Oscar Asche 1871-1936
The son of a Geelong publican, John Stanger Heiss Oscar Asche was born on 24 January 1871 and educated at Melbourne Grammar School.
He made his stage debut on 25 March 1893 in Man and Woman at the Opera Comique, London.
‘He was an extraordinary character, perhaps one of the most extraordinary men in the theatrical world. Money meant nothing to him. He made and got through enormous sums. I remember him once telling me that he spent £40,000 on greyhounds when he became a coursing enthusiast. Asche thought nothing of that. He always did things in a big way.’
That’s entrepreneur Hugh D. McIntosh remembering riches-to-rags Oscar Asche who, despite his acclaimed Shakespearian productions and his legendary long-running musical, Chu Chin Chow, ended his life in penury.
The son of a Geelong publican, John Stanger Heiss Oscar Asche was born on 24 January 1871 and educated at Melbourne Grammar School. He was still in his teens when his Norwegian-born father sent him to study acting with Björn Bjørnson in Oslo, Sweden. When Ibsen advised him to work in his own language, Asche tackled London, continuing his studies and having his Australian accent ‘corrected’. He made his stage debut on 25 March 1893 in Man and Woman at the Opera Comique, London, with Arthur Dacre and Amy Roselle – the popular husband-and-wife actors who sensationally suicided in Sydney two years later.
Between small parts with the F.R. Benson Company, Asche ‘slept rough’ and survived on a few tips calling cabs for theatre patrons. His engagements increased, and soon he was earning a good living and playing increasingly important parts. In 1899 he married Lily Brayton, another member of Benson’s company; the two were associated in most of Asche’s subsequent productions.
Asche was a good athlete and loved cricket: he even played in some minor matches with the Marlylebone Cricket Club. In 1901 he was a great success in Pinero’s Iris, his first important modern comedy. The following year he joined Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s Company and in 1903 played in Much Ado About Nothing opposite Ellen Terry. In 1907 he leased His Majesty’s Theatre in London; it remained under his management for many years.
Photograph taken by Harold Cazneaux courtesy of National Library of Australia, pic-an2383919-1
Oscar Asche: His Life by Himself, Hurst & Blackett, 1929
L.J. Blake: ‘Oscar Asche’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 7, Melbourne University Press
Victoria Chance: ‘Oscar Asche’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Chrissie Fletcher: A Theatrical Life – The Many Faces of Oscar Asche, Privately published, 2004
Brian Singleton: Oscar Asche, Orientalism and British Musical Comedy, Greenwood, 2004