Winnipeg’s Sacred Monster

How a Hungarian war orphan became one of North America’s most brilliant — and mercurial — theatre directors

While the story of Canadian theatre is well served by a wide array of biographies and autobiographies, there has been one daunting topic hitherto left untouched: John Hirsch (1930–89). Born into an affluent family in Hungary, Hirsch came to Canada as a teenage war refugee; a decade later he famously co-founded Canada’s first civic professional theatre company—the Manitoba Theatre Centre—and went on to become one of North America’s foremost stage directors. In the relatively staid anglophile landscape of post-war Canadian theatre, Hirsch was an exotic and commanding figure, like a gaudy East European abstract in a gallery of polite English watercolours.

Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, the authors of A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch, came to their topic, not through a study of Canadian theatre, but through Martz’s earlier book, Open Your Hearts: The Story of the Jewish War Orphans in Canada, of whom Hirsch was the most famous. His evidently idyllic childhood started to crumble in 1940, when Nazi authority began progressively undermining Hungarian self-determination. While his mother, father and brother all perished in Nazi death camps, Hirsch himself survived through a combination of luck, guile and the kindness of strangers. By chance, it appears, and through the efforts of the Canadian Jewish Congress, he was able to emigrate to Canada in 1947. He chose Winnipeg because his mother had distrusted boundaries and, on a map of Canada, Winnipeg appeared to be in the centre of things.

Arriving orphaned and penniless, Hirsch was adopted by a working class family who proved to be—like Canada itself—a welcoming haven in an uncertain world. Although he spoke no English, Hirsch’s fierce intelligence quickly became obvious, and his family enabled him to attend high school and then the University of Manitoba, where he established himself as a brilliant but eccentric student with a flair for self-publicity.

Hirsch’s theatrical apprenticeship was marked by similarly rapid advances. In his first year in Winnipeg he was producing puppet plays for children. Only six years later, just out of university, he acquired a paid position as the Winnipeg Little Theatre’s resident director, and the next year another as the new local CBC-TV station’s first staff producer. At age 24, Hirsch was already earning his living in the performing arts—then a rare feat in Canada. But this was only the beginning.

In 1958, the Manitoba Theatre Centre was created through a merger of the well-established Winnipeg Little Theatre and Theatre 77, a fledgling professional group created by Hirsch and his friend Tom Hendry. The MTC’s board hired Hirsch as artistic director and Hendry (a trained accountant as well as an actor and writer) as general manager. In the ensuing decade, the MTC and its governance structure became the blueprint for a string of Canadian regional theatres founded from sea to sea. Some of Hirsch’s MTC productions became the stuff of legend, in particular Mother Courage, a play by Bertolt Brecht set in a war-torn Europe of earlier times. (Later, Hirsch’s Chekhov productions at Stratford invited comparisons of the plays’ declining Russian landowners to Eastern Europe’s doomed bourgeoisie of Hirsch’s childhood.)

After almost a decade leading the MTC, Hirsch joined Jean Gascon as associate artistic director of the Stratford Festival. When Hirsch left the festival two years later, in some disfavour with its board, he continued building a busy international career, most notably as guest director at the Lincoln Center and consulting director for the Seattle Rep. Subsequent positions in Canada included head of CBC Television Drama (1974–78) and another stint at the Stratford Festival (1981–85), this time as sole artistic director. While these years at Stratford were marked by some unforgettable productions—such his own King Lear and Brian Macdonald’s Mikado—and while he rescued the company from the brink of collapse after the departure of Robin Phillips, Hirsch’s somewhat cavalier attitude toward production budgets again caused friction with the board1.

After Stratford, Hirsch seemed to find some unaccustomed equilibrium, balancing less frequent stage productions with short-term gigs teaching at major university theatre schools in the United States. But abruptly his health began to deteriorate, and he died of AIDS at age 59.

Hirsch had a mercurial, demanding personality about which few people felt neutral. An epigraph to A Fiery Soul comes from Daniel Sullivan, Hirsch’s resident director at the Seattle Rep, who developed into one of North America’s leading stage directors: “During the 1980s,” says Sullivan, “North American actors had to bring three things to any audition: a classical piece, a contemporary piece and a John Hirsch story.” While Hirsch’s passion for theatre was inspirational and infectious, many regarded him as a moody tyrant, “a sacred monster” according to one CBC colleague.

This book does not shrink from documenting some instances of Hirsch’s bullying and tantrums, nor does it suggest any easy answers to their root cause: the reader is left to guess how much of Hirsch’s tempestuous behaviour came from his uncompromisingly high standards, Mitteleuropean sensibility or artistic temperament, and how much from his own lack of acting experience or his rather overindulged childhood in pre-war Hungary. Seana McKenna, who rose to Stratford stardom under Hirsch, notes “his obliviousness to the effect he was having on people.” Marti Maraden, one of the leading ladies in his legendary Three Sisters at Stratford, recalls being parachuted into a new Hirsch production in Los Angeles that featured a cast of veteran actors: “I was always in the washroom holding little old ladies in my arms who were crying and I’d say, ‘He does this to everybody, tomorrow he’ll love you, don’t let it hurt too much.’”

A master storyteller, Hirsch created compelling myths around his own roots and achievements. Although he described his work in Winnipeg as growing oranges on the prairie, his most miraculous creation was himself. By his early twenties he was revered as a gifted stage director, yet his biography reveals no training and no mentor figures. It is noteworthy that in every position of authority that he held—MTC, Stratford, CBC—he gave high priority to improved professional training programs: it is a curious pattern for a virtuoso artist who seems to have trained himself.

Martz and Wilson wisely draw no conclusions about the forces that came together to create this particular orange on this particular prairie. Instead, they illustrate the influences—Hirsch’s boyhood fascination with theatre, his artistic mother, his political grandmother, his patriotic father, his adoptive family with their passion for education and social justice, the vibrant post-war arts community in Winnipeg (a veritable grove of oranges)—and they leave us to draw our own conclusions. The Holocaust was late coming to Hungary, we are told: perhaps that is why Hirsch not only survived it, but seemingly also drew strength and inspiration from it. Ironically, the man who first brought him to Stratford, Michael Langham, had developed his craft by directing plays while a prisoner of war; Hirsch put on puppet shows at a post-war refugee camp, and made friendships that lasted his whole life.

A new one-man play called Hirsch opens this June at the Stratford Festival. It will be a signal achievement if its creators can bring to the stage some sense of Hirsch’s passionate urgency, which we still miss in Canadian theatre. As he told an interviewer near the end of his life, “if your emotions, mind and spirit, as well as your senses, are not fed in the theatre, if you are not nurtured by some great vision clearly important to your existence, what the hell is theatre for?”


  1. Robin Phillips’s complex story is told in Martin Knelman’s A Stratford Tempest (McClelland and Stewart, 1982).