78th Post: 3rd CANADA – Niagara and a Bloody Past

NJT at Niagara Falls


The last Saturday of the run turned out to be a sunny, warm day of only minus three Celsius. I spent a leisurely morning of reading and sipping coffee, then strolled along to the Red Sandcastle with thirty minutes to spare before the 1pm matinee. Rosemary looked up from her lighting desk as I walked in.

“Neil, the audience has left – you’re an hour late.”

What!!! Total incomprehension? My head spun – what on earth? It turned out that my watch somehow had stopped overnight then re-started. An embarrassing and completely unforeseen cock-up. I felt truly depressed about it. I’ve closed a show because of no audience (Stratford-on-Avon), and I’ve been forced offstage in mid show by illness (Delhi). But this was the first time in 38 years that I’d ever totally blown it for no reason whatsoever, except a malfunctioning wristwatch. Sod it! It was also a stark reminder of the drawbacks of being a one-man show. There’s no safety net for error.

NJT on stage at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto

Fortunately that was about to change – Sean arrived from London. Sean, my six foot three son, with a wry and experienced eye for the foibles of dramatics and foreign lands, and the only travelling support I’ve ever had or needed. He’d been the rock behind three Wilde trips already – through the frozen winter tour in the Netherlands and the boiling summer tour in Central America, and had braved the Al Qaeda bomb attacks during the tour of Jordan. Canada would not be a problem. 

The Roy Bar – Jennifer, two friends, Rosemary, Sandy, Sean

So it proved – his very presence seemed to smooth trouble. The evening show went well, while the final performance at the Sunday matinee was the best one of the run. In celebration, we took the Red Sandcastle crew out for drinks downtown. After an initial round at the National Club we descended into the famous subterranean pedestrian precinct known as the Path. The Path is the largest underground mall in the world and stretches and spirals, twists and turns, for over nineteen miles.

Without the open sky to position us or much signage to guide us, we became part of Toronto’s Number One visitor experience – getting lost in the Path. A tourist trap indeed. However, we were not the only victims; even Jennifer, born and bred in the city, was reduced to begging directions from passers-by. Eventually, more by luck than judgement, we reached our final destination.

The Fairmount Royal York Hotel was a vast skyscraper standing on Front Street and housing an establishment called the Library Bar. It was a luxurious (and luxuriously priced) establishment and not normally a place I would deliberately seek out for a drink. But it was also the site of the hotel where Wilde had stayed 135 years previously. We lifted our glasses and drank a toast to the Red Sandcastle and to Oscar.


During the previous fortnight’s run Rosemary had provided a break in the routine by driving me down to see Niagara Falls. My only previous acquaintance with this world famous spectacle had been through the 1953 movie ‘Niagara’. I’d found it to be a rather sad little film starring Joseph Cotton and Marilyn Monroe in full lip quiver. I think that the director Henry Hathaway had set out to create a classic film noir but he had been constantly distracted firstly by the Falls themselves, and secondly by Marilyn Monroe’s bottom. The camera had been constantly lured away to follow either one or the other. No ‘noir’ could hope to survive when faced with these two majestic natural phenomena.

The city of Niagara has a large summer population installed in its array of hotels and casinos but in January and with the snow falling, we had the place to ourselves. We parked on the promenade in a spot facing the Horseshoe Falls just in front of the (now demolished) Prospect Hotel where Wilde had stayed in 1882.

Oscar had not been impressed with the natural pageant played out before him.

‘I was disappointed with Niagara. Most people must be disappointed with Niagara. They told me that so many millions of gallons of water tumbled over the falls in a minute. I could see no beauty in that. There was bulk there but no beauty, except the beauty inherent in bulk itself. Niagara Falls seemed to me to be simply a vast unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks.’

He was correct technically in that the Falls do fall to the west while the river then coils back to flow to its eventual eastern outlet on the St Lawrence. He added:

Every American bride is taken there and the sight of that stupendous waterfall must be the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointment in American married life.’

As a Canadian commentator added: “He probably only saw it from the American side”. I could not agree with Oscar on this one though – the Falls were indeed a breath-taking sight.

We drove back east along the Niagara River and passed the Rainbow Bridge that spans the gorge between Canada and the USA. I mentioned in passing to Rosemary that I assumed that there was little difference between the people on either side of the river – both spoke the same language and experienced much the same conditions. Rosemary thought for a moment then replied:

“We’re a sight healthier. We’ve got free medical care. And we don’t have guns over here.” (She was right there – the murder rate per capita was five times lower than in the States.)

The country seemed to define itself by simply not being Yank. On the face of it Canada is very pro-British monarchy because the institution is a good method of providing a spirit of unity across this enormous country. But I reckoned that they were also royalists a) to differentiate themselves from the Americans and b) to annoy the French.

In some ways though, life seems easy enough on the border. An old Canadian farmer was asked about international border security in these troubled times. He replied that the border near his farm consisted of a rusty chain link fence:

“Ah jist phone up ma old buddie Hiram on the Yank side to say the border’s down and after a coupla days he heads out and he fixes it.”

