Stratford and Me

I’m getting more and more excited  about my show at the Stratford City Hall on Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.

It’s part of the famous SpringWorks festival, and I’ll also be giving a special show for schools on the Friday afternoon. This has set me wondering just how well a young audience will react to stories from behind the scenes in the world of books, a world that alarmists warn is increasingly remote from their own world. Maybe a Harry Potter comparison or two would be helpful . . . especially the story of idiot publishers turning down J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript!

I’m spending some time recalling my own Stratford connections. As a publisher I was proud to bring out the official  Festival history, Stratford: The First Thirty Years by John Pettigrew and Jamie Portman in 1985. That handsome two-volume edition was published by me at Macmillan of Canada, with a Foreword by Robertson Davies. I note with pleasure that he dated his Foreword “March 1, St. David’s Day,” and we, sparing no expense, ran his distinctive signature in blue ink. I forget why blue was regarded as the ideal colour for the signature of this avid supporter of the festival from its earliest years. Blue?

Later, the link between Robertson Davies and the festival was made clear, in the saddest of settings. Along with John Fraser, RD’s successor as the Master of Massey College, I was involved in arranging the Celebration of the Life of Robertson Davies at Convocation Hall in Toronto in 1995. I asked Richard Monette, then the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, to join the group of speakers paying tribute to the Master’s life, and Richard did a superb job, speaking of RD as a Stratford supporter, and as a man of the theatre. That memorable evening had two other speakers with Stratford links: Timothy Findley, a festival alumnus, and Jane Urquhart, for many years a Stratford resident.

Like most Ontarians I have warm memories of many fine visits to Stratford, usually theatrical, but sometimes involving visits to friends like Geoff Hancock, Lynn Schellenberg, or Lucille Roch. I have even met Alice Munro for lunch there. But usually my meetings with Alice were at her home in Clinton or in Goderich. This meant that to follow the old Huron Line I would take a right turn at Stratford City Hall, and head west into Alice Munro Country. It’s appropriate that the building I used as my landmark for that turn to visit Alice will now house my show, with its tribute to Alice and her achievements . . . although the caricature of Alice bears the mischievous subtitle  “Not Bad Short Story Writer.”

“Apart from the incident, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?”

It was around 1960, and I was an irreverent kid in high school. Part of the irreverence involved me and a friend in writing comedy sketches for our (very traditional) school pantomime. So I paid keen attention to what was happening in the world of jokes.
In America Mort Sahl was happening, and a great revolution was producing the very first “sick joke” . . . which you can see above. When I first heard it,  I had the “watcher of the skies / when some new planet swims into his ken” feeling — as P.G.Wodehouse, a very different type of humourist, once put it, to describe a sense of discovery of something totally new. The Lincoln joke showed that suddenly nothing was out of bounds. There were no things that you “just couldn’t joke about.” Not anymore.

I rode the new wave enthusiastically. Even in my first university year at St. Andrews, I was involved in writing and performing comedy sketches with a group of friends. There was no money involved, but we got free tickets to the fancy, formal Balls for which we provided the half-time entertainment. By the second year I was the MC of an occasional student night-club in an empty church hall. For reasons hidden in the mists of time we called it GAP (too bad there was no copyright on the commercial use of the title we invented) and although we didn’t bother with a liquor licence, we drew packed crowds to dance and enjoy the music and the unforgettably witty sketches. (We even drew unruly crowds at the door, but that, and the fight with a head-butting sailor, is another story.)

These were the days when “That Was the Week That Was” ruled BBC  TV on Saturday night, and satire was a big part of what we wrote and performed. Sick jokes made an occasional appearance: I remember one “bedtime story for little ones,” read by a leering uncle figure. It was a variant on the traditional story of Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog that charmed all of Edinburgh by his daily trips to sit sadly at his master’s grave. Our variant, I’m sorry to say, involved Bobby (a bone-loving little dog) in seeking daily sustenance at the grave. The howls of outrage as the implications dawned on the crowd were very pleasing to us.

Later in that second year I had a minor role in a real stage performance (Ionesco’s The Leader) which involved me in shouting, “The leader, the leader” very loudly and excitedly. The director was a student friend, Alan Strachan, who in later life went on to be the famous head of The Greenwich Theatre in London. Alan formed a group of us — four men and two women – to produce a comedy revue, a little like “Beyond the Fringe.” We took over the town theatre, The Byre, for a week of evening performances. We even ran matinees of “Six After Eight” on Wednesday and Saturday, when the show proved to be a hit.

I wrote and performed  and even sang! One of the high points was when I appeared, front and centre, to produce a Malcolm-Muggeridge-style lecture on “Trends in Humour.” I told the audience that “Satire has come and gone. Now, many experts in the field are predicting that the new trend will be slapstick.” Before I could continue, a bare arm reached around the curtain and smashed a large cream pie into my face. Blackout and delighted laughter! I had to be led, blinded by banana cream, off-stage by a kind stage manager. Even in the dressing room as I gasped to clear my face to breathe again, I could hear the audience still laughing.

When people who see the current stage show Stories About Storytellers ask if I’ve done much stage work in the past, I tend to say, “Not really, but I did a little back in university.” Now all of the interest in the new movie about Lincoln has brought back memories of the impact of that original Mrs. Lincoln joke. Lincoln may have been involved in things like waging the American Civil War, and freeing the slaves. But, as you can see, he had a continuing role in what we might call my dramatic life.