The Canadian Lincoln
The intimate story of a great Canadian actor's rise to fame
EACH WEEKDAY evening at 8.15, a strange, cryptic conversation takes place in the number one dressing room of the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, where Broadway’s most successful current stage play, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," is now running and will still be running many, many months from now.
"Curtain in fifteen minutes.”
“Right you are. Glen. How are we?”
“All clean, Mr. Massey.”
Glen is the assistant manager of the Plymouth, and the other speaker is a tall, loose-jointed, rather sombre Canadian, Raymond Massey, making up for the part of Abraham Lincoln, best loved of all Americans.
Unfailingly the Canadian asks the same question, and each evening the stage manager makes the same resjx>nse. “All clean, Mr. Massey.”
The words are the sweetest an actor ever hears. In the backstage jargon of the theatre, they mean a sellout. The expression refers to the ticket racks in the box office. When these are cleaned out, it means that all tickets are sold and it is time to hang the Standing Room Only sign up in the lobby.
Ever since “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” opened in Washington in the early autumn, Ray Massey has heard the same words repeated before every performance. The reason is easy to explain. Robert Sherwood's play is one of the most moving of our generation, and Raymond Massey’s playing of the leading role one of the great characterizations of the American theatre.
The still youthful Canadian -with a family name familiar to every Canadian farm and hamlet—has become one of the half dozen ranking actors of the English-speaking stage, and it requires no gift of prophecy to foretell that his “Canadian Lincoln” will enter the realm of theatrical
lore about which grandfathers tell their grandchildren.
So completely satisfying is his acting of the great and lonely man who freed the slaves, that one wonders whether the play was made for Massey or Massey for the playr. And yet. a short time before the Sherwood play opened, New York newspapers were asking, "How can a Canadian hope to ¡x>rtray the part of Abraham Lincoln, most democratic and most typical of all Americans?”
I asked Massey the same question in his tiny cubicle of a dressing room, where he was painstakingly transforming himself into the martyred President.
Massey’s long sensitive fingers remain suspended while he ponders his answer for a few seconds. “To tell the truth,” he replies finally, "I thought the controversy about my nationality just a little silly. After all, an American actress, Helen Hayes, has been playing Queen Victoria rather successfully for almost four years, and no one has raised any objections or questioned her ability. And no one worried particularly about Maurice Evans not being a Corsican when he played Napoleon. But as for myself, I’m eternally grateful to whoever brought up the question, even if it was a little silly.”
“Because they’ve been proved so mistaken?”
"A queerer reason than that,” laughs Massey as the
dresser holds out Lincoln’s buckskin shirt for him to put on. “You see, it has taken Abe Lincoln to make me a Canadian. In Canada they’ve accused me of being English or American. In England I’m American, and here in New York I’ve never been quite certain what I am. From now on, thanks to ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois,’ I’m likely to remain a Canadian, which I have been all along.”
“Beginners on stage, Mr. Massey. Three minutes to go.”
The dresser is waiting with a wig, and Massey adjusts it carefully. It is almost the same color as his own hair, but it has Lincoln’s shaggy, self-inflicted backwoods haircut.
Now the transformation is complete. The Canadian Massey is gone and another man is in his place, a man whose gentle melancholy face has been familiar to three generations of Americans. And the heroic figure who crowds the tiny dressing room with his great height is but little different from the Canadian who entered an hour before in a double-breasted lounge suit.
The stage character is taller; thanks to boots with twoinch lifts; he is somewhat darker in complexion, thanks to a heavy brown make-up which has replaced the actor’s natural pallor; the eyes, instead of being rather prominent, are now deeply set, thanks to skilfully applied eye shadow; the nose, built up with modelling wax, is slightly more hawklike; but as you watch the created Lincoln stoop to pass through the narrow doorway, you feel that there are more points of similarity than difference between Raymond Massey and the Abe Lincoln of Robert Sherwood’s magnificent play.
A Strenuous Life
WE ARE at breakfast in the apartment Massey has taken in the East 70’s in New York—a large, pleasant ground-floor room with a fire burning in the grate—and he is telling me of how he first became interested in Lincoln.
“When I was a youngster living in Toronto,” he says, “my father’s old friend, Dr. John Goucher. was a frequent visitor at our home, and Johnny liked nothing better than to tell how he had met and talked with Lincoln. He was a lad of thirteen in Cleveland when old Abe visited there in the winter of 1861. Johnny’s parents were going to the reception to the President, but Johnny couldn't go because he had a cold. So he waited until the coast was clear and then sneaked off to the reception by himself. He kept out of sight until all the guests had left and there was no one in the room but the President, tired and weary and glad to be alone at last. It was then that Johnny made his appearance, and the small boy and the lonely man talked together for almost fifteen minutes.
