Internet Shakespeare Editions

2. "Unworthy scaffold": playhouses and players

The scarcity of audiences sympathetic to the theatre was compounded by the lack of facilities to produce Shakespeare. Indeed, the acceleration of Shakespearean productions came with the building of permanent playhouses. As Murray Edwards has shown, most early theatres were extensions of drinking parlours, with the stage usually upstairs. Perhaps because of the parlour's effects, once the audience made its way up, it could not always be counted on to respond sympathetically (or soberly) to the theatre production. Some of these theatres still survive: for example, in Wakefield, Quebec. There, while the stage remains more-or-less intact, the rest of the tiny theatre is now, appropriately, an antique shop. Plays were also produced in hotels, ballrooms and other venues, such as in the rear of a store (the case of the Theatre Royal, established in 1870 by the First Ontario Rifles in Winnipeg).

Although writing about a much later period, the central importance of the physical stage for the performance of Shakespearean plays, as well as for the development of a Canadian drama as a whole, was wittily described by Samuel Marchbanks (pseudonym of Robertson Davies) in a letter to one "Apollo Fishhorn," a would-be Canadian playwright of the twentieth century:

You want to be a Canadian playwright, and ask me for advice as to how to set about it. Well, Fishhorn, the first thing you had better acquaint yourself with is the physical conditions of the Canadian theatre. Every great drama, as you know, has been shaped by its playhouse. The Greek drama gained grandeur from its marble outdoor theatres; the Elizabethan drama was given fluidity by the extreme adaptability of the Elizabethan playhouse stage; the French classical drama took its formal tone from its exquisite, candle-lit theatres. You see what I mean.

Now what is the Canadian playhouse? Nine times out of ten, Fishhorn, it is a school hall, smelling of chalk and kids, and decorated in the Early Concrete style. The stage is a small, raised room at one end. And I mean room. If you step into the wings suddenly you will fracture your nose against the wall. There is no place for storing scenery, no place for the actors to dress, and the lighting is designed to warm the stage but not to illuminate it.

Write your plays, then, for such a stage. Do not demand any procession of elephants, or dances by the maidens of the Caliph's harem. Keep away from sunsets and storms at sea. Place as many scenes as you can in cellars and kindred spots. And don't have more than three characters on the stage at one time, or the weakest of them is sure to be nudged into the audience. Farewell, and good luck to you. (Davies in Rubin 175-176)

Throughout the nineteenth century, smaller communities continued to rely on their own unique theatrical structures. The secretary to Sir Henry Irving recorded the dismal circumstances in which the great nineteenth-century English actor performed in Quebec City:

The theatre here would make you shriek. It is a cross between a chapel and a very small concert room and the stage is about half the size of that of St. George's Hall. The entrance is being washed now, but no amount of soap and water will repair the broken windows. The kind of people who play here as a rule are of the least intellectual orderñwe found two members of the preceding troupe on the stageñthey were two hens!
(Cited in Edwards 11).

In larger centres, such as Montreal and Toronto, however, economic growth enabled the building of so-called opera houses, which were more receptive to Shakespeare and, especially, Shakespearean actors. But, although the performance space was undergoing change, the upper parlour spirit did not always vanish as quickly; it seems to have continued to infuse at least some members of the audience with impatience and, occasionally, wit. Something of this spirit of a "Wild West" still lingered even after Confederation. In 1868, for example, Charles Fechter arrived in Toronto to play in Hamlet. When, in the opening scene of that play, a minor character, Bernardo, twice queried, "Who's there?" and no reply was heard, a voice from the balcony shouted, "Darned if I know. Go on with the play." (Middleton in Rubin 5-6)

By the late 1860s, the building of large theatres in urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg, brought touring companies and star actors. Canadian stages welcomed, indeed invited and wooed, a plethora of stars, beginning with Edmund Kean in Quebec city (1826), who was lionized when he played Richard III, Shylock, Othello, and King Lear. Kean claimed to have mezmerized a group of Huron in his hotel room by reciting Shakespearean speeches for them from his bed. Made their honorary chief, he was given the name of Alanienoudet. In the late twentieth century, this episode in Kean's life would serve as the basis for Marianne Ackerman and Robert Lepage's eponymous play.

