With flashing Irish wit and a disarming frankness, the great director who guided the beginnings of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival recalls the inspiration and desperation, the gloomy prophecies, the birth pangs and the starry successes that were recorded as an impossible dream became triumphant realityTYRONE GUTHRIE November 21 1959
With flashing Irish wit and a disarming frankness, the great director who guided the beginnings of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival recalls the inspiration and desperation, the gloomy prophecies, the birth pangs and the starry successes that were recorded as an impossible dream became triumphant realityTYRONE GUTHRIE November 21 1959
IN THE SUMMER of 1952 I was at home in Ireland. One evening the telephone rang and our postmistress told me that earlier that day a call had come for me which purported to be from Toronto.
Mrs. McCabe's answer had been categorical. “Nonsense,” she said, hung up the thing and went to feed her hens.
Now, she said, the same joker was on the line again. Would I speak? “This is Tom Patterson,” said a still, small voice out of the everywhere. “Will you come to Canada and give advice. We want to start a Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario. We will pay your expenses and a small fee.”
“When do you want me?”
“At once. Tomorrow, if you can.”
Naturally, I said yes. I had some time at my disposal. It would be fun to have another look at Canada after all these years. I did not take the advice part or the Shakespeare festival very seriously.
At the airport in Toronto I was met by Patterson, a small mouse-colored person, quite young. Merry eyes glinted behind owlish glasses; a poor crop of hair was receding from an impressive dome. He talked a mile a minute. His enthusiasm was endearing, tempered by a grim, reassuringly Scottish humor, and what seemed to me a remarkably detached and philosophic approach.
The festival had been his idea. As a soldier in Europe he had been impressed by the opera in Italy. Earlier, in London, he had fallen in love with the Old Vic. He had considered the musical and dramatic expressions in Stratford, Ontario, and, in comparison with what he had seen, he thought them unimpressive. He thought further, however, that Canadians might very well be as talented, as discriminating and as energetic as Europeans, and were certainly richer. He thought finally that he would Do Something About It.
Back home at the end of the war he made himself a complete pest, everlastingly nagging people about the inadequacy of Stratford’s cultural life. He bombarded the town hall, bewildered the Parent-Teacher Association, bothered the clergy, bored the Rotarians, browbeat the Elks and bullied the Lions — to no avail. God, however, moves in a mysterious way. Something called the Junior Chamber of Commerce voted a small sum of money to explore the possibility of a Shakespearean festival. The inevitable committee was formed. It was to meet this committee and to offer it advice that we were driving to Stratford. The July sun blazed on great corn fields, sleek dairy cattle, prosperous little crimson towns incongruously named after the old-country origins of their first settlers — Baden, New Hamburg and Petersburg.
That night we were to meet the committee. There was an hour or two in which to take a preliminary look at Stratford. There is a shopping centre remarkably like those in a hundred other Canadian or American small towns — the same multiple stores, the usual raw, red churches, the usual public buildings, ungracious and dull. Around this centre, the residential areas were dignified and charming: avenues of fine old maples, behind which, in lawns and gardens, sat comfortable, unpretentious homes. But the most striking feature of Stratford is its park. A small creek, tributary to the River Thames, has been dammed to form a lake over a mile long; round it are ancient willows, down to it slope wide meadows, almost lawns, airy and quiet and, by Canadian, though not Irish, standards, green.
In thirty years I have had experience of many sorts of committees and boards who manage theatrical enterprises. I expected that this one would consist mainly of artistic and excitable elderly ladies of both sexes, with a sprinkling of Businessmen to restrain the Artistic People from spending money. There would also be an Anxious Nonentity from the town hall briefed to see that no municipal funds were promised, but also to see that, if any success were achieved, the municipality would get plenty of credit. The point about this sort of committee is that the artistic ones have extremely definite views, but so conflicting that it is easy for a tiny minority of Businessmen to divide and conquer. Prudent, sensible, business-like counsel prevails. The result is that nothing whatever gets done. In Britain the average age of members is seventy-three.
My first surprise at Stratford, therefore, was to find that most members of the committee were quite young. I was almost the oldest person present. The second surprise was to find that the males outnumbered females by about five to one. The women spoke seldom, but when they did so their remarks were usually briefer and more practical than those of the men.
