General Articles

Patriarch at 27

Behind the beard lurks Lister Sinclair, wearied astronomer, poet, mathematician, and one of radio's four best playwrights

BERT FRANKLIN November 1 1948
General Articles

Patriarch at 27

Behind the beard lurks Lister Sinclair, wearied astronomer, poet, mathematician, and one of radio's four best playwrights

BERT FRANKLIN November 1 1948

Patriarch at 27


TO THE growing list of Canadian cultural aasets, a list that has long included the Mounties, the totem pole, the Dionne quints and French-Canadian pea soup, there has been added a less tangible and (to Canadians) leaserknown product: the home-grown radio drama. In four swift years, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has gained a reputation for producing some of the best, radio plays going. A good chunk of the credit for this belongs to a onetime astronomer and mat hematician, a writer named Lister Sinclair, who at the age of 27 has succeeded in giving the impression that he is at least 15.

As befits a playwright of his calibre, Sinclair is gaunt, disheveled and bearded. Around the CBC’s Toronto studios the beard is known as “The Arab’s Armpit,” a title which Sinclair claims he himself helped to spread. His wife, who was frightened by a department-store Santa Claus at the age of two, has vainly attempted to remove the beard. She now counts herself fortunate if she can get her husband to the barber’s to get a haircut once in eight months.

Sinclair has one suit, and two pairs of shoes which seem to have been run over by a lawn mower and f hen carefully sandpapered. His two identical t weed coats are the ones he wore at the University of British Columbia in 1939. There isa rumor that his trousers were once grey flannels.

A man who hates wasting time, Sinclair spends more and more on his plays, less and less on his looks. “My personal appearance is of no significance

to me,” he remarked recently. “Fortunately, I’m in a job where I’m not. called on to appear as an exhibit.” Since he left the University of Toronto where he was a Fellow in Mathematics to become a free-lance writer in 1944 his appearance has become increasingly startling and his radio plays increasingly better.

In that time Sinclair has written 60 or 70 halfhour and full-hour radio plays. Radio is a fleeting medium and it is a rare thing to hear a play performed a second time, but Sinclair’s best plays have been produced as many as six times in Britain, Canada and the U. S., and will soon be heard in Holland and Czechoslovakia.

Among U. S. critics his rating is high. In 1945 his “Play On Words,” a dramatic essay showing how wrongly used words can cause intolerance, won a highly prized first award from the Institute for Education by Radio, Ohio State University. This year he was a double winner, for the radio adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” and for t he documentary broadcast “The Case Against Cancer.” The New York Times has ranked Sinclair as one of t he four best radio playwrights on t he continent, (the others: Arch Oboler, Norman Corwin and Canadian Len Peterson). New York Herald Tribune critic John Crosby held up Sinclair’s hour adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus, the King” as the perfect example of how to do things in radio. Jack Gould of the Times Continued on page 50

Continued on page 50

Behind the beard lurks Lister Sinclair, wearied astronomer, poet, mathematician, and one of radio's four best playwrights

Patriarch at 27

Continued from page 8

said that Lister Sinclair’s “tough,

beautiful words . . . suggest Carl

Sandburg or Thornton Wilder more than they do American radio.” CBC Drama Supervisor Andrew Allan now

says that three Canadians, Joseph

Schuil, Peterson and Sinclair are doing the best radio writing in North


Sinclair’s Canadian reputation was established in 1946 when he decided to inject some life into an innocuous series of Cañadiana programs called “Panorama.” The result was, “We All Hate Toronto,” now a hardy perennial on the CBC.

He pictured Toronto as a place where people go because their sacred principles (money) demand it; where visitors arrive with dark glasses: “In

'Toronto the lights go flick-flick-flickflick-flick-flick all the time—if you don’t have dark glasses, your eyes will roll out of their sockets and trundle around on the floor like billiard balls”; where there’s a tub of whitewash, for whitewashing sacred cows, on every corner; and where the citizenry is injected with Bloodo, a blood substitute which has red, white and blue corpuscles, is thinner than water and is made from crushed maple leaves and Toronto snow sweepings.

