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Asche, Thomas Stange Heiss Oscar (1871–1936)

by L. J. Blake

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Stange Heiss Oscar Asche, by C. Vandyk, n.d

Thomas Stange Heiss Oscar Asche, by C. Vandyk, n.d

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23218048

Thomas Stange Heiss Oscar Asche (1871-1936), actor-manager, was born on 24 January 1871 at Geelong, Victoria, son of Thomas Asche, land agent and hotelier, and his second wife Harriet Emma (Lily), née Trear. Oscar's father THOMAS was born in August 1826 at Christiania (Oslo), Norway, graduated in law from the University of Christiania in 1851, and arrived at Melbourne in the Gibson Craig on 27 August 1854. Golden-bearded and prodigiously strong, he worked as a goldfields trooper and miner, then as a Ballarat storekeeper; a reef, lead and gully were named after him. On 17 August 1855 at his home at Golden Point he married Jane Wier, by whom he had one surviving son. By August 1860 he had settled as innkeeper at Camperdown; in October he was naturalized. His wife died and on 13 September 1866 at Christ Church, Geelong, he married Harriet Emma, whose father Colonel William Trear owned Mack's Hotel. From 1866 as an all-powerful speculator Asche sometimes managed to arrange and almost to preside over the sale of crown lands, wanted by squatters, at auctions where his men dominated the bidding.

In Geelong he became a town councillor in 1870 and acquired Mack's Hotel on 24 March 1871. In November 1876 he moved to the Union Club Hotel, Melbourne, and some ten years later to the Royal Hotel in George Street, Sydney. After heavy financial losses in 1893 he had to sell the Royal but from 1896 ran the Imperial Hotel, Wynyard Square. He died there of chronic kidney disease on 2 November 1898 survived by his wife, one son of his first marriage and two sons and three daughters of the second.

Oscar was educated at Laurel Lodge, Dandenong, and from 1884 at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where his academic progress was aided by a flair for memorizing. He left school at 16 with a deep interest in theatre from his acquaintance with actors who frequented the Royal Hotel; but he was also keen to go on the land. He claimed to have visited China and Fiji, was briefly apprenticed to an architect, learned to box from Larry Foley, and spent a few months 'humping his bluey' through southern New South Wales, accompanied by two dogs and a pocket edition of Shakespeare's plays. In 1890 he decided finally to make his career in the theatre; his father paid his fare to Norway to study under actor-manager Bjørn Bjørnson at Christiania, where he met Ibsen. On advice he went to London where he studied speech with Walter Lacy and Henry Neville and watched the acting of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and others. In March 1893 he had his first London part in Man and Woman at the Opéra Comique Theatre, but that year his father had to stop his £10 weekly allowance. Living precariously at times, Oscar found work with (Sir) F. R. Benson's touring Shakespearian company. In June 1899 at Hindley, Lancashire, he married Lily Brayton who had joined the company in 1896.

In 1901 Lily was engaged by Herbert Beerbohm Tree in London. Asche also joined Tree but was released to play Freddy Maldonado in Pinero's Iris, his first prominent part in London. He also played opposite Ellen Terry in Much Ado About Nothing, and appeared in many Shakespearian plays. In 1904 Asche and Lily Brayton formed a company (with Oscar as actor-manager) to play at the Adelphi Theatre. The Taming of the Shrew became a very successful item in their repertoire. They then leased His Majesty's Theatre, opening in 1907 with Attila. This soon made way for Ache's entrancing production of As You Like It; he expounded his unorthodox interpretations of Shakespeare in an arrangement of this play published in 1907.

In 1909 Asche took the full company for a triumphal eighteen-months tour of Australia. He opened to packed houses at the Theatre Royal with The Taming of the Shrew, then presented Othello, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and in the new year, Count Hannibal and The Virgin Goddess. He played two seasons in Sydney and three in Melbourne.

Back in London in 1911, Asche began a two-year season of Kismet, a lavish Arabian nights fantasy with Oscar as the beggar Hajj and using original lighting techniques. He took Kismet to Australia and New Zealand from early 1912 until August next year. In Brisbane he met Rider Haggard and discussed with him the stage adaptation of his novel, A Child of the Storm. This was presented as Mameena in London in October 1914, but was not a financial success; Asche yearned for another Kismet. He found the answer in Chu Chin Chow, for which he wrote 'book' and lyrics in two weeks. Opening on 31 August 1916, the show broke all records with a five-year season; as author Asche received £200,000 and as actor-producer £500 weekly. In 1917 he produced The Maid of the Mountains; he also wrote another successful musical, Cairo, which opened in 1921.

In July 1922, under contract to J. C. Williamson Ltd, Asche left England for a third tour of Australasia. His wife refused to join him. He included Chu Chin Chow and Cairo as well as Shakespeare in his popular repertoire. Despite quarrelling with Williamson's over production and finance, he managed to recapture some of the pleasures of his earlier visits by staging lavish picnics, attending race meetings and making a camping tour of the coast between Sydney and Melbourne in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. After further disagreement, his contract was abruptly terminated in June 1924; he left Melbourne soon after.

In England Asche encountered more trouble. Greyhound-racing, which he had taken up during his 1909 Australian tour, cost him £45,000; he owed over £40,000 in taxes and his £100,000 Sugley Farm in Gloucestershire had to be sold when he became bankrupt. His wife helped him by backing his new but unsuccessful musical, The Good Old Days of England. He wrote his memoirs, Oscar Asche: His Life. By Himself (London, 1929) and two novels (1930). In 1932 he directed his wife in her last stage appearance. Ill and impoverished, he rejoined her at Marlow, Buckinghamshire. He died at near-by Bisham of coronary thrombosis on 23 March 1936, and was buried in the riverside cemetery there. They had no children.

A powerfully built, virile figure 'glowing with health' in his early years, Asche became grossly fat in old age. He was a keen sportsman and had been a good cricketer, a wicket-keeper by preference. A man of great gusto, most impressive as an actor, an innovator and perfectionist as a producer, an extravagant generous incurable optimist, Asche was a splendid showman.

Select Bibliography

  • O. Asche, Oscar Asche: His Life (Lond, 1929)
  • H. Pearson, The Last Actor-Managers (Lond, 1950)
  • W. R. Brownhill, The History of Geelong and Corio Bay (Melb, 1955)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • P. Hartnoll (ed), The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre (Oxford, 1972)
  • Lone Hand, 1 Apr 1909
  • Home, Dec 1922
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10, 14, 16 June, 4, 9 July, 15 Nov 1924
  • Sunday Herald, 19 Oct 1952
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 30 June 1973
  • Asche family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. J. Blake, 'Asche, Thomas Stange Heiss Oscar (1871–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/asche-thomas-stange-heiss-oscar-5063/text8441, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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