Marshall Button

Marshall ButtonPhoto:
Marshall Button

Marshall Button (actor, comedian, playwright, and artistic director) was born in 1958 in the bilingual mill town of Dalhousie, New Brunswick. Currently artist-in-residence at the Théâtre Capitol Theatre in Moncton, he is the author/performer of twelve professionally produced plays, the best known of which are the Lucien series, staged over 1500 times now for audiences in Canada, the U.S., and overseas.

The son of a Francophone mother and Anglophone father, Button graduated from Dalhousie Regional High School in 1976. Like many of his peers, he worked in the local NBIP (paper) mill to put himself through university. His summers of employment there, however, did not precipitate his leaving or affirm his desire for another class or place but cemented his loyalties to the people of his town. Rather than see illiteracy and defeat in the men he worked with, he saw wisdom and resilience—the strengths of a people historically marginalized by religion, language, and locale.

Shortly after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama at Bishops University, he captured those strengths in the comic character of Lucien, his most enduring creation. Conceived as a two-minute monologue in February 1984 to celebrate New Brunswick’s bicentennial, the first full show of Lucien (the character and show share the same name) premiered at St. Thomas University in March 1986. In the last two decades, Lucien has become better known than any other literary character in the province. Declared “a national treasure” by Peter Gzowski, Lucien, New Brunswick’s blue-collar philosopher, has been appreciatively received by audiences across the country.

As a mid-career, suitably disgruntled, low-skilled mill worker, Lucien is the working-class New Brunswick (and Canadian) everyman. A speaker of two languages, he is proficient in neither. Rather, his tongue is an amalgam of wit and slang, frustration and hope, English and French (what he terms “frenglish/franglais”). He is highly paid and ponderously slow, guardian of the shop-floor virtues of safety, rest, and moderation, all of which must be mastered if one is to endure years of button-pushing, level-checking, spirit-deflating shift work. He is both the boon and victim of trade unionism; pampered, under-utilized, and unfulfilled, he is left alone for long periods with his imaginary assistant to ruminate on things metaphysical. While automation has freed him from physical toil, it has not released him from the hard work of self-knowledge, which he pursues in undirected talk. It is that talk which audiences overhear in Marshall Button’s shows.

Most important for New Brunswickers, however, is his unique, place-based social gospel. Lucien bridges two linguistic communities (English and French), two cultural divides (Loyalist/Protestant and Acadian/Catholic), and two historically distinct socio-economic realities in the province (the administrative economies of the urban south and the resource-based economies of the rural north). His precarious position atop those social and economic fault-lines embodies the political history of our province, its unequal wealth distribution, and the always real though rarely discussed inequities around language, region, religion, and class. Lucien interrogates those inequities, offering audiences a glimpse into the real meaning of “robbing Peter to pay Pierre,” the rancorous slogan popularized in the 1960s by the Irving press to debase Acadian premier Louis Robichaud’s Equal Opportunity reforms.

In classic Rabelaisian fashion (subverting social hierarchy and bastardizing the King’s English), Button uses humour as an index of grievance in much the same way as Antonine Maillet does in Pélagie and La Sagouine. Just as la Sagouine uses humour to sustain herself while elbow deep in the dirty water of the rich, so does Lucien sustain himself with wit as he does penance on the paper machines. In the end, both are strengthened by their capacity to laugh at what they cannot easily change, and, in so doing, both are unique in displaying the quality of resilience characteristic of many rural, Catholic, working class New Brunswickers. Though they may be without urban sophistications, these New Brunswickers are not without the wisdom to see clearly through the double-talk of their leaders or the wit to bring them to their knees.

But whereas Maillet gives a voice to the Acadian New Brunswick experience, Lucien gives a voice to the populations that are neither Scots, Irish, Loyalist, Brayon, nor Acadian, but a mix of those by varying degrees. His people count among their ancestors French-speaking Acadian grandfathers who married non-French-speaking Irish grandmothers, and whose children are bilingual by accident of birth not by legislated decree. No one but Marshall Button, through Lucien, has ever spoken for these people or spoken in their tongue. And in that tongue is the endurance of a whole population.

Staged over 1500 times now for audiences across North America and in 2006 for the troops in Afghanistan, Lucien is an ambassador who is recognized outside the province as a humane champion of the men and women in this country who work in the mills, the mines, and the woods. “The appeal of the play,” said Button in The Brockville Recorder and Times, “is its universal message that to overlook the ‘lowly’ is to overlook those who through their innocence speak the greatest truths.” His pan-Canadian success is evidenced not only in his consistently sold out shows in Gander, Abitibi, Timmins, and other working-class hinterlands of Canada, but also in the number of guest appearances he has made on national radio and television, where he has been a favourite on Sounds Like Canada, Sunday Morning, Morningside, Royal Canadian Air Farce, and Sportsnet.

The Lucien series is now in its fourth installment, Helter Smelter (2008). In that show, Lucien has only one month to work before retirement—a retirement that we now know would have been considerably impoverished by the fact that, in January 2008, the Abitibi pulp mill in which he worked for his entire career shut down permanently, decimating the northern New Brunswick economy. Helter Smelter follows Lucien: A Labour of Love in Two Acts, Lucien’s Labour Lost, and Lucien Snowbird.

In addition to authoring the Lucien series, Button is author and director of Dieppe-Dieppe, a bilingual musical that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Dieppe raid and toured France in 2004. He was formerly artistic director of the Capitol Theatre (1996-2001); the artistic director of the Upper Canada Playhouse (Morrisburg, ON, 1987-96); founder and artistic director of the Comedy Asylum (Fredericton, 1981-86); founder of Moncton’s Hub Cap Comedy Festival; director of the annual New Brunswick Revue (a satirical look at the province); and founder of the Capitol School of Performing Arts, a year-round bilingual theatre programme for adults and youth.

In 2008, St. Thomas University recognized Button’s theatrical and artistic achievements with an honorary degree. Six months later he was invested into the Order of New Brunswick.

Tony Tremblay, Summer 2011
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources

Button, Marshall. Dieppe-Dieppe. 2004.

---. Helter Smelter. 2008.

---. Lucien: A Labour of Love in Two Acts. 1986.

---. Lucien’s Labour Lost. 1993.

---. Lucien Snowbird. 2005.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Tremblay, Tony. “Antonine Maillet, Marshall Button, and Literary Humor in New Brunswick: Towards a New Hybrid that Can Subsume Ethnolinguistic Division.” Lire Antonine Maillet à travers le temps et l’espace. Ed. Marie-Linda Lord. Moncton: Institut d’études acadiennes, 2010. 91-108.