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2.-As Sydney Knew Him
By MARTIN LONG
TV/TOST people would call
.*. A George Bernard Shaw a
playwright who was read more than he was acted. But it is surprising to realise that all but a very small handful of his plays have been produced in Sydney.
For though Sydney's record in the field of professional theatre has never been brilliant, it has had a particularly active "little" theatre movement to keep intelligent and experimental drama alive, and Shaw himself pointed out that the small repertory and amateur theatres carried most of the burden in popularising his plays.
Commercial producers, until re- cently at any rate, looked on Shaw as a doubtful risk, and few of his plays were big successes in the large commercial theatres of London and New York. In Sydney the number of fully professional Shaw produc- tions would " not reach double figures.
"Little theatres," on the other hand, have found Shaw good busi- ness. When attendances are vanish- ing, even a "tough nut" of a play like "Getting Married" can usually draw in a new audience outside the regular customers.
. . *
IT argues a faithful circle of * devotees, large enough to fill the little theatres, yet not large enough to support full seasons in the bigger commercial houses.
The history of Shaw production in Sydney, in fact, is pretty much the history of the "Little Theatre"
The Sydney Repertory Theatre, one of the earliest ventures of its kind, opened its very first season, in October, 1913, with "The Devil's Disciple." The producer was Leslie Casey; several of the actors (Sidney Stirling was the Devil's Disciple, Aggie Thorn played Judith), became well-known in Australian theatre.
Theatrical old-timers have recolr lections of a production of "Can- dida," earlier than this, but I can find no record of it.
The late Gregan McMahon, who pioneered "Little Theatre" in Aus- tralia, was also a pioneer producer of Shaw. He presented "The Doc- tor's Dilemma" in a series of matinee performances at the Palace Theatre in 1918. When he founded the Sydney Repertory Theatre Society he maintained a policy of one Shaw play each year; he pro- duced at least seven of the plays ("Major Barbara," "Pygmalion," "Candida," and otheis) during the
G.B.S. is reported to have said about this time that he knew noth- ing about Australia, and that the
,pnlyt man he knew there /was-'
Gregan McMahon-"But he is a highly intelligent man-he does my plays," he added.
. . .
IN the 'thirties, when McMahon
left Sydney for Melbourne, the "Little Theatre" movement was ex- panding. The Independent Theatre under Doris Fitton, opened its ac- count with Shaw in 1935, with "The Apple Cart," later did "Can- dida" (two productions), "St. Joan," "Getting Married," and the one acter, "Press Cuttings."
The visit of Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in 1932 brought Syd- ney its first and so far its only experience of top-flight professional productions of Shaw. Dame Sybil opened her season triumphantly in "Saint Joan," and later played a short season as Lady Cicely in "Captain Brassbound's Conver-
Since then the only fully profes- sional productions have been given by the lately deceased Minerva Theatre: "Pygmalion," "Arms and the Man," and "Village Wooing."
But by far the biggest venture by a little theatre was the Shaw Festival held by the tiny Bryant's Playhouse from June, 1939.
The playhouse was the crypt of a church near King's Cross. The auditorium, which held 90, was hardly bigger than the stage. Until the opening of the festival the group had not had much support from the public, but Shaw packed the little theatre every night; those who could not find seats inside, often watched through the windows from the "free gallery"-the pave- ment of the lane outside.
. . . .
'T'HE group, under its producers,
* Beryl Bryant and Dorothy
Hemingway, did not hesitate to stage "Man and Superman" in its entirety for the first time in Sydney -that is, with the Hell scene, in which the hero John Tanner ap- pears as his ancestor, Don Juan.
"Geneva," then a very new play, was due to be given when war broke out. The players then ob-
jected to the thinly-disguised por- I trayais of Hitler and Mussolini, and to some of the too-Shavian senti-
ments of the play, and walked out ; of the production. A few weeks later, however, their sense of
humour returned, and the play ]
went on. I
When Bryant's produced < "Fanny's First Play" some of Syd- ! ney's drama critics played their ¡ counterparts in the epilogue, which i shows a group of critics debating : the authorship of the young lady's ' play. And, says Miss Hemingway,
"they did it very well." <
Bryant's did all of the come- 1
djes but "Good King Charles's^'I
Golden Days," as well «as many of the more serious plays. When the players closed their theatre after the war they left few of Shaw's plays still to be staged here. Prob . ably, the only "first" since then has
been the Metropolitan Theatre's
recent "Heartbreak House."
Besides "King Charles" and, of course, the late "Buoyant Billions," I can find no record of a local pro- duction of "Misalliance," of "Caesar and Cleopatra," or of "Back to Methuselah" in its en- tirety. Most or all of the others have been given-even "curious" ones like "Too True to be Good" and "The Simpleton of the Un- expected Isles."
Shaw was meticulous in collect- ing his fees from small theatres, yet his method of charging for per- formance rights was far more equit- able than the "flat rate" system of regular agents.
He explained his method in a letter to the magazine "British Drama" in 1938. After complain- ing of the injustice of the usual classification of "professional" and "amateur," he wrote:
"My own office rule . . . turns on the disposal of the profits, if any. If they go to charity, the per- formers are classed contemptuously as ladies and gentlemen, and the licence costs five guineas. If the manager assures me that his only object in organising the performan- ces is to get drunk every night and keep two or three establishments instead of one, then he is unques- tionably a genuine professional and is privileged accordingly."
. . .
/"\F the companies who plough ^S back their profits and seek to build up a local repertory theatre, he said: "I class (them) among my most desirable professional clients, and charge them five per cent."
Theatres in Sydney which grossed less than £50 for a per- formance (like Bryant's) paid only five per cent, of gross takings a fraction of the flat rate charged by most playwrights. Those (like the Independent) whose takings were between £50 and £100 paid seven . and a half per cent.
Shaw said in the letter I have been quoting: "When the receipts
amount to no more than 15/ ...
I touch my hat for the nimble nine pence and trust to receive the
favour of further orders."
.In return for the courtesy the Little Theatres kept alive the in- terest of the reading public, as well as the playgoing public, ia Shaw's published plays. Book- sellers in Sydney confirmed that
when there was a Shaw season run-
ning, even in the littlest "Little Theatre," his plays sold better.
No one except, perhaps, the charitable "ladies and gentlemen,
had anything but. satisfaction from ,, Jth'e arrapgenient'ij'1^, '., >'i .. . . ? '