He wrote a couple of songs for the piece, one of which went like this:

In Toronto the Good, it’s quite understood

That sin is a thing to beware-io,

But if you are bad, be sure to be sad

For nothing is fun in Ontario!

'The people are pure and vengeance sure

Descends on a budding Lothario,

So any whose folly inclines to the jolly

Tries not to get caught in Ontario.

In short you might say, if life is a play

'Toronto’s the censored scenario.

Whatever you do, be sure to look blue

And then you’ll get on in Ontario.

Sinclair intends to write a companion piece called “We All Love Vancouver,” satirizing the coast city’s smugness. Sinclair does not propose to mention rain once in this script, but

characters will arrive invariably in rowboats, keep pet ducks and will be continually getting in and out of slickers, sou’westers and umbrellas.

Sinclair considers this type of radio play trivial, however. He is far more concerned with plays that present strong ideas. (“A play shouldn’t have a message, it should be a message.”) He thinks his best half-hour play is “All About Emily,” the story of a goose who laid golden eggs, thus throwing the financial world for a loss. The play attacks the gold standard (“Actually,” says Sinclair, “1 allow the gold standard to attack itself.”) and has been made into a 10-minute movie short by Movietone News. “An artist,” says Sinclair, “is a person entrusted with a red-hot message which he has to deliver or it will burn his fingers.”

No More Footsteps

In his plays Sinclair is rapidly eliminating the three elements most commonly associated with radio: background music, sound effects and fadeouts. “Fade-outs,” he says, “tend to suck the listener into the loudspeaker.” He doesn’t use them. He considers footsteps and door slams almost useless, won’t use any sound that doesn’t contribute to the plot, feels that a lot of music merely helps a lazy writer fake a mood which he should achieve with words.

But Sinclair’s main contributions to radio at large are his development of the half-hour dramatic essay and the full-hour verse drama. He set the model for one-hour radio drama as Canadians know it when Andrew Allan’s Sunday-night. “Stage” series changed from a half hour to one hour in 1946. A one-hour play with no commercials or breaks means a prodigious amount of work for a conscientious playwright.

Before adapting Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” which he already knew almost by heart, he read it through 12 times, then worked three months on the script. His “Encounter by Moonlight,” an original hour drama in the Greek style, entirely in verse, took him a year to complete. He wrote five full drafts of the play, which runs 46 foolscap pages, and rewrote parts of it 20 or 30 times. He considers it his best work to date and it has become a CBC standard along with “Socrates,” another original verse drama, and Sophocles’ “Oedipus” and “Antigone,” which he rendered into new English verse.

Sinclair's poetry runs the gamut of the pleasant and ridiculous doggerel of “Skin Deep Is Plenty”—a satire on both the temperance movement and the liquor industry—to the rolling meters of his serious drama.

In “Skin Deep Is Plenty,” Sinclair, who is a teetotaler, writes about the evils of eating potatoes, which he substitutes for alcohol. He has a cowboy balladeer. named Creeping Red Fescue, sing in a nasal twang of a woman lured to a Fate Worse Than Death by:

Home-fried potatoes

What a wicked brew!

That’s what ruined Ruby

And that will ruin you.

This is a long way removed from the imagery of “Encounter by Moonlight”:

Beneath, the black lake peeps between the splinters

Of the broken looking glass of light

And every little eddy sighs desire

And envies all the shining clouds that brush

So lovingly across her placid breast, or the Saxon harshness of:

Bloodblotted grassblades, fatly flesh fertilized

Witness the wasteheap of warriors wormeaten

Proving the prowess of priestly protector

Marching at midnight, swordhilt in murderhead

Staring, the King of the Wood, seeking his stealthslayer.

or the ominous lilt of:

Somebody walked through the wood tonight

And saw the tree of the dead;

And somebody’s hand has touched the lake

And turned it all to lead.