We drove into the lovely old village of Niagara-on-the-Lake almost within sight of New York State and parked up.

Whatever the current relationship between Canada and the USA might be, there was certainly a time when it was a lot worse. During the now little remembered War of 1812, the Niagara area was a scene of considerable bloodshed. A Toronto citizen heard whistling ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ could be summarily executed as it signified support for the Americans.

In April 1813, the American army landed on the north shore of Lake Ontario and attacked Toronto (then known as York). The retreating British/Canadian forces blew up the fort, thus killing many Americans including their general. Outraged by this, the Americans sacked and burnt the city before retiring themselves. In an act of tit-for-tat revenge British forces then burnt Washington including the White House. (It gives some idea of the range of Western European power in the 19th century that within a space of 18 months, the British destroyed Washington and the French destroyed Moscow.)

In December 1813, a similar event took place in Niagara-on-the-Lake (then known as Newark). As the Americans retreated they set fire to the town, leaving many of its inhabitants without shelter and freezing to death in the snow. Nine days later, the British/Canadians stormed into the nearby town of Lewiston in New York State, burning all before them and killing a dozen civilians. The massacre of the rest of the town was only halted by the intervention of a small force of First Nation tribesmen who halted the pursuit long enough for the survivors to escape to safety.

Rosemary led me to the Angel Inn just off the very wide main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake where I was introduced to her friend Giselle. The Angel was an old quintessentially English inn and they told me an appropriately ghostly story to match the surroundings. During the back-and-forth sway of the 1813 battles, a British captain called Colin Swayze delayed his escape in order to meet his lover. While she never showed up, unfortunately the American troops did. Captain Swayze rushed to the cellar of the Angel Inn and hid in a wine barrel. The American troops suspected his presence and proceeded to stab every wine butt with their bayonets – it was not long before blood gushed out to mingle with the wine. After they had killed Swayze the Americans burnt the pub.

It was rebuilt in 1815 and ever since reports have circulated of supernatural happenings located in the lavatories near to Swayze’s last hiding place. Recently the ghost seems to have become a dab hand with modern restroom equipment – flushing the toilets and turning on the hand dryer. While there have been no reports of Swayze’s ghost actually harming anybody, if ever the Union Jack is removed from above the inn door, a certain amount of angry poltergeist disruption is said to occur. When the flag is removed for cleaning it has to have a replacement during its absence in order to save the dining room crockery.

To an extent the 1812 War proved to be something of a stalemate, the Canadians pointing out that while they beat the Yanks at their Battle of Niagara, the British lost to them at their Battle of New Orleans. The one group who decidedly lost the war were the First Nation peoples. At the Ghent Peace Conference in 1814 the British asked for an independent ‘neutral Red Indian’ state in the Midwest. This was fiercely opposed by the Americans and the British, unwilling to provoke further conflict, acquiesced and abandoned their First Nation allies. With the withdrawal of British protection, the USA was given a free hand to carry out their ‘Trail of Tears’ removal and partial extinction of the tribes.

Leaving the Angel, Rosemary, Giselle and I strolled on along the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Rounding the corner of one of the town’s post-arson 1813 buildings I came across an unexpected sight – a plinth bearing a life-size statue of George Bernard Shaw! Even more surprising was the establishment next to it – ‘The Shaw Wine Bar’ – an odd tribute to a lifelong teetotaller.

The reason for this memorial to an Irishman who rarely left Hertfordshire except under protest was, of course, that the town was home to the internationally famous Shaw Festival.

For some reason this corner of the Toronto area had become a centre for the celebration of UK based playwrights. It had started in 1952 with the creation of the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario. Its first productions had been held in a large tent and had been promoted by the renowned British director Tyrone Guthrie. Guthrie was succeeded by the actor John Neville (known for his portrayal of ‘Bosie Douglas’ in Robert Morley’s film about Wilde). The Festival now has four permanent venues and runs all summer.

Ten years later, in 1962, a local lawyer named Brian Doherty began the first Shaw Festival here in Niagara. The event was later developed by the British actors Barry Morse and then Paxton Whitehead. The latter oversaw the erection of the purpose-built 870-seat Shaw Theatre in the town. Visitors have included Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth II.

Since my arrival Rosemary had been talking about devising a similar event to celebrate Oscar – a Wilde Festival to match the other two. Thinking about it in the context of this Shavian-obsessed village in the middle of the Ontario woods, I realised that she could be on to something.

Wilde, while not so prolific as the other two, had produced sufficient material and with all the literary connections and theatrical spin-offs could easily bear the weight of such a venture. Rosemary should also be able to link Oscar to what (after San Francisco) appears to be the most gay-friendly city in the Americas – Justin Trudeau made history recently when he became the first sitting Prime Minister to join in the Toronto Gay Pride March. Plus, of course, there was the direct link to Wilde via Toronto’s (almost) native son, Robert Ross.

As Rosemary said: “The Shakespeare crowd started in a circus tent. The Red Sandcastle can be Wilde’s tent!”


Next Tuesday December 4 – the start of an amazing journey and one of the oddest shows ever!


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