Our Inside Read feature presents excerpts from new Canadian books we think you might want to dip into further. In The Opening Act, author Susan McNicoll offers a lively history of Canadian theatre post WW II, including the following account of Vancouver’s 1953 Tobacco Road “fiasco.”
Published by kind permission of Ronsdale Press.
“The police sent people on the vice squad to look at the show,” [director] Dorothy Davies said, “and they decided that Jeeter was urinating on the stage and that sexual intercourse took place on the stage.” While the script does not call for intercourse to take place on stage, it does call for two scenes which involve sexual teasing or, at the most, a crude form of foreplay. One involved Ellie May and Lov, the sex-starved husband of Pearl. In another incident, Bessie gets Dude sexually aroused during a scene before their marriage. Both of them call for a great deal of rubbing and petting but nothing beyond that. Nevertheless, the detective and the policewoman who viewed the show on behalf of the police department described the show as “lewd and filthy.”
Everyman producer Sydney Risk appeared with a delegation before Vancouver’s mayor Fred Hume to protest the police order of “clean up or close down.” He also met with City Prosecutor Gordon Scott. Risk declared that the theatre would continue to run Tobacco Road, even if it was ordered to close or was faced with prosecution under the Criminal Code of Canada. The night following the visit by the vice squad, Risk spoke to the audience to tell them he thought people should be allowed to decide for themselves what they wanted to see in the theatre. He received thunderous applause. Newspapers, magazine editorials and letters of the day supported Risk’s view.
After his speech, it became clear to authorities that Everyman was not going to pay any attention to the police edict and would continue to stage the drama without changing anything. At the time, Risk said, he had been told it didn’t matter if they cleaned up the play; they would be charged anyway. The morning of January 17, Gordon Scott confirmed charges would be laid. The only questions left were who would be charged and when.
The answers were not long in coming. That night police were standing by, waiting to arrest five of the cast members when the first act was over and the curtain came down, but the curtain never came down that night. The actors stalled the action of arrest by merely dimming the lights. Faced with having to make the arrests on stage in front of some one thousand patrons, the police waited. During the second act the cast made entrances and exits through carefully calculated routes, thwarting the police in their efforts. The management asked technicians, stagehands and even reporters to jam the wings, making it even more difficult for the officers to reach the actors they wanted to arrest. Police called for reinforcements, and at the opening of the third act they marched out on to the stage and made the arrests. The audience screamed and jeered, some shouting “Gestapo,” even as Sydney Risk tried to keep them calm.
Taken into custody at that time were Douglas Haskins (Jeeter), Douglas Hellier (Lov), Ted Babcock (Dude), Tamara Dlugo (Ellie May) and Louise DeVick (Sister Bessie). They were taken to the police station at ten in the evening and were finally released two hours later on $100 bail each, paid by theatre operator Charles Nelson. In the meantime, patrons at the theatre were given free coffee and impromptu entertainment by the remainder of the cast with the help of two fellow actors in the audience — John Emerson and Bruno Gerussi. Those arrested arrived back at the theatre close to midnight to finish the third act, and were greeted with a screaming ovation from the audience, only a few of whom had left.
The trial for the first of the defendants, Douglas Hellier, began in Police Court on January 28, 1953. The author of the novel on which the play was based, Erskine Caldwell, flew in to be of any assistance he could to the defence.
Most of the legal proceedings consisted of the prosecution bringing in witnesses to call the play “filth” and the defence countering with people stating that they were not corrupted by the performance. Crowds at the trial were large, and it was front page news in all the papers. Letters to the editor, which came in great numbers, were greatly in favour of Tobacco Road. Six witnesses were called at the trial for the Crown to say the play was obscene but defence responded with twenty-one witnesses, including clergymen and university professors. Both Sydney Risk and Dorothy Davies were called as defence witnesses for Hellier’s trial. Davies, who actually received some phone threats throughout the trial, was on the stand for almost two hours and took complete responsibility for anything her actors did on stage.
Douglas Hellier was found guilty of participating in an “indecent, obscene and immoral” performance, as were almost all the others in the final judgement brought down by Magistrate W.B. McInnes, who said the play catered “to the lower instincts” of the audience. The only one to escape the guilty rap was producer Sydney Risk.
Naturally, an appeal was launched immediately. A committee was formed by prominent Vancouver citizens to raise money for the appeal. All the profits Everyman had made with Tobacco Road had been eaten up by the trial. The actors convicted did not even have enough money to pay the fines, let alone to cover an appeal. Charles Nelson paid the total of $170 for the entire group.
The appeal lasted for only slightly more than three hours in County Court on March 17, 1953. The hearing was the first time during the case that the real issue of what was at stake was named. The prosecution chanced to use the word “censorship” and Judge J.A. McGeer, who presided over the proceedings, immediately said, “Ah, the ugly head of censorship.” The judge threw out the convictions on the basis that the defence witnesses who had seen the play were a good cross-section of society and had not found the production obscene.
Everyman continued its Vancouver season with Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky. “That was a production we did with very much the same people and much the same problems in the play that are in Tobacco Road actually,” Dorothy Davies said. “But nobody notices it when you dress beautifully and you’re drinking champagne. It is only when you look wretched and poor it causes great offence.”
A Crown appeal was made a month later to the British Columbia Court of Appeal to reverse the decision which had thrown out the convictions. This appeal, a test case against only one of the seven, Douglas Hellier, was successful and the conviction stood. The issue had finally reached its conclusion. An appendix to the story, however, reveals “how quickly they forget.” A year and a half after the Tobacco Road debacle, Dorothy Davies directed a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which represented British Columbia at the Dominion Drama Festival. Davies won the Louis Jouvet Award as best director. In recognition, the Vancouver City Council awarded her a civic medal, the first one to be given to an artist. “One year I’m having all this [the obscenity charges] done to me,” Davies said, not missing the irony, “and then all of a sudden I become a hero.”