Today on 2SER Breakfast, Nic talked to the Dictionary’s special guest Emeritus Professor Richard Waterhouse. Richard will be speaking at the Sydney Mechanic’s School of Arts next week as part of History Week 2017, and his talk ‘Mozart and ‘The Doll”, looks at the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954.
This year’s History Week theme ‘Pop!’ explores notions of popular culture, and to look at popular culture, you also need to examine how it relates to other forms.
The establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust by the federal government in Setpember 1954 was a key moment in Australian cultural history and was part of the institutionalisation of high culture in Sydney.
Until the establishment of the Trust, Australia hadn’t had its own institutions of high culture in terms of performance, There was no national opera company, no national ballet company and no national theatre repertory company. There was very little repertory theatre that performed classic Shakespearian or contemporary plays , and Australians were largely dependent on touring theatre, ballet and opera companies from overseas.
People like Nugget Coombs, Governor of the Reserve Bank, and Charles Moses, head of the ABC, thought that Australia was in the process of growing up and that as such we needed our own appropriate culture. They also believed that theatre was at the heart of a nation’s culture and so the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Company was established with the aims, not necessarily compatible, of promoting high and Australian culture, as well as providing employment and encouragement for local performers, composers and writers.
A man named Hugh Hunt was imported from the UK as the Trust’s first Managing Director. An interesting character, Hunt was a producer and director with an enormous reputation. He had been the director at the Old Vic Company at Bristol’s Theatre Royal, where he was known in particular for producing great Shakespeare as well as making it a successful touring repertory company. In the 1930s he had also been the director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, where he had nurtured a homegrown Irish theatre culture with the staging of a large number of indigenous Irish plays by local playwright like George Shiels and WB Yeats.
Over the course of 1955, the Trust, with extremely limited resources, presented for its first year a very modest program of opera (which was entirely of Mozart) and a number of plays.
Australian actor Judith Anderson returned from the United States to play Medea in an all Australian production of her celebrated collaboration with the poet Robinson Jeffers. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by Hunt was also part of the repertoire, as was a new Australian play by a young Melbourne playwright named Ray Lawler called Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Lawler’s play had been the joint winner in 1954 of the Playwrights Advisory Board Competition, a competition established in 1938 by Leslie Rees, Rex Rienits and Doris Fitton, with the object of fostering Australian theatre, and was to become enormously influential to a whole new generation of Australian playwrights.
Hunt didn’t want to put it on because he thought it was just a ‘slice of life’ that reflected everyday working class people. As an apostle of high culture, Hunt believed great drama transcended real life and carried with it eternal messages, and he didn’t believe that The Doll could do this. Nevertheless, his brief was clear: the play was produced and was, immediately, enormously successful.
As well as playing to great acclaim around Australia, the production was taken to London in 1957 by Laurence Oliver where it ran for more than 250 performances. Although it was less successful on Broadway in 1958, where audiences were confused by the accents and ending, in 1959 it was made into a Hollywood movie (which was rightly disowned by Lawler).
Hunt thought that Australian dramas like the The Doll, Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart or Peter Kenna’s The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day failed to elevate Australian drama to high culture status, but in this he was wrong. He didn’t understand Australian culture, or that these plays dealt with fundamental issues about Australian people and culture rather than just being slice of life, realist plays.
For example, the real theme of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is that while Australian identity had been traditionally tied up with ideas of the bush and white pioneers, in the urban world of the 1950s these values no longer count. The play is about the loss and change of Australian identity rather than just a story about canecutters and their girlfriends.
Richard’s talk ‘Mozart & ‘The Doll” is on at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts on Wednesday, 6 September 2017, 12:30pm – 1:30pm. It’s free, but bookings are recommended!
For more information, head to to the History Council’s website here.
This year the History Council of NSW’s annual festival in the first week of September, History Week, is exploring popular culture. With tours, talks, exhibitions and more taking place across Sydney and New South Wales, there is something in the program for everyone.There are so many great events to get to – for the full program and to find out what’s on in your local area, go to the History Council of NSW website here.
Happy History Week!
Associate Professor Richard Waterhouse is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sydney. He appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
The Dictionary of Sydney is proud to support History Week 2017 as a Cultural Partner of the History Council of NSW
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