- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 30 Jan 1947, p. 174-187
- Wolfit, Donald, Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- The speaker's memories of a tour in Canada when he played "The Barrets of Wimpole Street" and other plays under the direction of Sir Barry Jackson. Ties between Canada and Britain. The works of William Shakespeare as the greatest ambassador in the world. The significant contribution of Shakespeare. Some history of that time period when Shakespeare was writing. The works of Shakespeare as a form of escape from the dreary grinding toil of everyday life. A summary of the history and work of the Advance Players Association, which has presented the speaker's Company for the last ten years. The issue of teaching Shakespeare in the schools, and how it is taught. Some reminiscences of the Company's difficulties and performances, especially during the war. Such anecdotes serving to support the speaker's thesis of Shakespeare's works as a great ambassador.
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- 30 Jan 1947
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- Full Text
- SHAKESPEARE IN WAR AND PEACE
AN ADDRESS BY MR. DONALD WOLFIT
Chairman: The President, Major F. L. Clouse
Thursday, January 30, 1947
MAJOR CLOUSE: Ladies and Gentlemen guests-members of the Empire Club of Canada and our air audience
Emerson once remarked--"The world still wants its poet-priest, who shall not trifle with Shakespeare, the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg, the mourner, but who shall see, speak and act with equal inspiration."
That quest is concluded. Such a one is our guest of honor today, Donald Wolfit--acclaimed the greatest Shakespearean actor of this age. He has devoted his entire life to the stage and more particlularly to the study and presentation of Shakespeare's plays--Wm. Shakespeare! the greatest of all dramatists, of whom Ben Jonson said--"He was not of an age but for all time--Sweet Swan of Avon".
Donald Wolfit was born and educated in England. He began his theatrical career at 18 years of age and was associated with Matheson Lang-Fred Terry and the most celebrated actors and playwrights of his day. He and his company have played all the famous old-world playhouses--not only Shakespeare but those selected gems of Ibsen--Shaw--Moliere and Ben Jonson. During the battle of Britain Mr. Wolfit gave more than 100 performances for the armed forces personnel at the Strand Theatre in London.
We are delighted to have with us, also, Mr. Wolfits' leading lady-Miss Rosalind Iden. You will agree with me that the eulogies of Miss Iden that have appeared so frequently in the local press have been understatements.
"Sir--you are very welcome to our house: It must appear in other ways than words-Therefore, I scant this breathing courtesy."
Ladies and Gentlemen
Mr. Donald Wolfit--who has chosen as his subject "Shakespeare in War and Peace."
MR. DONALD WOLFIT: Mr. President, members of the Empire Club: You have paid me a very great honour in inviting me here to be your guest today, and to speak to you. The task of the afterlunch speaker is a very serious one, especially when it happens to fall on someone who spends the greater part of his life interpreting the thoughts of someone else, and I should like to warn you first and foremost that actors are notoriously bad speakers, though they have a reputation for telling very good after-dinner stories; but that comes in a different category altogether. However, I had very great pleasure in accepting the invitation of Mr. Tracey-Lloyd, which came to me through my old friend Mr. Eason Humphreys, whom I met some sixteen years ago, when I had the pleasure of playing right across Canada with "The Barrets of Wimpole Street" and other plays under the direction of Sir Barry Jackson. I have always retained the happiest memories of that tour, and when I commenced actor management in 1937, I always had at the back of my mind an intention to visit Canada as soon as it was possible, with a repertoire of Shakespeare. The intervention of six years of war delayed this intention of mine, but as soon as ocean transport became in any way practical once again, I began to make plans and contacts, though it took over six months of patient plotting, not to mention the twisting, writhing and turning round the buffers of officialdom and bureaucracy, to get here; but all that effort was worth while, if for nothing else than to be able to order two eggs and bacon every morning and to really see them on the plate, thus combining a regular diet of Bacon and Shakespeare.
From the first, I was convinced that we should find here in Canada a large audience, hungry for the works of Shakespeare, and it is a splendid thing to feel the close ties that bind Canada to the hard-pressed and somewhat tired mother country, always remembering that tired mothers have great powers of recuperation. It seems to me that for two hundred and fifty years Britain has possessed the greatest ambassador that it has ever been the good fortune of a nation to possess. An ambassador who never grows old, whom age cannot wither, nor custom stale his infinite variety. An ambassador who travels with men on long and arduous journeys as their constant companion, who sits by the fireside with them on quiet evenings, who will sit undisturbed for long periods of time on the shelves of public libraries, waiting patiently to be consulted. Bound in calf, bound in cloth, sometimes with no cover to his bones at all, but withal the greatest ambassador in the world: the works of William Shakespeare.
