For a three-year period from 1968, Rex Cramphorn wrote a series of reviews of Sydney theatre for the national news magazine, the Bulletin. This body of writing, from the perspective of a young theatre-maker steeped in both classical French literature and the writing of twentieth century European theorists, offers a colourful, if disapproving picture of the state of theatre-making in Sydney prior to the emergence of what was to become known as the New Wave.
This article first considers those reviews in order to contextualise Cramphorn’s own attempts, in the early 1970s, to effect an alternative New Wave-one that took its inspiration less from a desire to create a vernacular Australian theatre than to contribute to a broader, universal theatrical project.
Additionally, Cramphorn’s account of his experiences of theatre in Melbourne in the early 1970s, as well as correspondence he received from the Australian Performing Group, suggests that the New Wave, as it emerged, was a fragile, contested phenomenon. This article traces some of these contemporary documents to offer an alternative, heterodox perspective on the New Wave.
Note: in the mid 1970s, Cramphorn dropped the ‘e’ from the end of his name. Although all the reviews referred to in this paper were published under the original spelling, I have adopted his later, preferred spelling throughout the article, although I have retained the original version in the bibliography, below.
On the third of January 1970 the Bulletin published Rex Cramphorn’s overview of the prior twelve months of theatre in Sydney. The overall experience, Cramphorn wrote, ‘was perfectly intolerable, and would have kept any sane ticket-buyer in the cinema for the next twelve months’ (Cramphorn 1970:29). At the time, Cramphorn was rehearsing, for the National Theatre and Fine Arts Society, a production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy-at the time attributed to Cyril Tourneur-at Hobart’s Theatre Royal. The cast included a core group of actors-Nick (later Nico) Lathouris, David Cameron, Gillian Jones and Bob Millican-with whom Cramphorn had spent the previous three months working, in a studio lent to them by the National Institute of Dramatic Art (N.I.D.A.), page-by-page through the exercises in Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, a photocopy of which had been procured by Lathouris. This collaboration-including the critically acclaimed Hobart production-was to lead, later in 1970, to the watershed Australian Play Season at the Jane Street Theatre that was to mark the arrival, perhaps, of the New Wave in Sydney theatre.
However, as several contributors to the symposium out of which this current collection has been assembled warned, there is a misleading simplicity in the modernist rhetoric and ‘year zero’ logics of the narrative of the New Wave.1 What has been cast, generally, as ‘the’ new wave is better understood as a heterogenous flourishing of theatrical activity, the conditions of emergence for-and heterodoxies of-which, are easy to overlook. And while the ‘arrival’ of Grotowski, in the form of a dog-eared photocopy of a book, or the anxiety of influence betrayed by the self-conscious cinematic stylings of the University of Melbourne’s proto-A.P.G. (Australian Performing Group) student theatre makers participate in something like a cargo cult-like anticipation of the future arriving from points distant, Cramphorn’s argument in 1970 was not that there was no theatre, but that the theatre that was happening was not good enough.
Importantly-and in a sense this is what constitutes his heterodoxy (and the subsequent marginalisation of his practice in Australian theatre historiography)-at stake for Cramphorn was not a drama-a body of new Australian plays-but a theatre. He was not, at heart, motivated by a desire for Australian writing, but for a means of making theatre not merely informed by, but contiguous with, the legacies of and innovations in European and Asian theatres.
Ultimately-and, in fact, almost immediately-this set Cramphorn against the tenor of the times: the 1970 Jane Street season collapsed spectacularly, yielding, as the dust settled, two distinct theatre companies. The core Grotowskian group (as John Bell refers to them in his memoirs, 2002:94)-Cramphorn, Lathouris, Jones, Cameron and Terry O’Brien (these last four graduates of the 1968 acting class at N.I.D.A.2) had, during the run of The Revenger’s Tragedy, been invited by John Clark, newly installed as Director at N.I.D.A., to participate in an Arts Council-funded nineteen week ‘Advanced Course’, culminating in rehearsals for the Australian Plays season. They were joined by three other recent graduates-Robyn Nevin, Kate Fitzpatrick and John Paramour-and, unofficially, by Willy Young (later William Yang), who had been drawn into the Grotowskian circle earlier in the year. John Bell joined the group to direct The Legend of King O’Malley, the sprawling, rambunctious circus-like mock history fable written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis that was to set in motion the Nimrod Theatre, while Cramphorn and Young collaborated with the actors to create 10,000 Miles Away, a performance meditation on cosmic and spiritual journeying. This latter project, barely tolerated by the non-Grotowskians, led directly, the following year, to the official formation of the Performance Syndicate, registered as a name by Cramphorn, Lathouris and Young. The third play of the season, Kenneth Cook’s Stockade, to have been directed by Derek Nicholson, collapsed in virtual civil war between, on one hand, the Grotowskians, eager to pursue the formal innovations, themes and collaborative creative practices they had been exploring for 10,000 Miles Away, and the no-nonsense writer, who had little stomach or tolerance for such experimentation-and, by some reports, the N.I.D.A. hierarchy-on the other. The split was acrimonious and irreconcilable: Noni Roland in The Bulletin reported ‘incidents of temperament, tears and walkouts’, all subsequently hushed over as part of a ‘gentlemen’s “no comment” agreement, as thorough a job as any Christo wrap-up’ (Roland 1971:44). The production was scrapped days before opening, the text eventually produced by the Independent Theatre early in 1971.
