BAWTREE MEMOIRS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


AS FAR AS I REMEMBER
(Coming of Age in Post-War England)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
374 pages, $24.95 (paper)

THE BEST FOOLING
(Adventures in Canadian Theatre)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
366 pages, $25 (paper)

One of the salient things in the two Michael Bawtree’s memoirs under review (there is a third volume yet to come) is a sense of fortuitous “accident” and self-fashioning.  Bawtree (who has had a long career as playwright, director, journalist, educator, and actor) conducts us down a long memory lane with many twists and turns, without in any sense wearing out his welcome because his writing is eloquent, amusing in an understated way, and instructive. Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1937, to an English father (Raymond) and an Australian mother (Kathleen), he grew up in England, when it was deep in its rather rancid class-consciousness. Bawtree’s father ran a gamut of professions (bookkeeper, failed pig farmer, country hotel proprietor of sorts with his resourceful wife, and the creator of a failed farm service operation), and his father’s ancestors came from a superior artisan class, with some being Dissenters (and, therefore, ineligible for entry to Oxford or Cambridge). No one before his father’s generation had university degrees, and of his five uncles, only two received higher education that led in their cases to ordination in the Church of Scotland.

However, although dissent is in his family history, Bawtree doesn’t really register as a maverick except when (in The Best Fooling) he espouses a middle-class anarchism (by way of academia) and a weird, self-defeating ideology of “un-led theatre” in his career as director and artistic director in Vancouver and Ottawa. Both volumes of his memoirs reveal how he transcended his family working-class background and how England and, eventually, Canada made him. Bawtree’s fine way with language gives his writing a sheen that speaks to his boyhood in boarding schools, and education at Radley College and Oxford (where his talents for languages, photography, and music came to the fore). Distinguished names (Peter Cook, Laurence Olivier, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Ricks, Bill Glassco, et al) are dropped into the narrative—sometimes too briefly—but never simply for snob value, although many of these names would probably be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with English cultural history of Bawtree’s youth and early adulthood. Glassco, however, should be on the mind of any Canadian familiar with the Alternative Theatre Movement, and Glassco becomes a crucially important figure in the second volume that carries us into Bawtree’s occasionally turbulent involvement with Canadian theatre.

It was the three years at Oxford that gave Bawtree a chance to decide whether he and his peers would be “loners or bons viveurs, idle or industrious, self-deprecating or arrogant, showy or reserved, respectful or contemptuous.” The university was “a pressure cooker of activity” because of the shortness of the three terms (8 weeks each), and the standard of scholarship was far higher than that found in North America: an undergraduate degree could be earned only after a candidate’s successfully writing nine three-hour papers in four and a half days, covering the entire gamut of English, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to 1910. The cut-off year, however, betrayed an endemic snobbery, a condition once described by Anthony Burgess as “a tradition of wariness of approach to the study of contemporary letters…It is in the European academic tradition to stick to the safe past, and the past is a couple of days before yesterday.” It was a snobbery that also tainted such venerable Canadian institutions as McGill and the University of Toronto for the longest time.

As Far As I Remember encompasses its narrator’s family vacations to the seashore, wanderlust, and two years of British military service, when he came face to face with British imperial politics and experienced some of the civil war in Cyprus. But as amusing or as instructive as these sections are in his chronicle, an equally serious undercurrent in the narrative is what he calls his “secret malaise,” first recognized in adolescence and then deepened in youth. This is the love that he hardly dares to name explicitly, but one that is felt as something dangerous yet essential to his real nature. Bawtree’s fleeting encounters with a few women end in disappointment, as he maintains a protracted, secret battle between his two selves. The “malaise” gets more explicitly exposed in The Best Fooling, a more “Canadian” narrative because it settles questions for Bawtree about life and career in his adopted country where he is free to fashion himself more definitively than in post-war England.

How Bawtree came to Canada marks one of the most significant happy “accidents” in the second memoir, that is, possibly, less charmingly nostalgic than its predecessor but far more pungent. He and Bill Glassco (“extremely modest, even diffident in his manner”) were part of the Worcester Buskins at Oxford, where Glassco dazzled Bawtree and others as a pianist and composer. In the early 60s, Glassco excited Bawtree with a glowing report on the burgeoning radical changes in Canadian culture and theatre through such things as the CBC, National Film Board, the Crest Theatre, and the Stratford Festival. Bawtree was seduced, gratefully accepted Glassco and his wife’s generous hospitality, and gained entry to a circle of influential cultural figures, such as Robert Weaver and Esse Jungh. It also helped that Glassco’s father was wealthy and was able to hire Bawtree as an editor for the Royal Commission report he was preparing on the CBC.

