Articles

The Rugged Rebel of the Theatre

Husky Douglas Campbell is an individualist in an age of conformers. He’s a pacifist and vegetarian, a renowned actor who doesn’t like grease paint or lavish sets. Instead of the mannered acclaim of city theatregoers he prefers the yippees of the Indians at Moosonee

BARBARA MOON March 19 1955
Articles

The Rugged Rebel of the Theatre

Husky Douglas Campbell is an individualist in an age of conformers. He’s a pacifist and vegetarian, a renowned actor who doesn’t like grease paint or lavish sets. Instead of the mannered acclaim of city theatregoers he prefers the yippees of the Indians at Moosonee

BARBARA MOON March 19 1955

ACTOR DOUGLAS CAMPBELL PORTRAYS WARRIOR ROBERT de BAUDRICOURT IN SHAW'S SAINT JOM

IN THIS SCENE HE ADDRESSES HIS STEWARD, A GENTLEMAN-AT-ARMS AND THE MAID HERSELI

IN A MERE TWENTY MINUTES HIS FACIAL EXPRESSION RANGES FROM RAILLERY TO REVEREN(

The Rugged Rebel of the Theatre

BARBARA MOON

Husky Douglas Campbell is an individualist in an age of conformers. He’s a pacifist and vegetarian, a renowned actor who doesn’t like grease paint or lavish sets. Instead of the mannered acclaim of city theatregoers he prefers the yippees of the Indians at Moosonee

NORANDA and its twin city Rouyn are rough tough northern Quebec mining towns with a combined population of twenty-five thousand. Four of every five residents are Roman Catholics; three of five speak no English. All—Canadiens and Canadians—get their living from the mines and their fun from hockey. Any auxiliary entertainment is likely to be something like Gene Autry’s road show last September.

Into this unlikely milieu, in mid-January, a man named Douglas Campbell brought George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, a talky, preachy play whose heroine has the sex appeal of a Campfire Girl and whose high point is a sharp —but unathletic—-round-table argument about individualism versus authority, nationalism versus feudalism and Protestantism versus the Roman Catholic Church.

The only available accommodation was a stage rigged from a boxing ring in the gymnasium of the local recreation centre; Campbell’s dressing room was an equipment locker jammed with trampolines and basketballs; his advance publicity was crowded into an apologetic half inch at the bottom of the regular hockey programs; and he competed on the night of the performance with two hockey games and a bonspiel in the same building. The hockey and curling drew eight hundred; the play, three hundred.

But Campbell, a lusty, rich-voiced, red-haired actor of thirty-two is a born rebel who glories in doing things the hard way. After hoisting himself to the top rank in the English theatre, he threw it up to come pioneering in Canada where he was one of the hits of the two Stratford Shakespearean Festivals.

Having been called “the greatest Shakespearean comedian in the theatre world today” by critic Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, he neglected the obvious step of cashing in on his reputation and embarked instead on his recent tour with the Canadian Players, a traveling troupe he recruited last fall from among the leading Stratford Festival actors. From start to finish, the tour was a prime example of Campbell’s love for tilting at windmills.

Road companies usually try to hit the big cities and the plush theatres where audiences are large and opulent. Not Campbell. He headed for the hinterland—twenty-two southern Ontario centres like Deep River and Simcoe whose stage facilities turned out to be mainly church halls.

Theatrical companies that do tour small towns usually bring in a “safe” play such as Charley’s Aunt or The Man Who Came to Dinner. Not Campbell. He picked Saint Joan and set out last fall to supply Shavian wit to the bean growers of Chatham and the mill hands of Renfrew.

A Canadian theatrical company venturing to bring a Shaw play to a small town might be expected to cut the risk by mounting it with showy costumes and lavish sets. Not Campbell. He gave himself a bare stage, a beige backdrop, two benches and a table.

As a final handicap, Campbell called on seven actors in ¡ identical charcoal-grey suits to take twenty parts. This | was a kind of multiple-personality feat previously attempt§ ed in Canada only by Rawhide, the CBC’s many-voiced I disk jockey. Campbell himself played three roles and his ¡ wife, Ann Casson, played Joan.

