Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ryan, Madge Winifred (1919–1994)

by Michal Bosworth

This article was published online in 2018

Madge Winifred Ryan (1919–1994), actor, was born on 8 January 1919 at Townsville, Queensland, younger child of Victorian-born Michael Edward Ryan, commercial traveller, and his locally born wife Sarah Josephine, née Brady. Madge grew up in a musical home. Her father sang in the church choir, while her mother played the organ and later became an accompanist for silent movies. Educated at St Patrick’s College, she knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress, and regularly took part in theatrical productions, recitals, and elocution competitions. After leaving school she worked for an insurance company. On 31 January 1939 at Sacred Heart Cathedral she married Milton Lynn Rumble, a bank officer.

The couple moved to Toowoomba in 1940, and then to Sydney, where Madge met (Dame) Doris Fitton and became involved in her Independent Theatre. While the birth of a daughter prevented her from undertaking lengthy tours, she appeared—under her maiden name—on the stage in various roles, including that of Birdie Hubbard in The Little Foxes, as well as in radio plays and serials, among them the long-running Blue Hills. During World War II she drove ambulances for the National Emergency Services. In 1951 she visited Western Australia under contract to the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Following the establishment of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954, Ryan appeared in its production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a new play by Ray Lawler, in the part of Pearl Cunningham. The production toured to London in 1957. Her marriage was dissolved the same year. Well received in London, the production travelled to New York in 1958. It has since become part of theatre legend as the first Australian-written play to become internationally known.

Among the Australian artists attracted to London during the 1950s were June Bronhill, Diane Cilento, John McCallum, and (Dame) Joan Sutherland. Ryan found a theatrical world that was bigger and more complex than the one she had left in Sydney, and she also settled there. Her acting proficiency, which included remarkable ability in smaller, character-filled parts, attracted attention. In 1964 her performance as Kath in the first production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane was greeted enthusiastically.

Ryan became part of the first National Theatre Company, which played initially at the Old Vic theatre, London. Her first big part was Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s monumental depiction of war and loss, Mother Courage and Her Children, in 1965. She was on stage for more than three hours. Although reviews were mixed, the Times was enthusiastic. The director, William Gaskill, had followed Brecht’s stage directions to the veriest comma. His later assessment of this production was that he had miscast Ryan in the part. It did her career no harm, however. She remained in the company to tour West Berlin and Moscow, before moving to the Bristol Old Vic in 1967. With that company she travelled to the United States of America, Canada, Europe, and Israel, playing among other parts Gertrude in Hamlet. In 1968 she returned to Australia for performances in Sydney and Melbourne of Peter Shaffer’s double bill, Black Comedy and The White Liars. Her versatile skills also brought her parts in films, A Clockwork Orange (1971) among them, and in television programs, including as Evdokia Petrov in the British Broadcasting Corporation play of the month, Defection (1966).

By the 1970s Ryan’s stage career in London seemed assured. The critics Irving Wardle and Sheridan Morley praised her. During the prime ministership of (Baroness) Margaret Thatcher, however, theatre in London became dominated by musical comedies, leading Ryan to find much of her employment in repertory on provincial stages. In 1984, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, she shared the stage with Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in Aren’t We All?, Frederick Lonsdale’s vintage comedy of 1923. This production played in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney between 1986 and 1987. In 1988 she was still in Australia, working with Ruth Cracknell and Warren Mitchell on Patrick Cook’s film Kokoda Crescent. She was back in England shortly after, to play opposite Googie Withers in Ring Around the Moon at Chichester. Her last great part was as Nurse in Medea, opposite (Dame) Diana Rigg.

Ryan’s adaptability allowed her to make the most of whatever part she accepted. She was rarely out of work, a high accolade to be paid to any actor. Described by Lewis Fiander as ‘highly professional, stylishly dressed, full of fun and inclined to frivolous witticisms,’ she had a ‘unique dry laugh’ (1994, 13). Adam Benedick considered that she was ‘set … apart’ by ‘a certain, often powerful, independence of spirit and humour’ (1994, 18). She died on 9 January 1994 at Westminster, London; a memorial service was held at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. Predeceased by one daughter, she was survived by another daughter, Lyn Ashley, who had also become an actor.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Benedick, Adam. ‘Madge Ryan.’ Independent (London), 20 January 1994, 18
  • Billington, Michael. State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945. London: Faber and Faber, 2007
  • Fiander, Lewis. ‘Memories of Madge: Friend, Actor and Theatre’s Pearl of Great Price.’ Australian, 24 January 1994, 13
  • Performing Arts Historical Society Townsville (PAHST) Inc. ‘Madge Ryan.’ Accessed 20 February 2018. http://pahst.com/madge-ryan/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Ryan, Madge. Interview by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, October–November 1984. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Times (London). ‘Madge Ryan.’ 15 January 1994, 17

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Michal Bosworth, 'Ryan, Madge Winifred (1919–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ryan-madge-winifred-19640/text30957, published online 2018, accessed online 23 September 2019.

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