Carroll Aikins

Carrol Aikins Portrait
Position:
Artistic Director
Tenure:
1927 - 1929
Select Productions:

Although Carroll Aikins (1888-1967) was the fourth artistic director of Hart House Theatre, he was the first one to be Canadian born. Initially born in Stanstead, Quebec, his family moved to Winnipeg when he was merely a boy. The Aikins family had a long history of wealth and prestige: for instance, Carroll’s maternal grandfather, the Honourable C. C. Colby, was Stanstead’s Member of Parliament (1867 to 1891), and the president of the Privy Council under Sir John A. Macdonald, while his paternal grandfather, Sir James Cox Aikins, was a senate appointee and served under Sir Macdonald as the Cabinet secretary of state (1869-1873, 1878-1880) before he became the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba (1882-1888). Even Carroll’s father, John Somerset Aikins, served in the Manitoba House of Assembly for a single term between 1879 and 1883. Carroll, however, pursued a career distinct from politics once he dropped out of McGill University after only one year, and spent some time travelling Europe until his father convinced him to permanently settle in Naramata, British Columbia in 1908.1

The twelve years Carroll spent as a fruit farmer in British Columbia allowed him to observe the burgeoning ideals of the “Little Theatre” movement in the United States and Canada from a comforting distance. Being inspired by this zeitgeist and his encounters with the works of theorists Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, Aikins quickly wrote at least four plays—The Destroyers (1915), The Fullness of Life (1917), Real Estate (1918), and The God of Gods (1918)—which attempted to reconcile the social concerns of modern drama with the kitsch of melodrama. The God of Gods has the distinction of being one of the first Canadian plays to receive production abroad—specifically at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in November 1919 and April 1920—yet Hart House Theatre did not consider him for his talent as a playwright or a poet, but as a theatre manager.2 Curiously, the only theatre Carroll managed was an unexpected failure.

Carroll founded the Home Theatre in Okanagan Valley, BC, a seemingly natural offshoot of his fruit farm. Indeed, the theatre itself was located on the second storey of a building which on the first floor, was fruit packing and storage room. Carroll announced, of course, that the theatre was not made for profit; it only sat about 100 people meaning its production costs were met by the profits he made from fruit farming.3
Like others before him, Carroll wanted his “Little Theatre” to be an experimental workshop for dramatists in his community and in Canada. As Carroll Aikins proclaimed:

“We feel that we have reached that point in our history where we may look for a Canadian literature to record Canadian achievement; and it is in that faith that we have built this theatre for the giving of Canadian plays by Canadian actors. We hope that it will be used by the young actor as a training-ground for his abilities, and by the young poet as a testing-ground for his work; and we have great pleasure in offering it to them, for the service of beauty and for a true expression of the Canadian spirit.”4

Prime Minister Arthur Meighan officially opened the Home Theatre on November 3, 1920, calling it one of Canada’s national theatres. Yet when the fruit market crashed, suddenly Carroll’s dream was over, and the Home Theatre closed its doors in August 1922.5

Carroll’s nationalist pandering caught the eye of Hart House’s Board of Syndics, however. When Carroll arrived as a “guest” artistic director at Hart House Theatre in the 1927 season, he vowed to “fulfill the function that it [the theatre] was originally intended to perform.”6 For Carroll, this meant getting students more involved in the productions of Hart House Theatre Hart House Theatre, even if that meant that students would stumble during their performances, as what happened during the opening night of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird.7 Carroll ended up staying involved in Hart House Theatre until 1929, where he plays were continually praised for his use of stagecraft and spectacle—a difficult challenge considering the architectural limitations of Hart House Theatre. After two seasons, Carroll Aikins failed to renew his contract with Hart House Theatre, and he never held a position in the theatre again.8

 


 

Notes

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Patrick O’Neill, “Carroll Aikins’s Experiments in Playwriting,” BC Studies 137 (2003): 66. James Hoffman, “Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre,” Theatre Research in Canada 7, no. 1 (1986): accessed January 13, 2014, http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7407/8466.
  2. O’Neill, “Carroll Aikins’s Experiments in Playwriting,” 67-68, 76. Hoffman, Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre,” accessed January 13, 2014, http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7407/8466.
  3. 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), 96. O’Neill, “Carroll Aikins’s Experiments in Playwriting,” 67-68, 76. Hoffman, Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre,” accessed January 13, 2014, http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7407/8466.
  4. Carroll Aikins, Maclean’s Magazine, 1 January 1921, quoted in Hoffman, “Carroll Aikins and the Home Theatre,” accessed January 13, 2014, http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7407/8466.
  5. O’Neill, “Carroll Aikins’s Experiments in Playwriting,” 65. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 96.
  6. Anonymous, “Carroll Aikins, New Director at Hart House, Is Interviewed,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Oct. 15, 1927: 22. Anonymous, “Hart House Syndics Name New Director: Carroll Aikins Comes to Theatre From B.C. for 1927-1928,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Aug. 24, 1927: 9.
  7. Lawrence Mason, “The Blue Bird: Poetic Fantast Cleverly Presented at Hart House Theatre,” The Globe (Toronto, Ontario), Dec. 27, 1928: 14.
  8. Partington, “Theatre: A Matter of Direction,” 96.