years after his death, the man who single-handedly shaped
Canadian criticism still evokes feelings of deep hostility
or a sense of tragic loss.
finishes his week's engagement at
the O'Keefe Centre, bows to the applause, and then
lashes out against Nathan Cohen. "The SOB" has
a number of "illegitimate sons" around, sneers
Newley, referring to Toronto's theatre critics. The audience
applauds and laughs.
Newley had neither
forgotten nor forgiven Cohen's column of many years before,
in which he wrote that the British singer "abuses"
his voice "by reaching for high notes that produce
a frequent quaver together with a constant nasality and
an exaggerated Cockney sound."
The year is
1976. Nathan Cohen has been dead for five years.
By the time
of his death on March 26, 1971, Nathan Cohen was one of
the most admired and hated men in Canada. On the day he
died, The National led off with four words: "Nathan
Cohen is dead." In no other country in the world had
one man so personified theatre, so represented the world
of criticism, so influenced the cultural taste of his times.
Would Walter Cronkite begin a broadcast with the words "Clive
Barnes is dead"? Did the BBC headline the passing of
Kenneth Tynan? In a country renowned for either ignoring
its heroes or driving them away, Nathan Cohen was a phenomenon.
For many in
the arts, even a decade after his death, Cohen still evokes
feelings of hostility and hurt; for tens of thousands of
theatre-goers, Cohen has left a vacuum of first-rate criticism;
for his fellow critics and journalists, Cohen's death removed
a touchstone of guidance. Robert Fulford recalls that while
writing an article in the mid-1970s, he found himself thinking,
"What will Nathan think about this?" When he realized
that Cohen was no longer around, he felt a tremendous sense
On her first date with the young man, Gloria Brontman requests
that she be taken to the New Play Society's production of
Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! at the Royal Ontario
Museum Theatre. Her companion is 23 and a writer for a Communist
newspaper for Jews, the Vochenblatt (The Canadian Jewish
Weekly). Used to writing book reviews and political
articles for the predominantly Yiddish weekly (he later
wrote a regular column, "Turning Pages"), young
Nathan Cohen is urged by his date to write a review of the
play. And so he does:
the best-acted, best-directed amateur production we have
ever seen in Toronto," the critic writes, lavishing
praise that a few years hence would seem un-Cohenlike. But
suddenly, a diatribe is unleashed that appears daring, even
a third of a century later:
"It is a pity, though, that a group of such obvious
talents as the New Play Society should waste them on a play
as weak as Oh, Wilderness! is. O'Neill is a playwright
whose contempt for humanity, sombre hatred for the modern
world and craving for the past
has endeared him to pessimists the world over."
The Pulitzer-Prizewinning playwright? The Nobel-Prizewinning
playwright? The most honored man of American drama of the
first half of the 20th century? At the age of 23, Nathan
Cohen had found his calling.
The birth of
Samuel Nathan Cohen had taken place two decades earlier,
miles east: in Sydney, Nova Scotia, on April 16, 1923. In
most ways, his was a classic immigrant-Jewish family: a
name change (his father, David Kaplansky, had his name shortened
but hardly made less Jewish by an immigration official when
he arrived in Halifax shortly before World War I); a family
briefly separated (Cohen's mother, Fanny, was left back
in Timkovich, Poland, with their two daughters, while her
husband went off to the New World to find employment and
enough money to bring them over); and a hard-working, deeply
religious and scholarly framework.
family's first child born in Canada, and his younger brother
Louis were raised with their sisters above the family grocery
store in Whitney Pier, a desolate coal-mining and steel
area on the outskirts of Sydney. Yiddish was spoken in the
home and, more often than not, it was screamed. Nathan and
his father, both strong-willed, were always quarrelling.
His brother remembers the time when young Nathan stood up
in Hebrew school and cried out, "Why is God?"
The rabbi threw the child out of class, and an uproar followed.
Furthermore, Nathan made it clear that he was not about
to go into his father's business, as he'd been ordered to
do. The values and the strictness of his father were being
rebelled against, from the earliest years. When he was about
to be married, more than a decade later, his fiancee was
stunned to discover that he had not spoken to his father
In her attempt
to ease the friction between her husband and son, Fanny,
a loving, generous and kind woman, followed the classically
ethnic pattern: she overfed and pampered the child. When
Nathan entered school at the age of 4, he was the size of
As a child in
Whitney Pier, Nathan read continuously. Taking no interest
in athletics, refusing to go on boy scout hikes, he would
sit in the back of his father's grocery store, plowing through
comic books, Liberty magazines, love stories, novels,
plays. A similar catholicity in taste would inform his entire
life; in spite of his demanding theatre criticism,
he always saw himself as staunchly middlebrow.
Not between the wars in Sydney. But there were three movie
with an admission fee of but a nickel or a dime, and they
changed films three times a week. Nathan was there for every
new one, concentrating, focussing, memorizing, absorbing.
