Garth Drabinsky and The Fall of Icarus: Too Close to the Sun?
How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing–
each stone, blossom, child–
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
               -Rainer Maria Rilke,
                from ‘The Book of Pilgrimage’ II,16 (171-173)
Part One: The Myth of Icarus
Daedalus, architect of the Labyrinth, has earned the wrath of King Minos. The king throws Daedalus and his son Icarus into the Labyrinth. This imprisonment is evidence that the maze “was excellently devised since not even the maker of it could discover the exit without a clue,” as Edith Hamilton puts it in Mythology, her classic collection of Greek, Roman and Norse myths.
Most people would simply wander the devious structure with mounting panic, but Daedalus stays put. He looks up. Then he says, “[e]scape may be checked by water and land, but the air and the sky are free.”
“Daedalus’ craftsmanship proved stronger than the king’s power,” Moira Kerr and John Bennett tell us, picking up the story in their book Myth:
"He built two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son Icarus, bigger and stronger than the wings of any bird. They were made of feathers which in some places were sewn together, and in others, joined by wax. With the wonderful inventions securely strapped to their bodies, Daedalus and Icarus prepared to take to the air.
Before they flew off, Daedalus had one warning for his son, for he well knew Icarus’ foolhardy nature.
‘Be sure to follow me closely, my son,’ he cautioned."
They flap their arms and gently rise out of the Labyrinth. But soon Icarus becomes intoxicated by the thrill of flight. He disregards his father’s warning and soars higher and higher, climbing too close to the sun. It melts the wax in his wings and he nose-dives straight into the sea. He does not survive.
This misadventure is just one of the many action-packed episodes in the eventful life of the ingenious, mischief-making Daedalus. But it is Icarus who is invoked far more often today.
The story of Icarus has traditionally been interpreted as a stern sermon on overweening self-pride. Any human attempt to become god-like is to risk the wrath of actual gods. But did a resident of Olympus, enraged at being impersonated by a mere mortal, cause the death of Icarus? It couldn’t have been the act of flying itself that led to such lethal rage, since his father too defied gravity. Daedalus even made it to shore, his hubris unchecked.
“The lesson of this myth,” according to marketer Seth Godin in his book The Icarus Deception, is “don’t disobey the king. Don’t disobey your dad. Don’t imagine that you’re better than you are, and most of all, don’t ever believe that you have the ability to do what a god might do.”
Is that the “lesson”? Is the Icarus/Daedalus myth really and injunction to bury your dreams as soon as your dad tells you to? Whether it’s fixing a busted washing machine or escaping from prison (whether or not you broke the washing machine yourself or deserved to be imprisoned in the first place), surely there are cases in which following precise instructions is vital – no matter how joy-killing it might seem in the moment.
Daedalus’ warning about the wax wasn’t the only one given that day. “The part of the myth you weren’t told,” Godin continues, is the part in which Daedalus tells Icarus “not to fly too low, too close to the sea, because the water would ruin the lift in his wings.”
Godin makes an astute observation here. Neither summary of the story referred to above mention this warning about flying too low. Godin considers this common omission a conspiracy. “Society has altered the myth,” he declares, “encouraging us to forget the part about the sea, and created a culture where we constantly remind one another about the dangers of standing up, standing out, and making a ruckus.”
But is Daedalus to be condemned for denying his son’s creative freedom during a prison break? Surely the admonishment not to fly too high nor too low supports an understanding of this myth as a useful reminder. Your doctor writes out a prescription for some medication. If you take too much of it, it might make you sick. Taking too little won’t provide any relief. Dismissing the doctor’s training and expertise so you can raise a “ruckus” sounds like the kind of rebellion a young person should probably be gently steered away from – at least when the stakes are so high.
Icarus understood zero
as he caught the smell
of burning feathers
and fell into the sea.

       -Lorna Crozier
Part Two: In which Garth Drabinsky, Stanley Kubrick and The Rocket Richard disrupt the myth
Enter Garth Drabinsky, the one-time ruckus-raising wunderkind of the film exhibition industry in Canada.
