A Life in the Theatre and In Various Directions: A View of Theatre offer an informative overview of Guthrie’s recollections regarding the roles of playwrights, directors, actors, and audiences – in radio drama, film, and theatre.
I found the above-noted memoir by Alex Guinness, Blessings in Disguise, of much interest also. In his version of past events, Guinness offers comments about aspects of Guthrie’s role that add nuance to Guthrie’s own view of things.
It may be added that Guinness published his reflections after Guthrie had passed away meaning that Guthrie was not in a position to offer a rebuttal.
That said, the points that Guinness makes are minor ones and are made within a context of the great respect, that the actor Guinness possessed, for the exemplary role that his close colleague Guthrie played.
The current post is structured on an approach to writing that has occurred to me, after recently reading the collection of short stories that launched Alice Munro’s writing career in 1968. With Alice Munro, you never know which way the story will turn.
Joys of theatre
The quote from Guinness that I want to focus on concerns the contrast between teetotaling Stratford townsfolk in the early 1950s, on the one hand, and Guthrie and Guinness and other illustrious visitors to Stratford who liked to have a drink now and then, on the other.
A passage (about the joys of drinking and the joys of theatre) on pp. 86-8 in Blessings in Disguise reads:
Many of the sponsors of the Festival and people putting us up in their homes were teetotal, being strict Presbyterians, Christian Scientists or Baptists. (I was staying with the Anglican Archdeacon and his wife, so that was all right.) On one occasion Tony, Judy and I, driven out to Lake Huron for a bathe by a kindly Presbyterian couple, burst in to tears at their thoughtfulness when, opening the boot of their car, they revealed scotch, rye, vodka and gin. They had registered themselves as alcoholics to accommodate us. But then, it was like that all along. Although many of the townsfolk were unsympathetic to the idea of the Festival many more, who had been divided by their various sects and social standing, got on to speaking terms with each other and became friends and, at the service of dedication of the theatre, even the Roman Catholics joined the whole congregation in saying the Lord’s Prayer. It was, of course, Tony Guthrie’s influence which had broken down so many barriers, and perhaps the local conception of actors as a race of giddy whore mongers with painted faces slowly gave way to the realisation that we were ordinary, fairly law-abiding citizens. The opposition to having a theatre in their midst had been similar to the antagonism felt at the first Edinburgh Festival. Christians of all denominations began to vie with each other in hospitality and providing plants to surround the entrance to the theatre. The only people who didn’t pitch in with something were the Dukhobors, the extreme puritanical sect, of Russian extraction, who consider it vanity to wear buttons.
It was after the first dress rehearsal of Richard III that Tony and I, who had often had little tiffs, had our longest and most sulky flare-up – nerves on both sides, I am sure – and we barely spoke to each other until we exchanged cool ‘good lucks’ on the first night, which was two days later. I had asked that Hastings’ head, which is presented to Richard after execution, should be in a plain canvas bag with nothing to suggest oozing blood or anything that might make an audience titter, and this was agreed. At the back of my mind I felt I could do something rather horrid by just feeling the contours of the head within the bag, which would be impossible if it was blood-stained. Then, at the dress rehearsal, I saw the bag on the prop-table just before it would be handed to me, and it was ghoulishly stained in the most realistic way. I was furious and at the end of the rehearsal voiced my anger loudly and petulantly. ‘More important things to think about’ was the only comment I got from Tony. On the day of the first night, during a technical run-through, he silently offered me a cherry from a soggy bag. ‘Squashy!’ I said, and moved away. During the performance that night I was presented with Hastings’ head in a brand-new, spotless bag. I was so taken aback that I dried up stone dead. After the show I said to Tony, ‘Thank you for the bloodless dorothy bag.’ We gave each other a hug and burst out laughing; anyway we knew the Festival had got off to an emotional and blazing start (in spite of my poor Richard).
It may be noted in passing that the terms Dukhobors, Hutterites, and Mennonites have been used interchangeably, in newspaper reports and the like, in years past. I learned this fact in a note in a study about Mennonite history that I read some time ago.
1950s and 1960s
A key point that I would make is that, in the 1950s, having plenty to drink and smoking cigarettes night and day were a regular part of everyday life. In the 1960s, drinking and smoking and hallucinogenic drugs were similarly a regular part of everyday life.
Certain cultural features – such as a fondness, for example, for simple, mechanical metaphors to describe psychological motivations – were also characteristic of the era. That’s among the things I enjoy about reading memoirs and other writing from the 1950s and 1960s.
Reading postwar memoirs reminds me that we as individuals in any era tend to be strongly influenced by contemporaneous social trends and conditions.
