Canada Council John Hirsch Prize for his work on Children of God, a play which explores the multi-generational impact of residential schools.
McIssac and Payette’s collaborative vision is brought to life by a talented cast, and set & costume design by Marshall McMahen, with the assistance of Konwahonwá:wi Stace, who created the intricate beadwork on the Mohawk clothing.
The play opens with the arrival of shiploads of les filles du roi (daughters of the King), young women who were sent to the colony of New France (Quebec) to be married off to settlers. Their arrival affects the already uneasy relationship between the French and the First Nations. Les filles du roi are to “populate the New World.” As the Mohawk fur-trader, Jean-Baptiste, observes, “it’s already populated.”
Between 1663 and 1673, nearly 800 young French women made the dangerous journey across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence River. These journeys had more in common with interstellar travel than with ocean crossings today. Life within a contained colony. A strange landscape. No hope of return. Still, these young women are hopeful. With their dowries of combs and linens, they seek an escape from grim Parisian poverty, cleaner air, and a more open horizon.
Instead, they find that they are prisoners of a brutal patriarchal system. Their situation within the walled encampment combines the oppression of the Handmaid’s Tale with the threat of Game of Thrones—as a woman you have no rights and Winter is coming.
While most of the filles du roi are summarily married off to farmers, Marie-Jeanne Lespérance is not. Instead, Marie-Jeanne chafes against the regiment inside the walled fort. Although this is a strict patriarchy, her immediate oppressor is a woman, Madame Savoie (played by Laura Di Cicco), who wears her Catholic faith like armor. An observation about the “the Handmaid’s Tale” in the New Yorker applies equally well to this Marie-Jeanne’s life in New France: “the patriarchy is not a coterie of particular men—the particular men hardly matter. Patriarchy is the logic of a system.”
A Mohawk sister and brother, Kateri (Kaitlyn Yott) and Jean-Baptiste (Raes Calvert) represent an alternative. The pair has come to the French settlement to trade furs. Where New France is oppressive and patriarchal, the Mohawk provide matriarchal balance; Kateri is destined to become her people’s next Clan Mother. The Mohawk offer freedom from bad air and small minds, and a relationship with the land based on respect. This way of life, and the kind-hearted Jean-Baptiste, holds instant appeal for Marie-Jeanne. Romance—and trouble—ensues.
With so many big themes at play, not to mention bulletins about the movements of English armies, and only 90-minutes of stage time there isn’t much space for nuance or for characters to work through their arcs. There are some moments where the plot feels a bit like a reel of Canadian Heritage Minutes, telling us exactly why things matter. The danger of taking the past at speed is that you end up flattening its complexity. Thankfully, the tri-lingual songs add layered depth to character and plot.
It’s no surprise that the colonists are portrayed as narrow-minded, unwashed, and violent to women…or that the Mohawk are portrayed as being much better. A recurring theme is: what if the Europeans had learned from the First Peoples instead of seeking to dominate them?
A good question. Unfortunately, knowing what we do about the catastrophic impact of European disease on the Indigenous population of the Americas, tragedy seems to have been all but inevitable. As the Times notes in a review of the history 1491: “According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the Indians may have died almost immediately on contact with various European diseases, particularly smallpox.” For all the cruelty of European colonialists, the microbes that they carried and coughed into the New World caused the greatest devastation.
But Indigenous Peoples are resilient, thriving, and Canada still has much to learn from their perspectives. Indeed, you might argue that—with our growing respect for the environment and our democratic and egalitarian values—we are beginning to resemble the Iroquois Confederacy more than the cramped, violent hierarchy of 17th century Europe. It’s a possibility that reconciliation could continue to make true.
In the play’s most powerful song, “Sken-Nen Gowa (Great Peace)”, sung by Chelsea Rose, we see a vision of this coming together. It’s a beautiful song.