The Theatre As We Know It
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 13 Oct 1938, p. 41-54
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The speaker's experience in the theatre over the last 25 years. His witness to the theatre ceasing to be an important aspect of the town. Comments on the general lack of knowledge of the theatre. A discussion of the need for a theatre. Trying to do something to get back some of the simple graces, some of the things that really matter to us, and discarding some of the false values that have been set in the way. How acting and the theatre can and do help. A consideration of how the theatre has changed and altered from the time that the speaker was a boy. The impact of the mechanical entertainment on the theatre. The growth of the motion picture and of the radio and the prospect now in the near future of television. How the theatre will compete with these new forms of entertainment. The occasion represented by a night at the theatre. The lasting nature of the theatre and the experience therein. How people take part in the play that is being performed. The interactivity between actor and audience. Changing fashions and trends in the theatre. The continued use and support of the theatre.
Date of Original
13 Oct 1938
Language of Item
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, J. P. Pratt, Esq., K.C.
Thursday, October 13, 1938.

THE PRESIDENT: Sir Cedric, Gentlemen of the Empire Club of Canada: So well known is our guest of honour today that probably an announcement of his name would be sufficient introduction to any Englishspeaking audience. Sir Cedric is the youngest man to have been knighted for his contribution to the stage, but he is not young in experience or in the tradition of the theatre. At the age of twelve he had planned with some young friends to see Sir Henry Irving, who was to appear in a theatre in a near-by town in The Merchant of Venice. When he failed to see the play because of the demise of Sir Henry, he suggested to his friends that they, themselves, should attempt a performance of the Shakespearian drama. Sir Cedric chose for himself the role of Antonio. Thus a star was born.

Whenever he played hookey from the boarding school he attended, and I understand his record in this phase of his school life compared very favourably with that of other boys, he was usually found at the theatre, helping the stage hands or helping at the rehearsals.

So the boy whose parents wanted him to become a doctor where his field would have been so limited, has become a famous actor and has extended British culture throughout the whole civilized world.

We are delighted to again welcome Sir Cedric Hardwicke who has chosen as his subject, "The Theatre as We Know It." Sir Cedric. (Applause)

SIR CEDRIC HARDWICKE: Mr. Chairman, Members of the Empire Club of Canada: You see before you an actor in a most unfortunate predicament. To begin with I had the pleasure of addressing this Club some eighteen months ago and every time I appear in a town I am always certain it will be for the last time. I have one good speech which I got off the last time I was here and I find myself faced with the prospect of having to speak to you for a considerable time and to refrain, as far as I am able, from covering the same ground. In the first place I must thank you very much for the compliment of wanting to listen to me a second time.

Before I proceed further I want to correct the opening remarks of your President in his reference to my being well known. I thought I was, rather, but only last week in one of the papers I happened to run across one of those strange competitions known as Knowledge Tests. The first was: What is the foreign policy of the Moabites? The second question was: Can you give a rough idea of the Einstein theory? and the third was: Who is Sir Cedric Hardwicke? This very effectively killed the illusion that my name was a household word.

Now I am committed to speak to you on the subject that has the title, "The Theatre as We Know It," which is very alarming, because I am never able to speak long on any one subject without switching over to a thousand others. It doesn't mean that at all, it means, "The Theatre As I Know It." Perhaps having myself a mind which has only one track, which is a theatre mind, I am inclined to consider the theatre of greater importance than it really is. As I say, and as our President has reminded you, and reminded me, too, since the time I played truant and ran away to the little wooden theatre where very crude plays were given by bad actors, and very crude performances of some of the plays of Shakespeare were given, the theatre has always been to me the aim and object of my life. I have been in theatre twenty-five years and during that time I have seen many changes. I have seen it cease to be, as it used to be, an important thing in the town.

The second day I was in Toronto I was walking down the street and I met a very old friend of mine who had been in the army with me. He said, "Good Heavens, what are you doing in Toronto?" I said, I am acting at the theatre." He said, "Where is the theatre?" This, to me, especially after the Knowledge Test, was another very, very severe shock.

Now, I should like to bear tribute to the press of this town because I have had considerable pleasure from reading the papers, but there is one plea I would like to make to the press, not only of this town but of all towns, where the theatre is concerned. That is, not to worry about my views on acting or the value of tooth paste, or really on the recent crisis in Europe, which is of no value at all, but to give a little more space for my play. What I mean is this: In this town this week-I have been really favoured, I have never been the victim of so much few people display the slightest interest in the only thing I can do with any efficiency, that is, act in the theatre.

