What’s On At The Union?

A Production History of the Union Theatre 1938-98 as presented by former Artistic Director Kim Hanna and Angela O'Brien

Originally published in 1998

It would seem that the theatre and theatrical activity is an irresistible pursuit for intellectuals, philosophers and political activists. Perhaps this is because the theatre, unlike any other art form, is so public, so immediate, so responsive to social and political change and such a marvellous vehicle for subversion and influence. It is the ultimate group activity – it promotes comraderie, the achievement of a shared short term goal, and anyone can be outrageous in one’s critique of the narrow or broad culture while protected by the theatrical mask. You also get to show off, and be applauded and approved : what a marvellous ego boost. It is no wonder that students universally have shown a propensity to tread the boards. The theatre traditions of the great Universities, Oxford, Cambridge and Yale are legendary right back to the Elizabethan University Wits and that tradition finds its source in the classical philosophical dialogues which were no less challenging in their time than Monty Python a couple of decades ago. Melbourne University, like any great University, has had a great theatrical tradition where not only aspiring actors but aspiring barristers, architects, philosophers and writers have all gleaned something extra to support their training. Let me mention a few of the names of thse who have worked in student theatre and in the Union: Actors: Barry Humphries, Peter O’Shaughnessy, Frank Thring, George Fairfax, Norman Kaye, Monica Maugham, Zoe Caldwell, Magda Zubansky (?), Fred Parslow, Joan Harris ; Directors and writers : John Sumner, Ray Lawler, Barry Koske, Bunny Brooke, Lawyers and businessman Jim O’Connor, Sir Edward Woodward, Richard Pratt, Dick Hamer ; Academics David Bradley, Keith McCartney; Comedians :Steve Vizard, Rod Quantock and the D generation. The list goes on. Why did they become involved – did their activity change their lives or that of the university; what is the interface between cultural activity and education or training? These are the questions we as concerned with as a chronological history.

1938 – 1951 : The Des Connor Years

The Union Theatre began its life in 1938, and while it didn’t provide a beginning for student theatre at the University of Melbourne, it certainly provided a consolidation. The driving forces behind the strengthening of the Union and the provision of accommodation came from the Vice Chancellor Raymond Priestly and Professor George Paton, Chairman of the Union Board. The foundation building was the old Natural History Museum, and with funds from an appeal and a loan from the University, the old building was gutted and reconstructed to include the Union Theatre along with the provision of other Union facilities in a new West wing. A short article by former archivist Frank Strahan quotes from the 1938 Union Handbook:

Through the Union it is hoped that the University, which has an established reputation for its excellent professional and technical training, may fulfil its greater task of placing the stamp of character, culture, leadership and a desire to serve upon it graduates.

The furnishings and seats for the Union Theatre were donated by the APM, and came from the old Garrick theatre at Princess Bridge. The first theatre manager was Des Connor, previously theatre manger at the Garrick, a man with considerable breadth and depth of theatrical skill. There is little doubt Des would have been instrumental in ensuring that the Garrick seats and stage equipment were relocated to the Union. The first production at the New Union was Melbourne University Dramatic Club’s production of Storm Song (show overhead), a fairly unmemorable play directed by Associate Professor Keith Macartney, and with Murray Sutherland and Dick Hamer in the cast.

Over the next decade the activities of the university Thespians were frustrated but not obliterated by the social upheavals of the war and post-war shortages. The immediate post-war period saw a dramatic rise in student numbers – 70% in 1946 until the student body almost reached 10,000 by 1950. Many of these new students were rehab soldiers, an older and no doubt more worldy-wise population than previously. To date there are 7 records for 1939, 7 for 1940, 14 for 1941, and only 4, 6,8, and 5 for the years 1942 to 1945. We have 9 records for 1946, 8 for 1946 and 11 records for 1948. From 1938 until his death in 1951, the Union Theatre was shaped by its first manager, Des Connor who worked to bring a professionalism to student productions. In this period and until 1953, Union Theatre productions were dominated by Tin Alley Players, the Melbourne University Dramatic Club, SRC sponsored shows and the annual College productions especially Trinity and Queen’s. The Marlowe Society were also a vigorous group from 1947.

I intend to say a little about each of these groups, but it is important to have some sense of theatre in Melbourne in the immediate pr-and post war periods. There were no Australian professional companies as we understand them today, relying on box office but heavily subsidised through the Federal and State arts funding. Theatre activity was polarised in Melbourne : on the one hand there were the commercial ventures – J C Williamsons empire which relied on theatrical imports, generally musical blockbusters and played in the Comedy and Her majesty’s; Garnett Carroll’s shows at the Princess Theatre and the Tivoli variety venue. On the other were the semi-professional amateur theatres – Gregan McMahon’s Repertory Company, the Melbourne Little Theatre formed in 1931, the left wing New Theatre in 1935, the National Theatre and so on. There was almost no opportunity for Melbourne audiences to see locally written plays by local performers; the most significant local exposure for writers and actors was through radio drama such as Blue Hills.

