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The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression

Margaret Eaton Crest
The Margaret Eaton School of
Literature and Expression's school crest.


The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression got its official start in 1906 with the construction of its first permanent home on Bay street in Toronto. The School’s founder, Emma Scott Raff, had been teaching at the University of Toronto and in her own studio for several years. Her unique approach to women’s education attracted the attention of Margaret Eaton, wife of Timothy Eaton. Margaret Eaton’s keen interest in the arts, and her respect for Scott Raff, resulted in the Eatons’ sponsorship of the school building, and a lasting relationship with the powerful Eaton family. In one of the few published histories of the school, Dorothy Jackson quotes Scott Raff describing her philosophy of women’s education: “The teacher of today wants not so much the student who can stand on her head and perform with her feet, but the student who can stand on her feet and perform with her head” (10). Valuing physical education as a necessary component to the study of literature, languages, and dramatic arts, Scott Raff built an institution that attracted the attention of Canada’s elite. The school’s ‘Greek Temple’ became both an architectural and a social landmark in Toronto.

Greek Temple

The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression’s home on Bloor Street.
The building was commonly known as the ‘Greek Temple’ because of the Grecian inspired
architecture; this was no coincidence since the school’s curriculum was also based on
classical Greek ideals.



Certainly one of the most notable alumnae was Dora Mavor Moore. A student at the school (1909-11) and later an instructor (1921), Moore continued her influential role in the development of Canadian theatre by securing the success of the Stratford Festival. It was Moore’s invitation that landed Tyrone Guthrie as the Festival’s founding artistic director. Moore also anonymously raised money on the eve of Stratford’s opening, without which the Festival would not have succeeded. Her place in the development of Canadian theatre, while somewhat more public in later years, is characteristic of the role that women played in the male dominated theatre movement. Women often needed social status to be granted access to the Theatre, and even then only in a supporting role. The Margaret Eaton School then, has been recognized as an influential fore-runner to the development of a Canadian theatrical tradition. Histories of Canadian theatre, however, have relegated the school to second-class status – a phenomenon which is indicative of the low value then placed on the work of women. Heather Murray notes that Scott Raff and the Margaret Eaton School have been associated with the ‘amateur’ rather than the ‘little’ theatre movement (39). This distinction is important, because it undermines Scott Raff’s significant contribution to Canadian theatre generally. Indeed, the difference between amateur and little, according to Murray, is largely one of gender: women’s amateur theatre was concerned with traditional performances of old world playwrights, while the male dominated Little Theatre movement focused on the experimental staging of Canadian plays. Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest that Scott Raff’s teaching methods and play selection at the school were not entirely traditional. While the specifics of her productions have been lost, her status as a pioneer has been recognized. Murray argues that

... the School’s activities helped to generate that sense of the ‘modern’ through which the productions of the little theatre movement would be produced and received. (Intrinsic to this modernization was the assertion and creation of women’s place in the theatrical world, at a time when their participation was often discouraged and even denounced). If the primary project of the Arts and Letters Club [10] was to provide works otherwise inaccessible to Canadians, ... this was a task also undertaken by Emma Scott Raff and acknowledged in her 1940 obituary:

She was the first publicly to read the new plays being published in Ireland by Yeats, Synge, Gregory and others, but she went to Ireland to meet the authors and see the plays done at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The first Irish plays produced in Canada were produced in the Margaret Eaton Theatre from the year 1908 onward ... She also introduced St. John Irvine, Masefield and many other new playwrights and poets to Toronto audiences. Many famous actors, lecturers and writers were guest speakers at the Margaret Eaton School. Among these were Yeats, E.H., Sir Johnstone Forbes Robertson, Mr. Willard, Earl Grey, Governor-General of Canada, who initiated the Earl Grey Dramatic competitions; Sir Frank Benson, Ben Greet, Edith Wynne Matthison, Rann Kennedy, Lilian Braithwaite and many others. (41)


While Scott Raff mostly staged new works by foreign playwrights, she occasionally included new works by Canadian writers in the curriculum and on the stage (including her own poetry and plays). Further distinction should be given to the school’s focus on the works of women playwrights. The last play performed on the stage of the Greek Temple in 1924 was When Half Gods Go by Canadian poet Norah Holland (a cousin of W. B. Yeats). There were limitations, however, to Scott Raff’s ability to pursue her vision of education for women. Murray notes how Scott Raff negotiated her ideological goals with the financial reality of keeping a women’s academy afloat:

The painstaking and sometimes painful account books of the School show that financial considerations were always present. But the selections reflect philosophical as well as practical factors. Classical and Shakespearean material has always enjoyed a particular cachet in the newly post-colonial country; and such staging was a continuing priority for amateur groups dissatisfied with the melodramas and comic turns of the United States touring companies. The staging of classical dramas was consonant with Scott Raff’s reworking of ‘Greek’ ideals into a program of education for women, as well as with her Delsartist orientation. (49)