“I must have heard the story a score of times,” Massey concludes, “but the one time I remember better than any other was on my thirteenth birthday. Johnny made something of an occasion of that telling, because he had been thirteen on that day in Cleveland, forty-eight years before.” A telephone bell rings and shortly the secretary' appears. “Could Mr. Massey address the graduating class of the Junior College at Tarrytown?” It might be a post of the American Legion, or a chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or perhaps the English-Speaking Union. It might be a request to speak on the radio, or help raise funds for Spanish Democracy, or read the Gettysburg address at the laying of a cornerstone.
Whatever it may be, the same look of regret crosses Massey’s face. “Tell them I'm terribly sorry,” he directs, “and explain that I’ve simply had to cancel all engagements outside the theatre.”
Turning to me again, he explains the reason. “In every other show I’ve ever played in I’ve wanted outside appearances for the sake of the publicity. In ‘Lincoln’, however, there’s been an embarrassment of riches. With the world as it is today he has become a greater symbolic figure than ever before, and every patriotic society, every organization with democratic ideals, every league opposed to Nazism and Fascism, wants to do new honor to him through me.”
Massey smiles apologetically. “I’d like to accept every invitation, but I can’t. Why, if I filled all the requests to appear on Lincoln’s birthday, on February 12, it would take me a solid fortnight without allowing time to move from one place to another.”
The talk turns to Munich, and he tells me how he had made all arrangements during the crisis to bring his family to New York. He didn’t want to because he has a charming house in London and a pleasant, rambling, old manor house in Surrey, but for a time it seemed the only thing to do. He has three children. The oldest, Geoffrey, is a boy of fourteen who bears the same name as the first Massey to come
to this continent Geoffrey Massey, who landed at Salem, Mass., eight years before Abraham Lincoln’s great - great - great -great-great grandfather landed at the nearby town of Hingham. The second child is Daniel, aged five, who has Noel Coward as a godfather, and there is a baby girl, Anna, aged eighteen months.
“I shall probably have to bring them out anyway,” Massey remarks as we slip into our overcoats, “for it looks as if I’ll be busy with ‘Abe Lincoln’ for a long time to come.”
In the taxi I ask him about the rumors that half the movie companies are anxious to buy the Sherwood play, but seem just as anxious to cast anyone but himself in the leading role.
“That’s true only of Goldwyn,” Rayreplies without rancor. “I’ll probably do the picture too.”
The taxi stops, and Massey bends half double to get through the narrow door. It is half past twelve and he has a noon appointment at a photographer’s studio, a business meeting, a luncheon engagement, and must be at the theatre not later than 1.45 to make up for a matinee performance.
! A star on Broadway leads a rather
A Schoolboy Actor
IN A night club following an evening performance, Ray Massey tells of the steps he has taken to reach his present pinnacle ! of theatrical success. The flamboyant j phrase is mine, not his. He talks of his career with astonishing detachment and I much more humor than pride for past achievements.
“The one thing for an actor,” he tells me, “is to keep working. Take any part that turns up rather than remain idle. A formula for stage success? That’s it; keep working. Of course you have to have some ability and a great liking for the theatre. And you must get the breaks. They’re essential, and don’t let anybody tell you they aren’t. But in any business, to get the breaks you have to place yourself where breaks are likely to occur. I mean if you want to catch a railroad train you go to the station. And for the actor the breaks occur behind the footlights.”
But in spite of the logical fashion in which the formula has worked out in Ray Massey’s case, it seems a far cry from this old friend sitting beside me in a New York night dub to the gangling thoughtful youth of sixteen who played his first part in the loft of the riding stable at Appleby School for Boys in Oakville, Ontario, twenty-seven years ago.
“That first appearance was in a one-act play called ‘All in Vain.’ It was written by one of fhe masters, Burnham Powell, whom I’ll always remember with affection and gratitude, for it was he who first gave me some understanding of the theatre. He was a good director although he had no professional experience, and would have done something w'orth while if he hadn’t died of War wounds.
“The next year I was in a French piece, ‘Ici on parle Fronçai.s,’ and the year I passed my matric I played young Marlow in ‘She Stoops to Conquer.’ Powell played my father, I remember, and did a nice job. How much influence those school plays had I really don't know; quite a bit, I suspect, but at the time I thought I was header! for the Massey-1 larris Company to make agricultural machinery, as the family had been doing for generations.”
