THE THEATRE AS A DESIRABLE CULTURAL FORCE
AN ADDRESS BY SIR CEDRIC HARDWICKE
Wednesday, 24th February, 1937
PRESIDENT: Sir Cedric, Gentlemen: It would be idle, Sir, for me to attempt to introduce you to an English-speaking audience. No introduction of mine would add anything to the prestige you have already acquired in your art.
May I, however, extend to, you, on behalf of the Empire Club of Canada, a welcome as an emissary of the British Empire in the extension of its frontiers, not in a political sense or an economic sense, so much as in a social sense, and to you, Sir, as one who by subtle methods has extended the propaganda of British culture throughout the whole civilized world. This welcome, I extend to you, Sir, on behalf of the Empire Cub of Canada and all who believe in the British Empire as that beacon light on the stormy seas of international strife in this world.
I have great pleasure in calling on you, Sir Cedric, to address us today on the subject: "The Theatre as a Desirable Cultural Force." (Applause.)
SIR CEDRIC HARDWICKE: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen: I find myself today in an extremely dangerous and responsible position. I must explain to you that I am in the throes of rehearsing a new play. That, in itself, is a very difficult and dangerous work but, in addition to that, the hospitality of Canada has been such that I am tempted to remember the story that was told to me yesterday of a farmer who had been chased by his bull and after he had been around the field three times with his knees almost on his chin, he turned around to the bull and said, "Well, you can please yourself but this is my last time around."
(Laughter.) Well, Gentlemen, I accepted this invitation to address this Club in the light-hearted way that actors do accept invitations. I was not aware of the responsibility that I was undertaking. I was unaware, for example, that what I had to say to you was being broadcast throughout the country. But if you will accept from a very tired actor, sincerity for profundity of thought, and enthusiasm for wit, then I shall be very grateful to you.
Now, I find myself committed to speak to you on the theatre as a cultural force. Of course you must know by now, all of you, that the only subject on which an actor can speak with any sort of enthusiasm and knowledge is himself but, being denied that, I shall talk to you about the thing that is dearest to me. Perhaps some of you will mistake this for a sales talk. Believe me when I tell you that such is not my intention. I do not wish in any way to emphasize, shall I say, the commercial aspect of the theatre. I am not asking you to come to the theatre this week to see "The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse," though I shall be very pleased if you do.
What I do want to say with all the sincerity at my command 'is that I do believe most sincerely that a great deal of the cultural future lies in the rebirth of the drama.
Now, every since I was a boy the theatre has been the ruling passion of my life and ever since I was a boy the theatre has been on its death-bed. I can recall no time in the whole of my career when the theatre has not been, according to the critics, a dead force. Now, oaf recent years even those of us who have the most profound belief in the theatre have had to realize that we are facing enormous arid almost overwhelming conditions. On all sides, the drama, the simplest expression of man, his passions, moods, feelings, character, has been assailed by all forms of mechanical entertainment.
Now, I would be the last person in the world to deny that the motion picture has not been a very, very great benefit. It has provided wonderful entertainment for millions of people who re denied almost all forms of entertainment. The radio, to those people who are unable to go to concerts or attend entertainments has been an enormous blessing, but the fact remains that the theatre, although it has been forced into a much smaller affair, has become through this competition a much better affair.
Now, there are very obvious economic difficulties in the way of the professional theatre. It is fairly obvious that a motion picture which is made, even if at the expense of a very large sum of money, can be seen by millions of people in, all parts of the world and there is no extra expense in seeing a great super-production in some little wayside village, once it has been shown in the great cities. Now, to send a first class theatrical company into a town like Toronto involves considerable financial outlay and, of course, the profits are relatively small. So the motion picture has meant that the theatre has been unable to allow its best work to be seen by the great majority of the people.
