FILION, JOSEPH-PHILÉAS (he was frequently referred to as Joseph-Philias), actor, author, artistic director, and municipal censor; b. 7 June 1871 in Notre-Dame parish in Montreal, son of Guillaume Filion, a carpenter, and Marie Fortin; d. unmarried 6 Nov. 1940 in Montreal.
Having begun his studies at the school of Sainte-Geneviève (Montreal), Joseph-Philéas Filion continued them in that city at the Collège de Saint-Laurent, where he very likely took part in amateur theatricals. When he was 18 he made his real debut as an actor with the Compagnie Franco-Canadienne, which, under the direction of A.‑P. Pigeon, gave its performances in the Lyceum Theatre, on the corner of Rue Saint-Dominique and Rue Sainte-Catherine. Writing in La Patrie on 10 Nov. 1923, author and critic Henri Letondal* recalled it as a wretched venue: “The Lyceum Theatre was a barn of a place where there were no seats; the floor was just the bare earth, as at the circus; the actors had canvas partitioned dressing rooms. That was the way things were.” The troupe, which put on melodramas and comedies, also performed in Quebec City. On 21 Nov. 1898 Léon Petitjean [see Aurore Gagnon*] and Antoine Bailly, known as Antoine Godeau, founded the Théâtre des Variétés, located above a shop at 1056 Rue Sainte-Catherine, near Avenue Papineau, with a company consisting of the coming stars of the French Canadian stage, including Joseph-Sergius Archambault, known as Palmieri, Elzéar Hamel, and Filion. This theatre closed down after scarcely more than a season of performances.
It was undoubtedly with the creation of the Théâtre National Français, which opened at the corner of Rue Sainte-Catherine and Rue Beaudry on 12 Aug. 1900, that Filion’s acting career really took off. Julien Daoust*, who was the artistic director and owner and tenant of the Théâtre National Français, formed his company with Montreal’s most talented artists, who were joined by the leading players from the Théâtre des Variétés. Beset with financial difficulties after only two weeks, Daoust put the theatre in the hands of businessman George Gauvreau, who appointed Paul Cazeneuve [Georges Alba*] as artistic director. Filion played the major leading roles, character parts, noble fathers, and comic leads. He and his fellow actors Hamel and Palmieri made up a trio known as “the three beaver-hatted musketeers of the Faubourg de Québec.” The Théâtre National Français readily gave encouragement to Canadian playwrights; Filion took part in the first performances of several Canadian plays, including in 1902 Jean sans nom by Germain Beaulieu* and Fleur de lys by Rodolphe Girard, in which he played the lead role, and in 1903 Hindelang et de Lorimier by Colombine, the pseudonym of Éva Circé*, and Joe Montferrand by Louis Guyon. On 11 Feb. 1904 it even set up a competition for Canadian authors of one-act plays; Filion was in the cast of the winning plays, which were put on as curtain-raisers. He participated in this competition by submitting his own play L’envers du rideau, which was first performed at the theatre on 17 March 1904. From its founding until 1910, the Théâtre National Français gave more than 4,000 performances in the course of 405 weeks, including more than 300 dramas, comedies, vaudevilles, and operettas. The weekly workload of a French Canadian actor, involving rehearsals, performances, and the preparation of costumes, scenery, and accessories, was heavy, and the pay ridiculously low: $3 a week for a walk-on part, $25 for an ordinary role. Foreigners, on the other hand, were paid $75 – that was the rub. In August 1915 Filion took over the artistic direction of the company; he was thus the first French Canadian performer to hold such a position. But this role would last for only three weeks because of the company’s merger with Daoust’s troupe.
Between 1916 and 1917 Filion recorded extracts from Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon and Cyrano de Bergerac and François Coppée’s “L’épave” for the Columbia recording company of New York. In 1917 he left the Théâtre National Français, where he had perfected his art by working alongside French actors since 1900. He joined the Théâtre Canadien-Français, whose director, Charles Schauten, founded the troupe known as the Alliance Artistique. In 1918 Filion was briefly a member of the company directed by the Belgian-born actor Edgar Becman, which, until it went bankrupt, performed at the Orpheum theatre. For the next three years he worked for the troupe managed by Fred Barry and Albert Simard*, known as Albert Duquesne, which appeared alternately in Montreal and Quebec City.
