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Identifying Mavor Moore: A Historical and Literary Study

Identifying Mavor Moore: A Historical and Literary Study

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Identifying Mavor Moore: A Historical and Literary Study

258 pagine
3 ore
May 2, 2011


The enigmatic, obscured figure behind many of the most important moments in building Canada's theatrical and cultural landscape has largely been ignored by history. In this groundbreaking study of his work, Allan Boss re-locates Moore in Canada's cultural history. Moore may be a jack of all trades, but Boss exposes a historical record that seems to conceal Moore's work, challenging the conventions of recorded theatre history in Canada. Painting a picture of Moore's identity and legacy through his theatrical and artistic work and through an assortment of his literary contributions to the theatre, Boss creates an astounding account of a cultural giant who's been lost to history.
May 2, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

Allan Boss has worked on many projects, both regionally and nationally, as a producer and director for the CBC. Boss worked with Ghost River Theatre on their production of An Eye for an Eye, which was chosen to represent the CBC at Wordplay 2007, and was broadcast internationally. Boss's Ideas program "Updrafts" was nominated for the Peabody, New York Festivals, Gabriel, and Prix Italia awards. With a Ph.D. in drama from the University of Calgary, Boss has shaped the history surrounding Mavor Moore's life and work.

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Identifying Mavor Moore - Allan Boss

Identifying Mavor Moore

A Historical and Literary Study

Allan Boss

Playwrights Canada Press


History is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.

—Robert Penn Warren, Brother to Dragons

To Grisell and Rafaela. You are my loves.


This book carries on a long tradition of research into the history of Canadian theatre. The aim is to provide a more complete picture of this topic. I also hope to promote interest in the post-WWII period, and to illustrate that postwar theatrical activity laid the groundwork for the boom that happened in 1967. But the primary purpose of this book, and the next in series, is to recognize the accomplishments of Mavor Moore in a way that both educates and inspires readers.

The most important source for Identifying Mavor Moore was Mavor himself. He helped by sharing information and memories. He did not supply facts and figures—he said that his archives would provide a more accurate account of what happened than he could—but he did share details of his life, most often about his present. Through years of correspondence, Mavor became my friend. During many of our meetings the conversation would move to subjects beyond my academic research, drifting into personal details, accomplishments, culture, theatre, writing, creation, and life. On more than one occasion, he told me he did not like to look back on life, saying it needed to be lived forward. But even after saying this he would, sometimes reluctantly, answer my questions about the past.

This book could not have been written without the exhaustive and substantial collection of memorabilia and documentation contained in Mavor’s archives at York University. They are treasure chests of Canadian culture, and much of them remain to be discovered.

I would like to thank the following people for their support and advice during the research of this book: Dr. James Dugan, Professor Brian Smith, Dr. Susan Bennett, Dr. Anne Nothoff, and Dr. Geoffrey Simmins. Thanks too, to those of you who were close to Mavor and shared your time and thoughts of him: Tedde Moore, Alexandra Browning, Don Harron, Norman and Elaine Campbell, and David Devan. Special and continued thanks to Suzanne Dubeau at the York Archives.

Grateful thanks to Playwrights Canada Press and first Angela Rebeiro, later Annie Gibson, for their belief in the manuscript. Of course, to Blake Sproule for his passionate editorial commitment, interest, and attention to detail.

Further, I must extend an overarching thank you to every scholar whose information I considered while creating Identifying Mavor Moore. Without their research, Canadian theatre history would not exist for study and, therefore, neither would this book.

Finally, Mavor Moore. Thank you for being.


Presenting Absence: Another Reinvention

September 5, 2006. I do not recall the weather nor the temperature. I do remember fragments of the last three hours and twinges of nausea.

I was in the office of the Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary, a room with a small gallery adorned with art and selectively focused light. I flopped onto a green-tea coloured sofa, and notions and moments flipped through my mind while I waited to hear if I passed my Ph.D. thesis defence. The chair of the committee, Dr. Barry Yzereef, entered after what seemed like an hour, even though it was probably ten minutes. He led me to the room where my six examiners waited. They sat expressionless, motionless, their silence filled with meaning. Perhaps it was an attack strategy, their message set to rise from the stillness like Addanc from beneath the waves. I breathed, steadied myself. They spoke.