"In a small town like that, there's nothing: no ballet,
music, theatre -- only a cinema," Cohen said years
later. "That's why I know about movies." Journalist
David Cobb insists that Cohen saw every movie made after
1930 and remembered every one of them. Fulford believes
Cohen was a better movie than theatre critic. Certainly,
the development of his dramatic taste had begun.
There was always
this passionate, eager, almost driven desire to know. "You
must know everything!" screams a grandmother to young
Isaac Babel, in the great Russian-Jewish author's short
story which took that admonition as its title. It could
well serve as Nathan Cohen's credo.
As a mature
critic, Cohen recalled a teen-age experience at Sydney Academy.
He heard a high school teacher, Willie Mould, recite ("badly,
I suspect now") a scene from Henry V.
"I got terribly excited. I went after class and asked
him to tell me more about Henry V and to tell me
more about Shakespeare. You can imagine the excitement of
the teacher, being suddenly presented with a student who
was actually interested in what he was talking about."
The desire to
know everything continued on in college, which Cohen entered
at the age of 16 -- but looking 30. Along with that desire
was now growing an egotism and self-confidence that would
serve him well in the foreign soil of postwar Toronto. According
to Beryl Chernin, a childhood friend, the heavy-set teenager
marched up to the English professor at Mount Allison University
in Sackville, New Brunswick, on the first day of class and
announced, "I am Nathan Cohen!"
He was always
his own best promoter. "Bud" Trueman (the father
of Global TV's Peter), who was later the chairman of the
National Film Board and the first director of the Canada
Council, was struck by Cohen's obsession with words and
without doubt the best-read student I have ever had. And
he was as arrogant then as he proved to be later on, but
never negatively. Nathan was conspicuous in class by his
knowledge and his desire to shoot ideas out."
was not the typical student "brain"; he rarely
went to lectures, and spent almost all his time in the library.
And there was always a sense of controversy, amidst the
acting in school plays, the directing, the editing of the
school publication, The Argosy (every two weeks),
the running of the school year-book. Mount Allison was closely
affiliated with the United Church. Yet here was Cohen --
a Jew -- attacking incompetent professors on campus; questioning
conscription; challenging the very war that was then raging
in Europe. He never received his Honours Bachelor of Arts,
degree, but only a "pass BA," and it was a quarter-century
later, when the university bestowed an honorary Doctor of
Laws upon him, that Cohen was told why: "You were too
much a rabble-rouser."
In any case,
fate forced Cohen out of any possible academic career. Fire
broke out at the men's dorm at Mount Allison (arson was
suspected but never proven), and several students died.
Nathan, who jumped naked from the third floor into a snowbank,
suffered third-degree burns. Hair was never to grow on the
backs of his hands or on his legs. He lay in a hospital
for six months in Sackville, his MA thesis (on Romantic
poets in Canada) destroyed.
then sent Nathan, only 19, to Osgoode Hall Law School in
Toronto. Soon after he was found wandering the streets of
the city, apparently suffering from amnesia. He was feigning
illness, to get out of a hated profession, his friends say.
It was an early symptom of the onset of diabetes, says his
wife. Either way, Cohen returned to the east to edit "the
only labor-owned daily newspaper" in Canada, The
Glace Bay Gazette. It was financially backed by the
United Mine Workers, who soon witnessed the creation of
Nathan Cohen, Journalist. Still not 20, Cohen did everything
on the eight-page, flat-bed paper. He would arrive at the
office each morning at 5 a.m., lay out the front page, read
the teletype, call the undertaker, fire and police departments
for local news. Twenty-hour days, seven-day weeks, $100
It was most
likely while working on the Gazette that Cohen became
a Communist. There had been an ugly strike, and the young
editor was offended by the pressures put on him and the
men at the paper. Still, it is uncertain whether Cohen was
ever a "card-carrying member," or whether his
feelings toward communism were ever more than a passionate
distaste for injustice. As Joe Gershman, the editor of the
Vochenblatt, later stated, "During the years
he was a member, he was a rebel against certain postulates
held by the party. He was not in favor of democratic centralism,
particularly in the matter of art. He felt a writer should
be given a chance to explore and write freely what he thinks
and sees, rather than follow the party line. Nathan was,
in nature, a rebel, even. when he was in the Communist Party."
who worked in a bookstore near the newspaper and is now
the editor of Imperial Oil's The Review, remembers
that Cohen "was writing some of the most negative editorials
[about mine conditions] that appeared anywhere in Canada."
When Cohen quit after two years ("it was the greatest
training in the world"), he could look back with pride
on being denounced in the Nova Scotia Legislature by the
minister of mines for his personal campaign to have a national
conference on mines called. Years later, Cohen would be
proudest, not of his criticism, but of interviewing Marilyn
Monroe's personal secretary immediately following the actress's
suicide, and of grabbing Yugoslavian writer Milovan Djilas,
a Tito critic, for an exclusive interview following his
release from prison. He would always feel first and foremost
a newspaperman, a reporter. But in 1944, Cohen had had enough
of small towns.
