Melbourne actor, writer, director and producer Jack Beresford Fowler was by nature optimistic and indomitable, but did regret a decision made in the 1930s. Opera singer/stage director Miss Gertrude Johnson had returned from England and contacted Jack about her exciting plans to form a National Theatre. The proposal was ready for submission and Jack was invited to join the company as producer. On two occasions he declined, explaining to Miss Johnson he was busy with his own flourishing Arts Theatre Company, but later admitted to doubting the National Theatre proposal would succeed, particularly after previous unsuccessful attempts. Miss Johnson admirably persevered, secured the services of producer W.P. Carr, and the National Theatre Movement became a reality, eventually receiving financial assistance from the Premier of Victoria, Thomas Hollway. Jack would forever ponder the unknown possibility of achieving ‘big things’ if his Shakespearian knowledge and experience had been utilised with financial support from the National Theatre grants.
Changes to Melbourne’s theatre scene during the 1940s impacted adversely on Jack Fowler and his beloved Arts Theatre Company. Formed in 1925, the Arts Theatre Company had enjoyed success for almost twenty years, treating Melbourne audiences to classic plays which at that time were ignored by commercial theatres. Dedicated casts performed under the enthusiastic, passionate direction of J.B. Fowler, and sell-out shows relied on favourable reviews published in the daily press.
But now venue hire costs were increasing and more amateur and small theatre companies formed, competing for box office takings and audience disposable income. The biggest issue for the Arts Theatre Company was the decision by daily newspaper editors to only review fully professional shows. Although professionally directed, the company’s plays were mostly performed by amateur actors. Jack greatly appreciated continued supportive show reviews from the Melbourne weekly publication Listener In, which coincidentally commenced as a radio magazine in 1925, the same year as the Arts Theatre Company formed. But broader coverage and reviews of the company’s productions in the daily press were necessary to ensure full houses and cover costs. Savings from Jack’s professional theatre employment soon depleted, but driven by theatrical passion and determination, he persevered to present shows. The result was a decline in production standards and subsequent damage to Jack’s reputation as a successful theatre producer/director.
Determined to overcome these financial challenges encountered in the 1940s, Jack devised an innovative fundraising concept. He would collect autographs from world-famous people and use proceeds from selling the autographs to establish an Art Theatre. An early recipient of Jack’s request for an autograph was Australian poet Dame Mary Gilmour. Dame Mary replied that she knew of Jack’s 1942 collaborative play with Sylvia Archer and had a family connection with General Sir Hector MacDonald, the play’s protagonist. She acknowledged her signed letter was intended for his autograph collection and generously included a cheque for £10, ‘ … because you are doing good work’.
American playwright Clifford Odets also responded to Jack’s request for an autographed message to help augment Art Theatre funds, writing on bright yellow notepaper:
‘I heartily approve of an art theatre for the people. When countries are dead at the top, we must build them from the bottom.’
Amid successes and knock-backs to autograph requests came an amusing reply in 1946 from President Eisenhower, then Chief of Staff of the US Army. Written on US War Department letterhead, the message read: ‘While I am quite in sympathy with your Art Theatre Players, I have made it a practice not to autograph any material which might have commercial appeal. I am sure you will understand my position. With every best wish. Sincerely, Dwight D. Eisenhower’ (signed in his own handwriting).
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy write that in his later years, Jack Fowler’s impressive collection of autographed letters, documents and photographs was sold over time to help his survival.
In 1943, 20 year old professional radio actor Peter O’Shaughnessy performed as an amateur actor in Jack Beresford Fowler’s productions until 1947. At this time, the venue for shows presented by the Arts Theatre Players was the Old Players and Playgoers Association Hall on the north side of Little Bourke Street, between Elizabeth and Queen streets. The Association later dropped the ‘Old’ from their title. Peter O’Shaughnessy attributes his successful professional theatrical life to that earlier ‘close acquaintance’ with the great plays presented by Jack Fowler: ‘Few actors, in whatever country they worked—never mind about the cultural desert of Australia—had such an opportunity to become familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Coward.’
Jack Beresford Fowler in costume as King Lear, c.1945. Photographer unknown. This studio-based promotional portrait was gifted by Mr and Mrs Fowler, 1984.
