A CAREER IN REVIEW: DONALD DAVIS CANADIAN ACTOR, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR
Jill Tomasson Goodwin
Donald Davis's professional career as an actor, producer, and director spans forty-two years and two continents. This first of two articles discusses his amateur and professional work from 1937 to 1959, and chronicles his work in Canada (Hart House, the Straw Hat Players, Stratford, and the Crest Theatre) as well as his early work in the United States and England.
La carrièe professionnelle de Donald Davis, acteur, metteur en scène et producteur, s'échelonne sur quarante-trois années et deux continents. Dans ce premier de deux articles, l'auteur discute de l'activité amateur et professionnelle de Davis entre les années 1937 et 1959, à Hart House, avec la troupe des Straw Hat Players, à Stratford et au Crest Theatre, aussi bien que ses débuts aux Etats-Unis et en Angleterre.
Very few Canadian actors have had the experience - or the success - in the theatre that Donald Davis has. His forty-two year professional career reveals a life immersed in all aspects of the theatre, ranging from his stage, radio, and television acting in Canada, the United States and Britain to his managing, directing, and producing plays. A review of his career traces, at the same time, the development of many important institutions of Canadian theatre: Hart House, Muskoka summer stock theatre, Stratford, and Toronto's Crest Theatre.
Most of what has been written about Davis either has been oblique - concerned with his general contribution to professional theatre in the 1950s, surveyed in such books as English Canadian Theatre and Contemporary Canadian Theatre - or narrowly focused, concerned only with such isolated efforts as the Crest (Canadian Theatre Review) or his dramatic interpretation of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape).1 Retrospection, however, requires more than piecemeal treatment: to review Davis's whole career is, in part, to contextualize Canadian theatre since World War II, to tell its story through the struggle and accomplishments of one of its chief protagonists. The wealth of details and the significance of the story require two articles to complete the telling.
This, the first article, reviews his career from childhood plays to his departure for the New York stage in 1959, treating such steps as Hart House, the Woodstock Playhouse, the Straw Hat Players, his work in the British Isles, Stratford, and the Crest Theatre. The second article will focus more on Davis's attributes as an actor, his working style, and his approach to characterization. It will examine his ten-year stay in the United States, particularly his roles in plays by Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, and the Ypsilanti Greek Theatre in Michigan. As well, it will survey his work over the past twenty years in Canada both as actor and director.
Donald George Davis was born on 26 February 1928 in Newmarket, Ontario, a town between Lake Muskoka and Toronto, the two loci, as it turned out, of his dramatic efforts in the 1940s and 1950s. Newmarket was the long-time home of the Davis Leather Company, which Davis's great-grandfather founded in 1834 and which his father, Elihu James Davis, managed with his two brothers.
While the family's prosperity through the Depression years allowed the Davis offspring lessons in music, art, and drama, the Davis women fostered and encouraged in them a love for the arts. Until her marriage to E.J. Davis in 1921, Dorothy Chilcott taught elocution, dancing, and dramatic arts. She had trained at the Margaret Eaton School and taught young ladies elocution and poise at the Hamburg Conservatory in Toronto. In the late 'teens, E.J. Davis's sister-in-law, Etta (Rosetta Pettit) Davis, arranged for Dorothy Chilcott to commute to Newmarket one day a week to teach her son Bruce and a group of children his age. Almost immediately, Chilcott established annual recitals there for the Dorothy Chilcott Dramatic Club. In 1921, for example, the recital, which was held at Newmarket Town Hall, was comprised of Toronto and Newmarket participants presenting such fare as Milton's Comus and John Kendricks Bangs's The Fatal Message, a mezzo-soprano selection of Spring's Awakening, a recitation of Every Inch a King, and Chilcott's own performance of the Dance Arab.2
Dorothy Chilcott Davis died on 30 March 1928, one month after Donald was born. Though E.J. Davis did not share his wife's passion for the arts, he wanted to continue what Dorothy had started, so he turned the task of cultivating the children's artistic abilities over to Etta Davis, the woman who had originally hired Dorothy Chilcott. Under his aunt's supervision, Donald Davis learned piano, singing, and dancing while attending Newmarket Public School during the winter months. These lessons were supplemented by trips to Toronto to see plays. Of the many productions to which his aunt took the children, Davis remembers the Royal Alexandra productions of Blossom Time, The Student Prince and Victoria Regina with Helen Hayes and Vincent Price.3
Even more important to Davis's artistic development were the private drama lessons at the Davis cottage retreat in the Muskoka resort area north of Toronto. During the first two weeks of every July from 1934 to 1940, Mrs. Etta Davis engaged Toronto actress Josephine Barrington to teach theatre arts to the Davis clan (including siblings and cousins, a total of nine children). Barrington, born in Toronto in 1910, had studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England from 1930 to 1932, and acted with the John Holden Players, the International Players, and the Niagara Summer Theatre. With the Davis children, she rehearsed bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare during the day, with voice and movement exercises in the evenings. This two-week session culminated in a performance for the elder Davises, with Donald Davis debuting as Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later playing Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. These lessons brought young Davis to Hart House as one of the Josephine Barrington Juveniles, Barrington's children's troupe which performed a Christmas show each year. Davis's amateur debut in public was as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night on 1 December 1937. Even at age nine, Davis was playing parts of older men, a salient feature of his acting career, the most famous of which includes the roles of 900-year-old Tiresias and 70-year-old Krapp.