(In 1968, on
a trip to see a theatrical production at the Charlottetown
Festival, his wife looked for a small farm on Prince Edward
Island as a retirement possibility. "Live in a small
town again?" asked Nathan. "Over my dead body.")
and forty-five. Political articles for the Canadian Tribune,
the weekly newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada. Nineteen-hundred
and forty-six. Book reviews for the Vochenblatt,
and his first play review. Nineteen-hundred and forty-seven.
Marriage, and a need to make a living. Cohen's father-inlaw
now echoed the request of his own father, made a half-dozen
years earlier: Become a lawyer.
had enjoyed acting in university, but this time he was miscast.
Osgoode Hall Law School exams at Christmas, failed. Torts
and property, exams at Easter, failed. Two supplementary
exams the following summer, also failed. He attended no
classes and wrote no exams.
right, Cohen's rescuer: Mavor Moore. A prominent radio actor
and writer and, along with his mother Dora Mavor Moore,
one of the founders of the New Play Society, Moore recommended
the 23-year-old-on the basis of his steadily more
substantial play reviews in the Vochenblatt -- for
a new CBC Radio program to
review plays, Across the Footlights. It was his big
When Cohen moved
from his first-generation Canadian, primarily Yiddish-speaking
readers to an Anglo-Saxon listening audience of tens of
thousands, he would create a revolution in Canadian criticism,
which more than 30 years later is still being felt. To
discuss the state of theatre criticism in this country in
the 1940s is just about impossible.
It was worse than incompetent: It was dangerous, in its
effusive praise and utter lack of critical standards.
Torontonians might recall the juvenile gibberish of Roly
Young, who wrote for The Globe and Mail in the 1930s
and 1940s. The title of his column, "Rambling With
Roly Young," captures the quality of his prose in Canada's
Committee is putting the art before the horse," rambled
Roly, in a review
of three one-act Canadian plays performed in 1943. "The
cast included her woodcarver husband (done in New France
Paul Muni), an Indian servant (from the Kiwanis tribe, I
think), and her lover (who was good despite the wig)."
no better over at the Toronto Daily Star, where Augustus
Bridle held court from the 1930s until he was run down by
a cab in 1952, at the age of 83. Theatre was identified
with church basements and fund raising, with no differentiation
between what was amateur and what was professional. Theatre
reviews (since one dare not call them "criticisms")
were dumped on page two, or in the women's section, or on
the society page, when they appeared at all.
in 1948, Cohen's first year as a radio drama critic: "It
was theatre night, and a packed house for the Women's Board
of Toronto Western Hospital...A gala night; many full-dressed
figures; boxes full..."
Nor did things
change drastically at the Globe in 1949, when Herbert
Whittaker began the job he did for almost three decades.
That Whittaker was, and is, a decent, good fellow is denied
by no one; but his close friendships with the theatrical
community, and his distaste for negative criticism of any
kind, were not seen as a weakness on his part, but as a
has declared, "I developed an ambiguous style; I developed
it deliberately; quite deliberately. Two readers could respond
in two completely different ways. I gave guidance, but I
didn't get between the reader and the play. I gave my views
by implication, by degree, by shading, by admitting the
good points. The harsh review paralyzes some..."
But that is
precisely the idea! screamed the youthful Nathan Cohen,
as he burst upon the Toronto literary community with all
the subtlety (and welcome) of Steve Biko parachuting into
an Afrikaners' convention. For 10 years as a regular drama
critic on local and national CBC Radio, this "bright,
fascinating, self educated Jewish intellectual from a small
town in eastern Canada" (Robert Weaver's words) was
to challenge everything theatre stood for - and did not
stand for -- in Canada.
Valancy Crawford...can best, and most charitably, be described
as incompetent." Across the Footlights, January,
is that the Canadian theatre is basically an amateur institution
...with.a placid tradition of mediocrity and self-praise..."
CBC Radio drama item, November, 1948.
producer Ralph Thomas recalls that Cohen was soon considered
"the most vicious man alive -- a holy terror."
"His line was to condemn those things beneath his standards,"
argues Herbert Whittaker. "This was careless."
like subversive. "Toronto was a predominantly WASP
city," states Fulford. "Cohen was ethnically a
stranger, culturally a stranger. He was more European than
Toronto. This town was Anglophile, an outpost of the Empire."
If Toronto was
Anglophile, Cohen must have seemed Anglophobic -- and in
many ways, he was. He simply could not see how new groups
putting on production after production of Noel Coward, Christopher
Fry and J.B. Priestley could create a Canadian theatre.
No fan of Tennessee Williams, Cohen still urged that his
plays be performed -- and Arthur Miller's as well.
We are closer,
physically and spiritually, to the United States than to
England, Cohen kept reminding his growing radio audience,
and they wanted to kill the messenger.
