NATHAN COHEN: THE MAKING OF A CRITIC by Wayne E. Edmonstone (Lester & Orpen, $12.95)
The smoke drifted into the faces of departing playgoers and clung acridly to little theatre dresses and fur-trimmed cardigans. It was 1962 and theatre critic Nathan Cohen was being burned in effigy on the doorstep of Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre by the actors in the Brendan Behan play he had reviewed the night before. “He burned us,” explained one member of the cast.
In his lifetime (1923-1971) Cohen was denounced and parodied. By the time of his death he was a self-parody. The shambling overweight girth of his massive six-foot frame, leaning on that evening’s choice from his collection of walking sticks, never slipped quietly into a threatre seat—as he liked to claim. His was an entrance to compete with any on the stage. “Has played prominent roles in dramatics and debating,” capsulized a 1942 edition of New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University newspaper when Cohen was a student. “Likes to talk, isn’t overly modest, and thinks Hedy Lamarr is perfect.” Grumbled one dispirited theatre director after a 1968 Cohen putdown of a George Ryga play: “I should have cast Lamarr. She played North American Indians, didn’t she?”
Still, in these dogfight days of Canadian culturism with artists and the New (government-funded) Medicis snarling over who gets what funds to paint which pine tree, Cohen’s best thoughts are desperately needed. This Cape Breton-born son of an East European immigrant fought all his life for the development of Canadian writers, performers and a distinctive Canadian culture. His work focused nominally on the theatre through his review columns for The Toronto Star. But through the slurred nasal voice of his CBC radio broadcasts and as the largerthan-life moderator of television’s panel show Fighting Words, he became Canada’s official cultural critic. In the tight little island of Canadian letters where friends happily review friends (and known enemies are routinely assigned— by some editors—to review enemies), Cohen steered clear of the allegiances and friendships that enmesh most present commentators. As New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes pointed out at the time of Cohen’s death: “He will be missed, particularly because he was an extraordinarily honest man.”
He may, of course, have been wrong in
some of his particulars. He could certainly be inconsistent. He cited increasing audiences to the Toronto-based New Play Society’s Mavor Moore as an example of how Canadians respond to quality in the theatre and gave the opposite argument to Queen’s University professor Malcolm Ross in saying that quality can’t be measured by numbers. He was eccentric in his judgments and would have banned The Merchant Of Venice for its anti-Semitism. He was, furthermore, as Moore pointed out, a fundamentalist delivering every review as the revealed truth. One can sympathize with this, however, if one remembers that by being wrong the critic may cheat one artist, but by playing it safe he cheats all of his readers.
But, on reading Wayne Edmonstone’s book—best described as an MA thesis on Cohen—one can conclude that Cohen had no greater margin of error in his evaluations than critics influenced by fear or favor. No dispute with one or another of his opinions can genuinely alter the fact that he set the standard by which journalistic criticism is measured in this country. As a critic hé used boots as boots should be used: not for licking or kicking, but for going the distance along his own way. BARBARA AMIEL
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.