The last time I made a speech of this kind I made it my business to find out how many had seen my play. I found, roughly, about two per cent.

My views on the European crisis have been sought by many eminent people in this town. They are of no value whatsoever. I am not quite so sure that my views on the theatre as a whole are of great value because I am an actor, and the only subject on which an actor can speak with any sort of enthusiasm is himself.

Now, the only reason I am making this preamble is to make the point that quite definitely the theatre is not as important or of as much interest to you as it is to me.

Now, we say perhaps there is no necessity for a theatre. There is plenty of entertainment; there are many first class motion picture houses; every house has a radio. Why should we worry about a theatre? I say you should worry about a theatre for this reason: A city that has no theatre has no temple, if I may use the word, dedicated to the human graces. You know a great many people complain that they cannot hear actors in the theatre. That is largely because the art of speaking is being neglected. What is more, it is not only the art of speaking that is being neglected, but also the art of hearing, because the impact of sound on the human being is such that very soon we shall not be able to speak without the assistance of microphones and shall not be able to listen without the assistance of loud speakers. The theatre is the only building left now where the human voice is used without amplification of sound and where the audience can exercise their once frequent habit of listening carefully. Ears have been ruined and wrecked by amplification of sound. To me it was appalling to be back walking about the streets of New York and hear Mr. Hitler's speech being poured at me from taxicabs and drug stores everywhere I went, great volumes of sound blaring into my ears at every corner. I realized that a long subjection to that would result in the ear losing all subtlety and being unable to pick up the more delicate inflections of the human voice and certain aspects of speaking that represent its real culture and the human voice at its best.

Now, given no theatre, it is pretty obvious we are not going to develop these graces. It seems to me unless we have the theatre--when I say the theatre, I mean the best theatre, a theatre dedicated to keeping alive some of the graces and the most wonderful dramatic literature that the world has ever known--we will find that there is no development of these graces. We, who are fortunate to speak the English language, have a wonderful store house of dramatic literature. Shakespeare is recognized in every country and every language, not only as one of the greatest dramatists or playwrights, but one of the greatest masters of the English language, and one of our greatest and most beautiful philosophers. Are we going to lose this? Are we going to let it decay on the book shelves, or are we going to keep these wonderful speeches alive by acting and displaying the human graces at their best?

The theatre will encourage us to set standards in speaking, in gesture and in movement, and in walking. The drama, of course, incorporates dancing, the art of pantomime, all those things that are going to offset the terrible impact of mechanism on the human frame. We are going to have it, and no indifference on your part toward the theatre and no indifference on the part of the great masses toward the theatre is going to stop this automatic swing back to the simple things, the things that really matter.

In England now, I can assure you, that, whereas five or six years ago the roads were crowded with motor cars, they are now crowded with young people walking or riding bicycles, which they must do, otherwise they will cease to walk. I am going on a side track for a moment. I was so concerned in New York, where I have been for the last eight months, by the fact that scientific heating in the winter and scientific cooling in the summer are making people completely incapable now of going out on the street at all.

What are we going to do about this? I do feel most deeply that we must try and do something to get back some of the simple graces, some of the things that really matter to us, and to discard some of the false values that have been set in the way. Acting and the theatre, I think, do help in a modest way; I think in a great way I am speaking for your benefit; it does help me in a modest way to get back an appreciation of the human graces.

Now, let us consider how the theatre has changed and altered from the time I played hookey--is that the word?-or truant from school, paid my shilling and sat in the gallery of the theatre. That was some thirty or thirty-five years ago and we all, at least a great many of us, remember what the world was like in those days. To begin with, the streets were very poorly lighted. We had gas lights and to see a bright light was real excitement, a real event. Our families were presided over by very austere fathers who exercised so much discipline that we almost felt it was a liberty going to the theatre. There was a certain freedom that we never had at home. A spice was given to going to the theatre because it was regarded as something disreputable.

