Oscar Asche 1871-1936
In 1909 the Asche–Brayton company came to Australia under the aegis of Clarke, Meynell and Gunn.
It was at the Royal that Asche made his Australian debut in The Taming of the Shrew.
Asche mined Oriental mystique when he wrote Chu Chin Chow, a fabulous Arabian Nights extravaganza.
In 1909 the Asche–Brayton company came to Australia under the aegis of Clarke, Meynell and Gunn – a liaison between actors Clyde Meynell and John Gunn, entrepreneur Sir Rupert Clarke and the notorious John Wren, king of the illicit Collingwood ‘tote’. They shuffled their shows between the Royal in Melbourne and the Criterion in Sydney, which Wren owned. It was at the Royal that Asche made his Australian debut in The Taming of the Shrew. ‘What a homecoming it was,’ he remembered. ‘Nothing, nothing can ever deprive me of that. I had made good and had come home to show them. Whatever the future years hold, nothing can eliminate that. For over five minutes they greeted, shouted at me. Could anyone ever forget that? Hundreds waited in Little Bourke Street by the stage door, and we could scarcely move off in our car.’ Later, he and Lily appeared in As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Asche’s own adaptations of Stanley Wyman’s book Count Hannibal and Besier’s The Virgin Goddess.
Asche’s Othello garnered more than its share of audience involvement. One night, when Asche was disposing of his Desdemona, a woman shouted, ‘You big black …’ The crowded house waited for the next word, and sighed with relief when it turned out to be ‘beast’. And during another performance an excited youth called out to Iago: ‘You’re a bloody liar!’
The Asche tour finished with two weeks in Perth. Though the city was paralysed by a transport strike, Asche filled His Majesty’s. ‘People walked miles to the theatre and back again,’ he recalled. ‘They drove in and rode in from country districts and put up at the hotels and every place where a bed could be found. They made up parties and drove in on lorries and farm carts. And the strikers took advantage of their holiday by coming too! We played to record business, and every night foot and mounted police had to control the crowds.’
Asche toured Australia again in 1912-13 with a repertoire including his elaborate production of Edward Knoblock’s play Kismet, which had run for two years in London, plus more Shakespeare.
Asche again mined Oriental mystique when he wrote Chu Chin Chow, a fabulous Arabian Nights extravaganza, with music by Frederic Norton. He also directed and starred in it with his wife. Chu opened at His Majesty’s in London on 31 August 1916. Colourful, spicy and spectacular, it was just what wartime Britain needed. It ran for five years – 2,235 performances – in spite of complaints about the ladies’ scanty costumes, which Herbert Beerbohm Tree described as ‘more navel than millinery’.
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