Courtesy of the Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, 1984.092.001
A theatrical encore awaited Jack when joining the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. Formed in 1884 and still operating today, the Melbourne Shakespeare Society is one of the oldest literary societies in Australia. Since the early 1920s Jack had remained indebted to Allan Wilkie, founder of Australia’s first touring Shakespearian company, for sharing his Shakespearean performance and directorial knowledge. Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy describe Jack as inheriting ‘something of the expansive acting style and much of the “stage business” contrived by the actor-managers Sir Frank Benson and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’. In 1925, Allan Wilkie was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to theatre, particularly relating to Shakespeare and education. As Jack began sharing his inherited Shakespearian knowledge and expertise with members and audiences at the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, he felt his prestige returning. He would also meet new friends with similar interests.
When casting juvenile roles, Jack Fowler visited Melbourne elocution or dance teachers for their recommendations. These teachers included Maie Hoban, Jenny Brennan, Louise Dunn, Dulcie Bland and Alice Uren. Miss Uren sent me to audition successfully for the title role in A Must for Dolly, Jack Fowler’s sequel to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, presented in 1958 at the Arrow Theatre, Middle Park. The show was restaged in 1960 at the Arts Theatre, Richmond, with Helen Pickering in the role of Dolly, and I performed in various plays under Mr Fowler’s direction for the Melbourne Shakespeare Society.
Sylvia Archer was the hostess for this 1959 Melbourne Shakespeare Society event, and often sat in on rehearsals in Albert Park. Miss Archer was a beautifully spoken, elegant close friend of Jack Fowler and a former leading actor in his Art Theatre Company and Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company. She also collaborated with J.B. in 1942 to co-write the controversial play General Sir Hector MacDonald. Jack never married, and although admitting to falling in love with several leading ladies, Sylvia Archer remained his favourite. In 1960, her death in Fremantle at age 55 whilst travelling to England, would have been devastating news for Jack.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented on 9 March 1963 in the Russell Street Theatre Conference Room, where Jack Beresford Fowler played the role of Bottom. J.B.’s vigorous direction has ensured the closing speech of Shakespeare’s mischievous sprite Puck remains indelibly etched in my memory.
Notable patrons of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society in 1963 were the Right Honourable R.G. Menzies, Allan Wilkie CBE, Professor William Alexander Osborne and English poet and writer, John Masefield OM. Jack Fowler later became President of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society
Jack Beresford Fowler also shared his Shakespearian performances with students, either visiting their schools or hiring city venues such as the Postal Institute. The students would see their studied Shakespearian texts transformed into theatrical performances in J.B.’s unique style. Theatre historian Frank Van Straten AM remembers discovering Shakespeare ‘or a form of it’ when Beresford Fowler visited his school. In the city venues, it was not uncommon for students to bring pea-shooters or other items to try to interrupt performances. Jack’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays also enabled him to play multiple roles.
J.B.’s happiest memories included touring Australia pre and post-World War One with Bert Bailey’s company in On Our Selection. In the early 1960s Jack took up Peter O’Shaughnessy’s suggestion to rewrite the On Our Selection script from memory. In 1962, fourteen cast members, including myself as Sarah, rehearsed weekly in Jack’s Albert Park one-room bedsitter and Jack typed the script progressively. The programme reports that after typing copies of the script, one disappeared, ‘causing Mr Fowler to copyright the play.’ The performance venue was St David’s Hall, Latrobe Street, Melbourne, two doors from The Argus office.
When arriving at the theatre for the show’s first dress rehearsal, Mum was astonished when Mr Fowler handed her a brush to finish painting a backdrop. J.B.’s endearingly quirky, unpredictable style of doing things may have been interpreted by some as chaotic, but on reflection, he was a versatile, hard-working one-man-show, a determined, independent operator with a passion for creating theatre. He had adapted the script, typing all copies on a manual typewriter, had cast and directed the actors and performed the role of ‘Dad’. J.B. would also have paid to hire the venue, organised the scenery and props, designed and printed the programme, marketed the show and sold the tickets.
On Our Selection was presented from 17-22 March, 1962. The cast included Peter Brown, Ray Fedden, Kitty Virgoe, Cheryl McPhee, Brian Lockwood, Jean Voller, J. Beresford Fowler, Clive Barton, Frank Booth, Reg Campbell, Robert Davidson, Edward Thomas, George Sullivan, Peggy Pearl Oakley and Simone Cohen. I had not noticed J.B.’s deafness until we performed onstage in On Our Selection and observed his intense lip-reading of fellow actors delivering their lines. He was determined not to miss a cue—and never did. A wonderful effort.
