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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

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