According to the script
Heralding the arrival of Martha Henry
A sense of purpose can be found in all kinds of places and all kinds of things—cars and bars, money and lovers, mortgages, wedding rings. Martha Henry discovered her sense of purpose at the bottom of an old trunk. She was an impressionable six.
Martha Henry’s performances at the Stratford Festival this season have sent the international press into an advanced state of bliss. And, having witnessed her Elena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Paulina in Shakespeare’s odd, unnerving The Winter’s Tale and Sister Jeanne in John Whiting’s The Devils, those who would be kings and queens of theatrical taste are whispering in each other’s shell-like ears that the 40-year-old classical actress has arrived. Or, as one overwhelmed theatregoer was recently heard to say, has become “a luminary of the highest wattage.”
In the tight little world of Stratford, where secretiveness is often a style, it’s been no mystery that on-again-off-again artistic director Robin Phillips has been sleeking her for stardom, the idea being that when Maggie Smith exits, Henry will be Stratford’s top distaff drawing card. “Martha’s a star,” says Phillips.
“She’s been my leading lady since I came to Stratford four years ago.
Her range is absolutely phenomenal. She’s actually getting to the point where there’s nothing she can’t play.” (The world of the theatre is slightly prone to exaggeration:
Henry would, for instance, do rather poorly as Stanley Kowalski, or even the lead in Annie. Adulation from Robin Phillips, however, is to be taken with the same gravity as a wordy citation from the Queen.)
The acid test of Henry’s future prowess as a star is whether she can wield a similar effect on audiences. Audiences do remember her, albeit with differing degrees of warmth. On the one hand, the entire arsenal of critical superlatives has been emptied in her honor; on the other, comments
from both casual and fanatic theatregoers on the order of “remote” or “inaccessible” are not infrequent. But nobody questions her abilities as a technician; she did, after all, get a head start with the trunk.
Born in Detroit, she was taken at the age of five—her parents having separated—to live with her grandparents in sleepy Greenville, Michigan. On one of those days when there was absolutely nothing better to do, enticed by a child’s curiosity, she found a script at the bottom of a trunk. There, for a
young girl whose sense of identity had been stripped away from her, it all began: “Everything in that script—a name, a line, another name, a reply—seemed so laid out according to plan. I had been taken away from my parents and I was aware of a lot of things happening around me, but I didn’t
know what they were. But I could read this script from cover to cover and I knew what was going on. I needed to know that then.” Strangely, the story and characters of that script are forgotten now; only its welcome impact remains.
Unlike her own life, that in the script had form and shape; it introduced her to a sense of design in things, then proffered a promise for the future. “After I found that script,” she explains, hands clasped in cool composure, “I organized my life so that I would be as close as I could to that script. So I joined the Brownies. I didn’t want to, but I knew they did a play. They had to pick me to play a fairy because I was the only one with a long blue dress.”
The long blue dress belonged to Martha’s mother, whom Martha had rejoined in Detroit. It wasn’t the only maternal legacy. Martha’s mother made a living playing piano in cocktail lounges, at private parties and on the road. It was on the road with her mother where Henry, then Martha Buhs, was steeped in show business tradition and met the people who would influence her emotionally for the rest of her life: tap dancers, snake charmers, puppeteers— the whole carny contingent. “These people took care of me, taught me tricks, looked after me when my mother was rehearsing or performing.” With staunch pride she remembers all those theatrical gypsies as being wonderful, without exception. “Years later wherever I went there were people who remembered my mother and asked about her. I find that amazing.” Determined to make a life in the theatre, she set out to polish her instincts at theatre schools (Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology and the National Theatre School) and made her way to Stratford in 1962. With her first role, Miranda in The Tempest, a brave new world beckoned. She quickly became a regular in Festival pro-
ductions and by 1964 was virtually a fulltime resident of Stratford.