In public school, Davis was surprised to learn that other children did not have his extensive exposure to the arts: like most children, he assumed that his was an ordinary existence - certainly it was ordinary within his family circle. But these extraordinary advantages shaped his response to the arts at a very early age, and ultimately charted his career choice. In 1941, Davis was sent to St. Andrew's College, a boarding school in the nearby town of Aurora, Ont. Though boarding school life did not suit young Davis's temperament, he plunged into dramatic activities, acting in such annual school productions as Arsenic and Old Lace and The Ringer by Edgar Wallace. In 1942 he debuted in the title role in King Henry VII by Kenneth Ives, a master at the school. By the time he graduated from St. Andrew's, Davis had decided to enter the theatre as a career, an unusual, if not risky choice considering that same year, 1946, was the inaugural season of the New Play Society, the single professional theatre in Toronto dedicated to developing Canadian talent.
Eager to find a path into acting, Davis registered for a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1946. There he joined his brother Murray, who, though four years older, had just returned from naval wartime duties and was enrolled in second year studies in Political Science and Economics. Davis chose Toronto specifically for its extra-curricular drama facilities, and immediately joined the University College Players Guild which featured one-act and short plays on the Women's Union stage. Among the plays he performed in were Awake and Sing, Hello Out There by William Saroyan, Antigone, and Arms and the Man. Davis himself directed Robertson Davies's Overlaid. He also found himself at the centre of a controversy over his part in staging Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, which had been banned from campus, and which sparked an on-campus furor. The radical thespians, Davis included, were eventually forced, defiant, to stage the play off-campus at the Halyconian Club on nearby Hazelton Avenue.4
An even more long-lasting influence on Davis's early career was his association with Hart House Theatre, which by 1946 was formally attached to the University. That fall, drama teacher Robert Gill was hired to mount regular performances using talent from all parts of the university. Gill had received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the Drama Department at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, where he taught from 1942 to 1946. Eager university students, such as the Davis brothers, rehearsed with him in the evenings and took extra Saturday classes on technical matters such as blocking, 'listen and answer,' and voice exercises. Many of these students became regular players in the four productions that Gill directed each year. The cast lists for those early years provide an astonishing number of names of performers, many of whom are still active, forty years later: Anna Cameron, Beth Gillanders, Barbara Hamilton, Bea Lennard, Araby Lockhart, Charmion King, Kate Reid, Lloyd Bochner, Donald Davis, Murray Davis, David Gardner, Don Harron, Ted Follows, Eric House, William Hutt, Michael Ney, Douglas Ney, and Donald Sutherland, among others.
Because Gill ran Hart House in the manner of a professional theatre rather than a training company for student actors, Davis found the production standards exhilarating: until then, he had played only amateur fare-family drama lessons, Josephine Barrington Juveniles, and prep school plays. Here was a new model of dramatic excellence. For the four years that Davis performed at Hart House he played regularly in two of the four week-long productions. In the half-season of 1947, Davis played the Archbishop of Rheims in the first production, Saint Joan, which opened on 27 January. In the 1947-48 season, Davis acted in the second and fourth productions: as Edras in Maxwell Anderson's Winterset (which opened 29 November) and as Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (which opened 28 February) with his brother Murray playing Romeo. Rose MacDonald of the Toronto Telegram commented on Davis's ability to play older characters effectively:
One of the very outstanding performances of the whole company is Don Davis' Capulet; this young actor has before this demonstrated his singular effectiveness in playing older parts requiring quiet force of character. (1 March 1948)
In the 1948-49 season, Davis played once again in the second and fourth productions: as Dr. Dorn in The Seagull (with Kate Reid as Nina and David Gardner as Treple, opening 27 November), and as Brutus in Julius Caesar (which opened 26 February). Of the reviews of Hart House plays in these years, Davis received his most glowing commendation for his work in The Sea Gull. The critics praised his performance as Dorn as the very best in the company:
Easily the best of the principals, we thought, was old stand-by Donald Davis as the doctor. Mr. Davis possesses a speaking voice which is more than passing fair. His pace was excellent, his movements exact ...We always look forward to each new Davis role ... in the certainty of seeing a fine actor at work.5
Davis's final season with Hart House was in his last year at the University of Toronto, 1949-50. In the second and fourth productions, Gill cast Davis as Idris Rowlands in Robertson Davies's Fortune My Foe, which opened 26 November, and the Duke of Venice in Othello, which opened 25 February.
