The Passing of a Theatre Icon

One late afternoon in December afternoon of 1959 I – a 13 year old – came out of the Crest Theatre so wound up that the lonely walk down to the street car stop past the Mount Pleasant Cemetery had me running at a rattled pace. (And yes dear reader I was allowed to go all the way from Etobicoke to Uptown all by myself. Three streetcars and a bus! How times have changed!) So engrossed was I in the drama of Macbeth that I was unaware that I had witnessed what was the beginning of an era in Canadian theatre history. An era that was to last until 13 days ago when Martha Henry gave her last performance in Three Tall Women at the Stratford Festival. The great actress, director and teacher died Wednesday evening after a battle with cancer that had not slowed her down in her commitment to her greatest love: the theatre.

That cold December she was listed as Martha Buhs and played the role of Gentlewoman to Charmione King’s scheming Lady but she was destined for bigger things. After two years at the National Theatre School (she was its first graduate) she joined the Stratford Festival in 1962. Over the next sixty years she was to appear in over 70 productions there and play not only Shakespeare but Chekhov, Miller, Congreve, O’Neil, Shaw, Findley et al.

1962: Martha Henry as Miranda in The Tempest with Peter Donat
2018: Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest.

I was fortune to see many of her performances at Stratford and with several other Canadian companies. So many moments that were incandescently Henry stick in my mind. Her evil but sexy Lady De Winter in The Three Musketeers being dragged off to her death crying “I’m to young to die!”; the terrified look on Isabella’s face as her brother’s freedom had been accomplished but she found herself locked into the prison of an unwanted marriage in Measure for Measure; the triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Maggie Smith, and Henry keening for Moscow as The Three Sisters in the most brilliant ensemble production I have ever seen; a sparkling Raina in Shaw’s Arms and the Man in the early days of the Shaw Festival; a world-weary Vera telling us how “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered” she was by Pal Joey; and the list goes on. Perhaps the strangest thing I saw her in was a schlock murder mystery in London’s West End in 1970. Who Killed Santa Claus starred Bond girl Honor Blackman, who wore Belmain. Martha Henry got a red felt Father Christmas costume. It was one of her few forays outside Canada. She was devote most of her working life to theatre here in Canada.

Fortunately she was back the next year at Stratford darkly demanding that the hypocrite Tartuffe be sent to her. Perhaps her finest years were during the Robin Phillips directorship when she commanded the stage with Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford and William Hutt as frequent partners and adversaries in a company that was overflowing with remarkable talent. She was absent from the Festival for over a decade but returned for a “golden” second era as actress, director and teacher, nurturing and mentoring young performers.

The last time I had the joy of seeing her on stage was in 2014 when she brought all her artistry to the small part of Lady Bountiful in The Beaux’ Stratagem – gleefully brandishing a phallic zucchini as witness to the efficacy of her herbal concoctions. She was slightly stooped with osteoporosis but even that was part of a characterization that could have become caricature but through sheer stage magic was a delightful comic cameo.

Her first major Shakespearean role was a Miranda in The Tempest that first season; she was to return to that play 56 years later when she played Prospero as her farewell to Shakespeare on that stage that she had made her home and where she was at home. I only wish that I had been able to see that and her appearance this year as Albee’s A. It would be incredible to have been able to say I had seen both the beginning and the end of that era but I am thankful that I was able to see a truly great performer at so many stage in her remarkable career.

Thank you Martha for all that you gave me, and the rest of Canada, over the past six decades. May you rest in peace.

The word for October 22nd is:
Icon /ˈīˌkän/: [noun]
1. A painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.
2. A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.
3. A symbol or graphic representation on a screen of a program, option, or window, especially one of several for selection.
Mid 16th century (in the sense ‘simile’): via Latin from Greek eikōn ‘likeness, image’. Second sense dates from the mid 19th century. Third sense dates from late 20th century.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

3 thoughts on “The Passing of a Theatre Icon”

  1. She certainly was a towering figure in Canadian theatre. The only time I ever saw her perform live was in “The Beaux’ Strategem” at Stratford, but I did also see her magnificent filmed portrayal as Mary Tyrone in Stratford’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” alongside William Hutt. And of course, many CBC productions over the years.

  2. I’m in awe of people who get to do what they love to the very end of their lives.

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