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Wayne Edmonstone.

Halifax, Goodread Biographies, c1977, 1983.
Distributed by Formac.
(Canadian Lives #8).
286pp, paper, $5.95.
ISBN 0-88780-108-0.

Reviewed by Robert E. Wheeler.

Volume 11 Number 6.
1983 November.

Author, Wayne Edmonstone, a fellow-journalist and staunch admirer, tells the story of Cohen's life and lets Cohen speak for himself in many quotations from old radio scripts and public interviews.

For twenty years, Nathan Cohen was the leading critic of theatre and entertainment in Canada. He might be compared to Karl Kraus, another outspoken and polemical journalist and playwright who despised vulgarity and meretriciousness. Like Kraus, he recognized the decadent character of the contemporary world, with its myopic tendency to regard the arts as little more than compensatory fantasy.

As drama critic for the Toronto Star and acerbic host of the CBC's Fighting Words, Cohen had a rare opportunity to offend the complacent Babbittry of those who deemed it their sacred duty to preserve the unruffled surface of Canadian culture. The theatre, in his view, must "mean something"; it must be impelled by a steadfast sense of purpose. An inveterate hatred of sham and pretense led him to speak out against much that enjoyed popular acclaim. What he wanted, and worked to establish, was a socially-relevant theatre—one that was not subservient to the prevailing philistinism. His high standards of performance precluded an uncritical acceptance of mediocrity. He wanted theatre to have a humanizing influence, but this could not be accomplished when the majority craved theatrical diversion similar to the sentimental "Comedie Larmoyante (tearful comedy) of the eighteenth century in France. Vital theatre presupposed a discerning audience.

In addition to its pungent criticism, the book provides an overview of Canadian theatre, including The New Play Society, founded in 1946, the Crest Theatre, and other innovative efforts, culminating in the Toronto Workshop Productions. "A good play," Cohen asserts, "is one that adds beauty and understanding to our lives." It maybe The Sea Gull by Chekhov, To Tell the Truth, by Morley Callaghan, a drama by Shakespeare, Strindbefg, or Maxim Gorky. But an inept director, combined with incompetent actors, can destroy the finest play. Professionals, as well as local amateurs, may be guilty of a slipshod performance, and in his caustic reviews Cohen does not spare the superstars in the theatre world. He also castigates those maudlin "critics" who praise inferior productions, claiming that a sincere attempt merits critical indulgence.

"Knowledge, and nothing else," he says, "is the criterion for criticism." A first-rate critic is immune to flunkyism; he places authentic vision and integrity before popularity. When confronted by spurious values, he does not hesitate to expose them, particularly when the subject is a vapid play pretending to enshrine timeless wisdom. Above all, the honest critic disdains "puffery" in all its ugly forms. "To puff," one recalls, means to "blow up," to over-praise the term deriving from the obnoxious character of Mr. Puff, in a play by Sheridan called The Critic. Many who knew Nathan Cohen, while admiring him personally, accused him of being autocratic and intolerant. They considered his expectations too idealistic and resented his unflagging attempt to elevate the standards of journalism. Some also resented his demand that a living Canadian theatre should include in its repertoire such works as The Master Builder, The Lower Depths, Miss Julie, and Cyrano de Bergerac. The theatre is an art form that people should need and desire; an enlightened public will seek the best, turning away from the slick trivia that competes for their money and attention.

Central to the very idea of a free society, Cohen maintains, is the concept of an informed and educated people. Many of his more epigrammatic observations pertain to the madness of war, the stupidity of politicians, and the pathetic gullibility of the public. Courageous to the end (he died in 1971), Cohen never became an embittered misanthrope; he continued to believe in Canada and its capacity for greatness. He will be remembered with profound affection and esteem, "marching to the deafening beat of his own drummer." Edmonstone's book is a tribute to a man who dared to be himself; reading it will help others to do the same.

Robert E. Wheeler, Gananoque, ON.
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