John Alden 1908-1962
Gordon Buchanan was born on 17 January 1908 in Taree, New South Wales, where his parents ran a small store.
Alden became a school teacher, but in the evenings he worked backstage for Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre.
In 1937 Alden resigned from the Department of Education and left to try his luck in Britain.
After war broke out he stage-managed a play called Good Men Sleep at Home at the Shaftesbury Theatre in April 1940, and then headed home.
‘He that plays the king’
‘John Alden was an English teacher with a passion for Shakespeare and a determination to form
his own company for the purpose of presenting it,’ recalled Ruth Cracknell. ‘It was an unlikely dream in those days… Rough productions in some respects, got together on a shoestring, but some fine actors. All who worked in radio were delighted to have the opportunity to flex their muscles in this way. I learned much from Alden – both what to do on stage and what not to do. Can one ask for more? I found him difficult at times, but I don’t necessarily lay at his door the gnawing ulcer that was the legacy of my time with him.’
Best remembered as one of this country’s greatest Shakespeareans, John Alden was our last actor-manager in the grand tradition.
His start was unpropitious. Gordon Buchanan was born on 17 January 1908 in Taree, New South Wales, where his parents ran a small store. In 1930 he was awarded a BA at the University of Sydney, where his interest in Shakespeare was sparked by Professor John Le Gay Brereton. Alden became a school teacher, but in the evenings he worked backstage for Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre, which was then based at the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street. As ‘John Alden’ he made his acting debut there in November 1934 in Fitton’s production of Elmer Rice’s Counsellor at Law, with a cast including Sumner Locke Elliott and Peter Finch. Alden played in 11 more productions for Fitton at the Savoy and, like Locke Elliott, he also found work in radio, principally with the busy George Edwards unit.
In 1937 Alden resigned from the Department of Education and left to try his luck in Britain. There he toured with Sir Donald Wolfit, and worked in stock and repertory companies, most notably the Harrogate Rep, where he met actor and director James Mills. His only London appearance was as a humble extra in Lewis Casson’s famous 1938 Old Vic production of Coriolanus with Laurence Olivier. After war broke out he stage-managed a play called Good Men Sleep at Home at the Shaftesbury Theatre in April 1940, and then headed home.
Back in Sydney, Alden was in demand as a leading actor on commercial radio stations and the ABC; for the latter he played Evans in the first airing of Douglas Stewart’s landmark verse play The Fire on the Snow in 1941.
John Alden as King Lear in the John Alden Company Production of King Lear, c1951 Photograph Courtesy National Library of Australia, Lady Viola Tait collection pic-vn3601234.
Ruth Cracknell: A Biased Memoir, Viking, 1997
Penny Gay: ‘International Glamour or Home-grown Entertainment?’, in O Brave New World, Currency Press, 2001
Richard Lane: The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, Volume Two, ScreenSound Australia, 2000
John Rickard: ‘John Alden’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13, Melbourne University Press
Malcolm Robertson: “John Alden’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995