The English, in that remarkable span of years between 1590 and 1620, made two most vital contributions to the world. The Bible and Shakespeare. The Old Testament, with its fund of colourful stories, still remains the best reading in the world, and it is splendid to come over here and to find that the Gideon Society still keep up the tradition of leaving a Bible in every hotel bedroom in this continent. I could wish that there was a Shakespeare Society which would also see that there is a volume of Shakespeare, for then no bedroom could possibly be dull that has the two masterpieces of the English language lying side by side.
Shakespeare wrote at a time when much of the world was uncharted, and there were visions of empire growing before men's eyes; Etienne Brule discovered the site of Toronto in the same year that William Shakespeare died at New Place, Stratford-on-Avon. The world was open and man's imagination could carry him to distant lands and to wealth beyond the seas. It is this imagination which Shakespeare captured so completely. Even his last play, "The Tempest", takes places on a strange island in uncharted seas, where sprites arid goblins were likely to appear at a moment's notice and where the mariners might find fresh jewels to add to the crown of England. So gloriously vague, indeed, were the maps of that period that he could even, in "The Winter's Tale", credit Bohemia with having a coast line which does not exist, and which, if any dramatist ventured to state today, would call down the wrath of every critical mind, even to the meanest undergraduate. So many of his plays took place beyond the seas. Portia lived in Belmont; we none of us know where Belmont was, but it made it seem like Calcos Strand in Shakespeare's imagination, and many Jasons came in qest of her, and the shores of the Mediterranean abound in his text. How great and how many must have been the meetings that Shakespeare had with the sailors, and merchants returned from their voyages, and how greedily he must have listened in the Mermaid Tavern and the other meeting places that abounded in the Port of London, as the ships came back laden with merchandise, to the sailors stories. And there is no doubt that when the Court was not in London the players did a great amount of touring themselves. The Admiral's men and the Lord Chamberlain's men travelled far north to Scotland and to the west, and the times of plague kept them on the move, earning their bread and butter, as the Henslowe diaries show very clearly. How great, indeed, was the inspiration which England drew from the Elizabethans, and how the great names tumble over one another: Spencer, Marlowe, John Donne, Tindale, Beaumont, Fletcher, Johnson, Richard Burbage, and, greatest of all, Shakespeare.
It was, of course, an age when writing was a new discovery, printing was in its infancy and when the English vocabulary was at its finest. I always remember Dr. G. B. Harrison discussing the drama with me one day as we sat together on the banks of the Avon at Stratford, with the white swans driving past the Memorial Theatre; and he said "You know, .the I Elizabethans in the theatre had a great faculty, that they were literally able to get drunk on words", and personally I think there are many forms of intoxication that are infinitely worse. But what Shakespeare, our great ambassador, means to men and women at the present time is a complete form of escape from the dreary grinding toil of everyday life. It is something which is far greater than a visit to a highly coloured technicolor film can ever give, because he drives to the imagination of the audience, and I venture to say that the greatest recreation and entertainment can only be gained when the imagination is allowed full play. As Mercutio sums up his famous speech
"True, I talk of dreams Which are the children of an idle brain, Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, Which is as thin of substance as the air, And more inconstant than the wind, who woos Even now the frozen bosom of the north, And being angered puffs away from thence, Turning his face to the dewdropping south."
That, it seems to me, is the quality that was ever present in the mind of Shakespeare, and it is something which this present day world, obsessed with material results and effects, would do well to bear in mind. It is something which the millions of men who fought through this last war have sensed in a greater or lesser degree, and I think it counts for the tremendous revival of interest in the works of the great imaginative composers, both in drama and in music, for Shakespeare's plays were written like music scores to be interpreted in the theatre.