Like most of us who at tended the University of Toronto in the autumn of 1914, Massey’s plans were rudely interrupted. He joined the O. T. C., went on to Kingston early in '15, and that summer was serving with the 13th Battery, 2nd Division. in France. A year later he was in an English hospital, severely wounded and shell shocked. Returned to Canada for convalescence, he next joined the British Military Mission in the United States, and sixnt a year instructing at Yale and Princeton with the rank of captain.
“My second bout with the theatre,” he continues, “was when I was in Siberia. That winter in Vladivostok was incredible. There was absolutely nothing to do, it was dull beyond human endurance, and the C.O., General Emsley, finally ordered all officers commanding units to find something to amuse their troops. We had half a dozen actors, pros, in my unit, and we got up a concert party and called ourselves the Siberian Minstrels. I helped write and direct the show and acted as end man; more because I was C. O. than any other reason.”
“What was the show like?”
“Extremely crude, bawdy and vulgar,” Massey replies, “but the troops thought it funny and that was all that mattered. It helped tremendously to relieve the insufferable tedium.”
Inside a year Massey had returned home to Toronto and had decided to complete his university education at Oxford, where his older brother, Vincent, now Canadian High Commissioner in London, had already been a student. The autumn of 1919 Ray entered Balliol, and there had his third, and almost final, bout with the theatre.
Tolerant and charitable in most things, Raymond Massey still views the Ö.U.D.S.
—the Oxford University Dramatic Society — with monumental dislike. “It's made up of arty amateurs, many of whom become dramatic critics,” he observes. “It really constitutes one of the worst blights on the English theatre. Yes, I tried out for parts there, but they said I had a simply atrocious Canadian accent and threw me out on my ear.”
Massey, who speaks with excellent diction in a soft, low voice, glares balefully across the table. “Imagine anyone at Oxford speaking of an atrocious accent! Why, they cultivate the most affected and least intelligible English speech to be found anywhere in the Empire. And are proud of it, what’s worse.”
But there were other compensations, among them riding, rowing, golf in the nineties, and Professor Kenneth Bell of Balliol, whom Massey remembers pleasantly as helping him one spring evening to heave four dozen flowerpots through windows in Christ’s College. When there were no more pots to throw, Bell resumed his academic robes and solemnly gated his collaborator in pot-throwing for the rest of the term. “There was only a week to go,” adds Massey, “so it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.”
But Oxford palled in spite of these diversions. Like so many of his generation. Massey was finding college pretty dull fare after five years in the army. He wanted to get to work, to be doing something serious, and before his second year was finished, he had left the university, been married, and was on his way to Canada.
Hart House Apprenticeship
RAYMOND MASSEY’S first wife was
Peggy Freemantle, the daughter of Admiral Freemantle of the Royal Navy. She had studied at the Slade School in London and was greatly interested in the stage from the angle of costume and scene designing. More than anyone, probably, she was responsible for Massey’s first serious interest in the theatre. But a vicepresident in the Massey-Harris factory in Toronto also played a part at this important turning point.
“We arrived in Toronto in September, 1921,” resumes Massey, “took a house in Rosedale, and I went to work in the M-H works out King Street. I thought I was to learn the business. For nine months I did nothing but routine jobs: assembling
machinery and time-keeping. It was very boring, wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I got fed up with it. Believing that I should be given a little responsibility, I went to the boss of the department and told him how I felt. He listened and then said: ‘Ray, you seem to forget that you’ve been five years in the army.’ He may even have said, ‘You’ve wasted five years in the army.’ ‘A lot of other men have plugged right ahead while you were overseas, and now I'm afraid there’s nothing for it but to wait your turn.’ ” Massey pauses reminiscently. “That sounded like my exit cue. so I said, ‘This takes me off,’ and quit.”
And so, some time in the spring of 1922. Raymond Massey turned to the stage in earnest. One reason was the flourishing condition of the theatre in Toronto during the preceding winter. At Hart House, donated by the Massey family to the University of Toronto, a new English director, Bertram Forsythe, had begun his first season, and at the Arts and Letters Club another group was producing plays. Massey had played leads at both places; at Hart House as Marshbanks in Shaw’s “Candida” and as Rosmer in Ibsen’s “Rosmersholme;” at the Arts and Letters Club as the English sailor in Eugene O’Neill’s one-act play “In the Zone.” Little attention is paid to the Toronto beginnings of Massey’s stage career in any theatrical biography, but to anyone who remembers his performances during the winter of 1921-22, as I do very clearly, they seem rather important. And it is interesting, tco, to recall how similar the characters he portrayed that winter, Marshbanks and Rosmer, were to the
Lincoln he is playing now; all tragic, lonely men, all failures, in their own eyes at least, all seekers after some spiritual understanding they can never seem to find.