The third and greatest surprise was now to come. The committee was unanimous in wishing to organize a festival; it had given proof of this by raising a fund out of members’ own pockets to get me out to give advice; now, instead of excited babble quickly turning to acrimonious dispute, there was a silence. They were waiting, with every appearance of interest, even of respect, for me to Give my Advice.
I advised against producing Shakespeare in the open air. Even if the weather can be counted upon — and it never can — the open air is full of distractions. Many are pleasant — the setting sun, the rising moon, the shimmering of leaves, the scent of flowers. But there are less pleasant ones too — the insect kingdom, the foggy foggy dew, the insistent noises of trains, far-off and not so far-off, of barking dogs, of angry babies.
The works of Shakespeare require, if they are to be intelligible, close and undistracted attention.
We agreed that there was no suitable building in Stratford which could serve as a theatre. We agreed that to erect a permanent theatre until the festival was an accomplished success, until it had been proved that there was in fact an audience, would be a wild extravagance. We agreed to explore the possibilities of a tent theatre.
We agreed — and here my respect for the committee was great; and the more I think of it the greater it grows — that to present Shakespeare even adequately is a very, very expensive proposition: so expensive that there could be no hope of making ends meet in the first year, a comparatively slender hope that ends would ever meet. This was agreed, and still the committee was resolved to raise the needful funds and go forward. I did not minimize the financial risk or technical difficulties.
We agreed that, since an auditorium of some kind would have to be created, even if only under a tent, it should not be just in the tradition of a nineteenth-century opera house.
I did not then discuss with the committee all the theoretic considerations. At this point we were discussing the building from a strictly practical point of view, and I was merely suggesting that, in my opinion, and that of most professionals whom I thought best qualified to judge, the best practical results would be got from a stage which closely conformed to what is known of the stage for which Shakespeare wrote; and by relating the audience to that stage in a manner which approximated to the Elizabethan manner.
We agreed that the project must manifestly be of some size, in order to attract sufficient attention; that for this purpose one production would not be enough. Moreover, we felt that it was wise to have, as it were, a second barrel to our gun. If we missed with the first, we would have another chance with the second. More than two productions were felt to be impracticable, partly on grounds of expense, partly because of the time needed for preparation.
Finally we agreed that the project must be demonstrably a Canadian one, carried out not merely by Canadian initiative, and with Canadian finance but by Canadian actors. But we also agreed that this need not preclude the committee from seeking the assistance of a limited number of people from Britain or elsewhere. We agreed that, not merely the sale of tickets, but the whole status of the project would be greatly assisted if we could secure the services of an actor of the highest quality and international fame.
All this was carried through in one evening. Goodish going.
At this time the committee had no legal status. It was no more than a gathering of interested citizens charged to investigate the project, but not empowered to take further action. Shortly after this it was incorporated on a legal basis — The Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada Foundation, with a charter setting forth its aims. The ideas upon which we had agreed that night in July were now beginning to take practical shape.
Even before this, however, before the committee was more than an informal, irresponsible body of enthusiasts, and before Tom Patterson had been appointed general manager, he was sent by the committee to London with power to engage a “star" actor, a director, and a designer.
Our first choice for the leading actor had been Alec Guinness. Rather to our surprise, as well as delight, he agreed to accept the Stratford offer in preference to the many other engagements which are always available to the few at the top of any professional tree. Certainly some of the other offers were more lucrative and I think it is true to say that the deciding factors w'ere the opportunity to play Shakespeare in the particular conditions which our stage afforded, and also to take part in what he felt to be a pioneering venture of a gallant and unselfish kind, a venture which, if successful, might have lasting and important results.
Other purchases made by Tom Patterson on this eventful shopping trip were Tanya Moiseiwitsch, as designer, myself as director. Cecil Clarke, who for some years had been production manager at the Old Vic, was to join our team as my assistant at the conclusion of the Old Vic season.
