Members of Faculty
Students of the University of British Columbia of the graduating class of 1965
Our University has conferred upon me to-day a great honour the degree of Doctor of Letters. I am further honoured in being invited to present to you the Congregation Address.
Like you, I am "graduating" you, after four to eight years of university study; I, after almost a life-time.
In the usual phrase, we shall be going out "to face the world." The manner in which we do so will be our own, free responsibility.
Or will it be? In a "future" which every moment draws nearer, how free shall we be? How much responsibility shall we be able to assume or want to assume?
In accepting President MacDonald's invitation to address the graduating class of 1965, I was prompted by two conversations I recently overheard.
In the first instance, a distinguished scientist said to the representative of an award-granting Foundation: "we have done a great deal for the sciences, now we must do more for man".
In the second conversation, two members of Faculty were referring to a recent article in Time, entitled: "Technology: The Cybernated Generation". The first, who apparently had not yet read the article, asked: "What does it offer man?" and the other replied: "Nothing".
It was the repeated reference to man" that caught my "theatre ear" were these gentlemen fearful for the future of man man, the individuals the free spirit, who searches for his beliefs, makes choices, exerts his will, and takes responsibility for his actions? If so, here indeed was cause for "theatre alarming for should the "spirit, of man" no longer prevails the very substance of theatre, as we have known it for thousands of years, might well disappear.
Man is us, each individual one of us. How much does it mean to us that we shall remain free and responsible?
Who shall interpret us to ourselves? There are many directions in which we might seek, if not for answers, at least for intimations. For myself I must turn to theatre. The evidence I shall present will necessarily be selective.
Aristotle has said that theatre is "an imitation of the actions of men, by men acting, and not through narration.'.' Shakespeare has called it "a mirror unto nature."
Theatre has the same roots as religion. Since time immemorial it has been a mimetic expression of man's longing to relate himself to an ultimate "good" to a concept of, and an identification with, a universal order and a social order that to him are "good" that become, in effect, "the good".
Theatre shows us all man: his capacity for good or evil; his loves his sorrows; his exaltation his despair; every human spiritual and social problem. In itself, as an art form, it can be sublime or worthless.
Enduring theatre is based upon the "spirit of man" man, as he wills to struggle against fate, society or his fellowman, towards his concept of "the good".
In searching theatre down through the ages, for an answer to the question: "Can man remain free and responsible?" the verdict, up to our own Century, has been a preponderant "yes", in spite of moments of doubt and darkness.
Let Sophocles, producing his plays in the 5th Century, B.C., speak for all succeeding generations of great writers of tragedy.
The prototype of the tragic hero is King Oedipus, in Sophocles' play of that name. Doomed before birth, by oracular prophesy, to kill his father and marry his mother, step by step, blindly, Oedipus is led to fulfil this dreadful fate. When the moment of revelation approaches, even though warned, for his own sake, to enquire no further, he chooses to press on until he knows the truth. Having learned it, while crying out against the gods who have brought this fate upon him, he takes on himself full responsibility for his actions.
He strikes out his eyes and, in his agony of mind, cries out:
"Apollo, friends, Apollo was he that brought these my woes to pass, these my sore, sore woes: but the hand that struck the eyes was none save mine".
To accept responsibility for one's actions is no guarantee of happiness. The cost may be great, but in terms of theatre at least, that is the burden which the free man must accept. Shakespeare well understood this capacity for greatness in man.
The great writers of comedy, too, believe in the free spirit of man Shakespeare, Moliere, Bernard Shaw. They envisage a rational and therefore "good" order of human behaviour. When they ridicule the follies and vices of men, they are contrasting them against this concept. They see man, as an independent spirit, able if he will to think rationally and therefore able if he will to correct the follies at which he laughs.
It is in our own 20th Century, particularly since the end of the Second World War, that, in terms of theatre, the concept of man, as a free and responsible human agent, has been most seriously questioned.