Though she draws blood on the stage, her private life is a model of restraint and regulation: she works, and when she’s not working she lives quietly with her actor husband Douglas Rain (this year’s Macbeth, famed as the voice of Hal, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey) and their five-year-old daughter, Emma. There’s “the odd bit of crochet, gardening and the family swim at the Lions pool,” she says, not without irony, though one gets the feeling she’d just as soon attempt Lady Macbeth without a rehearsal as divulge intimate domestic details. Soft-spoken, careful with her words, dressed casually and anonymously, she occasionally forgets herself, becomes animated and, with each gesticulation, her voice rises in pitch, rich and resonant. It’s a theatrical voice, governed by low-register inflection: “I loathe housework,” or “Five minutes on the stage is an eeeterrrniteee." Everything but the dahhling. Profound poise tempers every turn of phrase; participles dangle precipitously, awaiting the addenda that seldom arrive.
“What’s most exciting about Martha,” says Phillips, “is the sense of mystery she projects—that sense of being unobtainable.” Not everyone draws rapture from this, to which Henry’s riposte is, “A raw, gut feeling lying out there on the stage by itself is usually lots of fun for the actor, not always for the audience.” Control is, and ^
always has been, all: “I’m not instinctively that kind of [gut-feeling] actress and Robin isn’t that kind of director, so between the two of us I suppose one senses a fair degree of restraint. I’d much rather see something that suggests . . . the tip of the iceberg . . . giving the feeling that something’s there to be tapped. My whole raison d’être in getting into this business had to do with control, controlling myself and the life around me. I like very much being in control.”
Applied to classical theatre, her command over her own emotions has produced some extraordinary transformations. No mannerism spills over from one character into another; the tight rein reigns. As the possessed and sexually obsessed Sister Jeanne in The Devils, her acrobatic voice’s tones are pinched in bitterness, and she can stun you with the force of her longing for the priest Grandier. Jeanne’s adder-like movements are in marked contrast to Elena’s languorous pilgrimages from room to room in Vanya: slumped, her shoulders seem to have succumbed to gravity, and when she raises a wilting hand to retrieve a renegade strand of hair from a bevelled auburn bun, the effort seems as onerous for Elena as manually raising a drawbridge. “Look at this,” snipes William Hutt as Vanya, “she’s so lazy she can hardly walk without falling over!” and the audience breaks up. As Paulina she’s required to age 16 years in The Winter’s Tale. When she does, even her blood seemingly courses slower and the bellow of a younger virago has changed to a sad, hooded rasp. It is, in fact, as the poignantly tenacious Paulina who offers redemption for everyone except herself that Henry manages one of those magical moments when the tone of an entire life (“Go together,/You precious winners all . . .”) is imprisoned in a line.
Cultivating misterioso, she’s necessarily hesitant about revealing how much of herself she channels into a given role. Time was she thought she could change herself into a different person, completely. “When I started out and for some time after that I wanted a true split, a divided personality.” Time was. “But even people who play themselves aren’t really playing themselves at all,” she warns. “They think they play themselves and usually end up playing the same character. It’s an extension of yourself that you present and the play allows you to extend yourself. At various crisis points in your career you realize that certain things just won’t do. You change. A quality that once worked in a role won’t always work two or three years later. You should be able to meet the essence of a role.”
Sometimes theatre encroaches on “real life,” a hellish example for Henry being her Desdemona in the 1973 Othello. “I seemed to have an instinctive meeting with her and that was wonderful. But, standing in the wings before I went out on the stage every night 1 always said to myself, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I can bear to get on this
train and maite this trip tonight." Every night I hoped it would turn out all right for her. One part of me knew that was bizarre, yet another part said ‘Maybe tonight it will be okay." ”
Wiredrawn when it comes to performing, she has to summon up nerve for rehearsals as well. “In every rehearsal
there comes a point where I think I should give up the business and do something else. I really do.” But her life now is so inextricably tied to theatre that she has little conception of a public persona: everything
boomerangs back to the performance. “It’s hard to know how to present yourself to other people. You never think of the portion of yourself that isn’t connected with work. My self always seems to be a tool of some kind.” In Toronto for a dentist’s appointment, she saw a Saturday Night cover of herself stare back from a newsstand. “I nearly died,” she exclaims, clutching her throat. “It was so public.” Any public recognition garnered certainly can’t have gone to her head: she was unable to cash a cheque in Stratford recently because they didn’t know her, though she’s lived there off and on for 14 years. Outside excursions have taken her to London’s West End, New York’s Lincoln Center and major Canadian theatres where she’s run rapaciously through Shaw, Synge, Ibsen and Arthur Miller. Her profile in her own country (she’s long been a Canadian citizen) isn’t exactly Parnassian. There hasn’t been much television work and no film offers, though she divulges that she “would adore making a film.” One playwright, however, Larry Fineberg, was inspired to write a part to embellish her talents. The play, Devotion, was originally scheduled for this Stratford season but was cancelled when the director, Phillips, was caught up in his own personal drama, disappearing to England in mid-season for a mysterious operation and tendering his resignation from abroad. (He returned to
his post in August but his future remains up in the air.)
