Merrill Denison Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Merrill Denison was born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 23, 1893. That he was born an American rather than a Canadian resulted from the fact that his mother wanted her child not to be a subject of the British Crown. Shortly before the birth, she had traveled from her home in Toronto to Detroit in order to accomplish this. A well-known feminist, Flora MacDonald Denison was a descendant of Nathaniel Merrill, who had left Connecticut in 1774 to settle in Kingston as part of the second exodus of United Empire Loyalists. Flora continued the family tradition of outspoken individualism. In 1905, after five years as a manager of the women’s wear department of a large department store, Flora refused to punch in on the newly installed time clock, on the grounds that the newfangled system fostered class distinctions.

Merrill Denison was an only child, and the influence of his mother on his private and public life was strong. He supported her stand on women’s issues, and he was president of the University Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in Canada. By contrast, Denison’s father, Howard, had little influence. A commercial traveler, he was at home only irregularly, although his son remembers him as a friend. Flora was responsible for Merrill’s literary bent as well as his social awareness. She contributed a regular column on women’s suffrage to the Sunday World of Toronto and took every opportunity to speak and write about religious, social, and political controversies. Another enduring love that passed from mother to son was of the Bon Echo resort on Lake Mazinaw in northern Ontario. This backwoods area not only became Denison’s holiday and retirement home but also provided the setting and characters for his most significant dramatic writing. Flora first took the eight-year-old Denison to Bon Echo in 1901; in 1910, she bought the twelve-hundred-acre resort; Denison managed a summer hotel there from 1921 to 1929; and in 1959 he turned the property over to the Ontario government for use as a provincial park.

As a young man, Denison studied at the University of Toronto for one semester and then departed “by mutual consent.” After a series of odd jobs, including work as a journalist, drama critic, advertising agent, and timekeeper in a steelworks plant, he returned to the University of Toronto to study architecture. In 1916, he departed to serve two years with the American Ambulance Field Service in France. In 1919 and 1920, he worked as an architectural draftsman in Boston and New York, but architecture was not to be his career. In fact, he wrote a critique of his architectural education, which appeared in 1922 in The American Architect. The magazine’s publishers reportedly offered him the editorship, which he refused. After he returned to the family home in Toronto, he was approached by Roy Mitchell, the dynamic and forward-looking director of Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto, to become the theater’s art director. His first stage designs were for a production of Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781) in February of 1921. He also tried his hand at acting and became a playwright by the end of the season.

Denison tells an amusing story of how this came about. Mitchell had planned an evening of three Canadian plays for April, but only two, both tragedies, had been found. Five weeks before the opening, Denison and Mitchell were joking about where to find a true Canadian. Denison claimed that the only untainted Canadians he had known were the backwoodsmen near Bon Echo, the subject of so many of the amusing stories with which he had regaled his friends. The result: He was locked in the director’s room and told to turn out a play based on his famous story of the Upper Canada College principal trying to acquire the use of a boat from a backwoodsman. As Denison reports, “Well, with no inhibitions and a deadline, I was able to accomplish the feat in about four and a quarter hours.”

Brothers in Arms, as this play was called, enjoyed remarkable popularity, appearing in ten editions from 1923 to 1975, and was performed an estimated fifteen hundred times from 1921 to 1971. The initial response, however, was not undivided. Hart House was governed by a theater committee that had to give approval to all scripts. This group, shocked by the ungrammatical language of backwoodsmen and by the satire of patriotism that fuels the comedy, rejected Denison’s script. After Mitchell threatened to resign, however, the play was added to the program, and theater history was made.

Denison continued with Mitchell at Hart House Theatre and saw productions of The Weather Breeder on April 21, 1924,...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)