HERBERT WHITTAKER: Designing for the Theatre

Theatre Museum Canada

Theatre Museum Canada is delighted to share with you these set and costume designs from our collection of Whittaker’s work as a designer. 

“Gates don’t fly up! They open in the middle!”
Best known as a  theatre critic for The Montreal Gazette (1935-49), and The Globe and Mail (1949-75), Whittaker  designed, directed and produced theatre until 1999. 

Born in Montreal in 1910, Whittaker discovered his love of theatre as a young boy in London, England. His family went to England for a short vacation, but could not return to Canada because of the start of World War I. During a pantomime performance, he protested how the gates of Fairyland flew up, complaining loudly, “Gates don’t fly up! They open in the middle!”

He was quickly shushed, but his interest in theatre was noted and encouraged by his mother.

Whittaker was inspired to design for the stage on January 2nd, 1924, while watching a Sir John Martin-Harvey and company London production of Hamlet in London. The stage design struck him so profoundly that, upon returning home, he immediately made small models of those designs, colouring them with pastels.

As a teenager in Montreal, Whittaker studied at L’École des Beaux-Arts to improve his skills. Employed as a clerk for the Canadian Pacific Railway at 16 years of age, he readily admitted he was unsuited for clerical work and sought every opportunity to draw, often designing sets and costumes for church plays while "searching" for invoices.

Everyman (1932)

Whittaker's first opportunity to work as a designer came in Montreal with the Everyman Players. Led by the Church of the Messiah’s organist George Brewer, the production was an English version of Reinhardt’s Jedermann (Everyman), a play written in the 1400s on morality and obtaining salvation.

At the suggestion of a friend who attended the church, Whittaker submitted designs and in 1932 Everyman began. This production marked the beginning of Whittaker’s long partnership with the Everyman Players first as a costume and light designer and later as their producer.

This costume design for Everyman's mother is from Whittaker's second production of Everyman in 1936.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1934)

In March of 1934, Whittaker was approached by Charles Rittenhouse to design A Midsummer Night's Dream for West Hill High School. Rittenhouse was both a theatre critic and pioneer for teaching and producing drama in Canada’s educational system. The collaboration began a long and productive friendship between Whittaker and Rittenhouse.

Inspired by the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau, this design is simple and inexpensive, providing beauty and function for the production. Whittaker used two tall pillars to create a window, through which the audience could view different panels. Modest black cloth hung on either side of the pillars. The painted panels mimicked Rousseau’s one-point perspective, incorrect proportions and whimsical aesthetics.

The forest of Athens resembles Henri Rousseau’s painting Exotic Landscape.

The Man With a Load of Mischief (1934)

After the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cecil West, the director of Montreal Repertory Theatre approached Whittaker, asking him to submit designs for Ashley Duke’s The Man With a Load of Mischief, an English play set in a country inn.

Taking inspiration from British cottage architecture, Whittaker designed a set resembling a typical English country residence with a timbered interior and a fireplace.

The Montreal Gazette critic Thomas Archer praised the set design.

The Spanish Miracle (1935)

As designer for the Everyman Players, Whittaker was allowed full artistic control over production. Despite the general rule of anonymous work, it was well known that Whittaker had taken over stage and costume design and critics applauded him for his designs.

Thomas Archer, the theatre critic for The Montreal Gazette commented on the quality of the costumes, “The real triumph lies in the staging and costuming which are often exceedingly beautiful.... These costumes are superb and there is perhaps only one man in the city who could have designed them.”

It was noted that the towering hair and long figures in his designs were reminiscent of the Spanish Renaissance painter and sculptor El Greco with his dramatic, and elongated style.

Romeo and Juliet (1935)

Whittaker joined Charles Rittenhouse again at West Hill High School to design Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Like his design for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the set was inexpensive, and offered a great deal of flexibility.

The set consisted of a slender tower centre stage, serving as a balcony, with a platform and steps. The tower also featured a small nook containing a statue of the Virgin Mary, providing a space for Friar Laurence’s cell.

Whittaker combined vibrant red and deep blue colours, with yellow and amber lighting to provide movement and to divide the stage into defined sections, allowing all of the stage to be used.

A reviewer commented, “What is quite probably the best production of a Shakespeare play done here in the last ten years was seen at West Hill School Thursday...And then imagine a setting impressionist in type, exquisitely coloured and lighted.”

So that the audience would not be overwhelmed by the bold colours, the costumes were simple in design.