The reception was scarcely surprising. The critics were f radiant. Variety called it “a superb production” and the | New York Times announced that the company’s verve, | versatility and acting ability were “leaving viewers breath| less and excited.” Many theatregoers agreed with the | critics but a few were baffled. “Couldn’t you afford cos1 tumes?” inquired a man in Renfrew. Others were infuri| ated. In London fifteen people walked out after the first ¡ act and “Disgusted” wrote the London Free Press that the | production was “an insult.”

These were the ones that bothered to come. To Camp

bell the depressing fact was that most people didn’t bother. §

At Brantford, for instance, the troupe glumly played to six ¡ hundred people in a moving-picture palace that holds six1 teen hundred. At Brampton a scant hundred and forty

were present. The players joked privately about their

“secret tour of Saint Joan.”

But Campbell is a determined renegade—a vegetarian § who munches hard-boiled eggs at parties where beef is | served, a pacifist who once turned down a good part be| cause it was in a war play and who got ducked in a Fife§ shire canal for passing out anti-war literature near an army 1 camp. Now, having a financial flop on his hands, Campbell 1 blandly raised the hurdles—and a little more money—and

set off again after Christmas.

To—of all places—Moosonee, Ont.

Moosonee is a tiny pinpoint on the James Bay shore | where, in addition to such embarrassments as no theatre | and no stage, the temperature stood at twenty below the § day of the play. The population consists of fifty white ¡

people and two hundred Indians, many of whom speak 1

nothing but their native Cree. A Quonset hut had to be

requisitioned as a theatre, lumber for a stage pirated from | a shipment destined for a mission, and the entire com1

munity darkened to divert enough electricity for stage

lighting. I

But the bewildering fact is that Campbell had a resound| ing success in Moosonee. He played to standing room only. § The walls were lined with Indians who couldn’t find seats ¡ and outside in the icy cold more Indians pressed close to | the windows for three and a half hours. Children cramming | the front rows craned expectantly every time an actor | pointed at a non-existent kingfisher or gestured broadly | towards “the English forts”; they bounced their knees to | the drumbeat in the battle scene, and cried in fright at ¡ Joan’s return from the dead in the Epilogue. The entire | audience clapped wildly at the

Continued on page 36

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 23

end of each scene and crowded round after the performance to thank the actors.

“Their reaction was the most exciting experience of my career,” Campbell said. “It was like playing to an original Shakespearean audience.” It was the first live theatre Moosonee had ever seen.

Timmins was a sellout. In Iroquois Falls the Abitibi Cultural Activities Association was set up specially to sponsor the show. But the audience didn’t even clap at the end of the first act in spite of the ministrations of the troupe’s house manager, planted at the back to start the applause. Just as in southern Ontario, there seemed no particular pattern to the towns that hailed the play and those that paid little attention.

By the time he arrived in Noranda, Campbell faced his fifty-eighth performance of the tour puzzled but still game. By now the routine was thoroughly familiar. The players swung off the train at four in the afternoon of the performance, in ten-below-zero weather, and Campbell hurried off to inspect his stage in the Noranda Recreation Centre.

The staff at the centre had already pushed the portable boxing ring against one wall of the gymnasium and draped it with bunting. They’d also set up six hundred folding seats on the floor and some wooden benches for students in the gallery. As they worked they speculated about the evening’s offering.

“You should have heard the French guy that called this afternoon,” one of them was saying. “Wanted to know if he was going to be able to understand what it was all about. I said ‘sure.’ Incidentally, what is it about?”

The building superintendent explained that it was about Joan of Arc and added dubiously, “The guy that

was taking the posters around didn’t have a bad idea. He wanted to go out to all the little parishes and tell them there was a saint coming. Then the priest would have made them turn out.”

He stepped back to survey the bunting tacked along the base of the stage. “Good thing we painted the stage for the Don Cossacks,” he said. “I hope we have as good a turnout tonight. We had fifteen hundred for them.”

His helper looked dubious in turn. “With singers it doesn’t matter what language it is. This is a play.”

When Campbell arrived he took over briskly, supervised screening the wings, setting up his six floodlights, and blocking off the ends of the gallery so no one could sneak along and peer down behind the scenes.

