Gregan McMahon CBE 1874-1941
This ‘patient, intelligent, kindly master’ was born Gregan Thomas McMahon in Sydney on 2 March 1874.
He was active in the Dramatic Society at the University of Sydney, where he achieved a Bachelor of Arts degree.
In 1910, when Shaw’s Arms and the Man was first commercially produced in this country, McMahon had the leading role.
‘McMahon’s devotion to the cause of fine theatre was selfless and unstinted. Many now-famous players admit their indebtedness to him,’ wrote Hal Porter of the man who founded Australia’s first professional repertory company in 1911. ‘The company had a repertoire of plays that intelligent playgoers and players alike could get the teeth of their minds into. McMahon was fortunate in having the admiration of George Bernard Shaw, who could be irritatingly autocratic in the matter of play production. To McMahon, of whom he said, “I know of only two worthwhile products of Australia – sheep and Gregan McMahon!”, Shaw gave virtual carte blanche, so that McMahon was able to give the first productions in Australia of Shaw’s works. In 1938 he was given a CBE, a recognition no greater than the gratitude of those playgoers for whom, year after debt-haunted year, he provided what no other professional producer would provide. As great was the gratitude of the hundreds of players who were given worthwhile work, or launched in the direction of fame, or saved from dry-rot, or licked into shape by this patient, intelligent, kindly master.’
This ‘patient, intelligent, kindly master’ was born Gregan Thomas McMahon in Sydney on 2 March 1874. He studied at Sydney Grammar School and Riverview College – with whom he made his stage debut wearing a green toga and a fireman’s helmet in a school production of Julius Caesar at the Royal Standard Theatre. He was active in the Dramatic Society at the University of Sydney, where he achieved a Bachelor of Arts degree. He married an amateur actress, Mary Hungerford, and worked for a law firm, but made a quick exit in 1900 when he was offered his first acting job – a tour of Australia, India and China with Robert Brough’s comedy company. This led to leading roles with William Hawtrey and ‘character parts’ in productions by other major managements, including J.C. Williamson.
‘Although never a breath-taking actor, McMahon was an intelligent and educated one,’ said Hal Porter, ‘and, because of his comprehensive experiences with Hawtrey and Brough, a finished one. Brough’s standards were to become McMahon’s.’
By 1906 McMahon was tiring of the artificiality and the star system that were inherent in most commercial productions. He saw the emerging British repertory movement as an ideal: he admired its ensemble approach, coordinated by a firm artistic hand, and its espousal of modern playwrights like Shaw, Schnitzler, Yeats and Granville Barker. He wanted, he said, plays ‘to illustrate an idea, social, moral, poetic, fantastic or even utilitarian’, in which characters were ‘true to life instead of to the idiosyncrasies of individual actors’.
In 1910, when Shaw’s Arms and the Man was first commercially produced in this country, McMahon had the leading role. It was the start of his long association with the works of GBS.
Watch this space
Allan Ashbolt: ‘Gregan McMahon’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 10, Melbourne University Press
Victoria Chance: ‘Gregan McMahon CBE’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Dennis Douglas and Margery Morgan: ‘Gregan McMahon and the Australian Theatre’, Komos, November 1969 – March 1973