Everyman (1936)

In 1936, Whittaker and the Everyman Players revisited Everyman. Keeping to the historical time in which this religious allegory was written, Whittaker designed the costumes to mimic attire from the 1400s.

Throughout the play, the main character, Everyman, meets characters who help him on his quest to prove he lived a good life. These characters represent ideas like Good Deeds or Knowledge. Whittaker used props and colours to create costumes which represented these abstract ideas.

The character Knowledge holds a book, the character Confession is draped in soft, neutral greys.

Discretion wears the robes of a priest who hears confessions and absolves sins.

Taming of the Shrew (1937)

Following the success of Romeo and Juliet, Whittaker teamed with Charles Rittenhouse again at West Hill High School for a large-scale production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Instead of set pieces against a plain backdrop, as seen in Romeo and Juliet, a permanent set was designed to remain in place throughout the play.

To represent the play's setting in Verona, Whittaker designed a traditional Italian landscape with red-roofed buildings against rolling hills with a small grouping of Cypress trees. Smaller set pieces such as chairs and tables would be added and subtracted during scenes, but the landscape would always be visible to the audience. The bright reds and bold colours in the background were mirrored and expanded in the costumes. Petruccio, the male lead, wore a completely red costume. Red was also used as accent colours for the costumes of Gremino and Biondello. Even minor characters were vibrantly coloured. The Haberdasher was outfitted in lime greens and purple and the Widow was dressed extravagantly in black and gold. Heward Stikeman of The McGill Daily wrote, “Herbert Whittaker’s set was a revelation in its freshness of colouring and compositional balance.”

Saint Joan (1938)

“I do believe the 1938 Saint Joan was our best” – Herbert Whittaker

During his time with the Everyman Players Whittaker designed the set and costumes for Saint Joan, based on the life and trial of Joan of Arc.

The play by George Bernard Shaw is based on historical records of her trial and Whittaker’s design focused on historical accuracy. The costumes were based on late Medieval and early Renaissance dress of the 1400s. Brightly coloured tunics, tights, high-waisted gowns and ornate headdresses dominated the stage during scenes in the French court. Costumes for religious figures were done in grey, white and black. Joan of Arc’s final costume, a blue dress with fleur-de-lis and sheer sleeves resembling wings, symbolized her role as a French heroine and her eventual canonization as a saint in 1920.

The Cherry Orchard (1945)

Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is famous for being difficult to direct. Chekhov wrote the tale as a comedy, but it was first produced as a tragedy. It is said that the dual nature of the play makes it difficult to direct because the emotion and design of the production pull in two different directions. Written as a commentary on the social and economic changes in Russia amongst the aristocrats, their servants, and the rising middle class. The play was based on Chekhov’s childhood.

This production designed and directed by Whittaker was greeted with rave reviews. The critic Thomas Archer wrote, “And this is where hats come off to Mr. Whittaker and the group for their courage in undertaking The Cherry Orchard and for their devotedness in spending, as was obvious, months of painstaking preparation... If there was one man in the Y.M.H.A. Auditorium last night who understood Chekhov and the kind of theatre he imagined, it must have been Mr. Whittaker."

The costumes designed by Whittaker represent the separation and blurring of social classes, with European attire for aristocratic and middle class characters, and the servants dressed in traditional Russian attire.

The brown and golden tones repeat in the set designs, with brown accents and yellow skies creating a neutral and warm colour scheme.

Much Ado About Nothing (1945)

The 1945 production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing marked the start of a style that Whittaker would revisit throughout his career.

Whittaker liked the work of William Poel, a director who encouraged the return to staging Shakespeare on an Elizabethan platform: a thrust stage extending into the auditorium, placing the audience on three sides of the stage.

The stage for this show used a permanent set. An Italian palace was framed by black curtains and two pillars on either side of the stage.

The costumes were Elizabethan and done in lime green, tomato red, burgundy, and orange. The villain of the story, Don John, wore white rather than the traditional black. Sydney Johnson of The Montreal Daily Star told Whittaker years later that in his review, “ I meant to mention the novelty of your permanent set for Much Ado. I was as impressed by its Shakespearean quality as I was by its aesthetic appeal and have never forgotten it. “

The production cost $4,000, which was extremely high. However, the cost was worth it as critics raved about the result. Thomas Archer talked about the perfect balance Whittaker had struck in his designs saying, “This was Globe technique without being self-consciously historical about it.”

The villain of the story, Don John, is dressed in white rather than the traditional black.

