“If indeed I am the best critic in Canada, it is precisely because of the reaction to my notices internationally"
For nearly a decade now a literary Jack the Ripper, complete with stiletto wit and malacca cane, has been stalking through the oasis-scattered wasteland of Canadian theatre slicing up tripe whenever tripe is served. Nathan Cohen is considered by many, including himself, to be the best drama critic in the country. He is certainly the most feared — both in the Biblical sense of fear, implying respect, and in the modern sense, implying a measure of terror. The backstage whisper that “Cohen's coming'' can aggravate the first-night nerves of little and not-so-little theatre companies alike. The news that “Cohen's panned it’’ won’t kill a production — no Canadian critic, not even Cohen, is that powerful — but it usually means late-comers will seldom have difficulty buying choice seats. The rarer report, “Hey, Cohen likes it,” is often enough to start the producer thinking seriously about Broadway.
Physically, Cohen is an imposing figure who has spent the past 20 years trying to look like an intellectually mature 45-year-old and now actually is. When he speaks, there is a glint in his eye that should never be mistaken for a twinkle. And his mouth is likely to break into a broad grin that should never be mistaken for a warm smile.
He was born the son of a grocer in Sydney, Nova Scotia, plowed his own way through the English classics as a teenager and graduated with a BA in English from New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University. (Last year, to Cohen’s almost I-told-you-so delight. Mount A presented him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.) After an early journalistic apprenticeship on various newspapers, he made his national reputation during the 1950s on the CBC radio and TV networks as a critic-at-large and as moderator of Fighting Words. Since 1959 he has been connected with the Toronto Star as full-time critic and sometime Entertainment Editor. He is perhaps best known outside Toronto for his daily Assignment program on the CBC radio network.
This interview was conducted by Staff Writer Douglas Marshall in the Four Seasons bar across the street from CBC headquarters in Toronto. Cohen, who initially had to be cajoled into talking to Maclean’s (“l don’t need any more publicity”), was sipping straight tomato juice
and mellowly expanding on such subjects as himself, old movies, theatre, other critics and the public.
Maclean’s: What produces more mail, the radio program or the Star column?
Cohen: It's interchangeable. A
great many people write to me at the Star about things they hear on the air. I average on the CBC radio show about four letters a day — that’s 15 to 20 letters a week, which is pretty good. Now I don’t get that many on the newspaper unless it's in respect to a specific review or a mistake. And it’s the queerest factual mistakes that produce the most mail.
Maclean’s: For example?
Cohen: For example, when Meyer Levin, the author of Compulsion. was in town some months ago I did a TV interview with him. Levin mentioned to me that the surviving real-life character on which the book was based, Leo-
pold. had claimed defamation of character and brought an action to stop further publication of the book. Levin said he never made any money from Compulsion. Which is extraordinary, considering how well known it is. Maclean’s: Not even from the
Cohen: All the movie rights were held in escrow. Anyway, he added that the book had only come out in paperback that week. I thought that was interesting because hardcover books usually come out in paperback within a year. So I carried a little item saying it had taken 12 years for Compulsion to make it into paperback. I got 25 letters pointing out to me that the first paperback edition had come out in 1958. He'd forgotten it; I didn’t know it.
Maclean’s: So people delight in catching you out on that sort of thing.
Cohen: 1 think so. Most of the
letters were pleasant; they weren’t dirty. I used to do a daily TV movie feature called Cohen’s Choice, off the top of my head. Every once in a while my memory would fail me or I'd type the wrong name. Boy, my mail would bulge for two days afterward.
Maclean’s: You used to run a section in your column called The Things A Critic Hears. It consisted of nasty comments about you. Did you make some of them up?
Cohen: Oh no. What I did do was improve them. Remember, I would take a seven-page letter and boil it down to one sentence. Now it was a damn good sentence by the time I was through with it.
Maclean’s: How did that section start?
Cohen: It started as a gag. You see, I don't believe in using my column to run mail. That’s an easy way out of doing a column. On the other hand it’s always seemed to me terribly unfair that a person like myself, who gets a thousand words a day to sound off on what he likes, should have this great advantage over people he infuriates or exasperates. So one day a very short one-line letter came in; I don't remember what it said now but it was so funny it was hysterical. And I said, that one I’m carrying. That’s what gave me the idea. I was only going to do it once. But everybody loved it and pretty soon people began to write letters figuring they would make the column. I got bored with it after a couple of years. If a person writes a really thoughtful letter, it's too long to carry in that form. I’m a great believer in answering every letter I get as long as the writer signs his name.
Maclean’s: Even if they are vituperative?
