What Joseph’s coat of many colors is to a London Fog raincoat Ontario’s Stratford Shakespearean Festival is to all other summer drama festivals. It was founded in 1953 by Tom Patterson, a Stratford journalist. Patterson’s motives were varied but one is obvious. If God had not intended a Canadian Shakespeare festival, why had He named Patterson’s home town Stratford and run a river through it named Avon?

The first season consisted of Richard III and All’s Well That Ends Well. It starred Irene Worth and Alec Guinness and was presented in a 1500-seat tent on a stage designed by Tyrone Guthrie. To the delighted surprise of everyone involved, attendance was regularly 98 percent of capacity, and the season was extended from five to six weeks. The Stratford company made Shakespeare the hottest ticket in Canada.

This year the Festival season extends from April 30 to November 11. Fifteen major productions will be offered, including four big Shakespeare plays—Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and As You Like It. The season’s bill also includes Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling’s Guys and Dolls, Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, Racine’s Phaedre, David Storey’s Home, and three plays by contemporary Canadian playwrights.

The mechanics of this immense program are as impressive as the program itself The festival has a payroll of 800. Its annual budget is $20 million, of which around $ 15 million comes from box office. That means roughly 515,000 tickets will be sold for 572 scheduled performances in three festival theaters. Canadians are no longer the only ones who have gotten the word. Around 40 percent of the audience will be from the States, most from the upper Midwest, but on any visit you will see license plates from New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and a scattering from states as distant as Virginia and Florida.

Canada’s federal government contributes a niggling $1 million or so a year to the $20 million annual budget. Ontario’s provincial government does only a little better. The grand total from all government sources is $2.2 million, or around 10 percent. There are no concealed subsidies for building maintenance, grounds upkeep (Canadians share the English love of elegant gardens and weedless lawns perfectly shaved), insurance, and the like.

Artistic Director David William complains that government grants for opera and symphony orchestras—both with less popular appeal than theater—are much higher. An official festival handout dramatizes the imbalance between subsidy and service: although William and company will receive only $2.2 million in subsidies in 1990, they will generate $70 million in business for Stratford motels, restaurants, and service businesses, and $15 million in “estimated taxes . . . for governments.” Fair treatment aside, classic drama is labor intensive. If the festival is obligated by its charter to do Shakespeare, shouldn’t the government provide a more realistic subsidy?

The festival is also under constant pressure from politicians and reviewers, not to mention playwrights, to produce Canadian plays and thus to celebrate what is known as “Canadian identity.” People who use the term “Canadian identity” attribute potent and mysterious powers to it, but these powers do not extend to the box office. Therefore, argues William, if Canadian drama is important—and he agrees that it is—the festival deserves more support.

To an outsider, especially an American outsider, the case may not be quite so obvious. The great strength of the Stratford Festival is that it has had to sink or swim largely through its own efforts. That requirement has forced it to keep in touch with all of its supporters, especially its audiences. The public meets three-fourths of the cost of the Stratford Festival through the best of all possible activities—buying tickets and paying for them at a rate that is close to their real cost. By reducing the influence of the box office, larger subsidies might open a gap between the festival and its audience.

There is also the tail-wagging-the-dog problem. Those who give grants can withhold them, as Senator Helms reminded the National Endowment for the Arts last spring, during its reauthorization hearings. Canada is no less political than the United States. At the moment it is locked in a complicated debate about Quebec and Canada’s (you guessed it) national identity. A grants agency might well maneuver the festival into pushing “Canadian identity” in defiance of the common sense of the box office and the artistic sense of the festival’s artists.

All of the above is a reminder of an important fact about theater—not just Stratford but all theater. A play is supposed to be about itself, but by the time it is produced, any play worth its salt is also about things that are happening in the culture around it. Recall Olivier’s movie of Henry V. It was about the British victory at Agincourt, but it was also about the sense of triumph after a terrible ordeal that the English felt in the last year of the war against Hitler. The film drew its energy at least as much from memories of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain as from the Hundred Years War, and Olivier called attention to that fact by dedicating it to “The Commandoes and Airborne Troops of Great Britain.” Again, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was produced after the murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, by the Charles Manson gang. Its brutality, its bloodiness, and its hallucinatory treatment of the witches combine elements in Shakespeare’s play with memories of the murder.

The Stratford Festival has never treated Shakespeare as a historical relic. Sometimes its efforts to make him contemporary have been botched. Often they have been controversial, especially in Canada where Shakespeare-worship is widespread and begets a sect of fundamentalists outraged by the tiniest deviation from the sacred text. But for the most part they have been lively, and usually brim full of life. What else would draw tens of thousands of visitors annually from Detroit and Chicago and Toronto and Ottawa to the wilds of Ontario’s farm belt?

