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“This little academe, still and contemplative in living art”: Shakespeare, Modernism, and the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto


At the beginning of Love’s Labor’s Lost, the King of Navarre and his courtiers form a “little academe, still and contemplative in living art.” In modern terms, these vows constitute a gentlemen’s club of sorts, defined by the rejection of the mundane world of work and domesticity in favor of a particular kind of homosociality born of esoteric engagement. This intentionally anachronistic consideration of Navarre’s private society provides context for two early twentieth-century Canadian productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost and Cymbeline directed by Roy Mitchell at Hart House Theatre in Toronto. Mitchell was a visionary bent on dragging Toronto, Canadian theater, and Shakespeare into the modern world. He was also a founding member of a gentlemen’s club: the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, established in 1908 to provide a retreat from the growing metropolis in a merry “fusion of the arts.” This essay uses the texts of Shakespeare’s plays to connect some of the ideals of the Arts and Letters Club to Mitchell’s directorial practice, in order to unfold an understudied piece of Canadian cultural history. The essay argues that the esoteric engagements of private societies had genuine influence upon the public sphere. As David Shields observes, it is “the occult motives of aesthetics” that “explain the formation of national politics,” it is not, as we tend to assume, the other way around.

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