Actor Martha Henry was a true legend of Canadian theatre, was a Stratford Festival mainstay for a remarkable 47 seasons.

Photo: Solo shot of Martha Henry as Lady Percy in Henry IV (Henry IV, Part 1), 1965. (Photograph by Peter Smith)

21 October 2021 | Chris Montanini | Stratford Beacon Herald

Actor Martha Henry, a legend of Canadian theatre and a Stratford Festival mainstay for a remarkable 47 seasons, has died from cancer.

Henry’s family was with her at her home in Stratford where she died Thursday just after midnight, Festival officials confirmed.

“Our hearts are shattered,” said Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s artistic director. “In losing Martha Henry, we have lost the dearest friend, the most inspiring mentor and an unforgettable, original talent.”

Henry’s death came just 12 days after her final performance in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, directed by life-long friend and colleague Diana Leblanc.

Photo: Martha Henry as A in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. (V. Tony Hauser photo)

In her final show, Henry portrayed a dying woman reflecting on a life’s worth of memories and the happiness, gratification, guilt and regret that accompanied them.

Her moving performances may have been more inspired by her own circumstances than many audiences realized at the time.

Henry received her cancer diagnoses not long before the production, originally slated for the 2020 season, was cancelled due to the pandemic, Festival officials said. She returned after treatment to take on the role this past season, first using a walker and then, after about a month into the run, finishing her remaining shows in a wheelchair.

Henry’s resilience and dedication are among the traits Cimolino said he will remember most. He recalled Thursday presenting flowers to Henry after her final show, describing her as “incandescent” and “luminous.”

“She fought so hard to get through that run,” he said. “She was in pain and she was determined to get to the end of it. She had incredible strength.”

Henry’s final appearances were also a testament to the love and respect she had for acting and the stage.

Mamie Zwettler as C (left), Martha Henry as A, Andrew Iles as The Boy, and Lucy Peacock as B in Three Tall Women. (Photography by V. Tony Hauser)

“Her sense of responsibility to the theatre was so profound that it enabled her to endure pain and face down her terminal disease to complete an astoundingly truthful performance as a dying woman,” Cimolino said. “Her life became art.”

Henry was born in Detroit, Mich., in 1938.

According to information provided by the Festival, Henry’s interest in theatre was sparked by scripts she found in the attic of her grandparents home in Greenville, Mich., where she was living after her parents’ divorce. That spark was nurtured by her mother, Konnie, a professional musician who sent Henry to Kingswood, a private school outside of Detroit.

Henry went on to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie Mellon University. After graduating in 1959, she decided purposefully to pursue a theatre career in Stratford.

“There was no place like Stratford in the States at all,” Henry said in a 1994 interview. “I saw great actors – Christopher Plummer, Bill Hutt – I could understand Hamlet! A door opened to me. It was so exciting and thrilling, and I thought any country that produced a Stratford was one I wanted to be a part of.”

Over six decades later, Henry’s decision has made a profound impact on the Stratford Festival. Given the variety of roles she performed in Stratford both on stage and off, there’s an argument to be made that “she’s probably the single greatest influence on the Festival over those years,” Cimolino said.

“We will forever be in her debt.”

The first graduate of Canada’s National Theatre School, Henry made her Stratford debut in 1962, playing Miranda to Hutt’s Prospero in The Tempest. Afterwards, she shared the stage with him on numerous occasions, notably as Mary to his James Tyrone in 1994’s Long Day’s Journey into Night – also directed by Leblanc – a production that was reprised in 1995 and then filmed, winning Henry a Genie for Best Actress in 1996. 

William Hutt as Prospero and Martha Henry as Miranda in The Tempest, 1962. (Photograph by Peter Smith)

In addition to performing in more than 70 productions and directing 14 more in Stratford, Henry served as the director of the Festival’s Birmingham Conservatory for 10 years, from 2007 to 2016, and as director of the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction from 2017 to 2020.

Henry was a loyal and caring person whose leadership will be missed, Cimolino said.

“I know many young women who have told me what a great mentor she was, how empowering she was,” he said. “She was an imaginative person. She would come up with things you’d never thought of because she had an ability to put herself in others shoes and that’s critically important to a director and an actor.”

Beyond Stratford, Henry served as artistic director of the Grand Theatre in London from 1988 to 1994. She acted and directed at the Shaw Festival, the National Arts Centre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, Theatre Calgary, Vancouver’s Arts Club and Edmonton’s Citadel; and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., at Lincoln Center in New York and in London’s West End.

Solo shot of Martha Henry as Lady Percy in Henry IV (Henry IV, Part 1), 1965. (Photograph by Peter Smith)

Henry taught at the National Theatre School, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Windsor, and served two three-year appointments to the board of the Canada Council for the Arts.

“The name Martha Henry is synonymous with artistry, intelligence and beauty,” Cimolino said. “As an actor, her performances became the stuff of legend. And yet despite fame she worked tirelessly. She knew that grit, dedication and craft were the foundation for inspiration and art.”

Henry became a Canadian citizen in 1970.

She was a companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario and a recipient of the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Her contributions to theatre, film and television were also celebrated with five Genie Awards, two Betty Mitchell Awards, a Toronto Drama Desk Award, a New York Theatre World Award, three Gemini Awards and seven honorary doctorates.

Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest. (Photography by David Hou)

A memorial for Henry will be held at the Stratford Festival “at an appropriate time,” officials said.

One of Henry’s performances in Three Tall Women was captured on film and the Festival hopes to secure the rights to share it.

In the meantime, Festival officials have announced that the first Shakespeare production at the new Tom Patterson Theatre will be dedicated to her memory.

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