Miss Moiseiwitsch and I, who are old collaborators, had long dreamed of such a stage as was now to come into being. We were agreed that, while conforming to the conventions of the Elizabethan Theatre in respect of practicalities, it should not present a pseudo-Elizabethan appearance. We were determined to eschew Ye Olde. Rough sketches on the backs of envelopes gave place to careful drawings. Like every good designer, Moiseiwitsch knows not only what she wants a thing to look like, but why; and also knows how it is made. Drawings gave place to detailed construction plans. Finally a model was made — an exact replica of the stage which was eventually built.
By the end of 1952 Guinness and I had narrowed down the choice of plays. We felt that in one of the two plays he must play a “star" part; in the other his part should not dominate, the emphasis should be on the team. We felt, moreover, that the two plays should contrast, that it would be a mistake to suggest two histories, two comedies, or two tragedies.
Richard III was agreed upon fairly soon. He wanted to play it; l agreed that it was a suitable vehicle. We both felt that the complicated genealogy, the rather obscure historical background, was probably a drawback for Canadian audiences but might be offset by the strong thread of melodrama.
For the second play we suggested All’s Well, largely because it offers such an even distribution of good parts, and because of the bold contrast with Richard III. Its unfamiliarity, which would be a great handicap to popularity in London, seemed to matter less in Stratford where all the Shakespearean plays were almost equally unfamiliar. We also felt that it would make for a better team feeling between the British and Canadian actors, if one of the two plays were as new to us as to them.
Shortly before Christmas 1952, I returned to Canada to see actors. The project by now had received a great deal of publicity. There was considerable interest among the actors and I was faced by a formidable list of people who wished to be considered for engagement.
In five days, first in Montreal then in Ottawa and finally in Toronto. I saw three hundred and seventeen people. I narrowed this down to about sixty Probables, about whom I had notes as to size, shape, coloring and my own very personal reaction to our meeting. In addition there were about another sixty who, for one reason or another, were Possibles.
The rejects were those who had no experience, or who failed to convince me that they were seriously prepared to do a job of work. I turned no one down for being plain or shy or because of the way he was dressed.
The Probables were mostly people who had some considerable experience in some field or other of dramatic art. In Canada it is idle to expect many people to have had professional experience except in radio or television. But I have never felt the distinction between professional and amateur to have much more than monetary significance. So great was the actors’ interest that only three of those whom we approached turned down our eventual oiler.
Meantime on the administrative side a good deal was happening. A suitable site was found in the park which borders the River Avon. Land was made available by the Province of Ontario. Robert Fairfield of Toronto was engaged as architect to design the auditorium and supervise the construction. A firm was found in Chicago willing to make, erect and maintain a tent large enough to cover the stage, auditorium and dressing rooms.
The committee now began to find itself faced with very large expenditure indeed. It had been foreseen, the budget bad been quite sensibly prepared, and the response to the financial campaign had so far been distinctly encouraging. Nonetheless there remained a vast, yawning chasm between Funds in the Bank and Projected Expenditure.
It was about now that the Jeremiahs began to have a good time, the Headshakers, the Fingerwaggers, all the vast majority of mankind who derive almost their keenest pleasure from the words, "I told you so.” It is at about this period that one must admire and respect the guts of the committee. It was still just not too late to withdraw.
From behind lace curtains, discreetly; from neighboring cities, patronizingly; from "well-informed circles," with authority: from the local paper, repeatedly, were heard ancestral voices prophesying Flop. "It’s never been done before," these voices whispered. "You must have enough money to cover expenses before you begin," they warned. “Canadians just hate Shakespeare." "Where are the visitors going to stay?" "It’s never been done before." "Wait for a year or two." "Where is the money coming from? Where will the audience come from? It's never been done before."
There was still time to withdraw. Contracts has not actually been signed. The committee was divided. After a particularly stormy meeting two influential members stamped out and slammed the door. They considered that enough money to cover the entire expenditure of the project must be in the bank before it was safe, or indeed honest, to go ahead. One of the defecting members was a leading accountant in the city, the other was the proprietor of the local newspaper. Their loss was a serious blow.
The remaining members of the committee were considerably shaken but resolved to carry on. But from now on the project was the target of more and more local snipers. Public confidence had been shaken; and from now on the self-confidence of the committee was only maintained by an ever-increasing effort of will, at ever-increasing nervous cost.
