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Who’s in the Goose Tonight: An Anecdotal History of Canadian Theatre

by Vernon Chapman

For one performance of a sketch for Spring Thaw, the annual revue that saved the bacon of the New Play Society in Toronto, actor Ted Follows, who had been absent from the show for a week, unexpectedly donned a goose costume and caused a fellow actor playing Mother Goose to break up on stage. Dora Mavor Moore, the formidable founder and driving force of the company, shot backstage like a bolt of lightning and hollered, “Who’s in the Goose tonight?”

This anecdote is one of the best things in this massively exhausting book, which purports to be an anecdotal history of Canadian theatre up to 1970. As actor, director, and business manager, Vernon Chapman worked with many early theatre companies from Winnipeg to Stratford to Toronto, with countless other short-lived or minor groups thrown in for good measure. Any serious student of Canadian theatre history will be glad to have this album of memories, just as many of Chapman’s colleagues will be delighted to find their names in the numerous, lengthy roll calls he provides.

However, the book could have been twice as effective at less than half its present length. Chapman also can’t seem to decide if he wants to write a theatre history or an actor’s anecdotage. Instead of highlighting how early Canadian theatre audiences and critics had to learn about professional theatre along with the actors and directors, Chapman indulges in endless chatter about such things as tea with Barry Jones, a tour of Sir John Gielgud’s home, or actress Charmion King’s encounter with a ghost at the Grand Theatre in London.

Some of the chatter is modestly interesting, including anecdotes mapping the early achievements of Timothy Findley and Don Harron. Also of passing interest are the scores the author settles with past and present foes in the theatre community, but he tells us little about acting techniques or production styles. There are archival photographs – many quite rare – and pages of endnotes that document Chapman’s bibliographic sources and recorded interviews, but reading this shapeless, over-extended book requires the patience of Job, the unrelenting stamina of Sisyphus, and the charity of a saint.