Stage by Stage

Auditorium of the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown, Sydney.  Elisabeth Kumm Collection.Elizabethan Theatre, Newtown, 1955. From The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: the first year. Elisabeth Kumm Collection.

This article, by choreographer, dance educator and THA Committee Member, Robert Ray, was first published in On Stage in the Autumn, Winter and Spring 2000 editions. Adapted from a paper he prepared for his Master of Education (Arts Administration) at RMIT University late in 1999, it charts the history of this important Arts institution, founded in ‘to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’. Read Part 2 of this article»

With a few exceptions, principally the formation of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932, the arts in Australia have only survived on patronage. The setting-up of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust saw a new age dawn. The Trust preceded the Australian Council for the Arts, which later became the Australia Council. These bodies have been the funding arms of government. Through them, at arm’s length, the government supported and supports the arts.

The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust has folded—but its history is illuminating in the way governments have thought in the past. The Trust’s rise and demise reflects an era of arts funding in which the arts have grown up in Australia. Were its coming and going timely?

The early years

The early years of government funding of the arts began before the First World War. The Commonwealth Literary Fund was founded in 1908 and the Commonwealth Advisory Board in 1912. However, it wasn’t until the setting up of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932 that government support became really serious.

The ABC’s charter was to provide quality broadcasting, especially music. By 1936 it had formed symphony orchestras in each state. In 1942 its Act was amended to make it mandatory for the ABC to give live symphony concerts. Until the 1950s it also maintained such diverse activities as dance bands, and small ensembles. These gradually disappeared. The Act was amended again in 1980, removing the legal obligation to provide live concerts—nonetheless they continued.

The Dix Report recommended a separate arm be formed and named Music Australia. It would be responsible for entrepreneuring the orchestras and raising sponsorship. The ABC declined to go down this road and continued to present concerts, with ticket prices subsidised by government. This was the last vestige of government funding with voluntary sponsorship. Only in the mid- and late-1990s has the ABC relinquished control of the state orchestras.

The ABC was the only government funded organisation until the setting up of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954. However, with its live symphony performances, its importation of soloists—both vocal and instrumental—as well as conductors of high international reputations, it was a potent force outside of broadcasting. It had enough power to change the design and concept of the Sydney Opera House from an ‘opera house’ to a ‘symphonic hall’. (This muscle flexing of the time has left Sydney without a suitable venue for opera and ballet. The Sydney Opera House is an opera house in name only).

Enter Nugget Coombs

In the 1950s government patronage of the arts outside its support for the ABC was minimal. At that time, the Menzies government didn’t even support the universities. The chief advocate for government support for the arts was Dr H.C. Coombs, better known as ‘Nugget’ Coombs. He was a legendary bureaucrat, intellectual and, privately, a cultured man.

Herbert Cole Coombs was a youngish Western Australian who had trained at the London School of Economics. Maynard Keynes, an economist who had married a Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova, had influenced him. Keynes was also a member of the Bloomsbury set, and while not an artist himself, was passionate about the arts.

Nugget seem to follow his lead, and married a woman who was passionate about music. He was one of the ‘brightest boys’ of the home front before and during the Second World War. Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley made him successively Director of Rationing, Director-General of Post War Reconstruction, and Governor of the Commonwealth Bank. He had shown himself to be an ‘organiser and administrator of great power and ability’. [1]

Coombs moved in artistic circles and was befriended by their members. With his links to banking he had direct access to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. It was probable that there was much talk about the arts, if not officially then over a cup of tea or drinks.

He was in an ideal position and was the ideal person to start a campaign to raise £100 000 and get the government on side. He saw a way to Menzies’ heart for supporting the arts with the visit of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, to Australia in 1954. While Menzies didn’t care much for the arts he did care about royalty, in particular the new Queen. Dr Coombs proposed the formation of a Theatre Trust in her honour. [2]

An offer too good to refuse

How could Menzies refuse with a title like The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust? Linking ‘Australian’ with ‘Elizabeth’ was a well-considered and clever move. ‘The ultimate aim of the Trust must be to establish a native drama, opera and ballet which will give professional employment to Australian actors, singers and dancers and furnish opportunities for those such as writers, composers and artists whose creative work is related to the theatre,’ Coombs said ‘The Trust would usually proceed by offering financial support by guarantee or by direct financial participation on a profit sharing basis to existing organisations or to companies to present opera, ballet and drama in Australia.’ [3]

He went on to add that while the Trust did not undertake to solve all the problems of Australian theatre, he thought by lending administrative and financial support it would make it easier for artists to be creative and present their work. He also had a vision of an environment where creative artists ‘should come to flower, when many of them now are mute and inglorious from lack of opportunity’.

It cannot be underestimated that the success of Dr Coombs lay with his personality. He was agreeable, modest and good humoured. He was also gently persuasive. Leslie Rees referred to him as ‘the great persuader’. His gentle insistence must have been an effective tool behind the scenes. He didn’t ally himself with any factions and remained above petty jealousies and feral egos. The Royal Tour of 1954 was the biggest show in town. The royal progress was filmed, broadcast, written about relentlessly.

The star of the tour gave her name willingly to a Trust whose main aim was for the promotion of the arts beyond commercial management. By the end of 1954 £90 000 had been raised by committee. Banks, insurance companies, city stores, soap and aspirin manufacturers, mining firms, and newspapers all gave privately.

To this was added £30 000 from government, or more precisely £29 836 on the principle of £1 for every three raised. The Trust was set to go. But to go where? It had no access to theatres (they were all either owned by Williamson’s or the Garnet Carroll-Tivoli circuits), and there was no staff.

