456 Years Old

… but who’s counting?

A collage created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Earle Grey Shakespeare Company’s Festival.
The leaves were from a mulberry tree in Trinity College Quadrangle that was purported to be an offshoot of the tree in Shakespeare’s own garden.

Though there is no recorded proof, by tradition April 23 is commemorated as William Shakespeare’s birthday. There is a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564 and the custom was for a new born to receive the sacrament within two or three days of the mother giving birth so the 23rd is as good a date as any. Also it happens to be the Feast Day of England’s patron Saint, the Blessed George – so why not celebrate the two at the same time. Though given that the poet is also recorded as having died on April 23rd things could get a bit awkward when planning the party/wake.

The main dining hall at Trinity College in Toronto named after it’s founder Bishop John Strachan. It was were I had my first taste of Shakespeare.

I saw my first Shakespeare play when I was ten years old the summer of 1957. My father and I headed out one Friday night into a wild July storm to see, appropriately enough, The Tempest performed by the Earle Grey Shakespeare Players. For some reason I thought it was at Hart House only for us to trudge the five blocks from the Bloor Street streetcar stop in driving rain and be redirect by the porter across the U of T Campus to Trinity College. We arrived at Trinity looking like two drowned country mice. My father was a saint! Normally the performances were outdoors in the beautiful quadrangle but that tempest outside meant The Tempest moved inside to the mock-Tudor splendour of Strachan Hall*.

Earle Grey’s troupe had to be one of the last actor-manager companies in Canada, if not in the English speaking world. He and his wife, Mary Godwin, were English actors who had immigrated to Canada in 1939. They were thespians in the old style and there was nothing Freudian or modern about their productions. Both their manner of playing and productions would probably seem quaint, and sadly perhaps laughable, today as even back in 1956 a new style of playing Shakespeare was taking hold miles away in the little town of Stratford. But they were honest attempts at performing Shakespeare in an uncluttered simple manner. According to Grey his only concept was “to produce historical accurate plays according to the author’s intentions …” and in that to my 10 year old eyes he succeeded.

A performance from 1954 when the north terrace of the Quadrangle was open. It is obviously one of the earlier scenes as the sun has not set yet. Mary Godwin can just be made out wearing the Terry cloak.

I can’t honestly say how good or bad that production of The Tempest was, it was long ago and I was ten years old but it was theatre and it was exciting. No doubt Grey’s Prospero was of the old declamatory school and his farewell to his art probably throbbed of the theatrical but I was captured. So much so that I convinced my long suffering father to take two friends and I to see The Taming of the Shrew two weeks later. That night there was no rain, we were under the stars, Kate was tamed, and my love of theatre and Shakespeare deepened.

Construction of a new residence building on the North side of the quadrangle moved the stage to the West in 1957. It gave more playing area and an expanded repertoire proposed. However two years later a new Provost at Trinity decided that the Festival was no longer of financial benefit to the College and Earle Grey and his company found themselves without a home.

All’s Well That Starts Well, an article in the Trinity College magazine recounts the story of how a casual stroll along Philosopher’s Walk led to the beginnings of the Festival. It paints a colourful portrait of Grey, Miss Godwin and the company of actors, aspiring young actors, artists, and volunteers that struggled to bring Shakespeare to the Toronto of my childhood and the school rooms of Ontario. It also tells of the melancholy demise of the company that by 1959 appeared to on the edge of better funding, a more adaptable stage and expanding audiences when it lost its home at Trinity College. That and the move of audiences who they had introduced to Shakespeare to the more professional and adventuresome Festival in that little town outside of Toronto. And I must admit I was amongst those who headed off to the lure of Christopher Plummer and Eileen Herlie in Much Ado About Nothing in 1958. Grey and Miss Godwin attempted to find a new home for their Festival but finally gave up and returned to England.

They had left behind a legacy that unfortunately is largely unknown today but tonight at dinner we just may raise a glass not only to the Bard on his 465th birthday/413th death day but also the pioneering couple who planted the seed of my love for Shakespeare and the theatre.

*While researching this post I uncovered the possibility that it was the opening night and there were problems with the lighting in the temporary venue. I seem to have a vague recollection of flickering lights and a period of darkness during the Masque scene.

The word for April 23 is:
Bard /bɑːd/: [archaic noun]
1.1 A professional poet and singer, traditionally one reciting epics and singing verse in praise of princes and brave men.
1.2 A poet
Middle English of Celtic origin from Scottish Gaelic bàrd, Irish bard, Welsh bardd. In Scotland in the 16th century it was a derogatory term for an itinerant musician, but was later romanticized by Sir Walter Scott.
The Bard of Avon (or simply The Bard) is a fairly recent compound noun appearing somewhere between 1880-85.