In this paper, rather than tracing the subsequent-and as yet, untold- history of the Performance Syndicate,3 I will instead turn to the period immediately prior to that explosive Jane St Season. I will draw upon, first, Cramphorn’s review writings for theBulletin, in order to create a sense of the theatrical landscape in Sydney during the period 1968-1970 as viewed by someone aspiring to a version of a new wave: one inspired by European notions of something like ‘total theatre’. Then, turning to a subsequent document prepared by Cramphorn in response to the disastrous attempt by the Performance Syndicate to set up as company-in-residence at Melbourne’s St Martin’s Theatre, I will offer a snapshot-from this decidedly heterodox perspective-of the Melbourne scene in mid 1973. My purpose in doing so is, in part, to offer a corrective to the received-and, arguably, triumphalist-narrative of the New Wave (and in particular of the Melbourne New Wave). This is not, however, to debunk or otherwise challenge the value, significance or merits of that majoritarian narrative, or to plead the case for an alternative possible history that never quite happened: that Cramphorn’s way was the way we should have gone. Rather, my aspiration is to make the history of the New Wave as heterogeneous and as incoherent as, perhaps, it actually was. To press that particular point, I will conclude with a piece of correspondence from the heart of the Melbourne New Wave at the A.P.G. to Cramphorn: an almost fantastically quaint throw-back to a not-so-distant past in which communication was not instantaneous, and when, to mangle a metaphor, those surfing the left hand of the New Wave had little idea of what those surfing the right were up to.
Between June 1968 and September 1970 Cramphorn wrote sixty-eight fortnightly pieces for the Bulletin. These were mostly reviews, each of around 600 words, usually of one play. In total, he covered around 80 productions, including revues and recitals, plus a couple of non-theatrical events: most amusingly (and, one senses, in despair at the theatrical alternatives on offer) the sideshows at the Royal Easter Show. Each year Cramphorn produced an overview of the preceding year’s offerings, and in late 1968, in lieu of a review, offered some reflections on the state of stage design across the city. Assuredly written-sometimes remarkably so-the work evidences Cramphorn’s erudition and appetite for challenging, cerebral theatre, and something of a youthful idealism.
In his overview article early in 1969, Cramphorn uses a revealing simile to describe his milieu’s relationship to ‘theatrical newness’, which, he admits, ‘begins and ends with theTime review’:
Like sex-educated children we know it all without experience, and often express a certain lofty superiority to those who attempt to re-create the theatrical expression here, labelling them “derivative” and deploring the lack of a genuine Australian theatre (1969a:39).
Two months earlier, reflecting upon ‘the sort of theatre we have here, and its immediate prospects’, Cramphorn explained that
[m]y frame of reference is bounded by the Ensemble, Independent, and Old Tote regularly, Phillip Productions and Williamson’s usually, and Community and New occasionally (1968:74).
The table below, breaking down the reviews, bears out this frame of reference, demonstrating the theatrical landscape as it was subsequently presented (presumably in part at the behest of his commissioning editor) to the young reviewer.
Cell Block Theatre
Some brief notes are warranted.
The analysis into three categories is my own. The first cluster might be usefully thought of as what we might these days call mainstream art theatres: the Old Tote, Jane Street and N.I.D.A. constituted something of a hub of theatrical activity in the city’s eastern suburbs, while the other three were all located on Sydney’s North Shore: Hayes Gordon’s Ensemble, associated with his own method-training school, in harbour-side Kirribilli; the Independent in North Sydney, and the Community further up the North Shore train-line, in the leafy, middle class suburb of Killara. In the first round of Arts Council funding in 1969, the Old Tote was granted $83,000, with a remit to develop ‘national status’, while the other three, to their dismay, received nothing (see O’Brien 1969).
The commercial theatres, dotted around the central business district, specialised in musicals, revues and West End, and, in the case of the Metro and Hair in 1969, Broadway imports. The two major production houses were, as Cramphorn noted, Phillips (the Phillips St Review) and J.C Williamson’s. I have used the rubric ‘Alternative’ to designate the remainder, including the New Theatre (inner Eastern Sydney) and P.A.C.T. (Producers, Authors, Composers and Talent), located in the central business district, both of which operated as amateur cooperatives; the ‘Q’, functioning as a lunchtime theatrette in the basement of a city office block; the Cell Block theatre in Darlinghurst’s National Art School; and the Purple Onion, an infamous gay cabaret/revue venue on Anzac Parade in Kensington.
The bracketed numbers indicate what Cramphorn at the time referred to as ‘indigenous’ (meaning simply ‘Australian’) performance; those asterisked are conventional playscripts: the balance were revues (at the New Theatre, the Phillip St. Theatre, the Purple Onion and Community Theatre) or ‘events’ (Cell Block Theatre). The table reveals, then, that Cramphorn reviewed, over three years, a total of five productions of Australian playscripts: Colin Free’s Cannonade of Bells at the Community in September 1968; the same author’s Strip Tease at the Q (May 1969);The Rise and Fall of Boronia Avenue (Tony Morphett) and Rooted! (Alex Buzo) for Jane St.’s Australian Play Season in August 1969; and Reedy River (Diamond/Maxwell) at the New in November 1969. There were, of course, other productions of Australian scripts during this period, and Cramphorn’s overviews suggest, as we will see below, that he had seen those shows; he did not, however, review them. (He refers, for example, to ‘the plays in the  Old Tote Australian season-the Milgates and the Hewett’ (Cramphorn 1969a:39). In general terms, as we will see, Cramphorn liked little of what he saw.
