How a Dream changed Edinburgh

Beverley Baxter November 26 1955


How a Dream changed Edinburgh

Beverley Baxter November 26 1955

AT WHAT hour of the day or night does inspiration come to a man? That, I confess, is a rhetorical question but it permits me to quote those pleasing lines of Herbert Trench:

She comes not when Noon is on the Roses Too bright is Day.

She comes not to the Soul till it reposes From work and play.

But when Night is on the hills, and the great Voices Roll in from Sea,

By starlight and by candlelight and dreamlight She comes to me.

Personally I think that “dreamlight” is perhaps overdoing it a bit. No one knows at what hour of the day or night Rudolf Bing brought the idea of an Edinburgh Festival to practical form. He is a gentle creature who dreams dreams and then carries them into effect relentlessly and even ruthlessly. He is an Austrian-born British subject who has managed the Metropolitan Opera in New York for some years but at intervals, to soothe his nerves, he comes back to Glyndebourne where you can wander through lovely gardens, drink champagne in the moonlight and listen to Mozart operas in the small charming theatre. Before going to New York Bing was the general manager of Glyndebourne and it was in those lovely surroundings that he first conceived the idea of the Edinburgh Festival.

The idea was warmly welcomed by the lord provost, which is what the lord mayor is called up there. The Hitler war had not long since come to an end and the Scots were feeling their way toward a civilized expression of the human soul.

Bing asked for an initial fund of six thousand pounds and it was subscribed immediately. The British Council (financed by the British taxpayer) promised an annual grant. So did the Corporation of the City of Edinburgh as well as a number of Scottish industrialists.

So far the story is no different from that of any other festival. It was the same in Canada’s Stratford when a young man with wistful eyes and soft voice decided to challenge the monopoly of the other Stratford in England. The peddler of dreams is the inevitable forerunner of miracles.

In Edinburgh the lord provost displayed his racial caution. The Edinburgh Council would give financial backing to the festival but the liability to the council in one year must not exceed fifteen thousand pounds. Thus the citizens of Edinburgh would be saved from any increase in local rates. 

But what amenities could the ancient capital provide for a festival of the arts? There were three good-sized theatres and three large halls. In addition there was the splendid Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland with its apron stage and abundant seating space. Providing the standard was high, the church authorities saw no reason why the apron stage should not be used for concerts or plays of ideas.

Then there was the Royal Scottish Academy with its splendid gallery. In fact Edinburgh was ready for almost anything that Bing wanted.

Nor did the sponsors forget or minimize the historic attractions of AuId Reekie itself. High up on one of the city’s hills is the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, brought romance and death. Who can stand on its battlements and look out to the waters of the Forth yet be unmoved?

Another attraction that Edinburgh offered was the national costume of the kilt. There is no country in the world that has produced anything so effective as the full regalia of a Scottish clansman. This is of some personal importance to me because, a couple of years ago, I was made a Macmillan clansman, but I have not yet had the courage to appear publicly in bare knees.

But to return to the progress of the festival from an idea to a triumph. A strong factor in its favor was that after the war the British were allowed practically no money for holiday travel abroad. We had been marooned on our island for the duration of the war and it looked as if we would be further marooned for the duration of the peace. Thus the Edinburgh Festival offered us a chance to escape and an opportunity of hearing a tongue different from our own. And of course the Americans, who could not travel to the Old World during the war, were arriving in great numbers.

So there came the great opening day. Bing’s dream had come true and the curtain was going up. Mayors and burgomasters of foreign cities arrived in droves. Royalty was there and everything was set for a triumph. The gamble had come off.

I trust not to offend any Scottish susceptibilities by stating that there were some citizens of Edinburgh whose minds were not solely occupied with the artistic side of the festival. The hoteliers, boardinghouse proprietors and particularly the shopkeepers—to say nothing of the streetcars, motorcar hire services, and taxi drivers—were right on the job.

The festival, as such, would lose money of course. For instance it cost fifty thousand pounds to bring one symphony orchestra across the Atlantic and the guarantee fund had to come to the rescue.

To descend from the artistic to the practical, the Edinburgh trams carried six hundred thousand extra passengers during the festival last year. The increased revenue for the period was five thousand pounds.

And then there is the unpredictable matter of the weather. Situated on several hills, Edinburgh can enjoy all four seasons in the space of twenty-four hours. As no woman in history has ever gone abroad with suitable clothes for a changeable climate, the dress shops in Edinburgh are packed with female shoppers making up their sartorial deficits.

