Hungarians and the Canadian Theatre: The Case of Peter Hay Péter Szaffkó



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Hungarians and the Canadian Theatre: The Case of Peter Hay

Péter Szaffkó

University of Debrecen, Partium Christian University, Oradea
“Plays are published for a variety of reasons. Except in English Canada where, generally speaking, plays are not published” (Hay, “Preface” 5). This is the beginning of the Preface to George Ryga’s Captives of the Faceless Drummer first published in 1971 and reprinted in 1972 by Talonbooks. The author is Peter Hay, editor of Talonplays. And a dramaturge. And a translator. And a director. And many other things ... He was born Hungarian and has become one of the most ardent spokesmen and activists of Canadian theatre and Canadian drama in the 1970s. Currently he is moving back to Canada from the United States of America where he ran two bookstores in Los Angeles.
Background and Preparation
Peter Hay was born to a Jewish family as Péter Majoros on 9 February 1944 in Budapest. His father, István Majoros, was a writer who was saved by a Swedish Schutzpass from Raul Wallenberg while his mother was in hiding. In May 1945 his mother met the Hungarian playwright Gyula Háy who eventually married him and Péter became adopted by him. Probably because of the tense political situation following the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, in January 1957 Peter was sent to England, where his maternal grandparents had fled in 1939. Two weeks later Gyula Háy was arrested and later tried for treason.

Peter went to English boarding schools and won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, where he first read classics and got a B.A. in English language and literature in 1967. At Oxford he became interested in the theatre, and was instrumental in producing the English premiere of his father’s play, The Horse [A ló, 1961] at the Oxford Playhouse, in November 1965. The comedy, which revolves around Caligula’s horse appointed as consul, was naturally translated by the author’s son whose mother tongue is Hungarian but speaks six other languages: English, French, Italian, German, Greek and Latin. He started translating his father’s works in 1963 and continued to do so in the forthcoming years. Two of them (The Horse and Have) have been published and widely produced by university theatres in England, Canada and the United States.

In 1966 Hay apprenticed with Margaret Ramsay, England’s top play agent at the time, and then founded The Oxford Literary Agency with Elizabeth Sweeting, administrator of the Oxford Playhouse. In our personal correspondence Peter Hay mentioned that one of his main ”discoveries” in this period was Christopher Hampton whom he knew from Oxford (though they did not study together) and who was the youngest ever British playwright to be produced at the West End. Peter Hay was also on the committee that selected and produced Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guilderstern Are Dead at the Edinburgh Festival. This was certainly a good start for someone who was soon to become involved in finding, promoting and publishing new talents for the stage.

During his third year at Oxford Hay received an invitation from Canada to direct plays and teach at the recently founded Simon Fraser University, outside Vancouver. The person to invite him was Michael Bawtree, an Australia-born but Oxford-educated British dramaturge, playwright and director who established the drama program of SFU. Connections in Peter Hay’s life seem to have played an important role almost right from the beginning: Bawtree was also a protégé of Michael Langham, the second and one of the longest-serving foreign artistic directors of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Ontario, who had seen the production of Julius Hay’s The Horse back at Oxford.

Peter Hay arrived in Canada in late August of the country’s centennial year of 1967 and started directing at SFU early September. It was there that he met avant-garde director John Juliani, with whom he worked closely the following five years. Juliani came from Montreal and he was to become one of the most influential directors of the 1970s and 80s, especially with his Savage God series experiment. All his productions were challenging, controversial and/or provocative. At the university Hay was in charge of a weekly one-hour show, and also directed various productions such as Antigone, Coriolanus and other works. At the time, both Juliani and Hay were more interested in classic works or in the European avant-garde which is not at all surprising given the fact that visible Canadian drama hardly existed at all, except that the Vancouver Playhouse was having great success in 1967 with George Ryga’s now classic work The Ecstasy of Rita Joe and some Eric Nicol comedies.

In late 1968 Simon Fraser University became the Berkeley and Columbia of Canada, with sit-ins and mass arrests of students. The latter took place during the technical rehearsal of Peter Hay’s avant-garde production of Coriolanus at 2 a.m. Demonstrating solidarity with the arrested students, the staff of the show decided to stop the rehearsal and blasted the campus with recordings of Hitler’s Nurenberg speeches. They were so loud that a closeby radio station reported it. No wonder that a couple of days later the university administration informed several of the resident artists that their contracts would not be renewed. There came a long fight against the decision, supported by many of the students. During this time, however, Juliani directed Gyula Háy’s The Horse, and started rehearsing his most famous play Have [Tiszazug, 1934] but could not finish before being shut out of the theatre. When the play was shown in 1995 at the Frederic Wood Theatre of the University of British Columbia, Juliani recalled the previous event in the following way:


I first began work on TO HAVE in the Spring of 1969 at Simon Fraser University. I had come to know Julius Hay’s work through my association with his son, Peter who had recently arrived from the United Kingdom. …

When circusmtances prevented us from continuing to rehearse atop Burnaby Mountain, we took to the streets, and under the aegis of Savage God, I conducted several rehearsals (one of them I seem to remember in the rain) in the courtyard of what was then the Vancouver School of Art on Dunsmuir Street opposite the Playhouse Theatre. That production of TO HAVE (it was called HAVE then) had to be abandoned. Now, more than twenty-five years later I have been afforded the opportunity to complete the job. (To Have 2)


Although the staging of his father’s play at SFU could not be realized then, 1969 seems to have been an important year for Peter Hay in several respects. Losing his position at the university, he began freelancing as a theatre critic for The Vancouver Province and other publications. He was also writing short scripts, and was commissioned to write a revue, called Public Hair, which the Stratford Festival toured to schools in Ontario. The commission came from director Timothy Bond, one of Peter Hay’s former colleagues who later left the stage for film and television. On top of all this, Hay also started publishing scripts.
Publishing Canadian Drama
The first book to be published by him was Have, followed by Crabdance, a very special Canadian play by Beverley Simons. After having seen her play The Elephant and the Jewish Question performed in a community theatre in 1968, Hay decided to publish Crabdance for the Seattle production at A Contemporary Theatre in 1969 which was the world premiere of Simons’s famous piece.

While the printing of his father’s play was the result of a current need—Juliani wanted to direct the work and it was to be used as a required reading for a drama course—the case of Crabdance was a different story. Several months after the successful publishing of Simons’s play, Hay wrote an article entitled “Publish and Perish” for the spring 1970 issue of the bilingual theatrical magazine The Stage in Canada/La scéne au in Canada in which he provides his criticism over Canadian publishing at large and describes his motivations to urge and encourage drama publishing in the country. He argues that indigenous drama cannot develop without being published but even the fact of publishing in itself may not be enough. He refers to the practice of the Canadian Theatre Centre preparing stencilled versions of Canadian playwrights’ scripts for the members. In the long run, however, this venture was doomed to failure because it


had to rely on full subsidy, since scripts produced this way cost a good deal, especially in human labour. Moreover, a number of scripts that were not wholly worthwile got disseminated to keep up with the supply of subsidy for this specific purpose. Some scripts were duplicated not because they were good but because they were Canadian: one of the surest ways to produce a decline in standards. (Hay, “Publish and Perish” 5)
Then Hay describes his experiences with the lack of important works in print such as James Reaney’s The Easter Egg which was available only in a “tattered manuscript” and had to be retyped for production (5). As a counterexample, Hay relates that the cheap version of the play Have was quite feasible because when it was needed for Juliani’s production, he got it printed in 1500 copies two thirds of which was quickly sold at the university.

The idea of publishing plays in conjunction with a production came from Hay’s personal experience when Jean Vilar’s Théâtre Nationale Populaire had staged his father's God, Emperor and Peasant [Isten, császár, paraszt, 1932] a few years earlier in Paris and Avignon, and had sold tens of thousands of copies of the script to a captive audience. It seemed logical that the best marketing of plays was through the theatre, and this is why he decided to go to Seattle to sell Beverley Simons’s Crabdance in the lobby.

The opportunity to realize the idea of publishing plays and selling them before their performances on a more regular basis came when in August 1969 Peter Hay got a job as the dramaturge/literary manager of The Vancouver Playhouse, under its new artistic director, David Gardner. Up to that point the word dramaturge was practically unknown in the North American theatre, the only exceptions being Stratford, Ontario and Minneapolis. (In both places it was Michael Langham who had employed at least a literary manager.) Gardner liked the idea of employing the first dramaturge at a regional theatre, and he also supported the plan of publishing scripts, though not at the Playhouse’s expense.

