Robert Merritt was well known to the Halifax community both as the teacher of playwriting in the Theatre Department at Dalhousie University, and as the film critic for CBC’s Information Morning. In this latter role, he provoked strong audience reactions with his attacks on Hollywood mediocrity and his promotion of daring, independent work. He is still remembered for the acuteness of his dissection of pretentious filmmaking and the directness of his statements. Describing the classic Warren Beatty/Dustin Hoffman debacle Ishtar, for instance, Robert said that it was a pity that the film wasn’t named Tishtar, because then “if you spelled it backwards, it would almost write its own review.”
At Dalhousie, he inspired a generation of playwriting students to challenge the conventions of mainstream theatre and to find their own individual voices. He was consistently successful in finding the best qualities in his students’ work and in helping them develop it. His generosity with his students was legendary, and he built lasting friendships with many of them. Most of all, he taught the importance of craft and vision, and launched a large number of today’s working playwrights.
Robert died in 1999, five years after he had taken early retirement from the university in order to pursue his own passions of painting and gardening. He took great pleasure in both these pursuits, and in his collection of prewar electric trains. But the theatre was always on his mind, and he never stopped encouraging his former students and his colleagues to make their work better and braver both on and off the stage.