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Robertson Davies and the Massey Report on the Theatre

Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies

In 1949, the Government of Canada established the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (also referred to as the Massey Commission after its Chair, Vincent Massey). The Commission was charged with investigated issues of cultural development and sovereignty in Canada. As noted in the online version of the Canadian Encyclopedia:

The commission's work was pursued against the backdrop of a major transition in Canadian cultural affairs. Although the country's prewar cultural life was primarily focused on amateur, community-oriented, voluntary activities, the commission foresaw that these activities were giving way to a more urban, impersonal and national orientation; the overall character of the final report is a strange mixture of mourning for an age that was rapidly passing and of excitement at the new era of professional "mass culture" that lay ahead. It is generally believed that the commission's most important accomplishments were the ultimate establishment of arms-length federal support for the arts through the Canada Council and the creation of the National Library of Canada. It may be, however, that its most enduring legacies are the very high standards of analysis and writing that it set, standards that have not been surpassed by any of its successors.” (Stursberg)

In 1951, the Commission published its Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (often referred to as the Massey Report). This report included a section entitled "The Theatre" that laments the lack of a fully developed professional theatre, and recommends establishing better training programs for Canadian theatre artists and more outlets for their work. The Massey Report generated a great deal of interest in cultural development in Canada, and helped to establish a tradition of public support for the arts in Canada. This support enabled the eventual founding of, among other organizations, the National Theatre School / L’École Nationale du Theatre (1960), the National Arts Centre (proclaimed 1966, building completed 1969), and the Stratford Festival of Canada (1953).

Vincent Massey
Vincent Massey

The Massey Report section on the theatre is written, at least in part, by Robertson Davies. The section begins with a humorous letter to the fictional “Apollo Fishhorn, Esq” written by Samuel Marchbanks, Davies’ sharp tongued alter ego. Writing as Marchbanks, Davies published a number of journalistic essays in the Peterborough Examiner, which he edited from 1940-45 and for which he then served as publisher from 1955-65. He later published these newspaper pieces in three volumes, now available in a single volume, The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, Comprising the Diary, the Table Talk and a Garland of Miscellanea by Samuel Marchbanks .

There is some confusion, however, as to how much of the rest of this section was written and / or influenced by Davies. No single author is credited with this section of the report, and while it is apparent that the report was compiled by either a commissioner or assistant of the Massey Commission (perhaps even Massey himself, a great supporter of theatre in Canada), there is a nagging sense when reading the report that Davies must have made significant contributions.     

On the question of Davies' role in the composition of the Massey Report’s section on the theatre, CASP has consulted both Canadian theatre critic Alan Filewod, and scholar Philip Massolin (author of Canadian Intellectuals, The Tory Tradition, and The Challenge of Modernity, 1939-1970, U of Toronto Press, 2001). CASP has also recently received (from the National Archives of Canada) Davies's correspondence (regarding the Massey Report section on Theatre) and various drafts of the brief he submitted to the Massey Commission (see links below).

Filewod, argues as follows:

I would hesitate to say exactly how much RD actually wrote ... his imprint is there but Vincent Massey considered himself an authority on the subject and I would assume wrote the draft himself. He invited RD to write a brief, obviously, and likely consulted closely. But in their relation, VM was the mentor/patron. Given his literary aspirations and imperial mode, I assume he wrote. In longhand, with a very nice pen. I wonder if his drafts are in his papers at Massey College." (email correspondence with CASP, February 2004)

Following Filewod’s advice, CASP obtained from the Robertson Davies papers in the National Archives of Canada draft copies of the brief commissioned by Massey, entitled "A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada.” The various drafts of the brief are available in full via the links below. The drafts were in preparation for the publication of the brief in a supplementary collection of essays to be included with the publication of the full Massey Report. The supplement, entitled Royal Commission Studies - a Selection of Essays Prepared For the Canada Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences also included works from several other Canadian "authorities" on culture and letters, including Sir Ernest MacMillan (on music) and B.K. Sandwell (on the influences shaping Canadian society).