Something is done that cannot In; changed

And someone must pay a price;

For somebody’s hand has touched the hills

And turned them all to ice.

Sinclair’s radio poetry is already achieving the permanence of the anthology and J. M. Dent and Sons published a book of 13 of his plays last May.

He Read Dickens at Six

He has also written and discarded 80,000 words of a novel (“a technical exercise”) and portions of an opera. Two of his three stage plays have been produced in Toronto.

Sinclair read Dickens, Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome at the age of six and Sir James Jeans, the mathematician, at 11. Born in Bombay, son of a chemical engineer, he was schooled at St. Paul’s in London, where he won a scholarship despite a mark of seven out of 100 in Greek. He studied to be an astronomer, but by the time he was 13 “I’d learned all the interesting things about it and now found it excessively boring.” But he kept on with mathematics.

At this point he fell down a flight of stairs, causing a spine injury which brought on a permanent limp. Last winter this grew worse and has kept him confined pretty well to his home. He treats his lameness as an annoyance, nothing more.

Sinclair visited the World’s Fair at New York in 1939. The war struck and he did not return to England but moved to Vancouver which he now insists is his home town. (His father

was then still in India.) At UBC, professors told him he demoralized classes by skipping most of the lectures but coming up with the right answers on the exam papers. He was no good at lab work: “I descended on the labs like the Assyrian. 1 smashed equipment on a lavish scale. I couldn’t afford this so I quit lab work.” Because of this nonchalant attitude, the university did not grant Sinclair a firstclass standing on his graduation in 1942. Nonetheless he obtained a teaching fellowship in mathematics at the University of Toronto, where he got. his M. A.

Sinclair, himself, sees nothing startling about a mathematician turning playwright. “After all.” he says, “Mathematics is essentially the art of manipulating ideas; arithmetic, on the other hand, which I do very badly, is the art of computation.”

While at the University of Toronto, Sinclair married Alice Mather, an English girl turned Canadian, whom he’d known in the UBC Player’s Club and later in the Straw Hat Theatre, a west-coast summer repertory unit. They chose their own wedding music (“The script was provided hut the incidental music wasn’t”) throwing Wagner and Mendelssohn out the window in favor of Gluck and Purcell (“We wanted something indecently triumphant”).

His Secret Passion

Some time later a friend asked Sinclair when he was going to produce issue. “A mewling infant!” Sinclair roared. “Great Heavens—-imagine living with somebody who couldn’t contribute an intelligent word to the conversation for three years!” Roughly a year later, Sinclair fathered a son whom he named Peter, not Wolfgang. The child enters passionately into all conversations with the word “baabaa.” Sinclair, who hates sentiment, fondles the baby in secret.

Sinclair quit teaching university sophomores in 1944. Since it was a part-time job, it had been worth only $300 a year. He was already supplementing his meagre salary with radio acting and soon turned to plays. For an hour play the CBC is able to pay only $200, though there are signs this fee will be raised. Sinclair paid taxes on $4,500 last year, but five eighths of it was made acting and teaching radio (at University of B. G. summer session, University of Toronto, Forest Hill Community Centre and the Academy of Radio Arts).

In his plays and in real life, even when he is being deadly serious, Sinclair is almost always funny. He constantly grins and chuckles as he talks and appears to regard the world around him, which he examines minutely, with a sort of high glee. He is insatiably curious—as fascinated by a new method of spreading manure as he is by the fourth dimension. He can discuss practically any known subject, usually with authority, a fact which sometimes enrages strangers. He is adept at elaborate repartee. (Andrew Allan on first meeting Sinclair offered him a cigarette. “No thanks,” said Sinclair, “I don’t indulge in nonco-operative vices.”)