If you will allow me, I should like very briefly to give you a summary of the work of Advance Players Association, which has presented this Company for the last ten years. In 1937, the taste for Shakespeare in the British Isles was at a very low ebb. With the exception of the regular twenty weeks season at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, the Open Air Season at Regent's Park, London, and occasional productions by the Old Vic in its classic repertoire, there was no body which was attempting to keep the works of Shakespeare alive outside London and Stratford-on-Avon, and it was in the endeavour to correct this that the Association was formed. So skeptical had managers become of the value of Shakespeare at the box office, that it was with the greatest of difficulty that a ten weeks tour was booked throughout the cities of Great Britain. I think there were several causes that contributed to this lamentable state of affairs, not the least of which was perhaps the teaching of Shakespeare in the schools.
For a great many years now, the Education Authorities in Great Britain have picked each year one or two set plays to be studied for the school examinations. In the boys' schools it was for many years a choice between Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice, but so rarely were they taught with any appreciation of the value of the drama that it resulted in a whole generation growing up to regard the plays of Shakespeare as a task to be studied in school and not as an entertainment. It was a frequent habit for English masters to set the writing out of lines as a punishment, and there are thousands upon thousands of men who have now reached middle age who remember grinding out fifty or one hundred lines starting with "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears", or "The quality of mercy is not strained" until they felt that the quality of mercy was very definitely strained and that if they had any ears to lend at all they would certainly not be lent to the works of William Shakespeare hereafter. At Stratford-on-Avon, I received a letter from a schoolgirl, saying that she was studying Hamlet. This term she had only read the footnotes, but she hoped to read the play next term.
Now this is a truly remarkable state of affairs, that the greatest dramatist that the world has ever produced should have been reduced to a task for schoolboys and girls, and it is something to which, in my opinion, the Education Authorities of the future should pay some attention, and correct. What is Shakespeare taught for in the schools? If he is taught only for the sake of his English and for taking obscure sentences and parsing and analysing and twisting and turning until it seems to the schoolboy that all sense has been removed from the sentence, you have given Shakespeare a life sentence in the brain of that boy, and the English master would do well' to take any extract from Hansard to parse and analyse which would still remain in the end as meaningless as most politicians' speeches are.
Now, the second point I wish to stress is that if Shakespeare is being taught for the drama, then someone qualified to teach the drama, and not just an English master, should be incorporated on to school staffs. If a child wishes, or is forced, to learn algebra, it is put in the hands of a fully qualified maths master or mistress. If a child wishes to learn music, he or she is put in the hands of a qualified musician, with degrees and diplomas, and starts off by learning Czerny's five finger exercises, and then by slow degrees; through "The Bluebells of Scotland", to Bach, and eventually up to Beethoven at the end of three or four years. But if a child says that it wishes to study the drama, more often than not it is taken by some teacher very anxious to get rid of his or her own repressions, and a copy of Macbeth is thrust into its hands, and one of the greatest tragedies in the world is mutilated and misunderstood by the end of the third lesson. I do suggest that the simplest dramas which the child can comprehend most easily should be taught first, and that the early nativity plays, miracle plays and the masques and pageants of simple exposition should be allowed to capture the child's mind first, and not the mightiest works.
It was with the knowledge that this was the state of mind of the audience in Great Britain that we started out in 1937, and over the ten years which we have functioned we have slowly gathered together again an audience which comes to the theatre to see the greatest plays in the world, and one of the most remarkable testimonies is the letters we are now receiving from men and women of twenty-five to thirty who came to see us first as school children at reduced rates in the gallery and are now coming with husband or wife to occupy seats in the stalls.
The war hit us very hard when we were starting to feel our way. The call-up took our young men who were being trained for this work, and later our young women, but we presented our first London season in the blackout of 1940, when there were only eight or ten theatres open and when you had to stumble along from bus to theatre and from theatre to bus with the aid of an electric torch, tapping your way with a stick like a blind man along the curb. But the people came to that first season at the Kingsway Theatre, and for five weeks we presented the first repertoire of Shakespeare's works which had been seen in London for a great many years. In the autumn of 1940, the bombing of southern England became so intense that the tour which had been organised had to be cancelled, as transport was in a state of chaos, and London theatres had closed completely, with the exception of nonstop variety at the Windmill Theatre.