The Nathan Cohen
legend was growing. The 15-minute local show Across the
Footlights grew into The Theatre Week, heard
nationally across Canada on the CBC, which led to frequent
drama criticism for Critically Speaking, a national radio
magazine of the arts, and then to his domination of CJBC
Views the Shows, at a weekly pay of $35. When actor
Lloyd Bochner let Cohen know that he had put the critic
down for a charitable donation
of $50, he was shaken to hear that it was more than Cohen
made in a week -- and there were now two young daughters
the music critic on CJBC Views the Shows, reminisces:
"Cohen was a phenomenon with no precedent. Here was
a man drunk with allegiance to culture. He approached the
subject of art not as a polite pastime for Sunday afternoon
pleasure. He was bound to cause trouble and he did. He was
working in a setting hostile toward him. which questioned
the need of forthright criticism. Here was the perfect Biblical
role. And Nathan had the form and vitality of an Old Testament
the movie critic on the same important radio program, put
it more simply: "Most actors and directors were extremely
anti-Cohen, and from their point of view, with good reason.
He never said, 'They're doing their best; theatre needs
a boost. I'd better alter my standards.' The less you knew
about the arts, the more you hated him. But it was fun to
hear someone who was not wishy-washy."
was made for radio, and it is almost a shame that he is
better remembered today for his newspaper columns, with
their purple prose and mannered, turgid, clumsy style. ("No
one's more aware of what's wrong with my style than I am,"
he insisted years later. "Sometimes, when I read one
of my long, convoluted sentences, I'm out of breath at the
end." But, he told friend Robert Weaver, "My dear
Robert, I never claimed to be a stylist.")
Cohen was a
superb broadcaster: He was flowery, wordy, hyperbolic, exuding
self-confidence like a cross between I.F. Stone and FDR.
Like Stone, he would publish his own magazine, The Critic,
out of his own basement, off and on, over four years in
the early 1950s, with articles by Gerald Pratley, George
Robertson, Robert Weaver and wife Gloria ("Personal
journalism at its best" - Fulford); like Roosevelt,
his health failed drastically and slashed away at his strength.
He was 28 years old, but looked 50.
The legend continued
to grow. An actor takes a swing at Cohen in a restaurant,
over a negative review. Filthy and threatening phone calls
are made in the middle of the night, to the point where
his wife has to get an unlisted number. (Cohen's father-in-law,
with whom they live, urges him, "Tone down your criticism.")
Cohen becomes the editor of the CBC's Ford Radio Theatre,
adapting plays and freelancing more and more, to make ends
And then, Mavor
Moore, Cohen's personal deus ex machina, once again
intervenes. He thinks up the idea for Fighting Words,
and Harvey Hart, later film director of Fortune and Men's
Eyes (on Cohen's suggestion), creates the concept for
the show, and also produces it. The Man Toronto Had Learned
to Hate now becomes The Entertainer to the Nation.
30-minute, two-camera, live show --
CBC-TV's first successful discussion program --
was to run for almost a decade on the national network.
Panelists had to guess the author of a discussion-producing
producing quotation, mailed in by the home audience. "A
program of guesswork and give and take!" smiled Cohen,
pushing back his thick, horned-rimmed, black glasses, and
clasping his hands together.
You can close
your eyes and still hear that hoarse, sweet, high-pitched
voice: "Nooooooo, I don't know about that, Mr. Callaghan!"
"That's a verry sweeping statement, Mr. Trudeau!"
"Oh, those are fighting words, Mr. McLuhan!"
his ear, throws his body to the side, his oversized belly
shaking, his teeth flashing, as he laughs. "Awww, Ir-ving
come onnnnnnn! Come onnnnnnn! Mr. Layton, you're being out-raaaaaaaaaageous!!
Eric Koch, a
program organizer for Fighting Words and later regional
director of CBC's English-language network in Quebec, feels
that the show, more than anything else in his career, made
Cohen a national figure in Canada. Patrick Scott put it
this way, in his Star TV column, years later: "In
the history of Canadian broadcasting, the program Fighting
Words occupies a very special and perhaps even unique
niche... [It] was synonymous with Nathan Cohen, and vice
versa. He dominated the show by the very force of his personality,
which made him one of Canadian television's most colorful
He was not only the show's catalyst, as he was meant to
be, but its star."
of live TV could have its drawbacks. Only a few years into
Fighting Words' long run, Gordon Sinclair attacked the
Canadian flag. The episode was mentioned in Parliament,
and RCMP officers began to ask Cohen's neighbors about his
political affiliations. But he had left the party long before,
probably as early as 1947. He had noticed that in the lists
of "traitors" and "enemies of the state"
who were being tried and executed in Russia, only Jews were
singled out by religion -- and with the word "Zhid,"
meaning "kike," rather than the acceptable Russian
term "Ivrei," for Jew. Cohen did not wait until
the so-called Doctor's Plot, or Khrushchev's destalinization
at the Twentieth Congress in 1956, like millions of others
around the world. He was always ahead of his time.
The critic laughed
off the mini-McCarthyism of Canada, but he laughed too soon.
Fighting Words was taken off the air, and he was
quickly relieved of his reviewing duties on CBC Radio, too.
Unable to find employment, he went off to England in late
1954, sharing an apartment with Toronto actor Lou Jacobi.
