Robert Fulford's column about Herbert Whittaker

(The National Post, June 13, 2000)

Christopher Plummer, who most recently demonstrated his great talent with a corrosive film performance as Mike Wallace in The Insider, made his stage debut in 1946 in Montreal, playing Mr. Darcy in a high-school production of Pride and Prejudice. Herbert Whittaker, then the theatre critic of the Montreal Gazette, noticed at once the natural arrogance that would eventually make Plummer a grand figure. As Whittaker wrote, "I was astounded that any student had the manner, the diction, the hauteur of Jane Austen's snotty hero." Plummer recalled much later that with the appearance of that review, "My head was instantly turned." At age 16 he became more arrogant and insufferable than Mr. Darcy himself. Soon Whittaker, in his other role as amateur stage director, was recruiting him for the Montreal Repertory Theatre.

Plummer belongs to the army of theatre people who remember with excitement Whittaker's appearances in their lives. In 1956, having moved from The Gazette to The Globe and Mail, Whittaker directed Sophocles' Electra at Victoria College, with the 21-year-old Donald Sutherland as Orestes. The following year, a favourable review from Whittaker persuaded Sutherland to become an actor. When R.H. Thomson was 17 and a University of Toronto student, Whittaker cast him as the leader of the chorus of male ancients in Lysistrata, and from then on Thomson looked to him for professional understanding and encouragement.

Herbert Whittaker is now striding briskly toward his 90th birthday, which falls on Sept. 20, about the time he will begin what must be about his 75th season as a theatre-goer. Retired for a quarter of a century from his job as Globe critic, he remains a familiar figure at Toronto first nights. Currently he's pushing his favourite project, the creation of a theatre museum, for which he hopes to start fundraising next spring. He wants to install it in one of the old Massey family mansions on Jarvis Street, where Raymond and Vincent Massey, both theatrical gents in different ways, started their lives.

Whittaker remains a unique figure in our journalism: More than anyone else among the daily arts critics of the last 50 years, he's practised the craft he's written about. The announcement on Friday that Richard Ouzounian has been made drama critic of The Toronto Star has furrowed a few brows among those who wonder whether he can continue to take an active part in the theatre while reviewing the same people he works with. In Whittaker, Ouzounian can cite a mighty precedent.

In the 1950s and '60s, Whittaker regularly reviewed Crest Theatre productions and frequently directed plays there. He may have had some uneasy judgments to make, but for much of his life he was dealing with a huge problem: He was a man of the theatre in a country with no theatre. Or, at best, the beginnings of a theatre. He started out in the 1920s as an art student, designed some sets for amateur productions, then began directing and writing reviews for The Gazette.

Ronald Bryden, once the critic of the London Observer, wrote perhaps the best analysis of his colleague's career in the preface to Whittaker's Theatre (1985), a collection of reviews. In his years as a critic, Bryden wrote, Whittaker "loved the theatre far too much to hold aloof from it." It was his life, and its people were his friends. "He revelled in their backstage gossip, bitchery and sentimentality." He shared their tribal emotions and even superstitions, like never mentioning Shakespeare's Scottish play by name.

Whittaker's critics always claimed he was too gentle, and Bryden acknowledges that his judgment was sometimes compromised. We Globe readers learned that his most important opinions might be deftly inserted between the lines. Fortunately, we never had to deal with anything as baffling as the review he somehow found himself writing for The Gazette, when he covered a production of Chekhov's The Seagull and wrote at length about the play while delicately refraining from comment on the direction and design, both by him. ("I think this was the only time I combined all my theatrical interests in one production.")

In the 1960s his famous competitor was The Toronto Star's critic, the late Nathan Cohen, a shamelessly flamboyant self-promoter. Cohen liked to say: "I am, in fact, the only drama critic in Canada. The rest are reviewers." Whittaker responded: "Nathan may not be our only drama critic, but he is certainly our most dramatic critic."

If sometimes Whittaker resembled the kind of sports columnist who always pulls for the home team, his enthusiasm was in the service of his grand ambitions for Canadian theatre. He also kept connecting Canada with the main currents of theatre elsewhere. In 1951, in the basement theatre of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, he directed the first Canadian production of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, starring John Drainie (it was the first Brecht I ever saw, and altogether thrilling). In 1959 he did the first Canadian production of Samuel Beckett's Endgame.

Around 1950, when I was an 18-year-old sports writer at the Globe and he was a Cultural Eminence who didn't mind chatting from time to time with the young and the ignorant, I asked him whether he had ever written a play. He mentioned that he had once worked on a script, which had turned out to be rather old-fashioned; this was a disappointing experience, since his great interest was in theatrical innovation. From what he said I assumed that the play had quietly died in a desk drawer.

But last winter, in his recently published book, Setting the Stage: Montreal Theatre, 1920-1949 (McGill-Queen's University Press), I discovered a 1942 production photograph of Jupiter in Retreat, "a play by Janet McPhee and Herbert Whittaker," described as a "rather formulaic mystery." What makes the photo interesting is the presence of Madeleine Sherwood, a Montrealer then beginning the career that would eventually take her to Broadway and Hollywood. She's exhibiting that strangely paralyzed smile that the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made famous in 1958 when she played Mae, the greedy wife to Jack Carson's Gooper and mother of the children Elizabeth Taylor calls "the no-neck monsters."

Whittaker, as Plummer says, assigned himself a major task: to convince a Calvinist country, indifferent to the arts, that "within its own boundaries such a thing as art actually could exist." A hard sell, then and now, but especially then.

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