Bertram Forsyth

Bertram Forsyth Portrait
Position:
Artistic Director
Tenure:
1921 - 1925
Select Productions:
• The Tempest (1922)
• The Dragon
• The Point of View
• Castles in the Air

Bertram Forsyth (1887-1927) was an actor, playwright, scholar, and the second artistic director of Hart House Theatre. During his tenure, Hart House Theatre experienced a “Golden Age” that some say has never been equalled, however, his decision to secede from Hart House Theatre and form a rival company called the Players’ Club ensured the fracturing and death of the Little Theatre movement.1

English-born and an Oxford alumnus, Bertram Forsyth achieved some limited success as an actor and playwright in England before he immigrated to Canada with his French wife and his son Peter. In 1921, the Board of Syndics and Vincent Massey offered him a job as the artistic director of Hart House Theatre, a job he readily accepted. Cultured, clever, and charismatic, Forsyth introduced himself as a “dreamer of dreams” and outlined his grand ambitions for Hart House Theatre in his inaugural address on a wet October day in 1921.2

He dreamed that Hart House Theatre would become a theatre free from professional snobbery, a museum that would encapsulate all the present and past traditions of the theatre, a Canadian school of drama where amateur actors could learn and grow, produce Canadian plays, and create, most importantly for Forsyth, a sense of camaraderie and family among all its participants: “I dream that we shall work together like a large and devoted family party, bringing an unselfish devotion to our work. This, I firmly believe, will accomplish miracles, because we shall have an undying faith in one another’s work.”3

It is one thing to make promises, but quite another to deliver them. Fortunately, Bertram Forsyth delivered on all of them. During his four-year tenure, Forsyth directed some 37 plays, all of which were critically and commercially successful—they were so well rehearsed and staged that drama critics often considered Forsyth’s productions equal or superior to those put on by professional companies.4 He also worked as a professor/director of a newly-created summer course in Dramatic Art given by the Department of University Extension, University of Toronto for two years, starting in 1923. The five week course included both lectures and practical demonstrations, with the final project being the production of a play or many plays by the students themselves under Forsyth’s direction.5

Forsyth also kept his pledge to produce more Canadian plays—he produced more Canadian plays during his tenure than any other artistic director, before or since. Although some of these plays included Merrill Dennison’s The Balm (1923) and Carroll Aikins’s The God of Gods (1922), Bertram Forsyth was a playwright himself: he wrote at least two plays, Castles in the Air and The Shepherdess Without a Heart, the former was staged in Hart House Theatre during the 1923-1924 season, the latter written before his death. The first play Forsyth staged that he had a hand in writing, though, was called White Magic, a play written in collaboration with Algernon Blackwood, one of the founders of modern horror fiction.6

But managing actors and actresses was where Forsyth really shined. Under his direction and his encouragement, amateur Canadian actors that often starred in his productions became successful in their own right, continuing their careers in Hollywood or Broadway. These Hart House alumni include Lorna Maclean, Wallace House, Dora Mavor Moore, Rauff de R. Acklom (also known as David Manners), Raymond Massey, H.E. Hitchman, A.J. Rostance, Ivor Lewis, and Jane Mallet.7 Unsurprisingly, Bertram Forsyth’s incredible successes gave Hart House Theatre a national, and even an international reputation, as the best alternative to the large, flashy plays put on by Broadway.

Yet Forsyth’s tenure was not without its challenges. Unlike his predecessor, Forsyth was not a technical man: he was an orthodox theatre practitioner who knew how to manage his actors but little else. Luckily, Bertram Forsyth managed to meet Frederick Coates, a Scarborough-based sculptor, artist, and architect. On June 6, 1922, Forsyth and Coates launched their first production in what would become a long and successful partnership: Hart House Theatre’s first production of The Tempest. The production not only won Fred Coates a job as the art director of Hart House Theatre, but it also captured the imagination of critics at home and abroad. Starring Bertram Frosyth himself as Prospero, Lorna McLean as Ariel, and Dixon Wagner as Caliban, the play was praised for its acting, music, lighting, and “vividly realistic” imagery.8

