The word, “Hosanna” is actually two words from biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: “hosha” (that’s Aramaic; the biblical Hebrew would be “hoshiah”) which is the imperative form of the verb “to save” or “to redeem”  (i.e.: “save!” or “redeem!”) and the word “na,” which is a term indicating a request of a superior like “please” or “I pray” or “I beg of you.” It is, in other words, a desperate cry for salvation from the divine.

In practical modern usage, a “hosanna” is a cry of praise of the divine. That is to say: it isn’t something you say, it’s the term for such cries. To describe a bunch of people shouting “hallelujah!” and “praise Jesus!” you would say they “shouted hosannas.”

The transformation of the term derives, I would assume, from the prominent placement of the cry “hoshiah na” in the Jewish hallel prayer; the Aramaic “hosha na” shows up prominently in the concluding prayer of the Sukkoth or Tabernacles morning service; it’s also part of the name of the holiday that ends the festival of Sukkoth: Hoshanna Rabba or “great hoshanna”. The hallel is a series of hymns of praise to the divine (that’s that “hallel” means: praise, laud, extol) sung on various festivals. Jewish prayer being strikingly petitionary in character relative to other monotheistic liturgies, this praise cycle climaxes with the call-and-response cry “save us! prosper us!” Christian liturgy having a less-petitionary character, it’s not surprising that the cry for help became more a declaration of faith; rather than “redeem us!” it meant, effectively, “our redeemer!” And from there it’s a short distance to being a descriptive term for shouts of ecstatic praise for the divine.

I don’t know how much Michel Tremblay knew about the origins of the name he chose for the title character of one of his most historically consequential plays, but given where and when he grew up (in a religiously-besotted pre-60s Quebec) and his deep affinity for the classics, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was quite well-informed indeed. At a minimum, he would certainly have known of the word’s appearance in the gospels as the shout of recognition of Jesus’s messianic identity upon his entry into Jerusalem.

So what might he have meant by having a Montreal drag queen choose that name for herself? Did Claude Lemieux mean “I am the messiah?” Or did he mean, “save me! please!”

The move from one to the other – a disrobing of the word of its later connotations, taking us back to the original meaning – is the movement of the pivotal day in Lemieux’s life on which the play takes place. The play opens on Hosanna returning from a disastrous evening at a Halloween drag ball, where she attended dressed as Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Hosanna, the queen of the queens, had planned to make her triumphant entrance in this costume, and thereby experience an apotheosis: she would become Elizabeth Taylor, and Cleopatra, for real, at least in the eyes of the Montreal drag community. But it was not to be. Over the course of the evening, we discover that the ball was an elaborate practical joke on Hosanna, to get back at her for her pervasive bitchiness. Knowing that she was exceptionally attached to Taylor, and to her portrayal of Cleopatra in particular, the other drag queens organized the ball around a theme that would inevitably prompt Hosanna to come dressed as her ideal. And then all the other drag queens came dressed as Taylor as Cleopatra as well, to mock her obsession and to outshine her in execution. And they were able to execute this plan because they had the cooperation of Hosanna’s husband (that should properly be “husband” – this was 1973) Cuirette. It’s a profound, apparently unforgivable betrayal. As Hosanna says in the second half of the play, after finally telling the story of the evening in full, “I didn’t know you all hated me so much.”

It’s a very powerful play on the page, but I’d never seen it performed before. I was intensely curious to do so – this was one of the shows I was most looking forward to at Stratford this year – partly because I liked the play so much on paper, partly because I thought last year’s production of For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again was so excellent, and partly because I am quite fond of Gareth Potter, who hadn’t really found his defining role yet at the Festival, and who was slated to play the title character.

The critics generally seem to have felt that performance didn’t live up to expectations, but I – perhaps because I had not seen it performed before – didn’t have the same reaction. Some blamed the change in politics since 1973, both sexual (there’s a great deal of business about being a “real” man or a “real” woman that feels quite dated) and sectional (the play was interpreted at the time as a political allegory of Quebec, a culture living in drag as French mistress to an Anglo Canadian male, that needed to find its true self and its own manhood). But neither of these are the heart of the play. At heart, it’s the story of a relationship, of two people who love each other and hate each other, and who finally draw close to each other in full honesty only because one has hurt the other as badly as he could. And that’s a story that’s still true, and still played true on stage.

Much of the first half of the show consists of sparring between Hosanna and Cuirette, with the party’s host, Sandra, serving as another sparring partner over the telephone. I could quibble with performance choices in this part of the play. Oliver Becker’s Cuirette wanders around reminiscing and staring out the window, but I didn’t get the feeling that he was deliberately distracting himself to avoid confronting Hosanna (which surely he is – he knows what he did, even if he doesn’t yet know just how badly he hurt his lover). But Potter’s Hosanna plays it very cool, holding his emotions tightly in check when Cuirette is around, bursting out in fury only when Sandra calls. My only quibble with him would be that we never see the savage wit that Cuirette and Hosanna herself attest to, the cuts and barbs that fueled her rise from hayseed rent boy to the top of Montreal drag society. But that loss is the flip side of the gain of seeing through to the pain that Hosanna feels from the beginning; if she were more herself – sharper in her thrusts at Cuirette, more controlled in her slashes at Sandra – that pain would be hidden.

Nonetheless, the first half of the show is something of a dance, going in circles rather than forward, and both the highlight of the show and the weakest moment take place in the second half. The highlight: Potter’s long monologue finally telling us about the disastrous evening, and just what it meant to him, reaching back all the way to his childhood to explain just who he was, and who she hoped to become, that night; just how high she’d flown, so we’d know how far he fell. Cuirette (or, rather, Raymond – he appears to have shed his persona by this point, though that persona was never as pronounced as Hosanna’s) came in towards the close of this disclosure, and finally the two lovers connected – I believed Raymond really loved Claude, and hurt him, as badly as he could, for that reason, not simply out of hate.

The weakest moment: the very end, when Potter takes off Hosanna and becomes Claude Lemieux again, and declares his naked manhood. This is the one moment in the play that did feel dated to me – and felt like an imposition on rather than an eruption from the characters. It is important that Claude declare himself, reveal himself unadorned. But “I’m a man” doesn’t feel to me like what this moment is about; rather, it’s about “I’m not Cleopatra, I’m not Elizabeth Taylor, I’m not Hosanna – I’m not even really Claude Lemieux, which is also just an identity, a persona. I’m just this poor, bare, forked animal.” Unaccommodated man, not “a man” – that’s what Claude has come to, and needs to be loved for. As we all do. And as, lucky for him, he is. And since I believed that, the show worked.