While his stage manager and the recreation centre crew went into a huddle over the problem of masking an overhead spot, Campbell slumped into a folding chair and lit a cigarette.

At 6.15 he knocked off for a whisky and an egg salad sandwich and was back at seven to put on his make-up and climb into his charcoal suit. The other actors drifted in from their billets.

Douse Those Floodlights

By 7.40 it was twenty below outside; inside, it was about sixty-two—the heat had been turned off because the gymnasium is often too warm during sporting events. Clots of people were beginning to converge on the building, but most of them went on past the gymnasium door to the arena opposite or the curling rink upstairs.

Promptly at 8.15 five actors in grey suits and Ann Casson—Mrs. Campbell in private life—in dark slacks and sweater came out and seated themselves at a deal table at the side of the stage. Campbell, his white shirt open at the throat, crossed left and drew up a bench to a small table. A short swart curJy-headed actor, Bruno Gerussi, followed and began to cower before him. Campbell waited a moment, then thundered: “No eggs! No eggs! Thousand

“Everyone agreed the tour was great, but it cost Campbell his own money”

thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?”

At the end of the first act, when the floodlights were doused and the house lights came on, applause broke out almost without the house manager’s priming. As the evening progressed the gymnasium got chillier but in spite of sporadic shouts and noise from other parts of the building the audience reaction got warmer.

The ovation at the end was halted only by Campbell’s announcing The Queen. He began the anthem himself, unaccompanied, and carried it alone until the audience took courage and joined in.

Everyone agreed the show was wonderful and urged Campbell to come back again, in spite of some rather depressing attendance statistics. Of the six hundred seats in the gymnasium, only three hundred had been filled. Three hundred and fifty jneople had preferred the bonspiel upstairs and four hundred and fifty had tuiTied out for the midget-juvenile hockey games. Late last summer twenty-five hundx'ed people attended Gene Autry’s road show.

A less obstinate man than Campbell might justifiably thi'ow in the sponge at this point, especially when it’s costing him his own money.

A Breakdown in Traffic

When Campbell and Tom Patterson organized the Canadian Playex’s they managed to scrounge $7,800 for their quixotic project. Patterson, a former magazine editor who first dreamed up the Stx-atford Festival, is president of the limited company. Campbell’s contract called for $125 a week; his playex’s’ conti’acts for $100 a week and the salaries were met while the ti'oupe was actually on the road, except for the last week of the southern Ontario tour. Then all the players dipped into their own pockets for extra expenses.

Only minimum house guax'antees undei'taken by local service clubs made the northern tour possible. Campbell went into debt and during January Patterson suffei'ed a breakdown brought on by a traffic accident and his own frantic efforts to raise money for the tx’oupe.

Campbell points out that in small centres even a full house couldn’t assux'e their bx'eaking even and suggests bluntly that a revival of the Renaissance patron idea may be necessary if the low flame of Canadian theatre is to be kept alive. But it’s typical that the man who abdicated an assux’ed and pi’ofitable career at the Old Vic in favor of this irregular venture x’emains practically undaunted. “We were just leai'ning this time x'ound,” he says. “We made all sox-ts of mistakes. Now I know something about Noranda, for instance, Fd bring along a couple of French-Canadian actors next time. Or a whole French-Canadian troupe. I hope our expei'ience isn’t going to be wasted.”

Some relief came at the end of January when the players divided up five thousand dollars for appealing on Omnibus, the CBS Television Sunday prestige progx-am, in selections fx’om Hamlet. A tour to U. S. border cities followed early in Febx-uary.

“But I can’t staid out on another tour unless I stop acting for a while and go to work at something else to raise money,” Campbell said x-ecently.

If he decided to go to work at something else—and he’s pig-headed enough to do it—he could make a fair fist of singing, painting, dancing or almost any form of manual labor. He could also teqch fencing. These are fields in which he has considerable skill and expex'ience. At two periods in his life he devoted himself to art and turned out a number of exotic daubs that he has since destroyed. In between, he drove a truck and loaded fruit for a living.

