Harlequin in Hogtown:|
George Luscombe and Toronto Workshop Productions
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by Keith Garebian
While our less sensible cultural nationalists still concern themselves with checking passports and birthrights to Canadian identity, Neil Carson's book is useful in bringing home to them an inescapable irony in the history of our theatre: had there been no English expatriates or Canadians of English stock, such as Tony Ferry and George Luscombe, the first of Toronto's "alternative" theatres to combat the colonialism of Canadian theatre might not have existed. A former London newspaperman and editor of the theatrical journal Encore, Ferry came to Canada during the Second World War. He and his wife, Joan Maroney (who, as the daughter of an actor and director, had grown up in a theatrical household), were committed to new trends in European drama, then (as Carson notes) "practically unrepresented on Toronto stages." Ferry envisaged a "group theatre" in Toronto that would have an acting ensemble able to handle the new drama from Europe as well as original Canadian works.
In 1959 Ferry founded Theatre Centre with amateur actors and organized a summer school with the help of the Welsh actor Powys Thomas, Carlo Mazzone (an Italian mime and a former partner of Marcel Marceau), and George Luscombe, a thirty-three year old commercial artist and aspiring actor, who volunteered to commit ten years of his life to Ferry's dream. The school soon ran out of funds. Luscombe then offered evening classes in acting at 47 Fraser Avenue, and renamed the group Workshop Productions, "Toronto" being added in 1963 when the theatre received its charter from the city. Ferry and Luscombe were disgruntled with the way things were in Canadian theatre, and their discontent generated a style of presentation that emphasized ensemble acting, minimal but ingenious theatricality, and themes that more often than not had an essentially documentary basis.
A glance at some of TWP's production titles illustrates an ideological nexus: The Mac-Paps, The Wobbly, Chicago '70, Ten Lost Years, Che, Fanshen, Road to Charlottetown, The Komagata Maru Incident, The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, Victor Jara Alive, and For Coloured Girls. Even when Luscombe revisited the canonical classics-such as Lysistrata, Pirandello's The Licence, Woyzeck, Molière's Love, the Best Physician, Richard III, or The Captain of Kopenick-he renamed and reinterpreted them with the explicit intention of finding parallels with contemporary life and making these works relevant to his audiences. And he was particularly dedicated to marginal figures: that is, characters who were social or political outcasts, such as Saint Joan (who in Before Compiègne was turned into a delusionary and exploited figure), Woyzeck (whom Luscombe saw not as a madman but as a social victim), Che Guevara (who was interpreted as a flawed but visionary hero), and racially oppressed black baseball players (Ain't Lookin').
Ferry and Luscombe were left of centre, not in the sense of a radical political theatre dedicated wholly to the proletariat but in the more general sense of what Martin Gottfried has called a "challenge" to every norm on every prevailing theatrical front. True, the roots of Luscombe's aesthetic were firmly sunk into politics, but his motive was never simply agitprop, as with the leftist theatre produced by local workers' clubs in many Canadian cities in the thirties before World War II interrupted it. Luscombe sought to balance technique and substance. Something as crudely didactic as Eight Men Speak, the Workers' Experimental Theatre's biggest success, was clearly not to his dominant taste, just as something as boldly realistic as Waiting for Lefty, Odets's powerful propaganda, was outside his chief interest. Although he had toured Ontario in 1948 with the short-lived People's Repertory Theatre, Luscombe embraced various theatrical styles from pantomime and drawing-room comedy to expressionism, musical revue, and Shakespearean superrealism.
He wanted to be ahead of prevailing artistic custom and convention in Canada-which was an easy goal given the situation of the time. After all, the polarities of professional theatre in Ontario in the mid-fifties (when he returned to Canada after years as a rep player in Wales, Manchester, and London) were represented by the Crest and the Stratford Festival, the first being a new theatre housed in a converted cinema and dedicated to a repertoire (in Neil Carson's words) "indistinguishable from that of any English provincial repertory company" and an acting style that was "but a pale imitation of the most mechanical West End attitudinizing," while the second was a new theatre housed in a modified but bold replica of the Elizabethan thrust stage and dedicated to a style that could not match the best acting and directing in Europe.