For example, smoking was a regular occurrence, indoors at meetings, in public places, and in homes everywhere, night and day in the postwar years.
Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl: Veronica Foster. Source: Libraries & Archives of Canada PA – 119766. Veronica Foster, who worked at the John Inglis plant in Toronto during the Second World War, was actually a nonsmoker, her daughter informed me some years ago at a Small Arms Doors Open event. She only smoked for the photo session where this photo and others were taken.
It was not uncommon to end the day by having a smoke in bed, before putting out the lights. On occasion, sleep would take over before a cigarette was extinguished, and a house or apartment would burst into flames while occupants slept.
The realization that smoking was associated with lung cancer and cardiovascular disease had not gained traction.
For many years, as we now know from documentation and lawsuits, the tobacco industry was highly effective in suppressing scientific evidence about the link between smoking and cancer.
Some people who were nonsmokers got lung cancer in those days, because their jobs entailed attending countless smoke-filled meetings.
Festival Theatre by Avon River, Stratford. Jaan Pill photo
In the 1980s, it was common for people to drink a glass of red wine each day in line with contemporaneous research indicating one glass of wine a day was good for cardiovascular health.
In subsequent decades the contemporaneous research, as it refined its methodologies, began to change. In line with such research revisions, I switched from a regular sized glass of red wine each day to a smaller sized glass of wine every once in a while.
I will close this post with excerpts from a Lancet article, published in 2018, that I have read with much interest. I have read a number of such articles, in a range of journals, in recent years.
Alcohol use and burden
An Aug. 23, 2018 Lancet article is entitled: “Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016.”
An excerpt reads:
In estimating the weighted relative risk curve, we found that consuming zero (95% UI 0·0–0·8) standard drinks daily minimised the overall risk of all health loss (figure 5). The risk rose monotonically with increasing amounts of daily drinking. This weighted relative risk curve took into account the protective effects of alcohol use associated with ischaemic heart disease and diabetes in females. However, these protective effects were offset by the risks associated with cancers, which increased monotonically with consumption. In a sensitivity analysis, where we explored how the weighted relative risk curve changed on the basis of the choice of weights for various health outcomes, the curve changed significantly only in settings where diabetes and ischaemic heart disease comprised more than 60% of total deaths in a population.
Discussion at Lancet article
A further excerpt reads:
In 2016, alcohol use led to 2·8 million deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15–49 years, with nearly 9% of all attributable DALYs [disability-adjusted life-years] for men and more than 2% for women. Our findings indicate that alcohol use was associated with far more health loss for males than for females, with the attributable burden for men around three times higher than that for women in 2016. By evaluating all associated relative risks for alcohol use, we found that consuming zero standard drinks daily minimises the overall risk to health.
Previous research has analysed all-cause risk due to alcohol use by either investigating all-cause risk in particular cohorts and survey series, or through meta-analyses of those studies.26, 27 Past findings subsequently suggested a persistent protective effect for some low or moderate levels of alcohol consumption on all-cause mortality. However, these studies were limited by small sample sizes, inadequate control for confounders, and non-optimal choices of a reference category for calculating relative risks. More recent research, which has used methodologies such as mendelian randomisation, pooling cohort studies, and multivariable adjusted meta-analyses, increasingly shows either a non-significant or no protective effect of drinking on all-cause mortality or cardiovascular outcomes.7, 14, 28 Our results on the weighted attributable risk are consistent with this body of work. Taken together, these findings emphasise that alcohol use, regardless of amount, leads to health loss across populations. Although we found some protective effects for ischaemic heart disease and diabetes among women, these effects were offset when overall health risks were considered – especially because of the strong association between alcohol consumption and the risk of cancer, injuries, and communicable disease. These findings stress the importance of assessing how alcohol use affects population health across the lifespan.
Evaluating attributable burden across SDI [Socio-demographic Index] quintiles revealed the magnitude by which outcomes of alcohol use differ and how total attributable burden relates to increasing SDI. Our results indicate that alcohol use and its harmful effects on health could become an increasing challenge amid gains in SDI. Given that most low and low-to-middle SDI settings currently have lower average alcohol consumption than high-to-middle SDI settings, it is crucial for decision makers and government agencies to enact or maintain strong alcohol control policies today to prevent the potential for rising alcohol use in the future. Effective policies now could yield substantial population health benefits for years to come.