Other happy accidents occur in the course of the second volume. Bawtree befriends actress Helen Burns, who was married to Michael Langham, and this leads to Langham’s appointing Bawtree as dramaturge, and later commissioning him to write a new play (The Last of the Tsars) after Langham’s deep dissatisfaction with Nicholas Romanoff by American writer William Kinsolving.  Later, Jean Gascon offers him the position of literary manager at Stratford, but Tom Hendry decides to remain rather than leave his post, so Bawtree seems to be completely out of luck until Gascon gets Hamilton Southam (Director General of the National Arts Centre) to hire Bawtree as artistic director of the experimental Studio Theatre, where Bawtree fails with his risky selection of a decidedly non-Canadian subject for his maiden play: the Spanish-American War of 1898 in Cuba!

The Best Fooling (with its very title drawn from Shakespeare) provides important insights into attitudes and practices concerning Canadian theatre. This volume substantiates some of the principal complaints of our ultra-nationalists about colonial romanticism—the syndrome that infects any colonial society that looks to Colonial Headquarters for approval. The Stratford Festival is summarized as an institution devoted to “the world of the classics—to the old English culture that had been nurtured in me from my schooldays.” This honesty extends to Bawtree’s depictions of Langham as “the consummate Englishman in his manner and clothes” and of Helen Burns (actress and Langham’s wife at the time) as someone “capable of spouting off some fairly arrogant comments about the parochial place she found herself in.” Such arrogance is, of course, resented by the likes of John Colicos and Douglas Rain in particular. Langham is acknowledged, of course, as a brilliant director, but Bawtree identifies a major flaw in him and other British guest directors: “The fact is that Stratford had been run for years by directors (including Michael Langham) who had a faintly colonial attitude towards their Canadian company, and [who] did not particularly expect or encourage creative participation on the part of their actors.” An ironic fact is that Bawtree’s most successful artistic ventures at the festival came with British designers (Leslie Hurry, Desmond Heeley) and casts (Tony van Bridge, Jane Casson, Nicholas Pennell, Pat Galloway, Barry MacGregor, Carole Shelley, and Mary Savidge) mainly in Restoration and 18th century comedies, so while his generalization may well be accurate, it omits another point of view: the plain fact is that without these “fairly colonial” Langhams and others, there would have been no Stratford, and Canada would still be mired in retrograde nostalgia for a cultural nationalism devoted to documentary plays and collective collaborations, performed in basements or backspaces. Moreover, an astute observer would well note that Canada today is far more open to the neo-colonial influence of the United States than to the older ways of England.

Cultural icons appear in the narrative, some serving as heroes (John Hayes, William Hutt, and Gabriel Charpentier), some as villains (notably William Wylie and Robin Phillips). Bawtree records his admiration for John Hirsch, a talented man who, to me, was always a contradiction of artist and hack, cultural commissar and sinister politician—a devious figure who fattened himself off the foment of nationalism. Robin Phillips, on the other hand, is summarized as “that cold, elegant angel-fish,” who manages (in Bawtree’s account) to “charm” his way with the acting company, intimidate the Board, and skilfully sabotage Bawtree’s tenure at the festival by a sort of benign neglect. Bawtree is certainly within his rights to colour his memoir by his own perspective on things, and Phillips is no longer around to contradict him. What is more important to the general reader than any “villains” or personality clashes is Bawtree’s rather loose aesthetic. He recounts how he became radicalized by a visit to Colombia where he witnessed “dangerous” political theatre, and subsequently dreamed of “a ‘dangerous’ Canadian theatre.” The rest of his memoir gives an account of his flirtations and eventual disillusionment with this dream that could, perhaps, never be realized, given that it had no real plot, no story, no shape.

More accidents, more failure. At newly-founded Simon Fraser University (where he is appointed professor), his gamble with the Centralia Incident proves to be “unfinished business” that is never really finished. Ultimately, even his tenure at this university (where John Juliani and other radicals hold sway) ends in fatigue and disillusionment. There is a savage god at work, indeed, as there is in his long, turbulent relationship with Colin Bernhardt (the love of his life), and Bawtree does not scant on his emotional pain and confusion about this somewhat Shakespearean drama. Yet, once again, there are happy “accidents”: a creative friendship with Maureen Forrester that helps with Bawtree’s founding of Comus Music Theatre; and American generosity south of the border that cannot be matched in Canada where artists are prone to encounter grudging recognition, minus pleasure in “ambitious energy.” The contemporary case of Robert Lepage and the whole absurd controversy over cultural appropriation can be entered into evidence.

