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Fifty Seasons at Stratford

by Robert Cushman
224 pages,
ISBN: 0771024738

Romancing The Bard:Stratford At Fifty

by Martin Hunter
304 pages,
ISBN: 1550023632

Stratford Gold:50 Years, 50 Stars, 50 Conversations

by Richard Ouzounian
397 pages,
ISBN: 1552782719


Post Your Opinion
Celebrating Stratford's Fiftieth
by Keith Garebian

Several years ago at a book launch, I was in conversation with an academic eminence gris, a cultural nationalist who was truly more gris than eminence, despite all the praise he had garnered over the years in the course of pontificating about Canadian theatre. As our conversation proceeded on a short number of subjects, one being classical theatre, he stunned me by declaring that the Stratford Festival was the worst thing to have happened to Canadian theatre. My regard for him plummeted faster than the current stock exchange index. I had been exposed to some of the loonier tunes of zany cultural nationalists, but this was the first time I had heard such a sweeping denunciation of the Festival. Our conversation came to a rather sour end, and I left him to his vino and cheese.

The time may be ripe to reflect on what he said. The Stratford Festival has had a short, checkered history. It started as a vague idea in the mind of Tom Patterson who really knew nothing about professional theatre, much less a Shakespearean one. By his own admission, he had read few of the plays and certainly had no feelings about their literary or dramatic value. The Festival's first artistic director was a foreigner who looked to the New World partly out of his missionary zeal for art and partly out of a need to finance his jam factory in Ireland. The Festival did not appoint a Canadian artistic director till 1968 (a year after the national euphoria of Expo), and it almost died in 1981 when its Board (all Canadian, I believe) fired the so-called Gang of Four who were delegated to succeed Robin Phillips and hired yet another Englishman as artistic director. It almost died again when John Hirsch ran it for four seasons marked by artistic mediocrity and financial failure.

The first stars were all imports¨Alec Guinness, Irene Worth, Frederick Valk, Eileen Herlie, Paul Scofield, Julie Harris, et cetera. And even backstage, there were more English than Canadian leaders: Jacqueline Cundall for props; Ray Diffen and Annette Geber for cutting; and Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Leslie Hurry, Brian Jackson, and Desmond Heeley for design. As for directors, it seemed that Stratford would rather engage old-guard or second-rate English ones than a fresh, young Canadian.

On the other hand, Stratford quickly put Canada on the world theatre map. The thrust stage (initially thought up by Tyrone Guthrie) became the model for subsequent but inferior imitations at Minneapolis and Chichester. Stratford also gave the first real grounding for classical acting in Canada. Under Guthrie and Michael Langham, Stratford undertook overseas tours, though it was somewhat resented by English critics for presuming to teach Granny how to suck eggs.

Whether it is Canada's national theatre or not, the Stratford Festival is a springboard for cultural debate. It has engendered Canadian acting, design, and directing, generated controversy and acclaim for its repertoires, sharpened a sense of cultural confidence, and ensured that classical theatre will endure in a country where hockey rates higher than any cultural dimension. Sad to say, however, the books about Stratford have largely been pictorial and statistical records, cottage-industry works (aimed, it seems, at those for whom theatre is a seasonal indulgence), production records (the best being the trio by Robertson Davies and Tyrone Guthrie), and some chronicles which have sometimes been more tendentious than solidly reliable. The fiftieth season has hardly changed the trend.

There are three celebratory new books by three writers of varying journalistic accomplishment. Martin Hunter's Romancing The Bard is an album or collage of memorabilia, laid out rather than artfully arranged, which proves to be idiosyncratic, occasionally clumsy, laden with truisms and irrelevances, and largely unworthy as critical history or evaluation. Richard Ouzounian's Stratford Gold is a transcription of interviews for a television documentary series about Stratford. It, too, is idiosyncratic, shallow, and impressionistic rather than critical. The third is Robert Cushman's Fifty Seasons at Stratford which is a glorious coffee-table artefact, splendidly illustrated and sensibly organized, driven by a lively intelligence and which, despite its evident quirks and peculiarities, rewards readers with a quick chronicle and summary evaluation. However, it follows a trend rather than setting a new direction, and because it was written at the express invitation of the Festival, it becomes part of a cottage-industry. But an important part, as I explain later.

Martin Hunter's Romancing The Bard has a title which is concomitantly trendy yet quaint. The Bard? That term should have been laid to rest with Victorian ladies of percolated reverence for Shakespeare. Written by one who describes himself as "a compulsive audience member," and on the assumption that an audience is a co-creator with the actor, it skims over the surface of Stratford's development and achievements, focusing on thirty productions which Hunter claims were either memorable or set a new artistic direction. Glossy and filled with 115 black and white photographs, it is an oversized book that is meant to be sampled at leisure without any thought to posterity's measure.