Undergraduate Productions

The MUDC was the most active of the Union drama clubs for undergraduate students right through until the sixties. As well, the SRC sponsored annual events, particularly the annual revue (from 1934) and the annual commencement play. For many years the annual revue was directed by Terence Crisp, who occupied a position which appears to have been precursor of Kim’s. The annual revue seems to have been the most popular theatrical event of the year, often turning around themes relating to University life with names like Swot Next (1934), Hot Swots (1935), Bridal and Bits (1936), Rhodes to Glory (1937), Stude Prunes (1938), Getting the Bird (1939), Red Hot and Blue (1941), Current Pie (1946), Mere Witchhunting (1948?), Snigger Mortis (1949). The commencement play, in the early days, seemed to be a vaudeville revue, but subsequently included straight plays. Prior to the establishment of the Union, the MUDC and the SRC performed in the old clubhouse or in outside hired venues, generally the King’s Theatre or the Garrick and on occasion the more prestigious His Majesty’s. The MUDC tackled serious plays, which, in the three decades of the Union part of its history, seem to be surprisingly conservative today. They included works by James Bridie, J B Priestley, Oscar Wilde, Moss Hart & George Kaufman and William Shakespeare. Plays in translation by Ibsen and Strindberg were a little more ambitious but were first brought to Melbourne by Gregan McMahon. What is most evident is the absence of any plays written by local writers and the colonisation of even student theatre by Anglo-European traditions. It was only through the revues that the voices of the students were heard and no doubt this is why they were so popular and memorable. Many of these scripts were, as was the tradition, cannibalised from year to year and included sketches appropriated from Oxford and Cambridge revues.

Keith Macartney, an Associate Professor in the English Department and Joy Youlden were the most active of the MUDC directors. Joy Youlden joined the University as a Physical Education undergraduate in 1939. After she graduated she worked as a actor with JCW, but returned to the Union after marrying Des Connor in 1944. Her productions for the MUDC included You can’t take it with you, Merry Wives of Windsor, Angel Street and Peer Gynt which starred Bill Rya11 and featured troll masks designed and executed by Frank Thring.

The back stage work was done by the Theatre Guild which employed technicians. Des Connor himself was employed on a retainer and was used on a paid professional basis by groups who hired the theatre. His technical know how was extensive and innovative. It was at the Union that back projection was first introduced to Melbourne audiences.

College Plays

Most of the residential colleges had active drama groups: the data base for the productions shown at the Union includes 27 Trinity Productions, 20 Queen’s, 10 Newman College (sometime in conjunction with St Mary’s), 17 Ormond productions, 11 of which were in conjunction with Women’s. The Colleges were committed to one major production a year. Surprisingly, some of the College productions were more ambitious or radical than those presented through the MUDC. Ormond produced The Crucible as early as 1956, and Queen’s produced Clifford Odet’s controversial Waiting for Lefty in 1938 and Capek’s Insect Play in 1939 with a cast of more than 50, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1945), Auden’s The Ascent of F6 (1951) . Newman College’ first public production was noteworthy in that is was one of the rare productions by an Australian author. The Staircase, by Niall Brennan was verse drama for 5 voices set in the snows of Mt Bogong Victoria was performed by Newman and St Mary’s in August 1947. Later joint productions included Murder in the Cathedral (1969) (it is said tht four marriages resulted out of this production) and Women, a Jack Hibberd adaptation of Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazsae, directed by James McCaughey.

Marlowe Society

The Marlowe society was established in 1947 with the aim of producing plays not often seen in Melbourne. On 22/4/47 Farrago noted that “Theatrical history will be made when Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II will be presented for the first time in Australia” Water colour set and costume designs by the up and coming designer Kenneth Rowell were displayed in the Rowden Whit library with the exhibition opened by a “prominent art critic”. The Marlowe Society went on to produce plays by Giradoux, Gogol, Chekhov, Anouilh, and Arthr Miller.

Tin Alley Players

Tin Alley Players were established in November 1939 when a group of young graduates decided that they wanted to continue an active association with the University and the new Union Theatre. Under the leadership of Associate Professors Keith Macartny and Maurice Belz, the group became officially recognised as the University Graduates dramatic group, taking the name from what was then an old iron fenced lane between Swanston Street and Royal Parade. The productions of the Tin Alley Players were to dominate the Union Seasons until the Union Theatre Repertory Company was established in 1953 and as I indicated earlier 105 entries are included in the data base between 1940 and 1979, but TAP was really spent by the early 70’s. The Tin Alley Players developed into a semi-professional company mounting three or four productions each year until at least 1970, but increasingly less at the Union. TAP often looked beyond graduates and included good actors not necessarily associated with the University. During its history, TAP’s repertoire was made up of the plays that had been well received. In its history the only recognisably Australian play on the list is Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1971. Actors like Wynn Roberts, Beverley Dunn and Patricia Kennedy had their start at Tin Alley.