During rehearsals, J.B. had continually praised Laura Roberts who portrayed Sarah Rudd in Bert Bailey’s 1915 touring production. I was now guardian of this role, and Laura’s legendary performance was a lot to live up to. Thankfully, J.B. later wrote this positive message inside the cover of his book Stars in My Backyard:
Looking back on his life, Jack wondered if he should have returned to professional theatre when his personal savings diminished, instead of persevering to present shows of a deteriorating standard. A director of the J.C. Williamson firm had discussed offering Jack a place in the company, but by then his hearing was deteriorating badly and Jack knew performing unfamiliar plays would be difficult. He was familiar with Shakespearean dialogue and that would have been fine, but entire companies were now presenting Shakespearean plays.
During his theatrically successful years, Jack Fowler was disappointed and baffled by jealousy from fellow colleagues, hence the title of his autobiography The Green-Eyed Monster (1968). Jones and O’Shaughnessy describe Jack as ‘gallant, indomitable and quixotic’ and ‘mercifully oblivious of criticism’. The AusStage online national performing database records Jack Beresford Fowler as having participated as performer, director, or both, in thirty-five shows presented in Melbourne, regional Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania from 1916. This does not include Jack’s national touring seasons such as with On Our Selection with Bert Bailey pre and post-World War One, and other productions not yet recorded which would substantially increase this total. One of his last roles is said to have been playing the Grave Digger in a production of Hamlet at the Union Theatre.
Regardless of negative or positive views regarding Jack Beresford Fowler’s productions in the final third part of his life, Jack’s splendid overall contribution to twentieth century Australian theatre was unquestionably the result of resolute determination, dogged hard work and passion for his craft.
Our family always exchanged Christmas cards with Mr Fowler and I am extremely grateful our life paths crossed. In his later years, I regret not visiting the kind, talented man with twinkling eyes who warmly welcomed Mum and I at his front door for an audition in early 1958. Just as he did for so many others, J.B. would introduce me to the wonderful world of theatre.
On 18 July 1972, The Age published a page two article titled ‘A Noted Thespian Makes his Exit’, which attributes the late ‘Veteran Shakespeare actor J. Beresford Fowler’ as keeping Australian theatre alive during the Depression years. Jack would be rightly proud to read this, and would no doubt chuckle in delight at the article reporting his birthplace as England, when records and his autobiography reveal he was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney. This conflicting information at the end of Jack’s life resembles the quirky debate surrounding his birth date so many years earlier. His mother’s friends remembered young Jack’s birthdays because they insisted he was born on the shortest day of the year, 21 June 1893. However, the official date registered for his birth is 21 July 1893.
Jack Beresford Fowler, actor, playwright, producer, director, novelist, memoirist, soldier, son, brother and friend, took his final curtain call in Albert Park on 17 July 1972.
A life well spent.
The Age (Melbourne), 18 July 1972, ‘A Noted Thespian Makes His Exit’, Google News Archive, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=MDQ-9Oe3GGUC&dat=19720718&printsec=frontpage&hl=en sourced per Bayside Libraries 8 October 2021 (accessed 8 October 2021 via Bayside Library Service)
Bauer Media Pty. Ltd., People, ‘Tricks of the Autograph Trade’, 4 March 1959, p.43
Jack Beresford Fowler, A Puppet’s Mirage, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1957
Jack Beresford Fowler, Stars in My Backyard, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1962
Jack Beresford Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, United Kingdom, 1968
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1996, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fowler-jack-beresford-10228 (Published online 2006)
James Murray, illustrations by Verdon Morcom. The Paradise Tree, An Eccentric Childhood Remembered, Allen & Unwin, London, 1988
Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘J.B.’ On Stage, Vol. 8, No. 4, Theatre Heritage Australia, https://theatreheritage.org.au/images/OnStage/backissues/2007-4.pdf , Spring 2007, p.9
Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Autobiography Part Two’, 2012, https://sites.google.com/site/peteroshaughnessyinfo/autobiography---part-2 (accessed 5 November 2021)
Television.AU, ‘Remembering Listener-In, TV Scene’, https://televisionau.com/2017/06/remembering-listener-in-tv-scene.html (accessed 14 July 2021)
Cheryl Threadgold, In the Name of Theatre: the History, Culture and Voices of Amateur Theatre in Victoria, publisher Cheryl Threadgold, Victoria, Australia, 2020, p.1