THE BRITISH COUNCIL
AN ADDRESS BY MR. MAURICE COLBOURNE
Chairman: The President, Dr. F. A. Gaby.
Tuesday, October 17, 1939
The PRESIDENT: Ladies and Gentlemen: We are highly honoured today to have the ladies grace us with their presence. We take much pleasure in welcoming them on this occasion, and especially in view of our guest speaker, whose achievements in drama and art on the stage are well known to our guests.
Our members will have noted from their announcement cards that with the ladies present, they are to govern themselves accordingly. Evidently this is a warning that we have to watch our step on this occasion!
Mr. Maurice Colbourne is well known to Canadian audiences through his excellent performances in the artistic field, and his frequent presentations in our theatres from time to time, which have endeared him to his Canadian audiences. He has had a distinguished career in dramatics, having been the first post-war President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and Governor of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and subsequently he achieved fame as Author, Playwright and Actor-Manager. His present visit to Canada, in company with Mr. Barry Jones, is sponsored by the British Council, a group of distinguished Empire personalities under the Patronage of His Majesty the King, and including John Masefield, Philip Guedella, the Earl of Bessborough and others, which Council is the subject of his address today. I have much pleasure in introducing Mr. Maurice Colbourne. (Applause)
MR. MAURICE COLBOURNE: Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: The first question which one asks is What is the British Council? But, before trying to answer that question, I hope, with some brevity, I must just say that my first impression on returning to Canada after five and a half years, and also the impression of my partner in crime, Barry Jones, who regrets very much he is not here today, is that although it is five years since we were here, all our friends, quite literally, to our eyes, appear just about five years younger.
The British Council comprises about a hundred people of different and distinguished positions, such as the three which the Chairman has mentioned. It is very little known in England, just as it is very little known elsewhere, because it is known not by what it is but by what it does. It is known by its works. You could put the work of the British Council, which is as yet in its youth-it is only about four years old--in many ways. I think it came into being because various other bodies, such as the Diplomatic Corps, the Board of Education, the Foreign Office, and so forth, including of course the Dominions Office, found they had quite enough to do and they wanted a kind of liaison department or office, which would deal with those activities which are completely divorced from trade and politics.
I would like to put the matter in another way, chiefly, I think, because as far as I remember, nobody has put it this way before. Let us go back some hundreds of years, to what are optimistically called "the good old days"; say, the days of good Queen Bess. In those days in England and in similar days of the Italian Renaissance in Italy, I think we would have found that all culture and art, and all those things which we believe make life worth living, were not only encouraged, but generally actually brought into being by patronage. The Earl of So-and-So would have as his own property his troop or company of players. Benvenuto Cellini would not have done the work he did had it not been under the patronage of, I think it was, Pope Clement VII. Van Dyke would not have painted the pictures he did, but might have ended as a poor man living at Blackfriars on the Thames, in what was the equivalent of a slum, unless he had been commissioned by Charles the First; just as Rubens was commissioned by the King of Spain. In short, "noblesse", in those days, did "oblige". What has happened to that nobility since those days?
One thing quite surely has happened. It is still there and the nobility is still noble, but it is not so rich; and it seems to me to be true, and not without its element of a wry humour, to realize that the body of government, which over those two or three hundred years has been responsible for taking so much money from the nobility through taxation, should, through the British Council, itself, become and take the place of the patrons of old. Therefore, I believe it is quite true to say that today when rich men and great nobles are comparatively fewer and poorer, the British Council is the body which has stepped in and said to itself, no doubt unconsciously, "As there is no longer any such profusion of wealthy patrons of the old nobility, we must see to it that art and culture none the less still flourish in the world." The British is thus a patron of the arts.
The second point I would like to make is this: What does the British Council aim to do with the culture which it encourages? Here, again, I must put in parenthesis that the British Council imitates the wealthy patrons of old, for, it not only encourages works of art but calls them into being. I will give a concrete instance. It was under the direction of the British Council that three British composers, Sir Arnold Bax, Mr. Arthur Bliss, and Mr. William Walton, composed works for the present, or immediately past, New York World Fair.
