Canadian Theatre: Halcyon Days
Reviewed by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Fred Euringer’s A Fly on the Curtain is far more than a collection of autobiographical anecdotes derived from serious reflection and years of experience in acting, directing and teaching in the world of Canadian theatre: it is a sensitive, insightful, critical and often witty revelation of the burgeoning of dramatic production, especially in central Canada, focusing particularly on the heady 1950s and 1960s, and looking, for example, at the Crest Theatre, university productions, summer stock at Port Carling and early seasons of the Stratford Festival. These are the years, after all, of Robert Gill (at Hart House) and of Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Langham (at Stratford) and of other famous names—Christopher Plummer, Donald Sutherland, Douglas Seale, Kate Reid, Paul Scofield, Frances Hyland and others.
This chronologically arranged series of linked vignettes moves from the discovery of the magic of "CBC Stage" on radio to the University of Toronto (1951) and involvement in Gill’s Hart House production of Camino Real and to parts in other plays. As the narratives continue on, one is treated to insightful glimpses of directors and actors at work, of the long hours of effort in rehearsal (or sometimes short hours when more were needed), of empty pockets, of part-time work and fatigue, and of the plays themselves: here is the first-hand view of someone for whom theatre was life beyond whatever university courses might require (and in those days the University of Toronto did not offer a drama programme). Descriptions of the whirling schedule of the Straw Hat Players (at Port Carling) come into the mix too, along with reflections on directors experienced and inexperienced, stage cats and problems with scenery and a tantalizing blend of elements from the catastrophic to the hysterical. One watches Euringer gain experience through his winter and summer seasons, his Stratford audition (1957), his observations and work with Guthrie, Langham and others, his assumption of various roles (the plays were mainly British or American), and his unqualified respect for Esse W. Ljungh, the dean of CBC radio drama, whose rehearsals he attended (unpaid) for an entire year. Gradually an interest in directing is sparked and opportunities come, but slowly, as the travails of developing a theatrical career are tellingly revealed. Two years of frustration—except for Alois Nagler’s lectures in theatre history—at Yale do not lead to a third; rather, what follows are several winter tours with The Canadian Players (through the American Northeast and central Canada) at the invitation of the remarkable Douglas Campbell, whose initiatives were crucial to so many of the actors and audiences of the day. Work in Toronto—directing Ionesco and Albee, for instance—and at Stratford fills in the gaps, and the glimpses of the 1961 Stratford season (including Jon Vickers and Scofield) are telling, as are his account of his season as artistic director at Port Carling, his comments on the volume of dramatic work produced by the CBC (now, alas, largely unknown though very much a part of this country’s theatrical heritage), the tribulations of contests and drama festivals, and the fact that, in Euringer’s view, we are missing—because the opportunities were more available to British or even American imports—a whole generation of experienced Canadian directors (an imbalance, one might observe, paralleled in Canadian universities in the 1960s and 70s for not altogether different reasons). Even Stratford did not set a noble example in this situation. Of the talented Canadians, many left for the U.S.—especially Hollywood—though some stayed, finding careers if not in theatre, then in film and television. Euringer, whose love for the stage is everywhere apparent in this lively book, accepted an offer from Queen’s University where he could at least pursue his interests and give full rein to his talents in an appreciative atmosphere. Those with any interest in theatre take note: this is first-rate fare for a number of reasons— once started, it is difficult to set aside.
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MLA: Gooch, Bryan N. S. Canadian Theatre: Halcyon Days. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #174 (Autumn 2002), Travel. (pg. 132 - 133)
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