Afterward I wandered Craigie Hall. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated their proclamation: I passed. Congratulations all around, but not a pomp nor a circumstance in sight. The committee departed, all had meetings, other callings. Dr. James Dugan, my advisor, and I met in the grad lounge, the two of us sharing a bottle of champagne provided by the Graduate Students’ Association to all successful candidates. He gulped a glass or two, shook my hand, and headed home to wife and children. It seemed there should have been more celebration at the end of such a long journey.

I left the university to pick up my wife for a celebratory dinner at Calgary’s River Café. At the edge of downtown, this funkelegant restaurant of aubergine stucco and knurled russet wood is the lone business on Prince’s Island, surrounded by the frigid Bow River. To get to the café, one needs to take a short walk across a bridge, then down a red rock pathway. I was halfway across the bridge, still feeling sick to my stomach and slightly feverish, when a thought occurred to me: I hadn’t phoned Mavor.

Mavor Moore was the subject of my Ph.D. research. He was eighty-seven and living in an elder-care facility in Victoria, BC. I stayed in close contact with him, phoning, emailing, and visiting. One of the finest things about him was the way he answered his phone. He’d say hello, then after I identified myself, he’d repeat my name with his voice rising on the second syllable, indicating a sort of genuine happiness at the call. I would say, Hello Mavor, and he’d say, Allan! I’m sure he did this for most people he knew, but it always made me feel special. Maybe that’s what made him special: that he made others feel that way. As he grew older, though, the exclamation became less exclamatory, so I was glad to hear that the notion of excitement remained. I said I passed the defence and that I would send him the dissertation ASAP. He was happy. I’d like to think, a bit proud. This was, after all, a document that worked to validate his accomplishments. To date it is the only advanced academic work to focus on him.

Fast-forward a couple weeks. After completing corrections, I sent him a bound copy of the dissertation. Fast-forward a couple more weeks and I received an email from Alexandra Browning, Mavor’s wife. She asked that I call him.

After the typical greeting and small talk, Mavor said, I like your work very much.

I sensed a but coming.

But there are some points I’d like to go over with you. Can you come visit?

This was the Mavor I knew and cared for. He was not one to pull punches, nor one to be apathetic. This quality likely contributed to his success. He had things to say and I was happy to listen.

I flew to Victoria the morning of Saturday, November 4, 2006, my third visit that year. Last time, Mavor was in an elegant old-age home with a fine dining room and many residents, the majority of whom were quite functional. We were walking toward Mavor’s private room after eating dinner one afternoon, when we paused to listen to an elderly woman play piano. Mavor leaned in toward me, and said: She’s quite good, you know.

And he would know.

Not only did Mavor play piano before dinner most nights, he composed musicals, songs, and operas. The woman didn’t hear the compliment, and she may not have realized what it meant: Mavor had a keen knowledge of music and had rubbed shoulders with some of the finest pianists in the world. There is a photograph of him in his autobiography, Reinventing Myself, giving instructions to a room full of people at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), where he was a producer. One of those people was Glenn Gould.

Mavor had moved since my last visit, from the old-age home to an extended-care hospital. His room was antiseptic, cold, and cheerless. Machines with flashing lights sat in corners and curtains hung motionless from ceiling tracks. When I arrived he was asleep. I waited for a minute or two before saying anything, unsure if I should. He was thin, gaunt; his zest was slipping away quickly. With some hesitation, I said, Hello Mavor. He opened his eyes narrowly, and croaked a dry-mouthed hello. It didn’t lift on the second syllable. He closed his eyes again. I paused for a period before saying, I’ll come back another time, Mavor. He forced his eyes open and said, We don’t have time.