He’s so expei’t a dancer that he did the choreography for the court ball in All’s Well That Ends Well at Stratford and so fine a swordsman that he was entrusted with arranging the battle scenes for Richard III. He’s come to grief with the foils only once: playing Macduff in Glasgow, he encountered a Macbeth of indifferent fencing skill and got slashed across the neck, a mishap that almost dictated a new finale for the play, with Macbeth bringing in Macduff's head on a pike.

In the meantime these talents ai'e all at the service of his acting, a cx-aft he has so thoroughly mastered that, a

couple of years ago, he even succeeded in fooling a fellow actor. Toronto actor Donald Harron saw him take the part of an American in an Old Vic play and wondered who the Yankee was who’d got the part. It was Campbell, but Harron didn’t know him. When Campbell appeared later in the play as an Arab, Harron again didn’t recognize him.

More recently he achieved another form of the improbable by getting a laugh in Oedipus Rex, the Greek tragedy produced last summer at Stratford, although his face was covered by a heavy mask. He gave such a sly reading to one line that some members of the audience swore he’d made his mask wink. And he’s a tireless perfectionist. He has, for example, learned the technique of breath control so well that he sang a round (composed for the entrance of the players in the Stratford production of The Taming of the Shrew) two and a half times non-stop full voice in competition with Tyrone Guthrie, the famous director, who managed it only once and a half. “I’ll play anything,” Campbell once remarked. “If a director cast me as Lady Macbeth I’d play it.”

But there is a large slice of the unorthodox in Campbell’s talented personality. When a welcoming committee turned out to greet him formally on his arrival at Stratford last year he honored the occasion with canoe moccasins, an open shirt and blue jeans rolled up to reveal plump bare ankles. And these are his memorable first words to a class in make-up at the short drama course in Stratford last year. “Of course I don’t really believe in make-up,” Campbell announced to his students.

Campbell the worker and Campbell the renegade both go back to his childhood days in a working-class district of Glasgow. His mother is a doughty Scots rebel like Campbell himself—a pacifist, vegetarian, spiritualist, theosophist and socialist who has had a powerful influence on her son.

Mrs. Campbell split her time between organizing labor groups and organizing amateur theatricals. She was thoroughly stage-struck, and sent her son to Saturday classes in singing and eurythmies when he was only four. “He was a lovely little dancer,” she recalls now with satisfaction. Campbell’s memory of this period is somewhat gloomier: “Whenever there was a

dreary little boy in a Labour Party play I was it.” At fourteen he rebelled against dancing classes.

At seventeen he rebelled against education and took up art and truck driving instead. When World War II broke out he rebelled against war and registered as a conscientious objector. In due course he appeared before a military tribunal in Edinburgh. There he spoke up so bravely that he got an unconditional exemption on the spot.

Seeing a portent in the performance his mother straightway wrote to Tyrone Guthrie, who was directing the Old Vic. “It was the depth of the war,” Guthrie recalls, “and we were at our wit’s end for actors. We’d have taken anyone. We’d have taken ’em if they’d had two heads—and paid ’em two salaries. One day I got a letter from a lady in Glasgow. She said, ‘My son is a Very Artistic Boy of seventeen and a half who is interested in Barefoot Dancing.’ ”

Campbell hitchhiked down for an interview and presented himself, a bony sinewy youth with a knapsack, a tangled shock of red-gold curls that he had grown to a Bohemian length, an impenetrable Scottish accent and a voice Guthrie describes with reminiscent admiration as “beefy.”

It was the sinew that got him the job. Guthrie hired him as an assistant stage

manager and spear carrier. His first job was with a traveling repertory group headed by Sir Lewis Casson and his wife, Dame Sybil Thorndike, a pair now firmly established as the Royal Family of the Theatre. They were doing one-night stands, known in England as “fit-ups.” With them was their daughter, Ann Casson.

Fit-ups were Campbell’s dramatic school; directors—good and bad—his teachers. The bad ones taught him to use his own wits in interpretation and his ingenuity in production. He once liad to improvise sets for a whole play from nothing but some discarded posters, on the backs of which he copied Hogarth prints. The good directors taught him technique—“from there! The voice has to come from there,” Lewis Casson would thunder, thwacking him in the midriff.

