Remarkable Teachers - Upstaging the Drama: Christopher Plummer (Photo: Stratford Shakespeare Festival/Andrew Eccles)

The 83-year-old actor is generally regarded as one of the finest in the English-speaking world and has been so for over 60 years. In February, Christopher Plummer became the oldest person to win an Oscar for his performance in Beginners and in August, he held sold-out audiences spellbound at Stratford with A Word or Two, his one-man show devoted to the joys of literature.

A person with such a richly varied career could easily cite many mentors who steered him along his path, but Plummer zeroes in on two. “The single most remarkable teacher in my life? No question about it — that would have been Mr. Wright, the amazing man who taught me English at The High School of Montreal.”

Before Plummer met the late Henry E. Wright in the early 1940s, he had already been through a childhood that had formed him in distinctive ways. His father was a lawyer and his mother was the granddaughter of John Abbott — the third Prime Minister of Canada — but by the time Plummer was born, the marriage was already done.

Henry E. Wright

Henry E. Wright

“Do I know why my parents divorced? Of course not! Verboten! A disgrace! Not to be discussed,” says Plummer. “My mother never said anything. My father would send me Christmas presents, which were always sent back to him. Years later, he came backstage after a performance and introduced himself to me. It was too late for that.”

So, although those iconic Plummer tones were first heard as a wailing child in Toronto — where he was born on December 13, 1929 — he soon found himself living with his mother’s family in Montréal. “I was an only child raised in a society of doting women who coddled me — God, I must have been a little monster!” he chuckles. “But I do remember clearly how we would sit around and read poetry aloud in the evening.”

It was those experiences that set the stage for the first time Plummer encountered Wright in high school. “He walked in and told us to open our copies of Shakespeare — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I believe it was — and then he had us all stand up and start reading the roles aloud,” Plummer recalls. “It was a wonderful way of dealing with terrific literature that didn’t make it a chore. We were playing parts. It was great for massaging the ego and you had such fun doing it. But I’ll tell you the best thing — you always understood and remembered the works you acted out.”

Plummer appreciates now that Wright’s low-key classroom style was the secret to his success. The teacher didn’t try to oversell the plays they were studying — he let the power of those works emerge on their own.

Wright’s educational methods weren’t restricted to Shakespeare, and the result of his eclectic selections can also be seen in the varied authors whose presence fill Plummer’s script for A Word or Two. “He had us study poetry as well, really difficult works for kids our age. But he never condescended,” says Plummer. He believed we could handle them. So I would stand up there and read Wordsworth and my God, I would understand it and love it and remember it all my life.”

Plummer’s teacher remained with the school for many years and eventually became principal. A former student recalls his student body speeches from the ’60s — and, sure enough, Wright employed that same low-key persuasive style which had impressed Plummer so greatly.

The taste for drama that Plummer acquired in Wright’s classes propelled him into his school’s dramatic society, where his performance in Pride and Prejudice caught the eye of theatre critic and director Herbert Whittaker, the man who set him on the path toward his professional career.

Plummer honed his craft at the Stage Society (later named Canadian Repertory Company) in Ottawa and by the time he was 22, he was starring opposite American theatre legend Katherine Cornell on Broadway; but something new and important was going on back home in his native Canada.

“I missed the first few seasons of the Stratford Festival,” he says wistfully. “I regretted it at the time, but I suppose everything worked out for the best, because when I did get there in 1956, it was with a magnificent role, Henry V, and for a brilliant director, Michael Langham — the other great teacher of my life.”

Langham passed away in 2011, leaving a rich legacy behind him. After spending 12 seasons as artistic director of the Stratford Festival — helping to form the company and give it the distinctive verse-speaking style it employs to this day — Langham went on to perform the same service for The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis from 1971–77 and then became director of the Drama Division at the renowned Julliard School in New York, spending eight years there until 1992. He frequently returned to Stratford, working with the Young Company, and the current training program for young directors at the Festival bears his name in tribute.

Wright had us all stand up and start reading the roles aloud. It was a wonderful way of dealing with terrific literature that didn’t make it a chore.

Michael Langham

Michael Langham

“Michael was unique in the theatre,” says Antoni Cimolino, the newly appointed Artistic Director of Stratford, who worked with Langham for many years. “He was as great a teacher as he was a director, and that is a rare combination indeed.”

Langham combined both of those gifts when directing Plummer in the 1957 production of Hamlet at Stratford. The actor was concerned about Hamlet’s tendency to complain about his fate at every opportunity. “An audience will not stand for three hours of that. They have no patience with someone so sorry for themselves,” Plummer says. But Langham guided him around that trap with one incisive piece of advice. “He told me that, before I said anything, I should approach it with a sense of wonder, as if I had just thought, ‘How extraordinary!’ He told me that everything was a discovery with Hamlet.”

Even in his latest work, A Word or Two, Plummer’s musicality of speech and speed of diction are joys to hear, and he credits Langham with those as well. “He always told me not to break speeches up. ‘No, no, no,’ he’d say. ‘They’re all one thought. All the great soliloquies are one thought. Drive through them smoothly and it’s perfectly clear. But if you try to make every line a gem, you’ll bore us to death.’”

And it’s no coincidence that boredom is a word you’d never associate with Christopher Plummer.

How does he maintain such a vibrant energy at his age? Plummer recalls his early classroom days with Wright. “Every time I approach a project, I take my script, open it up and stand there like a schoolboy, as Shakespeare would say, ‘with smiling morning face.’ I am back in Mr. Wright’s class, ready to launch into another adventure, simply by reading great words aloud to other people and bringing them to life,” he says. “That is the greatest lesson I have ever learned.”