Becoming Stephen Leacock
In Sketching Sunshine, actor and playwright Joe Matheson delves deep into the complex character of Canada’s iconic humorist.
Joe Matheson couldn’t grow a moustache as fulsome as Stephen Leacock’s if he tried. But a bit of tape and some hirsute fakery make the actor and playwright look remarkably like Leacock in his prime. And the transformation doesn’t end there. To channel Canada’s most famous humorist, Matheson dug deep into Leacock’s life, letters and literature, then leavened his meticulous research with a healthy dollop of imagination.
The result is Sketching Sunshine – An Evening (and Morning) with Stephen Leacock, a one-hander Matheson created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1912 publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock’s most enduringly popular work. Matheson’s subtle and often hilarious portrait of a complex man premieres February 21 at Theatre Orangeville and runs until March 10.
When Matheson, who grew up in Saskatchewan and now lives near Alliston, started his research, he was like many Canadians who know of Leacock more by reputation than from actually having read his work. “I certainly knew who he was and the big stories he was famous for,” he says, “but I had no in-depth knowledge of the man.”
In 1912, the 43-year-old Leacock was at the top of his game. He had had an impoverished childhood on a small farm near Sutton, Ontario, where he was raised as the third of 11 children by his refined and resourceful mother after his alcoholic father abandoned the family. But all that seemed to be far behind him.
He was celebrating the twelfth anniversary of his marriage to Beatrix (Trix) Hamilton (niece of Henry Pellatt, the wealthy builder of Toronto’s Casa Loma) and his academic career was thriving. He was a full professor and head of the department of economics and political science at McGill University. He already had two books of humour and two textbooks under his belt. One of the latter, Elements of Political Science (1906), became a standard university text for more than two decades and earned the author more money during his lifetime than any of his other books.
Leacock was also building a name beyond the academic world. In 1907 he had toured the British Empire, lecturing on imperial unity, and during the election campaign of 1911, his railing in the popular press against reciprocity had helped defeat Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government.
He was so prosperous that, in 1908, he had bought a summer property on Lake Couchiching on the outskirts of Orillia. Naming the site Old Brewery Bay, Leacock and his family began making extended visits to the modest cottage he constructed there. The beautiful home that is now a national historic site was not built until many years later.
Matheson’s depiction of the Leacock of 1912 is something of a departure from the usual portraits of the humorist. “Traditionally, Leacock has been delivered as the somewhat melancholy grand old gentleman looking back over the broad ’scape of his life,” says Fred Addis, curator of the Leacock Museum in Orillia. Addis has seen his fair share of Leacock retrospectives, and in Matheson’s version, he says, “Leacock is younger, more vibrant, happily married, in his prime, and swinging for the fences.”
For Matheson the road to portraying Leacock started with Hank Williams. After starring as the country artist in a late 1990s production of Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, Matheson wrote Hank Williams “Live” – 1952, his own tribute to the “King of Country Music.” Then in 2010, when Matheson was treading the boards eight times a week as part of the Toronto cast of Jersey Boys, he squeezed in a couple of performances of his Hank Williams show.
Darcy Hoover caught one of those performances. Hoover was later appointed marketing manager of Orillia’s parks, recreation and culture department. His job included preparing for the Leacock celebration – and he thought immediately of Matheson.
Armed with an Ontario Arts Council grant and feedback from Addis and David Nairn, artistic director of Theatre Orangeville, Matheson put together a preliminary script in early 2011. Nairn liked it so much he booked the show more than a year in advance.
Sketching Sunshine will mark Matheson’s fourth appearance on the Theatre Orangeville stage. In 2003 he played the narrator in For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. In 2006 he wrote the script and lyrics of the wartime romance Could You Wait? and performed the play with his wife, Louise Pitre. And he opened the 2011–12 season with his Hank Williams show.
So how does one transform a book of short stories about Mariposa, a fictional small town everyone knows is Orillia, into a stage production (especially when CBC-TV is in the process of doing the same thing on film)?
“I didn’t try to recreate the stories at all,” Matheson says. “This is going to sound strange, but if you want to know about the book, buy it. It’s in the library. This is [the story of] the guy who wrote the book, why he wrote it and where he got his ideas from. Instead of reading the story about the small town banker who was in love with the beautiful judge’s daughter and is afraid of the judge, I talk about what men and women are like, and this is how they should behave and … read from the book to illustrate my point.”
