Canada's longest serving professional critic, English-born E. R. Parkhurst (1848-1924) commented on the active Toronto theatre scene for forty-eight years. Parkhurst's columns, first at The Globe 1876-98 and then at The Mail 1898-1924, usually contained several items, and his reviews as such were brief and overwhelmingly positive. He wrote about opera and ballet, circus and show business, silent film and vaudeville in addition to concerts and plays, both amateur and professional. His columns were rarely critically insightful; rather they reflected current taste and as such revealed much about the popular pleasures and prejudices of his time.
Despite his longevity, Parkhurst was considered even in his own time as a more astute music rather than theatre critic. In 1906 he founded a monthly magazine called The Violin, succeeded by Musical Canada the following year, which he continued to edit until 1920. He was credited with founding the first seriously organized string quartet in Canada, the original Toronto String Quartet in the 1870s, helping to introduce music into the Toronto school system in 1886, and devoting spare time to teaching orchestral skills.
In Hector Willoughby Charlesworth's words, Parkhurst's "nature was kindly, and he loved to write words of encouragement rather than censure." He wrote for and about the audience, flattering and encouraging proper behaviour. As a man of his time, Parkhurst declared himself for decency and morality, praising the refined and dismissing the vulgar. He believed that his first duty was to get people into the theatre and therefore was a publicist at heart, stirring up interest by quoting reviews from other cities on a tour or the reactions of New York or London critics.
"The most effective criticism is the shortest one", was the pithy manner in which Parkhurst framed his approach to his craft, and brevity was certainly a marked characteristic of his reviews. By the latter part of his career, he devoted only a sentence or two to a production. Parkhurst's brevity was also pragmatic. In his early years as a critic, he mostly covered the Grand Opera House and the Royal Lyceum. By the end of his career, he was writing about several vaudeville theatres, the Royal Alexandra Theatre and the Grand, and many stock theatres, with sometimes daily changes of bill.
Parkhurst was a critic of the superlative, especially when talking about stars, and raved about good acting, paying special attention to actors' voices. For Parkhurst, good acting was often equated with good speaking. He was appalled by the "so-called 'natural' school of acting", which became popular after the turn-of-the-century, primarily on vocal grounds. He also disliked the modern problem play and the works of Ibsen and Maeterlinck, and instead hoped for the day when British and American playwrights would "give the English-speaking world plays [of] noble and elevating sentiment without being mawkish." He did not seem to have considered the possibility that Canadians might write such plays.
Parkhurst championed a theatre that would elevate and ennoble. Whatever the genre, he wanted thoughtful plays that were "a rich intellectual treat." He was an English gentleman adrift in the Colonies and played no part in the upsurge of Canadian nationalism of the 1920s.
Parkhurst was more "reviewer" than "critic"; he described the theatrical scene more than he analyzed it. Although his own standards had been honed by observing the foremost actors of his time, he refused to impose his taste. Rather he tried to convey to the reader the view of discriminating members of the audience. Instead of pulling the theatre towards a brighter tomorrow, he was content to gently nudge it. As publicist, gossip and fan, he satisfied the need of the theatre of his time as well as of his editors, which accounts for his long tenure.
Readings: Ross Stuart. "The Critic as Reviewer: E.R. Parkhurst at the Toronto Mail and Globe, 1876-1924," Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism, ed. Anton Wagner. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Profile by Ross Stuart
Last updated 2021-07-21