AN ADDRESS BY MR. SEYMOUR HICKS
16th February, 1928
MR. HICKS, introduced by PRESIDENT FENNELL, spoke as follows: Well, gentlemen, I cannot tell you the honour I think it is to be allowed to come here today, and before I say a few words to you, if you will be good enough to allow me to do so, I want to tell you I am not a practised speaker, and do not pretend to be. I have been inveigled here quite in the dark. I have been going to Rotary Clubs, rare fellows who come in with a cheerio and we tell a story and have a drink and good bye. (Laughter and applause.) Then I suddenly discover that the Empire Club is the great club of Canada (Applause) and I very nearly tried to avoid coming to Toronto because I got so frightened about this very moment that I am in in the minute. Gentlemen, I am told that Mr. Baldwin, and Mr. Amery, and these great speakers have addressed you, so you can imagine what I feel like. I generally speak other men's words; in fact I write them whenever I get the opportunity. (Laughter.) Last night between the acts I went upstairs and got some bits of paper and made some little notes, which I do not think I can read because I am not short sighted, and I left my glasses upstairs. (Laughter.)
Well, I didn't do very much, but after the performance I found on my bed a package and on it was written "Empire Club of Canada" and I went at it at once. I opened it and there was a very nice letter, I 'Won't say from whom, and a book in which were printed the speeches for 1926. (Laughter.) Gentlemen, the clothes that I was sitting in, I am in now; I have not been to bed at all. (Laughter.) I opened a card on which was written "Don't miss Hicks". I don't know who is going to throw the first stone, but it flushed me a bit. But here I am, to try and thank you for your great hospitality and also try and tell you one or two little stories, if you will allow me, and above all if I am capable, of talking imperially as one thinks, and with a great love for Canada because I am a Canadian. My great grandfather was born in Halifax in 1760, and my grandfather was born there too. (Applause.)
I throw myself on your mercy, and perhaps you will allow me to talk of the theatre. (Hear, hear.) That is my job, it is my trade, I do not pretend to be anything at anything else, and not much at that, still it is my job, and 1 could contradict you perhaps if you did say anything about it. I do not want to talk about the theatre as an art, because that would be boring everybody, but I do wish, if you will allow me, to say that it is quite worth while talking about the theatre in its relation to the life of the Empire. (Applause.)
In the old days we were rogues and vagabonds, we actors, and were looked down upon by society, who were rather doubtful of themselves. (Laughter.) Very often it is the actor who picks up the "h" of the society lady and doesn't say anything about it. Today we may be rogues, but I think by Act of Parliament we are not vagabonds. The stage has an enormous influence on the life of our people at home, and I do think we are missing the whole thing if we do not make it one of the greatest bonds that bind the Empire together. (Hear, hear.) You see, the war has knocked it sideways in England, our theatre, from the point of view that there are no theatres running outside those run by speculators, and the consequence is that all our children at home are learning English from the American films. Well, you know what that means, and it is a most terrible thing to go into Birmingham or Edinburgh and ask a boy for a paper, and he says, "Attaboy." (Laughter.) I think, if I may say so, one of the greatest heritages we have got is our language. (Hear, hear.) It is the thing that is going to keep us together more than anything, and if we are going to speak movie talk, well, it is a very sad business, and it will ultimately mean that in fifty years we shall be speaking Attaboy in Edinburgh, and Gee Whiz in Toronto. (Laughter.) I think that one of the great things the stage can do, and what the Mother Country ought to do for this great country, is to send over as good actors as we can--we are not very good, but as good as we can--with the best companies we can get, the very best, and play the English classics for the rising young Canadian people. (Applause.) A very kind friend said to me the other day that you have got no Canadian theatre. I would like to say, and I hope you will say it now, that you have got a Canadian theatre. Britain's theatre is your theatre. (Hear, hear.) You may have only a little theatre here beginning your work, but that is nothing, we are you; we are proud to have the same blood that you have got; we have the same language; Shakespeare is yours. We have the British theatre and we ought to keep it quite distinct from the American theatre. (Applause.) That is why I do think that the theatre should carry this message first of all, that of good diction. Here also it may be that you will see the manners of our Court, and all that is dear to you in England, properly set before you, and you will not see the king at Buckingham Palace through the eyes of somebody at Hollywood, because it is all wrong. The theatre has always handed down such information. We should know nothing about the manners and customs of Sheridan's day, and the School for Scandal would be a different book were in not for the stage. I was told only the other day, and it interested me very much, that Sheridan's School for Scandal was never in manuscript; it was lost. The last act was written by him on the stage of Drury Lane Theatre, behind the scene, and when the actors had finished the run no one could find it. They had to send for all the actors to come back and memorize their parts, and if that had not been so The School for Scandal would not be in existence today. It is a rather interesting little fact.