Cohen: Oh, I don’t care. If he takes the trouble to write, he’s entitled to a courteous answer. Because he's paid his dime for that opinion of mine. I don't get many vituperative letters any more. But any guy who is in the business of having opinions and can’t take hostile comment should get out of the business.
I have no sympathy for thin-skinned critics.
Maclean’s: What, if anything, does bother you?
Cohen: I guess I get upset with people agreeing with me. I think the reason more and more people agree with me is either they’ve come to
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trust me — they've seen enough shows by now to know I’m not really unfavorable wilfully—or because they’re terribly impressed by the fact that I have an international reputation. The one thing that gets under my skin is to be told, “Gee, you must be really good. New York turned down a show you didn’t like either.” That kills me. The idea being that if the New York critics feel the same way I do, that proves I must be good. Most New York critics are thoroughly incompetent.
Maclean’s: You don’t restrict yourself to reviews in your column. You also carry news and items of gossip.
Cohen: May I tell you something about me where 1 think I differ from practically every other critic in the country? I’m the only critic I know who is proud to be considered a reporter. I think all the other critics work like dogs to get rid of doing news. But I think part of my job is to tell the reader the news. I respect sources. I work hard to get and interpret stories about the theatre arts. I like being a reporter.
Maclean’s: You mentioned New York. Would you like to work there?
Cohen: l would like to go to New York as the drama critic of the New York Times, which I will never do. Maclean’s: Because of the power? Cohen: No, critics don’t have power. That’s a lot of rubbish. But if you are the critic of the New York Times you are automatically the most important drama critic in the world. Not the best; not the one likely, over the long run, to have the worthiest reputation. But you are automatically the most important.
Maclean’s: You’re ignoring London in this?
Cohen: The London daily press isn't important. Look, say for example you are Clive Barnes of the New York Times, and you suddenly decide to fly to Moscow to see the Bolshoi doing a new ballet premiering tonight. You can raise the telephone, call Moscow, and there will be two tickets waiting for you that night. But I wouldn't work for any other New York paper — although two have offered me jobs. I am very happy working for the Toronto Star, which treats me well and is w'here I made my reputation as a critic. It irks me sometimes that people in Canadian embassies abroad assume that because I have an international reputation I must work for the Toronto Globe and Mail. That’s the only Canadian paper they know overseas.
Maclean’s: Would you work for the Globe?
Cohen: No. I work for the Star because I’m compatible with it. It is a paper in a Canadian tradition I admire very much and that’s the United Church tradition. The United Church is an institution that fought for the eight-hour day, the old-age pension and for so many other aspects of social justice.
Maclean’s: Well, let’s not entirely forget the CCF and the NDP.
Cohen: I’m not. I’m talking about
newspapers. Remember the Toronto Star was calling for Medicare before World War I. They didn't call it Medi-
“I read many of my colleagues in Canada: they’re very funny”
care hut they were calling for it. Maclean’s: How do you vote?
Cohen: I think I'm a small-l liberal. I once was Left-wing.
Maclean’s: (jetting back to your position as a critic. Do you pay attention to your peers in Canada? Or do you have peers in Canada?
Cohen: I read other critics, if that's
what you mean, in iaci, probably the only critic who pays any attention to other critics. I do it for two reasons. First, on my radio program one of my functions is to tell people what's happening across the country, to give the broad picture. I have a fixation about this. Coming from the Maritimes myself, i know very well why people on cither side of this country feel they're discriminated against. 1 also read other critics because I try to follow regional theatre very closely. 1 read many of my colleagues in Canada to amuse myself. 1 think they're very funny. And I say so quite often in print and on the air. Maclean’s: You don’t believe in the newspaper tradition that dog doesn't bite dog?
Cohen: It's a stupid tradition. Why shouldn't critics be gone after? I his assumption that there's a fraternity among critics is infantile. For example. recently Herbert Whittaker in the Globe implied that the reason why Soldiers closed on Broadway was because once again New York had rejected a serious play. Now the reason it was rejected, on top of all the other factors, was that it was a bloody bad production. And the implication that if a play w'ere serious it couldn't succeed in New York was belied by the success of several other plays this last season. Or at least plays Whittaker thought were serious.
Maclean’s: Such as?
Cohen: Weil, like Joe Cgg, I be Ibice and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. So to say that the play was rejected because it was serious was absolutely inaccurate and misleading. And critically, in my judgment, it was irresponsible.
Maclean’s: Do Whittaker and you ever meet and talk shop?