An Englishman, Hugh Hunt, was appointed its first Artistic Director in February 1955. Hunt had been associated with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, the Bristol Old Vic and the Old Vic in London. There seemed to be no Australian who could match his experience. However, like so many subsequent appointments of English men or women instead of Australians, his appointment was coloured by his ‘ruling class’ aloofness and sense of superiority.

Hal Porter’s view

Playwright Hal Porter’s contemporary reflection of such appointments, without naming names, was typical of what the locals felt:

‘The use of homosexuals in the theatre is as old as the theatre. As talented heterosexuals do, talented homosexuals rise to various planes of fame … What does alarm is that, during the last 10 years or more, there have been imported a coterie of untalented English homosexuals, English tonks unheard of outside their own country, to dominate sections of the Australian theatrical scene. If one cannot protest about the employment of a Pommie poofter, instead of the Aussie poofter, one can record dismay at the employment of the fifth-raters who got nowhere near even spear-holding in Drury Lane, yet who are invited to pit a puniness of vision, and a cockeyed theatrical sense, against the perception of the highly sensitised Australian public.’ [4]

The founding governors of the Trust, while worthy and sincere, were not experienced theatre people. The local theatre people who had been battling for years were excluded. Their opinions were not sought, as it was felt that if given a say they might, out of self-interest, fight among themselves. [5] While Dr Coombs’ stated intentions for the Trust were noble and clearly resonated with government, they were also quite vague and lacking in detail. The objectives were there, but not the methods of implementation.

Hugh Hunt had a natural mistrust of locals. He imported English actors, English plays—even going to the trouble of importing an English secretary! His style and manner naturally put him off side with Australian artists everywhere.

A Majestic beginning

Despite the problems, which weren’t so apparent at first, the Trust began with great panache. It leased its first theatre in Sydney’s inner (then exclusively working class industrial) suburb of Newtown. It rescued the once fine Majestic Theatre from 30 years of movies and renamed it The Elizabethan Theatre.

Renovations were made. Business firms donated furnishings. Myer of Melbourne even donated the chandelier. The seats were replaced and for a donation of £10 you could have your name on a brass plate attached to the back of a seat. Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh succumbed. The new theatre opened on 27 July 1955 with a company of H.M. Tennant’s that Garnet Carroll had imported by arrangement with Binkie Beaumont in London.

The plays were Separate Tables and The Sleeping Prince by Terence Rattigan starring Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. While the company did feature some Australian actors, it was hardly very Australian or new. It had already played Melbourne at the Princess Theatre, doing well enough as a commercial presentation, without the help of government money.

The Trust got closer to its initial intention with the returning of Judith Anderson in her American triumph of Robinson Jeffers’ adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. The Australian cast gathered around her included Clement McCallin and Doris Fitton.

Medea inaugurated a pattern the Trust was doggedly to adhere to, made an expensive Commonwealth tour, and a meagre profit of £2742. Albeit meagre, it was a profit. Later attempts to herd shrewd Australians together in a “theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians” were scarcely so successful.’ [6]

One of its earliest ambitions was to set up a national professional theatre company which would train actors to ‘West End standards’. [7] This company would tour to all major centres. It comprised Clement McCallin, Leonard Teale, Ray Lawler, Ethel Gabriel, Peter Kenna, Gordon Petrie, George Ogilvie, Dinah Shearing, Madge Ryan, Zoe Caldwell and Malcolm Robertson among others.

The cost of going on the road

Even in the 1950s, however, touring Australia was expensive. More often than not the Trust had to work in collaboration with J.C. Williamson’s Theatres. Many thought this was selling out the ideals of the Trust which were, clearly, to present theatre which wasn’t necessarily commercially viable.

The Trust responded in two ways—it reduced touring and concentrated its efforts with sponsorship of already existing companies, The Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne and The Old Tote Theatre Company in Sydney. These companies were already attempting to present plays outside the safe ventures of Williamson’s.

The Union Theatre Repertory Company had been formed at the University of Melbourne in 1952 by John Sumner, an Englishman who had been brought to Australia to manage the university’s theatre.

In 1954 it got lucky with a play by an Australian about Australians—Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The author was Melbourne born Ray Lawler.

The Playwrights’ Advisory Board, which had been set up in 1938 to encourage Australian playwrighting, awarded Lawler its 1955 Prize. Its chairman, Leslie Rees, was an enthusiast who showed the play to Hugh Hunt. After the play made £1800 for the UTRC in three weeks, Hunt announced he had bought the rights for the Trust.

Because of prior commitments, the Elizabethan Theatre was free only for three weeks in January. Presented in this un-airconditioned theatre in the blazing heat of a Sydney summer, audiences didn’t need too much imagination to believe they were in Queensland.

Nevertheless, the play was a sell-out and went on to reverse the trend. It was presented in London’s West End in 1957 where it played for seven months at the New Theatre. The London season was ended abruptly for it to play on Broadway where unfortunately it failed.

The next home-grown venture was the less than fabulous Lola Montez, a musical. Like the Doll it had been tried out at the UTRC and there were hopes it might become the Australian Oklahoma!. The book was by Alan Burke, with music and lyrics by Peter Benjamin and Peter Stannard. Alas it wasn’t to be. The importation of an (unheard of) English dancer Mary Preston, who couldn’t sing, didn’t help the hokey musical. It lost the Trust £31 581.

To be continued …


1. Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: a historical and critical survey from the 1830s to the 1970s, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973

2. Author’s discussion with Dame Margaret Scott

3. H.C. Coombs, ‘The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Meanjin, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1954, pp. 283-285

4. Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965

5. Leslie Rees, op. cit.

6. Hal Porter, op. cit.

7. Tim Rowse, Arguing the Arts: the funding of the arts in Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic, 1985