Drabinsky roared into the movie business, co-founding Cineplex in the late 1970s. He turned Toronto’s old Eaton Centre into his first multi-auditorium venue 1. The Ontario Theatre Act, introduced decades earlier when film stock was prone to bursting into flames, strictly dictated the terms of 35mm film exhibition. The Act insisted on a minimum number of exits at cinemas, demanded that auditorium ceilings be of a precise height and the projection rooms a certain dimension. Under provincial law, Drabinsky and his partners would’ve only been permitted to install four or five auditoriums. But by using 16mm rear projection (which required mirrors to bounce the images, resulting in blurring at the edges of the screen) and only showing second or third-run art films, they could bypass the regulations. They were able to construct eighteen auditoriums of various sizes (one of them had just fifty-four seats). At the time, it was the largest cinema complex in the world.
Cineplex would go on to challenge the duopoly of the Canadian exhibition market, dominated up to that point by Famous Players and Odeon Canada. Under Drabinsky, Cineplex would merge with Odeon (in 2005, Cineplex Odeon acquired Famous Players as well). But after some complicated boardroom machinations, Drabinsky was ejected from Cineplex Odeon in 1989. He dives into the intrigue in his book Closer to the Sun. Published in 1992, just as he was transitioning from film to musical theatre, his autobiography would draw its title and themes of resilience from The Fall of Icarus:
"In Greek mythology, Icarus plunged into the sea when he flew close to the sun," Drabinsky writes. He continues with a theatrical flourish, giving each sentence its own line:
"It’s supposed to be a lesson in the sin of hubris.
I think the bastard just gave up too soon.
He should have gotten himself another set of wings and taken off again!"  
We might wish to raise a cautious hand at this point. “Er, Mr Drabinsky,” we mutter, “Icarus didn’t so much give up as die.” And even if he had survived the crash, he couldn’t have fashioned another pair of wings if he’d wanted to: it was his father, a bonafide genius, who had made them. Besides, it is doubtful Daedalus would craft another pair for his “foolhardy” son after the fiasco of that first flight.
In 1997, Stanley Kubrick was given the D.W. Griffith Award by the Director’s Guild of America. Kubrick concluded his pre-recorded acceptance speech (he was shooting Eyes Wide Shut, his last completed film, in England at the time) by inadvertently echoing Drabinsky:
"I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.’"
It’s not just movie people that recast the story as a negative example of the importance of grit and tenacity. Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard, legendary number nine of the Montréal Canadiens, has also been viewed through the Icarus lens.
Originally considered too fragile for the NHL when he first joined the team, Richard spent a lot of his early games off the ice recovering from broken bones. But it didn’t take long before he hit his stride and became a lightning-fast, goal-scoring powerhouse. His biographer Roch Carrier describes this burst of confidence early in The Rocket’s career:
"He is no longer liable to fear that an avalanche of opponents will break his limbs, dislocate his joints. Maurice no longer hears the angel of doom breathing at his back. Instead, he sprouts wings, becomes Icarus. He can rise up, up towards the opponents’ net. The wax of his wings doesn’t melt. He won’t go crashing into the ground."
Was Icarus propelled to the skies in the same spirit as the athlete driven to win? Do they both share that irrepressible spirit that pushes outliers to climb that little bit higher? Carrier seems to think so:
"Maurice Richard belongs in the same category as that which drove Icarus to fly, Jules Verne to invent his moon rocket, the Russians to launch Sputnik and, soon, earthlings to fly to the moon. We have an urgent need to tear open the cocoon that envelops us."
Roch Carrier and Garth Drabinsky see Icarus as the protagonist of a motivational yarn which conflates Labyrinth-escape adventure with the legend of the Phoenix: you will rise from the ashes of your faults (which are really the faults of others – parents, bosses, movie studio jerks) by sheer tenacity. Godin might interject: And don’t let society use their sneakily reformulated Greek myths to justify their attempts to trick you into just hovering around, not doing much of anything!
