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Teacher, actor, wine-lover, friend: Professor Emeritus John Gilbert in memoriam  

By Professor Kathleen Gallagher

John Keith Gilbert
Born August 17, 1934 in Singapore
Died April 22, 2021 in Toronto

My remarkable friend John died on Apr. 22, 2021.

He did not die, directly at least, of COVID-19, though he was undoubtedly a casualty of its conditions. At the age of 86, and newly living in a retirement home, the loneliness of no visitors for a man who thrived on intellectual stimulation was a very heavy load to bear. His glaucoma had advanced to such a point that his passion for reading had been replaced by the frustration of failing eyesight and the loss of beloved books.  

A fall landed John in Bridgepoint for several months prior to his death and though it is a wonderful place for rehabilitation, it could not provide what John really desired: the company of friends, a visit from his beloved children and grandchildren, a glass of red, the mental challenge of a good debate, collective exasperation at the political state of the world, or simply a conversation about a great work of dramatic literature.

Even live theatre had disappeared from view in his final months. 

To say John was a man of extraordinary accomplishments is an understatement. Born into a working-class London family, he earned a full scholarship to Oxford University. From Oxford, he earned a scholarship to complete his doctoral studies at Harvard University in French Literature.

When he completed that, he was sought after by Brown University and the French Department at the University of Toronto. His renowned supervisor at Harvard, a German Literature scholar, advised him to choose U of T as it was, in his view, the best of the American and the British systems put together.

I first met John in 1987, in the lovely windowed corner room at New College, Wilson Hall Room 2008, where he taught a riveting course in French theatre. I recall thinking that as a teacher, John was ‘in the moment,’ effortlessly composing verbal essays that felt alive. I would later learn that his scholarly knowledge of theatre was intimately tied to his life on stage, the many and diverse roles he’d played and, importantly, the generosity characteristic of actors who uphold the words and worlds of playwrights. Like the invitation to travel alongside that he would issue to theatre audiences, his teaching proposed to a room of students that the imagined world of the play had everything to do with the real one we were inhabiting.

A Christmas Carol starred John Gilbert with Tyler Hynes and premiered 1994-1995 in Toronto

During John’s time as a professor at U of T, he joined Hart House Theatre. It was there that he discovered his clear talent for, and love of, acting. John went on to perform on both the Stratford and Shaw Festival stages and most theatres in Toronto and across the country. As a member of the Shaw and Stratford companies for over a decade, he grew artistically and came to appreciate what it means to be a member of a company and do important work with others; acting, for John, was always important work.

He acted in both English and French and in films with many important Canadian filmmakers like Atom Egoyan, Denis Arcand, and Patricia Rozema. He later put these experiences to work at U of T’s Cinema Studies department. John was that rare combination of artist, scholar, and teacher. Once he entered my life, it was forever changed, cracked open in ways I could not have imagined, and for which I will be forever grateful.

There is good reason to marvel at his astonishing life, but when all was said and done, John’s friends seemed to remember three enduring qualities: his generosity, his wit, and his gallantry.  

To be sure, John benefitted from his privileged education. But he was an only child of an army general, born in Singapore and stationed in Mauritius for the first 10 years of his young life. Returning to a decimated post-war London, as a secondary student, he took himself on a Saturday to write the exam for admission to Oxford, intuiting education as the way to freedom. I worry today about young people who face insurmountable barriers, who cannot access education or are failed by it even when they do.  

John’s final stage role was Firs, in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, who mutters something as he is dying about how ‘life has passed him by.’ Though the last year was a real struggle, nothing could be further from the truth here; John Gilbert ‘made himself’ at a time when such dreams were possible.

Politically committed to justice to the end, he would no doubt appreciate if his full and rich life could be a reminder of the value of education for all and the many riches of a life in the arts. 

Kathleen Gallagher is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Distinguished Professor in the department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, cross-appointed to the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.