Despite its author's acknowledgements of Ronald Bryden's "valuable comments and suggestions," Ann Stuart's "fresh insights" and corrections, and two editors' counsels and improvements on grammar and punctuation, Hunter's text is tainted with peculiarities of perspective, style, and content. The book lies halfway between frivolous gossip and dull pontification. A chapter on Guthrie, which offers high praise for his direction and a warm, intimate sense of him offstage, degenerates with a charge of his "undeclared homosexuality"¨a charge that is based chiefly on Olivier's homoerotic Iago for Guthrie's production of Othello at the Old Vic and on the 1955 Merchant of Venice at Stratford, Ontario, where Antonio was "openly in love with Bassanio." It does not occur to Hunter that in both instances the homoeroticism had less to do with Guthrie than with particular actors' interpretations of Shakespeare's texts. Hunter's penchant for gossip is extended by his interest in the company's extra-curricular activities. A chapter entitled "After Hours" delves into the social and sexual habits and indulgences of the actors, with special references to romantic liaisons, a gay grapevine and casting couch (as if there weren't a heterosexual one!), and a stunning suggestion that the most productive professional co-operation is based on good sexual coupling.

On the pontifical side, Hunter has a short primer on directing, an essay on the tensions between art and commerce, artist and audience, and even actor and director. But the pontifical manner is hollow, based as it is on truisms such as: nothing can save a production if it is badly cast; the best theatre schools are those that make the greatest demands; good actors prefer good directors; et al. Whenever Hunter wrestles with weighty questions, he ties himself into a knot¨as in this case: "The best Canadian acting at Stratford is still articulate and gritty, balancing the claims of heart and mind, and possessing a certain scale, a quality less of innate and studied elegance than of reckless audacity and a sort of improvised grandeur." Most of his description would fit any good acting anywhere in the world, but I doubt if Hunter could really explain what he means by "improvised grandeur" or justify its inclusion in a catalogue of Canadian acting traits.

Hunter reduces great performances to either mannerisms or properties of character. Christopher Plummer's Henry V is said to have had "charm, a dash of danger, and great curiosity," as well as brashness, confidence, and energy. Maggie Smith's Rosalind is memorialized for her "fluttering fingers, knocking knees, and wringing wrists." And everywhere there is an overwhelming adjectival insistence. In one passage of 57 words, I counted 12 adjectives, all of which were ultimately self-defeating.

Richard Ouzounian's Stratford Gold is a disaster of another sort. It is a set of fifty interviews of actors, directors, designers, and musicians, and it is built around three standard and banal questions: how each subject first became aware of (or involved with) Stratford; what each wishes for Stratford's future; and "what words come to mind" when Ouzounian mentions the Festival. Naturally, the last two questions receive utterly negligible responses, but these do not bother Ouzounian who sets a populist tone and direction in his chatty introduction with its extraordinary amount of name-dropping. The idea (if that is indeed the mot juste) for this book came out of a conversation he had in Stratford with Timothy Findley in the summer of 1999. Findley's repertoire of fascinating anecdotes impelled Ouzounian to "put together the story of the Stratford Festival as told by the people who were there." Of course, he needed a hook, and Stratford's 50th anniversary season was the very thing. As for the content, "No historians need apply, please, no critics or commentators." Which is why we are stuck with this lamentable expense of energy in a waste of talent.

Ouzounian asks some incredibly dumb questions. Here's a classic posed to Antoni Cimolino: "You went to the other side of the footlights, assisting Richard Monette, then directing on your own, and now you're the Executive Director of the entire Festival. Does that make you happy?" Huh? In fairness, though, he asks similarly dumb questions of himself as he submits to a self-interview in a striking example of self-regard.

Spirited discussion is evidently anathema to Ouzounian. When Zoe Caldwell insists that Shakespeare has no subtext, Ouzounian has no response. When Desmond Heeley remarks that "Langham knew how to make the audience do a great deal of work without them knowing it," it does not even occur to Ouzounian to ask for an illustration. An interview with Brian Macdonald could be expected to broach the subject of updating political satire in Gilbert and Sullivan, but Ouzounian does not engage Macdonald in any debate.

There is no discernible evidence of an editor's hand. Information is repeated ad nauseam. Guthrie, we are told by many, conducted interviews rather than auditions; John Hirsch, we are reminded time and again, was a survivor of the Holocaust; Michael Langham is complimented with numbing frequency for his "precision", while Robin Phillips is paid due homage with almost similar frequency for teaching as he directs. Some anecdotes are amusing, indeed¨one being William Hutt's about his impromptu "heart attack" as Polonius when Christopher Plummer's Hamlet was unable to stab him through the arras¨but they have been repeated from earlier theatre books and thereby lack freshness.