To go back to my second point, on which I had just started, what does the British Council intend to do with these works? It intends to exchange them with the works of the other peoples of the world. It has sent, therefore, orchestras and dramatic companies to such countries as Egypt, such islands as Malta, and to such peoples as the Greeks and the Italians, and, naturally, Barry Jones and I feel very proud that ours is the first company to be sent to the senior British Dominion, and we hope that this is the beginning of a tour of the whole British Empire.
One asks, why does the British Council pick the theatre, very largely, to do this part of its work with? I think the answer must be that the theatre is perhaps the only medium by which you can combine an exchange of art with an exchange of human beings. Perhaps I shall make myself clearer if I say if you have an English painter he will paint his picture in London, say, and he may send it, perhaps through the British Council, to be hung in the City Hall of Toronto, but he will not necessarily come to Toronto himself, and if he does come, he will not be here very long. But with the theatre you get a direct contact between its people and the people whom it is visiting and that, I believe, is why the British Council sends to Denmark, not a painter or his work, or a sculptor or his work, but a large company of actors, so that that clash, that happy clash of personalities shall be effected between people who otherwise would be strangers, and so, through increased understanding, make toward peace among the peoples of the world.
I believe that we ought to distinguish between the people of England and, say, Denmark, on the one hand, and the people of England and, say, Canada, on the other. Let us say that the people of England and Denmark are cousins. Then the people of England and Canada and the rest of the Dominions are brothers, and it is this exchange of brothers, which the British Council has been kind enough and wise enough to effect. The idea of brothers prompts that of a common sire, a common father, and this at once puts us in mind of the Royal visit of Their Majesties to Canada, in regard to which may I just say this, as coming from an English member of the great family, speaking to Canadian members of the same family, that we felt in England that the triumph of Their Majesties in Canada was equally a triumph for Canada. (Applause)
I believe that this Club has a special guardianship for such ideas as these. I, personally, believe that Kingship is a sacrament, because we define a sacrament as an out ward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and I believe that whatever spiritual grace there may be about what we call the British Commonwealth of Nations finds its outward sign in the person of the King upon the common throne of England and Canada. (Applause) The second thing that struck us about the Royal visit (the first thing being the love of Canada for the Crown) was the good will of the United States of America.
Well, now, I am told you will be interested in what I may have to say, just as a very ordinary member of the English public, about the state of England since war broke out. We all know how all the brothers of this great family have lately had to assume the postures and the responsibilities of bulldogs of the British breed, and I believe it is quite simple to state the present general public opinion of England in regard to the man who has been smash-and-grab raiding for so long among us that we have become tired of his smash-and-grab raiding and are determined to catch him and prevent him from carrying on. I believe that this family of bulldogs is just going on (and this according to public opinion in England) until however fast the smash-and-grab raider may run down the street in his effort either to smash and grab another shop, or to escape around the corner from the consequences of his last smash-and-grab, they-the bulldogs-are able to leap up and catch and hold on to the seat of that man's pants. And I do not believe that they will leave their grip on those pants when the smash-and-grab raider cries "Ouch! I promise not to do it again." They will go on not until he says, "Ouch! I will quit," but until they have seen that those three words are made effective.
I think the bulldog breed can be exemplified by a story that my housekeeper heard the first day that war was declared, when, about a quarter of an hour later, the sirens began to sound and the housekeeper, who was not in the house at the time, went into a public air raid shelter. There were many strangers there, and as the minutes turned into half hours and finally hours, they all became acquainted, and one woman retailed the following story.
She said she had been in Germany until about ten days before war was declared. She had lived there for many years because she was a singer and she made her living there, but she was not a German. She was on a street car one day, reading an English book, and in came a Storm Trooper, who looked up and down the car and went over to see what book she was reading. He grabbed it and threw it on the ground and said, "You ought to know better than that. Don't you know a good German Frau doesn't read that filth?" and the woman said, "I shall report you to the British Consul. I am not a German Frau, I am a South African, I am a Britisher. I shall not only report you to the British Consul, but I shall now ask you to pick that book up." Meanwhile, the rest of the car's occupants were frozen into silence by suspense and fear. The Storm Trooper went very red, feeling the hostility around him, and sheepishly he picked up the book and handed it to her. She said, "Now wipe it off before you give it back to me."