Though still a university student, Davis was ambitious to expand his professional acting experience, and so looked beyond Hart House. In the fall of 1947 he joined others as part of the chorus of figures in the Dublin Gate Theatre's production of The Old Lady Says No, which played at the Royal Alexandra, and for which he received his first pay-cheque for stage work, a princely sum of five dollars. He worked with the New Play Society, playing the blind old man, Zimmerman, in Morley Callaghan's To Tell the Truth (14-22 January 1949). He also tried radio, debuting on CBC Stage '49 as the policeman in Hilda Morgan (22 May 1949), though he found radio acting difficult, feeling encumbered by having a script in hand.6
But it was with Robert Gill that Davis had the longest and most profound association. In the spring after Hart House's first half-season in 1947, Gill invited Davis, his brother Murray, Jack Howlett, Henry Kaplan, Charmion King, Bea Lennard, and Araby Lockhart to Woodstock, New York, to play summer stock. They were apprentices to the resident company which Gill directed. Often stock companies charged their apprentices a fee to work the eighteen- to twenty-hour days straightening nails, washing flats, painting sets, and taking the three small parts they were allowed a season; Gill, however, charged nothing and guaranteed each of them stage time. That season (24 June to 6 September), Davis played three roles at the Woodstock Playhouse: Kiwi in The Hasty Heart by John Patrick, directed by Gill (which ran for a week, beginning 5 August), Henry Bevan in The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier, directed by guest director Peter Elwyn (opening 19 August), and one of the three moving men in Three's a Family by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, directed by Gerald Savory (opening 26 August).
However, the most important event of the season came not on stage, but off. Fully realizing the difficulty of getting acting work in the United States, Davis, his brother Murray, and Charmion King decided that they should start their own summer stock company in Canada the next year. The foundation of their troupe, the Straw Hat Players, became a milestone in the development of Ontario theatre for two reasons. First, it was part of a second generation of summer theatres to replace the void left by the John Holden Players (1934-1940; other summer stock companies to spring up in 1948 were the International Players in Kingston and the Midland Players at Midland). Second, of these and other theatres that opened in the next several years, the Straw Hat Players came to be regarded as the very best Ontario summer stock company. For Donald Davis, the Straw Hatters provided the first opportunity to act in, manage, and produce a theatre company, an important step in his development as a professional and in his preparation for the Crest Theatre only five years later.
Working with Robert Gill back in Toronto at Hart House during the 1947-48 season, the Davises and Charmion King began to decide on a season of plays. The next steps: funding and a stage. The Davis brothers funded the Straw Hat Players themselves with $1,500, from their veteran's credits and war savings certificates. For a stage, the brothers returned to the summer resort area they knew best: the Muskoka Lake region, where they had played Shakespeare as children. Initially, they were met with indifference in both Port Carling and Gravenhurst. But after much talking about how summer stock would increase the area's tourism, the brothers finally met one supporter for their idea, a local businessman at a Rotary Club meeting in Gravenhurst. There, the Davises struck a bargain: the Club would guarantee the company's losses if the Straw Hatters would play at the Gravenhurst Opera House three nights a week for four weeks. (Their deficit totalled $600 at the end of the season, which they subsequently repaid). They went into Port Carling without any guarantee.7
From among their fellows at Hart House, the young actors formed a company of players consisting of Beth Gillanders, Charmion King, Araby Lockhart, Barbara Hamilton, Murray and Donald Davis, Eric House, Ted Follows, and Opal Miller. Knowing from their Hart House training that successful productions depend on a good director, they asked Robert Gill to join their venture, but he was returning to Woodstock. In the end, they compromised, with Gill helping them to rehearse the chosen plays: Blithe Spirit; Papa is All, by Patterson Greene, a domestic comedy about a Pennsylvania Dutch family; The Drunkard; or The Fallen Saved by William H.S. Smith, a domestic drama promoting temperance, which set a performance record at Barnum's American Museum in 1850; and Dear Ruth by Norma Krasna, another play popular on the summer circuit of the 1940s. To acknowledge Gill's assistance, the three founders concocted a pseudonym for the 'director' (David Leroy), a given-name version of 'Davis' and a French translation of 'King.' The name of David Leroy appears on three of the four programs for the season.