In March Cecil Clarke preceded us to Canada. He is a short, strong-looking individual. He has worked in the theatre all his life, with the exception of the war years. He joined the army as a private soldier. At the end of the war and at the age of twenty-seven he was a lieutenant-colonel.
His first duty in Canada was to see again all the actors whom I had seen, so that there should be two opinions on the casting. Our two opinions, arrived at quite independently, were virtually coincident. We both realized that there were probably many good actors whose services we could not use; but on the whole we were very pleased with those we had, and confident that the scheme would not fail because the acting was inadequate. We also considered it a reassuring sign that such a large proportion of those to whom offers were made were willing to accept. No bush fire spreads faster or can be so damaging as the word-of-mouth reaction of theatrical people to a plan. It was apparent that the professional reaction to the Stratford project was favorable and bespoke some confidence in its success.
The next task for Cecil Clarke was to set up a production mechanism. There were several hundred dresses to be made, armor, jewelry, accessories and properties of diverse kinds. Canada, with virtually no professional theatre, has few resources in these matters. It was agreed that it would probably be less expensive, and certainly a great deal more satisfactory, to employ our own staff to cut and make most of the dresses. We were able to engage two experienced technicians from Britain, Ray Diffen, a brilliant theatrical cutter, and Jacqueline Cundall, to make accessories and properties.
It is not sufficiently appreciated how much the whole style of a production owes to the work of technicians, whose names either do not appear or to whom some form of acknowledgment is made among the advertisements at the end of a program in illegibly small type. If the productions at Stratford had a unified and distinguished visual style, it is not only because the designs of Miss Moiseiwitsch had that style. It is because Diffen, in the cutting of the clothes, and Jacquelyn in the making of properties and accessories, were able to interpret the designs creatively, not merely to make an unimaginative copy of a blueprint.
This, I think, was the great difficulty that faced us in the preparation of the productions. Canada, like the United States, is organized for mass production.
It is possible, once materials and designs are agreed upon, to gel enormous numbers of a given article turned out by machinery at a comparatively low price. It is almost impossible to get people to bother to make something for which there is no mass demand, for which no blueprint exists, which requires craftsmanship.
Shoes were the first problem. For Richard III we required shoes of a shape, and in materials and colors, which bore no resemblance to the shoes mass-produced for the public. Similarly, for military uniforms in All's Well we required boots of a particular style. In neither case could we think of affording the enormous prices which almost any custom-made article commands in the New World.
Eventually an aged Jewish craftsman was located in an outlying district of Toronto, who was prepared to make a sample pair of shoes for Richard, in accordance with Moiseiwitsch's sketch, out of materials for which he was prepared to search. The sample, after some small modifications, was excellent. The old bootmaker was delighted to feel that his skill was valued again and would be employed. Too old for the rush and flurry of competitive mass production, he was still a first-rate craftsman. Given time and helped by his son, he turned us out over fifty pairs of boots at a most reasonable price, which simply could not have been got in any other way. Similarly, a Czech craftsman in another outlying suburb was prepared to make the boots for All's Well, when all the big firms had refused to consider the order because it did not conform to any mass-production schedule.
From April until my arrival in Canada late in May 1953 I had almost daily letters from Cecil Clarke. Jacqueline Cundall was established in a workshop at Stratford, with a staff mostly recruited from the School of Arts in Toronto and the universities in Toronto and Montreal; the making of armor had begun — felt, stiffened with size; as more than fifty breastplates and fifty helmets were needed, it was reassuring to know that a start had been made. The Little Bootmaker had produced another sample, better than the first effort; still not quite the ticket. Ray Diffen had arrived in Toronto and professed himself tolerably satisfied with the workroom.
This was a matter of great relief to Tanya and myself in England. Ray is a "star" of the first magnitude in his particular firmament; we were secretly terrified that he might have thrown a temperament and walked out.
Next letter: no one would undertake the All's Well uniforms. How many crosses would be carried in the scene of Richard's coronation? Please send detailed drawings at once. Meantime actors' contracts have been issued. Work on the site has begun.
The next letter enclosed a photograph of the chairman of the committee cutting the first sod, in weather which was evidently inclement; and reiterated requests about the crosses.