The only memorable incident was when he was somehow invited
to have dinner at the home of Lord David Astor. When the
butler held out a giant bowl with a long fork buried in
it, Cohen scooped out the vegetables and forgot to return
the serving fork. Long minutes passed as Cohen (now 31,
but ever the Bluenose) wondered why everyone was staring
campaign to have Cohen reinstated led the CBC, always strong
in its convictions, to invite him to return to his role
as the moderator of Fighting Words.
was not his only trauma in the 1950s, aside from his everprecarious
health. In early 1953, Toronto's short-lived Jupiter Theatre
produced a play of Cohen's, Blue Is for Mourning.
It was, as he later described John Gielgud's production
of Hamlet with Richard Burton, "an unmitigated
disaster." The endless tale of a coal-mining family
in Glace Bay received a poor mounting, and it left Cohen,
as a scathing critic of other playwrights' works, open to
savage reprisal. The stone thrower had built a glass house.
was gleeful, as he filled in for Cohen on CJBC that week,
still licking his wounds from a critical beating from Cohen
a few short weeks before. "In the program we're told
that Blue Is for Mourning is to be the first part
of a trilogy. I can only hope that Mr. Cohen will not harden
his heart and carry through his dread resolve."
deserve it, George," Cohen moaned to George Robertson
about the poor production. "The play is not that good!"
Cohen meant that a better play could have survived such
a weak presentation, and he may have been right. But he
quickly learned his lesson. As he told Fulford years later,
"I can't write plays, but I can remind us all of what
theatre could be."
And how theatre
could become good, too. Like a Falstaff who could inspire
wit in others, Cohen remained faithful to his new self-awareness.
When he became the script editor of General Motors Presents
on CBC-TV in 1957, Cohen proved an inspiration to many
fledgling Canadian writers. He immediately recognized the
commercial brilliance of Arthur Hailey's Flight into
Danger and recommended it for production. Charles Templeton
was impressed by his treatment at the hands of the infamous
was an astute judge of play writing: Every single page was
marked up. `Why?"This doesn't make sense in terms of
page 4.' `Much too purple."This character wouldn't
say that at a tense moment.' His comments were valuable
beyond description. He read a manuscript as well as anyone."
By 1958, Nathan
Cohen was seemingly at the peak of his career: He had returned
to the print media, writing an often brilliant weekly column
("The Things Cohen Says!") for the Toronto
Telegram since 1957; performing ad-lib radio reviews
of local theatre on CBC's Audio; interviewing such
cultural figures as Joyce Cary, Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Pritchett,
Peter Ustinov, Harold Hobson, Iris Murdoch, Arthur Miller
and John Gielgud for the CBC Radio program Anthology;
plus his script editing on General Motors Presents
and his hosting Fighting Words on both radio and
TV. He was making more than $25,000 a year, a goodly sum
for a freelance in Canada in the late '50s, and he was only
35 years of age.
Berton, stage left, in his role associate editor of the
Star. Hire that man from the tely, Berton urged Beland
Honderich, who acted on the suggestion. And on January 4,
1959, Nathan Cohen began his dozen-year association with
Canada's largest newspaper, which he would turn into a nation-wide
forum on theatre and ballet in Canada. It would
end only in his death. The new job involved a salary cut
of more than $10,000.
With the Star,
and his becoming its entertainment editor in late 1959,
the persona of Nathan Cohen took on mythic proportions.
Those canes, for instance. His wife recalls going to a Ward-Price
auction in 1956 or 1957, and putting in a silent bid for
about a dozen canes, at $1.50 each, which was accepted.
Over the years, she continued to buy more. Cohen loved the
canes and carried one to almost every theatrical opening,
relishing the public image of professional curmudgeon. ("The
cane? It's only an affectation," he would happily admit.)
Berton remembers Arthur Hailey sending Cohen a sword-cane
from New Orleans. When the critic discovered, during a performance,
that he was actually wielding a concealed weapon, he soon
after had it welded together to make the sword unattainable.
His words were weapons enough.
And the capes!
The number is legion.of those who swear on their grandmothers'
graves that they had seen Nathan Cohen in a cape. Never,
says his wife. "He wore a cape," insists Berton.
"I suggested the cape," confesses Templeton. "He
rented one, one evening from Malabar, and swept down the
aisle, about five minutes before a performance began."
have claimed I wear capes," Cohen once confided to
Gary Lautens, the humorist at the Star. "And I don't.
I've never worn, owned, or borrowed a cape. [Pause] However,
it isn't a bad i-deaaaaaaaaaa."
of Cohen at the Star, whether apocryphal or not, tumble
out of acquaintances, friends and fellow workers alike,
The way Cohen
would sit and hold court in his fifth-floor office in the
old Star building on King Street West, chainsmoking
four packs of cigarettes a day, guzzling double-black coffee
from a giant double-mug, spilling it all over his desk at
least once a week.
The day Lautens
received a letter referring to a column of his in which
he confessed to his habit of reading newspapers from back
to front. "You must be Jewish," the reader wrote.