Let us make a sudden quick and rapid jump to today. We find instead of actors as in those days going around with long hair and high collars, going around addressing the Empire Club of Canada and welcomed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. In fact, we have all become very, very respectable. Apart from that, the theatre rather than being something to be ashamed of is the last word in culture, it is the thing to do now. In Broadway many of us go into the theatre to rest our eyes from the bright lights. Not only that, we find the theatre is so quiet, it is a sort of intellectual retreat. We find more make-up in the stalls than we do now on the stage. In other words, we find that life has moved from the austerity of the Victorian scene to the brilliant, dramatic, colourful world that we live in today. What theatre can hope to give you the drama of the last few weeks? How can I as an actor, compete with some of the magnificent performances put on recently in the political field, and in the international field? I do not pretend to have the drama of some of the military dictator rulers. I don't wish to become involved in politics--I don't know anything about it. I do cast an eye to the Continent with a certain appreciation of the theatrical efficiency with which things are conducted there and I would not ask anybody to come to the Royal Alexandra Theatre this week hoping to see anything that would give them more dramatic satisfaction or more colour than they can get from the life of today.

And our newspapers--when I was a boy if I wanted to read about an exciting murder, I had to buy a little pink paper called the Police Times. If we wanted to see a real, cold-blooded crime, we had to go to the local "Blood Club" as the theatre was called and enjoy ourselves with Maria Martin in "The Murder in the Bedroom." Now we can get all the satisfaction we require regarding our interest in crime from the front page of the most respectable papers in the world. The London Times now, with all its dignity, has far more drama, shall I say, than most of the theatres. We have become a sort of retreat from life. That is a very significant change, because it has had its effect upon the type of plays that we do, and it has certainly had its effect on, shall we say, on the type of people who now come to the theatre.

In the thirty years which has been thirty years of great adventure for me, we have seen the impact of the mechanical entertainment on the theatre. The growth of the motion picture and of the radio and the prospect now in the near future of television, and we say to ourselves, "How are we going to live? How are we going to compete with these new forms of entertainment that rise so rapidly and that go through their evolution with so much efficiency?" These new forms of entertainment are able to reach every home and an audience can for a few cents sit in a temple such as Solomon would have built years ago and wallow in luxury that, when I was a boy, was known only to kings and queens. I mean, for a few cents you can go into a building now that we really never saw when you and I were children. Now, what is going to be the effect of this? Do people, in the first place, for a long time really like things that are cheap and comfortable and easy? Isn't there a sort of resistance to it and don't you after a time become rather tired of it? I think the human being is so constituted that after a while he likes to do the thing that is more difficult and I am not sure that we shan't reach a time when the harder it is to go to a theatre and the harder the seats are, the more we will have coming. There will be a sense of achievement in having seen a play. You know people come to me and say very much as they might have said, "I flew an aeroplane single-handed across the Atlantic last night," "I saw your play last night"--a very great sense of achievement. For $25.00 they sat in a very uncomfortable seat, they couldn't see and hear very well, but they got a little martyrdom that rather pleased them. In fact, they are much more pleased with themselves than with my performance. So perhaps we are arriving at a stage where people are sated with luxury and ease.

After all is said and done, the radio is a very wonderful thing and we were never more conscious of that fact than during the crisis we have recently passed through when it brought directly to our homes everything that was happening right from its source. In fact, as somebody said to me the other day, "We got it straight from the horse's mouth." That is a very wonderful thing. But, of course, you must remember that the radio is still a novelty and the time will come when the radio programme will have to be of superlative quality in order to retain its interest. You know, when I was a boy, when we first had electric light in the home, we were turning it on and off the whole time. We thought it was a wonderful thing. Very soon we only turned it on when we thought it was necessary.

This brings us to the particular point about the theatre: whatever its short-comings may be, it is still an occasion to dress and to go to the theatre, it is, and always has been an occasion. It is a social occasion, it is a night you remember. You may pay more for your seat, but if you ever saw Henry Irving in The Merchant of Venice, whatever you paid for your seat was well worth the money, because it has lasted you for forty years. You can't say that about any cinema show you ever saw, however good it may have been, because going to the pictures is not an occasion. If I may make very bad comparisons, and generalities, of the difference between the motion pictures and the theatre, it is largely the difference between newspapers and books. We couldn't do without our newspapers. They are vital, they are essential. At the same time, sometimes we like to have leisure with a book and put it on the shelves and keep it and treasure it, because it has something about it, an air of permanence. Yesterday's edition of the greatest newspaper you know, even of the Globe and Mail, no one would say was of very great value.

