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culture

Historicist: Whittaker’s Theatre

For much of the 20th century, drama critic Herbert Whittaker watched Canadian theatre evolve.

Herbert Whittaker chairing the panel on The Critic and the Media at the National Arts Centre in July 1976. Whittaker's Theatre: A Critic Looks at Stages in Canada and Thereabouts 1944–75, edited by Ronald Bryden with Boyd Neil (Greenbank: The Whittaker Project, 1985).

Over eight decades, Herbert Whittaker was one of the greatest cheerleaders the Canadian theatrical world had ever had. Though his work as a reviewer for the Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette often lacked the critical edge we now expect, his championing of all aspects of the stage made him an important witness to the development of Canadian theatre from small community groups to professional companies.

Born in Montreal in 1910, Whittaker’s parents cultivated his love of arts from an early age. While heavily involved with drama as a student, he preferred working behind the scenes due to shyness about taking the stage. To help make ends meet for his family, Whittaker dropped out of school and began working as a clerk for the Canadian Pacific Railway when he was 16. He was drawn into Montreal’s theatre scene, later admitting “I’m afraid I cheated the CPR, for I eventually discovered that by going down to the stacks to search out invoices, I could find the time to design costumes for church plays.”

Such sneakiness paid off. Whittaker quit the CPR in 1935 to write for the Montreal Gazette, where he rose to chief drama critic a decade later. He also directed and designed sets for amateur and professional plays, some of which competed in the Dominion Drama Festival. He began encouraging and mentoring young actors during his period, including a teenager named Christopher Plummer, whose work he praised in a high school production of Pride and Prejudice. “I played Darcy,” Plummer told the Globe and Mail in 2002, “and it went to my head, and I thought, ‘This is for me.’” Whittaker cast the young actor in several future productions, and the two grew to be friends. In 1999, Plummer took time out from promoting The Insider to help Whittaker launch a book on the Montreal theatre scene, Setting the Stage. “He got behind us, all of us, writers, actors, and pushed us, because we needed confidence, in Canada,” Plummer noted at the launch. “Herbie made absolutely sure that people realized it was important to have professional theatre in Canada.”

Whittaker moved to Toronto in early 1949 to become chief drama critic at the Globe and Mail. The position opened up under unfortunate circumstances: Roly Young, who had served as the paper’s drama and movie critic since 1936, suffered a fatal heart attack while walking through the lobby of the King Edward Hotel on Christmas Eve in 1948, reputedly en route to the grand opening of a bar. Whittaker would tread a fine line as he continued to work as a theatrical director and set designer. Within a year of moving to Toronto, he participated in productions at the University of Toronto and with other local theatre groups. Whittaker found that remaining active in theatre helped him stay atop the latest developments. Sometimes he had to write about works he participated in, which he handled by barely noting areas he contributed to. One example: for a set he designed for a 1950 production of Morley Callaghan’s Going Home, Whittaker’s review ended with, “The settings were adequate.”

Cover of Whittaker's Theatricals (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1993) featuring Herbert Whittaker's set design for Galileo.

Among Whittaker’s most notable productions was the Canadian premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which he directed for Jupiter Theatre in December 1951. The company was lucky enough to have Charles Laughton, who had translated Brecht’s script from German, do a solo reading for them while he was in town for an unrelated performance at Massey Hall. Whittaker wrote that they were “treated to a hypnotizing and comprehensive communication … by the best man in the world to do it. By the man who could make a mere reading better than a whole Broadway production.” Later that night, Whittaker discussed confusing sections of the script with Laughton in the actor’s hotel room. “With a great air of conspiracy,” he observed, “he picked out the passages that baffled me and said the author had included them for his own political reasons; but if I ever repeated that he’d said so, Laughton would deny it.”

For the Galileo set he designed, Whittaker worked within the confines of the 400-seat Museum Theatre at the Royal Ontario Museum. The production was cast with some of the city’s finest radio actors, headed by John Drainie as Galileo. One who wasn’t initially happy with his small role was Jupiter co-founder Lorne Greene, who reputedly said, “Mr. Whittaker, I think that you might have given me a better part to play.” Whittaker shot back, “God perhaps,” to which Greene responded “Yes, that would be better.”

Whittaker countered criticism of his active role in theatre by pointing to New York Herald-Tribune critic Walter Kerr, who remained highly respected while participating in several Broadway shows.

Whittaker preferred to hint at his personal views in a review through subtle nods rather than flag them with the bluntness that marked competitors like the Star’s Nathan Cohen. In a 1971 interview with Globe and Mail colleague Blaik Kirby, Whittaker described his approach:

To me, a review is a series of impressions, adding up to an opinion, and having to compress it onto one statement is anathema. That is why my reviews seem ambiguous. I don’t believe you can issue flat statements about the creative effort of a group of people that will satisfy a variety of readers.