The ending of The Best Fooling is tinted with pathos but leads to a new beginning. Bawtree discovers painfully how theatre politics can break your heart in more ways than one. He loses his status, job, and home in Stratford, and anticipates losing his lover, Colin, long bedevilled by various psychological distresses. But in 1977, Bawtree is on his way for the first time to the Banff Centre, where he will play a major role in the following decade. And then, we know from his biography that Nova Scotia beckons as well. That fortune awaits us in his third (as yet unfinished) volume.

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JEFF ROUND REVIEWS ‘WILLIAM HUTT: SOLDIER ACTOR’ ON GOODREADS, JULY 24, 2018

William Hutt: Soldier Actor 
by

9020606

Jeffrey Round‘s review

Jul 24, 2018
it was amazing

 

WILLAM HUTT SOLDIER ACTOR by Keith Garebian (Guernica) reviewed by Jeffrey Round

Critic Keith Garebian has illumined the life and career of William Hutt, in print, since his 1988 William Hutt: a Theatre Portrait, followed in 1995 by a collection of essays written by Hutt’s colleagues, Masks and Faces, and now with William Hutt: Soldier Actor.

Garebian’s assertion is that, despite maintaining a career anchored in Canada for more than five decades, Hutt was one of the greatest actors of his time and comparable to the likes of Laurence Olivier (Garebian’s favourite thespian.) Indeed, the consensus of both critics and colleagues is that Hutt was a man too big for his time and place, but who went on to enlarge the scope of both with his considerable talents.

As a biography, Soldier Actor is more than comprehensive, with a dazzling array of photographs and personal documents, including letters and notes on Hutt’s craft, some of which Garebian calls “unprinted ramblings” made available only after Hutt’s death in 2007 at the age of 82.

As evidenced in many ways in this book, Hutt the man was an individual of notable personal integrity. As a soldier, he went to war and earned a medal of honour without firing a shot. (He was in the medical corps, where his bravery was considered exemplary.) What the war taught him, Hutt contended years later, was “the inestimable value of a single human being.”

He was also actively homosexual in a time when being openly gay was difficult, if not downright dangerous. His integrity, however, demanded honesty in this as with other regards, and Garebian does not shy away from revealing details of Hutt’s personal life.

The body of the book, of course, deals with Hutt’s career, from his beginnings as an unschooled actor who went on to work on some of the world’s most famous stages alongside many of the most acclaimed actors of his time. The text fairly sparkles with names and anecdotes, but this is not a tell-all exposé. Rather, it is a recounting of the life of a remarkable actor as it unfolded alongside Canada’s nascent theatrical scene.

Hutt worked during the debut season of Stratford and was there for many seasons. He was said to have giggled on first hearing that Shakespeare was to be presented in small-town Canada. At the time, Stratford was so small that Hutt had to find a map to locate it, having “heard rumours that it was in Ontario, but that was all I knew.”

His colleagues at that auspicious beginning included people like Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, William Shatner, and Tyrone Guthrie, one of the founding lights of Stratford. The names are impressive and the list grows as Hutt’s career flourished and his creative genius expanded with each role he took on. Yet somehow he remained indelibly Canadian and famously never gave up his Canadian accent, even while performing Shakespeare, a revelation in its time.

In what lay his genius? Garebian calls it Hutt’s “rare ability to absorb audiences within his circle of illusion,” painting a clear picture of how Hutt not only thought as an actor but also how he appeared onstage. Garebian minutely examines Hutt’s ability to mine roles for depth and a fresh approach, whether it be in giving Hamlet’s Polonius more respect than is often accorded him or in giving Long Day’s Journey into Night’s James Tyrone a more sympathetic turn as a man brought down by his failures as a human being. It is at this point, Garebian writes, that “acting ceases to look like acting.”

On meeting the author, and learning he was writing a book on Hutt, actor Sigourney Weaver told Garebian that he “couldn’t have a better a subject.” She might just as easily have said that Hutt couldn’t have had a better biographer.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author. His latest book is The God Game (Dundurn).

WHENEVER YOU’RE READY

(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
ECW Press
394 pages
$22.95 (paperback)

Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.

After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.

There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)

The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.

Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.

The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.

While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.