Tony Ferry gave the initial impetus for an alternative to what was passé or démodé, while Luscombe supplied the teaching and directing expertise necessary to combine ideology and entertainment in a fresh, provocative manner. When Ferry had a falling-out with Luscombe over the script of Hey Rube! in 1961, Luscombe merged their Workshop Productions with the Arts Theatre Club and became artistic director. He saw politics and entertainment (as Carson notes) as "two sides of the same impulse". Despite his English roots (his father came from Devon; his mother from Liverpool), his upbringing in the very Anglo-Saxon Todmorden district of East York, and his schooling in the prefect system of East York Collegiate (which he would have loved to sabotage), Luscombe showed socialist sympathies early in life, catalysed, perhaps, by his elder brother Jack who had founded the East York CCF Club while in his teens. The CCF started a drama school, where Luscombe met a teacher who introduced him to the ideas and methods of Stanislavsky and to a concept of theatre that joined art with life. As a member of Sterndale-Bennett's People's Repertory Theatre, he worked for board and a portion of meagre profits after putting up a share to buy an old army truck with which to tour shows for Canadians largely indifferent to theatre. After his brother Jack died in the war and his sister Kaye, the eldest in the family, was committed to a mental institution, Luscombe left for England in 1950, where he obtained his first great exposure to left-wing theatre.
In a Manchester rep, James Lovell gave him his first understanding of Shakespeare and told him about Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, which had a Marxist perspective and which tested some of the precepts of Brecht, Vakhtangov, Stanislavsky, and Laban. Luscombe had trouble with the role of Sebastian in Twelfth Night, a production in which Littlewood favoured the servants over the aristocrats. But in the midst of coping with poverty and travel, bargaining for bruised tomatoes and sleeping in a dressing-room in violation of fire regulations, he learned much from Littlewood, who believed that actors could be prophets, in the vanguard of social and cultural revolution. She wanted to revive the classics in order to underline their relevance to modern audiences, especially the working class of Stratford East. To this end, she was more concerned (as Carson notes) with "inner action than with the poetry." She turned Richard III into a stunning exploration of fear, oppression, and hatred, painting the title character as a figure of arrogance, cruelty, and self-pity.
Littlewood saw theatre primarily as a collective collaboration where nobody was supreme, yet her own personality was paradoxically stamped on every production. But for his part, Luscombe eventually came to be regarded by actors and collaborators as more fiercely autocratic. Although he instructed many actors in Laban's "movement thinking" or interpreting character through dance-like movement-something radically new to Canadian theatre-he did not create a distinctive Canadian acting style. As his work became more and more repetitive, critics and audiences complained. Moreover, although he wished to further the cause of socialism through art, he was thought insufficiently radical in some quarters. His restrictive style of management oppressed his company, who claimed that TWP was a false collective unduly dominated by his personality. When the cast of Chicago '70 , his production about political dissent, tried to take matters into their own hands following poor box office figures, he announced furiously after the final performance: "All right, the revolution is over."
Fiercely convinced that an actor was often the most reliable guide to the emotional heart of a scene, he caused great distress to writers by radically altering their scripts without consultation. Milton Acorn, who had been commissioned to write a drama about exploited farm workers in Prince Edward Island, threatened a lawsuit; Rick Salutin, author of Les Canadiens, once stormed off the production, threatening an injunction; Jack Winter, Luscombe's dramaturge, resigned from Mr. Bones, a minstrel show about black oppression, and was replaced by the Guyanese-born writer Jan Carew, who ended up storming into Luscombe's office and tearing up a phone book in rage and frustration.
Despite his foibles, Luscombe was a seminal figure in Toronto theatre. His version of theatre was revolutionary in presenting a frontal challenge to commercial practice. He created an artistic vanguard with his belief in the idea of a play not as an autonomous text frozen on the page but as an organic thing that lives and evolves in performance. At its very best, as in Hey Rube!, his signature piece ostensibly about circus life but really about the role of the artist living on the fringe of a society hostile to art, his approach was to draw raw material from the community, interpret it, and return it "not as real life but like an image in a purposely distorted mirror." At its worst, his theatricality (like Littlewood's or Chaikin's or Beck's or Grotowski's) could be distracting and stunting to the scope of drama. His mode did not produce either a substantial body of dramatic literature or a distinctive style of acting that outlived TWP. The late Nathan Cohen, who thought of himself as a left-wing critic, pinpointed this failing in Luscombe's career. And Neil Carson rightly adds the paradox whereby his aim of reaching a popular audience was precluded by his style of presentation. Great theatre cannot flourish without great audiences, and Luscombe surely learned this truism quickly. During a two-week summer tour in Haliburton, his company had an audience of a man and a dog. Even in Toronto, TWP's early audiences were small. Joan Littlewood could have taught him that moving into a working-class neighbourhood does not guarantee that the locals will flock to your plays. TWP's three Stratford seasons drew only 17 per cent attendance and lost $15,000. Luscombe suffered grievous funding difficulties with the ever-quixotic Canada Council and the conservative Ontario Council for the Arts. A fire at the new TWP location on Alexander Street almost wiped him out. Then came a battle with a Toronto developer, followed by June Faulkner's departure for the Shaw Festival which proved almost disastrous. By the 1980s there was a palpable loss in audience support. Deprived of both arts funding and bank credit, TWP collapsed, despite unsuccessful attempts to hire new artistic directors and to ease Luscombe out of his salaried position as artistic director emeritus.
