Challenge of Our Time
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 4 Oct 1956, p. 1-9

Neville, John, Speaker
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Item Type:
Impressions of the Canadian theatre. The need for Canadians to support Canadian theatre in many ways. Canada's recent participation at the world famous International Festival at Edinburgh, and the importance of that event. Difficulties encountered in Edinburgh by the Canadians. The need for Canadians to continue to go and perform abroad. The speaker's hope that the Festival at Stratford is supported. What the speaker and his colleagues have found out about Canadian theatre. What makes the Old Vic thrive. A description and history of the Old Vic and what it is like to work there. Why actors perform Shakespeare. Surprise at how little audiences know about what goes on behind the scenes. A brief description of the theatre actor's work. The issue of privacy for the performers.
Date of Original:
4 Oct 1956
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Full Text
An Address by JOHN NEVILLE of The Old Vic Theatre Company London, England
Thursday, October 4th, 1956
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Donald H. Jupp.

MR. JUPP: I have a most pleasant duty to perform before calling upon our speaker today, and that is to present a certificate to Immediate Past President, Dr. Cecil C. Goldring, commemorating his highly successful term of office in 1955-56. At this, our first meeting of a new season it is fitting that we should ask Dr. Goldring to take a bow for having presided over a most stimulating season while the 52nd holder of the office of President. Our thanks go to him for an excellent job done.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are particularly fortunate in having a speaker from Britain for our opening meeting and as it would be unthinkable to have Romeo without Juliet, we are also fortunate in having the ladies.

John Neville was not fifteen years old when war broke out. Soon he found himself in the Royal Navy. On release he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and began his professional appearances in the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, in Bergen and Oslo with a touring company, at Lowestoft and Birmingham with the Bristol Old Vic, and finally in the 1953-54 season he joined the Old Vic Company.

Those who have seen him at the Royal Alexandra in the roles of Romeo and Macduff and who hope to see him next week in the title role in "Richard 11", will be interested in some of the other Shakespearian roles he has played: Marc Anthony, both Othello and Iago, Troilus, Hotspur, Pistol, Orlando, Fortinbras. He went with the Company to Elsinore in June 1954 when "Hamlet" was played in the courtyard of Kronborg Castle.

Today Mr. Neville steps out of the limelight to speak about the great theatrical institution which goes by the cozy cockney name of the Old Vic, and about his life in the theatre. Perhaps he will tell us the answer to the question, usually just rhetorical, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. John Neville.

MR. JOHN NEVILLE: I am merely a player. That is all-just an actor. Consequently, I am totally unqualified to speak to you on any subject whatever. You can imagine, therefore, my consternation when you very kindly asked me here to speak today and when later, a good bit later, I was shown the list of very distinguished and brilliant people who had preceded me-this list, I may say, was very cleverly concealed from me until this moment-consternation gave way to alarm and terror.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very, very flattered and honoured indeed. In a phrase I must have picked up since I have been in Canada, "You asked for it." I hope you will bear with me.

May I say first a word on behalf of the whole company, all of us who are here, and are privileged to play before you. It is very difficult for us to describe how excited and thrilled we are to be in Canada. I hope you won't think us impolite if we say that your wonderful and lovely country constantly surprises us. We had expected the grandeur and the beauty, and we were not surprised at the immense kindness and hospitality that we have met in immeasurable quality since we have been here. We expected that because you are renowned for it. What surprises us, I think because we are ignorant, is the incredible, the immense progress that you have been making and are still making in all walks of life-in agriculture, in industry, I think particularly in building we have noticed the speed with which you build, the quality of the design. That has excited us very much. And also in culture and in this interest, I think particularly of the drama, which we know perhaps more about. It is the only subject I know anything about at all, really.

I think one of the things we have been asked most since we have been here is what are your impressions of the Canadian theatre?

Well, unfortunately, we have not had the opportunity to see performances because we are working at the same " time Canadian actors are working, but we enquired because we wanted to find out. We want to know what is going on.

I think it would be true to say that the professional theatre in this country, as it is now constituted, in its very alive, vital state, is probably now only about five years old, and yet it is terribly strong and vital.

Now, may I say this, that this will only remain so and progress and get stronger and more vital if you encourage it. It is your theatre. You must support it.