In his November 1968 reflective overview, Cramphorn first advances his critique of theatrical practice; it is here that he starts to look towards an alternative to the existing means of production, and argues for an ensemble model in its place. Theatre in Sydney, he observes, ‘is in a rather run-down and demoralised state, and badly needs a long-lasting stimulant’ (Cramphorn 1968:75). The dominance of the commercial management system, he suggests, is largely to blame,
[e]ngender[ing] a particular atmosphere among actors in Sydney-a free-for-all commercial struggle with no security of any kind, no opportunity for learning except by cumulative experience, and, consequently no chance to develop anything other than a purely egocentric, personal style (1968:74).
By contrast, while ‘[n]o one would suggest that theatre is booming in Melbourne’ (ibid), Cramphorn was mightily impressed by the George Ogilvie’s Three Sisters, a success he attributed to the stability of employment for Melbourne Theatre Company (M.T.C.) actors, and Ogilvie’s commitment to daily classwork in improvisation and movement, this in the context of a much weaker commercial management system: in Melbourne, Cramphorn observed, ‘actors approach managements, attend auditions on their own account’ (ibid 75).
Two months later, Cramphorn laid out his own typology of Sydney theatre in the overview article quoted above. In 1968, he explained, ‘[f]our main categories of play production were apparent’ (1969a:39). The ‘old-new’ included ‘conventional productions of dull, recent plays’, ‘dead material’ which only ‘the Ensemble’s method of staging’ was able to infuse with a ‘spark of novelty’ (ibid). The ‘new-old‘ refers to productions of plays written before 1950; of these Cramphorn noted that only the M.T.C.’s Three Sisters (at Melbourne’s Russell St Theatre) managed to escape category three: the ‘old old‘-‘purely conventional productions of the classics’. Examples of this kind of work, Cramphorn observed, ‘are being slowly routed, although one-man and North Shore rearguard actions were bravely fought’, including a season of Coward plays. The ‘new-new‘ ‘was the hardest to find’; Cramphorn cites, alone amongst 1968’s offerings, the controversial New Theatre production of van Italie’s American Hurrah: ‘I think we should try to remember 1968’, he suggests, ‘as the year when the best thing in Sydney theatre was banned’ (ibid).
To these four ‘main categories’, Cramphorn adds two more; ‘the Australian Play’ and ‘Experimental Theatre’. With regard to the first, Cramphorn refers to the Jane St. Australian Play season somewhat dismissively:
[m]ost of the plays in the Old Tote Australian season-the Milgates and the Hewett-were clearly old-new, while the Douglas Stewart was practically old-old. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Childermas. Cannonade of Bells, not only comfortably old-new, was also in the “colonial heritage” style (ibid).
There was precious little by way of ‘experimental’ on offer. Referring to ‘improvisational and ensemble’ work that was driving theatrical innovation in Europe and America, Cramphorn observed that the
more extreme developments of these techniques into “theatre of involvement,” in which the audience is expected to participate physically and mentally, are rare in Sydney, the province of the young and enthusiastic, and either indulged or condemned as “lunatic fringe” activities, depending on one’s point of view (ibid).
Conceding that Jim Sharman (et al’s) Terror Australis at Jane Street and Mona Brand and Margaret Barr’s Going, Going, Gone at the New Theatre best bridged the gap between ‘Australian’ and ‘experimental’ theatres, Cramphorn was also wary: ‘in both cases’, he suggested, ‘novelty of style was wedded to conventional revue-satire content’ (ibid). The overview concludes with a reference to a work that Cramphorn had not actually reviewed: a ‘happening’ titled Ceremonies, orchestrated by ‘the Human Body’-Clem Gorman, Judy (Juno) Gemes and Johnnie Allen:
[w]hat relationship Ceremonies at P.A.C.T. bore to Australian theatre is by no means clear, and the question of whether it was genuine or derivative remains equally obscure. But at least those involved believe they are doing something important and useful to the social-cultural organisation in which they live-and it has been a good while since anyone felt like that about theatre in Australia (ibid).
He concluded this piece with guarded optimism: ‘the hint of indigenous enthusiasm thatCeremonies has given to the end of 1968′, he wrote, ‘suggests that there may be more to 1969 than imported Hair‘ (ibid). This was, however, hope misplaced: 1969 left Cramphorn even more despondent.
In January 1970, with the first of the extended periods of work with the Grotowski material under his belt, and deep in preparation for the Hobart production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, Cramphorn published the last of his overviews in the Bulletin, the acerbic, wonderfully titled “A Withering Mistletoe on our Gum-Tree Culture” (Cramphorn 1970). It is hard not to read ‘Gum-Tree Culture’ as a none-too-subtle slight upon the suburban complacency of Sydney’s leafy north shore: Cramphorn had attended the Community Theatre in Killara on seven occasions in the previous year, and had, on December 27, written about the company’s end of year revue, Oh! Killara, an attempt to somehow steal a rise on Oh! Calcutta!, then something of a cause célèbre. (There is something delicious, as we can be sure Cramphorn knew, in loathing this limp, suburban attempt to make a travesty of Kenneth Tynan’s outrageous burlesque.)4The writers of Oh! Killara (including Reg Livermore), Cramphorn observed, had set
their sights on a taste-level so basic as to be vaguely insulting to almost any audience. Except, apparently, North Shore matrons and schoolchildren, who seemed to find it quite agreeable. Theatre like this, which never exceeds the bounds of what is acceptable and expected, is on a level with muzak and photographic mural (1969h:51).
