Critic champions Canadian theatre

A glance at Herbert Whittaker’s diary reveals an agenda that would take the average person’s breath away. The realization that you’re looking at the schedule of a 90-year-old puts it in the realm of the astounding.

Ask him if he’s available to attend an event or go to a movie, and he’ll peer into his diary and try to figure out how he can squeeze this new appointment in without giving up anything else. That’s how Herb has always lived his life, and age has not altered his style.

Herb is the name I’ve always known him by – in fact, when I was growing up, he was “Uncle Herb” to me-and to dozens of his surrogate nieces and nephews scattered around the world. Others call him Herbert, Bert or Herbie. But no matter what people call him, he’s known best for his sole passion: the theatre. It’s the theatre that has been his life’s blood. He can’t stand the idea of missing the next opening; it would be like missing a child’s graduation or wedding.

Montreal childhood
Whittaker’s love for the theatre began as a child living in Montreal. His mother would take him to the theatre as a reward for learning his mathematics tables. To this day he has a lo-hate relationship with math.
At the time, theatre in Canada consisted of touring companies that passed through Montreal on their way to or from Broadway or London. There was no indigenous Canadian theatre, except for local amateur companies, which would perform in schools or church basements.

As a young man Whittaker became one of the most active and enthusiastic designers and directors for the Montreal Repertoire Company. It was there that future Canadian acting legends, like Christopher Plummer and John Colicos, caught his eye. Whittaker offered them his encouragement and helped give them the confidence and the opportunities they needed to pursue a career in acting.

Along the way, Whittaker realized he was becoming a part of Canada’s theatrical development and recognized the importance of chronicling it. He began collecting designs and photos of productions he saw or was a part of, instinctively knowing that they would become valuable records of a significant part our history.

Theatre critic
But, as exciting as his life in amateur theatre was, it wasn’t a living. Herb found a paying job as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. He soon discovered the next best thing to working in the theatre was writing about it. In 1949, he moved to Toronto as the drama critic for the Globe and Mail – a position he held until 1975, when he retired.

During his years as a theatre critic, he gained the respect of almost everyone he knew in the theatre. No matter how critical he was of a production, Whittaker was never unnecessarily cruel. Like a proud parent, he criticized in an effort to educate and inspire the artists to achieve greater heights. His love for the theatre was evident behind every review he wrote.

It was his incisive reviews and genuine love for the theatre that also won him friendships with some of the greatest names of the stage, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness and Katherine Hepburn among them. As Canada’s foremost drama critic, he travelled the world and experienced theatre in every part of it, saving memorabilia from every production. Whittaker still receives invitations to most openings. Barely a week goes by when he doesn’t go to at least one play. And when Stratford begins its new season, he attends every opening night – as the festival’s guest.

Establish museum
Today Whittaker’s focus is his longtime dream of establishing a theatre museum in Canada. Asked why he feels this is important, he points to the opening statement in his most recent of six books, Setting the Stage, Montreal Theatre 1920 – 1949 (McGill-Queen’s University, 1999).

It reads, “In any country, no matter how thinly populated, no matter how widely scattered across a continent, people must eventually produce their own theatre, as objects on a landscape must produce their own shadows.”

A museum that chronicles and celebrates the development of theatre in Canada is as essential, Whittaker believes, as the theatre itself. As he often remarks, “Canadians have a remarkable theatrical history, but a lousy memory.”

In his crusade to create a museum, he has managed to establish a board of directors and lure the support of some leading names in theatre, including his old friends Christopher Plummer and the Chair of the Canada Council, Jean-Louis Roux.
Collection on display
In celebration of his 90th birthday last September, the Theatre Museum Corporation presented an exhibition of the Herbert Whittaker Collection at Toronto’s Reference Library. The exhibit reflects on Herb’s life in the theatre and includes his collection of early playbills, drawings, set designs, photographs of legendary Canadian actors and the productions they starred in.

It also boasts some of his prized possessions, such as the sword that Alec Guinness used as Richard III on the opening night of the Stratford Festival. The sword was a gift to Herb from the Festival on his retirement.

In his thank-you speech during his birthday party, held at the Arts & Letters Club, where he is an active and much cherished member, he finished by quoting from his horoscope. “It’s not what you’ve done that matters,” he cited, “It’s what you’re going to do next.” He looked up and added, “I like the sound of that.”