King Lear (1946)

Once again working with producer Charles Rittenhouse, Whittaker designed sets and costumes for King Lear . Performed by the Shakespeare Society of Montreal, the production featured a permanent stage designed by Whittaker for McGill University’s Moyse Hall.

The set consisted of black stone set pieces framing a jagged opening at centre stage with four wooden pillars. This created a cavernous room resembling a Medieval hall. The opening acted as a window to the outside. A sliding panel could be dragged across the opening to close it and change scene locations with painted backdrops. Morgan-Powell from The Montreal Star commented on the sliding panel in his review:

... Mr. Whittaker, who designed the setting, made possible a surprising continuity, though sometimes the technical methods employed in order to achieve the illusion of almost instantaneous change of scene - the moving backwards and forwards of a huge sliding panel at the rear of the stage, - proved not a little disconcerting and disturbing.

Stairs and balconies created small hidden alcoves for actors, and economized space on the stage. A few props, like a throne and a tree, were used to show various locations. The set was designed to evolve easily with the play. Much to Whittaker’s surprise Richard Rychtarik, a designer from the Metropolitan Opera, saw the show wrote to him from New York, “I am glad that I had the opportunity to see your King Lear, which was very beautiful and served well to the evolving of the action.”

The Dybbuk (1948)

A classic of Jewish theatre, Semyon Akimovich Ansky’s The Dybbuk won second place at the 1949 Dominion Drama Festival, a festival devoted to promote amateur theatre in Canada. British actor and writer Robert Speaight, adjudicator of the 1949 festival, commented “The lighting used in The Dybbuk is the finest I have seen employed on a Canadian stage [...] the sets have been a delight to look at and the staging has been truly marvelous.”

Produced in 1948, the play was the final one Whittaker would work on with the amateur theatre group YM-YWHA. The four-act play revolves around Leah who, just before her wedding, is possessed by a dybbuk, a ghost or demon from Jewish mythology.

Whittaker based his designs of the city square on the famous 1922 production at the Habima Theatre in Moscow. Stone walls were made of pieces of cardboard hung against black curtains. These pieces were meant to appear to the audience as if they were the parts of a wall which caught the light, leaving the rest of the wall in shadow. Using artistic license, he added a tombstone with two figures embracing: creating a physical reminder of the lovers who die during their wedding and foreshadowing their tragedy.

Moving Cities
In 1949, Whittaker accepted a position as film, dance and theatre critic at The Globe and Mail where he continued to work until mandatory retirement forced him to leave in 1975.  While this marked the end of his theatre career in Montreal, it was an opportunity to start designing for new audiences in Toronto. While in Toronto he worked with amateur and professional theatre groups like The Jupiter Theatre, The Canadian Players, Victoria College Dramatic Society, and other companies at The University of Toronto.  Whittaker’s designed for venues including Hart House, the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre, Crest Theatre, and Coach House Theatre. 

Galileo (1950)

In 1950, Whittaker directed and designed the Canadian premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo for The Jupiter Theatre. This version of the play, also known as the American version, was translated from German by Brecht in collaboration with Charles Laughton. The play focuses on the end of Galileo’s life.

Challenges surrounded the production in the small 400-seat Museum Theatre at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Whittaker created the illusion of more space by designing a series of columns in forced perspective, curving towards the back of the stage.

The preliminary pencil sketch shows how the illusion was accomplished by using an oval to create width and depth. The three rows of square pillars on either side of the stage added to the depth of the stage by setting the colonnade farther into the background. E.G Wagner of The Globe and Mail commented, “It also achieves a miracle of intelligent economy in overcoming the physical limitations of the small museum stage.”

The set resembled a cross between an astronomer’s observatory and a basilica, enabling it to become many settings throughout the fourteen scenes of the play, including a study, a palace, and the Vatican. Banners on either side of the stage represented the various Italian city-states featured during the play.

The costumes for the production were borrowed from the Earle Grey Players, the Royal Conservatory Opera Company; and from the Keay Costume Company.

Going Home (1950)

Whittaker’s career as a set and costume designer overlaped with his career as a drama critic. At times he reviewed productions that he designed. To prevent self-promotion, his position as the designer would not be discussed and his comments on the set or costume design would be indifferent. The production company and actors performances would be the main focus of his reviews.