Reawakened Beauty

Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteny framed in a doorway overlooking Grenada. A left click will take you to a photographic retrospective of the dancer and her career.

Today marks the birth, one hundred years ago, of the great Margaret Evelyn Hookham. Well okay you might have heard of her as Dame Margot Fonteyn. Arguably she was the most famous English ballerina of the mid-20th century. Her career began with the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935 and she was it’s acknowledge prima ballerina when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. She retired as prima ballerina assoluta from what had become the Royal Ballet in 1979: an almost unprecedented – surely challenged only by Alicia Alonso, but that is another story – 44 years as one of the leading dancers of the century.

If you hover your mouse over Oliver Messel’s original design for Aurora in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) you can catch a glimpse of Margot Fonteyn’s original costume from this iconic role.

I only had the joy of seeing her dance once in 1962: it was in her iconic role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. To this day I recall her gliding through the colonnade of Oliver Messel’s gloriously baroque palace in that subtle but stunning rose, pink and silver costume. By the time she reached centre stage she had transformed herself from a 43 year old ballerina into a glowing teenager at her 16th birthday party. I was to see other Aurora’s after that (Alla Sizova, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Ashley Bouder) but none captured that moment with quite the magic of Fonteyn.

There are various clips of her performing the Rose Adagio from Act I sadly none of them are entirely satisfactory however (despite the odd aspect ratio setting) the excerpt below from a film of the Royal Ballet production in 1969 when she was 50 years old captures much of the magic of her performance. It was filmed one Sunday afternoon at a theatre in Bournemouth with a touring company of the Royal Ballet. The stage was smaller than Covent Garden which accounts for a few changes in the choreography. Ironically producer Keith Money ran out of money and the rest was left unfinished. The film was stored in cans in the attic of a barn in rural England until they were unearthed many years later. It was broadcast as part of a documentary in 1990.

Fonteyn’s style is of an earlier school of dancing that grew out of Russian roots in mid-century Britain. Though very much an athlete (what dancer isn’t?) her’s is never an athletic display. She is softer, more lyrical, more musical than today’s dancers tend to be. The technique is there but never openly pushed to the front, it is at the service of the character and the music. The pauses when she reaches a position are almost imperceptible but those pauses focus on the drama and the mood. It is dancing at its most elegant, most dramatic and finest. And I count myself as privileged to have experienced it.

May 18th is No Dirty Dishes Day! I do wish the people who create these days would mind their own damned business!

Lunedi Lunacy

Several years ago we were having lunch with our dear friend David from I’ll Think of Something Later at a very posh restaurant in London’s West End.  Being the heart of Theatreland and a popular place with the theatricals photos of many of the greats were enshrined on the flocked walls.   I looked at several in our vicinity and casually remarked on how I had seen this one or that one during those halcyon days when I would go to London three or four times a year to see what was going on theatrically and musically.  I recall one trip where the highlight was Sir Laurence Olivier as Shylock directed by Jonathan Miller on evening followed by Maggie Smith in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler.  But I digress; as I recall David made some small sounds of envy as I sighed that “those were the days” like some old theatre queen.  But indeed those were the days.

I was also fortunate back home in Canada to see so much wonderful theatre with both home grown and visiting stars.  One such opportunity was in the early days of the Shaw Festival – the summer of 1970 to be exact.  They were still in the old Court House Theatre and the Candida starred Frances Hyland, Tony Van Bridge, a young Chris Sarandon and the inimitable Stanley Holloway.

Les Carlson (Lexy), Frances Hyland (Candida), Tony Van Bridge (Morell), Jennifer Phipps (Prossy), Stanley Holloway (Mr Bridges), and Chris Sarandon (Marchbanks) in the Shaw Festival production of Candida in 1970 (Photo by Robert C. Ragsdale)

I saw it early in the summer and enjoyed it so much that I convinced a friend to join me in the trip down to Niagara-on-the-lake to see one of the later performances which ended up not being quite what we expected.

In an interview with the Toronto Star Jennie Phipps recalls what happened:

Franny Hyland, who was playing Candida, came down with laryngitis and we had no understudies in those days, but did we close the show? Oh, no. We had two other stars in the cast as well. Stanley Holloway (the original Doolittle from My Fair Lady) came on and did some of his famous vaudeville act and then Tony Van Bridge offered a preview of what was to become his famous one-man show on G.K. Chesterton. Who would ask for their money back when they could see an evening like that? Back then the whole administration was Paxton Whitehead and one lovely secretary, working from a tiny office above the liquor store. But we made some marvellous theatre there.