It was in September, 1940, that I approached the management of the Strand Theatre, who had removed themselves to the safety of North Devon, to let me have the use of their theatre for a token rent of fifty dollars a week, to play one hour of Shakespeare at lunchtime for one shilling per head. Having gathered together some twelve or fifteen members of the Company, we commenced to play an hour's programme consisting of scenes from the plays, songs and sonnets, changing the programme every week. London's only other entertainments consisted of an hour's music at the National Gallery under the direction of Dame Myra Hess, and an hour of ballet at the Arts Theatre. On the third performance, I arrived at the theatre after a night of Home Guard duties in Surrey, where we sat on the Surrey heights with three old rifles and five rounds of ammunition, waiting for the Germans to land in their tens of thousands, whilst half a dozen tanks were rushed to the coastal areas in order to give the inhabitants confidence, to find that a bomb had landed close by the stage door, and rendered all the dressing rooms unusable, interrupted the water supply and removed the big scenic door halfway down the street. However, we covered that hole with a piece of canvas, swept the six inches of dust from the stage, and as the auditorium was untouched, we rang up at one o'clock to the accompaniment of a warning siren, and the audience were unaware of the conditions backstage. We had some other close misses, but no other serious interruptions during the season, which continued until the following March, in which we had presented some thirty different programmes, a full length version of Hamlet, and the Merry Wives of Windsor. By this time the Battle of Britain was ended, and we left for a tour of the provinces in the hope of getting a little regular sleep.
I would like to tell you a story which typifies London's indomitable courage in the face of the Blitz. We had just concluded one of our lunchtime programmes at the Strand Theatre and a rehearsal for the following day's programme, and at halfpast three I was standing with Miss Iden and the secretary of the theatre on the curb outside the theatre, when the warning siren sounded, and almost immediately afterwards in a gap between the clouds in the fading afternoon light, we saw the German bombers heading for North London. It was a sudden and unexpected sight so soon after the warning, and it seemed as if a silence had fallen on the whole of London, and nothing was audible but the droning of the heavy bombers overhead. As we three stood there looking up, we became conscious of a fourth figure who had joined us on the corner. It was a little newspaper seller, with a few copies of the last edition tucked under his arm. There was a moment's pause as we continued to look up, and then suddenly, in a perfect cockney accent, the paper boy said: "Coo, lummy, the impertinent bastards." That phrase, with its Shakespearean flavour, will always remain in my mind as the Cockney's comment on the bombing of London.
Now, our audiences for this season were drawn from a remarkable cross-section of London and Dominion servicemen, including a very large number of R.A.F. officers who came from Kingsway every day, had their coffee and sausage rolls and sandwiches in the stalls bar, and sat for an hour listening to the words of Shakespeare.
It may have been that we had better coffee and sandwiches in our bar than other eating places, but I think it was the fact that for one hour a day and for one shilling per head, men and women could escape into the world of poetry and imagination from the destruction that was going on, or being prepared, that was the reason for us drawing four hundred people a performance. None the less, it was two years before I was able to persuade the authorities of Ensa that Shakespeare was not anathema to the armed forces, and that he still remained the greatest and most entertaining playwright in the world, and in 1942 we did our first national service tour through the R.A.F. stations and garrison theatres in Great Britain with "Twelfth Night" and discovered once again a remarkable audience growing up which wanted to see Shakespeare's plays and having experienced them in the confines of their garrison theatre discovered that to be able to go to a live entertainment and use one's imagination was a very great and important thing when the world seemed to be collapsing about one's ears. And so we continued to divide our time during the war between seasons in London, tours of Great Britain and national service in the camps and garrison theatres. There is one story I shall always treasure in the playing at these garrison theatres. Thinking that the Americans as a nation liked the plays of Shakespeare, the authorities booked us for a week at an American camp, which was at the time entirely occupied by men from the Middle West, who knew nothing of the living theatre or the art of the drama, and who had never seen Shakespeare heard of Shakespeare or wanted to hear of Shakespeare. On our arrival on the Monday, the resident garrison theatre manager said "We've got a tough bunch of men here, I don't know how they're going to react to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night", and indeed he was right, for their reaction, to say the least of it, was flabbergasting. Miss Rosalind Iden, my leading lady, on her first appearance as Viola was greeted with shouts of "Hullo Blondie", which I think you will agree is hardly conducive to the interpretation of a masterpiece, and we had similar and less pleasant running commentaries through the play. We went to the theatre on the second evening in fear and trembling, wondering what would happen, when to our amazement the performance went through in perfect silence, not even applause, not a hand; the men just trooped out in silence. When the manager came round at the end of the performance and I remarked on the extraordinary silence, he said "Oh well, we fixed them all right tonight. We had the military police walking up and down the aisles with tommy guns", and this procedure was continued throughout the whole of that dreadful and exhausting week. I must say that it was a drastic method, and I have often wondered what those gentlemen from the Middle West must have thought of a British company playing Shakespeare. In December, 1944, Paris had been liberated and the Germans were being slowly but surely pushed back, and we were the first British Company to go overseas with Shakespeare, when we played a month's season in Paris, Brussels and Versailles. Here again, we found the same avidity on the part of Canadians, Americans, French and British to hear the three plays we presented, and the large number of French civilians who begged to be allowed to attend was remarkable. I have in London a six page letter from a young Frenchman giving his impressions of the performances, and ending the letter by saying: "It will be many years before France forgets the scars left on her land by the bombing of the R.A.F., and it is interpretations of Shakespeare such as yours which will help us to forget and to love Britain again." That from a young Frenchman whose home was in Rouen is perhaps the most remarkable letter I have ever received.