One of the great things we know in England, and I think you might consider it, is the benefit the theatre does to children who go on the stage. Of course you have nothing like we have in the terrible poverty that there is in London around the purlieus of Drury Lane; but for many years I have run children's plays sometimes with two hundred on the stage. There was a great outcry; they say, "Children on the stage? Isn't it terrible! " The truth was that these children not only were educated by us with schools in the theatre, but they earned a lot of money and they were perfectly wonderful little citizens, and they grew up and many of them are out here now, as I have already had four letters in Toronto. Therefore the theatre does a bit of good in that way. So if ever the chance comes along, do not say to the children, do not go on the stage. I should say under proper supervision let them go on the stage, let them learn manners, and how to speak, and be little Canadian ladies and gentlemen. (Applause.)
I personally feel--and I had a long talk in Montreal about it--that I should like to try my best to send out about six companies a year to Canada with the best actors we can get. At present the British authors' contract is that the Americans take the British plays and at the end of it is a little annex, and they put " and Canada." Then they go through the small formality of never bringing the plays here. They may to Montreal and Toronto, and they may send them with fairly indifferent American companies. But I do say, and I have written and cabled to ask the Authors' Society to take up the matter at once and have it not " and Canada " but let them put it " Canada and America." (Applause.) And then by that means we should have our English authors putting our English products into our great Dominion, to whom none of us can be more grateful, I am sure. I hope the day has gone by when you say "No Englishman need apply;" though I know you are apt to judge the whole nation by the behaviour of one or two rather stupid fellows. Personally I would be most willing to give up two or three months a year of my time if I could be of any use in organizing or putting these companies through the great Dominion. I hope if the time comes you will give us a bit of a show, and say: They are trying to do their best to put British stuff before British people. (Applause.)
It is extraordinary the way the world, or part of it, seems to think the British have got no humour. (Laughter.) I had grave doubts about American humour myself, until they told me a year ago in New York that they had won the war, and then I was certain of it. (Laughter.) Looking backwards, I came to the conclusion that there were two or three standard works like Roget's Thesaurus and works of familiar quotations, there is a book of British classic wit, handed down from the days of Queen Elizabeth, the best wit in the world. It is not the wit perhaps of the supper club, where the waiter drops something, and you say something. They might as well say the Scotch have no humour; that is about the biggest lie that has ever been told.
Thinking this over, I thought of little things I personally had heard in my life, mixing with Gilbert and all those fellows in England, and one thing I remember which I am sure you will think is very quick. I was walking with Gilbert at Harrow, and there was an amateur club there. The leader came up and said, " What do you think of our amateur club " He said, " It is not so much a club as a bundle of sticks." (Laughter.)
He said to me, " I hear you have been to a fancy dress ball! " I said, "Yes, I was dressed as a gondolier, and got very drunk." " What a ridiculous thing to do, to go as a gondolier and get drunk! Why not go in the first instance as a Venetian blind?" (Laughter.)
I was in the Garrick Club the other day and somebody said, " Do you know that Sibbald is supposed to have said the wittiest thing off the bat that has ever been said?" I said, "That is rather a large order; what was it? " It was this: Sibbald was managing the Drury Lane Theatre at that time and the Dukes of Buckingham and Rochester were his patrons, and they were waiting for Sibbald in a garden for supper. Sibbald was very late; when he came in Buckingham said, "You are late." "Yes, your Grace." And Rochester said, " Do you know what we have been discussing about you, Sibbald ? We have been wondering whether you will be hanged or die of the pox." Sibbald said, "That depends on whether I adopt your Lordships' mistresses or your principles." (Laughter.)
Nothing could have been better, I think, than Wilde's remark to his warder--one speaks almost with sorrow that such a great genius came to such an unhappy end. At any rate it shows a marvellous spirit of wit. Standing on the station at Clapham--they were taking him from London to Reading jail--it was pouring with rain and he was soaked through, and he said to his warder, "Could I speak to you a moment ?" The warder said, "What is it?" He said, " If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she does not deserve to have any." (Laughter.)