But this confinement of the drama to the large cities has resulted in the theatre coming to live in other forms. Here, in the City of Toronto this week, you have your Drama Festival. Never has there been such activity amongst the ordinary people in the sphere of the drama as there is today. There is no question about it, the door is open in a city like Toronto to the encouragement of the theatre and it is up to you to make certain that you do not shut the door.
Now, perhaps you will say, "Well, why should we worry about the theatre? What does 'it matter?" I do claim this for the theatre that it is still, even in its poorest manifestation, a great imaginative art. You see, the theatre depends upon the imaginative co-operation of the audience. The theatre is a form of expression which is available to you all. You make the theatre yourselves. The plays that you do not support do not exist. Whilst you are in the theatre you are as much a part of the artist's materials and works as the members of the cast or the playwright who wrote the play. Without your co-operation the play will not exist.
Now, the motion picture is a thing that is made for you and whether you like it or whether you don't that is played and it is exhibited. It is not a form of expression over which you, yourselves, have very much control. The theatre, too, depends, as I have said, upon the exercise of the imagination, a faculty which I regret to say is tending very much to disappear. In the greatest of plays it is the negative quality that counts. For example, in a drama a messenger is sent upon the stage to describe in terms of glorious literature and with all the art of the great actor. Now, in the motion picture, of course, you would have the battle shown to you. I am only mentioning this because it does seem to me that the theatre is one of those things that will help to keep imagination alive. People sometimes' say, "O, but the theatre hasn't the scope of the cinema." Nothing could be further from the truth because if you have an imaginative audience and great acting there is no limit whatsoever to what the theatre can tell you. Shakespeare, after all is said and done, ranges almost every form of human activity and the success of his plays was achieved on a bare stage with nothing but glorious literature and the art of the actor. Now, if the theatre is to die, is to disappear, what will disappear with it? All the great plays of Shakespeare, the plays of Sheridan, the plays of Ibsen. "But we still have them," you will say. True, they remain to be read, but surely almost the greatest tragedy that can happen to any piece of literature is to become a classic and put on the book-shelf to be looked at. That is what happens if the theatre dies. Shakespeare will remain unread, except by a very few people. If the theatre disappears the question of our language will become very different. It is up to the theatre to keep alive the beauties of our language. The theatre will always help to keep alive the art of oratory, grace of movement, all the human attributes.
You know, I, personally, strongly believe that the theatre in the past has been responsible for many of the great personalities. Is it coincidence, for example, that with the disappearance of the great actor managers of the past, Irving, Wyndham, the Keans, that all the great personalities disappeared from politics and from other walks of life? You may say what you like but there is no question about it, that great actors, great personalities, great personal magnetisms were in the past a great example and people would, I woudn't say imitate them, but they had at least had some sort of ideal to try and live up to.
Now, with regard to conditions in the world today I feel very deeply and I may perhaps be a little out of my depth in speaking about this because I am an actor and because I love the theatre and I don't pretend to know a great deal about international affairs and politics or any of the, shall I say, more important aspects of our life today. But one thing I do feel and that is that so much light reading, with newspapers and motion pictures and all these means of bringing people very simply and very easily the thoughts of others, is encouraging us to live on a higher emotional plane than is good for us. I believe that the little man, for example, who goes off to work in the City, in London, with the newspaper tucked under his arm is not particularly interested in the fact that Hitler has sternly warned somebody about something. You know, all the time his little interests do not lie very much outside his own family and his own affairs. He is forced to become almost hysterical about things which really do not interest him very much.
Let us take this whole question of romance or, as the newspapers call it today, sex. Personally, I think romance is a nicer term than sex. This has been glorified as a wonderfully romantic thing which only means to the ordinary, simple man a very great disappointment and in many cases a great deal of unhappiness.
Now, I claim if we can get back to the theatre, if we can get back some of the beauty and some of the colour of the great plays of the past that we shall be helping these people to live more simple and more imaginative lives, to appreciate the more simple attributes of human nature, rather than stirring them by mass reproductions of, in many cases, very old stories which are provided for them by people who control their commercial entertainments.