Campbell, who had such galvanic energy that he could upset the balance of a stage merely by walking on with a spear, soon buried his Scottish accent and graduated to speaking roles. He played everything from Shakespeare to Pirandello, everywhere from the Solent to the Orkneys. The Orkneys trip was a foretaste of this year’s tour of northern Ontario. The traveling troupe went from skerry (island) to skerry in a hired drifter, and played by hurricane lantern to notably unsophisticated audiences.

They Fought to Marriage

At one outpost where they played in the middle of a clubroom floor near the bar, they had to accommodate their performance to the sorties through their midst of solemn Orcadians bent on recharging their glasses. Between engagements Campbell did melodramas for the BBC and a stint in a variety house singing Victorian ditties. In one fallow period he left the stage to go back to painting but the defection didn’t last long.

Campbell scorned the West End because “it’s like working in a business . office.” Instead he stuck to fit-ups and repertory, which are only moderately profitable but represent Campbell’s professional crusade to bring the theatre to everyone.

In deference to a personal crusade— pacifism — he left the cast of a play that had been invited to tour the continent for a service organization and also turned down a fine part in a war play, The Russians.

In 1947 he married Ann Casson after a tempestuous and sporadic five-year courtship that Campbell now describes as “a Beatrice and Benedick affair—we were always at each other’s throats.” Ann was an established actress and she and Campbell played in repertory together for several years following their marriage. Ann even appeared in a play as the Virgin Mary a month before the second of their three children was born. The script called for her to reveal herself'on a curtained balcony at the back of the stage and once she had been hoisted up to her perch she remained until the end, retiring behind the curtains on each exit and knitting until the next entrance.

Campbell’s big break came in 1951 when he was offered the part of Othello in an Old Vic production and from that time until be left for Canada he played star roles with the London and Bristol Old Vic companies.

Guthrie invited Campbell and Michael Bates, another English actor, to come along to the 1953 Stratford T estival as “two jolly good second gentlemen” in case the Canadian actors weren’t strong enough to carry the major supporting roles. Campbell scored a personal triumph in both plays that season and, invited back for

Campbell’s marriage was theatre too

the second Festival, repeated the triumph with a role in each of the three plays presented.

He had come out the second time prepared to stay for a while and when he compared notes with Tom Patterson, the Festival’s director of planning, he found they had the same idea of a traveling repertory company growing out of the Festival that would bring live theatre to Canada’s outposts and offer actors year-round employment on the legitimate stage.

Campbell and Patterson recruited the Players from among the Festival’s leading actors, added Campbell’s wife as their star and, typically, took off for an unlikely rehearsal spot: Camp GayVenture in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands. Gay Venture is a high-class boys’ camp, ordinarily deserted in September, and Campbell took some kidding when he was assigned to a sleeping cabin named Goblin’s Glen.

He rehearsed his cast morning and afternoon and pieced out his day with an icy morning plunge, wood chopping, water carrying, rowing his children round the lake, poker and an occasional trip to the nearest village to see a western. After three weeks’ strenuous work the Players previewed the show for the Haliburton folk and took off for

the premiere of the show in Ottawa

As a director Campbell surprised his company by keeping his temper and managed to create an esprit that has held the troupe together. One of them, Bill Hutt, postponed taking up the $1,500 Tyrone Guthrie award he won last year for further study in the English theatre, in recognition of his outstanding work at Stratford.

All the Players have made sacrifices and Campbell, whose sacrifice was as great as any, doesn’t quite know what the next step will be. He is scheduled to step into James Mason’s buskins in the Stratford revival this summer of Oedipus Rex, and to play Casca in Julius Caesar. He won’t commit himself on the subject of staying in Canada permanently.

“An actor,” he says, “is acting because he wants to serve the public. But it’s a battle, because the public doesn’t want to be served.” Campbell is not the man to kowtow to the public indefinitely. Last fall in Guelph, when a citizen cornered him to apologize for the city’s puny turnout at the play, Campbell told him curtly, “We just won’t come back.”

And he once told his mother, “If I don’t make a go of acting I can always go back and be a laborer.” ic