Our last war service was a voyage to Cairo to play a season of five plays at the Royal Opera House. Our ship was crowded with 2,300 men on their way to India-men who knew that the European war was nearly over and who were thoroughly browned off at the thought of being drafted to India. After three days, the O.C. Troops, having discovered that there were some strange cattle called actors on board asked me if we would give an entertainment. I replied that we would give a play by Shakespeare called "Much Ado About Nothing". His face was a study, but I tried to reassure him that it was a good play by a well-known author and that we could easily play it in the officers' saloon in our uniforms. Somewhat doubtfully he invited officers to attend. There was great enthusiasm though I shall never forget catching the impact of an Atlantic roller and embracing Beatrice in the middle of the church scene to steady myself and her before we could continue the scene. This play we repeated two nights later, followed by two performances of "The Merchant of Venice". By this time, the O.C. Troops had allowed all ranks to attend the performances, and OCTU, sergeants and other ranks filled the saloon to overflowing. One performance of Hamlet fell on a night when OCTU and sergeants were scheduled, and I heard some spirited bidding of a pound and thirty shillings for a seat for a free performance going on in the officers' lounge. By this time, the officers on board were telling us that they were likely to face open mutiny on the lower decks unless we could somehow give one performance for the men, who apparently had heard that Shakespeare was being played on board and wanted to see a play. So, nothing daunted, I went to the O.C. Troops, and by this time we had become very good friends, and asked him, if, as by now we were in the Mediterranean, whether we could give a performance on the after troop deck of "The Merchant of Venice". This performance took place two days later to over 1,200 men, so that by the time we reached Port Said every man on that boat had seen at least one play by William Shakespeare. The remarkable thing about this undertaking was that the officers said that we had more than half done their job for them; that they had been disturbed by the general attitude of the men's minds, the feeling of dissatisfaction at leaving for long-term service in India, bur that we had started a tremendous wave of discussion. Men who had never seen a play in their lives were discussing the merits and de-merits of the theatre as against the cinema; men who had seen a music-hall but never a play were interested by comparing the two, and that the officers were finding that discussion groups, reading groups, brains trusts and quizzes were being organized all over the ship as a result of performances. It seemed we had done a job of considerable importance among that group of men; for if you can occupy a man's mind when he is on active service with something far beyond his routine duties, you have more than half won any battle. At the Royal Opera House, Cairo, where we played thirty-four performances, we found that same avid desire and the house was sold out for every performance, and we returned to England with V. E. day over and continued our London season.
I hope you will forgive this long and somewhat detailed summary of our work during the war, but it has, I think, given a practical proof of the thesis which I outlined at the beginning of my talk, which I hope has not been too dull and matter of fact for you, but as a Commonwealth of Nations, a mighty phrase, which perhaps transcends the word empire, we have in Shakespeare the greatest ambassador which any nation has been fortunate enough to possess. The living performance of his plays still contains enough to fire the enthusiasm and capture the imagination of any man or woman in the Commonwealth.
One hears stories of the men of ancient Greece walking in bands over the hills to hear and see the playing of the great Greek tragedies in times when the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were not published and could be experienced only in performance. Today in the British Commonwealth it is still possible for men and women to gather together in a living theatre to hear the plays of their master dramatist, William Shakespeare, and when they return to their homes they have the added advantage of being able to take down that old and possibly tattered volume and to fill their minds once again with the glory of his words and to read such everlasting thoughts
as are contained in Prospero's speech:
be cheerful, sir, Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.