I spent three days with him, two-and-a-half hours each day, in a small, private meeting room adjacent to his regular room. Filtered sunlight fell through the windows into the space. We went through the dissertation page by page. It was a slow process. Words were a great effort for him to produce although his eyes indicated a depth of thought and consideration. It was as if he were living the old man character from his play Come Away, Come Away, with too many thoughts and memories and realizations bubbling over one another.

When he did speak, it was never about grammar or punctuation or the mechanics of writing. Rather, he clarified or expanded on issues or events he wanted me to understand. One example came as he described his position as the first chief producer at CBC Television. He said, I wasn’t just responsible for dramatic programming, you know. My job involved all areas of the television broadcast. He went on to tell the story of how he, others from CBC, and Maple Leaf Gardens staff crawled through the rafters of that building in order to decide the camera locations for the first TV broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada from Toronto. Secretly, I wished Mavor would have shared the stories years before, but knew he was too busy in the present to recall the past.

Late afternoon on the final day of the visit, it was dinnertime. I packed my briefcase, annotated dissertation, and computer, which I’d been using to note Mavor’s thoughts, and we chatted about various things: the weather, quality of food in the hospital (age and frailty removing his passion for flavour and sustenance). We walked into the hall and toward both the cafeteria and the exit. At a fork in the corridor he said goodbye. I said, See you again. He didn’t respond.

A month later he died.

I recall leaving the hospital, moving through the parking lot toward my car, and regretting what I had said. Perhaps I should have hugged him. Said goodbye, too. I considered returning, but instead I went my way and so did he.

I began to learn about Mavor Moore in 1995. Playwright and professor Margaret Hollingsworth introduced him to our third-year undergraduate playwriting class by citing a long list of his accomplishments. I vaguely recognized his name, but it didn’t mean much. The list, however, was remarkable. His combined knowledge of playwriting and music impressed me, especially as I wanted to write a play about Cosima Wagner, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of Richard Wagner.

Actually, that’s not true. I wanted to write a play about Franz Schubert and his String Quintet (op. 163), which—so the story goes—he never heard performed, dying shortly before a rehearsal. But at the time, I was smitten with a Wagner scholar who told me about Cosima’s affair with, and later marriage to, the operatic composer and how she, after he died, stepped from the background to become the careful caretaker of his estate; some scholars note her guardianship as the reason Wagner’s operas did not slip into obscurity. Long story short, I switched topics. I needed help, though.

I was a neophyte playwright with the grand idea of writing a full-length, three-act, musical play. I knew a bit about music, a bit about history, and a fair bit about writing, but I also knew enough to realize that this grand project was out of my reach. So who better to approach for help than a man who’d written many musicals and operas, including Louis Riel, which some musicologists have called the quintessential Canadian opera. I made an appointment to meet with Mavor Moore.

He stood behind his UVic office desk, shook my hand, and asked me to sit. His bald head was indicative of age and wisdom, I thought, until years later, during a shared meal of fish and chips in a tiny Charlottetown café, Don Harron said that Mavor was losing his hair in his late teens. Harron speculated that this was one of the reasons Moore achieved so much success at a young age. People considered him wise beyond his years. This is not to say Moore was not wise, but rather to suggest that wisdom and baldness have little to do with one another.

I don’t know when it hit me, the nervousness, but as I sat in his office, looking for hints of his thoughts in those deep eyes (and not catching them because of light reflecting off his glasses) my gut made an anxious turn—or three. Those glasses were ones chosen by scholars: thoughtful, solid plastic frames, large on the face with squarely shaped rims. The design and form seemed to reveal the contradictory sides of his personality: the rigid manager and the subtle, cerebral humorist. They were the type of glasses that raised a person’s IQ by ten to twenty points just by putting them on.

Moore said, So what can I do for you?

I gulped, only now fully realizing the boldness of my request. Why in his right mind would this esteemed playwright, composer, writer, master-of-everything-artistic work with little old me, a third-year student in an undergraduate writing program with dreams of hitting it big as a playwright? I said, Well, I’ve this idea to write a play about Cosima Wagner. It’s a musical play. And I thought, uh, maybe… maybe you’d like to be my professor in a directed studies course. Granted, I said it so fast he might have missed a few words, but he clearly understood the intention, because as quickly as I’d made the request, he replied, Yes.

