Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage

HERBERT WHITTAKER
Edited by JONATHAN RITTENHOUSE
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt802h7
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  • Book Info
    Setting the Stage
    Book Description:

    In Montreal Whittaker witnessed the early careers of actors such as Christopher Plummer, Gratien Gélinas, John Colicos, Jean Gascon, Denise Pelletier, and Amelia Hall. He worked in close collaboration with many pioneers of the Little Theatre Movement, the Dominion Drama Festival, and Canadian theatre in general, such as Martha Allan, Charles Rittenhouse, and Pierre Dagenais. His involvement with Dagenais' L'Equipe allows him to report on the early days of francophone theatre in Montreal and the cross-fertilization between Martha Allan's Montreal Repertory Theatre and actor-directors such as Dagenais, Gratien Gélinas, and Yvette Brind'Amour. He also gives us glimpses of the early theatrical spaces in the city that no longer exist, as well as some, such as the Salle de Gésu and the Monument-National, that have survived.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6815-0
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Christopher Plummer

    I was just sixteen when Herbert Whittaker made me a “star.” So miasmal was the mist I floated through, I can barely remember the year. I think it was 1946. Why the distinguished drama critic of theGazettehad stooped to review a mere school production at Montreal High (from which I was nearly expelled twice), I had not a clue - but there I was in print, larger than life; and there they were — those golden words of praise for all to see. Of course, my head was instantly turned and I became even more arrogant and insufferable than...

  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Herbert Whittaker
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xv-2)
    Jonathan Rittenhouse

    The stage Herbert Whittaker sets for us is developmental and not strictly chronological. A short historical introduction — a Whittaker-eye view of things theatrical and cultural in his hometown – combined with a sketch of his family and early upbringing prepare us for the personal assessment of Whittaker’s that is to come. He begins, then, by sketching in his openness to and love of the possibilities of the stage as a precocious and avid theatre-watcher, a child of the twenties seeing American movies and British and American performers, mostly unaware of locally produced fare — either English or French.

    In the traditional way...

  6. THE STORY SO FAR
    (pp. 3-10)

    In any country, no matter how thinly populated, no matter how widely scattered across a continent, people must eventually produce their own theatre, as objects on a landscape must produce their own shadows. The period when I arrived on the scene — I was born 20 September 1910 in Montreal — was an impoverished one, but it provided its own compensations. They were at first spontaneous, naive, perhaps a little absurd. There were concerts, recitations, and playlets; pageants, university and school theatricals; and much activity in church basements.

    I should admit that when I started my Montreal theatre-going a decade or so...

  7. Chapter One BEGINNINGS: HAMLET LAUNCHES THREE CAREERS
    (pp. 11-20)

    Four tall soldiers bear the figure of the Prince upstage to the shallow platform backed by low parapets against a high red sky. As they raise him slowly, the stricken court drops as slowly to its knees. This double action signals the first of the cannon’s boomings. On the second booming, the front curtain of His Majestry’s Theatre in Montreal begins to descend. As the curtain hits the floor of the stage, I think my heart will burst!

    These were the final moments of my firstHamlet,performed by Sir John Martin-Harvey and company on 2 January 1924, and following...

  8. Chapter Two THE CHURCH AND THE STAGE MEET
    (pp. 21-41)

    In the summers of my youth I sometimes played tennis just off Côte Ste Catherine — generally with the Hodgson boys, Maurice and Frank, schoolmates at Strathcona Academy. Unlike me, they were Unitarians. Their father, Harold, sang bass for George Brewer at the Church of the Messiah downtown on Sherbrooke Street. Brewer was not only a well-known organist but also an associate and examiner of the Dominion College of Music.¹ So much respected was he, I learned, that his parishioners had installed a Casavant organ for him – no small gesture in those days of economic hardship. I also discovered that Brewer,...

  9. Chapter Three SEARCHING FOR A ROLE
    (pp. 42-56)

    Sir John Martin-Harvey, my first great star in the theatre, made his last appearance in Montreal in 1932, taking with him the echoes of the great Victorian actor-managers. The succeeding era was heralded that same season by the arrival of Sir Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Repertory Theatre, playing Rudolph Besier’sThe Barretts of Wimpole Street.¹That it was not a star theatre is illustrated for me by the fact that though I admired Daphne Heard as Elizabeth and Julian D’Albie as Mr Barrett, I completely overlooked the Browning in my notes. He was played by Donald Wolfit, who was to carry...