The test of Matheson’s success at getting inside Leacock’s head came when he performed his work in the humorist’s backyard during this year’s Leacock Summer Festival. After a close call with the trademark Leacock moustache in the first run through – the hairy crumb catcher slid off in the July heat – the actor faced his toughest audience.
“People in Orillia have grown up with Leacock’s ghost,” he says. “A lot of them have grandparents or grand uncles and aunts who remember Leacock. There is one degree of separation for a lot of them. They knew he kept his money in his sock, so when I pulled my pant leg up to pay for my booze and pulled the money from my sock, there was this huge laugh that went through the house.”
However, when audience members from Orillia offered script consultations after the show, Matheson politely declined. “I was doing my play, not Stephen Leacock’s play,” he gently reminded them. “The true stuff was really true and the made-up stuff was really made up!”
At least half of Matheson’s play is based directly on Leacock’s words, but the rest is Matheson doing what he thinks Leacock would have done. Addis’s encyclopedic knowledge of Leacock was invaluable during the creative process. “Fred would say, ‘I don’t remember him ever using that phrase, but he used this one all the time.’” As a result, words and phrases such as “nincompoop” and “damn fool” pepper the script.
In his day, Leacock was a fan of an earlier giant of the gentle art of social observation, the American humorist Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. In 1932, Leacock published a biography of Twain, and in 1935, he was awarded the Mark Twain Medal (whose former recipients included Italian dictator Benito Mussolini).
Just as Leacock admired Twain, Matheson admires Hal Holbrook, the American actor who has portrayed Twain on stage for nearly six decades. Every word of Holbrook’s one-man show belongs to Twain, but the same isn’t true of Matheson’s Leacock. Though the Leacock archive continues to grow, many of Leacock’s letters have not survived; hence the need for artistic licence.
The Orangeville premiere of Sketching Sunshine will be a longer version of the Orillia production. “I felt that at some point partway through the show I had to give everybody a chance to breathe because it’s a runaway train of information,” says Matheson.
The play begins in the evening. Leacock, in a suit and tie, is just off the train from McGill and talking a mile a minute. At the same time, he’s making sure he can’t see the bottom of his whisky glass (substituted with iced tea on stage).
Just before the end of the first act, Matheson says, “I tell a fairly serious story about what a drunk my father was, and it’s apparent I’m drunk again. I stand up and say, ‘I’ve had enough for the night. See you in the morning – we’ll do a little fishing.’”
When Matheson returns to the stage, it’s the next morning and he has adopted the country-bumpkin persona Leacock often affected. Matheson met all kinds of people in Orillia with stories about the author dressed in a frayed straw hat and well-patched overalls bringing his vegetables to sell at the local greengrocer’s.
In portraying Leacock, Matheson’s goal is to bring out his subject’s complexity. For example, like many of his contemporaries, Leacock believed women should be denied the vote, yet he championed female students at McGill and paid for his nieces to attend university. And he later changed his mind about women’s suffrage.
An avowed imperialist, Leacock was so moved when he visited South Africa and saw tent cities filled with the widows and orphans of the Boer War that he began to question his belief in colonialism and came to support the idea of a commonwealth of equal nations where conflicts would be settled by compromise rather than force.
And though Leacock was no socialist, he advocated for the creation of a support system for the weakest and most vulnerable in society. In 1935 he wrote in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, “This socialism, this communism, would work only in Heaven where they don’t need it, or in Hell where they already have it.”
At the same time, Matheson notes, Leacock took no prisoners. “He made fun of liberals and then turned around and made fun of conservatives, rich people and then poor people. He made fun of educated people and then of people who didn’t think education was important.”
Although Leacock’s humour became darker later in his life, after Trix’s death of breast cancer in 1925 and as he worried about the health of his only son, it remained relatively gentle by today’s standards. It was more “like the flick of a tea towel,” says Matheson, “to say don’t get too high on yourself.”
In his day, Leacock entertained Hollywood superstars Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at his home in Montreal. Chaplin is said to have been such a fan of Sunshine Sketches that he carried a copy of it with him at all times. He is also said to have given copies to funnymen Jack Benny and Groucho Marx.