We certainly didn’t ask for our money back and got to see one of the great British comedy stars do his monologues that until then we had only known from records.  I know he gave us “Sam Pick Up Thy Musket” and “Brown Boots” and of course he would have shared the story of little Albert Ramsbottom and Wallace.

But I don’t believe he told us about Sam Oglethwaite, a builder who certainly knew the worth of his wood.

(By the way “Long bacon” is a rude gesture made by putting thumb to nose and extending the hand so the palm is in line with the nose, then putting the thumb of the other hand to the little finger of the nosed hand, hands keeping in line, then wiggling the fingers.)

Yes indeed those where the days!

On this day in 1641: Irish Catholic gentry from Ulster tried to seize control of Dublin Castle, the seat of English rule in Ireland, to force concessions to Catholics


Not So Brief A Life

In which the writer recalls a great theatrical performance and thinks on a new book.

Sadly a bad photo of the set for Brief Lives – a wonderfully grubby setting for Roy Dotrice’s tour-de-force.

My introduction to John Aubrey came through the legendary one-man show Brief Lives which took its title from Aubrey’s best known work of the same name.  The curtain was up when we took our seats at the Royal Alexandra and we saw a large dusty – verging on filthy – room crammed to its Tudor rafters with books, stuffed animals, and bric-a-brac of an exotic nature.  The furniture, including a large canopied and curtained bed, was decidedly Jacobean though we had been told in the programme notes that the time was circa 1694, well into the reign of William and Mary.  As the lights in the theatre dimmed there was the sound of a baby crying, followed by a pounding and a indistinct voice bellowing about the infant wails.  What had until then appeared to be a bundle of old clothes in a large arm chair moved and began to wheeze and cough and turned out to be the 70 year old John Aubrey as portrayed by Roy Dotrice.  For the next two and a half hours – except when he fell asleep for what became the twenty-five minute interval – we were entertained by the stories and reminiscences of a man who had lived through the reign of five monarchs and the Interregnum.  That and he had collect stories since childhood – his two grandfathers had served in the court of Elizabeth and told him stories and gossip from the days of Gloriana.  This eccentric old man took us behind the scenes and told us the secrets of names we knew from history and introduced us to some lesser lights who were no less entertaining.

I could only find one clip on YouTube though a DVD has been issued of the entire performance.  Aubrey remembers a story about one of those lesser lights.

Dotrice played the part for the first time in 1967 and was to perform in Brief Lives over 1800 times in the next forty years. It was a brilliant evening of theatre that was praised world wide.  The only criticism that could be levelled against Dotrice or writer-director Patrick Garland was that they accentuated the eccentricities of Aubrey in old age while ignoring the incredible accomplishments of the man in historical, archaeology, and scientific research at a time of turmoil, change and discovery in politics, the arts and science.

John Aubrey obviously at a younger age than that portrayed by Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives.

I was born about sun rising in my maternal grandfather’s bedchamber on 12 March 1626, St Gregory’s Day, very sickly, likely to die.  I was christened before Morning Prayer.  My father was nearly twenty-two years old, my mother only fifteen and a half. She has cried through the night and given birth to three more babies since, but they have all died.

Sir John Long of Draycot and J. Aubrey Hawking.  Drawing by Aubrey from a manuscript held in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

So wrote a precocious Aubrey in a diary in 1634 but contrary to that gloomy outlook and though like all men he was “likely to die” his last letter was penned in 1697 as he headed to Oxford.  He did die of apoplexy on June 7th of that year and was buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary Magdalen in Oxford:  1697. John Aubrey, a stranger, was buryed Jun. 7th*.  Much of what occurred in the 71 years between has been captured in Aubrey’s own words by Ruth Scurr in the recently published John Aubrey, My Own Life.  In a move which is almost as audacious as Aubrey’s when he transformed biography writing in Brief Lives and The Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Scurr uses Aubrey’s scattered and often fragmentary notes, letters, observations, drawings and the few works that he published to create an “autobiography” very much as Aubrey would have written it. It was viewed by many as a risky manoeuvre but the reviews are unanimous in lauding her work and I must say from what I have read so far they are justified in their praise.  A fascinating presentation of an even more fascinating man.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

I was put on to Scurr’s book early last week when a friend sent me a link to a post from the Paris Review wherein Lucas Adams illustrated some of his favourite passages from the book.  I began to search online and discovered the book was available at Amazon both in hardcover and as an app book however decided to see if my local bookseller had a copy. I was in luck they indeed had a copy on their shelf and I was able to dip into it that same day. (Just as a sidebar I am trying to use Amazon as infrequently as I can and give my custom to my local bookseller. It may cost a bit more but I believe it is worth it.)