Some people have asked me privately what England at this moment thinks of Canada and of what Canada has done, is doing and is going to do. Ladies and Gentlemen, any answer I might make might seem so impertinent and small that I counter by another question: Would the British Empire have chosen Canada to be the base and centre and training ground for the most important arm in this new war, if all parts of that Empire did not feel pride and confidence in the way Canada has assumed her giant responsibilities in the last few months? We all felt in the early days of the war, and until I left England, that there was a calm determination about the Canadian affirmations which reached the other side, regarding her participation with the rest of the bulldogs in the chase after the smash-and-grab man.
I imagine that here, like in the Old Country, there is no anger. I believe we all somehow feel that the case of Hitler is as much a medical case as a criminal one, and I believe that it would take much of the gilt of glory and martyrdom off the gingerbread of war and off the militaristic ideals so beloved by old world conquerors if we could deprive Hitler of the comparative glory of a trial or a St. Helena, and put him quietly into the private and, perhaps, padded ward of a hospital. If an operation were deemed to be necessary after he had been examined by specialists for the symptoms of a paranoic, I believe the best operation in Hitler's case would be a slight one on his tongue. It has been said that the power of the pen is mightier than that of the sword. Much more powerful than either, in Hitler's case, is the power of the tongue, because I defy anyone to preserve his sanity and to have read Hitler's book in its unabridged version from cover to cover.
As for the theatre, we had a photograph taken at Euston Station before leaving, and the press photographer asked, "What caption would you like put on these for the papers?" We had been rather busy, we had been ready to sail for over three weeks at twenty-four hours' notice, any day. We had to think a little and finally we said, "We will give you two. One is what you will call, perhaps, highbrow, and the other is what you might call lowbrow, but they are both true. One is 'British Actors in British Plays for the British Empire', and the other, 'Are they Lucky? Yes, and They Know It'."
Thank you. (Applause)
THE PRESIDENT: Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Hector Charlesworth has kindly agreed to extend on your behalf, our appreciation and thanks.
MR. HECTOR CHARLESWORTH: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Colbourne, Ladies and Gentlemen: I am sure we have all listened with a great deal of interest to Maurice's remarks. It is not the first time he has spoken to this Club and he is always interesting, he always throws new light on something.
I have had the good fortune to have known both Maurice and his partner, Barry Jones, ever since they came to Canada, ten or twelve years ago, and invariably they have left behind them pleasant memories.
He was speaking a moment or so ago of the experiences of his housekeeper. I heard a story of a lady in a similar predicament. The bells were ringing and they were rushing to the air shelters and one old lady said, "Dear, dear, that man Hitler must be quite a fidget." Now, I think probably Maurice last week was quite a fidget in those long, dreary days on the ocean, wondering whether he was going to reach Toronto by October 16th.
During the last few years, since Maurice went into management for himself and decided to make Canada in part the field of his endeavours, he was presented in this country, not merely in Toronto, but throughout the length and breadth of this country, at least ten plays, if not more, and all of them have been good plays. Last night he received a very warm welcome in Toronto. It is comforting to think that in any other city of Canada he would receive the same welcome, because the name of Maurice Colbourne and the name of Barry Jones are guarantees of something of intellectual interest. Maurice has, after giving us many plays by George Bernard Shaw, and a play or two by Robert Sherwood, come to us with a play of his own, of which he has been too modest to speak. That play, "Charles, the King", was a great success in London, with Barry Jones acting Charles three years ago, and last night when I saw it, I was absolutely delighted, and also amazed at the amount of accurate history which he has managed to put into two hours of acting time, at the same time with the sense of the theatre which kept us continuously interested in what was a most fascinating historical discourse of one of the most ill-fated of our English monarchs. It is a play that is filled with food for thought and well up to the standard of the plays he has presented in the past.
As I have said, he always leaves us in his debt, and I think I voice the feelings of every one who has listened to him, in moving a most cordial vote of thanks.
Thank you. (Applause)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. Charlesworth. To you, Mr. Maurice Colbourne, we extend on behalf of the Empire Club our hearty vote of thanks.