I also venture to think that last week's gigantic, colossal, magnificent, super-motion picture, is of very little value, because it is replaced this week by something more colossal, more magnificent and more superior. Listening to the radio, or reading a newspaper, is something that has little permanence. Somehow the theatre, even though art is supposed to be transient, does seem to give something that has permanence. I don't know whether it is the traditions that surround the great actors of the past--Garrick, Kean, and then Irving, who is only now becoming rather a legend, but who is more distinct than almost anybody and certainly his work still has the grandeur that it was given during his lifetime. Now there is many a painter who has enjoyed success in his life, who doesn't represent so much to us because we are able to judge his work. These people live by tradition. People hand on to their sons and daughters stories of the prowess and might of those great actors. Nobody disputes it. What is going to happen today? I don't pretend that I am a competitor for posterity, but if I ever should be, in order to completely disprove any legend handed down, they will drag out some awful moving picture I made some years ago and see for themselves how bad I was. There it is.

The theatre in spite of its very transient nature, did seem to have somewhere about it the germ of permanence. I think that is very largely because the great actors of the past were associated with great casts in plays, which, of course, live for all time.

Well, these are the changes that we have seen, or that I have seen, shall I say, in the theatre since I was a boy. Now we come to the important point that although it has changed enormously, although we agree it has lost perhaps its significance to the masses, it is still desirable to keep it alive. Is it worth preserving, or shall we let it -die? Well, I can only put this plea to you; the art of the theatre at its best is the only really imaginative entertainment that is left. The theatre is the only thing that deals exclusively with human beings, their feelings, their emotions, their passions, their likes, their dislikes, their comedies, their tragedies and deals with them with you.

By that I mean that you take part actually yourself, by your presence, in a play. You take part in the play that is being performed. Why do we make so many ghastly mistakes about plays? Why do we have dress rehearsals? Why do we ring the curtain up on the first night on a dreadful, appalling entertainment that is kicked off the boards in the first three days? We do this because we are reckoning without the most important members of the company, which is the audience. The word "play," I think, means what it says, that it is a game. When the curtain goes up--it goes up every night at half past eight at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, there are lots of seats left,--we say to you as actors, "Now, look, we are going to play a little game. This very charming actress is my little serving maid. I am going to pretend that I am a man of considerable culture,"--which, as you can see, requires a good deal of pretence. "Will you play the game with me?" The audience, having paid a considerable sum of money to come in, is quite willing to play the game as long as the play is a success. If half-way through the first act, the audience says, "I don't like the game, I don't think I will play any longer," then you have a failure. This, of course, is the important thing. It means that you are part of the art that you patronize. It is your own materials, just as much as the brush and the paint are the materials of the artist or the painter, and opinions are the material of the writer. It is with you we play. There is no take it or leave it attitude about the actor or the playwright toward his public as there is about the other arts. A man creates a piece of sculpture, paints a picture, writes a book, and when it is done it is there. You take it or leave it if you don't like it. He can't help it, he can't do anything about it. We are not like that. We are plastic when you are with us playing a game. You don't watch in that detached, impersonal way, you act as part of the acts of the play.

Go back to Shakespeare and you find that the actors deliberately came down and confided to the audience. They came down and said, "I am thinking this," or, "I am thinking that." They went into the secret chambers of the acting minds and shared all their feelings about the situations of the play. When I was a child, the hero or the villain would come down and say, "You watch me slap him on the jaw." It was good fun because the audience was part of it. Of course, the theatre buildings then were of such a nature, the architecture was such that the audience naturally blended into the play. The galleries were horseshoe shaped and you could hardly tell where the audience ended and the play began. In fact, the old stage boxes in those days were actually on the stage. If a man got very upset with the villain he could step out of his box and sock him on the jaw. That is the point. In those days they realized the necessity of one powerful quality the theatre had of making the play a personal experience to the play-Boer. I rather deplore the tendency we have now to get away from that and to think of the audience as detached spectators, as in a moving picture house.

You couldn't co-operate with the moving pictures. You sit in a theatre and the leading lady smiles beautifully. You have a sort of feeling she is smiling for you, which, indeed, she is. When you see the most beautiful screen actress smile, you have the appalling feeling that she is doing the same thing in Singapore and Hong Kong and for the natives of Honolulu. About the theatre there is this personal thing. This something--your imagination begins to take fire and we work together and that must make an experience that is worth while and one, I think, which is important, because it calls once more into use this neglected imagination.