When I say "support it", I don't mean just going to it. I mean helping it, nurturing it, cherishing it, because it is yours-and criticizing it. Don't let them get smug.

Recently a very important event took place in Canadian theatre history. A company, representing Canada, went with productions of Henry the Eighth, and Oedipus Rex to the now world famous International Festival at Edinburgh. This is a very important landmark, I am sure you will agree, a very important thing to have happened. They were sent to perform by the side of the best in the world of drama, art, opera and music.

Now, we were fortunate enough in Montreal the other day to meet some of those people when they returned, particularly the French-speaking part of the company, and we were very sad to find that their general impressions of their trip were, to say the least of it, not very favourable, and because we know Edinburgh, we know just exactly what sort of things they had to contend with.

They arrived in Edinburgh and they had difficulty in finding lodgings. The lodgings were damp, the prices they had to pay for the lodgings were exorbitantly high. They found their costumes were damp because they had been packed damp here-one of the unfortunate things that sometimes happens. They found the stage they had to perform on wasn't as good as the one they were used to performing on at home. We know about that because we performed at Edinburgh under the same conditions.

On top of all this, the notices they received in the press, I believe were not entirely or uniformly favourable, so they were feeling a little depressed about all this.

But the most important thing about this is not that fact, not any of those facts, the important thing is that they went, and they must go again and again and again and again, and they must also go to London, because this sort of tour is very important.

It would be a very good idea, I think, if Stratford, Ontario, or the Old Vic went and performed in the open air by the Pyramids in Egypt, in front of President Nasser. It couldn't do any less harm. Nothing but good can come of these exchanges and visits.

I am reminded in saying that, however, of a story which is quite untrue, so I hope it won't be taken down, and I don't suppose I ought to tell you this. It concerns a very eminent Canadian. I heard it the other day and as the story is quite untrue-this man is a very eminent politician and journalist-as it is untrue, let us, for argument's sake, call him Beverly Baxter.

This is a story about an extensive lecture tour he was making, and at the beginning of it he had to perform a function at a garden party, or one of those things where a lot of babies are about, and he was introduced by the local Mayor or dignitary to some parents. There was a little tiny baby named after him-his name was Beverly Baxter-Jones, or Smith, or whatever it was.

The Mayor got tremendously excited. This is marvellous, this is wonderful, thrilling! This is the most wonderful thing. There is no knowing how many little Beverly Baxters will result from your tour.

Well, we know what he meant, I think.

It is important that you, the audience, encourage the theatre. It cannot live without you. It cannot live at all. There would be no theatre without you.

I hope you support Stratford, Ontario . . . I am sure you do . . . because one knows the attendances there over the years performed so far, although I believe slightly decreased, they have never been below ninety per cent capacity, and that is a very great compliment.

We are asked, as I say, about what our impressions are of the Canadian theatre, and we have been making enquiries and trying to find out. We have found that there is an important theatre here in Toronto, your own theatre, the Crest Theatre. This seems to me to be a very valuable opportunity to make it your very own theatre, your town, your city theatre. I hope you support that, too. Do you? I wonder? You ought to. That is a most admirable enterprise, I think. We have met the people who are concerned and they do a very great job of hard work.

I can see some of you saying, Well, we don't think their policy is quite right. We think they do too many of this sort of play, or that sort of play. Don't tell me, tell them. That is what I mean by supporting the theatre.

We know a little bit about this because theatres like the Old Vic are only as strong and alive as they are because of the enthusiasm of a great many people, and in no small part because of the enthusiasm of the audience.

This theatre is a little older than yours and has been growing a great number of years, and has been through many vicissitudes and hardships and struggles.

It is a building that we who work in it love very much indeed. The building itself was opened in 1818. It was then called the Royal Cobourg Theatre. Soon after it was changed to the Royal Victoria Theatre, and gradually went down and down and descended into being a very,

'very low type of musicale. It lost its reputation and people sat in the audiences at the tables drinking beer and watching whatever act was on at the time.

In 1879 a social worker named Emma Cons took over the theatre. She rescued it and made it into a temperance building and renamed it The Royal Victoria Coffee Music Hall.

These names were gradually lost in the area and in the area it was known affectionately as the "Old Vic", by which it is still known. The theatre is still the Royal Victoria Theatre.