Cohen: Well, we talk but we don't talk shop. I think the only time we talked shop was when we ran into each other a few years ago in the men’s room in Tel Aviv and made a date to meet in Athens. There, removed from the Canadian scene, we chatted for a couple of hours about our hopes for and disappointments in some of the better actors and actresses. It's no secret, for instance, that I feel Kate Reid might have become a genuinely significant actress and that she's missed the boat. And it's a matter of great regret to me.
Maclean’s: What went wrong for her? Cohen: 1 feel she went from ingenue to character actress without the interim period as a leading lady. Kate should have left Canada. She should have knocked on doors and taken her chances. She is one of the two or three actresses in this country who might have achieved world stature. Might have.
Maclean’s: Who’s another?
Cohen: Another one, and this may
surprise you. is Charmion King. Charmion for years was the most overrated actress in Toronto. But somewhere along the line she took a look at herself and got rid of her bad habits. And that fine production at The Crest of 1 be Three Sisters when she and Kate were at the apogee of their careers, I think, opened up a whole new pro-
fessional chapter in Charmion's life. It's a great shame that nothing came of that.
Maclean's: Isn't being the best critic in Canada like being king of a desert island?
Cohen: I'm not just the best critic in Canada. I get a chance to see theatre everywhere and a chance to measure
myself against other critics in the major centres. If indeed I am the best critic in Canada — I thought / was the only one who thought that — it is precisely because of the reaction to my notices internationally.
Maclean’s: Some of that reaction is fairly hostile. I understand American producer David Merrick recently refused to bring a play to Toronto because of you.
Cohen: Merrick talks about the hostility of Toronto critics whom he
‘Tm not critical enough—that’s one of my great weaknesses”
never identifies, so I don't know if it's me. But surely another factor is that subscriptions arc down at the O'Keefe Centre. And by the time they get through paying the exchange on the Canadian dollar, it isn't worth it for David Merrick to bring in a trial play to Toronto.
Maclean’s: Several foreign actors and
actresses have also taken swipes at you.
Cohen: Well, why shouldn't they? I’d he very distressed if they didn't because it would mean my opinions arc so bland they’re not worth reacting to. Listen, I’m not writing for actors or anybody else in the theatre. My loyalty is to the reader. And if I tell the
reader something I don't think or that I don't believe in, then I'm a liar. I'm interested in being respected as a man who can explain why he reacts as he does to what he sees. And who writes readably, incidentally. That’s the other thing. Do you know that the biggest objection a lot of people have to me as a critic is that I'm interesting to
read? They seem to think that because the subject is dull the critic should be dull, too. It’s a proposition I've never shared.
Maclean’s: So you don't think you're too critical?
Cohen: I'm not critical enough. I've never been critical enough. That's one of my great weaknesses as a critic. And I'm not joking. Many of the people who complain that I'm too harsh go to the theatre three or four times a year. They spend $10 or $15 for tickets and they feel they’ve got to get their money’s worth, particularly if it’s a play from out of town. They want to be told they are spending their money on something that's good — whether it is or not. Before I became a critic I used to pay my dough and if the show was no good. I’d walk out. But most people today behave in a completely different way. They won't walk out. I get many letters from people after I damn a show saying, “God, I’m glad you didn’t like that show. We didn't like it either, but we were afraid to say so.” Maclean’s: Presumably this applies to the Stratford Festival, too?
Cohen: At Stratford the banc of my life is the amount of mail I get every summer from people whispering in letters that they felt the same way but didn't dare say it. Stratford is the uncriticizable institution. It's easier to criticize the Queen today than it is Stratford. Now if you go to theatres as often as I do, five or six times a week, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the terrible mediocrity of 99 percent of what’s put on. And you would be doing the theatre a service and the people in the theatre a service and the audience on whom these things are inflicted a service if you had the influence to persuade these people to stop putting on these shows and go home.
Maclean’s: Do you think a critic should instruct theatrical people on how to do better?
Cohen: No. I wasn't hired to be a play doctor. But I also believe we must have our own plays in Canada if our theatre is ever going to amount to anything. Therefore, if a Canadian playwright shows any talent at all, any glimmer, I will encourage him. Maclean’s: If you don't think you are critical enough, what about your famous attack on Richard B u r t o n ’ s Hamlet about five years ago? You called it an unmitigated disaster. Cohen: It was an unmitigated disaster. And you know who feels that way about it today? John Gielgud and Richard Burton. Gielgud has given a number of interviews in which he discussed why the show went as wrong as it did. Burton once said at a party that what mattered to him more than anything else was the opinion of the critics he respected. And the critics he mentioned specifically were Kenneth Tynan, with whom he went to Oxford, Walter Kerr and myself. When that Hamlet was still in Toronto, Burton sent word that he'd appreciate my taking another look at it. So I did and thought it was worse than it was the first time. Then when the production reached New York I was asked to see it for a third time, but I said nothing doing. I've met Richard Burton once since then, at Sardi’s, and he came over and said.