Perhaps that had been the last straw: Cramphorn had had enough. The opening paragraphs of “A Withering Mistletoe . . .”, concluding with the words with which I started this essay, are worth quoting in full.
After writing last year about some fifty productions at a limited number of theatres in a fairly isolated environment (Sydney, Australia), it seems to me a good idea to take stock of what has happened to my standards and perhaps to question their original basis. Traditionally, at the end of the year, critics review the year’s productions on a speech-night-and-prize-distribution basis. However, since my opinion of what I saw was, for the most part, spectacularly low, I propose to attempt instead a review of myself and the relevance of what I write (1970:29).
First, the basic necessity of producing a few hundred coherent and constructive words about things I would normally simply reject may begin as a good personal discipline, but slowly it enforces a sort of compromise; merely by taking seriously something worthless one begins to change one’s original perspective. After a year of adjusting to the level of what is available I find that what I write is so conditioned by and relative to its context that, by any absolute standards, it is misleading to the point of falsehood. What, for instance, did I mean by writing, even in derogatory terms, about Not Now, Darling, The Affairs of Anatol, Reedy River, Halfway Up the Tree and Come Laughing Home in recent reviews? Viewed from outside my own context-that of a professional theatregoer-this representative selection of Sydney theatre was perfectly intolerable, and would have kept any sane ticket-buyer in the cinema for the next twelve months (ibid).6
And it gets better-or worse. Even the best producers, Cramphorn wrote,
could only set their sights somewhere between an intellectually insulting watered-down realism and a fag-end of defunct stylisation. You have to be desperately in love with the idea of seeing people on a stage to accept any variation on or combination of these alternatives as either art or entertainment (ibid).
Having got that off his chest, Cramphorn allows himself a modicum of hope for the year to come, citing the relative highlights of 1969 with a view to divining a direction for Australian theatre: two productions of Waiting For Godot (at the Independent and a long-since-forgotten touring French production); P.A.C.T. productions of Sam Shepherd’s Chicago and Icarus’s Mother; ‘the texts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Little Murders-though not the productions’; Graham Bond’s revues at Phillip St; a ‘happening’ at the Cell Block Theatre (Alexander Nevsky’s Homecoming, produced by David Humphries); and ‘some six or eight visits to Hair‘ (30).
Other than Graham Bond’s revues, none of these highlights involved Australian writing; the Australian Play Season productions at Jane St.-including Buzo’s Rooted!-are notable omissions. Cramphorn had, in his review, damned Rooted! with faint praise, judging it ‘the best and most original thing to have come from the Australian play seasons so far‘ (1969c:48; my italics) but hoping that ‘Mr. Buzo will not leave it at this stage of its development’ (ibid).5 Given that the best thing he could write about the other Jane St. production he reviewed-Tony Morphett’s Rise and Fall of Boronia Ave-was that
the only parts of the production with any hint of authenticity were the least involved: Barry Conyngham’s organ music and David Whitford’s mute performance as the arranger of the light-show (1969b:46).
Cramphorn’s enthusiasm for Rooted! is at best, conditional. In fact, winding up theBoronia Ave review, Cramphorn makes it quite clear that the new Australian writing, per se, is of relatively marginal significance for the project of creating an authentic theatre:
The continuation of the Australian play seasons deserves every support-slowly the term “Australian play” must lose its defiant ring by virtue of sheer familiarity. Acceptance of the term, unselfconscious audience and worthwhile play probably will appear simultaneously. In the meantime, we can only plunge on hopefully (ibid).
Turning to his own vision for making a vibrant, authentic theatre, and in the process citing Artaud, Cramphorn suggests that theatre’s ‘major misdirection’ is the ‘foisting’ upon it of ‘psychological realism’ and ‘storytelling psychology’. Instead, Cramphorn aspires to a theatre predicated upon ‘the actor’s physical presence’, referring, in passing, to kathakali and noh-and, curiously, opera and ballet-as traditions that have somehow ‘maintained their vitality’. In these forms, the actor
someone who “performs” stylistically exotic physical and vocal feats which maintain some relevance to the life (particularly to the embattled spiritual life) of their audiences, but which are very far from being the diminishing mirror of everyday life to which we are accustomed in theatre (1970:30).
Nor was Cramphorn remotely interested in politics: a quarter of a century later, opening a studio named for him, David Malouf suggested that Cramphorn was ‘one of the few directors of his generation . . . not influenced by Brecht’ (1994-5:13). Acknowledging this, Cramphorn wrote that given
its lack of revolutionary social commitment, Jim Sharman would call the sort of theatre I propose a “graveyard” like all the others. But in a way dedication and discipline in an acting company makes as revolutionary a social statement as any amount of overt comment on Australian fascism, Vietnam, drugs, etc. Indeed, to be a “graveyard” theatre (as opposed to Brook’s deadly theatre) . . . (1970:30).
Rather, as Malouf later suggested, Cramphorn’s theatre, in conception and subsequent realisation addressed ‘the world of the pre-social, the world of psyche, rather than polis . . . the world of dream stuff, sacrifice and ritual . . .’ (Malouf ibid).
