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Fifty Seasons at Stratford

by Robert Cushman

Stratford Gold

by Richard Ouzounian

The Stratford Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, so books about its history are virtually guaranteed a good sale, even if they serve simply to decorate coffee tables as a sign of cultural caste. These two latest portraits of the annual Shakespearean festival are both written by Toronto newspaper critics. One is a valentine to the beloved festival, the other a critic’s processional, a kind of guided trip down the years, with judgments passed on patterns of artistic direction and achievement.

Richard Ouzounian’s Stratford Gold purports to be “the story of the Stratford Festival as told by the people who were there,” but it’s really a pop collage of interviews with 50 Stratford figures, ranging from B (Bates, Alan) to W (Worth, Irene). All the surviving former artistic directors from Michael Langham onwards are included, but other inclusions are more idiosyncratic, given the subject’s lack of any deep connection to the festival. Peripheral personalities such as Eric McCormack, William Shatner, and young Maggie Blake make the cut, but such notables as Brent Carver, Christopher Newton, and Susan Benson do not.

The interviews are framed by three questions posed to the subjects: how they first became aware of or involved with Stratford; what they wish for Stratford’s future; and what words come to mind when Ouzounian mentions the festival.

The first is the only question to elicit responses of any historical value, while the other two produce mostly banal or saccharine responses. The collective memories of the subjects tend to amount to images of trumpets and swans, the Avon bar, and the golf course, all of which are described with the usual purr-words: greatness, joy, milestone, guardian of beauty, and (in the unforgettable language of the Festival’s music director) “great everything!” Some sections afford interesting tidbits of information or tender, humorous, sometimes surprising anecdotes, but these moments fail to provoke any thoughtful follow-up questions from Ouzounian.

Of more substance is Robert Cushman’s lavishly illustrated history of the festival, Fifty Seasons at Stratford. The British-born Cushman’s first exposure to Stratford was in 1974, but since settling in Canada in 1987 he has reviewed many Stratford productions. His book repeats many of the anecdotes and comments made by Ouzounian’s subjects, but there is a critical faculty at work here.

Divided into eight chapters, each devoted to the regime of a single artistic director, the work is occasionally uneven given Cushman’s somewhat late arrival on the scene. The best is the section on Tyrone Guthrie, the artistic director in 1953 and 1955. Cushman shows how quickly Guthrie established a company that “could be seemingly judged by international standards,” and the chapter is streaked with a sense of Guthrie’s idiosyncratic personality and temperament. It also sets a firm direction for what follows, which amounts, in part, to a good rebuttal to the nationalist critics who have always viewed the festival – with its emphasis on the “classics” – as the worst thing to have happened to Canadian theatre.

Guthrie and other transplanted British artistic directors experienced considerable opposition from such narrow-minded critics. The Stratford newspaper gave cattle auctions more coverage than the festival, and the Toronto Star’s Nathan Cohen practised some of the daftest, most erratic criticism imaginable when reviewing the festival productions.

Cushman merely touches on these points, as his intention is not to produce a polemic. He does not refrain from harsh criticisms of specific productions, however, nor does he write according to any Stratford party lines. His text is certain to raise hackles and provoke debate.

Cushman’s book, like Ouzounian’s, is ultimately a somewhat cheering homage to the Festival. Although the work seeks to praise more than it denounces, it is a critic’s perspective that effectively argues that “For what it has achieved, for what it has engendered, and for what it has provoked, the Stratford Festival is the best thing ever to have happened to the Canadian theatre.”