THEATRE’S DIVISIVE ADAPTATION DEBATE RAGES ON
IN the 16th century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe developed a geo-heliocentric theory of the solar system where the sun and the planets had radically different orbits from the Earth’s. A poor model of astronomy, it is a good one of post-colonial reality. Australian theatre operates one remove from a constellation of inherently more powerful cultural entities. While we look to the world, the world does not look to us, and this prompts tastes we imagine are cosmopolitan and discriminating but that can look thin and idiosyncratic.
Defining Australian theatre is not a simple matter, and the positions available for affirmation can feel a little crass. The “new nationalism” of the Whitlam period that fuelled the growth of the art form in the 1970s, and the unctuous, colours-of-Benetton globalism underwriting it now are partial rhetorics that do not account for its complex ambitions and fragility.
What is clear is that an “adaptive mentality” has been part of the sector’s operation right from the start. How did this come about? In the beginning, as a British colony, Australia looked to Britain for its cultural norms and values. Later, however, this relationship became more systematic and coercive.
There is nothing new in the current adaptations debate; rather the opposite: a long-term problem has raised its head again and will continue to do so until such time as it is properly confronted.
In 1874, JC Williamson, a middle-ranking American actor with a pretty wife and the rights to a potboiler of a play — the aptly titled Struck Oil — arrived in Australia. Thereafter he built the largest and most successful empire in the history of modern theatre. Until it closed its door in 1976, JCW, or “the Firm” as it was known, oversaw professional performing arts production in Australia according to its own corporatised, commercialised views and values. It built or refurbished a chain of notable venues and developed considerable expertise in touring a vast continent and making a profit out of it.
In its heyday, before the advent of cinema chipped away at its audience base, it had up to 15 companies on the road. It produced drama, dance, opera, music and pantomimes — huge, end-of-year spectaculars that were much anticipated — and had interests in London, New York, New Zealand and South Africa. It survived two depressions, two world wars, numerous splits between its partners, and the death of Williamson himself in 1913. It was the dominant force in our theatre for 80 years and determined, in a practical, day-to-day way, which shows Australians would see, for how long and where. Its seasons were a matter of public scrutiny and the Firm’s directors did not mind discussing the thinking behind them.
At its most basic this involved identifying an appropriate foreign work (whether classic or
May 17-18, 2014 contemporary); tailoring it to local sensibilities; casting overseas stars and Australian supporting actors; and producing it to a high technical standard, with state-of-the-art costumes and scenic effects.
Here is George Tallis, Williamson’s business manager, explaining the Firm’s approach to one of its most successful pantomimes: “Mother Goose was written by Mr J. Hickory Wood and ran at Drury Lane and at Manchester. As soon as the script arrived here it was localised, all the foreign jokes being lifted out and replaced by local ones. (…) The script ready, Mr Williamson called the heads of departments together and scene after scene was discussed and mapped out ... Next comes the cast. Mr Williamson’s agents secure the necessary talent from abroad, England and America being scoured for specialists, many of whom have to be engaged a long time ahead. Quite six months before the curtain goes up on the first performance the work of selection of the local talent begins in all parts of Australia (…) The difficulties encountered in obtaining just the right class of material may be gauged from the fact that for every 10 finally selected, a thousand have been tried.”
This is the adaptive mentality in action and it was, right from the start, extraordinarily successful. Imagine a European theatre with no Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg or Shaw; no Stanislavski, Brahm, Antoine or Reinhardt; in which the Abbey Theatre was never founded and the Royal Court experiments of Shaw and Granville-Baker did not change the face of British drama. In short, imagine a theatre in which the outlook of the 19th-century actor-manager determined its possibilities into the 20th. This was Australian theatre until 1950.
Yet it would be wrong to think of the Firm’s directors as cynical or unintelligent. They were interested in the latest staging innovations and trawled overseas markets endlessly for shows to bring back home. Williamson was a gifted stage manager, Tallis a film and radio enthusiast, interests that saved the company after “the talkies” eviscerated the theatre market in the 1920s. The Firm was a work of business genius, a high- functioning mechanism for turning puddles of potential patrons scattered through a vast geography into a reliable audience cohort, a logic of taste. Tallis was the “ideal” theatrical manager, “cautious, bland, reticent, retiring’’.
The Tait brothers whose music business allied with JCW in 1920 were driven by the same entrepreneurial ethos. “Theatrically brilliant and dramatically inert” is a not inaccurate summary of the Firm’s repertoire, which relied heavily on West End and Broadway comedies and musical comedies, with a leavening of classic revivals (mainly Shakespeare). (Australian audiences) are most difficult to please, for the reason that they have been accustomed to nothing but the best. Almost every play is tried in London or New York before it is staged here, and you never see the failures. You get scenery and costumes as good as London’s, and you get the most attractive plays. So audiences have naturally a high standard, and when a manager falls below that standard they are apt to complain. (JC Williamson’s Life-Story Told in his Own Words)
Thus Williamson established a framework of expectation around Australian theatre based on overseas endorsement, star billing, technical excellence and scenic display. It married this to a business model attuned to the market demands of its era — to audiences who wanted to feel they were worthy of the empire’s finest and that no effort was being spared to ensure that they got it.