This, then, is Cramphorn’s stepping off point as he set about putting his money where his mouth was.7 Perhaps wilfully refusing to see the wave gathering just over the horizon-Cramphorn was, after all, a surfer himself-and in the apparent absence of the slightest swell, he was about to go all out to make his own wave. The peroratory flourish of “A Withering Mistletoe . . .” is given to Genet:
The monumental theatre-whose style is yet to be found-ought to have as much importance as the Supreme Court, the Cenotaph, the Cathedral, Parliament House, an illegal drug market, the Observatory-and it ought to be, in a way, all those at once-and situated in a graveyard, or close to the crematorium’s furnace . . . In modern towns the only place-alas, still on the outskirts-where a theatre could be built is the cemetery . . . Imagine what it would be like for an audience to walk out among the sleeping dead after Don Giovanni . . . Death would be both nearer and lighter-and the theatre graver (30).8
Through 1970, Cramphorn’s contributions to the Bulletin become less regular as his commitment to the N.I.D.A. Advanced Course, the productions of O’Malley and 10,000 Miles and the national tour of the former took priority. Reflecting his disenchantment with theatre, his reviews cast further and further afield-almost eccentrically so: children’s shows (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Playbox), kitsch orientalia (Ballet of the South Pacific at Her Majesty’s) and the Easter Show. Twice he reviewed Old Tote productions, and took in a production of The One Day of the Year at the Independent; he did not, however, cover the going-on at the Community.
In late 1971, however, Cramphorn again took on the mantle of critic, this time for the broadsheet Sunday Australian, contributing some 20 reviews up until the paper’s demise in June the following year. These reviews see Cramphorn responding to a significantly more lively theatrical scene. Among his first pieces was another overview article, published in December 1971 under the heading “Shoots and Renewals”. Noting that even the Independent and Community Theatres had “somehow raked up the vitality for more flourishing conservatism”, Cramphorn, not surprisingly, reserved his greatest enthusiasm for the nascent Nimrod:
Nimrod Street has done more than all the others together to devise consistently exciting theatre-it has proved possible to go there regularly and enjoy it (1971b:35B).
‘Moreover,’ he continues,
of some nine or ten productions, six were new Australian plays, and three of them were written especially for what the programme tactfully calls the theatre’s “unique space” (ibid).
However, it is not the plays themselves that excite Cramphorn. Rather, he focuses upon the burgeoning talents, and, in the response to new opportunities and critical and popular acclaim, the confidence of a coterie of directors, among them Richard Wherrett, John Bell, Phillip Hedley and Jim Sharman (by now something of an establishment figure). ‘The real virtue behind the statistics’ Cramphorn insisted,
is that these new plays have been good and interesting productions that were, coincidentally, Australian (ibid).
In this context, it is significant to note that the Performance Syndicate’s output, following the success of 10,000 Miles Away, and their subsequent rejection of Stockade-and, presumably, the proto-nationalist, larrikin aesthetic and aspiration that was to characterise the Nimrod’s rise to prominence-had consisted of a single production:Orestes, an extraordinary-sounding devised piece based upon Willy Young’s reflections on Aeschylus performed in a converted warehouse in Surry Hills.9
To this point, I have used Cramphorn’s review writings to both map out the field of theatre in Sydney leading up to the key year of 1970, and to touch upon the idea of a heterodox, and arguably what was to be a still-born, alternative New Wave, manifest in Cramphorn’s own aspirations, and in the work of the nascent Performance Syndicate. Specifically, I have shown that for Cramphorn, the question of writing, and of Australianwriting, was of marginal significance in the project he understood as being necessary for the creation of a true theatrical culture. On Cramphorn’s own account, his ‘frame of reference’ was parochial-beyond a few references to Melbourne, as we have seen, his perspective is far from national. In the final section of this essay, I want to turn to Cramphorn’s own direct experiences of, specifically, the Melbourne theatrical milieu in the early 1970s, to get a sense of what I have suggested is an alternative, if not oppositional position, to that of what was rapidly becoming established, and what we now designate as, the New Wave.
The Legend of King O’Malley had, in late 1970, toured nationally, including a series of performances at St. Martin’s Theatre in South Yarra, Melbourne. In the tour diary published in The Bulletin Cramphorn cannot conceal his contempt for both the theatre-
[o]f all the local managements, St. Martin’s were the least interested, the most coolly disdainful of the vulgar money-maker they were temporarily housing . . . (1971a:44).
. . . or the audiences:
the Independent-on-the-Yarra atmosphere, the staid, regular subscribers, the grisly, formal opening night made us see ourselves and the play through new eyes: what had been “rough” became “clumsy” (the epithet “student” had haunted us throughout the tour although we had all worked professionally for long enough to feel that it was a trifle inaccurate), what had been “enthusiastic” became “messy” and what had been “satirical” became “tasteless” (ibid).
The critics were as unforgiving as the audiences (which had walking out in droves ‘as early as the preliminary hymn-singing’).