Seeking to establish women’s place in Canadian theatre, Scott Raff used Classical and Shakespearean works strategically as teaching tools to ground her students’ studies. Throughout the calendars for the school, courses and lectures on Shakespeare figure prominently both in the school’s curriculum and in its offerings to the public. Despite the lack of documentation regarding the school, records of several specific performances survive. In 1918 Twelfth Night was performed at the school’s commencement; a 1922 production of Twelfth Night was directed by Dora Mavor Moore; in 1923 the school staged The Winter’s Tale; at an event hosted by the Alumnae in the fall of 1923, there were readings that included the characters of Romeo and Juliet; in 1926, an evening of theatre, dance, and music included a performance of The Seven Ages of Man in which William Shakespeare figures as a character. Scott Raff maintained her focus on the classics while developing her philosophy of education. Her students, however, quickly moved on to contemporary works by old and new world writers as a vital part of their education (Murray 43)


School Production

This photo of a production of Twelfth Night is copied from the 1918-1919
calendar of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression.



The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression provides an interesting intersection among several prominent Canadian institutions and figures. The school’s connections with the Eaton family, Dora Mavor Moore, the Little Theatre movement (and women’s space within it), and its indirect association with the Stratford Festival are all worthy of note. Further, the School’s evolution contributed to that of the University of Toronto when they merged in 1941 (Jackson 29). Having closed the School of Literature and Expression in 1926, the new Margaret Eaton School shifted its focus to concentrate on the physical education of women and teacher training. Concurrent with restructuring at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College (see CASP’s entry for The Locals), the Margaret Eaton School formally merged with the University to become The School of Physical and Health Education. Incidentally, the Margaret Eaton School bears a similarity of function and status within Canadian society (and especially in relation to the education of women) to St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg (see CASP’s holdings for Sister Mary Agnes’s play A Shakespeare Pageant: Dialogue for Commencement Day).

When Emma Scott Raff died in 1940, she had seen her school progress through many changes, eventually forfeiting its commitment to literature and expression. While the school had shifted its focus away from the ‘dramatic arts’ long before the merger with Victoria College, Scott Raff’s school and her influence were significant and lasting. While many modern Canadian theatre and cultural histories leave the Margaret Eaton School out of the picture, the many connections and traditions it fostered ought to be remembered. At the time of her death, Scott Raff’s influence on the Little Theatre movement was recognized and celebrated in her obituary:

That the Little Theatre has become so active a cultural factor in every part of Canada is, in part at least, due to the seeds she sowed. Her pupils scattered to every part of Canada and carried with them the inspiration provided by her productions of literary drama. ... Canadian civilization owes her a debt that should not be forgotten. (Jackson 27)

Mat Buntin

CASP is grateful to John Byl for his help researching The Margaret Eaton School. His Ph.D. dissertation provided many leads, as did his extensive archives of the school. Dr. Byl continues to maintain and update his archives of the school, and keep contact with the school’s alumni. He can be reached at Redeemer University College where he is Professor of Physical Education.


Refferences:

* Byl, John. “The Margaret Eaton School, 1901-1042: Women’s Education in Elocution, Drama and Physical Education.” Diss. U of New York, 1992.
* Card, Raymond. “Drama in Toronto: The Forgotten Years 1919-1938.” English Quarterly (Waterloo, Ontario) 6.1 (Spring 1973): 67-81.
* “Commencement Exercises of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression.” Toronto Saturday Night 6 June 1908: 14.
* Gardner, David. “Dora Mavor Moore (1888-1979).” Theatre History in Canada 1.1 (Spring 1980): 5-11.
* Jackson, Dorothy. “A Brief History of Three Schools.” Toronto: U of Toronto, 1953.
* Keys, David R. “The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression.” University of Toronto Monthly 7.5 (March 1907): 124-126.
* “The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression course calendar 1918-1919.” Toronto: Eaton’s File, Ontario Archives.
* “The Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression course calendar 1924-1925.” Josephine Barrington Collection, University of Guelph L.W. Conolly Theatre Archives.
* Murray, Heather. “Making the Modern: Twenty Five Years of the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression.” Essays in Theatre/Études Théâtrales 10.1 (Nov. 1991): 39-57.
* Scott, Robert Barry. “A Study of Amateur Theatre in Toronto, 1900-1930.” Ph.D. diss. U of New Brunswick, 1966.
* Wagner, Anton. “Theatre in Ontario.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre. Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly eds. Toronto: Oxford U P, 1989. 399.

 

 

 

 

 


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