Like all theaters, Stratford has had interesting and comparatively uninteresting years. I do not refer here to its productions, but to the direction of the festival as a whole. And I mean “interesting” in the sense of the old Chinese proverb, “May the gods save you from living in interesting times.”

Nineteen-eighty was an interesting year. In that year the brilliant but difficult Robin Phillips resigned as artistic director, precipitating a series of crises replete with sensational charges and counter-charges that vastly titillated the Canadian press and almost destroyed the festival. When John Neville—best known in the United States as Baron Munchausen—became artistic director in 1986, he inherited a massive debt and a still-shaken company. When he stepped down in 1989, the festival had a surplus of over $4 million and all but the most severe bruises had been healed.

David William, Neville’s successor, is an old-line Stratfordian with extensive international experience. His most notorious Stratford production was a Troilus and Cressida complete with motorcycles, leather jackets, and homosexual gang rape.

Asked about it, he laughs. Most Canadian reviewers hated it, but American reviewers tended to be enthusiastic. Will we see more productions like it while he is artistic director? His answer is that every play has its own unique demands. Macbeth, which he co-directed and which is the centerpiece of the 1990 season, is set in the 17th century and is straightforward, almost straight-laced in its staging. Why the contrast between the hyper-experimental Troilus and the traditional Macbeth?

According to William, the problem in Troilus was to make the ugly reality of the play immediate in spite of the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. The problem in Macbeth is different. The plot is relatively simple but the chief character is a military hero, and in 1990 military heroism is out. Audiences need the psychological distance provided by the 17th-century setting. Even audiences skeptical about military heroism, William argues, will accept the idea that heroism was admirable during the late Renaissance. The same is true of the witches. They are credible in a Renaissance setting but would be absurd in the 20th century.

It’s a logical argument, and William has chosen two of the festival’s finest performers to give it force. Goldie Semple is a six-season Stratford veteran, and Brian Bedford is a ten-season veteran who may also be the most brilliant Shakespearean actor of his generation. With a director like William and leads like Semple and Bradford, Macbeth has to be a smash, right?

Wrong. It’s easy to see where the production goes off track. In the first place, William’s theory about heroism is a backhanded confession that he considers the play remote from modern concerns. That point of view might be fine in a history lecture, but it is a sure way to kill the play. In the second place, William’s Macbeth is either evil from the start or totally converted to evil during his first encounter with the witches. Both interpretations make Lady Macbeth superfluous and gut the conflict between her will and Macbeth’s conscience that is so powerful in the play Shakespeare wrote.

Deprived of her role as a demonically driven shaper of events, Goldie Semple is reduced to behaving like a housewife nagging her husband because he lets himself be walked on at the office. The mad scene is nicely done, but it is detached from everything before and after. This Lady Macbeth hasn’t exhibited enough strength of character to go mad.

When discussing the role of Macbeth, Bedford remarks that it begins at a high emotional pitch and goes on from there. He is saying what the audience can see all too plainly: until late in the play, Macbeth does not change or develop. If there are conflicts between his role as military hero and his decision to commit treason or between his ambition and his conscience, they are suppressed. What does happen, and what Bedford projects so brilliantly that it almost redeems the production, is that Macbeth eventually loses all of his illusions, including his superstition. Bedford’s “To-morrow, and to-morrow” perfectly catches this moment of absolute desolation. Yet even here, and in spite of Bedford, the moment has an academic quality. The soliloquy is more a recitation than a performance. Recitation is not Bedford’s usual style, and since when has the Stratford Festival treated a Shakespearean play as a series of Famous Speeches?

You wonder a little about William as a director. Would he be more comfortable on a lecture platform than in the theater? William also directed this season’s Love for Love, of which it can be said that the first act seems slow, the second slower, and the finale—a minuet that seems to be danced in molasses—slower than the first and second combined. By the time it is over, you appreciate as never before the meaning of Sartre’s No Exit.

As You Like It is a considerable improvement. Lucy Peacock is a bouncy, enormously sympathetic Rosalind who projects resolution from her first moment on the stage. She is paired with a delightfully feminine Celia, and both have great fun pretending Rosalind is a man. William Dunlop plays a tartan-clad teddybear of a Touchstone with a droll sense of humor and a broad Scots accent. Why Scots? Well . . . why not? Everything works very well until Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, begins instructing Orlando in the art of wooing. It is a long, demanding section, and Peacock is not quite up to it. Her double-takes and gestures aside’ to the audience become predictable. The result is by no means fatal, but it casts a shadow over an otherwise exemplary performance. David William plays a Jacques so morose you want to put him in Macbeth. Then there is his speech on the ages of man. As happens with Bedford’s “To-morrow, and to-morrow,” everything stops to allow William, clad in black and spotlighted on center stage, to orate.