The critics found phrases like [“undergraduate romp,” “avoids polish . . . like the plague”] “did well in Sydney and it may attract curiosity here as the silly season approaches. [But it should be stamped ‘Not for Export’]”, “a reputation grossly inflated by the Sydney press”, “. . . may be a considerably better play than this production shows” (really the ultimate criticism in this case) (ibid).10
While touring the Performance Syndicate’s critically acclaimed Tempest through regional New South Wales in mid 1972, Cramphorn, already worn down by the grind of hand-to-mouth living and the scant opportunities, in the face of constant touring and lack of adequate funding for the sustained ensemble training in which he had hoped to ground the group’s work, embarked upon a series of negotiations with theatre managements (or their representatives), including Graeme Blundell at the Pram Factory and Alan Edwards at the recently-founded Queensland Theatre Company. His hopes that one of these organizations could offer, perhaps through auspicing a Special Projects grant from the Arts Council, a medium-term opportunity for the Performance Syndicate to train and rehearse in relative financial and (within the limits of the ‘poor theatre’ aesthetic to which they were committed) material security-somewhere to work-came to naught. Instead, and surprisingly given the experiences with O’Malley, in late 1972, Cramphorn accepted an invitation from Christopher Muir, the administrator at St. Martin’s, for the Performance Syndicate to become resident company at the theatre for six months, from February to August, 1973. While it may now seem surprising that Cramphorn chose St Martins, but Irenie Mitchell and the old management was gone, Christopher Muir (with a background in television, not theatre) had just got the job to lead the theatre and he promised a contemporary diet that would attract the new young audience now felt to be flocking to La Mama and the Pram Factory. The (elderly) St Martin’s board was, apparently, trying to catch the wave.11
For reasons subsequently detailed by Cramphorn in a 6,000 word report, parts of which were published later that year in a Currency newsletter, the experience was catastrophic.12 This is not, however, the place for a detailed narrative of those events. Instead, I want to quote a section of the document in which Cramphorn sets the scene for the arrival, in Melbourne, of the Performance Syndicate. His purpose was to establish the conditions for the mistaken faith that he had invested in St. Martin’s: specifically, that the management at St. Martin’s, alone in Melbourne, was willing to support theatrical experimentation. It is, given the work that had been going on at the University of Melbourne and, subsequently, at the Pram Factory, a rather extraordinary ambit claim (and, as his letter to Blundell, written in mid-1972 suggests, a claim not made in ignorance of the Carlton scene).
Cramphorn wrote that the St. Martin’s management was committed to marketing Performance Syndicate as providing ‘the sort of theatre not available at other Melbourne theatres’. He then offers a four-paragraph summary of what was already on offer. The first two paragraphs address the big end of town. First, the Melbourne Theatre Company, a ‘growing monopoly administered by Mr. John Sumner’ providing ‘an established level’ of production of ‘successful new plays (including Australian works) and suitable classics (the criterion in programming being, to some extent, what is fashionable overseas)’. Second, the commercial ‘chains’, providing productions of musicals ‘so far from the[ir] ethnic origins as to be incomprehensible on any other level than as exercises in unison hoofing and singing’, and celebrity vehicles. Cramphorn then heads up Swanston St. The next paragraph merits quoting in full:
(3) The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory in Carlton, a writers’ theatre which provided the try-out facilities for the Williamson, Hibberd and Romeril plays before they were popular successes. Since Australian playwrighting has begun to boom the APG is in some danger of becoming an establishment despite itself, staging extravagant revivals of, say, Dimboola to capacity audiences. However, during the period I was in Melbourne The Bob and Joe Show-a mime and dance programme-was presented, showing that the APG takes some interest in form as well as content, although the lack of a coherent acting company may keep the group limited to its present range of activity.
Cramphorn here is true to form: the play-as text-is not the thing. ‘Writers’ theatre’ is, in Cramphorn’s scheme of things, somewhat belittling, if not an outright insult (albeit, perhaps, one born of ignorance), as is the reduction of the A.P.G. to a ‘try-out’ facility: it certainly underestimates the contribution of actors, steeped for several years in a(n at least partly) Grotowskian commitment to self-exploration and improvisation. The heart of his critique, however, is the characterisation of the New Wave playwrights’ contributions as being limited to content, and, notwithstanding the example of The Bob and Jane Show, not to form. The playwrights were not, apparently, offering theatrical novelty, but merely plugging vernacular material into tired, old templates: examples of what Cramphorn had earlier called the ‘old-new’.
Finally, ‘(4) Marginal groups like La Mama seem to have a relatively slight impact’:
during the time I was in Melbourne a ‘lesbian play’ called Night Flowers was presented and then the theatre lapsed into inactivity.
Also included under this rubric are other theatres ‘such as Viaduct’ which ‘exist as names only to me’ and ‘the university groups, which attract little interest outside their own circles’.
Even given both the evident polemical intentions of the piece, and his own aspirations to ‘total theatre’, Cramphorn paints a fairly bleak picture of a moment that we might have expected to have at least impressed with a sense of energy and optimism; it was, after all, 1973.
Against this bleak background, Performance Syndicate at St. Martin’s was to throw over the venue’s erstwhile function, that of providing ‘cosy, preferably comic, entertainments for local senior citizens’. In place of this, Rex and his colleagues were
to provide sufficiently vital re-interpretations of classics to arouse interest in the works, or productions of the kind of new English and European works not taken up by the M.T.C.
The content alone did not constitute the galvanising theatrical novelty Cramphorn wanted. Rather, the ‘vitality’ would be generated a commitment to process and form:
As would be the case in any theatre in Australia, emphasis on the company as performers rather than as tools of a production or play, would make a fairly revolutionary change.