Now, in the theatre, we are realizing more and more that we have to retreat against other forms of entertainment in order to survive. We are falling back more and more upon the imagination. The real theatre, the theatre that I love and have always loved, is the theatre best described as three boards and a box. Great actors and great writers combine together to create something which will set your imagination on fire and let you do the work. Shakespeare's works were performed on a bare stage with no scenery, every second or third line devoted to explaining the surroundings--"Here on this island"; "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows"; "Here on the Rialto." The play is written to try to set your imagination alive, to make you work.

Then we retreated from that and we had a very realistic theatre. Because we had to be realistic we had to stay indoors, because the painters couldn't paint trees as realistic as walls and doors, and so for years the theatre was indoors. We were in our drawing room smoking cigarettes and our behaviour had to be as real as a three dimensional door. We were getting away from the essentials of the theatre, which is the game.

What do we find happening in New York this season? We find they are producing plays on ' he bare stage. The hit of the season was a play called "Our Town" in which the actors wore their street clothes and there was no scenery. The play was written and acted in such a way that the people saw that town more clearly, more plainly, in their imagination than any scene painters or directors could ever have given you in a realistic play.

Then we saw another success--Mr. Orson Welles's production of Julius Caesar on the bare stage. If any of you saw it, you realize how effective and moving it was. Of course the truth is when people say the theatre hasn't the scope of the cinema, they are just talking nonsense. The theatre had limitations while it was trying to be real, trying to show the real thing. As long as it depends on the imagination and upon writing and acting and makes you use your imagination, it has no limitations at all. Shakespeare could show you everything from Venice to Belmont, to Scotland, to the Scottish moors and the woods in Athens. He had no limitations because he didn't impose any upon himself. His realm is the world of your imagination and provided we can get back to plays, to great writing, great acting, that depends more upon their implications than their statements, that will make you think, make you do the work, then we are going to have a theatre and it seems to me it is going to justify the importance I place upon it and which I am sorry to say I don't really think any of you do.

There are so many things I could say about the theatre. I could talk about the theatre from now until tomorrow morning. There are so many things I know I have missed. I am so conscious of the fact that perhaps enthusiasm on my part has replaced logic, has replaced considered opinions and judgment and certainly wit. I would wish that I had more time to prepare an address that had a real beginning and a middle and an end and that arrives at some conclusion, but I must ask your pardon because this week has been a very, very heavy one. Toronto is the most hospitable place in the world. I have been entertained by everybody and I am afraid on occasions like this, I make a very poor return for the hospitality. You know we actors have no business to be doing this at all. We should be hiring really clever lecturers, propagandists, people who can present our case with a good deal more clarity and more fairness than an actor can. We shouldn't be seen until the evening. Actors and burglars work best at night. You have seen me at great disadvantage. You see a bald headed gentleman standing before you. You should see me in the theatre,--I have the most beautiful hair. My grease paint will give me something I could do with here very, very nicely.

I'm only saying this to you in the hopes that my few remarks have made out some sort of case for the continued use and support of the theatre and have not been a handicap. I leave you with my most grateful thanks for having listened to me so carefully and my earnest hope that you will give to the theatre all the support you think it deserves, not more, and that you will start giving your support this week. You have only three days left.


THE PRESIDENT: Sir Cedric, the close attention with which you have been followed, speaks for itself, but I cannot permit the meeting to close without expressing the thanks of the Empire Club of Canada to you, Sir, for having so graciously consented to speak to us again. If your speech in 1937 was your best, may I be permitted to say, that the life of an actor must be a great life, because undoubtedly after having read your speech of last year, as I did last night, I think that the one you have delivered today at least equals it.

On behalf of the members of our Club present, and on behalf of the great audience that has listened to you over the air, I thank you most graciously.

The meeting is adjourned. (Applause)

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The Theatre As We Know It

The speaker's experience in the theatre over the last 25 years. His witness to the theatre ceasing to be an important aspect of the town. Comments on the general lack of knowledge of the theatre. A discussion of the need for a theatre. Trying to do something to get back some of the simple graces, some of the things that really matter to us, and discarding some of the false values that have been set in the way. How acting and the theatre can and do help. A consideration of how the theatre has changed and altered from the time that the speaker was a boy. The impact of the mechanical entertainment on the theatre. The growth of the motion picture and of the radio and the prospect now in the near future of television. How the theatre will compete with these new forms of entertainment. The occasion represented by a night at the theatre. The lasting nature of the theatre and the experience therein. How people take part in the play that is being performed. The interactivity between actor and audience. Changing fashions and trends in the theatre. The continued use and support of the theatre.