The chairman, Doctor Harrison Showalter, is a remarkable character. He graduated with a Ph.D. during the Depression and unable to find suitable scope for his gifts and education, became a manufacturer of soft drinks. He is a staunch and resourceful man in a crisis and a pillar of the Baptist Sunday School. He did not know much, and made no pretensions to know anything, about the Art of the Theatre or the Business of Theatrical Promotion. Little did he know, when he accepted the chairmanship of this enterprise, what a heavy load of anxiety lie was assuming. Little did any of that gallant committee know what an unruly, squalling, monstrous brat they were going to bring forth. Little did they know.
The next letter from Cecil enclosed a copy of the chairman's speech on the occasion of Cutting the First Sod — short, simple and movingly serious. Cecil thanked us for the designs for the crosses. The Little Bootmaker had produced a wholly satisfactory sample and was now Going Ahead. Jacqueline had caught a cold at the sod-cutting ceremony. Black stockings for the troops in All's Well would be cheaper than khaki. Would black do?
The next letter, early in May, sounded a faint but unmistakable note of warning. The money was not coming in quite as fast as the committee had hoped. Jackie's cold was worse.
We had heard that the Appeal for Funds had made an excellent start in Stratford. Cecil's note was disquieting. By now there were six of us in England who were committed to the plan: Guinness. Tanya Moiseiwitsch and myself, and< in addition, Irene Worth, Douglas Campbell and Michael Bates.
Tanya and I were sharing the Clarke correspondence. We consulted Alec Guinness. Ought we to tell the others that all was possibly not going to end well? We decided that there was nothing we could any of us do; that therefore there was no point in sounding a Tocsin to our three friends, and even less in adding to the embarrassment in Stratford by anxious cables. We resolved on Stiff Upper Lips and Rising Above.
In the next letter Jackie's cold was better but the financial crisis was worse. Work on the tent in Chicago had been suspended, pending the receipt of an advance payment which the committee at Stratford could not meet. Only by thumping the table had Cecil been able to get cash to pay the workers in the wardrobe and property shops.
In the next letter Jackie’s cold was worse again and the financial crisis had got into the Canadian press. Several of the firms who were supplying goods were, not unnaturally, insisting on payment in advance.
These must have been bleak days in Stratford. A single bright spot in the darkness: the contractor who was preparing the site kept right on working. He had decided that the honor of the community was at stake, and that, whether he were paid or no. his part in the whole plan would go forward.
The next event which I can remember clearly was a wire from Dr. Showalter requesting me to be available for a telephone call from Canada on a Saturday afternoon. By now Guinness was due to sail on the Mauretania the next Monday. Tanya Moiseiwitsch and I were in the throes of a dress rehearsal for a large production of Henry VIII at the Old Vic. It was opening on the Wednesday, right after which we, too, were due to leave for Canada.
My wife and I rallied Tanya and Alec for lunch at our house. It was a tense feast. Then the telephone rang. I lifted the receiver. The others clustered close. All were, to coin a phrase, white to the lips, it was my sister to ask if she had left her spectacles on the mantelpiece. When the bell rang again we all felt better. Harry Showalter gave a brief résumé of the financial situation. It was serious but not yet utterly desperate. The committee was divided as to the best course to pursue. How did U feel about postponing the whole thing for a year?
I should like to be able to report that across the ether my voice rang strong and clear — a Rallying Call that Saved the Day, a Note of Steady Confidence, the Horn of Roland. In fact I asked a few footling questions, hummed and stuttered, said I must consult my colleagues and would call back in half an hour.
I then reported that we all felt postponement would be utterly fatal. Better to abandon the whole plan than either to postpone or to proceed with faint hearts and a reduced budget.
Of course the committee was in a ghastly position. The tent alone was costing a fortune. They had contracts with forty or fifty actors in Canada, contracts with us, commitments to the architect, to the builder, the butcher, the candlestick maker, to say nothing of the good Little Bootmaker at that very instant stitching away at the eighty-third boot. To proceed was certainly to court a very serious financial risk, but there was just a chance of considerable incomings at the box office and of considerable prestige. To postpone or abandon involved, as I saw it, no very great financial saving — the big commitments had already been made — but removed any possible chance of saving the day. Empty pockets and crimson checks were the only possible prospect.
