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This article by Simon Saltzman
was prepared for the March 20, 2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Legend Plays a Legend
`More, more, more; I can’t give any more. I have nothing more
to give. I want a tranquil senility. I’m a grown man. I don’t want
to go on painting my face night after night, wearing clothes that
are not my own. I’m not a child dressing up for charades; this is
my work, my life’s work. I’m an actor and who cares if I go out there
tonight or any other night and shorten my life?’
From `The Dresser’ by Ronald Harwood.
The rich resonant and eminently cultured
voice that says "good morning" to me on the phone belongs
to Douglas Campbell, one of Canada’s most honored and adulated actors
(awarded the Order of Canada in 1997). To be 80 years old, with more
than 50 years of virtual non-stop role-playing behind him, makes
appearance a major event at the Bristol Riverside Theater, in the
part of Sir in Ronald Harwood’s "The Dresser."
Unlike the character Sir, who is approaching senility, Campbell
at the peak of his artistry. In the play, Norman, Sir’s devoted
his wife, and stage manager, valiantly try to prepare the aging,
actor for the evening’s performance of "King Lear," while
bombs are being dropped near a provincial theater in England in 1942.
What a great opportunity this is for those of us who have not had
the privilege of seeing Douglas act either at the Stratford
Festival in Ontario, or at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
is recognized as one of the great Lears of our time. He appeared in
a successful tour of Canada and the United States, in the 1980s that
unfortunately did not come to New York. During his long, eventful,
and enduring tenure (since 1953) at Stratford, he performed many of
the great roles in the classic and modern repertoire, among them
Rex," directed by Tyrone Guthrie (1955) and Orgon in John Hirsch’s
production of "Tartuffe."
Campbell admits that, "Any actor who gets to the ridiculous age
of 80 feels compelled to go on performing and go on asking: `What
in the name of God, am I doing this for?’" If nothing else, he
knows he is passing on a tradition. Of his six children (four children
from his previous marriage to actor Ann Casson, and two with actor
Moira Wylie), he has directed two of his sons Benedict and Torquil
on the stage. He directed Benedict, who is now a member of the
ensemble in Wycherley’s "The Country Wife," in 1995, and
in "Henry IV, Part 1" (2000), at the Bard on the Beach production,
It doesn’t surprise me to hear Campbell say that he doesn’t see much
of himself in Sir, considering that the role of the actor and manager
has largely vanished in modern times. Although he has previously
Sir in Toronto and in Hamilton, Ontario, he says working with Bristol
Riverside’s artistic director Edward Keith Baker has been an extremely
good and enlightening experience. It has brought him new insights,
one being how Sir’s relationship with his dresser is akin to Lear
and the fool. In preparation, director Baker went to England where
he worked side by side with renowned director Michael Langham, who
serves as artistic adviser to this production of "The
Langham and Campbell have a long association that dates back to the
I asked Campbell if he felt he had got to the heart of Lear. "I
think an actor would be a fool if he thought that any great role had
been completely answered by their performance. There is so much to
be gained by different reactions from different audiences," says
Douglas, acknowledging Lear as being the most intellectually
But it is "Othello," that is, he says, "the real
As his most demanding experience on stage, he cites the four hours
of "The House of Atrius," at the Guthrie. For a repertory
actor like Campbell, who has had the job of playing "Othello,"
at the same time rehearsing "Macbeth," there comes an
understanding, empathy and respect for Harwood’s poignant Sir, the
last of a valiant and noble breed.
Another challenge for the actor who finds his niche
in a repertory company is being cast in a role he is totally unsuited
for. "I was never what you might call a juvenile, or traditional
leading man. I was a tallish, freckled, rumbustious red-headed boy
able to play character parts, he says with a laugh as he recalls being
cast in Somerset Maugham’s "The Breadwinner," in which he had
to say something like "I say, anyone for tennis?"
While "Lear" and "Falstaff" (he appeared as Falstaff
in Stratford’s impressive mounting of Shakespeare’s "Henry"
plays last year) remain his favorite roles, he says that with each
great role, he draws from a part of himself, allowing himself to learn
more about being human. "That is the advantage of living a long
time and playing many great parts."
Although "The Dresser" is based on Harwood’s experience as
a dresser to the great Sir Donald Wolfit (whom Campbell says he knew
briefly), and that followed his days as an actor, the character of
Sir is really an inspired composite of the legendary actor/managers
who invested their own money and hired their own actors. "My
with the part is that I’ve never done anything else but pound the
boards," says Douglas.
A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Campbell left home in 1953 to come
to Canada as an actor with his friend Tyrone Guthrie, with whom he
had worked at the Open Stage at the Edinburgh Festival. Although
says he was "a total dunce" at school and thought he might
like to be an artist, he earned a living doing heavy labor and driving
"I went into the theater because I could drive a truck. Guthrie
had hired me to drive the company truck on a tour of `Medea’ in South
Wales with Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. I always had a splendid
voice and Casson took an interest in me. I began as an understudy
and have never stopped since."
Guthrie, who had come to Canada to open the Stratford Shakespeare
Festival, hired Campbell. Being part of the ensemble didn’t stop him
from forming his own Canadian Players to give ensemble members year
"It continued for 10 years, but we priced ourselves out of
The trade unions made it impossible to go on." But go on he did,
after 10 years at Stratford to join up with Guthrie in Minneapolis.
His 1966 post as artistic director at the Guthrie was short lived.
"I’m not a good diplomat. I didn’t get on with anyone on the board
and left after one year." Campbell has been back at Stratford,
off and on for the past 20 years, but says he is not "sanguine
about what’s going on there."
There is something going on in North Hatley, Quebec,
where a little theater called the Piggery has run into some hardship.
Campbell will come to the rescue by directing their upcoming season
("I must be entirely out of my mind") following his run in
"The Dresser." If Campbell says that the idea of retiring
scares him, he would like to ease back into painting and "finish
off the way I started." Does hel have any regrets about roles
he’s missed? "I never played Captain Hook in `Peter Pan,’"
he says, laughing with deep-voiced resonance that would definitely
give pause to the croc.
The following is the epilogue to our conversation. Campbell’s stream
of prose went uninterrupted by me. Let me to share it with you:
"I want people to understand that the theater is not just a place
for entertainment, but that it is closely linked to literature. We
have to re-examine what words mean and to hear them spoken and spoken
well. It is an essential part of the theater. I would say to
take more interest in language; be interested in what words mean.
From the actors’ point of view: try to make the words ring in people’s
minds and ears. Don’t just shuttle them off as if they were getting
in the way of you expressing yourself. I’m an actor. I don’t know
what else I could have been."
— Simon Saltzman
Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Opening night for Ronald Harwood’s
drama that runs to April 7. $27 to $34. Friday, March 22, 8 p.m.
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