30 August 2012

Thirty Years After Thirty Years at Stratford

Thirty Years at Stratford
Robertson Davies
Stratford, ON: Stratford Festival, 1982

Christopher Plummer left town a few days ago, signalling the coming end of Stratford's sixtieth season. Oh, the shows will go on – some for two more months – but the crowds will thin, temperatures will fall, and the ladies will begin wearing shawls and wraps. It's my favourite part of the season.

Delivered thirty years ago yesterday, the day after the great man's 69th birthday, this lecture is a souvenir of a familiar time – one in which the festival was fighting for funds, and against declining ticket sales. Be not deceived by its title, this not a history – "Shakespeare has reminded us in many passages of the tediousness of the oft-told tale", Davies tells us – rather it's an attempt to properly place the festival within the history of Canadian theatre.

Dry stuff?

Not at all.

I ramble a bit, but then so does Davies. The Festival Theatre crowd that night was treated to the raising of the ghost of Sarah Bernhardt, a tender tickling and ribbing of puritans, and the drawing of parallels between Beautiful Joe, Little Lord Fauntleroy and E.T. I'd have fallen off my seat.

At its heart Davies' lecture is a celebration of Stratford, a lively schooling of those who attack the festival as being something somehow not Canadian. But at the end I found my mind returning to Davies' opening remarks about the "oft-told tale":
Of course, the story of the very long chance that at last romps home with the prize is one of the best stories in the world, but insofar as it applies to Stratford, you have heard it.
Yes. Yes, I have. As those ladies in shawls age, and I find my middle-aged self counted amongst the youngest patrons, I wonder if it isn't time to let the younger generation in on it.

A personal note: "Canada has had a theatre ever since it had good-sized towns," writes Davies, "and it says something about our ancestors – something we often forget – that they regarded a theatre as a necessary part of a good-sized town."

Sure enough, at the centre of my adopted town of St Marys, seventeen kilometres south of Stratford, rests this magnificent opera house:

It's a mere fine-minute stroll from the inn at which Plummer stays when he plays Stratford.

Object: Sixteen glossy staple-bound pages with card covers. I purchased my sun-bleached copy for $1.50 last year in Montreal. A festival price sticker indicates that it originally sold for $2.50.

Access: A rare item, only three copies are currently listed by online booksellers. The cheapest, in Fine condition, is going for US$25. At US$30, the most expensive is offered by a confused bookseller who pitches "signed at back", then adds "hard to tell if it is printed or signed." Hard to tell? How absurd. Here's my "signed" copy:

Believe me, you can tell.


  1. One of the most unique writers of my times. Stratford did a play from FIFTH BUSINESS one year. Not entirely successful but interesting for sure.

    1. I wasn't aware of Fifth Business: The Play, Patti. Seems like it would be such a challenge to boil the novel down to two-hours or even four.

      As far as adaptations go, I suppose it's better suited as a television mini-series, but I can't imagine the CBC being able to afford such a thing.

      Probably just as well.

  2. Davies is like peanuts or potato chips: once you start it's hard to stop.