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A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

 

January 15, 2012

 

by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press.

 

John (originally János) Hirsch, who once told an interviewer "I am a member of four mafias: Hungarian, Jewish, homosexual and Winnipeg," was a major figure in the development of Canadian theatre and television drama. He was born in Siófok, Hungary in 1930, and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Afte spending time wandering post-war Europe, including a period in a displaced persons camp in Aschau, Germany, he came to Canada in 1947 through the War Orphans Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His founding of the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1959, directorship of CBC television drama (during which Premier Peter Lougheed sued the broadcaster over The Tar Sands docudrama), and spectacular productions at Stratford are all key events in the nation's cultural history. He also lived – vigorously – through 1960s' and 70s' upheaval in sexual mores and the AIDS epidemic, which eventually killed him.

 

The following excerpts from A Fiery Soul, abridged slightly for The Hungarian Presence in Canada, present Hirsch in 1947 and 1949 soon after his arrival in Winnipeg, and then describe him in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he was running CBC's television drama operations in Toronto.

 

Surrounded by a new family that loved and accepted him, it was easy for John to feel safe and welcome at Polson Avenue, but the surrounding neighbourhood and the city beyond took a bit more time. He had been told that Winnipeg was home to almost a half million people, yet the straight and almost empty streets did'nt seem to fit the description – where was everyone? Ugly signs and billboards covered graceless buildings, few of them with any appearance of history. The impression of implacable, freezing strangeness and of endless winter remained with him.

 

As the months passed he began to see beauty in the silent emptiness of winter. Years later, John wrote:

 

Winnipeg is winter. Columns of snow rising 100 feet high on a windless night, cutting through the dry, 40-below weather. White headlights of cars. Red, green and amber flash from the monster snow-clearing Caterpillars. The soft snow falls. You hear no footsteps, the snow muffles houses and sounds, the silence falls in flakes like the snow and covers everything. The black, scrawny branches fatten with white, fill out like old ladies; everyone grows round and bundled, and their faces look like McIntosh apples wrapped in sheepskin. The sun is up all the long day, the snow sparkles like ground glass, the light bounces, skips, the air is cut sharp with specks of diamond, the sky is a blinding summer blue.

 

A human as well as geographic landscape emerged as he became acquainted with the people who lived and worked in the long rows of working-class houses of Winnipeg's North End. There he began to see something like the Central European mix of his childhood, a place of cultural diversity but without the demons of ethnic hatred that had surfaced in the 1930s. Spring arrived, and faces emerged from behind turned-up fur collars and heavy scarves. As people no longer hurried to get out of the cold but had time to chat, the diversity became clearer. He couldn't believe it: Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, Russians and Jews living side-by-side and not killing one another. He could look into the eyes of people and not feel uneasy about being Jewish - or worry about having the correct identity papers. Memories of uniformed authorities at borders or in the streets of Paris died hard. The Shacks' next -door neighbour, a policeman, tried to be friendly and always said hello when their paths crossed, but it took John months to be able to reply.

 

He soon came to know the shops and small businesses that were such an important part of the North End. One important landmark for an always-hungry teenager was Kelekis Restaurant on Main Street, which sold French fries in a paper bag for a nickel. Originally from Greece, the Kelekis family had started out in Winnipeg with a fruit stand before the First World War, graduated to a chip wagon that was a familiar sight in the city during the 1930s, and eventually opened the restaurant in the 1940s. The restaurant became a hangout for people who worked in the theatre and other entertainment industries, and over the years has collected a huge number of photo-graphs of famous Winnipeggers who were patrons. Hirsch always had great affection for the three Kelekis sisters who served the customers.

 

In the fall of 1949 John entered the University of Manitoba… [His] university essays show both his interests and abilities. In a paper written for the drama course taught by Professor George Broderson (who also ran the city's Little Theatre), John provided an early indication of the eclectic stance he would take as a director. It begins boldly: "In this essay I will approach a play, a character, [or] a tone as a Marxist, a Freudian or a 'stream of consciousness' critic would. But at all times I shall remember that no one approach will or can tell the whole truth." The twenty pages bubble over with ideas and opinions, as well as a fascination with Chekhov. At times the language is grandiloquent and full of intellectual bravado, yet the ending sounds heartfelt:

 

I felt humble and inadequate when I began this essay. The feeling is still with me. I feel as one who was sent out to catch a will o' the wisp or the mist which rises from one of Chekhov's lakes in the dawn .... But if I have failed to catch the mist, this mist which is the elusive essence of all Chekhovian plays, I think I can at least claim that I have touched it. I can claim that I have felt it rise around me and encompass me. If there is a word which can describe its indescribable quality may I suggest that word to be: humanity.

 

In 1975, he decided to take a hands-on role in producing a short story by the great Canadian fiction writer Mavis Gallant.

