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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alden, John (1908–1962)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Alden (1908-1962), actor-manager, was born on 17 January 1908 at Taree, New South Wales, third son of native-born parents George Nathaniel Buchanan, storekeeper, and his wife Elizabeth Malina, née Lee; named Gordon Henry, he was a great-nephew of Nathaniel and William Buchanan. He was educated at Taree Intermediate High School, Teachers' College, Sydney, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1930), and began schoolteaching in 1927. Following several city postings Buchanan taught at Maclean (1930-32) and was transferred to Sutherland Intermediate High School, Sydney, in January 1933. Intent on becoming an actor, in 1934 he approached (Dame) Doris Fitton, founder of the Independent Theatre, but first sought experience backstage. He adopted the stage-name 'John Alden' and in 1935 made an impact as King Magnus in George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart.

Resigning from the Department of Education in September 1937 to make the pilgrimage to England, Alden spent some time in repertory, toured with (Sir) Donald Wolfit and joined the Old Vic Theatre Company; although playing 'bits and pieces', he gained valuable experience. Back in Sydney in 1940, he earned a living as a radio actor. He also directed repertory-style productions for J. C. Williamson Ltd at the Theatre Royal and introduced school audiences to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and The Tempest. In 1944 Alden and Birrell Moss unsuccessfully sought support from the Department of Education for a 'state touring dramatic company'.

Returning to Sydney in 1947 after a year playing to army of occupation audiences in Japan, Alden embarked on a Shakespeare season on Wednesday nights at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney. For these essentially amateur productions, to which leading professionals donated their services, he trained a pool of young supporting actors and paid meticulous attention to detail. His 1948 production of Measure for Measure, in which he played Angelo, attracted attention; it was followed by The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale and The Merchant of Venice. In 1950 Alden brought his company to St James Hall, Sydney, where next year his powerful production of King Lear was hailed by the Sydney Morning Herald critic Lindsey Browne as 'a rare and enthralling experience'. Pondering on whether the play was 'actable', Alden concluded that 'the modern mind tempered by two world wars does not find ''Lear" too unbearably cruel'.

In 1951-52 the John Alden Company made a national tour, modestly supported by the Commonwealth as a jubilee event, and was soon being lauded by (Sir) Charles Moses as 'the beginning of a true national theatre'. Although the company had acquired the experienced business manager Elsie Beyer, protracted negotiations for an annual Commonwealth grant collapsed when Alden resisted any erosion of his personal control. The company disbanded.

While playing King Creon opposite (Dame) Judith Anderson in the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust production of Medea in 1955, Alden suffered a heart attack. Little more than a year later he was again directing at the Independent. The 1958 production of Titus Andronicus launched his second campaign for a national theatre company which led next year to the J. C. Williamson Shakespeare Company. In July 1961 he organized the Sydney Shakespeare Festival, but his angina continued to distress him. He died of a coronary occlusion on 10 November 1962 at his Mosman home and was cremated with Anglican rites. Homosexual, Alden did not marry, and invested his own earnings as well as his energy in his company; his estate was sworn for probate at £3758. Despite some mannerisms, he had a commanding stage presence, matched by impressive interpretive skills. As a director and teacher, he introduced a generation of Australian actors to the techniques of classical theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Fitton, Not Without Dust and Heat (Syd, 1981)
  • People (Sydney), 28 Mar 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Sept 1940, 17, 18 Feb 1951, 26 July 1955, 21 Mar 1959, 4, 7, 11 July 1961
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 11 Nov 1962
  • J. Andrews, Subsidy for the Performing Arts in Australia, 1942-1970 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1988)
  • teachers' records, Department of Education (New South Wales) archives
  • theatre programmes, Performing Arts Museum (Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne)
  • Alden papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Alden, John (1908–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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