  10. Chapter Four THE MONTREAL REPERTORY THEATRE
    (pp. 57-76)

    By the early thirties the national community or little theatre movement was recognized as “the tributary theatre” by two important magazines:Theatre Arts,the American publication devoted to serious theatre since 1916, and the more Broadway-orientedStage Magazine.Recognition from the latter meant that the movement was being accepted more widely, if a shade reluctantly and condescendingly. So was the underlying premise that artists within any community had the right to establish their own kind of theatre. In 1922, George Kelly had mocked the movement in a hilarious farce called TheTorchbearers,but even he could not laugh it out...

  11. Chapter Five MRT TO GUY STREET AND MOYSE HALL
    (pp. 77-97)

    When Martha Allan died unexpectedly in the spring of 1942 in Victoria, British Columbia, word of her death rattled the whole theatre community of Montreal, French every bit as much as English. Everybody in Montreal theatre knew Martha and they called her that without further identification, as they did in the loftier circles of Ottawa and elsewhere. Never to her face, of course, for there was dignity due Montrea’s “royalty.”

    Martha knew that the theatre must be full of surprises, as well as providing a direct link with the finest drama, which at that time was England’s. She was our...

  12. Chapter Six OUR FAIR–WEATHER THEATRE
    (pp. 98-115)

    Do the seasons affect our theatre as they did that of the Greeks? Of course they do. We still speak of Broadway and West-End seasons. Canada, a land of violent weather contrasts, plainly favours the summer theatre, sowing the seeds of talent when the sun encourages their flowering. Our summers have been crowned by events such as les Festivals de Montreal, the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, the all-Canadian Festival Lennoxville, and later the Atlantic Theatre Festival at Wolfville in Nova Scotia. Although we no the caution “weather permitting,” our theatre culture has long seemed a fair-weather...

  13. Chapter Seven RIDING OFF IN ALL DIRECTIONS
    (pp. 116-124)

    My heavy work schedule at theGazettedid not seem to reduce my activity as a designer and budding director around town. I gloss over productions of Shaw’sDark Lady of the Sonnets,a favourite of mine, although one actually had Eleanor Stuart as my Queen Elizabeth. Also the Westmount Women’s Club, which engaged me to direct the Ferber-Kaufman comedyStage Doorin 1942, where, unfortunately, I encountered my first anti-semitism in casting sessions. An invitation by Charles Rittenhouse in 1948 to direct for the Commercial High School led me to discover John Colicos’ extraordinary power as the old Obey...

  14. Chapter Eight THE CRITIC, RETROSPECTIVE
    (pp. 125-146)

    In the thirties and forties Montreal was a fascinating, by now highly expressive, bicultural city for a young, theatrically minded adventurer. For one thing, it was visually attractive. From the old St Lawrence harbourfront it progressed through the then-deserted old French town, past the high commerce of St James Street, on to the lower public commerce of St Catherine Street. Then it rose again to the dignity of Sherbrooke and on, up sharp mansioned slopes to Mount Royal, a crown of green still topped by Jacques Carder’s cross. In the wings, stage right and left, were balanced many poor French...

  15. Chapter Nine LE RIDEAU SE LÈVE
    (pp. 147-168)
    LE RIDEAU SE LÈVE

    As previously discussed, during the war years I had spent my summer holidays learning how to handle larger groups of actors in a wider range of plays and, at the same time, had been moving from the modest status of a greenhorn second-string reviewer at theGazetteto that of established theatre critic at a most exciting period of Montreal life. The town was bursting with wartime activity. Most significantly, the French-language theatre and drama were now beginning to attain greater importance and independence. It had been building slowly through the years, of course — as my colleague Jacques Laroche recorded...

  16. AFTERWORD: A CONTEXUAL COMMENTARY
    (pp. 169-200)
    Jonathan Rittenhouse

    On 12 August 1953, at the Chalet Terrace on the top of Montreal’s Mount Royal, William Shakespeare’sKing Learwas performed for one night only. The production was an extravaganza, sponsored by the summer festival organization les Festivals de Montréal.¹ Our author, Herbert Whittaker, had returned from Toronto to be part of thisLear.He held the position of theatre critic for theGlobe and Mail,a post he had taken up when he left Montreal and a similar job at theGazettein March 1949. Whittaker, who for twenty years had designed and/or directed close to eighty productions, designed...

  17. CHRONOLOGY OF MONTREAL THEATRE 1920–1949
    (pp. 201-242)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 243-258)
  19. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ARTICLES AND BOOKS PERTAINING TO THEATRE IN MONTREAL, 1920–1949
    (pp. 259-274)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 275-298)