Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Bolsheviki and Motherhouse

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Bolsheviki and Motherhouse, two plays by David Fennario, recollect class struggles during and following WW1.

In Bolsheviki, a Montreal Gazette reporter wanders into a bar on Remembrance Day, in search of a human interest story. There he finds Harry “Rosie” Rollins, a veteran with a blistering view of the war and its aftermath. Rosie is based on Fennario’s 1979 interview with WW1 veteran Harry “Rosie” Rowbottom, who lost a finger in the Battle of Loos and was wounded at Vimy Ridge.

Rosie grew up in Verdun-Pointe-Saint-Charles, a poor, rough neighbourhood of Montreal. Didn’t believe the King-and-Country-all-in-this-together line, but the army was better than what he and his friends had. Or perhaps not … he describes the chaos of war – life in the trenches (like sewers without pipes), trudging through mud, going over the top, death, picking up body pieces all around.

‘Birth of Nation’ they called it on TV, but I didn’t see nobody getting born just a lot of people dying so we could sit there on top of another shithole of mud with Captain Rutherford still pushing for that DSO or the MC or the MCB or the YMCA with Triangles … just give him a f*ing medal, will ya? (p 31)

His friend René “Rummie” Robidou contemplates shooting the brass and is shot at dawn for ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’ for refusing to go on a suicide patrol. Rosie and his comrades hear about the Québec conscription riots, and draw a line from the Wanna Go Home Riots in Kimmel Park to the Winnipeg General Strike.

Bosha-viki – that’s what they called us when we can back after the war and found ourselves on the streets outta work and started rioting cuz we’re pissed off … (p 7)

Rue de la Poudrière in Verdun (Québec) is a reminder of the munitions factories in the area during WW1 and WW2. Fennario’s inspiration for Motherhouse was a photo of women in the lunch room at the British Munitions Supply Company. The direct stare of one woman said she had a story to tell.

Lillabit recounts the costs of war in her community, for those who go to fight and those who stay home.

You know how sometimes you meet an old friend or a relative you have not seem in a long tome but “Sure I recognize you because the eyes never change” … But a lot of men came back and the eyes were changed … Arms gone, legs gone, faces gone, their minds gone, memories, emotions all scrambled. (p 28)

Lillabit gets a job in the munitions factory to make ends meet. To meet demand, the bosses hire French women, but language barriers mean the new workers don’t understand instructions and safety rules as well as the seasoned Anglo workers. Result: a factory explosion. Result: attempts to organize a strike when the French workers do not get the same accident compensation.

And, you know, in all the actions I got involved in later, I always saw the same thing happening … At one end you got a small bunch of people ready to fight … And at the other end a small bunch ready to rat … and in the middle a big bunch of people trying to decide which way to go? (p 51)

Moral of the stories: war and war-profiteering are bad, especially for working-class stiffs. Best to take collective action and fight for your rights. Fennario’s plays are love stories to his neighbourhood, a damnation of war, and a reminder that those lessons still apply today.

Both Bolsheviki and Motherhouse are short one-act plays. Fennario’s notes and the historical photos and illustrations that accompany the plays are key to understanding the context of these works. Familiarity with Québec joual and franglais helps in reading them, but if you get stuck, try saying the dialogue out loud and listening to the sound and rhythm.

Thanks to Jean for suggesting a look at David Fennario’s work. 

Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

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