by Keith Garebian
William Hutt Soldier Actor Guernica Editions, 2017
by Keith Garebian
Biographer, poet, and theatre scholar Keith Garebian’s 492 page biography of William Hutt may seem daunting at first glance, but very quickly one is drawn into an almost novel-like epic adventure that manages to take the life of a single iconic Canadian actor and mould it into a seamless narrative that never fails to enlighten, amuse, and instil admiration for one of the most compelling performing arts careers of the 20th century. And if that’s not enough, other men and women acclaimed in both film and theatre cross the boards of Garebian’s mammoth achievement, making his contribution both personal and inclusive as it adds to the rich, often unsung history of Canada’s theatrical history, and the ways in which it has frequently crossed paths with international glory.
Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, Maggie Smith, Noel Coward, Sybil Thorndike, and William Shatner lounge among the ranks of star powered creatures whose fame brushed lightly - a times even brashly - against Hutt’s diverse and lavish career. During a meeting regarding Hutt’s part in Waiting In The Wings (Broadway, 1960) Noel Coward told him that“you don’t have to sing much, darling…Maybe one little patter song. But there will be several good scenes for you.” (125, Garebian). A short paragraph later the anecdote is elaborated upon when Hutt’s own words evoke a detailed sense of what it was like to be directed by a tactful master -
“It’s Noel’s gift to make you feel as if what you’re doing is right and important. In making a correction, he will say, ‘Nothing to worry about, dear, but could you possibly do it a bit differently.’”Now that’s tact.”
This brief yet concise segment also manages to include the fact that Hutt discovered, in an early rehearsal, that one of his two scenes had been changed to a musical number. Ever the tactful manipulator, Coward’s satiric sense, both onstage and off, according to Hutt, was always “impeccable.”
The book is filled with similar personal anecdotes that convey a sense of a detailed series of relationships and chronologies that make up a rich and varied life. Garebian also manages that delicate task of constructing a sense of Hutt’s sexual and gender identities without the explicit nature some readers might crave. His companions/lovers, what have you, subtly grace the pages with an elegant sense of the writer’s respect for privacy, yet titillate simultaneously through the use of photographs, a sense of intermittent conflict, up close and faintly personal anecdotes, and a heartfelt writing style that shows the author’s respect for his subject. Effeminacy in particular becomes something, onstage and off, that Garebian develops in a simultaneously complex yet subtly engaging manner:
Hutt’s next role followed in 1963 when he accepted an invitation to play Pandarus in ringlets and heavy jewels in Troilus and Cressida. Hutt sensed all through rehearsals that Michael Langham wanted him to think like a woman for the part of the go-between between the two title lovers. At first he did not take to Langham’s direction, feeling “not quite prepared to reveal to the theatre-going public that there was a strong streak of femininity” in him. Langham recognized the stumbling block and was determined to remove it. The release came after an ivory flywhisk was put in Hutt’s hand, because the prop suddenly became a focus for gesture and, behind this, for mental character. Hutt described how the process developed: “I began to think like a woman, and the final note was literally just before I went on the opening night. I suddenly took a deep breath and said, ‘My God, I’ve got tits!’ I went out there thinking I had a huge pair of tits, and all the things Michael had been telling me fell into place. He wanted effeminacy but not necessarily homosexuality. If the audience said, ‘Oh, he’s a wonderful old “queer,”’ then that was a decision they should make. In other words, he didn’t say, ‘I want you to play this like some mad “queer” from Third Avenue. No. He realized that it was too tight an image, too pedestrian and far too easy.”
Hutt’s mixed persona, in a familial role moulded by birth, society and ‘nature’ appears to be a dance between traditional, complex notions of gender and the ways in which he may have chosen to portray these traits in his personal life, his family life, and the many roles he took onto the stage. As the son of a religious man and a doting mother, with the added ingredient of an at times conflicted relationship with his brother, readers may glean engaging sex/gender details and cultural innuendoes throughout Garebian’s research and anecdotal analysis. The actor/soldier’s appearance in WW2 is deftly handled and reveals a fine balance between time spent both fighting and ‘acting’ for his country. There is an especially fascinating correlation between Hutt’s bravery during a dangerous episode in Italy, and the ways in which he was able to bring extreme bravery, strength and character to the roles he would encounter when he returned to Canada and began to pursue an acting career. A colleague once observed the soldier actor mentality that led Hutt through his many roles in life and gave him a special cadence, intuition, and rhythm that frequently worked well onstage, opting for a knowing patience rather than a frustrated and cumbersome pose:
“There was never frustration. If he wasn’t sure of something, he would ask a question, but there was never a whole lot of conversation about something. You could see that he had done a lot of thinking, and if he had a question, he would hash it out in rehearsal. If he wasn’t comfortable with a moment, he didn’t need to sit and chat about it. He really was a man of action. He was a soldier that way. I remember the very opening when he came in from the heath in the play. He’d come to this man’s sumptuous house. He’d walk in but he didn’t want to walk across the rug for fear he would leave marks on it, so he did this very simple walk around the contours of the rug, and it was hilarious. He was playful, and yet he was masterful at knowing what would work and what wouldn’t with an audience. It just seemed to be organic—a second sense.” Elaborating on Hutt’s rehearsal method, Hughes noted that he was very precise in what he did but would never use his full power either in rehearsals or in previews. “Unlike some actors who come out of the chute and just blow it out, he was the other way. You could see him clocking when the audience responded. He was using the previews to figure out where he was going, and each night, he added another 15%, as he became more and more assured of where he was going, how he was going to use his audience, and how he was going to engage with the actors on stage with this new dance partner—the audience. So, by the opening, he was cooking, he was just flying and right where he needed to be. Bill was never more or any less than he needed to be. It was a great lesson.”