Adams is a co-editor on the New York Review Comics as well as a regular contributor to Mental Floss. A left click on the illustration of one of my favourite passages (which concludes the book) will take you to his complete set of graphics.


Anno 1697



Men think that because everyone remembers a memorable event soon after it is done, it will never be forgotten; and so it ends up not being registered and cast into oblivion.

I have always done my best to rescue and preserve antiquities, which would otherwise have been utterly lost and forgotten, even thought it has been my strange fate never to enjoy one entire month, or six weeks, of leisure for contemplation.

I have rescued what I could of the past from the teeth of time.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

* The entry from the Register of St Mary Magdelan – a sad note when you think of the many years he had spent at Oxford and his many friends from his days there. He had outlived many of them and may well have been unknown to the Parish.

On this day in 1942: The first gold record is presented to Glenn Miller for “Chattanooga Choo Choo“.

Much Ado About Something

A planned trip to Stratford in August and the donation of a few items – designs, programmes and postcards – to the archives of the Shakespeare Festival triggered memories of my first visit there.  It has been 35 years since my last visit in 1978 but I believe the magic will still be there.

Robert Farifield’s building for the Stratford Festival echoed its beginnings in the tent.  But he gave the Festival a performance space undisturbed by the whistles of freight trains or the cries of the umpire from the local baseball diamond that often fought for the audience’s attention in the early days.

Back in 1958 my friend Bruce and I boarded a train at Toronto’s Parkdale Station headed for Stratford and its Shakespeare Festival   I was 12 at the time and Bruce was 14 – strange when I think that our parents had no second thoughts about us going on a trip like that alone. It was the first of what were to become regular visits over the next 20 years to the Festival town that Tom Patterson, Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness put on the theatrical map five years earlier. The Festival had forsaken its original “big top” for a permanent home the year before; at the time a revolutionary design,  Robert Fairfield’s circular structure built into the hillside surrounded the revolutionary stage that Tanya Moiseiwitsch had designed to invoke, but not slavishly copy, the theatre of Shakespeare’s time.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed this revolutionary thrust stage based on discussions she and Tyrone Guthrie
had about the ideal platform for performing Shakespeare.  Director Michael Langham felt the stage
was too “feminine” for the tragedies and histories and asked Moiseiwitsch and Brian Jackson to give it
a “sex change” in 1962. I recall being shocked by what I saw on entering the theatre for The Taming
of the Shrew
that year.   I got use to it but still have a fondness for this first stage.

As well as well-known performers – Guinness, James Mason, Frederick Volk, Siobann McKenna, Jason Robarts Jr and Irene Worth – the Festival was developing its home-grown stars chief amongst them William Hutt, Douglas Campbell, Frances Hyland, Amelia Hall, John Horton, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid and a young and vibrant Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had first appeared on the thrust stage in 1956 as a charismatic Henry V in a ground breaking production by Michael Langham that bridged and celebrated Canada’s two solitudes and featured Gratien Gelinas with members of Quebec based Theatre de Nouvelle Monde as the French King and his court. Plummer was to follow that with Hamlet, Andrew Aguecheek, Leonates, Mercutio, Philip the Bastard, Cyrano, Antony and in 1958 Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.

A young, and very handsome, Christopher Plummer as Benedict, 1958.

It was that production that we boarded the train to see on a sunny July afternoon. In those days the Toronto Telegram sponsored a “special” Tuesday train to Stratford. For the price you got the 2 hours train ride, a bus upon arrival to take you to a local church – Parkdale United, as I recall – where the ladies of the parish had prepared a hot dinner. I don’t remember what exactly they served as a main course but I do remember desert was homemade cherry pie with fresh whipped cream. The Festival theatre was a short walk away and the buses waited to take you back to the station at the end of the play. The late night train from Chicago passed through at a convenient time and arrival at Parkdale meant getting home well after midnight. Fortunately there was no school the next day and Bruce’s mother was willing to pick us up. Several year’s later the late train no longer operated and the Telegram was no-longer published.  You could go up by train but the only way of getting back after the play was the bus – and I do recall a number of nights standing all the way from Stratford back to Toronto.

