The Spike or Victoria College Review 1940
There is a Momentary Pleasant illusion in being free to write on any subject I please. Yet the subject must be a suitable one. And what is suitable? Like a true lawyer I consult the authorities: I see what has been written by my predecessors, invited as I am to contribute to Spike, and so introduce themselves to the College reader of polite letters. I find that they write reminiscences of other academic worlds they have left. I decide to do likewise, and after many inventions by way of heading and many crossings out I arrive at the four capitals above. S.U.D.S. is the Sydney University Dramatic Society and my reminiscences are to be of that (last year) very live body.
In my undergraduate days it had a rather fitful artistic revival, producing very well "The Devil's Disciple," and indifferently well, but very popularly, "As You Like It" in modern dress, and with verve and abandon the rollicking humour of "The Shoemaker's Holiday." There was a lack of finish about these productions, but they did fill a definite need of the undergraduate dramatic urge. At the time it was not likely that others would produce plays so closely related to the particular interests of university students. I have always thought that the function of a university dramatic society must be the staging of plays to meet the needs of graduates and undergraduates interested in drama, the cultivation in other words of a highly individualised species of repertory drama. This function involves either (or both) the recreating of a literary past or the creating of a dramatic present beyond the experience of the ordinary modern playgoer.
S.U.D.S. then went into eclipse for a number of years. It had to pay its own way at Sydney and the temptation to play for charity and draw on the house-filling facilities of charitable organisations reduced it speedily to a purveyor of pot boilers. With its work during four or five years of this I was not interested—except in a few Shakespeare productions in the Great Hall of the University. The Great Hall is a fine piece of Gothic architecture, with beautiful stained glass windows and a dim religious light, but it had uncomfortable chairs and only a dais for stage. S.U.D.S. however, was fortunate in having in May Hollingworth one of the two talented producers in Sydney, and it was in these productions that I saw the first display of that skill in overcoming technical staging difficulties that is only one of her merits as producer. There were of course no drop curtains and no mechanical means of arranging scenic sets. She overcame this by constructing a large sized wooden book where each page was a scene and your new scene came by turning the page, a device which achieved that rapid scene changing demanded by the short scenes and quick tempo of Elizabethan drama.
It is the development of S.U.D.S. during the last couple of years which has, however, won my admiration. For half a dozen years I had acted as an amateur dramatic critic for Australia's one quarterly and had been searching in vain for just the repertory work S.U.D.S. now gave. The change involved was one of management and page 36 choice of play. The Society had relied for audience on outsiders, people who knew nothing of plays, good or bad; it now essayed an appeal to those interested in the very best of modern drama it could find, and took the necessary steps to find it. American University societies gave a good deal of very useful information as to the work they were doing and in the result a range of brilliant work became available. Contact with this source of supply might in better days, I here suggest in parenthesis, be usefully made by our own Dramatic Society. We leased a small floor in town, built a small stage, bought about five dozen squeaky chairs and enlisted the support of graduates acting with other repertory societies for any parts suited to their proved value in any particular type or part, and hoping that sufficient University people, graduate and undergraduate, and others of dramatic discernment, would spend their Sunday evenings at this theatre. It has been entirely successful, won a certain audience of sufficient numbers and understanding, and even a few critics capable of assessing the value of the change. Make no mistake about it, these were the best plays and the best produced plays which had been seen in Sydney. I can only substantiate the superlatives by telling you something of the plays; you must needs take my word as a critic for the production.
The most interesting productions were those of Philip Barry's "Hotel Universe" and "Holiday." Philip Barry is an American with a philosophical, psychological, myothological, and literary equipment which severely restricts his potential audience: outside America's 130,000,000 only a University society could hope to get him an audience. The emotional conflicts and imaginings of his characters are grounded in a learning of theirs as wide and deep as their creator's. These only intensify the drama in the life of our times which is common to the learned and unlearned. "Hotel Universe" is from its content, not its construction, the most difficult play I have ever seen: you must be prepared to read it a couple of times and see it a couple of times before its full literary value is yours. "Holiday" is slight by comparison; it concerns itself with only a fraction of the fundamentals of "Hotel Universe." It is no more possible to compress these plays into a sentence than it is to do as much for "Hamlet," and I shall not attempt it. But it was of value to have them side by side with T. S. Eliot's "Family Reunion," from a staging point of view the best of T. S. Eliot's works. Many of Eliot's tortured emotions and thoughts recur in Philip Barry, but Barry is early Spring to Eliot's Mid-winter, and Barry is a dramatist by instinct, while Eliot has, by dint of consistent striving, only now attained any clarity of form. Another play produced last year was Clemence Dane's "Coming of Age," a projection of the poet Chatterton into the living present.
Production is along different lines from any I have seen in Wellington. There is no attempt at naturalism, the exact reproduction of nature in set, scene and costume. These merely stifle imaginative drama and would be quite unsuitable to these plays. Every item in May Hollingworth's production, be it colour or property, must have some relevance to the dramatic conflict staged: there are no clocks because well-to-do family homes always have clocks, but because the elderly family head is afraid that the clock will stop. There is a scene in "Coming of Age" where the modern Chatterton's lover has out of pique sent him packing, and then sought to recover his love as a release from her own misery: the scene is short, only of a few minutes' duration, and no more than shows her knocking at his door without result. It was played against a black forward drop curtain and beside the supporting beam to the left of the stage, serving to emphasise the knocking and with the player facing the audience page 37 from forward stage. The plain tragedy will be brought home in this setting by the knocking and the facial expression. Nothing else was wanted, anything else would be a distraction. You can see from this perhaps what May Hollingworth aims at in these productions.
It is some satisfaction to know that this can be done, that undergraduates can be trained to do it within twelve months, that it has its audience, that its reputation came so quickly within and without the University. I shall not forget that once at least in these southern parts it has been done.
R. O. McGechan