Bad Pronunciation Night in Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on February 25, 2009.

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Buses at Hart House, September 8, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567, Series 648, File 5, Item 1.

Dateline: February 12, 1954. An evening of one-act plays was presented at Hart House Theatre by students from three of the University of Toronto’s colleges. Victoria was represented by a treatment of T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, Trinity by Ferenc Molnar’s Still Life, and St. Michael’s by William Butler Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire. Once the performances were finished, the actors received feedback from an academic jury, led by a future Canadian literary icon.

All did not go well. As the Telegram headlined its account of the evening, “Student-Actors’ Diction Hit By Adjudicator.”

But who was the figure who slammed the students for their sloppy speaking abilities?

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Robertson Davies photographed by Harry Palmer, September 22, 1984. Library and Archives Canada, PA-182426.

Robertson Davies was a busy man in the mid-1950s, juggling careers as the editor/publisher of the Peterborough Examiner, a playwright, a novelist, and as a governor of the new Stratford Shakespearian Festival. In the midst of all this he found time to adjudicate student plays at U of T and did not mince words when providing his feedback to the actors.

From Rose Macdonald’s report in the February 13, 1954 edition of the Telegram:

None of the presentations attained a standard such as should be expected from performers under the aegis of a university.

Mr. Davies gave such limited praise as he was able conscientiously to bestow, considered the presentation of the Yeats work above the others, that the St. Michael’s group had made “a good shot at a wonderful play,” but had missed, for one thing, the quality of belief necessary for playing it.

Land of Heart’s Desire depended about 85 per cent on the way it was spoken. The present group did it a disservice by not speaking it well. Their way lacked charm and music, qualities needful on the stage, as Mr. Davies insisted. “You really should not attempt to act if you cannot sing at all,” he told his student audience.

At the outset of his comments, Mr. Davies made it clear he supposed the students wished to do plays because of the chance afforded to develop and refine their own taste in theatre. The play-writing editor from Peterboro[ugh] later had some criticism of pronunciations.

“This,” he said, “is a university and whatever may be said to the contrary, university people are supposed to be educated people and speak like educated people. An awful lot of us pay an awful lot of money to educate you and we would like to see more for our money.”

Mr. Davies got on to the subject of pronunciation as a result of hearing a young man in the course of the evening pronounce perfume (the noun) with accent on the second syllable.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Robertson Davies takes a moment out to reflect during a rehearsal, 1960. Photo by Mario Geo. Toronto Public Library, from the Toronto Star Archives, tspa_0042096f.

gm 1954-02-15 adjudicator pleased by festival entries robertson davies

Globe and Mail, February 15, 1954. 

Davies was a busy drama adjudicator that week. Here are some of his thoughts on a series of plays presented at Hart House on February 13.

 

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