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John Hirsch in 1980

Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

This review was originally published Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012.

Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

By Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson

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Vehicule Press, 328 pages

John Hirsch (who died from AIDS in 1989 at 59) was sometimes a great director, as he proved with productions of The Dybbuk, Andorra, an early Midsummer Night's Dream (with Martha Henry and homoerotic fairies), The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

I missed his successes with Chekhov, but I did see the stunning Mother Courage he did in French in Montreal, with the late, great Denise Pelletier (one of the two greatest actresses Canada ever produced; Kate Reid was the other). He had already turned into a myth at a time when the country was hungry for another Canadian one.

Born in Siófok, Hungary, in 1930, into a privileged class, Hirsch had a proudly nationalistic father, a cosmopolitan skeptic for a mother, a Tevye-like grandfather and a sharp-tongued grandmother. Although Jewish, Hirsch was fascinated by the theatrical rituals of Catholicism. He once said, "Most of the ritualistic elements of my productions of Shakespeare's works are really my way of becoming a Catholic."

Whether this was true or merely dramatically shocking is debatable, for Hirsch had a penchant for sensationalism. When the Nazis began obliterating Jews and his family made plans to send him away, he threatened suicide and arson; he upbraided his religious grandfather for praying; he didn't speak Yiddish and refused to attend synagogue. His world was rocked and uprooted during the genocide, and after becoming an orphan, he was sent at 17 to Canada, where he was adopted in Winnipeg by Alex and Pauline Shack, kind Ukrainian Jews.

His Hungarian childhood was imperishable, and A Fiery Soul gives a good account of this reverberating nostalgia. Hirsch used to boast that he had a photographic memory of his early years, but his biographers admit that he was terrible with dates and names. His writings evidently contained three different versions of his bar mitzvah, and Hirsch became an unrepentant embellisher and fabricator, sometimes skillfully manipulating events to his political advantage in the arts.

His biographers do show some of his manipulative skill, but their partisanship limits their objectivity: They tread delicately around some of his most revolting behaviour and his worst productions.

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Daniel Sullivan, an American theatre director and Hirsch's friend, once quipped, "During the 1980s, North American actors had to bring three things to any audition: a classical piece, a contemporary piece and a John Hirsch story." Hirsch was famous for blunt and often damaging criticism of his actors, hot-tempered outbursts (he once threw boxes of Kleenex at Miles Potter, who was playing Caliban for him at Stratford) and some bravely outrageous ideas (such as suggesting to Martha Henry that she wear a Farrah Fawcett wig as Antigone).

When someone once commented, "John Hirsch is his own worst enemy," John Neville (who succeeded Hirsch as artistic director at Stratford) shot back, "Not while I'm alive!"

William Hutt once joked to me that Hirsch was "a contradiction in sperms," a comment Hirsch's biographers and many of his partisan supporters called catty or mean-spirited. Far from it: Hutt was being characteristically witty and perceptive. Every genuine artist is a contradiction. The artistic temperament appears to be nourished by its anomalies, and in Hirsch's case, the anomalies were numerous. Hirsch himself admitted after his five-year tenure as AD at Stratford that he had changed "from my original shape into a kind of Tempest monster."

His biographers (one Canadian, the other English) are not theatre specialists, so their book often lacks the spirit and flavour of theatre and becomes tedious in several stretches. Sparsely illustrated, it is useful for what it digs up from Hirsch's Hungarian background, his homosexual relationships (especially his ménages-à-trois), his arts advocacy and his cultural politics.

However, it falls into the trap of straw-man set-ups and knee-jerk cultural responses, losing sight of the implications of its own polemical positions. Theatre can be many things: temple, bordello, forum, pulpit, laboratory, carnival etc., and Hirsch used it in all these ways, but by the time he ran the Stratford Festival in the 1980s, his gifts had dwindled so considerably that I disliked all eight productions he directed.

Hirsch called himself a member of four mafias (Hungarian, Jewish, homosexual and Winnipeg) and he sometimes acted like a "godfather," blackballing Barbara Hamilton, trying to terminate Bruno Gerussi's The Beachcombers and enlisting Garth Drabinsky to negotiate a contract with the CBC that cleverly allowed Hirsch to feather his own nest. He often railed against "museum-theatre," which to him meant an old-fashioned English way of doing the classics, even though this style of production was well out of favour in Britain, he wanted to go to England for classical training and recruited British directors and actors for Stratford.

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A terrific advocate for the arts and patronage, he became the cultural nationalists' patron saint (he and Tom Hendry had introduced the Prairies to 20th-century theatre via puppet plays, Theatre 77 and the Manitoba Theatre Centre), but he never commissioned a Canadian play for Stratford, and directed only three Canadian plays after 1970. As head of drama at CBC, he looked to American and British writers and directors.

Moreover, he was immensely drawn to "frothy musical confections" (cabarets, operettas, musical comedies), anathema to champions of the Canadian alternative-theatre movement. So he was a blatant contradiction, "often at battle with himself" (as Martha Henry remarks), a point that defeats his biographers, who often struggle against the evidence.

Keith Garebian is at work on a biography of William Hutt.

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