And yet it is wrong to claim, as many do, that Luscombe was not a key figure in the fringe movement. It is true that he was never invited to direct by any other alternative theatre in Toronto and that his own production styles were not much imitated by peers. It is also true that TWP was not considered part of the "brash new wave" as represented by Factory, Passe Muraille, Toronto Free, and Tarragon, but Luscombe's theatre revealed the country's past and helped to construct Toronto's future theatrical life. It was an important transitional agent. Without his lead, would there have been a Paul Thompson, a Jim Garrard, Ken Gass, or Bill Glassco so soon on the scene? Would there have been modern European works mixed with contemporary Canadian plays in Toronto repertoires? Would the Toronto arts community have been re-energized without the Lindsay Kemp season at TWP in 1977-78? Would there have even been indigenous audiences for indigenous plays? Luscombe's impulses of challenge and opposition multiplied among his successors who are legion. TWP made sure that Canadian alternative theatre was represented abroad at the 1969 Venice Biennale and during the 1976 European tour of Ten Lost Years. And Luscombe himself once tried to export his experimentation to Broadway, though he failed miserably in the attempt.
Many of these documentary facts are covered well by Neil Carson, but overall his book has a somewhat lacklustre personality. Solidly researched but inadequately illustrated with photographs, his book is a detailed and revealing chronicle that helps generate discussion of issues regarding Luscombe and the alternative theatre movement. It quickly and effectively outlines Luscombe's background, leaving certain gaps, however, that should have been filled. For instance, the New Play Society is mentioned because of Luscombe's small role in its production of The Time of Your Life, but nothing further is said either of the production or of Luscombe's impressions of John Drainie who starred in it. There is nothing specific about Sterndale-Bennett or of his teaching; nor is there anything substantial about Luscombe's first genuine insights into Shakespeare. While Carson states reasons for Luscombe's disapproval of the Crest and the Stratford Festival, he fails to give cogent details of their productions.
When Carson moves into Luscombe's tenure at TWP, he serves as a useful guide to Toronto theatre's pioneer days, without necessarily providing any substantial analysis of the new wave of playwrights (such as Len Peterson, Jack Winter, Michael John Nimchuk, John Herbert, and Steven Bush). And actors, so central to Luscombe's working method, are not given adequate attention.
The portrait of Luscombe is achieved at an aesthetic distance. Carson is miserly in his use of direct quotation from Luscombe, relying instead on critics' reviews and other journalism. The result is that we hardly ever get Luscombe's detailed reactions to his critics. We do not even get Luscombe's comments on many of his collaborators or acquaintances such as Ferry, Jack Winter, June Faulkner, Nancy Jowsey (who joined him in designing TWP's harlequin logo), or Robert Rooney, his immediate successor as head of TWP. Luscombe is often kept at arm's length by Carson, who appears to be self-conscious about his own role as documentarian for academic archives. The book does little for readers who know their Tynan, Bentley, Clurman, Kerr, and Brustein. Although a better writer than most Canadian university theatre scholars, Carson has too sober a way with words to transcend bloodless "neutrality", although there are occasional flashes of what could be called medium definition performance: the descriptions of the filmic quality of Woyzeck or of the metaphor of Mr. Bones or of the musical and comic counterpoints in Ten Lost Years or of the ingenious set designs of Astrid Janson (You Can't Get There From Here) and Nancy Jowsey (Che). Moments such as these are few and far between, however, and Carson becomes too much of a professorial propagandist for someone who is essentially a harlequin figure on the margins of a serious but unfinished revolution.
Yet, I can commend this book for its potential as didactic provocation. At the very least, it provokes questions about the relationship between art and politics, the cult of personality, and the political mythology of Toronto theatre. In chronicling the story of TWP, Toronto's "oldest theatre company" and "the most consistent in style and vision" (according to Alan Filewod in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre), it generates discussion about George Luscombe's role in the birth, development, and aftermath of what is loosely called a revolution.