Skip to main content

Montreal playwright David Fennario dies at 76

Montreal playwright David Fennario has died at the age of 76, his son, Tom, has confirmed.

Best known for the 1979 play Balconville, Fennario died Saturday at noon at the Montreal General Hospital with his family by his side.

Fennario grew up in Montreal but was even more rooted in his origins in Verdun, "a localer," at his core, said Tom.

"I wouldn't even describe him as a Montrealer, I would describe it as like a Verduner with maybe honourary citizenship to Pointe-Saint-Charles."

"He just really loved these communities and where he came from, and that's where he ended his days, pretty much," Tom said.Undated photo of David Fennario, submitted by son, Tom.

His work reflected the neighbourhoods' working-class character, a way to give a voice to those who might struggle to make ends meet but who lived lives rich with humour and heart.

"He saw, like, people who are underrepresented, you know, going back to like, the 70s. I think he saw that where he came from, was not represented in the arts. I'm talking sort of, Irish, Francophone working class in the southwest.

"I think he realized like hey, I can provide a voice to people who need to be celebrated who deserve to be celebrated. And that's what he did," Tom said.

Fennario could present as a gruff man, Tom said, and that was a part of him.

"But he also legitimately cared about people and the welfare of people, and the state of the world," Tom said.


Fennario was appointed as the first playwright-in-residence at Montreal's famed English-speaking Centaur Theater where many of his works premiered. He became one of Canada's best-known playwrights. Balconville, billed as the country's first bilingual play, was performed across North America.

Montreal film and theatre director Guy Sprung, another accomplished Canadian artist, directed Fennario's second play, Nothing to Lose, in 1976 at Centaur Theatre -- before directing the premiere of Balconville, Fennario's fourth play.

He echoes Tom's memories about a man who wrote about what he knew and brought to life the people he most wanted to honour in the characters he created on stage.

The play Nothing to Lose was set in a tavern during a wildcat strike when "the boys" would come in for a beer.

"It was a slice of working-class realism. What David has as a writer is this ear for true dialogue. I mean, not just you know, the working class but nailing the character, individual characters, how they speak, the rhythm, the word choice and so on," Sprung recounted. Fennario, he says, was "poetic."

That also meant he could be an exacting overseer. It was not unusual for there to be rewrites when during rehearsal, Fennario could hear that a line sounded a little off, or not true enough.

"He'd immediately change the line, alter it or whatever. So it was it was nerve-wracking for the actors," Sprung said with a smile.

"And of course, his politics were the main thing about him, right, he was proud of his working-class origins, and that's what he was always fighting for," Sprung says.David Fennario and wife Elizabeth Johansen on their balcony. Photo taken in the late 70's by Charles Larson. Source: To, Fennario

Tom also remembers his father being outspoken about all manner of injustices, well before the topics were a common part of the public conversation.

"I remember during the 1990 Oka crisis, asking my dad, I was only like nine years old, and I remember asking my dad, like, what's going on?"

"I remember him being, here's why they're pissed off [the Mohawk community of Kanesatake], you know, they were repressed and they had their land stolen from them because of imperialism and like, colonialism and capitalism … I feel like now we talk about these things … but my dad was ahead of the grid," Tom said.

With the help of his family, he never stopped fighting, never stopped being driven by dramaturgy, Sprung says. Even while dealing with an illness for many years, he wrote a play and worked on a documentary.

"We'll all miss him," said Sprung. It's the loss of his energy and his commitment…and it's huge."

David Fennario is survived by his wife Elizabeth, and sons Tom, Joel and Joey.

A public memorial will be held at a later date, his family said. Top Stories

Stay Connected