HERBERT WHITTAKER. Whittaker's Theatricals. Toronto: Simon and Pierre Publishing Co. Ltd., 1993. 264 pp. illustrated. index. $18.99 paper.


Despite the handsome design sketch adorning the cover, Whittaker's Theatricals is not a book about the various productions that Herbert Whittaker has designed and directed over the years. Nor is it an autobiography per se, although the strands of his professional career are threaded throughout. Whittaker is unashamedly star-struck and as the jacket announces this is "Name-dropping at its best!", an exploration of Canada's links with a parade of international stars. Written by a master conversationalist, the chapters read like a series of personality profiles for the Saturday edition, which makes Whittaker's Theatricals a natural companion-piece to Whittaker's Theatre, the 1985 compendium of critical reviews selected from the daily output of the critic emeritus of The Gazette (Montreal, 1944-49) and The Globe and Mail (Toronto, 1949-75). If the earlier book of criticism reminded one of Brooks Atkinson's summations of fifty years of New York playgoing, Whittaker's Theatricals evokes another idol, Herbert Whittaker's Montreal 'mentor' (93) Samuel Morgan-Powell, whose Memories That Live (1929) also gathered together a panoply of favourite stars.

The lively introductory essay on Charles Laughton's slightly inebriated involvement with Jupiter Theatre's 1951 production of Brecht's Galileo sets the tone (see Herbert's 'cunning' (23) cover design). Here's an incident not included in the Laughton biography, an offbeat slice of Canadian theatre history seen through the eyes of a charming observer. Laughton is followed by three "glorious visitors" to Montreal in the 19th century. While their adventures may be culled from the well-thumbed histories in Whittaker's Rosedale library, they are given a twist of observation and an added Canadian resonance. The essay on Edmund Kean serves to introduce the contemporary director Robert Lepage. John Wilkes Booth's character description is drawn from the memoirs of the Toronto-born actress Clara Morris, and Sarah Bernhardt's famous 1880 stopover becomes a play in the Dominion Drama Festival, fifty-nine years later. Similarly, Whittaker speculates that the connections between Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Montreal's Norma Shearer may have contributed to the creation of the Earl Grey Musical and Dramatic Competition. At times Whittaker confesses to being the naïf. His secret "awestruck" (71) interview with Elizabeth Bergner comes to mind. At other times his assessments are astute, the comparative analysis of Fyodor Komisarjevsky's modem-dress Cymbeline with Stratford and Stanislavsky being a good example.

A quartet of extraordinary Canadian "exports" mixes the expected and the unexpected. Mary Pickford is there but in a tussle with Bernard Shaw. Beatrice Lillie's story culminates in eccentricity. A window is opened on Canada's forgotten leading lady, Margaret Anglin (although the bitchy anecdote about her girth in later life (213) somewhat undercuts the presentation). And then we learn about the intimate, and, for me, unheard-of champion of Oscar Wilde, Robert Baldwin Ross, to whom The Importance of Being Earnest was dedicated in 1895. Whether you come to Whittaker's Theatricals as a casual reader or an established scholar, you will be delighted with the little-known kernels of fact and the flashes of historical insight. While it may be a book that will displease those who see the theatre through the semantic smoke of post-structural theory, Whittaker has marshalled a lifetime of memories, readings, interviews and after-dinner anecdotes into a theatrical treasure-trove for readers past, present and future.

His fond bemused commentary rises to passion with his penultimate chapter on the need for our own Canadian stage stars, both French and English-speaking. He pays perceptive tribute to the post-WWII giants, Gratien Gélinas, Christopher Plummer, William Hutt, Kate Reid and John Colicos, and even manages a truncated look at Donald Sutherland, whose career history tends to end for Herbert when his stage days are replaced by his film years. To book-end this album of stars, we have Herbert's concluding nod to R.H. Thomson, who reciprocates with a perky Foreword that acknowledges the guiding hand of the author.

But it is not just performers that exist in Whittaker's extended family. Especially welcome are three snapshots of the world designers Edward Gordon Craig, Robert Edmond Jones and Tanya Moiseiwitsch. The Moiseiwitsch article, reprinted in Theatrum magazine, reverberates importantly for its enlightenment of the evolution of the Stratford stage. And we read about the shrewd and noble managers of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Ernest Rawley, and Ed and David Mirvish, "silent stars" all. The chapter paralleling the opposing directorial geniuses, the Anglo-Irish Tyrone Guthrie and the French Michel Saint-Denis, is beautifully balanced and leads to the breaking of one of Whittaker's precious links, the National Theatre School at Stratford. Whittaker likes to uncover patterns in his analysis of the Canadian connections made by the international guests. The Tale of Two Hamlets (Richard Burton and Sir John Gielgud) is similarly juxtaposed. Whittaker dedicates his book to Gielgud, "In Admiration."

Whittaker's Theatricals includes little knots of photographs, a thorough index and bibliographic sampler. For all Whittaker's confessed "appalling" typing (16), I could only find Lorne Greene without an "e" on p. 235, but spelled correctly (with one) on p. 22. There were a couple of crisp sidelong glances at Nathan Cohen (27 and 159), but nothing else to disturb this warm and nostalgic sojourn with the Canadian theatre's eminent critic and great friend.