Des Connor died in 1951; it was the end of an era. The program for James Bridie’s The Queen’s Comedy, directed by Des Connor, included a brief epitaph:

It is with deepest regret that we have to record the death of Desmond Connor – co-founder, designer and sle director of the Union Theatre ‘Des’ as he was universally known, had been associated with the the University Theatre since the early thirties, when he mounted and directed the first revues at the Palace.

Des Connor’s wife Joy Youlden assumed the role of Theatre Manager for the next year or so, until a new manager was appointed. It had been a period of great expansion and consolidation for the Union and student theatre with recognition for the University players through frequent reviews in the Age and Herald Sun.

1952 – 1967: The Development of Professional Theatre

In 1952, John Sumner, the new Union Theatre Manager arrived. He had been appointed from England, had worked in London’s west end and brought with him a wife with excellent contacts.

Sumner had been the student’s choice – he was young (27) and a professional from the real world of theatre. Where theatre was concerned colonial sentiments still ran high. Sumner’s first production was the 1953 commencement play, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which Wal Cherry was to make his first appearance on the stage of the Union.

John Sumner was restless as manager of the Union and was keen to develop a professional company. He realised the Union was an appropriate size (seating about 500) and gained support from Frank Thring (from the Arrow) and an underwriting of 1500 pounds from Sir George Paton, the Vice Chancellor. In 1953 Sumner established the Union Theatre Repertory Company. His first production was Colombe by Jean Anouilh and the first season included 8 new plays (none of them Australian), 5 old favourites and two revivals. Sumner’s initial company included Zoe Caldwell, George Fairfax, Pat Kennedy, Barry Humphries, Alex Scott. Ron Field was stage manager. The plays of the UTRC and Sumner’s determination were to dominate the productions at the Union for the next decade. Six months of the year was devoted to the UTRC and six months to student theatre which would be concentrated into terms one and two. During this time, the UTRC would tour under the auspices of the CAE (Colin Badger)

In 1954 Ray Lawler joined the company as an actor When Sumner went to Sydney the following year to take up a position with the newly formed Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Lawler took over the UTRC. It is not my intention to say much more about this company. Its history is fairly well documented in Geoffrey Hutton’s It won’t last a Week and John Sumner’s Recollections at Play. The extraordinary success of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll which opened on 28 Nov 1955 assured the future of the company and the play.

When Ray Lawler left as a result of the success of the Doll, Wal Cherry was appointed head of the UTRC. During the next years the UTRC failed to move into a fiscally sound position. In 1957 the theatre underwent a facelift. The auditorium floor was carpeted and stepped to allow for improved sight lines; the windows were removed; new seats were installed; the back wall was knocked out for a workshop extension and the foyer was changed so that the box-office was placed at the back of the raised auditorium. The theatre re-opened on 3 September 1959 with a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.

In 1959, the Management of the Union Theatre was completely separated from the UTRC and Ron Field was appointed manager. John Sumner returned as head of the UTRC which was now supported by the AETT providing a some relief for the company’s parlous financial situation. A Board of Mangement was appointed including three from the University including Sir George Paton. In 1960, the UTRC produced 7 shows in the Union. The year also saw 3 productions by the Tin Alley Players, two productions by the Marlowe society (one directed by Bunny Brooke), an SRC revue cleverly titled Paton’s Place, an architecture revue, one MUDC production and one Newman Production. There was growing concern in the Union and among students over the UTRC’s domination of the Union Theatre.

After 1960, the UTRC split its season between the Union and Russell Street theatres, the latter courtesy of Colin Badger, an old supporter of the UTRC. The company was to finally quit the University in 1967 and work full-time at the Russell Street Theatre prior to their moving into the new Arts Centre.

By 1968, the tide was turning in Australian Theatre. Professional companies were springing up in each state, and UTRC, now named the Melbourne Theatre Company had established itself with a fairly conservative subscriber audience. It seemed there was room for a new breed. In 1967, Betty Burstall established la Mama, a coffee house style of theatre based on the New York theatre of the same name, and Carlton had become a new cultural centre. New Directors and writers were emerging, now interested in putting into practice the theories of Peter Brook’s total theatre, Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre, Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Graeme Blundell, Brian Davies and Jack Finney who had worked together in the MUD society developed an actors workshop at la Mama. The group developed a relationship with Jack Hibbrd and John Romeril, two playwrights nurtured at la Mama, and presented its first production by 1968. By 1969 they had renamed themselves the Australian Performing Group. There was always a belief that the new wave theatre might usefully be allied with the student protest movement associated with the moratoriums. In 1968 Graeme Blundell wrote:

The theatre could be a sort of vehicle for the revolution. That would be a good way for theatre people at the University to make it important again, to employ theatre in the activities of the thing. Doing play that are about it, working in with demonstrations, doing exercises that are related to what people are talking about in their seminars and at their sit-ins and protest meetings.