Peter Hay got into contact with Talonbooks, a small letterpress that had by then published slim paperback volumes of poetry. The owners of the press were two young people who had started their venture as university students and who came from well-to-do families. It is important to be mentioned because when Hay started to edit Canadian plays in the Talonplays series, he was doing it practically for nothing. The most urgent play to be published was James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark to be produced at the Vancouver Playhouse in four weeks’ time after Hay got employed. The author was a well-known poet in Canada who had won the Governor General’s Award several times so there was a good chance of selling copies in the theatre lobby. As it soon turned out, in three weeks several hundred copies were bought by the audiences. As Hay recalls: “By hook and crook we managed to get the book published in roughly the same time that it took to rehearse, and the books, which were much more attractive than my two previous efforts at publishing, were sold in the lobby of the Playhouse” (Hay, Email to the Author, 18 Sep 2003). This publication—followed by George Ryga’s epoch-making The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in the same year (1969)—became the first of a long series of Canadian plays most of which now belong to the general canon of Canadian drama. During the ten years he spent with Talonbooks, Hay edited more than 60 plays including the major plays of George Ryga, Herschel Hardin’s Esker Mike & His Wife Agiluk (1973), Sharon Pollock’s Walsh (1973), Michael Cook’s Jacob’s Wake (1974), The Factory Lab Anthology (1974), Rick Salutin’s Les Canadiens (1977), David Fennario’s bilingual Balconville (1979), David French’s Jitters (1980), the first highly successful Canadian comedy as well as half a dozen plays by Québec playwright Michel Tremblay.

In an essay on the history of Talonbooks, referring to the first two volumes published in the series, Michael Hayward claims that “in retrospect it can be seen that this initial foray into drama was perhaps the most significant move in the evolution of Talon’s editorial policy” (Hayward 23). Although the cooperation between Hay and the other staff members of the publishing firm was not ideal, there was a growing emphasis on drama. While in 1971 the fifteen published titles contained only one drama, in 1974 seven of eighteen volumes were plays (Hayward 23). In fact, the series was soon to include international drama titles: the first was British playwright David Rudkin’s best-known play entitled Ashes in 1978 followed by two works by Sam Shepard and Israel Horovitz each. Today there are several Canadian drama publishers on the market but Talonbooks is one of the most prestigious ones, especially serving the academic community in that approximately half of their sales are secured by required readings for university drama courses.

In addition to finding and editing Canadian plays, Hay also wrote prefaces to some of them. In most cases he provided an analysis of the work but sometimes he had other important things to say as it happened with the second printing of George Ryga’s Captives of the Faceless Drummer in 1972 from which I quoted at the beginning of this paper.

Hay claims that publishing scripts is a must for theatres looking for new voices but it is similarly important for drama teachers and university departments where there is a growing awareness that “their curriculum need not wholly consist of what other people have done in other countries and in other ages” (5). One of the main reasons for the lack of publishing and producing indigenous drama in Canada is the fact that most of the major theatres in the country were dominated by foreign directors, particularly from England and the US. Although they helped to create professional theatre in Canada, their prejudices prevented them from discovering local talents. The best example for this attitude was the Stratford Festival in Ontario which offered Shakespeare plays directed and performed by English or American stars and professionals. Peter Hay, however, was much more interested in Canada and its reality and decided to run against the tide. Through his London contacts, for example, Peter Hay got the rights to some British plays that some members of the Board of the Vancouver Playhouse favoured, but he was more excited by the idea of discovering indigenous talent. Therefore, he got involved with projects like the First British Columbia Play Competition which was organized by himself and offered him the opportunity to read through five hundred submissions.
Promoting the Matter of Canadian Art and Culture
After the success of a very modern, hippie piece, Grass and Wild Strawberries in 1969, George Ryga was working on a commission that eventually became Captives of the Faceless Drummer, a play that generated national controversy and practically ended the author’s career in the professional theatre. The reason for this, of course, was political: the play was based on the real events of the so-called “FLQ [Front de Libération du Québec] crisis” in October 1970 when, among others, Pierre Laporte, Vice-Premier and Minister of Labour of Quebec, was kidnapped by terrorists. As Peter Hay writes: “Captives of the Faceless Drummer is a dialectic of urban violence; not what has happened, but its logical extension in the future” (Preface 9). The Board of the Vancouver Playhouse did everything not to produce the play which, they said, was unfinished, then short, then dramaturgically problematic. By the time that exploded, Hay was no longer working at the Playhouse.

Given this situation, however, it was much easier for him, as head of a citizens’ committee, to lead the publicity battle against the Playhouse Board for trying to censor or ban Ryga's play. Although the campaign was unsuccessful, Peter Hay became nationally recognized as an ardent activist of Canadian culture, and he was also instrumental in finally getting the play produced at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1972, once the Playhouse released the rights. As he puts it in one of his unpublished essays, he suddenly found himself a spokesman for playwrights and Canadian artists (“My Case Against Talonbooks” 4). In the early seventies he helped to found a number of important artistic organizations (Playwrights’ Co-op, New Play Centre of British Columbia), led delegations to national policy conferences, became employed as a policy consultant to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission and the Secretary of State, served on various committees dealing with the arts and helped to organize the British Columbia Arts Access conference in 1973 which “laid the foundations of all the present cultural policies of the province” (“My Case Against Talonbooks” 5).