Discussing the Toronto interlude, Massey tells me that Forsythe did a great deal for him. “Bertram was a fine fellow and I liked him tremendously. He was a very good director, one of the best I've known, with a great insight into the inner meanings of theatre and an unusual knowledge of its externals. There was no amateur nonsense about him. He was a craftsman who really knew the technical side of acting. and he taught me a great deal. After I blew up as a factory hand. I saw a lot of him and he influenced me, more than anyone, perhaps, in the idea of a professional stage career. He also gave me some very helpful tips about the English stage which proved invaluable when I got over there. His tragic death a few years later affected me deeply. He was a sweet, generous soul, and the world’s poorer without him.”
I asked Ray why he had chosen London rather than New York.
“I knew and liked London, and my wife came from there,” he answers, “but there was another reason. Every professional I talked to told me it was the place to begin. John Drew, for example. He urged me warmly, with tears in his eyes almost, not to go on the stage, but told me, ‘If you must go, go to London.’ He was very decent when I proved obdurate, and gave me letters to half a dozen friends who were producing in London.
“The letters didn’t get me anywhere, but I never expected them to and so wasn’t very disappointed. Whom did I see? Oh, Nigel Playfair, Dennis Eadie, Owen Nares, Arthur Bouchier. They were all very nice, but they seemed curiously disinterested in my desire to go on the stage, so I concluded to get there on my own. I started in to make the rounds of the stage doers, and fortunately got a break. The second place I tried I got a job. It was a part in ‘In the Zone,’ the same play I'd done at the Arts and Letters Club. In Toronto I played the part of Smith, an English sailor; in London, of course, I was cast as Jack, the American.”
Massey’s first role paid him £3 a week, which was neither here nor there, but it proved as good a break as he could have got for it launched him on the career that has steadily progressed from that day to this. Except for illness there have been few weeks when he wasn’t working, as an actor or producer, on the stage or in the movies. In the intervening years, he has played upwards of 150 parts, some of them successful money-makers, some unfortunate errors of judgment, some outright failures.
The failures, he feels, have been just as imiwrtant as the successes. “The first thing a young actor must acquire is experience. and it is much better to be in a series of flops than a single long-run hit.” As an afterthought, he adds: “Providing he can eat on flops, of course.”
London, the Actor’s City
CONTINUING in the same vein, he observes that it is the opportunity to get experience that makes London so much better for the beginner than New York.
“New York is more vital; so much so that when we talk of the English-speaking theatre, we mean New York. What the English theatre needs principally are dramatists who can write more than one gocxl play. But from the actor’s point of view, there are many advantages. In London costs are less, there are more producers. and more plays are produced. The theatres are better for the actor too. Most of them are old-fashioned and have galleries for that reason. London gallery audiences are responsive, intelligent and a joy to work to. They know more about acting, and can teach the young actor more, than all the dramatic critics put together.”
It would seem that dramatic critics are not among Mr. Massey’s enthusiasms, but I interrupt him to ask about the theatre in Canada? What does he think about it?
He shakes his head doubtfully. “The trouble is. to have a theatre you must have dramatists, and to have dramatists you must have a theatre. Anyone in Canada writing for the commercial stage will inevitably gravitate to either London or New York. He can’t help himself. And that’s one of Canada’s tragedies: the way it must lose its creative talents to the Old Country or the States.”
But what about the amateur theatre? “I think it serves a very useful purpose, both for those who act in it and the communities it serves. The Dominion Drama Festival also seems to me like an excellent idea, but I don’t think there can ever be a Canadian theatre in the sense that there is an English or American theatre. It’s a great pity, but it’s so.”
We’re on contentious ground here, and
I return the talk to that first job in London j in ’22. How long did it last?
“ ‘In the Zone’ ? Well, we played two weeks out of town, and then came into London to a small outlying theatre called | the Everyman. I stayed there almost a j year, playing various parts, becoming | stage manager and generally getting firstrate experience. In addition, I appeared in thirty or more Sunday night productions | that included everything from Restoration j drama to modern comedy. None of those Í appearances brought me any attention, but I was grateful for anything because it kept me rehearsing, and that was the thing I had to do if I was going to make a place ! for myself on the stage.”
How this essentially simple philosophy, j plus ability and the occasional break, moved Raymond Massey forward almost j inexorably to his present success, is the i burden of the concluding installment of this story. To be Continued