Alec Guinness chivalrously said he was ready, if they wished, to acquit them of any liability in the matter of his contract. But what we all at our end of the line agreed we must have, and at once, was a definite decision. We seemed to hear the Mauretania hooting weirdly in the trees outside the window. We were sincerely sorry, we said, for the committee; we hated to add to their anxieties, but we must know within twenty - four hours whether the Festival were on, or whether the Festival were off. Also we must have the chairman’s personal assurance that, if the decision were to go ahead it meant going ahead at full steam and not going off at half cock.
Next day, in the middle of Katherine of Aragon's death scene, came a wire: "DECIDED PROCEED STOP ASSURE YOU FULL STEAM AHEAD.’’
Even after this, I understand, there was yet another major crisis. Yet again the whole project was almost abandoned. But to none of this was I a witness. I am only reporting what O know at first hand. There wasm I know, an exceedingly handsome anonymous subscription. There was a telegram of exhortation and encouragement from the Governor-General of Canada, who had read in the press that the venture was in trouble. But the precise factors which turned the scale are unknown to me. By the time we reached
Stratford — Tanya, my wife and I — all was relatively calm. The financial situation was still grave but steadily improving.
There was, however, one grave hangover from the crisis: the tent. It had originally been agreed that it should be ready by the time we began rehearsals, that is the first week in June. For six weeks we were to rehearse on our stage in situ. Work, however, had stopped in Chicago pending the payment of a sum which the committee was only now beginning to be able to meet. No one knew exactly when the tent would arrive. “But don't worry," said the committee, "there's still plenty of time." I regret to say there was also a tendency to add, for the benefit of silly, slow old Europeans: “Things out here move faster than You Folks can possibly imagine."
Rehearsals started in a structure out in the fair ground. A long wooden shed, roofed with corrugated iron, it was vast. It was dry. It had electric light. It had no plumbing, but the fair ground is remote and has been planted with lovely clumps of thick, green shrubs. In the shed a replica of our stage had been built. Here we were to rehearse until the tent arrived.
The whole arrangement was very satisfactory except in two respects. The acoustics of the building were such that the lightest whisper became an enormous booming noise. Normal speech was almost too loud to be endured by the naked ear, and totally unintelligible. Giants and giantesses seemed to be shouting through the vaults of a cathedral, jointly designed by Cecil B. de Mille and Orson Welles.
The sparrows kept dying
The second drawback was the sparrows. Several dozens of them had built in the rafters of our shed. It was a sparrow slum. By day it was comparatively quiet; but toward evening when the Business Sparrows came back home, their love life became most obtrusive. Boy Sparrow would meet Girl and pursue her all over our stage. They were impervious to fear, or, for that matter, shame. Scenes of unbridled bird life made the life of Richard III seem very anemic and suburban.
Still there was no sign of the tent. Anxiety began again. The financial crisis was over. Subscriptions had now passed the estimated amount and were still coming in. The member of the committee, who was also its bank manager, was reported to be eating once more and only occasionally walking in his sleep. But now, if one met our chairman, an ectoplasmic tent seemed to form in the air above his hat. A king's ransom was spent on long-distance calls to the tentmaker in Chicago. Fabulous numbers of women were reported to be stitching day and night.
Days pass. The words of the plays are now known, but, owing to the acoustics of the shed, no one has yet heard any lines but his own. Lips are seen to move, gigantic but unintelligible noises resound in the building, punctuated by the thumps of baby sparrows hurtling to their doom. These noises make a Wagnerian accompaniment to the miming of two Shakespearean plays. It is an interesting new Art Form: avant-garde, but searing to the nerves.
Days pass. No tent. Three members announce that, after the autopsy which will follow the mass suicide of the committee, graven on their hearts will be the name Chicago.
Came the dawn; Chicago telegraphed that more women than ever before were stitching countless hours of overtime and that the tent would Reach The Yards on Tuesday.
Nobody seemed quite to know what, or where were The Yards. Still, it was nice to know that on Tuesday a tent was going anywhere at all.