“The settings were adequate” was the only critique of the sets in his 1950 review of Going Home, which he designed for the New Play Society. Written by Canadian Morley Callaghan the play was based on his novel They Shall Inherit the Earth. The plot follows a father and son during the Great Depression, and explores themes of personal struggle, desperate idealism and redemption.

King Lear (1953)

After his move to Toronto, Whittaker returned to Montreal for one last production with Charles Rittenhouse: a revival of the Shakespeare Society of Montreal’s 1946 production of King Lear. For one night only les Festival de Montréal invited the 1946 production to perform an expanded version atop Mount Royal with the Montréal born actor John Colicos as King Lear.

The sets and costumes were altered for the larger stage. Pillars with shields and weapons were created to hide floodlights. Costume colors were changed to make character loyalties identifiable to the audience. Blue and fleurs-de-lis were reserved for France while red was used to identify the English. Morgan-Powell, who had reviewed the 1946 production, wrote:

“Herbert Whittaker has endeavored to provide a sort of symbolic surrealistic setting. On one side of the stage a huge mass of formless stone was apparently intended to convey the impression of the Duke of Albany's castle, but the rest of the tangled structure which occupied far too much space on the stage was mainly used to facilitate entries and exits.”

The “huge mass of formless stone” was designed to resemble a Neolithic structure. There was no division between interior and exterior scenes. The castle was instead an open building similar to Stonehenge. Although this might have been ambiguous it provided a permanent set that could be manipulated into multiple locations following the play’s plot.

Handwritten notes provide detailed measurements to be used by the set builders once the set construction began.

This prop is part of the rampart backing designed for Act I.

This prop was made using orange streamers and plywood.

Whittaker's note contains information for measurements, material and stage placement. The flags were used to signify French court and militia.

Four of the nine banners created for the English militia in the production.

Notes identify this prop as the Gloucester Panel, a wood panel made to cover an archway.

Electra (1956)

In 1956, the Victoria College Dramatic Society produced the tragic retelling of Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, obsessed with avenging her mother’s assassination of her father, in 1956. Whittaker designed and directed this production at University of Toronto’s Hart House.

Minimalism was key to this production. Whittaker used branches, balustrades and a single staircase to represent interior and exterior scenes. The only furniture was a white picnic table and benches borrowed from Whittaker’s neighbour. This approach added a modern tone to the Greek drama. The costumes were a mix of ancient and modern dress. The greys and ice blues used in the set contrasted the dark black and purple costumes. The contrasting colours and minimal design placed the focus on the actors and their dramatic performance.

Globe and Mail critic E.G. Wagner commented on this design and its focus on the actors, “The setting, designed by the director, was at first sight a little startling in its bare economy, but as the plot unfolded it proved an effective and practical frame for a story in which the inner drama takes precedence over visible action.”

King Lear (1961)

In 1961, David Gardner was asked by the Canadian Players to direct Shakespeare’s King Lear. Rather than using the traditional European settings, Gardner wanted to produce a uniquely Canadian interpretation. Whittaker was asked to design an Arctic setting using elements from the First Nations people. The end result was a Shakespearean play sometimes called The Arctic Lear. The role of King Lear was played by the great Canadian actor William Hutt, his first time in the role. He was accompanied by Herbert Foster as the Fool and Tobi Weinberg as Goneril.

The cold, harsh environment of the Arctic provided the perfect setting for the story that explores the theme of humanity's violent struggles with nature, and the harsh nature of humanity.

Using the environment as inspiration, the stage was set using minimal objects. The backcloth was painted an ice-green reminiscent of icebergs, with horizontal lines the representing sea and sky. Whittaker drew the sun based on Inuit drawings.

There was no furniture; the angular iceberg-like ramps were used as seating, props, and walkways. To represent interior scenes, a screen of animal skins and bones was used.

The production toured Canada and the United States and reviews in both countries were mixed. Wendy Michener wrote in The Toronto Star,

'Eskimo civilization is only relevant to Lear in certain general aspects which it shares with other primitive societies... but too often this one 'good idea' corrupts the play.... The costumes by Herbert Whittaker might have avoided incongruity by being less authentically Eskimo.”

The final tour review by Margaret Allison in The Bay City Times in Michigan wrote, “The Canadians perform King Lear for the first time in [the] history of the theatre in Arctic setting. And no background could seem more right ... There seemed nothing 'stunty' about the setting to the audience. All the skins and hides seemed right, gave a feeling of realism, as cold and terrible as it ought to be.”