Raincoats are in continuous demand and when the sun shines the women visitors find that they are as unprepared for hot weather as they were for cold. I know, because I took my wife there this year. In fairness I must admit to purchasing a thick overcoat for myself in Princes Street —how did I know that in Scotland the temperature can drop as sharply as a mining share on the stock market?

The good hotels in Edinburgh are very good indeed and they charge accordingly. We had quite a nice lunch one day—with a bottle of wine admittedly—and the bill was four pounds ten shillings. For a moment we rather lost the festival spirit.

Who else prospers from the now firmly established festival? The overnight sleeping-berth trains to and from London are crowded to capacity. And how well the British run that kind of a train. The attendant has an advance list of his passengers and he addresses each one by his or her name: "A cup of tea before retiring? Certainly, Mr. Smith. A cup of tea with biscuits in the morning? Certainly, Mrs. Brown.” And since the foreign visitors have to travel by train, motor car, ship or airways, so the British economy is strengthened and good will promoted.

Catsup for J. Caesar

However it would be wrong to suggest that the financial side is uppermost in the minds of the festival promoters. They have never lost sight of Bing’s original idea that the festival was to concern itself primarily with the arts. Thus last year the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, which is almost the best in the world, gave a season there. This year the Danish National Ballet came and were supremely good. In addition the French theatre sent some of its outstanding stars in a repertory of plays.

Add to this the Ballet des Champs Elysées, the Old Vic Theatre Company, the Japanese Azuma Kabuki Dancers and the foremost orchestral conductors of the world, and you will realize how firmly the plan has been carried out and how happy is the future.

The Old Vic Company was playing when we were there this summer and, having recently resumed dramatic criticism in London, I thought it would do no harm to have a look at Julius Caesar before he came to London.

The grim old play proceeded on conventional lines, soundly acted and well-staged. I must say however that there was a terrible spilling of tomato catsup over Caesar’s face when he was assassinated. After all, Shakespeare’s words are gory enough without such adventitious aid.

Then came the speech of Mark Antony which, we must admit, is so superbly written that a high-school boy in amateur theatricals could not ruin it. Mark Antony was being played by a thirty-year-old actor named John Neville, whom I had never seen before. And suddenly we realized that something dynamic and startling was about to happen.

Neville is a physical aristocrat. His face is thin, his nose is long and patrician, his voice is haunting in its unforced beauty. But more than that he was giving an interpretation that was subtly different from anything we had seen before. Quite rightly he treated the Roman mob as gullible creatures who could be swayed in any direction. But instead of saving the dead Caesar’s reputation because he loved him, he made it perfectly clear to us that his sole purpose was to snatch power from the hands of Brutus and the other murderers and set himself up as the new power behind the throne. When he turned away, pretending to weep, the expression of his face was ironic and contemptuous.

The next week the production came to the Old Vic in London and even the critics went mad over this new and different Antony.

Who is this physical and intellectual aristocrat, what is his background? His father is a bus driver. He went to a council school and, to their eternal credit, the local councilors gave the boy a grant to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In the war Neville joined the navy as an able-bodied seaman and came out of it with the same rank. Rut the navy, with commendable sensibility, gave him a grant which enabled him to play with a provincial Old Vic company.

Neville is married, with two children of his own, plus an adopted colored boy, who will presumably grow up to play Othello.

Strictly speaking, the sensational rise of John Neville has nothing to do with the Edinburgh Festival except that the festival is big news and when some playwright or actor or dancer or a symphony conductor scores a success there it has an immediate repercussion in London.

Let us therefore end on a mundane note. Each year the festival takes a loss which has been as low as eleven thousand pounds and as high as thirty-eight thousand. But it pays artistically and spreads largesse in all directions. There can be little doubt that it now is as firmly established as the Salzburg or the Bayreuth or any of the other famous festivals of Europe.

The truth is that tourists like to travel to places that give purpose to a holiday. In New Zealand the city of Auckland has an annual festival that, in spite of the distance involved, draws visitors from other countries. As for Stratford-on-Avon it not only gives Shakespeare to the tourists but supports a considerable number of factories in Birmingham that are dedicated to turning out Shakespeare "relics.”

What about Toronto? Think of the pageantry which could be reproduced of the city fathers turning the first sod for that triumph of architecture, the City Hall.

And what about Quebec? We could see the landing of Wolfe and, to bring things to modern times, there could be a grand march of the populace going to the polling booths in an election to vote Liberal.

But perhaps that is enough about festivals. ★