It was nicer still when on the Saturday Skip Manley appeared. Skip was the Tent Man. He travels the world putting up, looking after and taking down enormous tents. He had come from Iowa, where he had been in charge of a Gospel Tent. Nightly, several hundred people had plunged fully clad into a baptismal tank. After a season of Shakespeare with us, he was booked to look after a Circus Tent in Venezuela.
Mr. Manley was a lean midwesterner. He brought with him a ton of hardware anti kept making calculations on odd scraps of paper. He referred to the tent as "She” and the hardware — iron rings, chains, swivels and so on — were all part of the apparatus which would raise “Her” from the ground.
I never saw him except in working dress — he was a hard and dedicated worker — and for work in all weathers he wore a white panama hat, with a pinkand-gold ribbon; a pair of very very old trousers which had once been white; brown shoes of basketwork with pointed toes and an intricate design, and a shirt made of pink and silver brocade — the sort of garment which, in Europe, old ladies wear for evenings en pension at Bath. Lucerne or Wiesbaden. In Bath they call them Bridge Coatees.
On the bony, workworn fingers of the Tent Man there flashed and flickered jeweled rings. When at last She did arrive from Chicago, half Stratford turned out to see Her go up. It was a sight worth watching. Four sixty-two-foot poles of Douglas fir were moored in position by guys of steel wire. Skip directed this operation like Toscanini conducting a symphony. Each pole was drawn up and held in place by four guy wires. Two of these were operated by hand — two teams of fifteen men; the other two were attached to tractors. Skip would sign first to this group to pull so far, then to that; then, with the sweep of a jeweled hand, he would bring the first tractor into play, holding the remainder of his forces at the ready as though they were trombones waiting to make an entry. The whole tricky, delicate operation took a day and a half. Thereafter the great expanse of canvas was hoisted comparatively quickly and easily. In another day or two we were able to rehearse in the tent.
There remained a great deal of work to be done in the preparation of the building; work which had had to wait until after the erection of the tent. The only way for this to be accomplished and for the plays to be ready was by arranging a twenty-four-hour schedule of work, night and day. and sticking to it come hell or high water. The chairman called a meeting of all departments: the building contractor, the electrical engineer, the plumber. Skip Manley. Cecil Clarke and myself. We agreed that from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. the theatre should be available for rehearsal. That meant the suspension of all constructional activities. The various departments agreed that they would work at night. Each day at lunchtime we were all to meet and report progress.
Of course, just by making a schedule we were not getting out of the wood. The electrical department kept lagging behind. A firm of wood polishers, brought in to finish the surface of the stage, imparted so high a gloss to the boards that none of the actors could take a step without slipping. A morning was spent rehearsing All's Well on ice, which could ill be spared from more orthodox production methods. And then a precious night was wasted removing the gloss so laboriously applied.
I cannot pay a sufficiently warm tribute to the people concerned with getting this building finished. First of all they appreciated that it really was necessary to be ready by the appointed date. For people who are not used to that sort of schedule this is quite a hard thing to grasp.
I had not realized the acoustic peculiarity of tents. Or was our tent unique in this? Any sound which occurred inside the tent seemed of normal size. Any sound from without was enormously magnified, the railway shunting yards were a mile away, yet the engines seemed to clang, the boxcars bang, upon the stage. Ball games on a diamond several hundred yards from the tent seemed to issue from invisible amplifiers in our front row. Most disconcerting of all were our visitors. For the first few days after we moved into the tent, the rehearsals, particularly in the evening, were an object of great local curiosity.
Multitudes would lurk in the spring twilight outside the skirts of the great tent. On the whole their behavior was impeccable. Occasionally they would lift the skirts and peek; but only surreptitiously, only occasionally. They knew they must not interrupt. But it was the acoustics that made all this so tricky. A juvenile head would appear under the canvas, momentarily, slyly, six inches from the ground. Then an enormously magnified whisper from outside would say, “WELL?” The head would withdraw'. Then the huge whisper would reverberate, “YOU’RE SURE IT WAS ALEC GUINNESS?”