Before opening at Gravenhurst, the Straw Hat Players took The Drunkard on a preview tour to other small centres: Minet's Point Pavillion in Barrie, Jackson's Point Casino, Beaverton Town Hall, and Camp Borden RCAF. On 21 July they opened with Blithe Spirit at the Gravenhurst Opera House, where they played Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights. Once finished, the Straw Hatters packed their costumes and props and mounted the show again on Saturday night at the Huntsville Anglican Parish Hall forty miles away, and the following Monday and Tuesday nights at the Port Carling Town Hall twenty miles away, an arrangement they followed for the remaining three plays. Their home base was a barracks left from the war at Little Norway, close to Gravenhurst, communal living being the most affordable arrangement for the troupe members' salary of $30 a week. Though Davis did not play in the first production, he appeared in the rest: as Papa in Papa is All (which opened 28 July), yet once more as the patriarch character; as Arden Rencelaw in The Drunkard (which opened 4 August); and as Albert Kummer in Dear Ruth. Of the three houses, the Straw Hat Players found that Port Carling was the most successful: it pulled on a greater pool of cottagers than either Gravenhurst or Huntsville. Both Papa is All and The Drunkard were held over there at the end of the season, 20 and 21 August. Though the playing conditions in the houses were primitive, the support and interest in the productions were enthusiastic, and the Straw Hat Players finished the season knowing that they would return. They had convinced the audience that their efforts were novel and exciting: novel, because their company was Canadian; exciting, because they were coaching their audience to become regular and dedicated theatre-goers, an unusual summer pastime in Ontario cottage country in the 1940s.
Davis returned to the University of Toronto for third year studies and Hart House productions that fall (1948). But many of the other Straw Hatters, who had now graduated from Toronto, went on a season-long tour with their hit, The Drunkard. Brian Doherty, Toronto lawyer, author of the Broadway hit Father Malachy's Miracle (and much later, a founder of the Shaw Festival), had approached the group to tour the play from Montreal to Victoria and got them engagements in Detroit and Chicago as well. Back in Toronto, Davis worked during the year choosing the plays and establishing production rights.
The 1949 season was a slightly more ambitious one, with five plays. Now knowing their audiences, the troupe dropped the Huntsville Saturday night stop and divided their time between Gravenhurst (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) and Port Carling (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday), an arrangement they maintained until 1952. Moreover, based on the first season's success Bob Gill became more overtly associated with the group, appearing on some programs as the 'theatrical consultant.' Two other Hart House colleagues joined the ranks: Kate Reid and David Gardner, and the business manager at Hart House, Jim Hozack, became the manager for Straw Hat, adding much stability to the company's day-to-day running. The season produced The Barretts of Wimpole Street (which many of them had worked on at the Woodstock Playhouse and for which Gill was the theatrical consultant; Davis played Edward Moulton Barrett), Years Ago by Ruth Gordon, Portrait in Black by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, The Late Christopher Bean by Sidney Howard, and Hay Fever by Noel Coward (Davis played David Bliss; theatrical consultant, Robert Gill). Buoyed by the success of The Drunkard tour the summer before, the troupe compiled material for a revue (with the help of John Pratt and Murray Matheson, graduates of The Drunkard) called There Goes Yesterday, a collection of material from 1900. This show toured, again without Davis, from October 1949 to May 1950.
At 21, Davis was a Canadian theatre veteran: Hart House, Woodstock, two seasons of Straw Hat, and a producer of There Goes Yesterday. He was also exhausted from the effort of creating dramatic opportunity - and success - out of practically nothing. Toward the end of August 1949 Davis left for England for six weeks to visit his sister, actress Barbara Chilcott, who had lived and studied in London since her discharge from wartime duties (as a member of the Royal Canadian Navy Show). This trip, though a brief six weeks, established a pattern that Davis was to repeat for the next several years after his 1950 graduation from Toronto, first to search for directors for Straw Hat, and later to learn theatre administration for the family venture, the Crest Theatre.
1950 was an important season for the Straw Hat Players. Davis ran the company himself, while brother Murray went to England. He wanted to challenge the audiences with more serious fare, to train them to be less satisfied with the light summer stock offering. The company mounted seven plays, balancing light with serious works: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Goodbye Again by Allan Scott and George Haight, Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams (Davis played Inspector Belsize), The Vinegar Tree by Paul Osborne, Kind Lady by Edward Chodorov, and Old Acquaintance by John van Druten. For the first time, the Straw Hatters played a Canadian work, Robertson Davies's Fortune My Foe, and though it was not a box office success, Davis was determined to show their audience Canadian plays. Davis himself played Idris Rowlands, the curmudgeonly drunk old professor, a role he had done during the winter with Robert Gill at Hart House.