Along with the draft copies, CASP also received a large selection of Davies' personal correspondence pertaining to the composition and publication of the “Memorandum” (available via the links below).Contained in the correspondence is a letter (dated April 12, 1950) from Archibald A. Day, secretary of the Massey Commission, requesting the Memorandum from Davies. In the letter, there is also mention of thanks for permission given by Davies to allow the Commission to reprint the Marchbanks letter that introduces the Commission's report on Theatre; however, there is no mention in this, or the other correspondence, of any direct contribution by Davies to the authorship of the final theatre section of the Massey’s Report.  

Whether or not he was directly involved in the final composition and/or compilation of the Massey Commission’s final report, it is clear from reading the “Memorandum” that Davies' influence is pervasive throughout the report, almost to the point of dominance. Much of the theatre section of the report echoes Davies' “A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada”, including the mention, in number 4 of the section, of Gratien Gelinas and Les Compagnons de St. Laurent as promising examples of professionalism in Canadian theatre at the time (compare this with pg 6 of Davies’ final draft of the memorandum, available via the link below). Numbers 16 through 19 of the theatre section are entirely influenced by Davies. Leading up to these, the theatre section itself establishes at length the opinion that a National Theatre should be established; however, in section 16, it proceeds to present an opposing view as prepared by a "well-known Canadian writer and actor."  This well known personality is Davies, and indeed his Memorandum is quoted directly (and cited in a footnote) in section 18.

Considering how the Memorandum is used in the Commission report, and the absence of any mention of a direct role for Davies in the composition of the report text, it appears that the actual text of the Commission's theatre report was most likely culled together by someone other than Davies. It seems unlikely that Davies, had he penned the commission report, would, even at his most outrageously pompous, have both cited himself and referred to himself in the third person as "well-known." It also seems unlikely that, in all the correspondence about the Memorandum and the problems encountered in publishing it, that there would be no mention of the composition of the theatre section of the report.

Massolin also makes some interesting points about Davies’ attitudes towards government involvement in the arts, and some points of disagreement between his own opinions and the final recommendations of the Massey Commission, noting that

RD had a certain ambivalent attitude towards government intervention into culture. On the one hand, he understood that culture in Canada was in dire need of help, and the state could raise the profile of, and provide funding for, the arts and culture more generally. However, RD realized that a price was to be paid for extensive government involvement. Indeed, through a state-controlled cultural council (or some like organization), Canadian artists would likely have to relinquish the freedom and autonomy they required to ensure that their art could flourish. RD worried that government intervention implied the sacrifice of freedom necessary for the arts and culture to thrive. He believed that the arts must develop organically, without artificial stimuli. In short, RD's submission on the theatre very much reflects this tension between the need for government funding and the likely deleterious result of widespread government intervention into cultural development. In contrast, VM did not exhibit this same ambivalence. Indeed, he was very sanguine about the positive effects of government intervention, the basic reason why he was such an effective champion for the Commission. (ibid.)

Considering Massolin’s comments on these differences (reflected, of course, by the inclusion in the final report of the opposition to a National Theatre by that “well-known Canadian writer and actor”), it is even more unlikely that Davies had a significant part in the final compilation of the Massey Report’s section on the theatre. It is much more probable that Massey or another member of the Commission wrote the final document. Indeed, Massolin suggests as a possible author Hilda Neatby (another member of the Commission) who, he says, often wrote documents “to which [Massey] signed his name” (ibid.). Still, Davies’ considerable influence on the Massey Report’s section on the theatre cannot be denied, and by extension, nor can his considerable influence on the development of a particularly Canadian theatre.

CASP has been pursuing this research problem via research at Massey College and the National Archives and gratefully acknowledges the help of both Alan Filewod and Philip Massolin. CASP would also like to thank Paul Litt, author of The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission (U of T Press, 1992), Canadian Theatre Historian Richard Plant, and Loryl Macdonald, Records Archivist at the University of Toronto for their advice and guidance.