The evidence is cumulative, beginning after the first World War.
In the theatre of social revolt, following that war, man tends to lose his individual identity, and to become merely a social symbol, or a unit of the masses. Play "cast-lists" may read as follows: the Banker, the State Official, an Officer, First Workman, Second Workman, and so forth.
As a corollary, the rights of the masses are held paramount to those of the individual. Says "The Nameless One" (alias "The Masses") to "The Woman" (sole representative of the free spirit in Ernst Toller's play, "Masses and Man"):
"As yet there are no men,
On this side men of the masses.
On that side men of the State".
In this same period there are plays projecting the destruction of man through mechanical men and machines. My economist friends tell me this is a "theatrical fantasy". Probably so.
But I cannot help thinking with a slight shudder of a passage in the Time article to which I referred, which describes those who serve the computers, upon which, we are told, our new civilization will be based: "crisp, young, white-shirted men, who move softly, like priests, before the shrines of the computers".
Far more direct and serious, however, are the doubts raised since World War II, by a group of contemporary playwrights.
Jean-Paul Sartre poses the problem in his play, "The Flies", which is based on the ancient Greek story of Electra and Orestes, who kill their mother, Clytemnestra, as an act of retributive justice for her murder of their father, Agamemnon.
After their deed, pursued by The Flies the goddesses of remorse brother and sister seek sanctuary. To them comes the god, Zeus. He promises that they will escape the consequences of their action, if they will only give him:
"A mere trifle a little penitence the repudiation of your crime."
Electra, tormented by remorse, grasps the refuge which Zeus offers. But Orestes, taking on himself the burden of his actions, refusing to conform, declares:
"I shall not return under your law. I am doomed to have no law but mine..... For I am a man, and every man must find his own way."
He then departs, flinging himself into a void, beyond any divine or social order.
Sartre makes a statement of despair as far as the "established order" is concerned. But he also declares a passionate belief in the spirit of man.
Far less reassuring is Samuel Beckett in his plays "Waiting For Godot". Two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, wait by a country roadside for a personage, referred to as "Godot", to come and tell them what day it is, where they are, where they are going. We never know who Godot is, presumably he has the answers. He is always expected "to-morrow", but he never comes.
At the end of the play, still expecting Godot to come, the tramps discuss what they should do as night falls.
Estragon: Then all we have to do is wait on here.
Vladimir: Are you mad? We must take cover. Come on.
Estragon:(Looking at a tree from which they had earlier considered hanging themselves). Pity we haven't got a bit of rope.
Vladimir: Come on. It's cold.
(Vladimir makes several attempts to get Estragon to go. They start, but always they stop. Finally they sit down on a mound by the roadside. There are long moments of silence).
The last two lines in the play are spoken as follows:)
Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, let's go,
And the playwrights final stage-direction is: "They do not move."
Motiveless, the two tramps are imprisoned in an all-embracing question that will never be answered.
Finally I come to to-days Theatre of the Absurd so-called because to the playwrights of this theatre, there is not to be found in to-day's universe, world or society nor in man, any rational or logical order. And anything that stands in opposition to reason and logic is absurd. As they see it, the environment that confronts man to-day is chaos, in which all possibility of communication has broken down.
Ionesco, in his play, "The Killer" loads his hero into a city of beauty and serenity "the radiant city", There is no stage scenery to represent this city. It exists only in terms of imagination through dialogue and stage lighting',
There is a sinister mystery about this city: every day the bodies ,are discovered of men and women who have been killed by an unknown assailant Upon further investigation, as the stage lights dim ' the "radiant city" proves to be a dying city, forsaken by all save the members of the civil service, who alone seem immune.
The hero sets out to track down the mysterious killer. At one moment he is thwarted in his search by a mass meeting at which a woman politician is haranguing a mechanically cheering crowd. Mother Peep is her name, and here are a few line of her platform speech":
Mother Peep: "People, listen to me. I'm Mother Peep, and I keep the public geese. I've a long experience of politics. Trust me with the chariot of state, drawn by my geese, so I can legislated Vote for me, Me and my geese are asking for power".