The 1951 season continued to build on the mixed fare, and with sister Barbara Chilcott's return from England, the three Davis family members acted in one troupe again for the first time since childhood. Among the works performed, the Straw Hatters produced two Terence Rattigan plays, While the Sun Shines (Davis played Horton; Murray Davis directed) and The Winslow Boy (Davis played Arthur Winslow; Robert Gill directed); Shaw's Candida (David played the Reverend James Mavor Morell; Robert Gill directed), and another Robertson Davies play, At My Heart's Core (directed by Robert Christie). As a mark of their financial solvency and professionalism, they printed programs, replacing the announcement slips that they had used in earlier seasons.
That fall Davis returned to England, this time for an extended stay. There he took voice lessons with Iris Warren, and did some work with London television and radio, playing American characters. More importantly, he and Murray, who was also in England, searched out new directors for the Straw Hat Players: they had plenty of talented Canadian actors, but no one to fill a resident director position. They found two: Peter Potter from the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre and Russell Graves from Florida State University.
For a number of reasons, 1952 was the single most important season for the Straw Hat Players. In five short summers, the company had grown from ten members in 1948 to twenty-two actors, a stage crew, two directors, and a business manager. Once again, Davis ran the company himself, while his brother spent the summer in England. The first gamble: audience attendance, loyalty, and interest. Davis doubled the length of each run from a half week to a full week, dividing the company into two smaller companies, one based in Gravenhurst (the 'national company') and the other based in Port Carling (the 'subsidiary company'), with each show playing two weeks, one week each in alternating centres before beginning a new play. Davis counted on the audience numbers to increase, which they did, and the season finished with a profit. The second challenge: new directors producing, from the audience's point of view, the most demanding plays to date. Here, too, the success was extraordinary, especially of Potter's productions: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (with Davis as the Gentleman Caller); The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot (with Davis as Sir Henry Harcourt Reilly); a double bill of Robertson Davies's Overlaid (with Davis as Pop) and The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan (with Davis as Andrew Crocker-Harris); and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. In particular, The Cocktail Party was so successful that the company engaged Hart House for a week in September: this was the single play the Straw Hatters brought to Toronto. One reviewer of the Muskoka production acknowledges the unusually high quality of the company and of their resident director:
The Cocktail Party ... may be accounted the crowning effort of [the] collaboration and a culmination of the work Mr. Potter has done here. It is a most worthy and impressive production. The hand of a master director, something rarely seen in our summer theatre, is in evidence everywhere in the presentation ... The Straw Hat Players are one of the best of the Ontario summer theatre groups, very likely the best ... Yet never have they played with such sureness, clarity and brilliance as they do under Mr. Potter's direction in this most difficult undertaking.8
At the end of the 1952 season new opportunities opened up for Davis. Director Peter Potter invited Davis and Ted Follows back to the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre to work with him. Davis stayed with the company for three months, and appeared in two productions directed by Potter at the Royal Princess's Theatre: as the Pedant in The Taming of the Shrew (which opened 20 October for a two-week run), and as Lord Adam Temple in A Masque of Summer by Ian Dallas (which opened 3 November). Davis then moved on to the Bristol Old Vic Company and played an American killer in The River Line by Charles Morgan (directed by Warren Jenkins, opening 24 February 1953 for three weeks) - John Neville played the protagonist, Heron. The spring found Davis in Scotland, playing Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (directed by Richard Mathews, opening 18 May) at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Davis was trying to gain as much and as varied theatre experience as he could: he and his brother Murray had begun to discuss starting their own permanent company in Toronto.
Returning from his season of acting in the British Isles, Davis plunged into the 1953 season of the Straw Hat Players, which, as it happened, was to be his last. It was another successful season, with more audience-challenging plays and two new directors, Pierre Lefevre and John Blatchley. Both protégés of Michel St. Denis, they were members of the Old Vic Company in London. They stayed with the Straw Hat Players for the 1954 season and for the Crest Theatre's first half-season in Toronto. The weightier productions for the season were Come Back Little Sheba, Pygmalion, and a modern-dress staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream. While Herbert Whittaker of the Globe and Mail had some reservations about it, he acknowledged that the experiment 'had thought and purpose behind [the] innovations.'9 One final indication of the maturity of the company: Tyrone Guthrie, searching out actors for the first Stratford season, asked the Davises to release Amelia Hall, Betty Leighton, and Eric House from their contracts, a request to which the brothers willingly agreed. Davis himself would follow the next season.