Davies Document 1.  Full version of   "A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada," as originally composed on May 31, 1950. This is also the version that was finally, after much ado, published in Royal Commission Studies––a Selection of Essays Prepared For the Canada Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences   (1951).

Davies Document 2. Revised version of "A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada." Originally revised to accommodate Commission's request for a shorter version for publication, this version was not used after all.

Davies Document 3.  Draft of  "A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada" ––original version showing Davies' cuts for the revised version.

Davies Document 4. Correspondence pertaining to the Memorandum, including: correspondence between Davies and Archibald Day, Secretary of the Commission, about the composition of the Memorandum and issues around whether to publish the full version or a shorter, edited version; Davies's letter about the Memorandum to Michel St. Denis, four-time final adjudicator of the Dominion Drama festival, Artistic Director of the Old Vic in London, and later advisor on the formation of the National Theatre School; and letters to a fan, a detractor, and Sir Anthony Quayle, notable British actor and then director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon.


Davies, Shakespeare, Theatre, and Canadian Nationalism:  Post Script

What makes Davies and the Massey Report of special interest to CASP? The Massey Report is a watershed moment in the development of Canadian theatre and as such, we happy few at CASP are highly interested in the role that Davies, and his many interactions with Shakespeare, may have played in the construction of that moment. Shakespeare permeates the history and development of Robertson Davies much as it permeates the history and development of theatre in Canada. In several ways, Robertson Davies' role in the development of theatre in English Canada could be described using the title term from his celebrated 1970 novel Fifth Business ("Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business"). Davies is perhaps most well-known, in Canada and around the world, as a novelist and wit, but throughout his career he was also a productive and prominent participant in the theatre, from his early career as an actor and playwright to his later work as an ardent supporter of the Stratford Festival. Yet, Davies' place in English Canadian theatre history is indeed that of Fifth Business, never quite at the epicentre of action, but never far from it neither. In addition to his substantial involvement in the Massey Report, Davies was also an important force in the Dominion Drama Festival, played a major role in launching the Stratford Festival (serving on the board of governors for several years), and was instrumental in bringing Michel Saint-Denis to Canada to advise on the founding of the National Theatre School.    

In the same way that Davies has played a sometimes peripheral, but always pivotal role in the development of theatre in English Canada, so has Shakespeare played a similar role in the development of Davies. Davies' first wrote about Shakespeare at nine years of age in his first piece of journalism, written for his father, then publisher of the Renfrew Mercury, about a lecture given by Reverend Mr. Radley called "A Visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace" (Grant 75). Davies' revisited Shakespeare throughout his career with the publications, in 1939, of his first book, Shakespeare's Boy Actors, and in 1942, of his second book, Shakespeare for Young Players, in which he outlines a theory of acting. Later, in his role as a governor of the Stratford Festival, Davies co-authored, with director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, three books about the early years of the Festival (1953-55), and contributed two papers to the Festival's Shakespeare Seminar. And in 1955, Davies published his first novel, Tempest-Tost - about an amateur theatre group and their attempt to put on a production of Shakespeare's Tempest - which was recently adapted for the theatre and produced as part of the Stratford Festival's 2001 season.

Davies' fascination with Shakespeare is evident in A Memorandum on the State of the Theatre in Canada (Davies Document 1), his special study to the Massey Commission, in which the character Trueman laments the fact that "as far as the classics of the theatre are concerned, we are a nation of ignorance" (see Davies Document 1, p. 10). The 'classics' most discussed at length in the Memorandum are, of course, Shakespearean 'classics.'   Davies' characters continue their lament, bemoaning the fact, in the same discussion, that it is "very likely that a majority of Canadians of good education - as education goes here - and good financial estate, have never seen a Shakespearean play performed" (ibid). Davies' dialogue calls for the establishment of a "theatrical tradition", noting that "the one reason why we slight the classics is that we lack the example and the tradition which is wanted by those who tackle them" (see Davies Document 1, p. 11).   Considering Davies' history with Shakespeare, it is unsurprising, then, that a large part of this 'tradition' involves Shakespeare.  

