The geniuses who created Stratford
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 October 2009)

Weeping, Douglas Campbell sat on the stage of the brand-new tent theatre in Stratford, Ont., playing Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, sobbing to heaven because he had been exposed as what he always knew he was, a coward, a liar and a disloyal follower of the count he pretended to serve.

That image, more than any other, remains my favourite memory of the glorious summer of 1953. Through Campbell's classical technique, a scoundrel's grief spilled onto the stage, reminding us that when we enter the large-souled Shakespearean world, we share the miseries of even the characters who have proven themselves knaves and reprobates.

Campbell, who died this week at the age of 87, was the last survivor of the five artists who came from England to help lay a new foundation for Canadian theatre. The others have been dead for years or decades: the wildly flamboyant director, Tony Guthrie, who set a style of classical theatre then new to this continent but often copied since; the designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who devised the open stage for Stratford and filled it with her superb costumes; and two other distinguished actors, Irene Worth and Alec Guinness.

What the five of them accomplished seems inevitable from this distance, but at the time appeared outlandish. They planted a first-class Shakespeare company in a rundown Ontario city where even the local paper viewed the whole project with skepticism. They surrounded themselves with the best available Canadian talent. But they could easily have fallen on their faces.

Instead, the two productions they mounted that short first season ( Richard III was the other one) stirred audiences and actors with a new sense of possibility, setting a standard of quality that reached beyond the theatre and infected, one way or another, all the arts in Canada.

Certain Canadian nationalists, then and later, called the British invasion of 1953 an act of cultural imperialism. People already trying to create a professional theatre felt upstaged and in later years the Stratford management had difficulty giving up its reliance on British directors and British stars. But at the time, what Guthrie & Co. created felt like a miracle. The greatest writer of the ages suddenly seemed fresh and new. Who could resent that?

For Canadian culture Stratford was effectively the beginning of the 1950s, a derided, underrated decade. Stratford was the showiest and most triumphant of the many institutions created in that ambitious period -- the Theatre du Nouveau Monde, the first stage of the Canadian Opera Company, the National Ballet, the earliest version of CBC television and the Canada Council. These were the organizations that gave Canadian culture a shape and purpose for half a century. The 1950s are often described as intellectually arid but the record indicates otherwise.

Campbell was the only one of the original five who became a Canadian, though not uncritically. I remember his outrage over the Ontario Liquor Control Board regulation that banned singing in pubs -- or, as we then called them, "beverage rooms." That rule was an offence against nature, he thought, and he was right.

He went on to become a clown for all seasons. As Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, Campbell was a very funny top banana in classical plays and a favourite Falstaff ( "the best Falstaff I have ever seen," Christopher Plummer says). Over the years he expanded his repertoire to encompass the great tragedies, sometimes for Stratford, sometimes for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, sometimes for the Goodman in Chicago. At Stratford he was the ultimate old pro, capable of everything from a one-man show of William Blake's work (1983) to Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1988).

In 1954, a year after Stratford began, Campbell helped organize a spin-off company, the Canadian Players. It began with a 23-stop tour of Shaw's Saint Joan in a stripped-down production, everyone in black sweaters. I saw that lovely little show in an Oshawa, Ont., high school, as close as it came to Toronto. At the start the actors dragged out bits of furniture, looking like stage hands, till one of them suddenly hammered on a table, startling the audience and shouting "No eggs?!"

That was Robert de Baudricourt, played by Campbell, angry because the hens were not producing, allegedly because the Maid Joan couldn't get to see de Baudricourt. Finally he met Joan and heard about her visions.

That started Shaw's plot, a new theatre company (it lasted 12 years) and one more of the many phases in the remarkable career of Douglas Campbell.

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