What have we to build upon? The desolate ruins of a once reputable commercial theatre, and the germinal activity of the amateur groups. On the credit side, much energetic enthusiasm, a fair supply of potentially effective actors, and an audience plainly hungry for more good theatre. On the debit, no facilities for proper training of actors, a dearth of experienced directors, a broken tradition, and no established standards of quality. It is a grim prospect, but not hopeless, if we can bring to bear on it patience, a long-term plan clearly conceived, and public support; but on such a site no pre-fabricated Rome can be run up in a day.
At which end shall we begin? Shall we seek quantity or quality? On the right answering of that question, I believe, our success will depend; and there is some danger that it will be wrongly answered. There is a tendency to suggest a general whooping-up of widely distributed activity, in the hope that quality will somehow emerge from it. It won’t. Quality is the product of patient work and tenaciously-held standards, not of activity and hope. Will your modesty, Mr. Editor, permit me the obvious illustration? Meanjin did not start as a bulky magazine prcpared to publish anything that it could find, in the hope that its quality might gradually improve. It began as a slim production with a clearly conceived aim. The choice may have been compelled, but it was right. The early numbers could be quickly read, but they could not be contemptuously dismissed; they stood for something. Within five years, Meanjin had found a surprisingly wide audience; it had expanded its circle of contributors without compromising its quality, and it could safely increase its size.
It is sometimes assumed that in this culturally youthful country, honest aspirations can temporarily fill the place of qualitative achievement in the arts. Experience is against that view. For years music languished here, and there was a general tendency to blame the public for not wanting it. Then the A.B.C. brought out conductors experienced in training orchestras, and authoritative enough to demand proper rehearsal conditions; as soon as competent performances were assured, audiences came flocking to the halls. For a generation we saw only inferior ballet-companies used as a background to a single great ballerina. ‘Social’ and ‘high-brow’ audiences attended with tepid or gushing dutifulness. Everyone assumed that ballet was above our uncultured heads. Then a competent company with a true ballet tradition arrived; a popular audience crammed the theatres, and responded enthusiastically, even with discrimination. We found to our surprise that when it was adequately pcrformed, ballet was very much the Australian’s meat. Passe London theatrical stars, with inflated reputations, moved us not. Again our cultural indifference was blamed; but we were not indifferent to Ruth Draper.
The Australian audience demands quality of performance, perhaps without knowing it. It sees a poor production of an artistic work and is uneasily aware of a dissatisfaction; but, lacking confidence in its judgment, it concludes that it isn’t up to this high-brow stuff. On those rare occasions when we have had a good performance of a good play, the popular audience has responded more generously than our timid high-brows.
Quality, then, is necessary to enlist the support of a real audience; it is equally necessary for the creation of an Australian drama. A drama does not develop without a spirited and competent theatre to embody its work; that lesson is written all over stage history. Chekhov’s plays failed until Stanislavsky gave them sympathetic performance; the Dublin ‘Abbey’ created the Irish drama; Browning’s Blot on the Scutcheon shows that he could have become a dramatist, if he had found responsive actors and a director assured enough to bully him into technical efficiency.
Recently I was discussing with a capable Australian dramatist certain obvious crudities in a script. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘do you cram this idea down the audience’s throat when the actor could indicate it without words or prescribed gesture?’ The retort was: ‘In theory you are right; in practice, I know Australian actors. If I don’t tell the audience, the actors won’t do it for me.’ Contrast with that, the moment when Shakespeare lets the passion break beyond poetry into Othello’s three repeated ‘Oh’s.’ We need no further evidence that Burbage was a great actor.
There is a dangerous theory that while a poor performance of a good play may be unsatisfying, at least most of the author’s conception comes through to the audience. In fact, every failure to interpret the author actively distorts his work. The auditor cannot hope to reach beyond the performance, to replay the work within his own mind. Test it yourself. When you have watched a play acted, can you ever again read that play without seeing and hearing the characters as the actors presented them—even when you disagree with their interpretations? A bad performance of a good play is about as much use as a newspaper photograph of a Dobell portrait; and it has much the same unhappy effects on the public’s power of appreciation.
