Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hunt, Hugh Sydney (1911–1993)

by Richard Waterhouse

This article was published online in 2017

Hugh Sydney Hunt (1911–1993), theatre director and professor of drama, was born on 25 September 1911 at Camberley, Surrey, England, second of two sons of Cecil Edwin Hunt, army officer, and his wife Ethel Helen, née Crookshank. His father served with the 34th Sikh Pioneers, and was killed on the Western Front in 1914. Hugh and his brother, (Sir) Henry Cecil John (Baron) Hunt, who in 1953 would lead the first successful expedition to climb Mount Everest, were educated at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. Hugh then studied modern languages at Magdalen College, Oxford (BA, 1934), and became president (1933–34) of the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

Although Hunt also took postgraduate courses at the Sorbonne, Paris, and the University of Heidelberg, it was his inspired direction of an Oxford student production of Shakespeare’s King John (1933) that led to offers of professional employment in theatre. He began with a modest position at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich where he scrubbed floors, painted scenery, acted for a time as acting director, and performed on stage ‘only when I had to’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1954, 2). He directed the Croydon Repertory Theatre for a year, and then moved to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Between 1935 and 1938 he directed thirty-three Irish works, including plays by Teresa Deevy, George Shiels, and P. V. Carroll. He left Dublin to direct a Broadway production of Carroll’s The White Steed in New York, United States of America, returning to Britain to produce and direct in London.

When World War II broke out in September 1939, he joined the British Army. Commissioned on 3 August 1940, he served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and then the Special Operations Executive. On 16 November 1940 he had married Janet Mary, the daughter of the vice-chancellor of Oxford George Gordon, at the parish church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford. Demobilised in 1946 as an honorary major, he moved to Bristol. As director of the Old Vic Company at Bristol’s Theatre Royal, he turned it into the finest provincial repertory company in the country. He also developed a reputation as an outstanding director of Shakespeare. This led to his appointment to the Old Vic Company in London, where he was administrative director and later artistic director. His 1949 version of Love’s Labour’s Lost was the high point of his directing career.

In 1954 Hunt was chosen to be the first executive director of the newly founded Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Widely experienced, and having nurtured a home-grown Irish theatre culture, he seemed ideally suited to the position. The purposes of the trust were to foster high culture in Australia in the form of theatre, opera, and ballet; provide professional training and employment to local performers; and encourage the country’s composers and playwrights. As originally conceived the trust’s role was to subsidise troupes, but Hunt’s interests lay with the creative side of theatre and he turned it into an entrepreneurial body as well.

The trust made excellent initial progress. Between 1955 and 1957, it presented highly successful opera seasons, while large crowds attended performances of plays from the classical repertoire. A local play, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, staged by John Sumner, proved a box-office hit in Australia and the United Kingdom, leading the newspaper editor J. D. Pringle to suggest that Australians had learnt that ‘their lives, too, might be the stuff of great art’ (Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust 1956, 7). With Robert Quentin, Hunt also helped to establish the National Institute of Dramatic Art at the University of New South Wales in 1958; it was intended to train local actors for the Australian stage.

But it was no golden era as far as Hunt was concerned, and he referred to his time at the trust as ‘Five Years Hard’ (Hunt n.d., 33). There were insufficient monies to allow the simultaneous operation of national theatre, ballet, and opera companies, and a decrease in the size of audiences—the result of hard economic times in the late 1950s and the arrival of television—further strained an already under-funded operation. The trust’s dual subsidy and entrepreneurial activities also led to criticisms from theatre practitioners who resented the authority and the competition that the trust represented. Still, when Hunt resigned in 1959 he could accurately claim that the trust had established higher theatre standards, provided outlets for Australian work, and laid the foundations for a theatre with both a classical and a local repertoire.

Hunt was not quite the perfect fit. The limited success of the trust was mostly due to financial constraints over which he had no authority, but his cultural conservatism also limited his strategy and vision. He admired Irish national theatre because it focused on issues that provided moral and aesthetic uplift. But he disliked the direction of local Australian theatre, with its emphasis on the vernacular and ‘the slums’ (Daily Mirror 1960, 6). He was critical of Australian audiences too, claiming they only wanted amusement, and did not understand that theatre’s role was to sublimate life. In seeking to present Shakespeare in a manner that fulfilled that purpose, he contributed to the disaffection of an entertainment-seeking audience.

Returning to England in 1960, the following year Hunt took up the chair of drama at the University of Manchester. During his tenure he introduced a professional practice-based curriculum that became a model for other drama departments. He also resumed his directing career on a part-time basis. In 1962 he published The Live Theatre: An Introduction to the History and Practice of the Stage; the book stretched from ancient Athens to contemporary Britain, but did not contain a single reference to Australia. He retired in 1973 and was appointed CBE in 1977.

Failing health required Hunt to lead an uncharacteristically quiet life in rural Wales, cared for by his wife. Survived by his wife, one son, and one daughter, he died on 22 April 1993 at Criccieth. He was remembered as a shy man, capable of decisiveness. He was a key figure in institutionalising legitimate theatre in Australia but remains underestimated and undervalued by the Australian theatrical community.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: The First Year. [Sydney]: Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, [1956]
  • Daily Mirror. ‘Our Theatre is Beginning to LIVE! … Says Hugh Hunt.’ 28 March 1960, 6
  • Davis, Allan. ‘Obituary: Professor Hugh Hunt.’ Independent, 1 May 1993, 33
  • Hunt, Hugh. ‘Audiences Provide the Magic for the Theatre.’ Age (Melbourne), 18 October 1958, 19
  • Hunt, Hugh. ‘Five Years Hard.’ In Australian Theatre Year, 1959/60, edited by F. R. Harvey, 33–35. Sydney: F. P. Publications, n.d
  • Hunt, Hugh. The Making of Australian Theatre. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1960
  • National Library of Australia. MS5908, Records of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, 1955–1998
  • National Library of Australia. MS 1009, Papers of Sir John Latham, 1856–1964
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Hugh Hunt Will Seek Everest of Theatre.’ 26 October 1954, 2

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Richard Waterhouse, 'Hunt, Hugh Sydney (1911–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hunt-hugh-sydney-18612/text30250, published online 2017, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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