He wanted to be seen as working with the theatrical community rather than against it, and had a low opinion of harsh criticism, which he felt paralyzed artists. When a production stunk, Whittaker dug for some element that worked. As Ronald Bryden observed when prefacing a collection of Whittaker’s reviews:

He believed in fairness: he seldom damned an inept production without finding a kind word for some small, redeeming feature, be it only the lighting or the charm of an inexperienced ingénue. But while he sometimes had to pretend to be fair, he never pretended to be a detached Olympian. It was always clear that, whatever the merits of any particular theatrical occasion, he was ardently on the side of the theatre itself.

While Whittaker compared himself to a war correspondent covering the battle to create a distinctive Canadian theatre, Bryden likened him to a sports columnist who supported the home team through thick and thin, letting readers know he was loyal even when there were screw ups.

Images from opening night of the Stratford Festival. The Globe and Mail, July 14, 1953.

Whittaker was an early booster of the Stratford Festival. He called its opening evening on July 13, 1953, “the most exciting night in the history of Canadian theatre” and praised the nuances of Alec Guinness’s performance as Richard III:

And there were many subtleties from Mr. Guinness, lines given an edge of hyprocrisy that started us into sudden laughter, and sometimes a moment of rage and even fear. In facial appearance his Richard is not grotesque, suggesting quite fairly the Plantagenet portraits, until one noticed that one eye did not match the other, and that his face was lopsided. His hump was well enough concealed in the heavy velvet clothes Miss [Tanya] Moiseiwitsch had so magnificently provided, but his walk with a strange convulsion of the pelvis betrayed him as a monster, and occasionally a loving, soft reading of a line conjured evil one might not have guessed at from the text.

Stratford in turn acknowledged Whittaker’s importance when, after his review missed a deadline for the opening of festival’s second production (All’s Well That Ends Well), management began opening night performances half an hour earlier so that he could file in time. When Whittaker retired from the daily grind in 1975, the festival offered him any prop of his choice as a keepsake. He chose the sword used by Guinness on opening night, reasoning that “being a hard object, [it] was likely in good repair.”

But Whittaker never really retired. He was named the Globe and Mail’s drama critic emeritus and remained a contributor for years. He wrote several books based on his theatrical experiences, and co-wrote a history of Toronto show business haunt Winston’s restaurant. One of his primary projects was establishing Theatre Museum Canada, whose collection (slated for a permanent home by 2015) grew around the many programs, souvenirs, and other items that had cluttered his apartments over the years. He pushed the project with his usual enthusiasm, soliciting collections to add to his, raising funds, and organizing small exhibits at various locales around the city. His enthusiasm for theatre never dimmed: when asked at a gathering at the Arts and Letters Club shortly after his 90th birthday what the secret to a long life was, he replied “I am always looking forward to the next play. I want to know what it will be like.”

At a wake following Whittaker’s death in September 2006, Canadian theatrical luminaries read A Prayer for the Artists, which he wrote as a dedication to the work of those he admired. Letters came from those who couldn’t attend, including Donald Sutherland. Decades earlier, while acting in a U of T production of The Tempest, Sutherland had decided that he would become a professional actor only if Whittaker praised his performance. You can guess what the review was like.

In an essay written for a survey of the Canadian cultural scene in 1957, Whittaker saw great potential for the future of Canadian theatre, especially with the increased professionalism brought about by the establishment of the Stratford Festival and the range of drama then airing on television. “If Canada reaches for the theatre it deserves,” Whittaker concluded, “it must find new forms and new ideas, and perhaps even a new language. As a theatre growing up in the twentieth century aided and abetted by the mechanical media of showmanship instead of opposed by them, it should certainly be worth watching for and waiting for.”

Additional material from The Culture of Contemporary Canada, edited by Julian Park (Toronto: Cornell University Press and the Ryerson Press, 1957); Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story by Paul Illidge (Toronto: Creber Monde, 2005); Hurly Burly: A Time at the Globe by Richard J. Doyle (Toronto: Macmillan, 1990); The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945–1953 by Susan McNicoll (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2012); Whittaker’s Theatre: A Critic Looks at Stages in Canada and Thereabouts 1944–1975, edited by Ronald Bryden with Boyd Neil (Greenbank: The Whittaker Project, 1985); Whittaker’s Theatricals by Herbert Whittaker (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1993); and the following newspapers: the July 14, 1953, March 27, 2002, September 12, 2006, and September 16, 2006 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 4, 1999 edition of the Montreal Gazette; and the October 17, 2006 edition of the National Post.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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