Costumes were based on Inuit clothing. Fabrics simulated hides and fur such as seal and fox. Swords and armor were replaced with daggers, spears and harpoons. Walrus tusks and twigs created crowns. Drums and horns made from antlers were used as instruments. To compensate for the British and French names of the characters, the French characters who arrived at King Lear’s court were dressed as traders. Hudson’s Bay point blankets were used to create their jackets bringing a European element into their costumes. The Duke of Burgundy’s costume is the best example of this.

The biggest problem according to Gardner was the Fool, and placing him into Inuit culture. Traditionally, Shakespearean fools were clever and often clairvoyant characters, dressed in colourful costumes with bells and animal body parts such as donkey ears. Whittaker combined these elements by sewing an owl on the front of Fools costume and attaching a beak to the actor's face, turning the character into an owl. The Fool could be seen either as a pet or as an anirniit, a spirit in Inuit mythology and folktales.

The Man Behind The Designs
Whittaker would continue to design for theatre until 1999, at the age of 89.  The North American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love at The Arts & Letters Club of Toronto would be his last design credit.  This was not his final bow from the theatre world, rather he continued to attend, support and mentor Canada’s theatre community until he died September 9, 2006, 11 days shy of his 96th birthday.                                                                                                    An Officer of the Order of Canada, recognizing outstanding achievement, and dedication to the community and service to Canada, Whittaker also received honorary doctorate degrees from York and McGill Universities and earned many awards and medals for distinguished service in the theatre, including an honorary life membership in the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association.  Theatre was his passion.  He sought to build a Canadian theatre identity and preserve what had been established during his time in the community.  In 1991, The Theatre Museum Canada Corporation was established with Whittaker as founding chairman.  Its mandate is to collect, document, preserve, study, display and interpret the heritage of theatre in Canada, and to enhance the public appreciation of the historical context of theatre in Canada. The museum continues his legacy of nurturing theatre in Canada, and his designs form the core of the museum's collections.
Theatre Museum Canada
Credits: Story

Victoria Côté
Exhibition Curator

Victoria Côté is an emerging museum professional specializing in exhibition design and management. She has co-curated and designed exhibits such as Letters and Lines: Text and Image in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Prints with Dickinson College, and The Things We Keep: A Material History of Toronto’s Public Health, a continuing exhibition within the University of Toronto’s Health History Partnership.

She holds a Masters in museum studies from the University of Toronto and a B.A. from Dickinson College in Art History and English.

WestHill’s Production of ‘Romeo and Juliet. Montreal Gazette 12 December 1935, p.11

Allison, Margaret. With "King Lear" - Canadian Players Score Hit. Bay City Times (Michigan) 13 January 1962

Archer, Thomas. Cherry Orchard Seen at Y.M.H.A.. Montreal Gazette 15 January 1945, p.3

Archer, Thomas. Repertory Group Opens New Season. Montreal Gazette 15 November 1934, p.6

Archer, Thomas. Spanish Miracle’ Played In Church. Montreal Gazette 23 April 1935, p.19

S. Morgan-Powell. Local Production Most Interesting Experiment. Montreal Star 7 May 1946, p.22

Michener, Wendy. Odd Clash of Style In Eskimo "Lear." The Toronto Star 25 October 1961

Morgan-Powell, S. Colicos Scores; Tragedy Is Not for Open-Air Theatre. Montreal Star 13 August 1953, p.30-31

Photo caption. The Dybbuk. Montreal Gazette 26 February 1949, p.20

Wagner, E.G. Galileo. The Globe and Mail, 1950

Wagner, E.G. Post-Freudian Electra Seen Daring attempt. Toronto Globe and Mail 18 January 1957, p. 10

Gardner, D. (1986). Canada's Eskimo 'Lear'. Theatre Research In Canada / Recherches ThéâTrales Au Canada, 7(1)

Rittenhouse, J. (1982). Herbert Whittaker: A Theatre Life. Theatre Research In Canada / Recherches ThéâTrales Au Canada, 3(1)

Bradburn, J. (2012). Historicist: Whittaker’s Theatre. Torontoist

Benson, E. (1989). The Oxford companion to Canadian Theatre. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Hanson, Richard Russel. (1997). Principal witness, Herbert Whittaker and Canadian drama, 1949-1975. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from University of Toronto TSpace. (NQ41549)

Whittaker, H. (1993). Whittaker's Theatricals. Toronto: Simon & Pierre.

Whittaker, H., & Rittenhouse, J. (1999). Setting the stage Montreal Theatre, 1920-1949. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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