Growing up in Saskatoon, I had the immense good fortune of encountering Henry Woolf a few times. I’ll admit, I wasn’t fully aware of just how accomplished an actor he was, but whenever he came to visit a high school or university English class I was taking (he was obviously very open to doing so) to talk drama or Shakespeare he always made an impression. Incredibly smart, an astonishing raconteur — even when I was a teenage football-playing lunkhead I could see the dude was operating on a different level than the rest of us. Yet he was humble, self-deprecating, and very funny — I later learned he had more than held his own with world-class comedians in The Rutles and other related projects (this wonderful interview with Woolf captures that scene).
It always struck me as odd to see this London stagemaster with a background like his (worked with Lawrence Olivier, directed Orson Welles) living apparently quite happily on the Canadian prairies, teaching at the University, in his words “an absurdist head of department who likes playing lunatics.”
A bunch of determined solipsists is how I would describe the six of us as we bowled about Hackney in the late 40s and 50s, our lives central to the workings of the universe. We had mostly met at school – a group of six friends, including Harold Pinter and me – encouraged by the shining example of our English teacher, Joe Brearley, to put our lives first and the world second.
What does that mean? Well, in 1947 the world seemed too much. The Holocaust loomed over us. Atomic bombs had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cold war was being manufactured to keep the American economy going. What lay in store for us looked pretty bleak. We could prove to be the last generation. No future. No children. Us. Did we agonise over this? Discuss our unhappy fate into the small hours? Not a bit of it. By silent agreement, we put the day-to-day world to one side. Once we breathed its infected air, we were goners.
“Life is beautiful but the world is hell,” Pinter said recently. That might have been our motto, the six of us.
…Then there was the theatre. Joe Brearley took us to see Robert Helpmann and Margaret Rawlings in John Webster’s The White Devil. We had never seen anything like it. We rushed about declaiming: “There’s a plumber laying pipes in my guts”; “Oh, I have caught an everlasting cold”; “My soul is like to a ship in a black storm driven I know not whither”. Sixty years later, Harold is still likely to come out with “the time is ripe for the bloody audit and the fatal gripe” or “I’ll go hunt the badger by owl light” from The Duchess of Malfi.
I’m struck by how Joe Brearley is still remembered some sixty years later, and how one evidently remarkable teacher could see his influence extend through those students down through the years, to the point where even I benefited in a small sense. His gift for guiding young people through difficult, even hopeless times is something the world could use a whole lot of right now.