Carrier and Drabinsky may have mixed up their winged heroes. They could be unknowingly referring to the misadventures of Eilmer the Flying Monk. Eilmer of Malmesbury was an eleventh-century Benedictine monk who fashioned a pair of mechanical wings out of feathers. He climbed the tower of Malmesbury Abbey (some versions have him heading to the top of a nearby hill) and leapt off. Apparently he flew for a full furlong (about two hundred metres) before crashing into the ground and breaking both legs. He was maimed for life. But Eilmer wasn’t about to let the inability to walk to discourage him! He immediately started planning his next flight. According to one account, when the abbot approached Eilmer to forbid him from making any further attempts to fly, the monk explained that the problem didn’t lie in the flying per se. The problem was that he’d used chicken feathers. Chickens stay too close to the ground. Next time round, Eilmer resolves, he’ll “do a better job on the wings,” as Kubrick put it, and use goose feathers.
Part Three: In which Brueghel the Elder and W.H. Auden provide a counterweight 
After dusting off Brother Eilmer’s story, Garth Drabinsky, Seth Godin and Roch Carrier would be wise to contemplate W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts.’ The poem considers the world depicted in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting associated with Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder (likely a faithful copy of the now-lost original, the work hangs in the Brussels gallery of the poem’s title). Brueghel doesn’t emphasize Icarus. The fall has already happened. All we see in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas are two pale legs sticking out of the water – Icarus captured in mid-plunge. If the other people depicted in the painting even noticed the splash, they are not distracted for long:
the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Brueghel and Auden point out that while we might interpret a personal failure as a major humiliation, for others, even eye-witnesses, it is hardly worth noticing, let alone commenting on. “Our tragedies don’t occupy society the way we fear they will,” philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his own consideration of the painting. “A few people might notice for a moment, then swiftly move on to the next thing.”
Icarus’ splash barely makes a ripple.
“It isn’t just Icarus who is being swallowed up and obscured by the waves,” de Botton concludes. “[S]ome of the same obscurity awaits our greatest errors and embarrassments.”
De Botton and Brueghel offer this essential nugget to the Drabinskys, Godins and Kubricks of the world – or to anyone who wishes to recast the Icarus myth as a Phoenix-esque resurrection story or as a societal conspiracy to keep you in check: your errors – and they are yours (we can’t blame everything on others) – are not big deals.
If you happen to survive your own crash, Auden suggests, then, yes, swim to shore and craft a better pair of wings. In the spirit of Samuel Beckett, Auden suggests we try again and fail better. You won’t impress anyone that much with your tenacity then – or the try after that, either. You might achieve your goal eventually. But don’t expect applause and respect for even the successful trial. People are busy with their own work, their own projects; their own triumphs and failures. What about all the folks on the boat in Brueghel’s painting?
the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Part Four: Icarus might have been destroyed, but we don’t have to be
At this point you may ask, but aren’t new readings of the Icarus story valid? Yes. And even if fresh looks and new examinations ignore the original intentions of the minds who dreamed the stories up in the first place (and we’re always on dangerous ground when we assign intention to ancients) or stray from traditional understandings, isn’t that what we should do with these stories? Shouldn’t we discover them afresh and re-interpret them in light of our own experiences?
Yes. In his book Iron John, Robert Bly conjures Icarus via Egyptian god Horus when considering the image of the latter soaring higher in the sky than any of the other gods: “the son, flying toward the sun, will not see his own shadow, for his shadow falls behind him as he flies. He has seen his father’s shadow, but his own remains hidden.”
And note how BC poet Heidi Garnett refers directly to Auden’s poem in her own poem ‘Remembrance,’ in which she presents a woman who, unlike the unperturbed, un-noticing denizen’s or Brueghel’s painting, pays special – if ill-informed – attention to the plummeting Icarus:
Auden is still writing his great poem, Musee des Beaux Arts –
About the suffering they were never wrong,
the old Masters – and a child drawing in dirt with a stick
while her mother drags drowned men to their graves
looks up and points at a figure catapulting earthward.
Look, she says to no one in particular,
an angel has come to save us.
