Robert Fulford's column about drama critics

(Globe and Mail, July 17, 1999)

If you happened to overhear a few conversations about theatre in Toronto 30 years ago, you might have picked up the impression that whatever was happening inside the minds of a certain two men sitting in aisle seats was more interesting than anything going on the city's stages. Sometimes that notion wasn't far from wrong.

The two minds in question were those of Herbert Whittaker, drama critic of The Globe and Mail from 1949 to 1975, and Nathan Cohen, drama critic of The Toronto Star from 1959 till his early death in 1971.

To the amusement and occasional enlightenment of the public, Herbie and Nathan (that's what you always called them, to demonstrate familiarity) played the theatrical equivalent of good cop, bad cop. This neat analogy with detectives interrogating a suspect appears in Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism (University of Toronto Press), edited by Anton Wagner, a book written by 17 academics about a couple of dozen critics, from the pre-Confederation era to the 1990s.

There's a certain kind of theatre criticism that ends up being more memorable than its subject, despite its own best intentions, and that was the case with Herbie and Nathan. People talked endlessly about Herbie being too kind or Nathan being too cruel -- and no matter how vapid the play that week, or how impressive, this pattern repeated itself. To read Herbie and Nathan on the same show was to experience a wonderful cognitive dissonance. Experienced playgoers learned how to strike an average between their two accounts.

It was Cohen who insisted on making it a contest, by emphasizing his differences with Whittaker as often as possible. Cohen considered himself the first real drama critic in the history of Canada, but it was hard to know just how seriously to take anything he wrote. Could a chronic name-dropper who carried a cane (one of his canes had a sword in it) be saying anything interesting? In this case, the answer was Yes. Cohen's criticism was full of life, and the theatre seemed more alive because he attended to it. He also wrote expert gossip columns (his personal espionage system penetrated the CBC in a way never since equalled) and he edited the Star's entertainment section with a flamboyant urgency. He was a presence in Canadian culture, like no arts journalist before or since. Mordecai Richler satirized him in a novel, Rick Salutin later wrote a play about him, and actors from sea to sea cursed his name. (Once he was in the grave, the same actors immediately began singing his praises.)

Don Rubin's article about Cohen in Establishing Our Boundaries catches his startling range of interests and something of his personality.

The article on Whittaker is another matter. Much of the book is intensely academic (the introduction comes with 112 footnotes) and some of the professor-authors posture as flagrantly as Cohen ever did. Reading them, we sense that they feel obliged to follow a rigid system of thought. They don't analyze these critics so much as rate them on a standardized checklist. Were they imperialist? Racist? Sexist? How about patriarchal?

You might imagine that a sophisticated and knowledgeable liberal such as Whittaker would easily pass scrutiny. You would be wrong. Jennifer Harvie of the University of London and Richard Paul Knowles of the University of Guelph, in their essay on Whittaker, catch him out, or think they do. They focus on his belief in more or less universal values in the theatre, not at all the sort of thing an earnest professor of 1999 can allow. "The ideology masked by Whittaker's aesthetic agenda of producing a Canadian national theatre in the tradition of the best of the so-called civilized world is a liberal-humanist one in which goodness, truth and beauty are seen to be universal," Harvie and Knowles write. Talk about fighting words! Liberal-humanist, goodness, truth, beauty -- could they say anything worse?

Whittaker, they decide, wrote imperialist, patriarchal criticism. He reviewed Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun not just as a play about blacks but as an exploration of conflicts that touch people of all races. That makes our professors cross. To them, this is like saying the play is not about what it's clearly about, it's about "us," the white majority. Their use of "masked" is especially revealing: Whittaker made his principles clear, but they disagree with those principles -- so that makes him "masked." They acknowledge, "Whittaker's bias was certainly not intentional," which is like a jury recommending mercy. (Whittaker, now a healthy 88, will no doubt enjoy this article as another comic turn in the endless vaudeville of Canadian culture.)

Not all the essays sound the same note. A persuasive piece by Denis Johnston about Urjo Kareda at The Toronto Star in the 1970s explains how he recognized the vitality of the new Canadian theatres and helped bring them to life with his shrewd and superbly written reviews. Like all the best critics, he helped, as Johnston puts it, "to create a cultural environment."

But Robert Nunn's piece on Ray Conlogue, The Globe critic from 1979 to 1991, plunges us back into academy-think. Nunn admires Conlogue's avowedly socialist politics (how could he not, and maintain his own status?) but Conlogue, too, carries the curse of universality. Nunn points out that Conlogue likes gay, lesbian or feminist plays only when they have some relationship with universal human experience. This is the approach that all critics in the humanities took for granted until just the other day. Now it draws nothing but angry frowns from academics committed to "the post-modern discourse."

This is not to suggest that Establishing Our Boundaries is useless. It's annoying, overly solemn, and often pretentious, but reading it will expand anyone's knowledge of our culture, our theatre, and our journalism. The journalists it studies usually had to cobble their work together at the last minute and didn't always reach much higher than minimum standards of competence, but they made a valuable and often illuminating record of the theatre they saw. To study their work is to understand the stumbling but persistent development of public culture in a country where, not long ago, it sometimes seemed a miracle to have any theatre at all.

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