Then there were the electric storms. Hardly had we raised our tabernacle before God saw fit to send them—a mighty, rushing wind which made the ropes creak and strain, canvas flap, the whole great edifice felt like a ship at sea. like a film set for Moby Dick. Then, bingo! The lightning flashed, the thunder crashed and the rain would beat like a million kettledrums on our roof. She stood it all magnificently; she hardly leaked at all. But great canvas tumors would hang down, where water had collected, diseased-looking, ominous. In the drumming darkness, the actors, rehearsal suspended, would see Skip Manley dash hither and yon, with a knife attached to a long, long pole, slashing the tumors. There would be a Hash of rubies and diamonds, a ripping sound, and then cascades of warmish, dirty water. Then the sun would burst out anti rehearsals would begin again in clouds of steam. It was like preparing a play in a Turkish bath.
Canada must speak maturely
The storms passed. But, till half an hour before the public assembled for the opening night, a tiny figure might be seen clambering about on the enormous, sagging expanse of terra-cotta-colored canvas; rubies and diamonds flashed in the sunlight, and in the moonlight too, drawing together w'ith exquisite, tiny surgical stitches the wounds he had himself indicted to save her from destruction.
We opened. The plays were ready. The theatre was ready. But, most important of all, the audience was ready. This was the reason for the festival's signal success: the audience was ready. The public wanted it to succeed.
Even before we opened it was apparent that the project had captured the imagination of the Canadian press and had behind it a powerful trade wind of public goodwill.
Canada is now potentially the richest nation in the world. Canadians know this; and know, further, that riches mean power and responsibility; that, if Canada is honorably to fulfill its destiny, it is not enough just to be rich and powerful. Canada must not in the councils of the world use the cracked brash accents of millionaire adolescence, but must speak with maturity, to an extraordinary degree this theatrical project in a small provincial town symbolized Canada’s desire for mature and, if possible, distinguished artistic expression.
But Canada is not only very rich. If you are not passionately interested in ice hockey, hunting or family bridge in the home beautiful, it is also pretty dull. Stratford was doing something which dozens of other rich, provincial, unsophisticated but not therefore unintelligent, little towns knew to be courageous and lively.
Naturally, I do not mean that any more than a tiny minority of Canadians were fully conscious or articulate about all this. But I deduce that some such feelings existed from the intense interest in the project, even before the plays had opened, and the tremendous welcome given to them after.
We were further and powerfully assisted by leading drama critics from New York, who took the trouble to come to the opening performances and wrote enthusiastically of what they saw. This was just what we needed. Canadians, very understandably and through the modesty of inexperience, lack self-confidence in artistic judgment. They are apt to wait to be told what to like, and why.
They are apt to regard an opinion from NewYork, London or Paris as carrying more authority than the same opinion, equally well expressed, in Montreal or Toronto. And now to find the New York critics outsinging even the local newspaper in praise set the seal upon artistic success and ensured the prosperity of the new festival.
In five successive years the audiences have been immense and the prestige undiminished. The tent has been replaced by a handsome and interesting new theatre, incorporating the original stage and original cement arena. The federal government of Canada and the provincial government of Ontario have both subscribed handsomely from the public purse, thereby conferring official recognition of the festival’s contribution to Canada. The leading American critics have continued to attend, and to praise Success at this festival has brought professional status to Canadian actors in their own country, and to several of them prominent engagements in New York and Hollywood.
Credit where credit is due. The most influential factor in the success has been, in my opinion, the timeliness of the project.
The next credit is due to the committee in Stratford. In its early stages none of its members were eminent personages; all were local. Anyone who has lived in a small community will know the kind of difficulties which they faced; not just the inertia of the vast mass of citizens, the total lack of interest, but the positive hostility which is always aroused by anything new, which is thrice venomous if the innovation is admittedly long-haired, three times thrice when it is also conspicuous, expensive and risky. The members of that committee braved this hostility with absolutely no hope of financial gain, if the venture succeeded; and with every certainty not only of financial loss but moral and social disgrace if it failed.
Third and last credit: the productions were not bad. It is not for me to assess the quality in that first season, when I directed both the plays. But I can view most of the later productions with detachment. The Canadian companies have been good, but, on average, no better than an average company at the Old Vic or Stratford, England. But the productions. in my opinion, have seemed livelier and fresher because of the design of the theatre.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, A Life in the Theatre, copyright © by Tyrone Guthrie, 1959, to be published soon by the McGraw Hill Company. A second excerpt will appear in the next issue.