The story of the Performance Syndicate at St. Martin’s, as I suggested above, must be left for another time: the purpose of this essay has been to offer an idiosyncratic contemporaneous perspective upon the New Wave and the conditions of emergence for the New Wave. In closing, I want to take up the rubric of ignorance, or rather, of the difficulty of accessing information that, from the point of view of the digital age, is almost impossible to apprehend. Cramphorn’s ‘mail’ on the A.P.G. seems sadly uninformed, notwithstanding his correspondence with Blundell. There is no evidence that Cramphorn was aware, for example, of the origins of the A.P.G., and in particular the enthusiasm of the early movers of the Carlton set for the same European sources and stimuli that had driven the proto-Performance Syndicate’s experiments at the Old Tote-experiments which attracted barely a handful of participants, in contrast to the dozens who turned up for the open workshops in Carlton.
Of course, this worked both ways: the A.P.G. knew little about the Performance Syndicate’s work, despite The Tempest having enjoyed a brief season at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University in late 1972. I close my essay with a piece of correspondence that I found in Cramphorn’s papers. It is a letter from John Romeril in Castlemaine, undated, sent on behalf of the A.P.G., and captures eloquently and remarkably (with its hint of professional jealousy and its focus on pragmatics) something like the ‘fog of war’ as the New Wave-perhaps something more like a slowly rising king tide-rolled slowly in. It certainly suggests that things were not all on the up-and-up; that Cramphorn’s appraisal of the A.P.G. as becoming an institutionalised victim of its own success perhaps overstates the case; and that there was more to the A.P.G. than being a writers’ try-out facility. I reproduce it here in full:
The Performance Syndicate and its Tempest are at present being cited in our ranks as a model or experiment worth looking at. Much of the talk seems uninformed and rather loose, so for my own information and ultimately that of the APG could you either answer the following questions in written form or else let me know when and where I could ring you personally to get the drum?
When did you form? Were you connected or identified with a particular theatre space? Was that connection at all similar (if it existed) to your connection with St Martins (i.e. did you carry a heavy programming responsibility)? How often did you work-out together? Were you doing other things as well? Were you paid? Much? A lot? A little? Were you subsidised at all? Under the wing of some larger company-or on your own? Who’s baby was The Tempest? How long were the labour pains? Obviously you were paid to perform it but had you been commissioned to do so? Had you contracted to perform it? What sort of performance arrangements had you made? How far in advance had you made them? I know some of your people were in Orestes and Macbeth, and going back, O’Malley. But how much continuity was actually involved?
If you can think of other questions worth answering answer them please. Many of the questions might seem oddly ignorant. If they do I’m afraid it’s the ignorance that Melbourne has of events in Sydney (an ignorance Sydney has of events in Melbourne). All it proves is I think is that insufficient communication exists between theatre-people in this country. The newspapers are no help-or next to none. And we lack journals.
I wonder how you’re all making out at St Martin’s. It’s a daring and I hope successful venture. I welcome it. A much needed face lift. And an energising thing for Melbourne theatre. In some ways you’re in the same predicament as we are. Or some of us. And have been for years. To contract to pay the fare (and change it monthly) that a playhouse survives on and by is a dicey business. To maintain an artistic identity through often quite disparate textual material becomes an enormous problem. To maintain an ensemble’s line of development whilst keeping arses on seats is no mean task when, partly at least, what brings the audience are the plays and not the group itself. There are, in our ranks, many unhappy people who’ve wanted to work in a more thorough-going group way than has been possible with our commitment to a repertory playhouse (modest though it is in size). Their urge to do so has been compromised time after time. Our economic prospects show no signs of improving markedly and in consequence any chance to create even a small but permanent actor oriented theatre research group (or task force, how’s that sound) is denied us.
There may, however, be some lessons for us in your experience-especially economic aspects + time spent together-so I would count it a kindness if you could manage the time to reply. Best wishes to all . . .
1. I am thinking, in particular, of contributions by Maryrose Casey and Jodi Gallagher, and Julian Meyrick’s thoughtful introduction to the session at which a version of the current paper was presented. [Both are now papers in this volume: Ed.] I would like to stress, again, that my contribution is not intended as revisionism, but rather as a thickening out of our understanding of the context for the early 1970s theatre movements.
2. O’Brien had not been involved in The Revenger’s Tragedy, as he was at the time engaged in Jim Sharman’s long-running production of Hair at the Metro Theatre in Sydney.
3. I am involved currently in a major research project documenting Cramphorn’s career, including the publication, in 2008 by Currency Press, of an edited collection of Cramphorn’s own writings, including the reviews and other documents quoted throughout the present essay ( “A Raffish Experiment”: The Writings of Rex Cramphorn, edited by Ian Maxwell). Much of the material has been sourced from the contents of Cramphorn’s own papers, archived at the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney. Amongst that collection, too, are drafts of an incomplete manuscript about the Performance Syndicate, provisionally-and revealingly, if a little heroically-titled Madmen with Nothing to Lose, prepared by Cramphorn’s later collaborator, dramaturge and friend, Kim Spinks. Spinks’ efforts in securing and preserving the Cramphorn archive have been an important contribution to this project.
4. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer of this article for this last observation.
5. When he reviewed the 1972 Nimrod production, for which Buzo had made substantial changes to the text, Cramphorn did not like it at all:
it already shows its age, seems not a little derivative, and has settled down to being a confused comedy which gives a born loser a merciless beating to no great effect (Cramphorn 1972:19).