Director Richard Monette locates the play in Quebec around 1758, the date of the battle of the Plains of Abraham, which ended Quebec’s independence. Duke Senior is vaguely British and commands a squad of musket-toting heavies. The Forest of Arden is the Quebec outback complete with birch-bark canoes, guitar-strumming, step-dancing fur traders, and pokerfaced Indians with arms that seem to have been permanently crossed at birth. It’s autumn. Canadian geese honk overhead. Maple leaves are falling. (Wait a minute, is that symbolism?) It’s all very jolly up to the wedding scene at the end. At that point the Indians start playing tom-tom music and the local chief invokes the blessings of Hymen, a tribute, one senses, to the educational work of Jesuit missionaries among native peoples. As the play ends, flags covered with fleurs de lis—an allusion to the Quebec provincial flag—are unfurled above the stage.

Monette has made As You Like It into a parable of either Canadian unity or Canadian separation, take your pick. Although his production was planned before the national paroxysm over Meech Lake and the status of Quebec, it invokes current tensions that neatly parallel tensions at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Even when it doesn’t work, which is seldom, its failures are honorable failures of the sort that make the Stratford Festival consistently interesting.

Among many other riches of this first David William season. The Merry Wives of Windsor is outstanding for the sort of ensemble acting possible in a company with the range of talent and the collective experience of the Stratford troupe. The costuming is Edwardian with a liberal dash of whimsy; the horns that Falstaff wears in the last scene, for example, are made out of bicycle handlebars. Roberta Maxwell and Pat Conolly almost steal the show as a down-to-earth Mistress Ford and a wryly inventive Mistress Page, and Vickie Papavs, a member of Stratford’s Young Company, is memorable as the youthfully cheeky Anne Page. James Blendick’s Falstaff is younger, more suave, and less blustery than your run-of-the-mill Falstaff. He is also plump but not obese, so you can understand for once how he might hope to be taken seriously as a wooer. Colm Feore is perfect as the fanatically jealous Ford, who, when disguised as Master Brook, has to pretend to be vastly amused by Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife.

David Storey’s Home gives Stratford a chance to show its skill in contemporary drama. The play is about the world ending not with a bang but a long, darkly comical whimper. Its dialogue is a collage of single words left hanging (“Yes. . . . ” “Quite. . . . “) and half phrases. Success depends on near-perfect timing and disciplined control of tone of voice and gesture. It is impeccably performed by Nicholas Pennell, James Blendick, Pat Galloway, Barbara Bryne, and Alfred King. All are veteran Shakespeareans—Pennell, for example, is Banquo in Macbeth. The rigorous discipline of Shakespeare has clearly contributed to their success here.

If Home is minimalist, Guys and Dolls is maximalist. Everything in it is laid on as thick as mustard on a Nathan’s hotdog, and it is the hit of the 1990 season. At the end of “Get Off, You’re Rocking the Boat,” the ovation of the opening-night audience all but tore the roof off the Festival Theatre. There’s not a bad performance in the cast, but special credit goes to Jim White as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Alan Jordan as Nathan Detroit, Karen Edissi as Miss Adelaide, and Tim Koetting as Big Jule.

In fact, the success of Guys and Dolls has made it controversial in the Canadian press. Here, the complaint goes, is a country intensely proud of its national identity, not to mention a country in the middle of a constitutional crisis, and what is the big hit of its premier theater festival? A brassy American musical based on stories by Daymon Runyon with a plot that hangs on the search by a two-bit gambler for a place to convene a floating crap game.

Is there a lesson here? No more, I expect, than in As You Like It with a French accent. Guys and Dolls will undoubtedly fill the Festival Theatre’s 2300 seats night after night for the rest of the summer and will thus contribute materially to meeting Stratford’s box office target of $ 15 million, but that is not the main point. Guys and Dolls is obviously as much fun for Canadians as Americans. It says something about where the Stratford audience is these days in spite of Meech Lake and Canadian identity and the press and the politicians, and knowing its audience has always been the secret of Stratford’s success.

That doesn’t mean the Stratford audience is for Broadway musicals and against Shakespeare. It means the audience is for drama that touches its life and against drama that doesn’t. The point is worth stressing because of the academic chill that affects some of the 1990 plays. The Stratford audience has consistently voted at the box office for drama rather than recitation and for experiment, including experiments like finding parallels between the Forest of Arden and the Quebec outback, rather than facsimile Shakespeare.

Of course, there are limits. If Indians are going to be allowed to camp out in the Forest of Arden they should contemplate the folly of palefaces in dignified silence and keep their tomtoms quiet during weddings. Tomtoms notwithstanding, it’s good to report that Stratford is still the top summer drama festival in North America.