"I always suspected you were one of us." Lautens
showed the letter to Cohen, who dashed off a few sentences,
dismissing the notion that Lautens was Jewish, "pooh-poohing
the idea completely." Lautens eagerly signed the note
on the bottom. Cohen had written it in Yiddish.
The times that
Cohen would review a city, as well as its theatre ("Winnipeg
is desolate"), and make front-page headlines.
that Cohen was waiting for a bus on north Bathurst Street,
near his home, when a driver picked him up. (Composer John
Beckwith recalls Cohen telling him the story.) "You're
Nathan Cohen, aren't you?" the kindly man asked. "Yes,
I am," replied Cohen. "GET OUT."
at the Star, engraved in the memory of Ralph Thomas,
when Cohen was discussing "famous movie teams"
with film critic Martin Knelman. Knelman recalled four,
and Cohen quickly rattled off 30 pairs and added softly,
"And that was only male teams."
The time Cohen
was burned in effigy, because of his negative review, by
the cast of Brendan Behan's The Hostage when they
performed at the Royal Alex.
of Cohen by Mordecai Richler, in his satiric novel The
Incomparable Atuk. Seymour Bone "had to plan, connive,
claw, insult, lust and rage for years before he was recognized,
Dominion-wide." Bone was "the rebellious, ambitious,
acne-ridden son of a successful Presbyterian salesman,"
who "overate so much before attending his first play
for the Standard that, though he was enjoying himself immensely,
he simply had to flee before the end of the first act. BONE
STOMPS OUT, one newspaper headline boomed over a four-column
photograph of the critic seated in the second row, his face
a map of suffering and distaste ... Bone, now a national
figure, six feet tall and 275 pounds, was immediately offered
a CBC television panel show, Crossed Swords."
And what about
the revealing interview on TV, during which Cohen, rumpled
and hulking, six feet tall and 275 pounds, was asked by
a moderator, "You don't seem to care very much for
lyrical drama, such as Romeo and Juliet. Why is that,
And the critic
replied (recalls actress Fran Hyland), "Look at me."
It was impossible
not to look at Nathan Coen, and respond to Nathan Cohen,
and be enraged by Nathan Cohen, and be threatened by Nathan
Lest we forget, artists do not like critics. That is a given;
a donnée, as Henry James would put it. No,
it's more than dislike: disdain, have contempt for, despise,
detest. One need reach for a thesaurus to even begin to
capture the loathing. Writers, particularly, love to put
their hatred for critics into print, often with witty, if
is a legless man who teaches running." Channing Pollock.
are like eunuchs in a harem: They know how it's done, they've
seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves."
But the average
person does not like critics, either. Who do they think
they are, anyway? Did that idiot see the same show I did?
(One of the most famous anecdotes about Nathan Cohen, repeated
in the obituaries, recalls the time a theatre manager strode
up to him and stormed, "Do you really think the hundreds
of thousands of people who loved Brigadoon are wrong,
and you're right?" "Yes," replied Nathan
No, it's more
than resentment. It runs deeper, when you really think about
it. One response to critics (when they disagree with us,
of course; agreement is usually acknowledged with a nod)
is almost sexual in its unconscious depths of fear and resentment:
We are all experts, we earnestly feel, with an egalitarianism
that harks back to the American and French revolutions.
Of course, shown most clearly in the deathless judgments:
"I might not know art, but I know what I like,"
followed closely by,"My five-yearold can draw better
than that." But that makes the feelings no less deeply
felt. "I'll be damned if l m going to shell out $6
($10, $20, $28.50, $45) for two tickets, and have that bastard
tell me that it was a lousy production!"
Need one add,
when the tickets include a tedious four-hour, round-trip
journey to Stratford, Ontario, along with an overpriced,
underspiced dinner, the rage against the nay-saying critic
can reach gargantuan proportions.
Cohen was well
aware of the anger, and it both charmed and hurt him. He
often referred to it, with, self-deprecating wit, in a series
of columns entitled "Things a Critic Hears," which
he published in the Star on various occasions in the 1960s:
after you failed as a playwright, did you decide to become
so good, what are you doing in Canada?"
years of play-going, I have never seen anything as contemptible
as your attack on Noel Coward. B.K. Sandwell would never
have done anything like that, or Roly Young or Augustus
Bridle. But they were gentlemen."
is that you have a love-hate attitude toward Canadian theatre.
You want it to be good, and you can't forgive the people
in it for not meeting your expectations."
does Mavor Moore pay you for all those plugs you give him?"
you going to stop persecuting Mavor Moore?"
It was not only
Mavor Moore whom Cohen persecuted (and plugged). The Stratford
Festival is also a good case in point.
opened, in 1953, Cohen was close to ecstasy, like most of
the other theatre critics: It's "a cultural event of
the greatest magnitude for Canadians," he enthused
over CJBC Views the Shows. "It gives our serious
movements, and all our theatre arts, a dignity, a prestige
they've never had before."