Our principle, then, must be quality before quantity. What about our policy? The first step, I suggest, must be the establishment of one good, subsjdised, all-Australian company. That is, of course, only our starting point. Ultimately we must bave a subsidised company in each capital city, playing for at least six months a year in its home-city and making frequent tours of the provincial towns, where one of its duties will be to advise and encourage the local amateur groups; it will send the students of its attached dramatic school to tour the township community centres with carefully-prepared performances which have formed part of their practical training; subsidiary activities will include the careful production of radio plays and the direction of a Children’s Theatre. It will exchange visits with other states for purposes of cross-fertilisation. But don’t let us rush into the full programme yet. We have not at our disposal enough good actors to staff six theatres effectively; and we certainly have not the necessary experienced directors. If we charge prematurely into such a project, we shall hopelessly compromise our standards of quality, thereby mortgaging the future and drying up the enthusiasm of the audience. Within a decade, perhaps, our Commonwealth company may disband, sending a promising director and a nucleus of trained actors to initiate effectively each State Theatre. Meanwhile it must carry us through the first stage of training actors and audiences and of establishing firm standards of quality.
Our preliminary Commonwealth company, then, might consist of, first, a director. He must be experienced, highly trained and an uncompromising enthusiast for the theatre as an art. He must have the help of at least one assistant producer—preferably more than one—a permanent stage-manager, and a business-manager with a cool practical head but with a sincerely felt respect for theatrical art, who will not bring the wrong sorts of pressure to bear on the director. There would be, let us say, twenty of the most promising (I use that term advisedly) actors who can be recruited. They would be paid modestly adequate salaries—no high-priced stars to threaten the company’s artistic integrity—and they would devote their whole time to the company’s work. A paid artist and a skeleton staff of theatrical craftsmen would probably be only part-time members at first. Pending the creation of a dramatic school, a few students should be attached to the company without fee, and permitted to act as under-studies and to play minor roles. Rehearsals will always be open to the attendance of writers and of the leaders of amateur groups, and the director, overworked though he will probably be, must find time to expound to, argue with, and learn from such students of the theatre.
For the first twelve months the director should be under no obligation to present any public performances. He should be left free to give his company preliminary training, and to prepare with unhurried thoroughness the first repertoire. In the second year this repetoire—not yet a large one—would be presented on a short-run system. Forty weeks of the year would be devoted to these performances, the preparation of the new repertoire proceeding in day-time hours. The company might play, let us say, 24 weeks in Melbourne and Sydney, and 16 weeks in the less populous capitals. Seven weeks, then, could be devoted to uninterrupted preparation of new plays, leaving a five-week holiday which, if the director knows his job, will have been well-earned.
Obviously such a programme will not adequately meet the demands of the audience; in particular it shamefully neglects the needs of the provincial towns. But it is a beginning—as the repertoire grows, the work will automatically expand. It will at least give us more good theatre than we have at present; and, above all, it can establish a standard of quality.
Choice of plays? It should, I suggest, be determined by two linked principles—sincerity of artistic purpose and width of popular appeal. If you think that these are contradictory conceptions, then you do not really believe in a national theatre. There is a large potential audience in this country for Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Neill and Steinbeck. Occasionally, of course, plays of narrower appeal and experimental type should be given short seasons. On the other hand, do not let us confuse sincerity with solemnity. If a farce is an honest piece of good fun, it should have its place in the repertoire. Special productions for children would be an essential feature in the theatre’s work.
Need I add—yes, heaven help us, I need—that it will be the theatre’s duty to produce as many sincere and promising Australian works as possible, even if it is only to let the writer learn from the contemplation of his mistakes.
Play-houses? A difficult problem but not insoluble. I have my own opinion about how it can be met, but I am not going to set it down here, because I do not want to emphasise inessentials, even where they are practically important. Flesh, blood and brains make a theatre, not bricks and mortar. Our cultural activities have suffered too much in the past from the belief that if you provide a shell, a kernel will miraculously develop within it.
Finance? My scheme need not be very expensive, but it will demand a continuing subsidy from public funds. Well, there are enough people in Australia who really want a theatre to force the politicians’ hands, if they will only rise on their hind legs and bark. I do not say that in contempt of politicians. They follow a sound democratic instinct when they refuse to listen until the barking has grown dangerously violent. Let us rise up, then, and bark—in unison. Don’t let us waste our energies in private dog-fights over rival plans. If the chorus prefers a plan differing from mine, I shall join it with vim; provided only—let me damnably iterate once again, that it is firmly based on the creation of a standard of quality.
Image: Some Scenes of Parisian Life: At the Theatre, 1899. Pierre Bonnard, Published by Ambroise Vollard; Printed by Auguste Clot. Lithograph; sheet: 40.4 x 53.1 cm (15 7/8 x 20 7/8 in.); image: 21 x 40 cm (8 1/4 x 15 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund 1948.156.10.