Anything interesting comes in the way of snippets¨as from Zoe Caldwell (on her Cleopatra), Christopher Plummer (ditto), Robin Phillips (on Canadian accents in Shakespeare), Martha Henry (on Robin Phillips), Roberta Maxwell (on her clashes with John Hirsch), and John Neville (on his clashes with John Hirsch). Hirsch, alas, has been long dead and so cannot offer his perspective on anything, although it is possible, given his well-known dissatisfaction with everyone's work, including his own, that he, too, would have clashed with John Hirsch.

All the most interesting snippets somehow find their way into Robert Cushman's book as gloriously appointed side-bars where they enhance many pages without courtesy of even the most cursory acknowledgement by Cushman or his publisher. In all other respects, however, Cushman owes nothing to Ouzounian. He does owe much to Jamie Portman and the late John Pettigrew whose collaborative work, Stratford: The First Thirty Years, was the first chronicle overview of the Festival. Cushman admits as much in his Acknowledgements but, being the skilled critic he is, he forges his own style. His book is a highly subjective account, but it bubbles with insight.

Fifty Seasons At Stratford is large, lavish, and literate. Illustrated in black and white and full colour photography, and adorned with costume and set designs, it is a homage to the Festival.

Though he arrived late on the Stratford scene as a critic¨he moved to Canada from England in 1987 and it took another seven years before he got to see every subsequent production¨Cushman is able (with the help of other critics' reviews) to piece together descriptions of productions he never saw. The only problem is that he writes as if each reconstruction were a review¨which it isn't. He also writes at times as if he were deliberately defying consensus¨as is the case with his praise for the crazy-quilt Macbeth of 1999 which he deems to be good despite conceding that Rod Beattie was ill-equipped to play the thane. This production had the drunken Porter on a skateboard and a Lady Macbeth with a cocktail in hand and a romantic ballad on her lips, so I find it impossible to agree with Cushman that it was "loaded" with good acting.

But what critic is without his peculiarities? Cushman, at least, has the courage of his convictions. Devotees of the late Nathan Cohen will be shaken by Cushman's devastating jibe ("it's possible he knew less about the plays than did some of the directors he trashed"), and diehard fans of Martha Henry may well wince at Cushman's identification of her "developing talent for melodrama."

Cushman's chronicle is studded with wit. Peter Dews' King John is described as being "standard baronial, all roast beef and declamation." Fernando Arrabal is called "the Peter Pan of the European avant-garde." These are pithy examples, but the best of Cushman's wit has rhythm: "Much Ado About Nothing must have accumulated more time-travel points than any other Shakespearean play. A production in Elizabethan costume would seem deliriously avant-garde."

Unlike Hunter's haphazard reminiscences and quirky essays or Ouzounian's cult of celebrity, Cushman's text helps to address the question of Stratford's value to Canadian culture. Where Hunter offers the familiar views of Stratford's artistic directors¨Guthrie stressed ritual and the power of theatre to show mankind to itself; Gascon showed remarkable audacity and experimentalism, et cetera¨and Ouzounian merely loiters on the periphery of substance and leaves it to assorted guests to offer notes and implications for cultural debate, Cushman's symptomatic tone helps to redress the balance lost in careless, biased, or stupid assessments of the Festival. Cushman is aware of the ultra-nationalists' fighting words about Stratford's British roots, foreign models, empire-building, anti-Canadianism, et cetera. He is also aware that Stratford was not intended to be a national theatre. As Don Harron reveals in Ouzounian's book, Guthrie explained that "national theatres don't really mean anything. A theatre has to have its roots in a local community and must sink them deep and continue to do so. Which they've done in Stratford." Guthrie's original purpose was to remedy the general international dissatisfaction with classical theatre. He wanted to create a new kind of theatre and saw a revolutionary role for Canada in this regard. He and his English successors at the Festival knew that the nationalists regarded them as relics of the British Raj, but the irony is that their contributions to Canadian acting, design, directing, and administration far exceeded those of the nationalists. Guthrie put Canadian theatre on the world map, and Michael Langham treated Canadian bilingualism and biculturalism as artistic strengths. Langham gave Jean Gascon and John Hirsch big opportunities at Stratford which they seized with varying degrees of success. John Neville proved to be genuinely bold in his first season (for his choice of three late Shakespearean romances) but he then turned to "bedrock classics" and the big musical (which he moved into the Festival Theatre's repertory). He was the one who gave Richard Monette his first chance to direct at Stratford, thereby helping prepare Monette for bigger things. David William, Neville's successor, carried the repertoire farther than any artistic director since Gascon, though Cushman finds that William's own productions were among the weakest during his tenure.

