Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)

by Barry O. Jones and Peter O'Shaughnessy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Jack Beresford Fowler (1893-1972), actor, producer and director, was born on 21 July 1893 at Ultimo, Sydney, fourth son of Frank Harry Fowler (d.1893), a musician from England, and his wife Fannie Adèle, née Ellard, a native-born actress. In 1896 Fannie moved with her sons to Melbourne where they lived in turn at Elsternwick, Brighton, Armadale and Hawksburn; she took in boarders and sometimes acted under the names of Mrs Fanny Fowler or 'Ethel Adele'. Jack was educated at Hawksburn State School and grew to be an omnivorous reader, an ardent theatre-goer, and a follower of cricket and football. As a child, he appeared in amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, though he could not sing. He worked as a messenger boy for a dental supplier, then as a dentist's assistant until he was sacked.

Despite signs of deafness, which became acute, Fowler acted in Gregan McMahon's Melbourne Repertory Company in 1911-14, making his debut at the Turn Verein Hall, East Melbourne, as Foldal in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. In 1914 he toured with the J. C. Williamson company. He acted with and was assistant stage manager for Nellie Stewart in David Belasco's Du Barry and Paul Kester's Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Fowler also toured with the Bert Bailey-Julius Grant company as Billy Bearup in On Our Selection, based loosely on the stories of 'Steele Rudd'.

On 10 July 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served with the 3rd Pioneer Battalion in Britain and France, performed in concert parties for the troops and was discharged on 28 August 1919 in Melbourne. Fowler rejoined Bailey and Grant before directing an amateur revival of John Gabriel Borkman in which he played the title role, probably his best part. He worked with Allan Wilkie's company for nearly three years as an actor and stage-manager. From Wilkie he inherited something of the expansive acting style and much of the 'stage business' contrived by the actor-managers Sir Frank Benson and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

In 1925 Fowler founded the Art Theatre Players. He used amateurs and drama students in productions of plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov, Galsworthy and Coward, and in dramatizations of Dickens. 'J.B.' and his mother were frequent performers. Under his direction Miss Julie premiered in 1928 and Richard II in 1936. His Richard II gave a generation of Victorian schoolchildren an unforgettable, but not always favourable, introduction to Shakespeare. In later years he played John of Gaunt with his chain-mail jerkin adorned by a huge hearing aid. Dickens's Vincent Crummles was put in the shade by 'J.B.' who was not only actor-manager, director and star of most of the plays he put on, but also advertising-manager and canvasser, trudging city streets with printed cards advertising forthcoming attractions. Even more, he was ticket-seller, electrician and stage-hand. Stories of his improvised productions became legendary; most were true. Performers sometimes met for the first time on stage.

With his broad shoulders, there was something almost pugilistic about his stance, offset by a romantic, leisurely drift in the way he walked. His manner was Edwardian, courtly, his charm touched with the anxiety of a deaf man trying not to miss out. On stage, he seemed to have everything against him: deafness, a harsh voice which lacked any modulation, a slight speech impediment and a determination to promote plays that commercial managements would not touch. But the Art Theatre Players was an oasis in Melbourne's cultural desert. He was well cast as Bottom the weaver in A Midsummer Night's Dream perhaps because he had much in common with Bottom's innocence, egotism and penchant for playing all the parts. His Borkman had a dark, haunting magnetism, and there was a grainy mischievousness about his Burgess in Shaw's Candida which made it a comic delight. He last appeared as the gravedigger in Hamlet at the Union Theatre, University of Melbourne.

With Sylvia Archer, Fowler wrote the play, General Sir Hector MacDonald (1942), a defence of a Scottish soldier who had killed himself in 1903 after accusations of homosexuality. It received a public reading in Melbourne but was never performed on stage. He published a novel, A Puppet's Mirage (1957), a theatrical history, Stars in my Backyard (1962), an autobiography, The Green-Eyed Monster (1968), and A Must for Dolly, a sequel to Shaw's Man and Superman. His impressive collection of autographed letters, documents and photographs was sold off to help him survive. He succeeded W. A. Osborne as president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society. Never married, he harboured a passion for some of his leading ladies and had a long relationship with Sylvia Archer.

Despite his deafness, isolation and poverty, Fowler never seemed to despair, although he was bitter when Melbourne's newspapers no longer reviewed his productions. Gallant, indomitable and quixotic, he was mercifully oblivious of criticism. He died on 17 July 1972 at Albert Park and was cremated. 'J.B.' was no radical protesting against the corruption of commercial theatre; he simply carried the torch for a threatened tradition and saw no need for an apology to justify his position.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Murray, The Paradise Tree (Syd, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6, 27 Jan, 6 Feb 1934, 26 May, 18 Aug 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Oct 1953, 7 July 1964
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1967, 21 July 1972
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Barry O. Jones and Peter O'Shaughnessy, 'Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fowler-jack-beresford-10228/text18083, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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