Murray Davis produced the last two years of the Straw Hat Players in which the Davis family was involved (now, forty years later, it is called the Muskoka Arts Festival). In 1956, Nathan Cohen assessed the contribution the Straw Hat Players and the Davis brothers had made:
The disbanding of the Straw Hat Players, after eight years of operation in the Muskoka region, is a matter of considerable regret. In the opinion of many playgoers, including this one, the Straw Hat Players was a model of stock company purpose and programming. Organized by Murray and Donald Davis on the proverbial shoestring, it grew into a sturdy professional organization which was a credit to everyone involved. A great many of our ablest performers served their apprenticeship and came to maturity with this company, which was regarded by other companies with envy and admiration. The Straw Hat Players reached its peak in 1952 ... there was an élan and sense of dedication in the Straw Hat Players those days which was unique, and which gave promise of flowering into a genuine Canadian style of acting.10
Here, Cohen singles out the second year (1952) that Davis managed the company alone as the height of the Straw Hatters' efforts. Certainly, the Straw Hat Players had been a fertile testing ground for Davis: the experience proved to him that he had the talent and intuition to present successful Canadian theatre. Buoyed by this success, Davis could branch out in two directions: acting with the most important new Canadian venture, the Stratford Festival, and pursuing the prize of all summer theatres in Ontario-a permanent, winter company in a major centre.
Davis worked with the Stratford Festival for three seasons, from 1954 to 1956. Of these productions - Oedipus Rex, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, Tamburlaine, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor - Oedipus Rex was the play with which Davis was associated the longest. There were three mountings of the production: at the Stratford Festival in 1954 and 1955, and at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1956. Davis played Tiresias, the 900-year-old prophet, each time completely covered in robes and a highly stylized mask, as were all principal characters. Robertson Davies speaks highly of Davis's interpretation in the 1954 production:
As Tiresias, the blind, bird-inspired prophet, Donald Davis gave a wonderful picture of a being of more than mortal knowledge, and of less than mortal physical powers. This was a figure which struck strange alarm into the heart.11
In a review of the 1955 production, Jack Karr of the Toronto Star called Davis 'vigorous' and 'defiant' as Tiresias.12 And though the British newspapers were split on their opinion of the Edinburgh production, one critic wrote that Davis's work was 'outstanding.'13
As with Davis's summer at the Woodstock Playhouse eight years earlier, the 1956 Edinburgh production is more important to Davis's career for events off stage. One member of the audience, American director Alan Schneider, was impressed with Davis's portrayal of Tiresias, and when asked to direct Oedipus Rex (1957) for the Omnibus television series, he invited Davis to New York to play the same role. Though taken aback by Davis's youth (at 29), Schneider was pleased by his work. Three years later, Schneider chose Davis again to play a character more than twice his age: Krapp in the North American premiere of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. This play began Davis's long-time work in the dramas of Samuel Beckett.
Of the dramatic achievements associated with Donald Davis in the 1950s in Canada, the Crest Theatre is the best known. The Crest was the incarnation of the hope that all summer theatres in Ontario held: a permanent company in a major city. The Crest Theatre joined the New Play Society (founded 1946), took up the void left by the Jupiter Theatre (1951-54), and opened its doors, auspiciously, six months after the Stratford Festival began. Certainly, by contrast with the Straw Hat Players, who played for eight years and at best a ten-week season, it was as ambitious - a forty-week season - as it was long-lasting - thirteen years (1954 to 1966). It was also the most controversial project the Davis brothers undertook, closing its doors after struggling with deficits and losing a bid to be housed at Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre.
Davis himself was directly involved with the Crest during its first five years, 1954 to 1959.14 However, he had worked for two full years with his brother Murray to assure its opening night on 5 January 1954. From the fall of 1952, when both were in England, the Davis brothers had begun to consider a permanent company. The necessary steps - research, financing, housing and hiring - took two years, primarily because of other theatre commitments: Donald's work with the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre in the fall of 1952 and with the Bristol Old Vic in the winter of 1953, their intense involvement with the Straw Hat Players in the summer of 1953 and, in the summer of 1954 Murray's responsibility with the Straw Hatters and Donald's work with Stratford.
Though determined, the brothers knew that neither of them had enough experience to run a full-time company. While in England in the fall of 1952 and the winter of 1953 they researched two facets of theatre in particular: directors and management. They knew that these areas required special attention: professional directors to direct Canadian actors and train Canadian directors; management, because they needed practical knowledge to keep the company going. To this end, Murray solicited the services of directors Pierre Lefevre and John Blatchley. Donald visited theatres such as the Bristol Old Vic to observe their running: office management, budgets, day-to-day details.
