By: David Prosser
There’s a great quotation attributed to Stratford-Perth’s first archivist, James Anderson, who was also a keen gardener. “Put some flowers in front,” he’s reported to have said. “Shows people there’s civilization there.”
It’s no accident that people in Stratford take particular care of their gardens. The same impulse that leads people to shape their lawns or plant roses impels them to nurture creativity in other areas of life as well.
It has often been noted that such anti-social acts as littering, graffiti-spraying and vandalism encourage more serious crime. But the converse is also true: beauty begets beauty, art nurtures art, and civilization is created not just through laws and constitutions but also through the countless small choices by which individuals make their immediate surroundings more beautiful, more interesting and more meaningful.
This city is home to North America’s premier theatre festival. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was the dream of one man, its founder Tom Patterson – but Tom’s idea would never have taken root if there hadn’t already been an appetite for that kind of cultural venture. People here have always understood the importance of the arts. The fact that the city was named after William Shakespeare’s birthplace is itself a testament to that.
In 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth marked one of the first major milestones in Stratford’s history: reports of the city’s celebrations were heard as far away as Boston. Stratford’s first town hall (which burned down in 1898) boasted a 500-seat concert hall where plays, concerts, recitals and operettas were presented – pretty remarkable for a town that then contained only 2,000 people.
And then there’s this wonderful eye-witness account of a historical pageant mounted as part of Stratford’s Dominion Day celebrations in 1924:
“For three nights, roads were blocked off along the river from the Long Bridge on Waterloo Street to the Stone Bridge on Huron Street, and up as far as Ontario Street. A seven-foot-high canvas wall enclosed this enormous ‘theatre,’ and gangs of workmen carted in seats for up to 3,000 people. The CNR band serenaded the crowds ushered in by Rotarians to watch the history of this area unfold from ‘The Dawning of Creation’ on.”
Among other highlights of the pageant was a “thunderous bombing raid” staged by 25 veterans of the First World War. Sounds like even then Stratford knew how to put on a show.”
One of Stratford’s turning points was its decision in 1913 not to turn the banks of the Avon river into a railway yard but to reclaim the area as parkland instead. Without that enlightened choice, there would have been nowhere for the fledgling Festival to pitch its tent 40 years later.
It’s a perfect example of James Anderson’s philosophy: every claim that is staked for civilization, however small, encourages and inspires other people to stake their claims too. And when cultural pursuits reach a critical mass in a community, they can transform it, which is what happened here in Stratford – once a failing industrial city, now a thriving destination for theatre-lovers from all over North America. It’s why this is such a great place to visit, and in which to live: everything about it shows people there’s civilization here.