The judge in the case, Mary Lou Benotto, said the defendants’ "creative success" was "spectacular" in plays produced by their company, Livent. It "reflected favourably on all of us in Canada." But into each life some rain must fall. So she found them guilty of fraud and forgery. Er, with respect, your honour, beg to differ. If there were a law against debasing theatre culture, I’d convict ’em on that and let the rest go.

Garth Drabinsky and Myron Gottlieb’s company was a symptom in that era of high globalization, the 1990s: theatre as a vehicle for corporate grandiosity. Its first coup was getting the Canadian franchise for The Phantom of the Opera. They produced it from a template. Global, as in globalization, usually meant American, like the faux seriousness of Livent’s show, Ragtime, built on the U.S. racial mythos but launched in North York. They used Canada as a resource base for funding theatres, testing product and schlepping. When he remounted Showboat — based on the Broadway revival model — Garth Drabinsky said, "None of the principal creative people are Canadian, but the orchestra, crew, set and costume builders mostly are."

The Toronto Star’s David Olive says Garth Drabinsky made Toronto No. 3 in North American theatre production as he’d made Cineplex Odeon the No. 2 movie chain. It’s all so unnoteworthily Canadian. We’re No. 3, we’re No. 2. Livent, he adds, was "the world’s first publicly traded live-entertainment conglomerate." No one had tried "vertical integration" in theatre before. Exactly. Because it makes no sense.

The name says it all. Live (in the sense of theatre) and ent (qua clipped corporate jargon) don’t go together. Plays like this are market-researched, formulated and marketed. Audiences feel they’re seeing holographic movies projected into a 3-D space. A sense of interaction is drained away. They don’t know the actors or identify with the plays — as happens in real theatre culture. It’s not live in any meaningful way.

Livent didn’t invent this, but it was part of what you might call the crisis of the live, where people have difficulty distinguishing between what is alive before them and representations. That sounds alarmist and I hope it’s just my own hysteria. But I keep running into people who say they’re increasingly reluctant to meet others face to face, or even on the phone; they prefer that all contact be via images on screens. A virtue of theatre is that it belongs to the oral, live, face-to-face tradition, along with activities such as teaching, which can also be shunted into cyberspace. Livent’s holographic style was more menacing, I say, than fraud or forgery.

It counts as a major sin against theatre, whereas their scam was just old and quaint (as opposed to quant), even kind of cute: Cook the books rather than conduct the chicanery right off them, as is done now. It was more akin to the scamps in The Producers than to AIG. When Max wants to destroy the theatre during rehearsal to score the insurance, his partner protests, hitting the right live theatre note: "Actors aren’t animals. They’re human beings!" Oh, says Max, "have you ever eaten with one?"

Today’s real offenders are the AIGs, the banks and, for that matter, the Mounties, who shrug off exposé after exposé of their tasering at Vancouver airport. They are institutions; they can outlast public rage. It’s far easier to put away sad sacks like Garth Drabinsky, even if his case seemed to roll along forever, like Old Man River in Showboat. Unlike his shows, he is pretty human, and would be an appealing character onstage, played by Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane. The people he thought could protect him included, touchingly, Conrad Black and Eddie Greenspan. But he went down, like the curtain.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.