But within a
few years, while the raves of others continued, Cohen began
what was to be an ongoing antagonism toward the festival.
The superb New Play Society had fallen apart with the coming
of Stratford, its energies and most of its performers absorbed
into the festival machinery. And the Crest Theatre became
more concerned with scenery,
costumes and props than in the enunciation and meaning of
words, just like Stratford!
The critic was angry; he felt betrayed. And.he said as much,
in a number of scathing articles on the Festival. Here is
Cohen in The Tamarack Review in 1959:
Festival part of an energetic, entrenched, diversified theatre
scene in Canada, its consequences would have been beneficial,
or at any rate not as harmful as they have turned out to
be. As it is, the Festival inflamed two chronic, understandable
but thoroughly dangerous Canadian yearnings: the itch to
win international glory by excelling, in some branch of
the arts, the two big brothers -- Britain and the United
States -- in whose shadow we must always stand; and the
passion to bypass the apprentice stage of culture and metamorphose
overnight, from an instant, quick-frozen state, as it were,
into a full-fledged maturity."
And in the Star,
in 1962: "For all its success and prestige, [the Stratford
Festival] has never achieved an honestly binding audience
relationship. Most people go there to make their seasonal
bow to the arts, to demonstrate that they appreciate culture
and do, too, like Shakespeare."
In the late
1960s, when John Hirsch was associate artistic director
of Stratford, he was invited to have dinner with Nathan
Cohen. The two had not spoken in years. "Nothing I
did at Stratford was any good to Cohen," Hirsch brooded.
"He could not forgive me for leaving the Manitoba Theatre
Centre and making a career of my own. I could have done
the Second Coming on the Stratford stage, and Cohen would
have panned me."
At dinner, Cohen
leaned across the table and whispered to Hirsch, "I
will not rest until I get you out of Stratford." "But
why, Nathan?" "Because it's so goyishe."
WASPy. Dry. Sterile. "Forever sucking the hind teat
of British culture," as Mavor Moore has said. Goyishe
was everything that Stratford -- and most Canadian theatre
pre-Cohen - had stood for. And everything that Nathan Cohen
knew that classical theatre has to justify its existence
through a reinterpretation of the classics through a Canadian
sensibility. And he felt that North American actors, with
their vitality and their own individuality, were squeezed
into British repertory molds," Hirsch declared. "And
Nathan was right. Although I did not feel it at the time."
Cohen was usually
right, if any critic can be described as being "right."
Although he refused to socialize with theatre people (beyond
his frequent interview lunches, which he single-handedly
pioneered in Toronto journalism), that did not prevent him
from becoming involved behind the scenes.
had been shaken by the power and richness of John Herbert's
Fortune and Men's Eyes, and sent the young playwright
a note: "I hope you understand that there's not a chance
in the world of this getting a professional production in
Canada. I've taken the liberty of sending it to a producer
of my acquaintance in
New York and, of course, promise nothing." It was produced
off-Broadway, and has since been performed in more than
100 countries. Since 1967, Fortune and Men's Eyes
has always been on a stage somewhere in the world.
Cohen, in spite
of a lifelong passion and preference for old-fashioned realistic
drama, begged former CBC producer Stan Jacobson to obtain
the rights to Jack Gelber's avant-garde play, The Connection,
for a Toronto presentation. (Al Waxman remembers his thoughts,
sitting on the curtainless stage of the House of Hamburg,
behind the old Ward-Price building on College, when Cohen
swept in, waving his cane: "Uh-oh. There he is. There's
Joe Shocter of the Citadel Theatre to hire Sean Mulcahy
as his new artistic director. He pleaded with actor Paul
Kligman to take on the title role in Othello:
' talking logic or instinct, Nathan?"
Do it. I may hate you in it, but I promise you, I'll see
See it he did,
at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. And he saw other plays
at the Vancouver Playhouse. And the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
And the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. And the Charlottetown
Festival ("When no one else was going there, Cohen
was the first to take it seriously," applauds Star
columnist Sid Adilman). And Le Théâtre du Nouveau
Monde in Montreal. And the Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
Cohen flew everywhere
across Canada, becoming the country's first, and only, national
theatre critic. "Always first class, of course,"
says Gary Lautens. "This was Cohen's status. Even the
publisher of the Star flew coach, but not Cohen.
'I've arrived now,' he was saying. 'I'm not travelling steerage
for indigenous Canadian theatre moved him to be a free publicist
for a number of theatres, most especially George Luscombe's
Toronto Workshop Productions. Calling TWP "the only
organization in English Canada with demonstrable style,"
he would plug away for them continually, at the bottom of
his columns. In 1963, for instance, in partial italics:
"Don't forget there's a performance tonight of George
Luscombe's production of Woyzeck at 47 Fraser Ave.
(telephone LE 5-4412), a theatrical tour de force, by far
the finest local production of the season."