The important thing that happened was that Miss Con's niece, a remarkable woman by the name of Lilian Baylis, joined her as Manager, and eventually, in about 1912, Miss Baylis found herself in sole charge of the theatre on the death of her aunt.

She decided she would put into operation a policy of, presentations to the people who lived near the theatre, which was predominantly a working-class audience, in a very poor part of Londonside, on the north bank, away from the commercial theatre in the west end of London. She was going to present the policy of opera and Shakespeare at prices the people could afford. Basically, the policy has never really changed. That is what we try to do, although the Opera is now housed with Ballet in a building in the north of London, it has still the policy of presenting legitimate theatre to people at prices they can afford.

They started in 1912 with a Director, Sir Philip Ben Greet, and the first leading lady was Dame Sybil Thorndyke. Then the war came and everybody said it would have to be closed, but it didn't. They kept on. It didn't I close at all and it has never closed since.

In 1940 the theatre was bombed and they had to move out of London to Lancashire for a time, and in 1944 the theatre returned to London, but it returned to London in the heart of the west end, and to the new theatre.

There are several ways of looking at this period. This period lasted about six years until about 1950. Undoubtedly, this was one of the recent periods of greatness in the I, history of the Old Vic. It was directed by Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Ralph Richardson, and the complexion of the policy of the theatre changed very slightly in that it was situated in the west end, in the heart of the commercial theatre, and it was a sort of star policy but undoubtedly a period of greatness. The theatre rose to tremendous heights and you on this continent know a little about that because during that time the Company, under those two great men toured this country with some of the best that they could offer.

Often it it said to us in our newspapers, that "Ah, well, you know the Old Vic isn't like it was when John Gielguid was there, or Laurence Olivier." Well, I know it isn't. But then what those people forget is that at the time when those peope were there, or the people that they mention, they very often were not stars then. They were learning their job.

And now the theatre is back in the Waterloo Road where it belongs. It returned there in 1950, and the policy which Miss Baylis started, of encouraging young artists and giving them their first chance at big leading roles is in process again.

We still have stars, of course we have. The theatre cannot live without them. But the policy has changed just that little bit again, and it is back to encouraging young people to make their first attempt and to go on and to mature, and to gain stature in the theatre.

We are asked why we do it. Why do you perform Shakespeare? One is always asked that. The only answer one can give is that he writes the best plays, and he writes the best parts.

In performing a lot of these plays one finds . . . it doesn't matter whether he was Marlowe or Bacon, actually .... one finds one gets to know the man a little through the greatness that comes out of these plays-the tremendous philosophy that comes out of a play like The Tempest or King Lear.

William Wordsworth once said to the essayist, Charles Lamb. "I think I could write like Shakespeare, if I had a mind to."

Charles Lamb said, "Yes, that is all that is needed-the mind."

That is why we perform these plays.

It is strange how little audiences know about what goes on behind the scenes. The way we work at the Old Vic is like this. We do a season, which starts in September, and goes through to the following June, and we perform in that time about seven plays. Normally, we put on one play and we rehearse the next, and then that was the "Rock 'n Roll Club" I don't think it matters. I think what matters is the job we do.

I think that those of us in the theatre who take it seriously can do a great deal, particularly on tours like this, exchanges between countries, not only who are friendly but between countries who are not quite so friendly, can do an immense amount, because we believe we can do just a little, perhaps just a small amount, to create in the world friendship and brotherhood. But I still don't think the public should know that much about us.

May I close with some words from the Bard who I think had the last word on this, at the end of one of his loveliest plays. A character steps forward and says, "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You, that way; we, this."

THANKS OF THE MEETING were expressed by Dr. C.C. Goldring, Past President of the Club.

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Challenge of Our Time

Impressions of the Canadian theatre. The need for Canadians to support Canadian theatre in many ways. Canada's recent participation at the world famous International Festival at Edinburgh, and the importance of that event. Difficulties encountered in Edinburgh by the Canadians. The need for Canadians to continue to go and perform abroad. The speaker's hope that the Festival at Stratford is supported. What the speaker and his colleagues have found out about Canadian theatre. What makes the Old Vic thrive. A description and history of the Old Vic and what it is like to work there. Why actors perform Shakespeare. Surprise at how little audiences know about what goes on behind the scenes. A brief description of the theatre actor's work. The issue of privacy for the performers.