Our results point to a need to revisit alcohol control policies and health programmes, and to consider recommendations for abstention. In terms of reducing population-level alcohol use, WHO provides a set of best buys – policies that provide an individual year of healthy life at less than the cost of the average individual income.29 Governments should consider how these recommendations can be implemented within their local contexts and broader policy platforms, including excise taxes on alcohol, controlling the physical availability of alcohol and the hours of sale, and controlling alcohol advertising. Any of these policy actions would contribute to reductions in population-level consumption – an important step toward decreasing the health loss associated with alcohol use.
Failing to address harms from alcohol use, particularly at high levels of consumption, can have dire effects on population health. The mortality crisis in Russia is a striking example, where alcohol use was the primary culprit of increases in mortality starting in the 1980s and led to 75% of deaths among men aged 15–55 years.30 Current global trends – namely, population ageing – portend a growing toll of the alcohol-attributable burden in the absence of policies, particularly since many cancers disproportionately affect older individuals. Consequently, low-to-middle SDI countries could benefit from policy action today to keep alcohol consumption low and prevent greater health loss in the future. High and high-to-middle SDI locations need to consider stronger alcohol reduction policies, such as those recommended by WHO, in an effort to reduce population-level consumption.
Conclusion of Aug. 23, 2018 Lancet article
The conclusion of the Lancet article reads:
Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for disease burden worldwide, accounting for nearly 10% of global deaths among populations aged 15–49 years, and poses dire ramifications for future population health in the absence of policy action today. The widely held view of the health benefits of alcohol needs revising, particularly as improved methods and analyses continue to show how much alcohol use contributes to global death and disability. Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day. Alcohol use contributes to health loss from many causes and exacts its toll across the lifespan, particularly among men. Policies that focus on reducing population-level consumption will be most effective in reducing the health loss from alcohol use.
Wine and chocolate
Research regarding chocolate is similarly of interest. In the past, research has suggested a link between dark chocolate and cardiovascular health. However, subsequent research has debunked such a notion. An overview of relevant research about chocolate and red wine is presented at a previous post entitled:
He [Norman Giesbrecht, senior scientist emeritus Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] hailed Taylor’s “fabulous report,” calling it “required reading” for ordinary Canadians, researchers, government staff and groups that promote alcohol use, particularly in Ontario where government has allowed beer sales in supermarkets.
He was pleased to see the report challenge widely-promoted research that played up the benefits of alcohol, including red wine. Taylor’s report countered the popular research by citing several meta-analyses and systemic reviews on the topic.
An excerpt from the above-noted federal government report reads:
A message from Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer
Alcohol is a socially accepted part of everyday life for most Canadians. Almost 80 percent of us drink.
Many Canadians associate drinking with pleasurable social events such as music festivals, watching sports, parties, and relaxing. Celebrations and milestones like weddings, anniversaries, and awards are often “toasted” with alcohol.
Our society condones, supports, and in some cases promotes drinking such as through “drink of the day” specials, sale prices on certain brands, and associating alcohol with fun and sophistication.
Although handled more like a food in Canada, alcohol is a mind-altering drug and there are health risks associated with drinking. Our low-risk drinking guidelines do not mean that alcohol is harmless.
A Dec. 29, 2019 BMJ opinion article is entitled: “Tis the season to be jolly: Christmas should be protected from advertising which promotes harmful drinking.”
An excerpt reads:
These attempts by the alcohol industry at promoting safety during this time of increased risk from alcohol harms, may actually be something different: mixed messages that normalise or even promote drinking heavily while attempting to minimise the visibility of short term overt harms, thereby ensuring that the industry gets its gift this Christmas – increased profits partnered with an unharmed corporate image. This is consistent with academic evidence on the activities of the alcohol industry. Firstly, corporate social responsibility efforts that focus on reducing more visible acute harms, which pose a risk to the industry’s image and role in addressing alcohol harms, while overlooking the less immediately visible (and therefore less threatening) chronic harms. Secondly, the pursuit of economic growth through aggressive marketing tactics. [10,12,13,18,19]
But what can the health community deliver this Christmas? People should be provided with evidence-based information, which is free of conflicts of interest. Action should be taken to curb the dissemination of misinformation by the alcohol industry and its corporate social responsibility bodies. Individuals, communities, and public services should be protected from the impacts of alcohol harms that remain a leading driver of death and disease globally, through the implementation of evidence-based policies. Events of cultural significance should be protected from predatory advertising designed to promote harmful drinking. As we go into the new year health professionals should consider how they can challenge remaining barriers to implementing such policies, and advocate for those in power to deliver what is really needed to ensure our social environments and festive occasions are not so “alcogenic” that they need “surviving.”
June 25, 2019 Economist article
A June 25, 2019 Economist article is entitled: What is the most dangerous drug? Some drugs classified as highly dangerous are less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.”