Brookfield said a very witty thing to George Grossmith, the father of the present very successful, actor. He was a good soul, but rather conceited. He came back from America with thirty thousand pounds, and he said, "Look at all your stupid actors; you have to have production, an orchestra, a theatre, and so on; I have made thirty thousand pounds with a piano and a dress suit." Brookfield said, "Yes, but we don't all look so d funny in our dress suits." (Laughter.)
The Chairman was kind enough to speak about the war; I did nothing more than anybody else, but we were all turned down time and time again. I remember it suddenly struck me in 1914 that all the fellows who were volunteering would want some amusement, because they had been accustomed to it all their lives. I got an introduction from the late Lord Birmingham and went to see Lord Kitchener. After being pushed about by a lot of young gentlemen--you remember them--being pushed here and there and everywhere, I was shown into Lord Kitchener's room. He said, " What do you want ? " I said, " I want to know if I can take a concert party to France." He said, "What for ?" So I said, "To try to amuse the troops." He said, "When ?" I said, " On Christmas Eve." He said, " Oh, do you think they are going to stop fighting on Christmas Day ?" Well, I am bound to say I lost my temper, and I said, "It has nothing to do with me; I am not a soldier, I am an ordinary Englishman, and I am trying to do a bit of my job." He said, " It is very kind of you." All the tin hats rattled and I was allowed to go. When we came back I thought it would be a very good thing to open theatres for the overseas soldiers. They were walking about in thousands all about the streets with nothing to do and no friends; and they did not know anybody. I went down and asked the Lord Chamberlain if I could open the Princess Theatre for Sunday night, which we did for a couple of years, and we had two thousand in a night. They got the best entertainment it was possible for England to give them, because we were all trying to do the best we could. There was trouble about opening. The Lord Chamberlain said there was some law of Edward VI. or Edward the Confessor that did not allow places of entertainment open. Well, ultimately, we got it, and the result was that the Canteen Boards were started, and I am sure it would be of interest to you to know that the diseases of the troops that were on their beam ends over at Salisbury Plains fell from 60% to 6% and 7% purely through the fellows working in the theatre. (Applause.) I hope you do not mind my mentioning that, but it is a fact and shows that after all the theatre has its uses.
In conclusion, I will ask you to listen to three or four little stories and let me off. There was a stockbroker in England who asked a Cockney friend down to spend a week in the country, and he got a bit sick of him toward the end of the week. So one day he said, " Jones, I am very busy this morning; go out on to the land. Here is a gun and a couple of dogs. Go out and have a bit of sport." Half an hour afterwards the man came back and said, "Have you got any more dogs ?" (Laughter.)
Of course the Englishman's idea of humour is that the man turns around and says, Did he ? or Was he ?
Another little thing I heard the other day from one of your own people. A girl went to the doctor and said, "I am not feeling very well." He felt her pulse, and said, "Do you suffer from cold feet ?" She said, "Terribly, but not my own." (Laughter.)
I heard a little story that made me laugh, of a child of five in bed with its mother. Waking up towards six in the morning, it said, "Mama, will you tell me a story ?" She said, "Hush, father is coming back in a minute, and he will tell us both one." (Laughter.)
I was once with Richard Harding Davis, the American author, one of the best fellows that ever lived. He told me he had been at a concert of Southern music the night before. They were playing southern melodies, and suddenly a man in front burst out crying. The manager came down and said, " I am sorry you are so affected; I see you are a Southerner." He said, "No, I am a musician." (Laughter.)
I saw something in the paper before I left England that made me laugh. A man rushed hastily into church, when the preacher was in the midst of his sermon. He said to a man sitting near him, "Has he been preaching long ?" He said, "About forty years." "Then I will stay, he must be nearly through." (Laughter.)
A colonel paraded his men and he said, " I want to tell you, and I am glad to tell you, that my wife had a little boy at 3.45 this morning. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, I thank you." (Laughter.)
Well, gentlemen, having finished these stories which would bind the Empire together, I finish in thanking you very gratefully for your great kindnesses, and I think what an honour it is to come here. Only one thing I would ask you. If by any chance I can manage to find backing at home, and I think I can, if we can manage to send out companies that will keep your theatres going with English plays for say twelve weeks a year, following each other to the coast and back, that you will think that we are doing it for the Empire's sake, and perhaps you will be kind enough to go in and say, " Well, we will go in and give it a bit of a spin." (Applause.)
The thanks of the Club were extended to the speaker by Sir John Aird.