A man with such a wide range of activities could be more than beneficial to Talonbooks, to the province and to Canada at large. While travelling across the country, Hay met bureaucrats and politicians which helped in getting grants, talked to teachers about teaching more drama at school and persuaded playwrights to give their plays to Talonbooks. The only problem was that as a devoted spokesman of Canadian art and culture, he constantly raised his voice for serious changes but as he himself put it in 1983 when looking back at this period: “The personal consequences were, that while many of the policies I advocated became institutionalized, after a time I myself could not get a job or a grant in the arts in Canada, which is why I ultimately left the country” (5). This, however, was to come later...

Since the unprecedented controversy over Ryga’s play went on for months fed by the national media and Hay had lost his job at the Vancouver Playhouse, he had to make a living, and that is when he started doing journalism, writing plays, doing interviews and criticism for CBC radio. He also became West Coast correspondent for Performing Arts in Canada, a glossy quarterly launched in 1961 and run mainly by Hungarians in Toronto since 1969 when George Hencz became president and publisher. Between 1964 and 1972 the first major magazine dealing with the theatre as well was edited by Rolf Kalman who was followed by Stephen Mezei for at least six years.

During this time Hay was unofficial dramaturge for John Juliani’s Savage God Company with which he travelled to the First Canadian Festival of Underground Theatre in Toronto in 1970. Around the same time he got acquainted and became friends with American emigré Don Rubin who founded the most significant Canadian theatre quarterly, The Canadian Theatre Review in 1974 and asked Peter to be on the editorial board and to publish articles in the journal. Hay also represented the West Coast at some of the key conferences on Canadian identity, and took part in the seminal Gaspé conference, organized by David Gardner and the Canada Council, which led to a national manifesto he helped to draft.

In 1972 Hay became a Canadian citizen and got actively involved in British Columbia politics, working for the election of the National Democratic Party government. His wide-ranging activities included organizing a conference called B.C. Access to the Arts in October 1973, submitting cultural policy papers to the NDP government and the like. Cultural politics seemed to attract Hay to a great extent and he had all the skills and intellectual background to fight in this field. Some of his writings in this respect are worth studying briefly. Realizing the general social-ideological atmosphere of the seventies, he often dealt with the question of Canadian culture which was a difficult term to define. According to Hay,


Canada’s problem, if there is one, is not whether she has a culture. Rather, given the size of the country, its history, unhomogeneous population, we can identify several cultures. French, British, American, Indian, Eskimo, Acadian, Ukrainian and so forth. The question is: does it all add up to a Canadian culture? And another: should it? (Hay, “Canadian Content and Discontent” 1)
In fact, it is this second question that is less typically Canadian. Hay, coming from Europe, would easily make historical comparisons and concluded that “cultural homogeneity most often is imposed by a dominant race or group wielding distinctly non-cultural power” (1). The examples to illustrate his point include English rule in Scotland, the case of the Flamands in Belgium or the countries in Central Europe and the minorities in the Soviet Union. Hay takes a very interesting and perhaps justifiable aspect to explain the situation in Canada where some people were afraid of what might be considered growing nationalism, an old-fashioned political phenomenon. As Hay claims, “Canada was not a nation one hundred and fifty years ago” (3), she never had a war of independence and it is not a rule that new nations avoid the negative experiences of old ones. Therefore, he argues that “what we are witnessing now is the beginning of a cultural war of independence, which may well be a prelude to parallel effort to free the economy and natural resources” (3).

It seems that the strength and energy that Peter Hay needed for his battles were provided by his environment, namely the West Coast or more precisely British Columbia. In a report submitted to the Secretary of State in 1972, he makes a seemingly daring statement:


We, professional and working dramatists on the West Coast, through accidents of genetics and migration, are in the middle of a pool of creative energy unequalled in the English-speaking Canadian theatre. Indeed, it has been widely admitted even by those who do not share our regional bias, that the most vibrant contributions to English-language theatre come from the West Coast. (“A Question of Disparity” 1)
A short list of West Coast theatre artists will clearly justify the above statement: playwrights George Ryga, Eric Nicol, Sharon Pollock, Sheldon Rosen, Margaret Hollingsworth, John Murrell, John Lazarus, Herschel Hardin, Beverley Simons; directors David Gardner, John Juliani, Malcolm Black, Ken Gass and theatres such as the Vancouver Playhouse, New Play Centre, Western Canada Theatre Company, Tamahnous Theatre all form a significant part of Canadian theatre. Yet the conditions and circumstances under which they had to work were “more than primitive” (1). One of the reasons for that was the policy of the Canada Council which provided funding but not in the way artists expected it. As Hay remarks in his report:
Our basic difference with the Council is its uncritical obsession with maintaining the status quo. It has invested millions of dollars in the regional theatres, without giving them any leadership or guidance about what objectives the money should serve. It continues automatically to raise each theatre’s subsidy every year, without appraising whether the theatre had fulfilled its mandate or raised its standards. (4)
The final chapter of the report defines the objectives of the theatre community with regard to the near future:
Our objective through critical self-evaluation and references to new as well as constant human values of our population is to write drama for a popular theatre. By popular theatre we mean a theatre that is in the vanguard in reflecting and scrutinizing our lives, history and experiences in a way that is both relevant and entertaining. ... Our objective is a Canadian theatre of and for people—freed of the deadly political influences of the interlocking corporate system which has an interest in creating and sustaining a certain cultural climate in regions of their investment and enterprise. (11)
Unexpectedly, Hay got a job in the Attorney-General’s department to set up public information programs through its new Justice Development Commission. Ironically, the appointment came through a short play he had written. The play was called A Summer Job and one of the commissioners had seen it; this was a very Eastern European play about the secret police, but transposed to the RCMP and Canada. As Hay put it later: “my future employer thought that if somebody with such anti-establishment views as I could explain and propose the new government's views on matters of justice and policing, then it would have more credibility than if some public relations firm did it” (Hay, “Email to the Author”). For two years he edited annual reports and internal newspapers, organized campaigns, shot training films, and when the NDP was suddenly defeated in 1975, he was once again out of a job.

Having no choice, Hay went back to freelancing, mainly for CBC radio, as drama critic and did documentaries on James Reaney and George Ryga, two important figures of contemporary Canadian drama. And he continued to fight for a better recognition and support of Canadian culture. Failure, however, was more frequent than success. After a while this quixotic battle had to be finished. Let me end the story of this remarkable person here with his own words reflecting upon the situation which made him leave Canada in the 1980s:


I felt that there were not enough jobs in my field in Canada, and most of them were sponsored by the government, and controlled by a handful people - most of whom I had managed to alienate. [...] I was getting tired of fighting the same old battles where the chief obstacles to developing a Canadian culture were born Canadians, while immigrants like Don Rubin and myself provided the enthusiasm.

Incidentally, this was also the period that I would hang out with John Hirsch, whenever he visited Vancouver as head of CBC TV drama. He would give me an official line about the need to find and develop new talent, but soon our lunches became just two Central European Jews, Kohn and Grun, discussing why life is not worth living. (Email to the Author)


A few years later Peter Hay and his wife ended up in Los Angeles trying to start a new life in the country of the North American Big Brother. In September 2003, he concluded his personal biography in the following way:
I kept up with a few friends in Canada, but on the whole I have left it behind, as I did Hungary and England. I have now lived in California more than 23 years, more than any of the other two countries where I lived a decade or more combined. Yet I still travel on a Canadian passport and at the back of my mind think that if things ever turn really bad here, B.C. is the place to which we would likely return. But it is the place - not the culture. (Email to the Author)

Works Cited
Hay, Peter. “Canadian Content & Discontent.” Manuscript. No date.

---. “Canadian Years.” Email to the Author. 18 September 2003.

---. “A Question of Disparity.” Submitted to the Secretary of State during his meeting with West Coast artists, Vancouver, British Columbia. 7 March 1972.

---. “My Case Against Talonbooks.” Manuscript. Los Angeles, 6 March 1983.

---. “Preface.” Captives of the Faceless Drummer. By George Ryga. 2nd printing. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1972. 5-10.

---. “Preface.” Sunrise on Sarah. By George Ryga. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1973. 5-7.

---. “Publish and Perish.” The Stage in Canada/La scène au Canada. March/April 1970: 4-7.

---. “Report to Arts Access.” Speech delivered at Arts Access. 20 October 1973.



Hayward, Michael. “Talonbooks: Publishing from the Margins.” Canadian Theatre Review. Spring 1999: 23-27.

To Have. By Julius Hay. Trans. Peter Hay. Dir. John Juliani. Presented by Frederic Wood Theatre, University of British Columbia. September 27-October 7, 1995. Program Notes.



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