The first two Canadian artistic directors made a study in contrasts. Gascon moved the repertoire farther away from Shakespeare but even at that, his Shakespeare repertoire was (in Cushman's estimation) "more adventurous than at any other time before or since." Hirsch's reign was brief but tumultuous. The nationalists' favourite invited only a single new Canadian director to stage a major classical production at the Festival. Hirsch further failed his nationalist supporters by deeming Canadian plays to be outside Stratford's mandate. Yet, he started the Gilbert and Sullivan craze which was certainly not what had put Stratford on the world map. Cushman finds it difficult to characterize Hirsch's regime which never established a confident identity of its own. The problem may well have been Hirsch's personality and sensibility which were ineradicably marked by the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor and therefore streaked with a savage pessimism. The problem may also have been that he inherited Stratford when he was past his prime.

Arguably, the greatest contribution to Canadian theatre has been made, so far, not by a Canadian but by Robin Phillips, yet another expatriate Englishman. Just 33 when he took over from Gascon, during a period of perfervid nationalism, he had the double misfortune of being an aesthete and English-born when his enemies wanted someone from the alternative theatre movement in Toronto. But from the outset he demonstrated his commitment to Canadian theatre by traveling across the country watching productions, running auditions, and measuring the pulse of the theatre community so that Stratford might not become just another fabulous invalid. Cushman doesn't go deeply into the nationalist controversy over Phillips' appointment, and this is a pity because his book is evidently a reaction to those who denigrate the Festival. Phillips was certainly no colonial. In fact, his regime was posited on a fundamental antipathy to colonialism. His first impression of Stratford acting was that it was very semaphoric in the English mode. He remarked that the people who surrounded his predecessor represented "not quite colonialism¨but that slightly old-fashioned feeling of the Old Vic of worthy, classical work." Phillips insisted that his Canadian actors use their own Canadian accents in Shakespeare, and it took him just a single production in his very first season to turn around the company's style. He gave new life and depth to the acting of William Hutt and Martha Henry, and because of his inspired teaching Canada now has new models in Brent Carver, Nancy Palk, Martha Burns, et cetera.

No artistic director at Stratford has ever been immune to criticism. Even Richard Monette¨who had never run a theatre before his appointment¨is occasionally treated as a lightweight. But Monette, as Cushman maintains, is able to put his own stamp on the Festival. His greatest legacy may well turn out to be the Conservatory he created to replace the Young Company. Under his leadership, Stratford remains one of the two or three most important Shakespearean theatres in the world. As Cushman points out, Monette and all his predecessors have helped create and expand the professional English-speaking theatre in Canada. Even the opposition that has been generated by Stratford "has taken shape within the theatrical world that Stratford built." ˛

Mikado, 1982: Eric Donkin as Ko-Ko, Director Brian Macdonald. Designers: Susan Benson, Douglas McLean (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale). Romeo and Juliet, 1960: Julie Harris as Juliet, Bruno Gerussi as Romeo. Directors: Robert Lepage, Gordon McCall. Designers: Don Griffiths, Del Surjik, Irene Coupland (photo by Peter Smith & Co).
Waiting for Godot, 1968: Powys Thomas as Vladimir, Eric Donkin as Estragon. Director: William Hutt. Designer: Brian Jackson (photo by Douglas Spillane). Camelot, 1997: Cynthia Dale as Guinevere, Tom McCamus as King Arthur. Director: Richard Monette, Designer: Desmond Heeley (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann).
Tartuffe, 1968: William Hutt as Tartuffe, Director Richard Monette, Designers Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Ann Curtis (photo by Douglas Spillane). Twelfth Night, 2001: Tara Rosling as Vila, Sean Arbuckle as Orsino. Director: Antoni Cimolino. Designers: Peter Harwell, Francesca Callow (photo by Michael Coope).
Hamlet, 1986: Scott Wentworth as Laertes, Brent Carver as Hamlet. Director: John Neville. Designer: Sue LePage (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale). Tony van Bridge as Falstaff in the 1967 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (photo by Peter Smith)
Maggie Smith as Amanda in the 1978 production of Private Lives (photo by Zod Dominic) Peter Ustinov as King Lear in the 1980 production of King Lear (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale)
Hume Cronyn as Shylock (photo by Zod Dominic) in The Merchant of Venice, 1976. Christopher Plummer as Antony in the 1967 production of Antony and Cleopatra (photo by Douglas Spillane)
Zoe Caldwell as Cleopatra in the 1967 production of Antony and Cleopatra (photo by Douglas Spillane) Cynthia Dale as Guenevere in the 1997 production of Camelot (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Elizabeth Shepherd and Brent Carver in Hamlet, 1986, directed by John Neville (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale) Timothy Findley as an officer in AllĂs Well That Ends Well (art by Grant Macdonald, 1953).
Pat Galloway as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, 1973 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale) Lorne Greene in Julius Caesar,1955, directed by Michael Langham (photo by Donald McKague)
Keith Dinicol and William Dunlop in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1986 (photo by Robet C. Ragsdale) Irene Worth in her last role at Stratford as Heda Gabler, 1970 (photo by Robert C. Ragsdale).
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