Slithering across the stage with the poise and determination of a snake negotiating jungle undergrowth, manipulating his body as nimbly as he deployed his words, Diego Matamoros was charming an astonished audience in the role of a suave, cunning and cynical Hungarian playwright. This was in a Toronto Harbourfront playhouse in the summer of 1999, the second summer season in the history of the Soulpepper company, and I was watching from about eight rows back, hugging myself with joy and trying to figure out what sort of miraculous phenomenon was unfolding before me.
Matamoros and his colleagues were performing The Play's the Thing, by Ferenc Molnar, in P.G. Wodehouse's adroit English version. With the shrewdly witty assistance of a director from Hungary, Laszlo Marton, they were importing the convoluted Hungarian satire of Molnar and the amiable literary burlesque of Wodehouse into Canada -- importing them, absorbing them, making them their own. The actors worked that play so well, and inhabited it so comfortably, that after a while they seemed to be speaking to us directly from the giddy world that produced it, Molnar's Budapest, circa 1926.
Now, in my life Molnar has never been an everyday event. The English-speaking world today knows him mainly as the author of Liliom, the basis for a famous Broadway musical, Carousel; to most of us, he's otherwise a pleasant rumour. So it was a minor miracle just to have a Molnar comedy performed in roughly the style that he intended when he wrote it eight decades ago.
But that night I realized something larger was happening. A year earlier Soulpepper had scored its first triumph with an intense and unforgettable production of Friedrich von Schiller's Don Carlos, about political freedom in the Spain of Philip II. That could have been seen as a one-time event, but The Play's The Thing suggested that something permanent was happening. Apparently in Soulpepper we had acquired not only a company of great promise but also a company with an unusual agenda.
A dozen actors and actor-directors founded Soulpepper in a bold attempt to shape their destiny rather than wait for others to offer them good parts in great plays. As Matamoros has put it, "We wanted to take charge of our own careers." To everyone's astonishment their plan worked, the actors proving they can run a company as efficiently as anyone else. In June they broke ground for the company's own school in the Distillery District, which will include several small theatres alongside George Brown College's theatre program. Soulpepper wants to help create the professionals of the future as well as employ the professionals of the present.
From the beginning the Soulpepper founders seem also to have had in mind a particular category of play, one that was missing from most of Canada. The Soulpepper publicity never stressed it, perhaps out of politeness, but they were trying to broaden the cultural environment of a theatre that was far too limited in its literary resources. They were trying to produce a shift in sensibility, making the Toronto stage (and perhaps, by extension, theatre in English-speaking Canada) less provincial and more cosmopolitan.
Our companies produce the English classics in fair number, create a good many Canadian plays, and import recent shows from New York and London. But they traditionally ignore the drama of the Continent, and in particular the classics written on the Continent in the last two and three centuries. Unless we study them in school or university, European non-English plays before the late 19th century don't exist for us.
In Toronto this limitation seems especially strange; after all, Toronto takes the greatest pride in its intensely diverse population. In this sense, drama seems far more parochial than music. Classical music routinely asks us to follow it across Europe and deep into the 18th century, taking us every day to places that our actors are seldom asked to visit.
But Soulpepper, in its self-chosen mission to convert us, has been making great progress. It has created an intellectual space where the great European writers can come together with Toronto actors, the talents and insights of each of them reflecting light on the work of the others.
After bringing Schiller (Germany, 1759-1805) under the same tent with Molnar (1878-1952), Soulpepper has shown us La Ronde, by Arthur Schnitzler (Austria, 1862-1931) and Phedre, by Jean Baptiste Racine (France, 1639-1699) -- and of course has adopted as house playwright Anton Chekhov (Russia, 1860-1904).
This summer their plays include Nathan the Wise by G.E. Lessing (Germany, 1729-1781) and Translations, by Brian Friel (Ireland, 1929-). They gave us a magnificent production of Translations (that closes on Saturday), with Matamoros once more the dominant figure. Their version of Nathan the Wise was less impressive; but since I've been reading about Lessing all my life, and have never before had so much as a single chance to see him on the stage, I was in no position to be ungrateful. It was an illuminating event.
Contact with these half-forgotten plays may make us want to learn about their half-forgotten authors and their remarkably capacious lives. This in turn could lead us to self-reflection and perhaps eventually to an unsettling discovery about ourselves. Seen in historical perspective, we who live now are an astonishingly specialized people. In the 18th century it was apparently natural for Schiller, the foremost German dramatist, to be also a distinguished historian, a qualified surgeon, a journalist, and a philosopher. Lessing was a theologist and philosopher, Schnitzler a doctor with an interest in psychiatry. Most famously, Chekhov was a physician who wrote a great book of investigative journalism and a philanthropist who promoted schools and clinics for the poor. Are there people like that alive today? The question is worth raising.
The playwrights chosen by Soulpepper don't need Canada to keep their reputations alive; Lessing, for example, remains a vibrant figure in the theatres of Germany. But we need them, to save us from our own insularity and open us to other times, other places, other minds, maybe even other ways of life. On its good days a company provides enriching entertainment. On its great days a company becomes a way to alter minds.