Davies' 1951 Memorandum helps lay the groundwork for the founding of the Stratford Festival in 1953. In the Memorandum, Davies cites his old stomping ground, the Old Vic Theatre in London, as a possible model for the kind of theatre needed in Canada. This theatre was, at the time, "regarded as England's premiere classical theatre company, its foremost producer of Shakespeare's works, and the country's national theatre in all but name" (Groome 121). Indeed, Davies sent a copy of the Memorandum to Michel Saint-Denis, then Artistic Director at the Old Vic, and later the primary advisor for the founding of Canada's National Theatre School (for the correspondence on this matter between Davies and Saint-Denis see Davies Document 4). The link between Davies, the Old Vic, and the founding of the Stratford Festival was strengthened with the hiring of Tyrone Guthrie, then a leading director at the Old Vic, as the Festival's founding artistic director.   

The founding of the Stratford Festival a mere two years after the delivery of the Massey Report is often memorialized and mythologized within the context of the Canadian nationalism of the Massey project. Margaret Groome, in her article "Stratford and the Aspirations for a Canadian National Theatre," writes:

"In its first three seasons the Festival would be hailed as an enterprise of national significance, proof that Canada had come of age in cultural matters: the triumph of the first season was emphasized repeatedly, establishing the Shakespeare Festival as the answer to the quest for cultural respectability. The times were propitious for a large-scale arts enterprise to be promoted as a significant national achievement, and for that enterprise to be appropriated as a product to be 'consumed' by the entire country, as a means of sharing that achievement" (125).

Stratford would continue to be trumpeted as a significant symbol of the flourishing of Canadian culture and English Canadian theatre. However, it would also go on to play another important role in the development of Canadian dramatic literature, partially in its help in creating, as Davies advocates, a more 'robust' Canadian theatre, but perhaps more in the rancour the Festival would cause in the sixties and seventies among several Canadian theatre artists frustrated with the Festival's anglophilic reliance on models of British theatre, British drama, and often British actors and directors for a large part of its output. In fact, in many ways Shakespeare and the Stratford Festival would help fuel the rise of the more fiercely indigenous, and often anti-anglophilic, nationalism of the English Canadian theatre of the sixties and seventies.

Works Cited

Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth.  Toronto: Penguin, 1994

Groome, Margaret.   "Stratford and the Aspirations for Canadian National Theatre." Shakespeare in Canada:   A   
World Elsewhere?
Eds. Diana Brydon and Irena R. Malaryk. Toronto: U of T Press, 2002.

Stursberg, Richard. “National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, Royal Commission on.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Online Edition. <>  Accessed: 24 Nov 2006.


Selected Shakespeare Writings by Robertson Davies

"Mr. Radley Lectures on Shakespeare."   Renfrew Mercury. 16 Feb, 1923.  (Reproduced in Grant, Judith Skelton. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth. Toronto: Penguin, 1994, pp. 75-6.

Shakespeare's Boy Actors. 1939. Reissued by Russell & Russell, New York, 1964.

Shakespeare for Young Players : a junior course. Toronto : Clarke, Irwin, 1942

Tempest-Tost . Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1951.

Renown at Stratford : a Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953.   Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1953.  (with Tyrone Guthrie).   

Twice have the Trumpets Sounded : a Record of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, 1954. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1954. (with Tyrone Guthrie, and Grant MacDonald).   

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd: A Record of the Stratford Festival in Canada 1955.  Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1955. (with Tyrone Guthrie, Boyd Neel, and Tanya Moiseiwitsch).

"Shakespeare Over the Port." Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1960. Toronto: Gage, 1961. pp. 95-108.

"Changing Fashions in Shakespearean Production." Stratford Papers on Shakespeare 1962. Toronto: Gage, 1963.   pp. 66-117.

A Masque of Mr. Punch. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1963. (Short play written for performance at Upper Canada College Preparatory School, containing a section, pp. 42-53, satirizing Shakespearean performance.   See entry in CASP database:   "A Masque for Mr. Punch").



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