From 1921 to 1930 this troupe, of which he was still a member, gave performances during the week at the Saint-Denis theatre in Montreal and on weekends in other towns, notably Trois-Rivières, Joliette, Sorel (Sorel-Tracy), Victoriaville, and Shawinigan Falls (Shawinigan). It was at the Saint-Denis theatre, moreover, that a performance by a French troupe of Henri Christiné’s operetta Phi-Phi, which extols extramarital love, caused an uproar. On 26 Feb. 1930, just as they were about to go on stage, 17 members of the company were arrested for “an immoral presentation”; they had to put up bail to be released. Following this incident, the City of Montreal created a position of municipal censor. The post fell to Filion, and he would hold it for the rest of his life. He gave up acting in order to fulfil his new duties, which consisted of keeping an eye on the moral content of performances such as reviews, vaudevilles, burlesque shows, dramas, and comedies, and at music halls. Theatre directors had to submit to him in advance the programs they intended to offer the public. This position gave him the opportunity to establish a theatre library, which would enrich the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Montréal after his death.
On 16 Nov. 1940 Letondal paid tribute to Filion in the Montreal periodical Radiomonde: “From the earliest expressions of French dramatic art in Canada, Filion was seen to mingle with the artists from Paris. Through his contact with them, he perfected his own natural gifts. He did not copy them, he was inspired by them. He had an admiration for them that gained him the best advice.” The fact that he learned a directing technique that relied on a precise, written description of the actors’ placement, movements, and acting style owed something to his association with French actors, in particular Romuald Joubé, Victor Francen, and Georges Colin. In 1932, Filion passed this technique on to Father Émile Legault*, the theatre director at the Collège de Saint-Laurent, who would found the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent.
Joseph-Philéas Filion was one of the pioneers who struggled for the establishment of a permanent francophone theatre in Montreal at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Even though the initial efforts were unsuccessful because the companies involved were inadequately funded and, above all, disorganized, Filion steadfastly participated in such projects. Neither setbacks nor the cruel demands of the acting profession dampened his love of the stage and his determination to offer francophone drama to the Montreal public.
Some authors who have written about Joseph-Philéas Filion have wrongly called him Jean-Paul, probably because during his lifetime he was often referred to by his initials, J.‑P. According to his baptismal certificate, his given names were Joseph-Philéas. Several articles published at the time of his death give the variant Joseph-Philias.
BANQ-CAM, CE601-S51, 8 juin 1871. Le Devoir, 7 nov. 1940. La Patrie, 5 oct. 1907; 4 sept. 1915; 10 nov. 1923; 27 févr., 19 juin 1930. La Presse, 22 avril 1902, 22 déc. 1934. Radiomonde (Montréal), 16 nov. 1940. Jean Béraud, 350 ans de théâtre au Canada français (Ottawa, 1958). Denise Villiard Bériault, Saint-Laurent: un collège se raconte: 120 ans de collège, 10 ans de cégep (Montréal, 1977). Anne Caron, Le père Émile Legault et le théâtre au Québec (Montréal, 1978). Denis Carrier, “Le Théâtre national, 1900–1923: histoire et evolution” (thèse de phd, univ. Laval, Québec, 1991). Mario Filion, “Bienvenue sur la toile des Filion, Fillion, Philion et Phillion d’Amérique”: www3.sympatico.ca/mario.filion (consulted 1 May 2013). Léopold Houlé, L’histoire du théâtre au Canada: pour un retour aux classiques (Montréal, 1945). LAC, “The virtual gramophone: Canadian historical sound recordings”: www.collectionscanada.ca/gramophone (consulted 1 May 2013). Jean Laflamme et Rémi Tourangeau, L’Église et le théâtre au Québec (Montréal, 1979). Philippe Laframboise, Fred Barry et la petite histoire du théâtre au Québec (Montréal, 1996). J.‑M. Larrue, “L’activité théâtrale à Montréal: de 1880 à 1914” (thèse de phd, 2v., univ. de Montréal, 1987); “Entrée en scène des professionnels, 1825–1930,” in Renée Legris et al., Le théâtre au Québec, 1825–1980: repères et perspectives (Montréal, 1988), 25–61; Le théâtre à Montréal à la fin du XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1981). Alonzo Le Blanc, “L’institution théâtrale francophone à Montréal au début du XXe siècle,” L’Annuaire théâtral (Montréal), automne 1988–printemps 1989: 153–61. Denyse Martineau, Juliette Béliveau (Montréal, 1970). H. P. Miery [J.‑S. Archambault], “Notre portrait de 1ère page: M. J. Philias Filion,” Le Rigolo (Montréal), 1 (): 97. E. B. Moogk, Roll back the years: history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy; genesis to 1930 (Ottawa, 1975). Palmieri [J.‑S. Archambault], Mes souvenirs de théâtre (Montréal, 1944). Robert Prévost, Que sont-ils devenus? (Montréal, 1939). Quebec Official Gazette, 1906: 308.