Gregan McMahon CBE 1874 – 1941
- Gregan McMahon CBE 1874 – 1941
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-famousplayers 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.
In 1911 McMahon set up the Melbourne Repertory Company, drawn from 300 hopeful amateur applicants. He directed and usually took a leading role in its productions. It debuted at the Turn Verein Hall in East Melbourne on 26 June with St John Hankin’s comedy The Two Mr Wetherbys, alternating with Ibsen’s dour John Gabriel Borkman. For the next seven years, McMahon’s company presented a wide range of modern British and European plays, plus 13 written by Australians, in a range of venues including St Patrick’s Hall in Bourke Street (later the home of the Victorian Ballet Guild), the Athenaeum Hall in Collins Street, and the Playhouse in South Melbourne. When McMahon opened there on 24 June 1916, Melba was in the audience to lend her support.
There was also a trip to Hobart in 1912 and a production of Euripides’ The Trojan Woman at the Conservatorium, with music by Professor G.W. Marshall-Hall.
In 1918, when this enterprise faltered, McMahon moved back to Sydney. There he worked as a producer for the Tait brothers, who were establishing themselves as theatrical entrepreneurs in competition with Williamson’s. In 1920, when the Taits amalgamated with J.C. Williamson’s, McMahon remained on the payroll, but with a new project: The Sydney Repertory Theatre Society. His actors were both professionals and amateurs; indeed, under his guidance, several of his amateur players eventually attained professional careers. Because the company was so closely linked to its commercial benefactors, its repertoire inevitably tended to be more ‘commercial’; only four of the 70-odd plays he produced under this arrangement were Australian. His venues included the Sydney Playhouse, the Conservatorium and the Palace.
In 1926 McMahon, who was still working for the Taits, was enticed back to Melbourne to revitalise the Melbourne Repertory Theatre, which had struggled gamely on during his absence. He marked his return with a production of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion at the King’s Theatre in February 1927.
In 1928 the Taits and McMahon proposed a full-time professional repertory company that would play in both Sydney and Melbourne and possibly other states, but the society’s members rejected the plan. The Sydney society imploded; Doris Fitton established her Independent Theatre out of its ruins; Fitton had been trained by McMahon and hoped to use him as a director. The Melbourne society struggled on, recruiting Frank Clewlow to replace McMahon.
Williamson’s promptly sponsored a new venture, the Gregan McMahon Play Company. This opened with Shaw’s Getting Married at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne in May 1928, and later transferred to Sydney, but it was a disaster, artistically and financially. Louis Esson described it as ‘a mixture of duds and derelicts… I can’t see any hope for it’.
After his Play Company folded, McMahon continued to work as a director for Williamson’scommercial productions until late 1929, when he joined the Fuller organisation in Melbourne. For them he directed A Message from Mars at the Bijou and again at the Palace. As the Depression ate away at theatre audiences, McMahon struggled on. He stayed with Fullers until mid-1931 and then returned Williamson’s to direct a very successful production of Galsworthy’s Loyalties.
Meanwhile, McMahon had founded a new semi-professional group, the Gregan McMahon Players. They played in Williamson theatres and, from 1933, at the Garrick (the former Playhouse) in South Melbourne. There McMahon directed Francis W. Thring’s Efftee Players in Christie Winsloe’s controversial Children in Uniform. Next, Thring and McMahon jointly established the New Comedy Company, which announced a three-month season from Boxing Day 1933. This was McMahon’s last fully professional repertory company. In April 1934 the Gregan McMahon Players were back at the Garrick.
In mid-1935 McMahon renewed his association with J.C. Williamson’s. They welcomed him back by presenting him and his company in a special three-night ‘testimonial season’ at the Comedy in Melbourne. The program explained: ‘These performances are tendered to Mr McMahon in recognition of his distinguished services in the cause of an important form of legitimate drama, and to recoup him for heavy losses.’
The Gregan McMahon Players went on to stage eight plays a year for Williamson’s at the Comedy or the King’s – where, on 7 March 1936, McMahon presented what was proclaimed to be the world premiere of Shaw’s The Millionairess (it wasn’t: the piece had already had a single performance in Vienna).
In 1938 McMahon’s services to theatre were recognised when he was made a Commander of the British Empire – but it didn’t help pay the bills. When he died suddenly on 30 August 1941 he had less than £400 in the bank. Only around 20 people saw him laid to rest. His company died with him, but his legacy was enormous: an inventory of hundreds of productions of important contemporary plays, many in their Australian premieres, plus a long roll call of theatre talent who, in whole or in part, owed their careers to his selfless nurturing: designers Loudon Sainthill and William Constable; players Coral Browne, Doris Fitton, Lloyd Lamble, Kathleen Goodall, Keith Johns, Thelma Scott, Meta Pelham, Hal Percy, Frank Neil, Olive Wilton, Irene Mitchell, O. P. Heggie and even double-jointed funnyman Clyde Cook.
Gregan McMahon’s papers are in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
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