 

Hirsch had always been a fan of Gallant's and had hoped to commission something by her as early as 1968, when he was still at Stratford. In 1975, he met Gallant in Paris to talk about "His Mother," a story she had published in the New Yorker about an elderly woman in Budapest whose life revolves almost entirely around letters from her émigré son. Having secured Gallant's agreement and the necessary rights, Hirsch put together a deal between the CBC, its Hungarian equivalent and a production company called International Cinemedia Center, which had recently filmed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. He hired one of Hungary's best directors, Károly Makk, to direct the film, with a script by Suzanne Grossmann and a cast that included Gordon Pinsent and Donnelly Rhodes.

 

As executive producer Hirsch attended some of the shooting in Budapest, and Pinsent remembered it as painful for him: "I could see John hovering, taller than any of the bystanders, not wanting to be a nuisance on another director's turf – well, wanted to, dying to, would have drawn blood to." Just before the film was released Hirsch wrote to Gallant, "on the whole, it is better than most of the shows made for television…. The performances are good, and there are even remains of your sensibility, if one looks very hard!"

 

By this time Hirsch's cousin Anna, the daughter of his uncle Gyuri, had moved to Canada with Hirsch's help in 1970, settling with her husband in Halifax. Gyuri came to visit once a year and Hirsch enjoyed seeing his Hungarian family more frequently. Another figure from his Hungarian past came back into his life unexpectedly in 1975. Ora Markstein, his friend from the Aschau displaced persons camp in Germany, had spent two decades in Israel with her husband and son, but found life there very hard. When the Marksteins arrived in Canada Hirsch did what he could to help them, putting them in touch with friends in Hamilton where they finally settled. He was delighted when Ora – a talented artist – began to sculpt in soapstone and he came to Hamilton to open her first show in Canada.

 

Hungary remained important to Hirsch as part of his identity. He once remarked, "I can be in Hong Kong, Paris, any totally strange country – guess what I do? I don't know why I do this but it is an absolutely conditioned response. Every time I feel unhappy, abandoned, unloved, rejected, depressed, melancholy, which for a Hungarian is practically an everyday thing, I look for the first Hungarian restaurant and after the soup I feel okay.... It is totally part of me and part of who I am." He now set about strengthening his connections with Hungary, having made friends there during the making of His Mother.

 

One of his new friends was Peter Molnar Gal, the doyen of Hungarian film critics. Molnar remembers meeting Hirsch in 1976 at a dinner organized by several of Hungary's young filmmakers. On behalf of a mutual friend Hirsch brought Molnar a book of poems by George Faludy, whose writings were banned by the Communist government. They arranged to meet again at Hirsch's hotel the next day. There they were joined after a short time by a handsome young pianist Hirsch had met in the hotel sauna. Molnar, who is gay, quickly understood the situation. By the time the visit was over he had lent Hirsch the keys to his summer house in Visegrad, a picturesque town forty kilometres north of Budapest, where Hirsch and the young man could spend time during Hirsch's visit. Although homosexuality was illegal in Hungary at the time and gay men had to be very discreet, Molnar comments, "John had no problems with his homosexuality and the socialist system. They ignored each other."


On subsequent visits Molnar frequently accompanied Hirsch to the theatre. Hirsch was already thinking about his return to stage directing when his contract with the CBC finished, and was interested in finding Hungarian plays that he might bring to North America. (One that excited him was Gyula Hernady's Royal Hunt, and Hirsch did in fact bring it to North America a few years later). Molnar also took Hirsch to gatherings of artists and intellectuals from among his wide circle of acquaintances. Although Hirsch was meeting government ministers and heads of cultural institutions in his capacity as head of CBC Drama ("they all asked how much I earned," Hirsch told Molnar) and could have played the visiting big shot, he rarely told people who he was. Gal remembers going to a cast party with Hirsch and watching him get into a deep discussion of the play with the actors "as if he were just another bearded theatre professional in a sweater."
Through Molnar Hirsch met Andras Hamori, a young theatre critic who was also working on film and TV documentaries. Hamori, who is now a well-known producer of feature films (eXistenZ, Sunshine, The Sweet Hereafter and many more), found in Hirsch a mentor; for his part, Hirsch saw huge potential in Hamori and urged him to come to North America. The two began to correspond in English and, when Hamori defected from Hungary a few years later, he lived in the basement suite at Hudson Drive for his first two years in Canada.

 

Hirsch left CBC in 1978, and returned to life as a freelance theatre director, working in both Canada and the United States. During this period he was hired as consulting artistic director at the Seattle Repertory Theater.