Fineberg is a Martha Henry fan. In his down-to-earth words: “When you wake up the morning after having seen Martha perform you’re not wondering who you’re going to sleep with that night, you’re feeling the echoes, or resonance, she leaves you with. She has this enormous, quirky intelligence that allows her to approach a part from an angle nobody else does.” That same quirkiness is, for her detractors, a bane. “She’ll do something fiery that will have something chilly to it,” Phillips suggests, nailing down the trait that makes her critics think her performances are perpetually on hold.
“One of the things I’ve had to come to grips with,” the actress herself says, “is that it’s myself I must find. Not totally, of course.” That her acting idol is Garbo comes as no surprise. “I always get the feeling with her that you never know what she’s going to do next,” and one of Martha Henry’s piercing eyes nearly winks. She once allowed herself the luxury of totally losing herself in a role—Viola in Twelfth Night. “I was aware of going along for about five minutes and it was as though the play were playing me.” Exciting as it was for herself, it seemingly had no impact whatsoever on the audience. Expecting
friends to exclaim “Why Martha, what happened out there for those five minutes?” she was instead greeted at a postperformance party in her house with the regular homilies—“That was lovely. Can I have a drink?” She has maintained control ever since.
Her career has had the trajectory of a perfectly aimed missile. Hard work (and a little luck, such as the trunk) accounts for it. “To be a good classical actress you have to have a sense of humor, a great deal of self-discipline, a good working mind, I think, is essential, and an ability to get up after you’re punched.” Instead of itching to do new roles, she is craving a vacation. “There’s a tiny little corner of me that feels guilty for taking time off. I don’t think it’s a virtue.”
What made her become an actress was one thing; what made her become a classical actress another. “The mysteries in plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov are infinite,” she says, rather exultantly. “We don’t want to know everything, and because we don’t, we keep visiting those plays over and over.” Citing John Hirsch’s 1976 Stratford production of Three Sisters, she illuminates the idea: “Different things come through in different performances. If your soul or heart at any given point in space or time can figure out why one line is placed next to another, a kind of elastic band is formed between you and a character. After Three Sisters, people who were theatrically sophisticated and knowledgeable seemed to lose all their critical faculties by identifying themselves with the people in the play emotionally closest to them.” She points out that these alliances, in another production of the play, would alter, perhaps drastically. “That’s the mystery, isn’t it? And that’s why I act in the plays I do.”
It’s the distance people cover that provides others with armchair amazement. In Martha Henry’s case it could be defined as the space from the bottom of a trunk to a perch in the treetops: “I remember once being happy. I had a small apartment in Stratford and I was working. I had a grubby little balcony. It was a summer’s day and a beautiful one. I was sitting up there in the treetops and I was suddenly aware of being content. And I thought at that moment T must remember this’ because these things flit by and we don’t realize they have come and gone. Absolutely nothing was happening but things seemed right and good and there was some kind of growth.” The reminiscence is reordered into a performance.
Ever elusive, she offers an afterthought which might hold a promise—“When you bare something it tends to get out of control. But as I get older and I get braver and braver . . .” Her voice trails off into a filament of sound. She’s thinking, and letting you know she’s thinking, smiling her best Martha-Mona smile, hands clasped in cool composure.^