The wedding scene from that 1958 production of Much Ado About Nothing.  This Festival
postcard photo was taken from approximately where I was sitting that evening. I have
a collection of these postcards that will be going into the Stratford archives this summer.

Michael Langham at a rehearsal – 1988.

Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The Much Ado was the second of the Shakespeare comedies that Langham directed at the Festival and as time passed he proved to be a master of the genre.  That is not in anyway to discredit his handling of the tragedies, histories or the problem plays.  His Romeo and Juliet with the oddly cast but somehow very right Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi as the star-crossed lovers, Kate Reid, Tony Van Bridge and Plummer started as a light-hearted youthful affair filled with high-spirits and romance that spiraled into deep, aching and bewildering tragedy.  And both his Trolius and Cressida and Timon of Athens (with a score by Duke Ellington) proved less problematic then many imagined them to be.  His 1966 Bretchtian Henry V though not much loved at the time caught the pessimistic spirit of the period as accurately as his production ten years earlier had mirrored the optimism of its time.  The 1964 King Lear that he directed with John Colicos was a searing indictment of man’s inhumanity to man – he often said that his time as a prisoner of war in Germany gave him new insight into the bleakness of that darkest of tragedies.

But he didn’t restrict his productions on the stage that he knew better than anyone else to Shakespeare.  Langham also directed a bawdy but stylish The Country Wife, a funny but ultimately unsettling almost frightening The Government Inspector and first with Plummer than Colicos a Cyrano de Bergerac that was the ultimate romance-adventure story.  It has always been said that his crowning achievement was the 1961 Love’s Labour Lost (a play he was to direct three more times at Stratford including his final production in 2008) – sadly I choose to see Henry VIII that year; at the time a historical pageant with elaborate Tudor costumes seemed more appealing then the heady word-play of a young Shakespeare dazzled by his love of the language.  Ah the callowness – and foolishness – of youth.

One critic referred to Eileen Herlie and Christopher Plummer’s Beatrice and Benedict as being like
Brandy and Benedictine.   They seem to have brought out the best in each other.

But back to the events of that evening in 1958:  the fun of a train ride (I love trains), a delicious home-cooked meal and the thrill of that trumpet fanfare echoing from the terrace of the Festival theatre on a summer’s night.  But that was nothing compared to the pageant that followed:  Vincent Massey, our Governor General at the time, was there with his party.  As the trumpets sounded a new fanfare he made his entrance resplendent in his red and gold uniform, his daughter-in-law Lilias on his arm and surrounded by the vice-regal party in dress-uniform with their summer-frocked ladies.  We all stood as God Save the Queen began and at the end of the anthem cheered – we did that sort of thing in Canada in those days.  But even that was to pale in my 12 year old’s mind with what followed.

Desmond Heeley’s citizenry of Messina had a look to them that was
more English country house than Sicilian palazzo. But it gave the
production an elegance and style that mirrored Langham’s direction
and the company that he was building.

Suddenly that gleaming wooden structure was filled with ladies and uniformed gentlemen more elegant even than those in the audience.  Langham and Desmond Heeley had chosen to set the play in the 1870 and though they may have been looking to the Risorgimento, it was more English country house than Sicilian palazzo.  But given the players it worked:  Tony Van Bridge was a pompous, deadly serious, and more comic for all that,  Dogberry with Alan Nunn, his perfect foil, as an Uriah Heepish Verges; Conrad Bain and Mervyn Blake where slightly stuffy but loving father and uncle; William Hutt, an elegant and handsome Don Pedro – his lone estate at play’s end was all the more puzzling for that; Bruno Gerrusi as a dark, threatening Don John; Diana Maddox and John Horton all organza and braid looking the perfect young lovers.  But at the centre of it all were Eileen Herlie and Plummer as Beatrice and Benedick.  A star may have danced at her birth but a whole constellation celebrated the sparring match, strange-woeing and eventual wedding between these two.  As one critic remarked they were a heady mixture of “benedictine and brandy” – each complimenting and bringing out the best in the other.

It was all very magical and I recall Bruce – who was a stage-struck as I – talking about it all the way home – I’m sure much to the annoyance of those around us who were trying to doze on the trip back. I had been going to the theatre since I was five years old but I believe I can honestly say that it was that performance of Much Ado About Nothing that sealed my love-affair with the magic of the stage.  And each year for the next 20 I would make the trip to Stratford, sometimes once but often five or six times, and I waited for that familiar fanfare and the lights to come up on that marvelous platform when once again that magic would be reborn.

May 7 -1920: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, opens the first exhibition by the Group of Seven.

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