Bertram Forsyth and Fred Coates enjoyed collaborating together so much that when Forsyth decided he would be resigning the position of artistic director in 1925, Coates and some of Hart House’s best actors would go with him. For in early June 1925, the Players’ Club, an undergraduate and amateur acting club established in 1913, unanimously decided to withdraw from managing Hart House Theatre since the Board of Syndics greatly reduced their powers. Bertram Forsyth, the shrewd man he was, jumped at the chance to direct the activities of the Players’ Club into theatres well away from Hart House.9

In 1925, Forsyth founded a new little theatre of his own called the Margret Eaton Theatre and served as an instructor at the Margaret Eaton School from 1925 to 1926.10 Splitting from Hart House Theatre did not diminish Bertram Forsyth’s ability to court critical praise—after all, many of the actors in the Players’ Club were actors he had worked with before. It also helped that Fred Coates continued to work with him, at least until he decided to follow his dreams as theatrical director in New York.11

Unfortunately he did not find the success he had hoped for in New York. Bertram Forsyth only ended up directing two plays in New York before he was unemployed 1926. Over the course of the year, Forsyth fervently wrote to everyone in Broadway, hoping to get a job as a director preferably, or at least a production or stage manager. He was not even considered since the big players of Broadway hinted that they never heard of him. Clinically depressed, the forty-year old Bertram Forsyth took his life on September 16, 1927, leaving behind his wife and his seven-year old son.12


Notes

Show 12 footnotes

  1. Anonymous, “Hart House Theatre Turns a Corner: An Instructive Chapter in the History of the ‘Little Theatre’ Movement in Canada,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jun. 20, 1925: 19. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 94.
  2. Anonymous, “School of Canadian Drama Centering on Hart House, is Vision of New Director,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 8, 1921.
  3. Anonymous, “School of Canadian Drama Centering on Hart House, is Vision of New Director,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 8, 1921.
  4. Anonymous, “Bertram Forsyth, Theatrical Artist, Dies in New York,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 17, 1927.
  5. Anonymous, “Dramatic Studies Start at Hart House: Course Provided by University Under Direction of Bertram Forsyth,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jul. 3, 1923. Anonymous, “Three Canadians Write Shorts Plays.” Mail and Empire. April 8, 1921, B1995-0053/01(Clippings). UTA, Jack Gray Collection.
  6. Anonymous, “Bertram Forsyth, Theatrical Artist, Dies in New York,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 17, 1927. Anonymous, “Director Seeks Canadian Plays: Bertram Forsyth, Now in Charge of Hart House Theatre, in Harness,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 9, 1921: 6. Richard Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” in A Strange Elation: Hart House: The First Eighty Years, ed. David Kilgour (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 94.
  7. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 94. Paula Sperdakos, Dora Mavor Moore: Pioneer of the Canadian Theatre (Toronto: ECW Press, 1995), 75.
  8. Anonymous, “Charming Play at Hart House,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jun. 7, 1922: 19.
  9. Anonymous, “Bertram Forsyth, Theatrical Artist, Dies in New York,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 17, 1927. Anonymous, “Hart House Theatre Turns a Corner: An Instructive Chapter in the History of the “Little Theatre” Movement in Canada,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Jun. 20, 1925.
  10. Anonymous, “Director Seeks Canadian Plays: Bertram Forsyth, Now in Charge of Hart House Theatre, in Harness,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 9, 1921: 6.
  11. Anonymous, “School of Canadian Drama Centering on Hart House, is Vision of New Director,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 8, 1921. Paul Makovsky, The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of: The Art and Design of Frederick and Louise Coates, (Toronto: University of Toronto Library, 1996), 50-51.
  12. Anonymous, “Bertram Forsyth, Theatrical Artist, Dies in New York,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Sep. 17, 1927. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 94.