Edmund Kean was followed by his son, Charles, and then by many other famous actors, among them Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, the already-mentioned Henry Irving, Tomasso Salvini, Ernesto Rossi, Edwin Booth, and Helen Modjeska. American Shakespearean actors also made their way north. These included Edwin Forrest, John Barrymore, and John Wilkes Booth, who last played in Montreal shortly before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Many of these actors also toured extensively elsewhere, some, like Bernhardt, going as far as St. Petersburg, Russia. If we cannot speak of a globalization of culture in the nineteenth century, we can, at least, suggest that European and North American commercial theatre trends were not as far apart as might be imagined.

This multicultural mix of touring stars--Italian, French, and Polish, as much as English and American--helped create the theatrical canon in Canada. For them, Shakespeare was a wonderful star vehicle. But, if Shakespeare added lustre to the star, the star also added lustre to Shakespeare. Booth, Bernhardt and Irving, rather than Hamlet, attracted audiences (just as Paul Gross, Denzel Washington, and Mel Gibson attract new audiences for Shakespeare today). Accordingly, plays were cut and reshaped to fit around star performers. Thus, the most frequently produced were those plays that easily accommodated themselves to the demands of star actors: The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, Richard III, and Macbeth.

But not everyone flocked to see Shakespeare. Maritimers failed to fill the auditorium, preferring the circus to Hamlet, a situation that persisted until quite recentlyñas Leslie Yeo reveals in his autobiography, A Thousand and One Nights. Notwithstanding an interesting beginning--the fourteen-year-old Jean Davenport playing the demanding role of Richard III in 1841--, Newfoundland has been particularly resistant to Shakespeare, either parodying or ignoring rather than playing him.

Dramatically accelerating in the late nineteenth century, visits of touring actors and companies contributed to the image of Canada as a receiver, not a creator, of culture. Canadians generally accepted the long-standing English-American axis as a "natural condition" and no cause for complaint. Indeed, Canada was so dependent upon American ties for its theatre that, at times when the relationship between the two countries was strained, as it was during the War of 1812, there was very little or no English-language theatre in Canada. By the second decade of the twentieth century, this state of affairs was whole-heartedly embraced by some, like J.E. Middleton, who wrote that "There is no Canadian Drama. It is merely a branch of the American Theatre, and let it be said, a most profitable one" (Middleton in Rubin 8).

The decades leading up to the First World War were full of Shakespearean productions: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, and As You Like It were all presented in abridged or adapted eighteenth-century forms. Audiences were treated to King Lear in Nahum Tate's version with its happy ending, and A Midsummer Night's Dream was heavily populated with splendid "Amazons," that is, dancing girls. By the turn of the century, touring companies had also found an audience at the universities. Ben Greet's English Players performed at the universities of Toronto and Western Ontario in 1904-5.

While welcoming foreign actors, Canada also produced its own talent. Hamilton-born Julia Arthur was among the most successful entertainers on the road, others being Margaret Anglin and Agnes Booth. Anglin, daughter of the Speaker of the House of Commons and literally born in the chamber, went to the United States, where she played Ophelia to James O'Neill's Hamlet (O'Neill being the father of the rather more famous playwright, Eugene O'Neill). In Australia, Anglin played Kate and Viola; and pioneered what the Montreal Star theatre critic S. Morgan-Powell called the "new style of mounting and setting Shakespeare" with its emphasis on textual exactitude and ensemble work (Morgan-Powell in Rubin 35). But Anglin was also an early example of the general practice of Canadians obtaining their professional training and subsequent fame elsewhere, causing critics like Bernard K. Sandwell (editor and theatre critic of Saturday Night) to complain in 1911 that "Canada is the only nation in the world whose stage is controlled by aliens" (Middleton in Rubin 8).

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