6. All these productions were in November-which had evidently an awful month in the theatre for Cramphorn. The tone of his reviews is, again, worth reproducing, not least for the disdain he is increasingly expressing for “docile” audiences.
The imported London comedy Not Now, Darling (Cooney and Chapman) at the Phillip Theatre was ‘[r]igidly conventional, with a prudish, though leering, morality’ (Cramphorn 1969d:55), although its opening night audience offered it a ‘riotous reception . . . [w]hich just shows how discerning and sophisticated Sydney can be’ (ibid). In the same column, Cramphorn called the Independent’s production of Schnitzler’s The Affairs of Anatol, (Schnitzler) ‘a little too stolid’ (56).
The dialogue of Reedy River at the New remained ‘mulga-wooden, and the plot is about as dramatic as a nursery rhyme’s’. The production took ‘no liberties with the work and the result is not the naivete of folk-art but poker-faced School-of-Arts-Hall self-consciousness’ (1969e:58).
Peter Ustinov’s Halfway Up the Tree at the Theatre Royal appalled Cramphorn:
[n]o joke is too obvious (“Is it a boy or a girl?” is treated to extended variation), no statement of opinion is too nakedly undramatic, no theme is too worn and trite to serve Mr. Ustinov’s mill (1969f:61).
The production, concluded Cramphorn, ‘walks steadily by, as sedately pontifical as its message. A lady with a string-bag and an umbrella beside me dropped off occasionally, but voted it “lovely” all the same’ (1969f:62).
Finally, Come Laughing Home (Waterhouse/Hall) at the Ensemble, was ‘the third sentimental dialect drama at the Ensemble in the past few months’ (1969g:56), leaving Cramphorn to remind the management that ‘their present audience is a pretty docile core of habitual attenders for whom some sort of variety of diet is a primary essential’ (ibid).
7. Kim Spinks, in her unpublished manuscript, suggests that “A Withering Mistletoe . . .” can be read as a group-devised manifesto-or at least Cramphorn’s crystallisation of the group’s thinking-for the nascent Performance Syndicate.
8. Cramphorn’s own translation from “L’etrange mot d’ . . .” Jean Genet, Œuvres completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1967) Volume 4.
9. Only Lathouris, O’Brien and Young were available for this piece, which had benefited from only marginal funding-certainly not enough to support the intended workshopping and devising process. Prior to the production of Orestes, Cramphorn had managed to employ Lathouris, Jones and O’Brien as musicians for his Old Tote production of The Marston’s Dutch Courtesan. He also involved several of the Syndicate in his ‘workshop’ production of Pericles for the Old Tote in November. That November, the Waratah Festival also commissioned the Syndicate
10. The text here enclosed in square brackets edited out of the published article; I have used an earlier draft from the Cramphorn archive. The ‘not for export’ line is Geoffrey Hutton’s in The Age; the swipe at the Sydney Press is Leonard Glickfield in The Nation Review. Subsequently, in his report on the later debacle at St. Martin’s, Cramphorn quoted the Glickfield review again:
Glickfield attempted to explain the difference between Sydney and Melbourne audiences, although the need to find such an explanation is probably more revealing than the result: “A basic difference between Sydney and Melbourne is that Melbourne has too many standards-some good, some bad-while Sydney has virtually no standards at all. In terms of theatre taste Sydneyites are more tolerant of the experimental, the trendy, the vulgar, the superficially glossy, whereas Melburnians are impressed by the proven, the substantial, the universal, but paramountly by what is good form-even when this is a blind for muttonheadedness, ineptitude and lack of originality.
11. Again, my thanks to an anonymous reviewer of this article for these observations.
12. The document in its entirety, to be included in the Raffish Experiment . . . volume, makes for riveting reading.
— (1968) “Ideals and Actualities”, Bulletin, 9 November 1968: 74-75.
— (1969a) “Theatre in Sydney”, Bulletin, 4 January 1969: 39.
— (1969b) “Plunging on”, Bulletin, 9 August 1969: 46.
— (1969c) “Neatly Planted”, Bulletin, 30 August 1969: 48.
— (1969d) “Tarnished Glitter”, Bulletin, 1 November 1969: 55-56.
— (1969e) “Up Reedy Creek”, Bulletin, 15 November 1969: 38.
— (1969f) “All too familiar”, Bulletin, 15 November 1969: 61-62.
— (1969g) “Sentimental Rut”, Bulletin, 22 November 1969: 55-56.
— (1969h) “The Unsophisticates”, Bulletin, 27 December 1969: 51.
— (1970) “A Withering Mistletoe on our Gum-Tree Culture”, Bulletin, 3 January 1970: 29-30.
— (1971a) “The Killing of the King”, Bulletin, 27 February 1971: 42-45.
— (1971b) “Shoots and Renewal: Rex Cramphorne looks back over the year’s theatre”,Sunday Australian, 19 December 1971: 35B.
— (1972) “A Platonic Affair Ends”, Sunday Australian, 28May 1972: 19.
Malouf, David (1994-5). “The Alchemical Studio”, RealTime 4, December-January 1994-5: 13.
O’Brien, Denis (1969). “The Grants Brawl: Causes, Cures”, Bulletin, 11 January 1969: 36-37.
Roland, Noni (1970). “The Fall and Rise of Eureka Stockade”, Bulletin, 27 March 1970: 43-44.