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AS FAR AS I REMEMBER
(Coming of Age in Post-War England)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
374 pages, $24.95 (paper)

 

THE BEST FOOLING
(Adventures in Canadian Theatre)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
366 pages, $25 (paper)

One of the salient things in the two Michael Bawtree’s memoirs under review (there is a third volume yet to come) is a sense of fortuitous “accident” and self-fashioning.  Bawtree (who has had a long career as playwright, director, journalist, educator, and actor) conducts us down a long memory lane with many twists and turns, without in any sense wearing out his welcome because his writing is eloquent, amusing in an understated way, and instructive. Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1937, to an English father (Raymond) and an Australian mother (Kathleen), he grew up in England, when it was deep in its rather rancid class-consciousness. Bawtree’s father ran a gamut of professions (bookkeeper, failed pig farmer, country hotel proprietor of sorts with his resourceful wife, and the creator of a failed farm service operation), and his father’s ancestors came from a superior artisan class, with some being Dissenters (and, therefore, ineligible for entry to Oxford or Cambridge). No one before his father’s generation had university degrees, and of his five uncles, only two received higher education that led in their cases to ordination in the Church of Scotland.

However, although dissent is in his family history, Bawtree doesn’t really register as a maverick except when (in The Best Fooling) he espouses a middle-class anarchism (by way of academia) and a weird, self-defeating ideology of “un-led theatre” in his career as director and artistic director in Vancouver and Ottawa. Both volumes of his memoirs reveal how he transcended his family working-class background and how England and, eventually, Canada made him. Bawtree’s fine way with language gives his writing a sheen that speaks to his boyhood in boarding schools, and education at Radley College and Oxford (where his talents for languages, photography, and music came to the fore). Distinguished names (Peter Cook, Laurence Olivier, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Ricks, Bill Glassco, et al) are dropped into the narrative—sometimes too briefly—but never simply for snob value, although many of these names would probably be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with English cultural history of Bawtree’s youth and early adulthood. Glassco, however, should be on the mind of any Canadian familiar with the Alternative Theatre Movement, and Glassco becomes a crucially important figure in the second volume that carries us into Bawtree’s occasionally turbulent involvement with Canadian theatre.

It was the three years at Oxford that gave Bawtree a chance to decide whether he and his peers would be “loners or bons viveurs, idle or industrious, self-deprecating or arrogant, showy or reserved, respectful or contemptuous.” The university was “a pressure cooker of activity” because of the shortness of the three terms (8 weeks each), and the standard of scholarship was far higher than that found in North America: an undergraduate degree could be earned only after a candidate’s successfully writing nine three-hour papers in four and a half days, covering the entire gamut of English, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to 1910. The cut-off year, however, betrayed an endemic snobbery, a condition once described by Anthony Burgess as “a tradition of wariness of approach to the study of contemporary letters…It is in the European academic tradition to stick to the safe past, and the past is a couple of days before yesterday.” It was a snobbery that also tainted such venerable Canadian institutions as McGill and the University of Toronto for the longest time.

As Far As I Remember encompasses its narrator’s family vacations to the seashore, wanderlust, and two years of British military service, when he came face to face with British imperial politics and experienced some of the civil war in Cyprus. But as amusing or as instructive as these sections are in his chronicle, an equally serious undercurrent in the narrative is what he calls his “secret malaise,” first recognized in adolescence and then deepened in youth. This is the love that he hardly dares to name explicitly, but one that is felt as something dangerous yet essential to his real nature. Bawtree’s fleeting encounters with a few women end in disappointment, as he maintains a protracted, secret battle between his two selves. The “malaise” gets more explicitly exposed in The Best Fooling, a more “Canadian” narrative because it settles questions for Bawtree about life and career in his adopted country where he is free to fashion himself more definitively than in post-war England.

How Bawtree came to Canada marks one of the most significant happy “accidents” in the second memoir, that is, possibly, less charmingly nostalgic than its predecessor but far more pungent. He and Bill Glassco (“extremely modest, even diffident in his manner”) were part of the Worcester Buskins at Oxford, where Glassco dazzled Bawtree and others as a pianist and composer. In the early 60s, Glassco excited Bawtree with a glowing report on the burgeoning radical changes in Canadian culture and theatre through such things as the CBC, National Film Board, the Crest Theatre, and the Stratford Festival. Bawtree was seduced, gratefully accepted Glassco and his wife’s generous hospitality, and gained entry to a circle of influential cultural figures, such as Robert Weaver and Esse Jungh. It also helped that Glassco’s father was wealthy and was able to hire Bawtree as an editor for the Royal Commission report he was preparing on the CBC.