In the latter half of 1980 Hirsch directed two European plays, one a political comedy and the other an allegory from Tsarist Russia. The first was Gyula Hernady's The Grand Hunt, which he had seen in Budapest during one of his visits while at the CBC. After several false starts he finally commissioned an adaptation he liked from Suzanne Grossmann, who had adapted the Mavis Gallant story His Mother for CBC Television. He then worked out a deal that saw the production open at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake and then move to the National Arts Centre, and finally Seattle. In a press release from the Seattle Rep, Hirsch referred to the difficulty of producing interesting theatre in a time of recession. "Fine theatre is expensive. By sharing the rich resources between theatres, in the form of highly regarded productions such as The Grand Hunt, we can continue to present well rounded seasons."


The Grand Hunt takes as its starting point a historical event: the attempt of the last Hapsburg emperor, Charles I of Austria (who was also, confusingly, Charles VI of Hungary), and his wife, the Empress Zita, to regain the Hungarian part of his throne in 1921. This is as far as historical reality goes in the play. In the first of many plot twists the royal couple are assassinated by mistake, and scheming courtiers attempt to replace them with two hapless imposters, neither of whom knows the other is an imposter. Hirsch particularly liked the play's echoes of the sophisticated café culture to which his grandmother had exposed him even though he was too young to understand the details. He told an interviewer, "It harkens back to the thirties when Hungary was famous for its urbane, light comedies with a special sardonic tone about how things were. The first thing Hungarians are taught is how to read between the lines. Out of that comes the particular Central European humour, which is based on the fact that you doubt everything because you are not told the truth…. You never trust the surface." He speculated that since Vietnam and Watergate had pushed North Americans toward a more cynical and therefore realistic view of politics, audiences would relate to the play's tone and content in ways they might not have even a decade before.

 

The play garnered good reviews when it opened in August 1980 at the Shaw Festival in Ontario. Seattle reviewers were even more impressed when it opened there in November. The Post-Intelligencer said, "It has dazzling speed, splendid costumes, droll writing ('A dead enemy is almost a friend'), brilliant acting and a flavour rarely found on the American stage. Spies stand at doorways clicking their heels. Shots ring out. A king wears a tunic weighted with oversize medals. A count causes death with a nod to men in long leather coats. It's all cosy, creepy and – wondrously – funny too."

 

In 1981, Hirsch became artistic director at the Stratford Festival. During the Statford "season" he lived in the town of Stratford; the rest of the year he live in Toronto with his partner Bryan Trottier.

 

When the season ended at Stratford in late September 1982 Hirsch moved back to Toronto, returning to the house in Stratford only when he had to stay for extended meetings or other work assignments. Andras Hamori was now living downstairs at Hudson Drive while he tried to find his professional feet in Toronto. When Hamori lasted exactly one day in a job Hirsch helped him find at the CBC, Hirsch was not surprised or annoyed. In fact, he laughed when Hamori dismissed the national broadcaster with, "I didn't leave Hungary to get back into the socialist system." Hamori soon found a job working in film production for Hirsch's friend Robert Lantos and began his rapid climb in the industry.


Hamori loved having a ringside seat at Hudson Drive with its constant steam of dinner guests from Hirsch's different "mafias": Jewish, Hungarian, Winnipeg and gay, with some people representing more than one category. He enjoyed the secular seders Hirsch and Bryan had started doing at Passover and the fact that the house was a kid-friendly zone. Hirsch and Bryan both loved having children around and related well to them. Martin Knelman's daughter Sara and son Josh were frequent visitors. The latter recalls thinking of Hirsch and Bryan as fixed, solid features in his childhood: "John would listen to an eight-year-old like me with the same seriousness as he'd give to an adult. They both would. I never thought of them as anything but a warm, together couple."


Andras Hamori saw the couple but he also noted what he called the "cage aux folles" aspect of the house: "There were always good-looking young men around – theatre students from Hungary, makeup artists who just needed a place to stay for a few days." When Hamori started adding to the mix by bringing girlfriends home, Hirsch reacted like a proud father. He and Bryan both became friendly with the women in Hamori's life, happily adding them to the ever-changing mix at the house.


When Hamori announced that his mother was coming from Hungary to visit him, Hirsch called "a family meeting" with Bryan and Hamori to discuss how they were going hide Hirsch's homosexuality from the visitor. Though Hamori didn't think it would be a problem, Hirsch was worried, since homosexuality was still both officially and socially taboo in Hungary. Hamori remembers, "John decided he would wear a three-piece suit with a vest. I asked why, and he said 'Because gay people don't wear three-piece suits, they wear jeans and sweaters.' I said fine and Bryan said fine. My mother arrived and John started to wear this really ugly, brown three-piece suit. After a few days my mother asked if Bryan and John were gay. I said, yeah. And my mum said, 'So why does John wear a suit? Gay people don't wear suits.' I told this to John and he said 'Thank God!' and went back to the big beige sweater that he always wore and his green corduroy pants."

 

 

 


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