Mavor's torch still burns

Mavor Moore, who died last week at 87, was the sole person I've known who could confidently leave just his first name on a message. Moses Znaimer may do it, but there are other Moseses. There was only one Mavor, literally.

As Jesus (since this is the season) “went about doing good,” Mavor went about creating Canadian cultural institutions. I realize he is hardly known among artists below a certain age, and there have been relatively few tributes, but that's the nature of our country and our times.

Right after the Second World War, he created a Toronto theatre troupe, the New Play Society, when there weren't even any theatres. They performed in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum. He was CBC-TV's first producer in the 1950s. He opened the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and the Charlottetown Festival. He wrote plays, musicals, opera, reviewed plays, taught university.

He was too old to apply for grants — granting bodies didn't exist when he began — but young enough to be the first artist to head the Canada Council. He had a lifelong impish quality, a twinkle, the retention of the child, that marks a well-lived life, in the sense of, till the end, truly vital.

That doesn't mean childish. Around artists, he often seemed like the grown-up. He once played the chief inquisitor in a TV script I wrote about the secret royal commission that probed the Gouzenko spy scandal in 1946. He knew that sector of the Canadian élite: cold, smug and condescending.

He testified for me as a character witness when I was on trial for misbehaviour during a strike. Sitting in the box, cut off at chest level, he looked like a bust of Socrates, whom he'd played on TV in Witness to Yesterday. The Crown made the error of cross-examining him, asking if it was true I'd written a TV film on how workers are exploited and are entitled to fight back forcefully. “Yes,” intoned Mavor. “Writers have been doing that since the Greeks and I doubt they'll stop any time soon.”

He always circled back to theatre. When he left it for the CBC in the early '50s, he was scolded by Nathan Cohen, our best theatre critic. But he returned to start the St. Lawrence Centre in 1968. He was at the founding meeting of the Canadian playwrights' union in 1977 and became its first president. It was a grungy organization that he didn't really need at that point but it mattered to him.

It's interesting how most obits have omitted that credit. There is something shabby and not quite respectable about Canadian theatre, in the sense of writing and producing our own plays. Other areas in the arts here fare better: publishing, music, even theatre based on reputable foreign playwrights.

Last week, two days after Mavor's death, I went to see actor-writer Tony Nardi in an unusual theatre piece called Two Letters. The part I saw was a furious, literate rant presented as a letter to two Toronto reviewers who stupidly mauled a commedia dell'arte classic that had been mangled by its director, leaving the actors and audience as the lone innocents, and victims.

It went on for two and a half hours with a short break, just Tony Nardi reading passionately off his computer, rarely even glancing up. When the text got a bit florid, the performance held you, and vice versa. Speaking as someone who gets depressed at merely learning there will be an intermission, I gladly stuck it out, plus the audience discussion afterward.

About 35 people were there yet it had, and this sounds pompous, the feel of something important, far more than a movie, concert or game with many thousands present. I think that's because people go to such an event not to be entertained but to be engaged (which can also be entertaining).

Theatre needs its audience as they need it. No play is ever done before an empty hall, unlike film. It addresses them as agents, not passive receptors, in the form in which human beings act historically, i.e. as a group. You never know the effect of such a thing, because it ripples outward, perhaps forever, like Mavor Moore's life and work.

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch,” as it says on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room.

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