Saying that I was surprised is a bit of an understatement. I expected him to make me work for this honour, and I was prepared to make my case. To argue and persuade. To, maybe, discuss the research I’d already done, the dramatic structure of the work, and the conflict that would drive the play, but none of that happened. Before any inquiry, he said yes. Then, and only then, did he ask questions. But it seemed he’d already made the committment to me, and the process had begun.

I learned something about him that day, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Mavor loved to teach. He loved to guide. He thrived on sharing his experience. It was almost an addictive drug to him, because he’d take time, anytime, to help.

I remember one Sunday night. It was around ten o’clock and I was writing a funeral scene in Cosima, and a secondary character, the priest, said something completely outlandish. His comic line came in the middle of a solemn funeral. It was out of place—it couldn’t work—but I liked it. What to do?

I picked up the phone and dialed Mavor’s number, which I knew by heart. When he answered I said, Hi Mavor. I’m working on ‘Cosima’ and here’s what happened: this priest just said something out of character and… And it hit me… what was I doing? It’s late on a Sunday night. I stopped talking about the play and apologized for calling so late. Mavor said, No need. If I was busy or didn’t want to discuss this I would have said it. So, what was this about the priest?

After I explained the situation, I asked the question, What should I do? There was a long silence. A pause Harold Pinter would have loved. Then Mavor said, Well, my boy, here’s what Shakespeare used to do with his Falstaff character…

And that was Mavor. He was passionate about creation and helped it develop, often pointing out that a culture is a place where something grows. So when I reflect on my nervousness at asking him to be my professor in a directed study and to oversee the writing of a grand musical play, I snicker. Had I known Mavor then as I do now, there would have been no question in my mind as to how he would answer.

A few years later, while working on a master’s degree in Montreal, I was rereading some Canadian theatre history texts. I noticed Mavor’s name appeared often, and when it did, a long list of accomplishments followed. Each list bore close resemblance to the other. Each qualified him as a great contributor to Canadian theatre, but always in the same non-specific way. Since I met him in a playwriting class, and had read a number of his plays, that was where I placed him. To me, Mavor wasn’t a list; he was a playwright.

So at the end of the master’s degree I began a Ph.D. in drama with Mavor Moore as my focus. I chose to concentrate on his plays, to learn about him, to see how he fit. I read his plays. I read and reread Reinventing Myself, and although it greatly expanded my understanding of the man, it also muddied my perception. Mavor’s autobiography was written in a circular structure, like a tornado sweeping round and about. It pulled the reader into one narrative before flowing tangentially into another, and then another, and perhaps then it would come around again to the original story. The book concerned fifty years of a very active life that had played a large role in creating the Canadian cultural landscape. Reinventing Myself constantly progressed in time then doubled back on itself to expand a notion or relay a particular anecdote or detail. It provided much insight into the man—particularly through its structure, in which the reader discovers that Mavor was involved in multiple activities at the same time, seemingly affecting all in his path. However, it was also chock full of references to events, people, and places that put the reader in the position of outside observer: if the reader was unfamiliar with English Canadian cultural events of the period from Mavor’s birth in 1919 through the publishing of the autobiography in 1994, he or she could easily become overwhelmed.

Mavor was no longer just a playwright; he became the long list of accomplishments I kept hearing about. He was prolific in many fields, and the sheer mass of work attributed to him frightened me. Finding a focus seemed impossible.

I went through Reinventing Myself again, taking notes according to event, trying to navigate the book, deconstructing and then reconstructing it in a fashion that would allow easier access. The result was fifty-six pages of detailed notes about such subjects as Dora Mavor Moore, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the United Nations, the New Play Society, Lorne Greene, and the Stratford Festival. Then I read primary sources—newspapers, magazines, play programs—that established and reinforced Mavor’s popularity and his deep involvement in Canadian culture. I took notes that documented times and places, and I pieced elements together. My research was an attempt to simplify Mavor’s life in order to find an easier entry point than his autobiography. The man’s

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