Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

THE METHODISM IN THEIR MADNESS (continued)

Job-like, Hart becomes convinced that God must be punishing him. Fred Victor’s real desire, Hart now realizes, had been to work with the victims of industrialization. Hart builds the Fred Victor Mission in downtown Toronto. But he’s struck as never before by the many ironies in the situation: the charity extended by a Fred Victor Mission could help only a small handful of those who suffered; the Masseys were partly responsible for their suffering; and yet without the opportunities for work the Masseys (and others) created, there would be even more misery. The kind of progress Hart and his parents and grandparents had believed was possible now seems a largely vain hope. Since much of the family’s inspiration had come from music, Hart decides to build a music hall in Toronto, Massey Hall, which will serve rich and poor alike. Perhaps music can help.

Hart Massey dies in 1896, leaving behind a remarkable will. It begins: “I Hart Massey, of the City of Toronto, manufacturer... realizing the uncertainty of life...” He leaves millions “for the poor, the sick and those who tend them. For the young who are willing... to develop their minds.” His third son, Walter, becomes president, determined to carry out the rigorous terms of Hart’s will — on the one hand, always to put conscience before profit, and on the other, to expand the business “even in and throughout the United States.” Walter dies trying, at the age of forty-three. Now the last of Hart’s sons, Chester, the father of Vincent and Raymond, assumes control. The narrative ends with him at the beginning of the First World War. Discretion dictates that we get only a passing glance at the careers of his sons; Raymond, after all, is still alive.

The greatest strength of these programmes lies in the compelling story they tell. Unfortunately, Lovat Dickson’s script sometimes gets in the way. He’s too elliptical at moments when one yearns for a little more detail. It’s not at all clear, for example, why Hart chooses to move to Cleveland during his illness. And at times Dickson is tediously long-winded when one wishes he’d just get on with it — the scene in which Fred Victor and Walter prepare to leave on their trip around the world seems interminable. There are, as well, some melodramatic bits of prose that Dickson speaks himself — lines such as “The Masseys will face triumphs — and tragedies.” Equally foolish, I think, is a decision to introduce the cast to us at the end of the first episode; each of them repeats some “significant” remark from the hour that’s just ended.

Much of the time, the narrative is moved forward by the simple device of voice-over narration by one of the Masseys as we observe in close detail the members of the family going about their daily lives. These scenes are effectively intercut with both real and dramatized still photographs over which the cameras move. (Particularly haunting are the shots of the saddlebag preacher.) Exceptions to this voice-over technique in the second of the two programmes cause it to drag: Chester, for instance, talking directly into the camera, when no one else has done so, makes one wonder if the prducers have run out of ideas or money for voice-over material. The weaknesses of the second hour suggest that The Masseys might have worked better as a single ninety-minute show.

It seems appropriate that the most striking feature of The Masseys is the music (under the direction of Louis Applebaum) and that the choir performing many of the wonderful old Methodist hymns is that of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church, the Masseys’ church. The choir is accompanied on an organ donated to Metropolitan United by Hart’s only daughter, Lillian (played by Terry Tweed) who comes across as the most interesting of all the Masseys. In her lonely, declining years Lillian had a direct telephone line between her home and church so she could sit in her living room and listen to the organ.

I must admit to a special interest in the Massey family and in these programmes. I arrived at the University of Toronto in the late 1950s lonely and confused, the son of poor, immigrant parents. I didn’t attend classes often and I compiled a dismal academic record. But I did begin to get an education. Most of my time was spent in a wonderful building called Hart House. (I didn’t realize until long after I’d graduated that the building had been a gift to the university from the Massey family, in honour of Hart.) I spent hours every day in the Hart House Magazine Room reading British, American and Canadian magazines and newspapers; in the Reading Room I devoured countless books that were on no required reading list; in the Record Room I heard much of the classical repertoire for the first time. (I started going to Massey Hall to hear these works performed live.) Twice a week there were glorious singsongs — including hymns — in the large common room. Everywhere in the building hung some of the best in Canadian art. Hart House opened windows for me in the late 1950s in a way that Methodist saddlebag preachers had done for young men like Hart Massey more than a century before.

— Saturday Night , September 1978

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