Surely, you might continue, Garth Drabinsky has just as much right to redraw the Icarus story in light of his own ideas and impressions. You’d be right. The story was important for him. The sun is his image of the ultimate goal, and launching himself towards it exemplifies his steadfast resilience. The closer one gets to the sun, the closer one gets to achieving one’s loftiest ambitions. Pushed out of the company he co-founded, he could have crawled away, licking his wounds in disgrace. Instead, he followed his own advice and fashioned better wings. He strapped them on and zoomed far away from the Cineplex brouhaha, spending much of the 1990s bringing lavish musicals including The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Show Boat to Toronto and Broadway stages (attempts to repeat those successes in Vancouver floundered, however. The theatre he had constructed on Homer street is now home to an evangelical church). He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1995.
The wax of his new wings was holding firm.  
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making.
Garth Drabinsky’s new wings had been well-fortified, but they couldn’t last forever. It’s a cliché, rather than a Greek myth, that continues his story from this point: the higher you fly, the harder you fall. His subsequent plummet back to earth was spectacular.
Along with business partner Myron Gottlieb, Drabinsky was indicted by an American jury for fraud in 1999. A lengthy RCMP investigation brought similar charges against the pair in Canada three years later. Both men were convicted for cooking the books of their theatre company, Livent. Drabinsky spent seventeen months behind bars before being granted parole in 2014. He was stripped of his Order of Canada medal.
His splash caused more than just a ripple.
Unlike Icarus, however, Drabinsky survived. The ambition was still not ground out of him. While in prison he planned his comeback. By late 2016 he was in Toronto supervising rehearsals for Sousatzka. The production opened at his beloved Pantages Theatre the following spring, but mostly received lukewarm reviews. It closed soon afterwards. Sousatzka wasn’t destined for Broadway, but it’s just as well, since there was still a US arrest warrant out for Drabinsky at the time, making his attendance at any New York opening a standing question. A year later, in the summer of of 2018, US courts threw out all charges against him. He may have his triumphant Radio City Music Hall premiere yet.  
But his legal squabbles weren’t entirely wrapped up. In the summer of 2017, Drabinsky was embroiled in a legal spat with Ryerson University over the storage of his archives. Now that he’s got more than enough material for a second autobiography (Even Closer to the Sun?), ‘Garth Vader’ – as his erstwhile pal Christopher Plummer has called him at least once – is not quite ready for his final curtain call (his story is ripe for a biopic, though. My vote is for Paul Giamatti to play Drabinsky, with Plummer as himself). He is in his workshop as we speak, sanding down yet another pair of wings, having allegedly sold his life insurance policy for a cool three million in order to kickstart his next stage spectacular, Hard Times: An American Musical.
Garth Drabinsky will fly again. But he should remember that, as unromantic and unadventurous as it may seem, it pays to occasionally postpone one’s goals and aim for the middle. It might even save lives.
We are, after, all, mortal. When the oracle at Delphi told each worshipper to ‘know yourselves,’ this was not in the same spirit of enlightened self-awareness we detect in Hamlet’s injunction to “know thyself, that “lofty invitation to contemplation, or introspection,” as Gnostic gospels scholar Elaine Pagels puts it. Rather, the oracle is reminding us all that we are ephemeral, a word that literally translates as “creatures of a day.” We need to respect our fragile creaturehood. It’s not worth throwing away for a bit of fun, or in the pursuit of what Rilke calls “empty freedom.” Sometimes we need to accept guidance when it is offered. And sometimes dad knows best.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart:
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.
              -Rilke, ‘The Book of Pilgrimage’

At least two people have told me that they’d heard “somewhere” that Garth Drabinsky forced pianist Glenn Gould to vacate his Toronto recording studio, located in an Eaton’s department store, in order to build the first Cineplex. This is untrue, but the story mix-up is understandable. Gould indeed recorded many albums over several years at Eaton’s College Street location, but it’s not as if he made his records in the Men’s Wear section while shoppers filed past. His piano and gear were set up in the auditorium on the seventh floor.
The Eaton Auditorium opened in 1931 and was for a time one of Canada’s most prestigious concert halls. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday all performed there. Its popularity waned in the late sixties and early seventies, allowing Gould to record there most evenings after the store below had closed. A night owl, Gould was free to play loud and long throughout the wee hours, no longer tied to the schedules and policies of the Columbia Records studios in New York he had previously used. As an added bonus, he lived nearby.