An excerpt reads:
Why is alcohol legal but many other intoxicants not? That question is the subject of a report published today by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an independent group of 26 former presidents and other bigwigs. They conclude that, as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, current drug laws have no rhyme or reason to them. The commission blames the UN’s drug classification system, which sorts some 300 psychoactive substances into “schedules” according to their harms and benefits. Some, such as morphine, have medical uses. Others, such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), are used mostly recreationally. Drugs without any apparent medical utility are automatically placed in the most dangerous category – and subjected to the strictest criminal penalties – regardless of the risk they pose.
A Jan. 4, 2020 CBC article is entitled: “There’s a ‘range of benefits’ to participating in a dry January, says researcher: The rules are simple: no alcohol from when you wake up on New Year’s Day until Feb. 1.”
An excerpt reads:
The month-long abstinence movement can be an opportunity to reflect on Canadian drinking culture in general, he says.
Alcohol consumption in Canada is fairly high, Sherk says, noting that Canadians drink about the same amount as people in the U.K. despite perceptions the British have a stronger drinking culture.
“Canadians drink quite a lot, near the top of the spectrum, and this really impacts our long-term health,” he said.
And although alcohol is a psychoactive substance like opioids and cannabis — and contributes to the death of 15,000 Canadians every year — the use of it is very socially ingrained.
A Jan. 8, 2020 CBC article is entitled: “Researcher says only 25% of Canadian drinkers know alcohol causes cancer. A B.C. campaign wants to change that: Fraser Health Authority launches ads across the Lower Mainland warning of the risks.”
A Jan. 14, 2020 Associated Press article is entitled: “Prohibition began 100 years ago, and its legacy remains.”
An excerpt reads:
The Prohibition Era, which lasted from Jan. 17, 1920, until December 1933, is now viewed as a failed experiment that glamorized illegal drinking, but there are several intriguing parallels in current times.
Americans are consuming more alcohol per capita now than in the time leading up to Prohibition, when alcohol opponents successfully made the case that excessive drinking was ruining family life. More states are also moving to decriminalize marijuana, with legalization backers frequently citing Prohibition’s failures. Many of the same speakeasy locations operating in the 1920s are flourishing in a culture that romanticizes the era.
A CBC Archives overview of Prohibition in Canada is entitled: “Last Call: Canadians and Alcohol.”
The introduction to the overview reads:
It’s not just the water that flows freely in Canada. Brewing, distilling and wine-making have long been practised here, and not even Prohibition could turn off the taps. Despite tight controls on the purchase and consumption of liquor, Canadians kept on drinking, and laws were gradually relaxed in the 1960s and ’70s. Then alcohol’s darker side came to light: teen drinking, drunk driving, fetal alcohol syndrome and a terrible toll on aboriginal communities. CBC Digital Archives traces Canada’s changing relationship with the bottle.
Alcohol during pandemic
By way of an update, an April 7, 2020 CBC article is entitled: “Do alcohol and COVID-19 isolation mix? Some health experts don’t think so: Liquor store sales rise in March as Canadians hunker down at home to wait out the pandemic.”
An excerpt reads:
As with sales of groceries, medications and other goods, alcohol sales increased across the country in March as people stockpiled bottles to prepare for a long isolation through the COVID-19 outbreak.
That has some addiction experts warning that those packed fridges and liquor cabinets mixed with hours of isolation at home could lead to much higher consumption, even among Canadians who typically drink in moderation.
“I think that what this crisis we’re in might have revealed is that, for an important number of Canadians, perhaps alcohol is more essential to them in their lives than they thought it was,” said Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a non-governmental organization that seeks to reduce alcohol- and drug-related harms.
Another concern expressed by some experts who spoke with CBC News is that Canadians — already identified by the World Health Organization as being some of the heaviest drinkers per capita in the developed world — may increasingly turn to alcohol to dull anxieties and fear during the global crisis.
A May 10, 2020 BBC article is entitled: “Why you might be drinking too much during lockdown.”
An excerpt reads:
Working on the front line, working from home, working while home-schooling children, living alone, losing someone you love or your job. Regardless of the reasons people might turn to alcohol in an attempt to decompress, the truth is that both physiologically and psychologically, the soothing effect – particularly when under stress – is short lived.
“In the moment, it feels like relief and we feel better,” explains Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol. “Our blood alcohol level rises and things feel slower; our mind relaxes and there’s some disorientation and euphoria.”
But the relief is transient, she says, as “20-30 minutes later the body starts to purge the alcohol, because that’s what the body does with toxins, and as the alcohol leaves our blood we start feeling uncomfortable and even more stressed”.