After Leacock’s death from throat cancer in 1944, friends rallied to honour his legacy and promote the writing of Canadian humour by creating the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Since 1947 it has been awarded annually to such luminary writers as Robertson Davies, Arthur Black, W.O. Mitchell, Stuart McLean, and Headwaters’ own Dan Needles.
Today, Leacock’s name is everywhere – on a medal, a museum and even a mountain, as well as parks and schools. His summer home is a national historic site, and Orillia celebrates his achievements in festivals and sidewalk sales. Sunshine Sketches, which has never been out of print, has sold more than a million copies and been translated into 20 languages.
Matheson also notes that the material of many great Canadian stand-up comics is deeply rooted in Leacock’s brand of observational humour. For example, he says, Russell Peters “rarely says anything hurtful about anybody. He’ll make an observation about someone and you realize how silly the observation is, and you end up laughing at him and not the person he is observing. That’s Leacock.”
For all of that, Leacock no longer looms as large in the public imagination as he once did. He’s become something like a great uncle whom we’ve barely met but are expected to love. “What is it about us?” laments Matheson. “He was as big as Oprah in his day. Why do we have such a hard time as Canadians believing what a hero he was?”
Matheson’s play is his attempt to remedy that situation. He is determined to reignite Leacock’s contemporary reputation by luring Canadians back to the man and his writings – one audience at a time.
Humorist Dan Needles succeeds Leacock in balancing truth with affection
There’s no doubt Stephen Leacock has left an imprint on the creator of Walt Wingfield and the world of Persephone Township. Dan Needles was raised on Stephen Leacock. He’s read everything by him, even his history of Canada. “His economics were still around when I went to school in the late ’60s.”
Humour, like many things, is a matter of taste and changes over time, says Needles. “If you have a taste for wit, then Leacock is alive and is an influence.” Needles, who grew up in Mono and now farms a little farther north in Clearview, still gets a chuckle out of one of Leacock’s characters – a damsel beloved by all the beasts of the field who is followed by “every damn dog in the township.” She could have popped out of any of the seven plays in the Wingfield cycle.
Needles’ connection with Leacock was solidified in 2003 when he was awarded the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for With Axe and Flask: The History of Persephone Township from Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present.
Days before Joe Matheson’s Sketching Sunshine opens at Theatre Orangeville in February, Needles will take the stage with two other Leacock Medal winners when the theatre and BookLore host a panel discussion on Leacock’s legacy. Joining him will be Terry Fallis who won in 2008 for The Best Laid Plans and Trevor Cole who won in 2011 for Practical Jean. The three authors will read from their books and discuss the challenging craft of writing humour.
Leacock said humour should bite like a lamb, not a dog, that it should cut, not wound. And it’s important to Needles that his own wit never veers into meanness in any of his plays. “What goes around comes around. Leacock knew that. He was shocked by the initial response of the community to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and only wrote about Mariposa once.”
Like Leacock, he is sensitive to his former neighbours in Mono (Persephone) Township where he spent his childhood, as well as those in Shelburne (Larkspur) where as a young man he was editor of The Free Press and Economist and first developed the Wingfield persona.
“I write about people who could be my neighbours. They are not in the public domain. They deserve to be treated with affection. There is a balance you have to strike telling the truth with affection. The truth on its own is too rough, and if it’s just affection, it’s too treacly.”
Leacock loved the Mariposa he wrote about in 1912 and over his life he watched the effects unbridled capitalism had on small-town Canada, says Needles. “By the time he died [in 1944], the Mariposa he knew was gone. I’ve been consciously writing about a world in decline all my life. I feel as a writer I have been charged with the safekeeping of all these examples of farmer thinking. It would be my personal responsibility if a single one were lost.”
Needles’ latest play, The Team on the Hill, runs from May 9 to 26 at Theatre Orangeville. In a departure from the Wingfield plays, it gives “farmer thinking” a more serious treatment. The story unfolds over a critical weekend as three generations of the Ransier family struggle to find a way forward for themselves and the family farm.
Needles says he feels a lot like Austin Ransier, the grandfather in the play. The older he gets, the more he has to explain himself. Needles, like Ransier, is the voice on the verandah. He still has a great sense of humour, but he also has important things to say. Much like Stephen Leacock.