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McMahon, Gregan (1874–1941)

by Allan Ashbolt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Gregan McMahon (1874-1941), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

Gregan McMahon (1874-1941), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/694

Gregan McMahon (1874-1941), actor and theatrical producer, was born on 2 March 1874 in Sydney, elder son of Irish-born John Terence McMahon, clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Gregan. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School, St Ignatius' College, Riverview, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1896). He went to work for a Sydney law firm and on 4 October 1899 in St Mary's Cathedral married Mary Kate, daughter of Thomas Hungerford. However he had already set his mind on an acting career and in 1900 joined the Robert Brough company for a tour of some fifteen months in Australia, India and China. On his return to Sydney in 1901, McMahon was immediately offered leading parts with the William Hawtrey company and by 1906, when it disbanded, had firmly established himself as a 'character actor'. Over the next few years he appeared for various other managements, including J. C. Williamson. Like most actors of his day he was virtually an itinerant worker.

In 1906 McMahon considered going to London, but his responsibilities as a husband and father of two children held him back. What particularly beckoned him were the Court Theatre productions, beginning in 1904, of such playwrights as Shaw, Hauptmann, Maeterlinck, Schnitzler, Yeats and Granville Barker, who had broken away from the conventions and clichés of the late Victorian era. Even while professionally occupied in frivolous farce and bombastic melodrama, McMahon kept an eye on developments abroad, especially plays written, as he later put it, 'to illustrate an idea, social, moral, poetic, fantastic or even utilitarian', and in which characters were 'true to life instead of to the idiosyncrasies of individual actors'. He recognized opportunities for himself in directing such plays on the stage. Distrustful of the star-virtuoso system then in vogue, he saw ensemble acting, co-ordinated and guided by a regisseur, as the way of the future. The burgeoning repertory movement in provincial Britain, notably in Manchester, gave him an organizational model for this fusion of new approaches in writing, acting and production.

McMahon set up the Melbourne Repertory Company in 1911 and it first performed in public at the Turn Verein Hall, East Melbourne, on 26 June, with a double bill—act 2 of Sheridan's The Critic and St John Hankin's The Two Mr Wetherbys. This alternated with Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. During 1911-18 he introduced Melbourne audiences to a wide range of modern English and European drama, together with thirteen Australian plays. It was ironic that, dependent on the well-to-do for patronage and talent, McMahon produced plays which were in some sense portents of social change and ferment.

Nevertheless, he still maintained his commercial connexions and occasionally undertook outside engagements. When the Melbourne venture folded in 1918, he moved to Sydney and entered into an arrangement with J. C. Williamson's, then coming steadily under the control of the Tait brothers. McMahon contracted to work for 'ordinary companies' as well as towards the presentation of 'special repertory plays'. Two years later he founded the Sydney Repertory Theatre Society, with 700 subscribers. But the Taits held the purse-strings. In the choice of plays he was now more willing to compromise with West End and Shaftesbury Avenue trends. It also indicates a certain withdrawal from creative risk-taking that in 1920-27 he staged only four Australian plays.

All this time McMahon's frustration with amateurism had been growing. His own professionalism was widely respected, especially by the visiting overseas stars he directed for J.C.W's, but among his subscribers there was uneasiness about his pact with the Taits. In 1928 he put forward a proposal for one full-time professional repertory company to serve Sydney and Melbourne (where he had resumed directorship in 1926). It was intended to be a joint McMahon-J.C.W. enterprise, with the societies guaranteeing a basic audience but excluded from business or artistic participation. Rejection of the proposal was swift, the parting bitter.

The Gregan McMahon Play Company opened at the King's Theatre, Melbourne, on 12 May 1928, entirely under J.C.W. sponsorship. But despite a repertoire of good, substantial plays, critical and box-office reception was lukewarm, often hostile. 'The company is dreadful', wrote Louis Esson to Vance Palmer, 'a mixture of duds and derelicts … I can't see any hope for it'. After a calamitous Sydney season later in the year, it disintegrated. Ever resilient, McMahon signed on with the Fuller management in Melbourne. He also began circularizing for subscribers and in 1929 was able to form the Gregan McMahon Players on a mixed professional-amateur basis. He began with a few productions each year, first in J. C. Williamson playhouses, later at the Garrick. In 1935 he capitulated yet again to the Taits, who from then until his death became his sole protectors and kept him on a tight financial rein. Although he had over 2000 subscribers, the profit from his much-praised 1937 production of Pirandello's Henry IV amounted to only £32. His income had always been erratic, varying from comfortable to barely above subsistence level. From 1917 he lived apart from his wife, but continued to send her money and even financed his daughter's trip to England and the Continent—a journey which he himself never made.

Among McMahon's productions in the late 1930s were Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole, Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Obey's Noah, and Giraudoux' Amphitryon 38. Although scarcely avant-garde or revolutionary, his selections accurately reflected high-culture fashion in London and New York. The C.B.E. awarded him in 1938 was scant recognition for so many years of struggle. Towards the end he seemed tired and somewhat disillusioned, wondering whether he had really advanced since his great breakthrough in 1911. He died suddenly of hypertensive heart disease at his Jolimont home on 30 August 1941, and was buried in the Catholic section of Melbourne general cemetery. Only about twenty people stood at the graveside. His son and daughter survived him.

To have known McMahon during this final phase of his life was perhaps not to have experienced him at his best. Stockily built and nearly always soberly dressed, he was a low-key personality outside the theatre. Except that his blue eyes twinkled elfishly, his face resembled a cartoonist's Humpty-Dumpty. Only the bald, high-domed head betokened his formidable capacities. Despite his proclaimed belief in naturalistic acting, his own methods derived fundamentally from the nineteenth-century larger-than-life school. He was most admired in fey, fanciful roles, like Lob in Barrie's Dear Brutus, yet even here his portraits were too fussy, the outlines blurred with irrelevant detail and excessive comic energy. But he brought to all his acting a quite unusual intelligence, as though he were not so much impersonating as making a critical comment on the character. It was this analytical ability that also gave him authority as a director. In early twentieth-century Australian theatre he was unique in his combination of technical proficiency, careful craftsmanship and intellectual insight.

Select Bibliography

  • S. E. Napier, The Sydney Repertory Society (Syd, 1925)
  • V. Palmer, Louis Esson and the Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • H. Porter, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (Lond, 1963)
  • Lone Hand, Aug 1916
  • Home (Sydney), June 1923
  • D. Douglas and M. M. Morgan, ‘Gregan McMahon and the Australian theatre’, Komos, 2, no 2, Nov 1969, 2, no 4, (nd), 3, no 1-4, 1973
  • A. Ashbolt, ‘Courage, contradiction and compromise: Gregan McMahon 1874-1941’, Meanjin, 37, no 3, 1978
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Nov 1909
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1941
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1941
  • McMahon papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Allan Ashbolt, 'McMahon, Gregan (1874–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcmahon-gregan-7420/text12909, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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