The College Street store itself closed entirely in 1976, but Gould and his engineers were permitted to keep using the seventh-floor. In 1980, the musician had to get special permission from the building’s owner, Gordon Bacque, to continue to record in what had become a derelict space. It should be noted, however, that Gould’s second recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was not made in the auditorium in 1981.
One of Sony’s first digitally-recorded and edited works, the second Goldberg album required Gould to travel once again to New York to make use of the relatively primitive digital recording equipment at Columbia Records’ 30th Street studio. He’d made his debut recording, the first Goldberg, at the same studio just over a quarter century before. That first version displayed his  bold exuberance and lightning-quick dexterity. The second version is more considered and reflective. It’s the work of a mature artist willing to re-think some of the strongly-held notions of his youth. It was to be the pianist’s last album: Gould suffered a stroke and died just days after its 1982 release. The two Goldberg Variations thus bookend a brilliant career. It was a coincidence, though. As his biographer Kevin Bazzana puts it, “Gould had no plans to die at fifty, and his second recording of The Goldberg Variations became his testament only through a sad fluke of fate.”
Columbia’s 30th Street studio in New York was closed soon after Gould wrapped the album in mid-1981.
Meanwhile, back in Toronto, there were plans to gut the Eaton auditorium and turn it into offices. In response, a grassroots group of history buffs, architects, interior designers and conservationists calling themselves the Friends of the Eaton Auditorium formed and campaigned for years to preserve the space. The group argued that Toronto needed a mid-sized performance venue. Over the years, there were repeated calls to demolish the auditorium. Thanks to the tenacity of the Friends, this never happened.  
It has since been fully renovated and recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada. Now known as The Carlu, after the French architect Jacques Carlu – the man responsible for every detail of the original ballroom, from the cut of the staff’s uniforms to the china – the old Eaton Auditorium now offers high-end dining and glitzy wedding services, and is once again used for a variety of live performances.
In 1979, an enormous new shopping complex straddling Yonge, Dundas and Queen Street West opened. It was called Eaton Centre. It was here – actually in the enormous basement of the parking garage – that Drabinsky and his partner Nat Taylor constructed that first eighteen-screen Cineplex. After many successful years, ticket sales dwindled and carpets frayed. It closed in 2001. No Friends of The Eaton Centre group formed to fight for its preservation, and the building soon met the wrecking ball.  
Works Cited
Auden, W.H. Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Print.
Bazzana, Kevin. Wondrous Strange: The life and art of Glenn Gould. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd, 2003. Print.
Bennett, John A.E. and Moira C. Kerr. Myth. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1966. Print.
Bly, Robert. Iron John: A book about men. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1990. Print.
Carrier, Roch. Our Life with the Rocket: The Maurice Richard story. Translated by Sheila Fischman. Toronto: Penguin Viking, 2001. Print.
Crozier, Lorna. ‘Poem about nothing.’ The Blue Hour of the Day. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2007. Print.

Ciment, Michel. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition Part 4. London: Macmillan, 2003. Print.
De Botton, Alain. ‘What Others Think of You – and The Fall of Icarus.’ The Book of Life, Chapter 4. Self: Calm. Web.
De Botton, Alain. ‘A reason not to worry what others think.’ The School of Life (YouTube channel). Web.
Drabinsky, Garth & Marq de Villiers. Closer to the Sun. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995. Print.
Garnett, Heidi. Blood Orange. Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2016.
Godin, Seth. The Icarus Deception. New York:Portfolio/Penguin, 2012. Print.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless tales of gods and heroes. New York: Mentor Books, 1963. Print.
Hendry, Leah. ‘A Grand Dame, left alone to rot.’ The Globe and Mail. 19 June 2000. Web.
Ormsby, Mary. ‘Garth Drabinsky's late, late show.’ Toronto Star. 16 October 2016. Web.
Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love poems to God. Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. Print.
Steep, Claire. ‘How an Anglo-Saxon parable inspires a young woman with a visual impairment.’ A radio documentary from The Sunday Edition, CBC Radio One. Broadcast on 27 July 2018.
Back to Top