Garebian however is not all smiles and acclaim in his in depth reading go Hutt’s varied career.. Late in the book, at the beginning of his epilogue, he candidly admits to being the discerning critic who does not allow his status as a great admirer of Hutt’s to become an entirely one-sided tome of fandom and unwarranted praise.
When I approached him in 1984 to write his biography, I was honest about my own reservations. I had certainly admired him in most of his roles, but I did not like his Claudius for John Neville or his first attempt at the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well, and I had criticisms of his Vanya for Robin Phillips and his first Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. When inspiration or taste or daring failed him, he was grossly hammy or merely dull. I had heard of his ego, and I decided to test his limits by telling him at the outset that I considered Sir Laurence Olivier to be the greatest actor I had ever seen and the only theatre idol, apart from Shakespeare, that I revered. He eyed me coldly at first, probably amazed at my impertinent audacity. I could have become a live sacrifice at 4 Waterloo North, but he kept his temper well under control. I believe he even began to respect me a little for my honesty and nerve, though he must have winced privately at my calculated tactlessness. It was essential, however, to serve him advance notice that I would not be writing hagiography. And he surprised me, in turn, by his outward placidity.
Ultimately the book becomes a lightly sparring relationship between biographer and subject, whereby the individuals collaborate, over a span of many years, on detailed encounters that achieve a fine and delicate balance between biography, personal narrative, and astute critique:
[At the] Chalmers Awards at the St. Lawrence Centre on January 30, 1989, at which he was to receive the Toronto Drama Bench Award…Looking elegant and relaxed, Hutt made a witty acceptance speech, thanking Sylvia Shawn for giving him his first professional job, Amelia Hall for her generosity, Tony Guthrie for his love, Langham for his style, Gascon for his energy and warmth, John Hirsch for his deficit, and Robin Phillips, above all, for setting a new direction for his career. He also thanked the critical fraternity for having tried to keep him humble over all these years, “which according to the recent book by Keith Garebian is no easy task.”
Garebian has written about Hutt’s life before and comes back to the front, in his latest venture, with an immense and valuable contribution to Canadian theatre history, as well as an homage to a kind of Canadian career that we can all learn patience, admiration, and respect from as we continue to muddle through the cumbersome performance of identity that being Canadian, both onstage and off, entails.
The final pages, nearing Hutt’s death in 2007, incorporate remarkably beautiful and moving portraits of an icon in one of his final courageous and generous performances.
Journalist Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail visited him on a clear, sunny day in early June, ostensibly to fact check things about his life story, and Hutt, attached to a portable oxygen machine, was unable to rise from his wing chair beside a window to receive her. His face a waxy pallor and dressed in “a loose, brown-patterned shirt over casual trousers, and with terribly swollen ankles showing above a pair of moccasins,” he began the interview by asking: “Have you ever interviewed anyone who’s actually dying?” (Martin June 28, 2007) The question took her by surprise, as did his subsequent conversation of almost ninety minutes, during which, though racked by coughs, he talked frankly about his parents, the war, and his introduction to death before he had a chance to know much about life. He indicated three major stages in his life: adolescence, “when things happen to your body and your mind”; your twenties, when “your parents become your friends rather than authority figures”; and death, the stage he was entering with questions of what it would be like. He was modest about his own capacities as an actor: “I will leave the word ‘great’ to history, but I do know that in some kind of way, my career as an actor has paralleled the growth of theatre in this country.” He had always been pragmatic, and he explained that his decision to stay home rather than to chase fame and fortune in London and New York came from an “an arrogant pride” in Canada. “I had no intention of leaving this country until I was invited. I wasn’t going to beg.” He acknowledged the generous friendship and support of Richard Monette: “He has prolonged my life and my career.”
In William Hutt Soldier Actor Keith Garebian has further prolonged the career of a man and a nationality through exhaustive research, personal admiration, astute critique, and a commitment to chronicling detailed, entertaining, and engaging accounts of Canadian theatre history and all of it’s complex creatures.