Other happy accidents occur in the course of the second volume. Bawtree befriends actress Helen Burns, who was married to Michael Langham, and this leads to Langham’s appointing Bawtree as dramaturge, and later commissioning him to write a new play (The Last of the Tsars) after Langham’s deep dissatisfaction with Nicholas Romanoff by American writer William Kinsolving.  Later, Jean Gascon offers him the position of literary manager at Stratford, but Tom Hendry decides to remain rather than leave his post, so Bawtree seems to be completely out of luck until Gascon gets Hamilton Southam (Director General of the National Arts Centre) to hire Bawtree as artistic director of the experimental Studio Theatre, where Bawtree fails with his risky selection of a decidedly non-Canadian subject for his maiden play: the Spanish-American War of 1898 in Cuba!

The Best Fooling (with its very title drawn from Shakespeare) provides important insights into attitudes and practices concerning Canadian theatre. This volume substantiates some of the principal complaints of our ultra-nationalists about colonial romanticism—the syndrome that infects any colonial society that looks to Colonial Headquarters for approval. The Stratford Festival is summarized as an institution devoted to “the world of the classics—to the old English culture that had been nurtured in me from my schooldays.” This honesty extends to Bawtree’s depictions of Langham as “the consummate Englishman in his manner and clothes” and of Helen Burns (actress and Langham’s wife at the time) as someone “capable of spouting off some fairly arrogant comments about the parochial place she found herself in.” Such arrogance is, of course, resented by the likes of John Colicos and Douglas Rain in particular. Langham is acknowledged, of course, as a brilliant director, but Bawtree identifies a major flaw in him and other British guest directors: “The fact is that Stratford had been run for years by directors (including Michael Langham) who had a faintly colonial attitude towards their Canadian company, and [who] did not particularly expect or encourage creative participation on the part of their actors.” An ironic fact is that Bawtree’s most successful artistic ventures at the festival came with British designers (Leslie Hurry, Desmond Heeley) and casts (Tony van Bridge, Jane Casson, Nicholas Pennell, Pat Galloway, Barry MacGregor, Carole Shelley, and Mary Savidge) mainly in Restoration and 18th century comedies, so while his generalization may well be accurate, it omits another point of view: the plain fact is that without these “fairly colonial” Langhams and others, there would have been no Stratford, and Canada would still be mired in retrograde nostalgia for a cultural nationalism devoted to documentary plays and collective collaborations, performed in basements or backspaces. Moreover, an astute observer would well note that Canada today is far more open to the neo-colonial influence of the United States than to the older ways of England.

Cultural icons appear in the narrative, some serving as heroes (John Hayes, William Hutt, and Gabriel Charpentier), some as villains (notably William Wylie and Robin Phillips). Bawtree records his admiration for John Hirsch, a talented man who, to me, was always a contradiction of artist and hack, cultural commissar and sinister politician—a devious figure who fattened himself off the foment of nationalism. Robin Phillips, on the other hand, is summarized as “that cold, elegant angel-fish,” who manages (in Bawtree’s account) to “charm” his way with the acting company, intimidate the Board, and skilfully sabotage Bawtree’s tenure at the festival by a sort of benign neglect. Bawtree is certainly within his rights to colour his memoir by his own perspective on things, and Phillips is no longer around to contradict him. What is more important to the general reader than any “villains” or personality clashes is Bawtree’s rather loose aesthetic. He recounts how he became radicalized by a visit to Colombia where he witnessed “dangerous” political theatre, and subsequently dreamed of “a ‘dangerous’ Canadian theatre.” The rest of his memoir gives an account of his flirtations and eventual disillusionment with this dream that could, perhaps, never be realized, given that it had no real plot, no story, no shape.

More accidents, more failure. At newly-founded Simon Fraser University (where he is appointed professor), his gamble with the Centralia Incident proves to be “unfinished business” that is never really finished. Ultimately, even his tenure at this university (where John Juliani and other radicals hold sway) ends in fatigue and disillusionment. There is a savage god at work, indeed, as there is in his long, turbulent relationship with Colin Bernhardt (the love of his life), and Bawtree does not scant on his emotional pain and confusion about this somewhat Shakespearean drama. Yet, once again, there are happy “accidents”: a creative friendship with Maureen Forrester that helps with Bawtree’s founding of Comus Music Theatre; and American generosity south of the border that cannot be matched in Canada where artists are prone to encounter grudging recognition, minus pleasure in “ambitious energy.” The contemporary case of Robert Lepage and the whole absurd controversy over cultural appropriation can be entered into evidence.

The ending of The Best Fooling is tinted with pathos but leads to a new beginning. Bawtree discovers painfully how theatre politics can break your heart in more ways than one. He loses his status, job, and home in Stratford, and anticipates losing his lover, Colin, long bedevilled by various psychological distresses. But in 1977, Bawtree is on his way for the first time to the Banff Centre, where he will play a major role in the following decade. And then, we know from his biography that Nova Scotia beckons as well. That fortune awaits us in his third (as yet unfinished) volume.

 

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