After Williamson’s death, the Tait brothers sparred with Tallis for control of the Firm’s future. Live theatre was heading out of its Victorian heyday, and faced rising costs and falling revenues. So the brothers were open to different styles of programming. In 1927 they built Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, a venue of 1200 seats, installing the best interpretative director of the day, Gregan McMahon, to provide work “of subtler sensibilities and emotional capacities”.
The Firm’s ascendancy excluded two zones of theatrical activity: overseas progressive plays and Australian drama. The first is best represented by McMahon’s regime at the Melbourne Repertory Theatre and its Sydney equivalent, the second by the playwrights’ cluster around the Pioneer Players. During the inter-war years these two programming seams made strong efforts to find backers and publics. They failed. McMahon was neutralised by soft-cop recuperation (his openings were high-end society occasions and his largely amateur casts often contained prominent socialites as well), while the Pioneer Players were killed off by neglect.
Writing in 1970, Dennis Douglas and Margery Morgan chart in detail McMahon’s struggles in “a small, isolated and economically vulnerable post-colonial community whose communications media were geared more and more to providing outlets for the products of foreign-owned entertainment industries”. He achieved much of which the Firm was constitutionally incapable: productions of Shaw, Strindberg, Ibsen, Pirandello, Galsworthy and O’Neill. But his program was limited by what the JCW directors would allow and a nascent
commitment to Australian drama was stymied at every point.
There is something quintessentially self-defeating about the Firm’s failure to produce Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Brumby Innes in 1927, for example, despite its prize-winning status and the determination of both McMahon and Louis Esson to see it staged. At least McMahon was regularly employed. The Pioneer Players managed only three intrepid years of stuttering effort and had to be entirely selfsupporting.
Thus two things were split that belonged together: the directing skill and the playwriting talent. McMahon drifted away from Australian drama, and local playwrights remained unstaged. Australian audiences, habituated to a flow of overseas hits, developed little notion of what was involved in creating, as opposed to transplanting, stage work. No wonder the New Wave took its historical cue from vaudeville. By the middle of the 20th century it was the only Australian theatre left worthy of the name.
It may seem comforting, albeit ironic, that the works McMahon premiered are the ones we regard as classics today, while the Pioneer Players are acknowledged as the womb of Australian drama. This misses the essence of the struggle. It was not just about plays but about programming sensibility. It was about currency vs cachet, with the Firm backing projects only while they offered the possibility of audience acclaim, while that audience reflected “a habit of deference, even a servility of soul, incident to the whole system”.
The relationship between Australian and overseas drama was deeply skewed. Whatever strengths the former might possess, it was never going to demonstrate those qualities of imperial validation that made it acceptable to a gourmand vision of culture. The question is whether Australia exhibits this habit of deference still or, more pointedly, whether our theatre programming does.
In the 80 years since those wobbly Pioneer Players seasons, Prichard, Vance Palmer and Esson have received less than 30 professional productions of their plays.
For most of our history it has been easier for foreign playwrights to find a place in our repertoire than Australian ones. This was the result not of a young country hesitantly feeling its way to theatrical confidence but the opposite: of a sector that grew too rapidly, too successfully and with too much vertical and horizontal integration; an industry that grew with its heart outside its body, self-estranged and self-displaced; a nation’s theatre with a nation’s drama excluded. IT was politics that saved the day. In the runup to World War II a new intensity of feeling, exemplified by the New Theatre movement, swept the sector, personifying a different style of art form commitment. During the war, the difficulty of securing rights to overseas play scripts led to a more positive attitude to Australian drama.
Public debate coalesced around the need for a National Theatre. Discussion of this began in the 1920s. By 1945 it was part of Labor’s legislative program. This was the McMahon-Pioneer Players split all over again and had it been faced at this juncture the history of Australian theatre would be very different. Ben Chifley, decided it was unaffordable. In 1949 Labor lost power and dreams of a national theatre evaporated in a snap-back to British loyalties. When in 1954 the governor of the Commonwealth Bank, HC “Nugget” Coombs, persuaded the new Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies to set up an arts funding body, its name declared a mental reversion: the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. It was poorly supported, incessantly fought over and plagued by the same top end of town dilettantism that had been the bane of McMahon’s life.
Yet the adaptive mentality was now out in the open.
In 1950, AA Phillips published three influential Meanjin articles skewering what he called Australia’s “cultural cringe”. He observed that Australia was an English colony.
Phillips did not assert that the Australian sensibility was better than the English one, only that it required a different approach to achieve its creative potential. His argument was prescient. In June 1955, a young Union Theatre Repertory Company (later the Melbourne Theatre Company) opened Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll to a jubilant reception. Frank Tait was in the house and refused to transfer the show. But the trust toured it around Australia anyway, and Laurence Olivier brought it to London.
A new era of effort, if not achievement, began. This is an edited extract from Julian Meyrick’s Platform Paper No 39, The Retreat of our National Drama, published by Currency House.
Miss Maggie Moore (c.1879) in costume for JC Williamson’s production of HMS Pinafore
JC Williamson, actor and theatrical manager, left; a group of theatregoers in evening dress at the box office of the Theatre Royal, Sydney, in 1937, below