Back in Toronto in the fall of 1953 the brothers worked on the second step, financing. Murray announced the founding of a new theatre, to be funded by publicly offered shares in the company, 'Murray and Donald Davis Limited.' Unfortunately this decision, recommended to them both by accountants and lawyers, was a bad one: the notion of holding stock in a theatre was foreign, if not alarming, to the general public, and the Davises had to open their doors with only $50,000 of the $75,000 they had aimed for.15
The third step, getting the company housed, was completed on 23 October 1953, when the brothers signed a contract to rent a movie theatre, the Crest, at 551 Mount Pleasant Avenue at Belsize Drive. Never happy with the choice of the building, Davis has called it 'an albatross.'16 The problems with it were three-fold: its location, layout, and rental arrangement. Its location on Mount Pleasant Avenue was near the northern boundary of the city, an inhospitable place for an evening's entertainment, without the amenities of a bar or suitable restaurant. Its layout was hostile to live theatre production. As a movie house called the Belsize, built in 1927, it had only a small stage for vaudeville entertainment between shows. Moreover, it had 822 seats, certainly a challenge to fill night after night, but this was the era before small theatre spaces, when 'big' meant 'established,' in 1950s parlance. Finally, the rent, $26,000 a year to the owners, Famous Players movie theatres, was an enormous obstacle to keeping the Crest solvent, forcing the Davises to keep to continual, gruelling two-week runs without a dark week, simply to pay the bills.
The brothers' fourth and final task was to hire the theatre personnel. They had, of course, a pool of acting talent on which to draw, the Hart House-turned Straw Hat actors among them. But until the 1950s Canada had not needed its own experienced directors, designers, and technicians. In the first season they brought in Straw Hat directors, Englishmen Pierre Lefevre and John Blatchley, designer Hutchison Scott, who had created the decor for the London production of T.S. Eliot's The Confidential Clerk, and Brian Maller, general manager of London's Arts Theatre. The Davises set out to use foreign directors to train Canadians - Malcolm Black, Leon Major, and Henry Kaplan, among others.
These, then, were the tasks that Donald Davis and his brother faced once they decided to work professionally in Canadian theatre. From opening night and for the next five years Davis contributed in three areas: managing the theatre, acting on stage, and running the company in the 1958-59 season. Managing the theatre demanded sixteen-hour days, year-round. The brothers agreed that they would split the day-to-day administration of the theatre, allowing each to take part in productions at different times. Among the day-to-day tasks: budgets, union negotiations, subscription lists, supervising volunteers, speaking engagements before Rotary clubs, churches, and other such efforts to increase audiences.
Managing the theatre interfered with Davis's real interests, acting and directing, producing a frustration which he readily acknowledges:
Murray and I were really in the business because we wanted to act and direct. I didn't ever really want to be an administrator, never a budget regulator, and certainly not a union negotiator. But those things took more and more of my time.17
Because of administrative responsibility he did not appear on stage until the Crest's fourth production, Lord Saville's Crime by Oscar Wilde, directed by Pierre Lefevre, and then, because the plot calls for brothers, Murray played as well. Over the five years that Davis ran the Crest, he starred occasionally in productions, many of which were considered the best of their season: Thomas à Becket in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1954), the title role in Robertson Davies's Hunting Stuart (1955), Vershinin in The Three Sisters (1956), Pompeius in Antony and Cleopatra (1956), and Angus McBane in The Glass Cage, the play which British playwright J.B. Priestley wrote for the Davis siblings, and which they took to London's West End in April 1957. Herbert Whittaker, for instance, praised Davis for his work in The Three Sisters: 'Donald Davis gives us a Vershinin fully revealed, an amiable man, reconciled to an intolerable existence,' and Jack Karr characterized his Pompeius as 'forceful.'18
Davis's parting contribution to the Crest came during the 1958-59 season. Exhausted by years without a break from theatre production, the Davises agreed each to take a year's sabbatical, with Murray leaving first. Like the 1952 season of the Straw Hat Players, the Crest's 1958-59 season under Donald Davis was critically acclaimed and is often cited as its pinnacle. In a shortened year with only nine productions, he oversaw two of the Crest's best offerings: The Entertainer and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Even the consistently harshest critic of the Crest, Nathan Cohen, singled out these plays for praise.19 When Murray returned at the end of the season, Donald handed over the reins of power,and turned his mind to new projects.
Donald Davis has had thirty years to reflect on the five years he spent with the Crest, during which he oversaw a total of seventy-six productions. In a 1983 interview he recalls the effort as perhaps premature: 'We were determined to give to Toronto a professional theatre which fully realized high standards of performance but I think we were probably trying to do too much too soon.' But in the same breath, he acknowledges the theatre's contribution:
The most exciting part of it was that everything we did broke new ground. When we opened the theatre in 1954 there was no other theatre in English-speaking Canada which was attempting to do a professional season. We were It!20
The Crest Theatre was both a milestone for Canadian theatre and for Davis himself: it was his last prolonged work with family members, it rounded out his experience as a theatre administrator, and it solidified his name as a theatre practitioner. Because of the Crest, the Davis name became known not only in Toronto and its environs but in New York, where Donald was to move to continue his acting career.
