Internet Shakespeare Editions

4. "Imaginary puissance": Shakespeare, amateurs, and a national theatre

At the turn of the last century and just as the visits of professional touring companies began to dwindle, amateur groups rushed to fill the void. In 1907, the Governor General, Earl Grey, initiated the Earl Grey Music and Dramatic Trophy Competition to encourage amateur groups. In addition to university theatricals, the amateur Little Theatre movement included some Shakespeare in its repertoire. Beginning in Ottawa with the Ottawa Dramatic League (1913), by the 1930s, Little Theatres multiplied throughout Canada. Regina produced The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet; Winnipeg, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; and Peterborough, The Taming of the Shrew, a production starring Robertson and Brenda Davies. Davies would go on to use his experience with such amateur outdoor productions of Shakespeare as the basis for his novel Tempest Tost.

With the end of Empire and the beginning of the Commonwealth, another landmark in political nationhood had been achieved. Coinciding with this development was, in the 1930s, the creation of the Dominion Drama Festival (DDF), the first truly national theatre, created by another Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough, with representatives of amateur drama groups from across Canada. For thirty years (except during WW II), regional competitions were held annually in the spring, and finals took place in Ottawa. Among other works, scenes from Shakespeare were performed at such competitions.

During the Second World War, Shakespeare's birthday continued to be celebrated, and his name used in war propaganda. By the end of the 1940s, Canadians had had the opportunity to see Shakespeare in most parts of Canada or to read something about him. The time seemed ripe for English actor-manager Earle Grey and his actress-wife, Mary Godwin, to launch the First Canadian Shakespeare Festival at the University of Toronto's Trinity College quadrangle. On July 2, 1951, they planted a mulberry tree, purportedly a scion of the true Shakespearean root, in the quad. But this summer Shakespeare was only briefly successful. With the advent of the Stratford Festival, Grey's enterprise began to unravel. By 1960, the Greys went home to England.

5. "This churlish knot": the state and the stage

The real explosion of interest in Shakespeare, both in English and in French Canada, occurred after the Second World War, and coincided with the growth of cities, the influx of many immigrant groups, the rapid development of technology, and debates about national identity and culture. Between 1944 and 1955, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (the CRBC, later the CBC), presented over 60 radio adaptations of Shakespeare, including the first-ever complete and chronologically arranged performance of Shakespeare's history plays. Aimed at helping raise national cultural standards in the face of American commercialism, the CRBC productions extended Shakespeare to a vast new audience.

Of central importance to the development of radio drama as well as to Canadian theatre as a whole was the report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences, better known as the Massey Commission (1949-1951), named after its co-chair, Vincent Massey, later Governor General of Canada. One of the most fervent and eloquent supporters of a Canadian theatre, Massey quipped (in an observation not irrelevant today) that it was "almost as easy to be witty about the Canadian drama as about the Canadian navy. They each, at the moment, may seem to represent a well-meaning but rather insignificant effort to complete our national equipment--to suggest a pious aspiration rather than reality" (Massey in Rubin 53).

The Massey Commission's work on Canadian culture and the extensive debate it generated helped create the groundwork for the "great leap into the unknown"--as author Timothy Findley has called the creation of the Stratford Theatre Festival (Findley in Green and Moore 263): undoubtedly the major event in Canadian Shakespeareana. Even though the Festival was founded by a British director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, at the initiative of Tom Patterson (a Stratford businessman), and used British stars, it was hailed as the iconic achievement of Canadian cultural nationhood.

The thrust stage, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, served as a model for many other theatres around the world, including the Crucible Theatre (Sheffield), the Chichester Festival Stage, and the Vivian Beaumont Theater (Lincoln Center, New York). The "reverse colonialism" of Stratford's architectural influence was also, more rarely, experienced by its actors. Montreal-born Christopher Plummer recalled that, when he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, he had obtained "all the plum roles on the program... 'Richard III,' 'Benedict,'... I ... a COLONIAL...fresh from the crass New World, had come to take the wind out of their sails, beat 'em at their own game, show the Brits how to do what they do best! I was pretty cocky and insufferable, I tell ya" (cited in Green and Moore 203).

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Stratford Festival Theatre thrust stage, 2002.
Reproduced with kind permission of the Archives of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Photograph Terry Manzo.

Stratford's culturally authoritative position in Canada and in North America grew exponentially over the decades. Its success was followed on a smaller scale in the 1960s by a chain of professional regional theatres scattered across Canada, some of which have created rivetting productions.

But Stratford's success did not come without controversy. With the growth of Canadian nationalism during the 1970s, Shakespeare and Stratford came increasingly under attack from some quarters, since both were perceived as enshrining Canada's colonial dependence. Playwrights, concerned about what they regarded as the cultural inferiority complex of their fellow Canadians, attacked Stratford for doing little to foster native Canadian playwrights or directors. Canadian nationalism, was, however, complicated by the historical transformation of the theatre into a culture industry, and by the sense that the world was in a post-nationalist, if not perhaps post-verbal, phase of development. Some critics attacked Stratford as a consumerist, philistine festival. Others, however, argued that the classics must be thoroughly assimilated before a native tradition could be created.

Whatever the response to the Stratford Festival, most critics and observers agreed that it was a timely endeavour and one which expressed "a feeling," as Sir Tyrone Guthrie noted with just a touch of paternalism, "a feeling that Canada has more to contribute to the wealth and health of the world than its material riches" (cited in Pettigrew and Portman 14-15).

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