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ROBERTSON DA VIES Fifty Years of Theatre in Canada I Not, you will observe, 'Fifty Years of Canadian Theatre'; there was no such thing as distinctively Canadian theatre fifty years ago. As early as 1911 B.K. Sandwell had written, 'Canada is the only country in the world whose stage is entirely controlled by aliens,' and in 1920 the situation was unchanged. Only a few people cared; pineapples and plays alike were imported into Canada, because it was obvious that our climate was not favourable to their growth. But we had plenty of the best pineapples and plays, so what was there to worry about? We were a happy cultural colony, confident that in theatrical affairs they managed things better in New York and London. What sort of theatre had we? I have heard it described, by people who never saw it, in terms which surprise me, for I remember it well. Nor do I rely on memory alone; I kept a diary, and in it comments on my visits to the theatre are common. I went to school in Toronto, but my home was in Kingston, so I saw plays in both cities. What did Isee, and what did I say? Here is a sampling. Let us go back a little beyond our starting-date. At the Royal Alexandra on 10 September 1928 I saw George Robey, who was touring with a revue of which he was the star. For a boy just turned fifteen I was a solemn critic, for I wrote of Robey in a quotation from Downes' Roscius anglicanus, speaking of Doggett: 'he's very aspectabund, wearing a farce on his face, his thoughts deliberately framing his utterance congruous to his looks.' But I feel no solemnity when I remember him now bursting from between the curtains, in the full rig-out of a Victorian bride, a diamond as big as a bicycle reflector on his hand, to which he pOinted, shouting in triumph, 'Look girls - THE DOINGS!' On 1 October I saw When Crummles Played, a pastiche drawn from Nicholas Nickleby by Nigel Playfair, in which a Dickensian framework enclosed a performance of George Barnwell, or The London Merchant. The cast was a distinguished one; Barnwell was played by Ernest Thesiger. I noted that I sat next to a man who had seen Irving in Robespierre, and described it to me. People who remembered Irving were my natural prey. Toronto had stock companies at this time, and they played the staple fare, like the performance of Interference by Pertwee and Dearden, and c hat of Edward Sheldon's Romance I saw in the Empire Theatre which 70 ROBERTSON DAVIES stood on Temperance Street, next to Birks: the London and New York productions had taken place many years earlier. I saw a touring opera company perform Faust, which seemed to me chiefly memorable for the settings and designs by Norman Bel Geddes. But on 2 February 1929 Isaw a company from Hart House, which toured schools, play A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Dora Mavor Moore; Puck was a girl named Elaine Wodson, daughter of the theatre critic of the Toronto Telegram, and she later made a small reputation on the London stage. This was authentically Canadian, but, alas, the economical hand of Ben Greet was too apparent in its presentation, for Mrs Moore had learned more than acting from that indomitable but parsimonious old trouper. My fust experience of Shaw was the production by Maurice Colbourne and Barry Jones of John Bull's Other Island; Jones was a fine Peter Keegan. On 22 February I heard Sir Archibald Flower appeal to my school for contributions to the building of the new Memorial Theatre at Stratford-an-Avon, and he charmed a dollar (half a week's allowance) out of my pocket; Ihave kept a proprietary eye on the Memorial Theatre ever since. Sir Archibald appeared as a trumpeter for the touring company from Stratford which Isaw play The Merchant ofVenice on 2 March; unfortunatelya bad understudy appeared as Shylock in place of George Hayes. But I I saw Hayes on 8 March as Hamlet, and I noted that instead of wearing the traditional two...


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