Yet, as always,
Cohen could never forgive a fall from grace. When Luscombe's
troupe seemed to have "no idea where it was going"
(1970), Cohen bitterly accused the director of "defaulting
the leadership of the theatre."
of taking art seriously, personally, giving a damn, not
wanting to see patrons cheated, informed his response to
Mavor Moore's move in 1970. When the man who gave Cohen
his start at the CBC, in both radio and television, abruptly
quit his position as the first general director of the new
St. Lawrence Centre, Cohen was livid and took it as a personal
affront. He pounded his desk, recalls Adilman, and cried,
"No one has ever angered me so much! He's let me down!"
Moore had no right to walk out on a fledgling Canadian theatre
like that, and looking back at the record of the St. Lawrence
over the past decade, Cohen seems to have been right again.
Along with his
infamy came recognition, as well: John Bassett tracked down
Cohen at his hotel in New York, offering him a new house,
in addition to the same $21,000 salary he was getting from
the Star, if he would move over to his Telegram.
The New York Times placed him on a "short list"
of final competitors to replace Brooks Atkinson as drama
critic. (But it could never have been; Cohen's brief Communist
links in the 1940s had frequently kept him from reviewing
shows in the States, and would most certainly have been
dug up again.) David Merrick, the theatrical producer, offered
Cohen the position of dramaturge for his new productions.
Posthumously, the Young People's Theatre chose to call its
loft The Nathan Cohen Studio, after the critic who steadily
supported children's drama during his career. The most recent
recognition is Rick Salutin's Nathan Cohen: A Review
at Theatre Passe Muraille.
All the adulation
(always tempered by the hatred) never let Cohen forget his
humble roots - or lose his interest in others. The office
boys at the Star were used to being treated like
dirt by all but Cohen; he knew every one by name. He often
fought for women's right to hold better positions, raging
against the CBC for its ingrained sexism. He even wrote
a lengthy brief for the government on the growing role of
women in the arts in Canada. The secretaries at the Star
loved him -- his politeness and his tradition of never forgetting
to bring back little gifts from his many European trips.
When he went to the Academy Awards, he always took along
his young niece, who lived in Los Angeles. And when he took
his two daughters to the theatre, little corsages were sure
to be delivered to the door, just before they left the house.
The last few
years of Nathan Cohen's life were a blur of illnesses, airplane
flights, free-lance radio and TV work, including a revival
of Fighting Words for CHCH-TV, Hamilton, and theatre-going.
He would often work 36 to 48 hours in a row. Usually, Cohen
would arrive at the Star at 9:15 a.m., work until 6 p.m.,
grab a dinner, see a play, go home, dash off his review
by 1:30 a.m., send it in by cab, watch one or two late-night
movies, or write and research until 6, and be up again at
It would have
taken a toll on a healthy man, which Cohen never was. Robert
Weaver believes that his determination to cover all Canadian
theatre killed him.
Clifford Solway, his long-time confidant and producer of
Fighting Words, remembers a theatre trip to New York
by Cohen in 1969. Cohen, walking along with Solway, would
stop every few minutes, lean against a lamp-post and protest,
"I have to rest." After a half-minute, when Cohen
had caught his breath, they would continue on. His hair
was all white and thinning. He was 46.
His mind continued to be almost shockingly photographic.
During Canada's centennial year, Cohen and his wife were
on a train from Florence to Milan, where they would catch
a plane to Yugoslavia. They had not known that there was
a cab strike in the flood-racked city, and so had to run
to catch their train, leaving all their books back at their
hotel. Cohen sat back on the train, his lips moving constantly.
His wife asked him what he was doing. "I'm re-reading
Great Expectations," replied Cohen. He then
began to quote page after page from the novel to his still-capable-of-being-surprised
wife, leafing through the pages that had been committed
to memory years and years before. "Everything he read
would stick to him like glue, and unroll like a flood,"
recalls his wife.
During his last
years, Cohen's diabetes began to affect his eyesight. He
would have to sit closer and closer to the stage. A burst
blood vessel in his eyes created a veil effect, so he couldn't
see colors too well. For the first time in his life, he
began to forget names.
But his doctors
tended to concentrate more on discussing the celebrities
than on his illnesses, according to his wife. They were
more interested in asking Cohen about that musical at the
Royal Alex, that new drama at the O'Keefe, the promising
developments at the Factory Lab.
its toll, as well. The unceasing personal attacks and the
generally poor quality of theatre in the country ate away.
His widow has stated: "On many occasions during his
last years, Nathan would say, 'Maybe I should drop theatre
or go into more useful work.' Or, 'Don't they understand
what I'm trying to do?' The longer he stayed in the field,
the more discouraged he became, and I honestly think that
this was as much a part of his early death as any physical
before his 48th birthday, Nathan Cohen died of kidney failure
after open heart surgery. He used to tell his wife how his
mother had died at 47, and that he would die at the same
age. "I'll burn myself out at 47," he used to
tell her. And he did.
A few months
after her husband's death, Gloria Cohen discovered that
Nathan's mother had, in fact, been 53 when she died.
It was one of
the few times that Nathan Cohen had been wrong.