“My God. do you still remember that Hamlet?”
Maclean’s: In your 10 years as a critic, how many first-rate Canadian productions have you seen?
Cohen: If you allow me to include the French-Canadian groups. I'd say about a dozen that were either first-rate or damned close.
Maclean’s: Any that stand out?
Cohen: Several stand out. There was the absolutely marvelous historical play, Lorenzaccio, that Jean Gascon did for the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde about three years ago. I saw a show in Winnipeg last December that impressed me very much — Antigone with Dawn Greenhalgh and Powys Thomas. I thought Fortune and Men’s Eyes at the Central Library Theatre was a beautiful production. That was a Canadian play by John Herbert. Other Canadian plays I've liked lately are Yesterday the Children Were Dancing, by Gratiën Gélinas, and Arthur Murphy’s play. The Sleeping Bag, which comes out of Halifax. That was a nice, light little comedy, kind of an Arctic Little Hut. In fact. I could come up with twice that number of good productions. There’ve been about half a dozen plays in the last year that I’ve liked.
Maclean’s: So you're not depressed about the potential of Canadian theatre?
Cohen: Oh, I’m depressed because the story of Canadian theatre is always the story of its potential. It’s its fulfillment that I’d really like to see. My great faith is in guys like Mavor Moore. I don’t think people realize what a tremendous gift, what a capability he has.
Maclean’s: Switching to films, you once claimed to have seen at least 75 percent of Hollywood movies made since 1930. Is that true?
Cohen: Sure. But it's not as extraordinary as it sounds. There are dozens of people in Toronto who know far more about movies than I do — although they’re not as good critics. You’ve got to remember I came out of a small town. In those days there were four theatres in town and movies changed two or three times a week. Going to movies was a habit for my generation. I skipped school to see movies. I never saw a live play until I hit university. I didn’t know what it was. The only outlet I had in terms of the arts was the movie theatre. Maclean’s: You seem to have acquired a special fondness for 1930 horror movies.
Cohen: The 1930s was a period when horror films were plentiful, were well done and were taken very seriously. And those movies are interesting to
me for another reason you may find odd. You could actually trace the social history of the United States through those films. If you start with Dracula and move through Frankenstein, let’s say, to The Werewolf of London, you can see a whole change in American mores and attitudes. In the first horror films the monster was a monster. I mean, nobody would ever Ihink of Dracula as a sympathetic character who simply couldn’t help being a necrophile or whatever you want to call him. But when you hit The Werewolf of London you notice that the guy turns into a monster against his will. Society is starting to say man is no longer to be held completely responsible for his actions. The first influence of Freud on popular culture. And it fascinated me because even in that period I was aware of this.
Maclean’s: Were you aware you were going to be a writer as early as that? Cohen: I've been learning to write since I was five or six years old. I was a very lucky guy in school. I was always encouraged by teachers. I was in Cape Breton a couple of years ago for a Native Sons Award, and I mentioned that among the three or four people who have had profound influences on me was a teacher called Annie Farquharson. When 1 was in grade four she encouraged me to enter a provincial essay competition and I won it. After the talk this old lady came over to me. I didn’t recognize her but of course it was Annie Farquharson. She said, “I’m glad you remember
that occasion because I knew even before then that you were going to be a writer.” And she produced a gradethree scribbler of mine that she had kept all these years because there was something in there that she felt proved 1 was a writer.
Maclean’s: What about the influences at university?
Cohen: One of the professors there didn’t think I was a good writer and was very much opposed to my getting my honors. You see, I lost my thesis — it was on the pantheistical poets — in a fire when the men’s residence burned to the ground. I jumped out of the burning building and three years ot work on a thesis went up in smoke. So I never got my honors and that has always bugged me. That is why it was a great moment in my life when Mount A gave me an honorary degree last year. There is no honor you can get worth as much as the honor that comes from your alma mater. There really isn't, you know.
Maclean's: One last question. Why the malacca cane?
Cohen: It’s an affectation which has become a genuine obsession. I first got one as a birthday present and for two days I felt terribly self-conscious. No red-blooded Canadian male is supposed to use a walking stick. But on the third day I found myself wandering into an antique shop and looking at sticks. Now I have a great many of every variety. It’s an inexpensive hobby. Cheaper than drinking and I’ve given up smoking. I don’t chase women. Why not? ★