Sinclair’s erudition—a big factor in his radio plays—comes partly from the superhuman speed at which he reads. He springs out of bed (at 11 a.m.) with a book in his hand and gets through 14 pages while combing his hair. He still has a book in his hand at bedtime (3 a.m.). He is a block reader, absorbs whole sentences, even paragraphs, instead of words. In one afternoon and evening recently he read five detective novels, an anthology of

true crime stories, Stephen Leacock's “How to Write” and 50 pages of Trevelyan’s “English Social History.”

He has a mania for whodunits. “They are part of my work,” he says. He reads them voraciously while puzzling over the structure of a radio play or a hit of poetry. For every hour Sinclair spends at the typewriter, he spends four away from it, thinking things out while reading Agatha Christie.

Sinclair speaks Gaelic, German and French, plays the bagpipes, the tonette (a modernized plastic version of the tin whistle) and some piano, is an expert on tropical fish, peers at the sky t hrough a 4 } J-inch refractor telescope and is a sucker for exotic foods such, as Eggs Omar Pasha or Supreme de Volaille Pojarski. (It’s not uncommon for him to walk into a butcher shop and demand six rooster’s heads.)

He has a vast musical knowledge (he was CRC music critic last winter)— another factor in his radio plays. He owns 2,500 records and often exasperates visitors by seizing record after record from his stock and playing fragments of each. “Don’t you ever play the thing through?” a friend once demanded. “Certainly,” said Sinclair, astonished. “The first time.”

The Sinclairs own a home in North York, a Toronto suburb, where they live with a Shetland sheep pup named James and a beagle named Edward Lushington. The Sinclairs’ front room is sparsely furnished, but it. is lined almost completely with records and dominated by a massive speaker. The Sinclairs’ budget is rather different from most people’s: all the money

seems to go for records and books rather than clothing or furniture. The chesterfield and chairs look as if they were about to turn to dust. The rug appears to be painted on the floor. But Sinclair has just paid $225 for a new bookcase to house his 800 books.

Sinclair’s conversation often infuriates strangers as much as his appearance unnerves them, but those who know him well like him immensely. “When I first met him I was repulsed/” radio actor Bernie Braden said recently. “Now he’s one of my best friends. Lister’s a sort of Reluctant Dragon. He’s not what he appears to be.”

Andrew Allan, searching around for a word to describe Sinclair, came up with “Christian” the other day. This seems like a strange adjective to apply

to this rumpled young man with a beard. Sinclair calls himself a Unitarian, but has never been inside the Unitarian church and certainly a good many of his ideas run afoul of most practicing religions.

“Personally,” Sinclair says, “I regard Christianity — not Bible but salvationism, understand—as the only satisfactory political system . . . but I don’t think we shall find that out until we try it.” He also sometimes startles his friends by proving to his own satisfaction the existence of God scientifically.

Actually, the Christian theme runs through most of Sinclair’s plays, though he himself calls it “the tragic sense.” By this he means the sense of man’s own personal dignity based on a condition of responsibility to his fellow men —a responsibility that may call for personal sacrifice on the part of the individual. It is Sinclair’s belief that man loses his own dignity when he fails to realize that he is part of a larger scheme of things—when he fails to admit that he is part of a larger community in both a spiritual and a physical sense.

This idea is very strong in Sinclair’s radio and stage versions of his play “Socrates,” the story of a man who refused to flee from death because of a principle. But it is perhaps best expressed by his character Marcellus in “Encounter by Moonlight.” Marcellus chooses death because he believes that otherwise his action in tearing the Golden Bough off a tree in the Goddess Diana’s sacred grove will bring about famine, pestilence and crop failure (as the ancient myths prophesied). He gives his reason:

No reason but responsibility.

1 saw a robin eat a cherry once.

I did not think my life was valuable

To anyone but myself; but even so,

If all the fertile earth depends on me

And my poor life, I’d rather die for fear

That cherries might not grow, nor robins sit

And nibble them, and all because of me.

See how subtly the gods compel us, Flavius!

You stand and dare them, eye to eye, and they

Come round behind and trap you with a robin! ★