Mother Peep: "People, you are mystified.
You shall be demystified;
But to demystify you must first be mystified.
The old mystifications haven't stood up to psychological and sociological analysis
The new one will be fool-proof and cause nothing but misunderstanding".
At last the way is cleared, and the hero finds himself alone in an endless street, He knows that the Killer is coming. He does come, as the playwright describes him: "very small, puny, ill-shaven, holes in his boots, with only one eye which shines with a steely glitter. He is laughing derisively".
For twelve pages of script the hero questions and reasons with the Killer, who replies only with a shrug and a chuckle. Desperate, the hero draws his guns to shoot the Killer who doesn't move. Finally, paralysed by uncertainty and loss of will-power, he lets fall his guns, and surrenders to his death, at the hands of an impersonal, implacable grinning idiot. His last words are:
Berenger: "Oh God! There's nothing we can do. What can we do what can we do?"
These playwrights are not cynics. It is in their very despair that I think to find the same impulse out of which religion, and theatre, first grew. To them our world is chaos well, so it was to primitive man. The necessity for man, then and now, was and is, to find a concept of "the good" to which he can relate himself.
The despair of such writers as Sartre, Beckett and Ionesco is a cry from the souls of men who cry about man. Their cry is of such passionate magnitude as to approach the stature of tragedy. It becomes, in reverse, by its very passion, an affirmation of the free spirit of man.
Ionesco even says so, in a play produced about a year later, "Rhinoceros". Then all other human beings have turned into rhinoceri in response to their impulse towards conformity, one man remains. Terrified at finding himself alone, ashamed of his lack of a "dull, hard, green skin, or a horn on his forehead", he laments that it is now too late to conform and become a rhinoceros.
Then suddenly, to quote the stage directions, "he snaps out of this frame of mind". And his last lines are:
Berenger: "Oh well, too bad! I'll put up a fight against the lot of them, the whole lot of them!, I'm the last man left, and I'm staying that way until the end. I'm not capitulating".
There are other contemporary playwrights besides those I have chosen to speak of, but the men I have quoted face squarely the problem of man in a changing world. To them the ultimate "good" is the free and responsible spirit of man.
Their plays echo the cry of the distinguished scientist I quoted earlier:
"Now we must do more for man".
Tyrone Guthrie is one of the world's greatest theatre directors. By his example, in the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, he has provided a major inspiration for the amazing renaissance of theatre in Canada.
Consider Vancouver: in the space of a few years four new theatres, and a permanent, professional acting company! The pattern is being repeated right across the country, in universities, in communities large and small. A whole new generation of Canadian actors is emerging. Here is a theatre ready to receive our Canadian playwrights.
Perhaps this is the beginning of a theatre tradition which will pass down to future generations as part of our Canadian cultural heritage.
In addition to being a great theatre director, Tyrone Guthrie is also a deeply religious man, and he has declared his faith:
"I believe that the purpose of the theatre is to show mankind to himself, and thereby, to show to man God's image".
We, you and I, graduate in a time of deep spiritual stirring, of profound challenge to man.
What will the theatre of the last half of this century reveal?
If it shows that we, as man, in alliance with the sciences, have chosen that the approaching "new age" shall serve the "spirit of man", then indeed will theatre show, in man, the image of God.
Let Hecuba, aged Queen of Troy, in Euripides' play, "The Trojan Women" speak for the spirit of man.
Her city destroyed by war, its men all killed, its women led into captivity by the Greeks, she cries out:
"Thou deep Base of the World, and thou high Throne
Above the World, whoe'er thou art, unknown
And hard of surmise, Chain of Things that be,
Or Reason of our Reason; God, to thee
I lift my praise, seeing the silent road
That bringeth justice, ere the end be trod,
To all that breathes and dies."