Until the fall of 1959 when Davis left for New York, his life consisted of a series of preparations for a profession that did not exist within Canada, certainly when he was a child, and only marginally when he graduated from university. In a 1988 interview, Davis commented on this fact, saying that:
In the late '40s, when I was making career decisions, you didn't go into the theatre. If you did, you certainly left the country. But it was not considered a possible or even a probable career choice. And when you expressed such aspirations you were considered quite mad by some people, or at least totally unrealistic.21
But Davis had decided to become an actor and, defying the enormous odds, to stay in Canada. Once the decision was taken, however, he faced the problem of pursuing acting in a country with limited theatrical opportunities. More than any other, this obstacle shaped most of his career decisions during this period.
To meet the challenge of preparing for a profession that was not prepared for him, Davis drew on two resources. First he looked to his family, and in particular his brother Murray, who of course shared an ongoing value and interest in, as well as a common experience of, the theatre, starting with their childhood dramatic training in Muskoka and continuing until 1969 when Murray left the theatre. Murray provided him with camaraderie and family support, shared financial backing, and collaborated with him on the creation of two theatres. Second, Davis looked to professionals in Toronto, particularly Robert Gill, and in the British Isles, Peter Potter, Pierre Lefevre and John Blatchley. They provided the other element needed, namely experienced directing and international acting standards. Out of these two forces came the Straw Hat Players and the Crest Theatre, as well as connections with the fledgling Stratford theatre.
However, the creation ex nihilo of professional opportunities was one step removed from what Davis had prepared himself for: acting. Theatre management was exhausting, and with the Crest Theatre, frustrating. In 1959, he decided to test himself, without his family, without the support of teacher/directors, and without needing to create his own theatre in which to perform. He could not do so in Canada; he refused to return to England where he was known. He chose New York, and in 1959 he left to test himself on the American stage.
A CAREER IN REVIEW: DONALD DAVIS CANADIAN ACTOR, PRODUCER, DIRECTOR
Jill Tomasson Goodwin
1 See EUGENE BENSON and
L W CONOLLY, English Canadian Theatre (Toronto: Oxford University
Press, 1987), pp 69-70; ANTON WAGNER, ed, Contemporary Canadian Theatre:
New World Visions (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1985), pp 143-44; Canadian
Theatre Review 7 (Summer 1975) pp 8-51; JAMES KNOWLSON, ed, Samuel
Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape: A Theatre Workbook (London: Brutus Books,
1980), pp 58-64
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2 'Dorothy Chilcott Recital,'
8 Apr 1921. Donald Davis papers
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3 Ontario Historical Studies
Series. Interview with DONALD DAVIS, p 13
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4 OHSS, p 24
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5 H.H., 'At the Play, Hart
House Theatre - The Sea Gull,' Robert Gill Scrapbooks
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6 OHSS, p 42
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7 OHSS, p 47
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8 Globe and Mail, 1952.
No author. Straw Hat Players microfiche, Metropolitan Toronto Reference
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9 HERBERT WHITTAKER, 'Show
Business,' Globe and Mail, 31 Aug 1953
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10 NATHAN COHEN, Saturday
Review, 21 July 1956
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11 ROBERTSON DAVIES, 'Simplicity
and Artifice Combine at Stratford,' Saturday Night, 31 July 1954
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12 JACK KARR, Toronto
Star, 29 June 1955
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13 Not surprisingly, the
critic is from a Canadian newspaper and comments more extensively on more
actors. JANE ARMSTRONG, 'Audience Likes Oedipus, Critics Rap Guthrie,
Toronto Telegram, 4 Sept 1956
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14 A descriptive list
of all the Crest productions and articles on its achievements and demise
are found in Canadian Theatre Review, no 7 (Summer 1975)
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15 This decision to back
the company through share-holding affected other areas, particularly artistic
claims, the theatre board, and other venues of financial support. The written
objective of the theatre, for example: 'to present popular plays at popular
prices on a fortnightly basis,' was worded specifically to attract possible
investors; the brothers chose business people over those in the cultural
community for the theatre board; and a share-holding company could not
apply for Canada Council funds. The Crest finally converted to a non-profit
company in 1957
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16 OHSS, p 61
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17 OHSS, p 78
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18 HERBERT WHITTAKER,
Globe and Mail, 24 Oct 1956; JACK KARR, Toronto Star, 14
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19 NATHAN COHEN, Toronto
Star, 7 Nov 1970
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20 Personal interview
with BARB PAPPO, Spring 1983
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21 Personal interview
with JILL TOMASSON GOODWIN, 26 July 1988
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