Now, I am well aware my address today has been very rambling. I have been unable to think logically or to reason logically. As I explained to you, the only thing that is really back of all I have said is an intense and sincere belief that in the theatre lies a great deal of hope for the future.
You know, I have heard commercial managers in London say, "Weld, the only thing that can save the theatre is another war," because during the war, after all is said and done, soldiers on leave and feeling rather depressed and miserable accept almost any form of entertainment, and the theatres had a flourishing time, but I would be inclined to think that the only thing that can save another war is the theatre. That perhaps sounds an extravagant and exaggerated statement. I do believe if we can get people once more to come and listen to the great plays of the past, to hear the great dramatists argue, to listen to their arguments and to listen once more to the beautiful voices, to see the great moments of great actors, I believe we shall do a great deal toward preventing a good deal of the friction and ill feeling that we find around us today.
Now, of course, against that there is the great argument that the motion picture is a greater medium because it is international. That, of course, is true and I believe, too, that if those who control the motion picture industry would realize that responsibility and make films that would break down all the frontiers and bring us altogether into a wonderful fraternal brotherhood, then I believe the motion picture industry would soar right away, almost to the top of all the great cultural arts. Can this ever happen? I, personally, doubt it.
Well, Gentlemen, I find myself with a matinee to play this afternoon and I can only extend to you my apologies for a very, very poor address. I had meant to say so much. I feel that the occasion is one on which I could advance to you very much more sound arguments for the maintenance of the theatre than I have been able to do. But, if you will try and support all the movements that are taking place around you to try and build up the theatre once more as a great force in your community and let the theatre of your community be an expression of the community, itself, after all, there is no reason why the dramatist societies in Toronto shouldn't encourage Toronto playwrights, why your theatre shouldn't become the form of expression of your town, where you will give your young citizens an opportunity to learn to speak properly, to walk properly, to become, shall we say, eloquent and articulate and also perhaps occasionally you will allow to be performed some of the great plays in the dramatiic store-house.
I would like to see in some towns some of the beautiful play of Shakespeare performed regularly by amateur societies. I think it is rather a pity that so many of them perform plays already performed freqently by professional companies. Why bother about New York or London successes? Why not try to find new plays or, if you can't, find new plays, find those sort of plays which Stupid, commercial managers think are unprofitable and won't develop. In other words, the great plays of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw and Ibsen.
Once more, may I apologize for my very inadequate return for your great hospitality. May I say how proud and pleased I am, in the way I have been received in Canada. This is my first visit and I cannot tell you how I am impressed by the hospitality and generosity of your citizens. It would be idle for me to say I admire your beautiful city, because apart from travelling in a car from the theatre to my home here, I have really not seen the town at all. As a final, word, may I thank you very, very much indeed and say I hope you all will come to the theatre this week. Thank you. (Applause.)
PRESIDENT: Sir Cedric: May I, on behalf of this meeting, and also an behalf of the audience on the air, thank you for your address today. You have given us something new in your observations as to the part which the audience plays in the theatre as distinct from that in motion picture productions. You have given us food for thought in the psychological effect of the striving of amateurs to produce theatrical or dramatic productions, and the reaction which undoubtedly does occur on the actors, the would-be actors, shall I say, in their striving to produce, the improvement in their carriage in their voice, in their manners. We are indebted to one of such great authority for giving us these facts on which to ponder.
May I suggest that I speak on behalf of all who have heard you today and say that we wish for the future of the theatre and for the perpetuation of those ideals of the theatre which you have so aptly expressed to us? We realize the great sacrifice that you have made in coming to us today, particularly when we know your time is taken up with rehearsing for the production in which you are now engaged in this city, and will later open in the City of New York. We particularly realize that, in a few moments, you will be starting another performance before the public, and that you have made a sacrifice in coming to speak to us and for that and all you have given us, we thank you. (Applause.)