Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, Ralph Campbell (1917–1994)

by Helen Musa

This article was published online in 2019

Ralph Campbell ‘Horrie’ Wilson (1917–1994), theatre director and high school principal, was born on 7 January 1917 at Hamilton, New South Wales, son of Queensland-born parents, Robert Morton Wilson, clerk, and his wife Ellen Jean, née Bergholz. Ralph was nine when Ellen died and he and his sister were brought up by their puritanical Presbyterian father alone. He was educated at Newcastle Boys’ High School. Dux of the school in 1934, he secured first-class honours in Latin, French, and German and was awarded a public exhibition to attend the University of Sydney (BA, 1938). While at university, he enthralled his friends in the evenings by translating Hitler’s speeches that were broadcast over the radio.

Wilson was appointed to teach general subjects, including German, at the newly opened Newcastle Technical High School in 1939. In 1940 he applied for a position as a translator of German-language documents in the Newcastle censorship office; he never spoke of the role he played during the war. He had become involved in the arts and theatre production in Sydney and resumed this interest in 1944, penning an impassioned plea for a symphony orchestra for the coal and steel city. After the war he produced plays for a number of local theatre groups, including the Newcastle Labour College (1945) and Newcastle Theatre Guild (1947), before moving to Sydney to become language master at Sydney Boys’ High School (1949–51).

On 13 July 1949 at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Rose Bay, Wilson married Antonia June Veen O’Regan, née O’Brien, a divorcee. The couple moved to Canberra in 1952. Wilson taught languages at Telopea Park High School and Canberra High School, and was assistant principal at Dickson High School (1964) and principal of Canberra High School (1970–81). His memory for names and faces astounded staff and pupils; he rarely forgot either. His Canberra High School students nicknamed him Horrie. On his retirement from teaching in 1981, they staged a farewell show called ‘The Rocky Horrie Show.’

Wilson joined the Canberra Repertory Society as an actor in 1952, soon after staging his first production. From the 1960s to the 1980s he staged plays for the Australian Theatre Workshop at the Childers Street Theatre. He also directed productions for Dickson and Canberra high school students. Drawn to European writers who confronted great questions of right and wrong, he brought world-theatre shaping playwrights to the Australian stage such as Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Harold Pinter and Johan August Strindberg. He boasted of his low-cost approaches to staging, once lashing tables together to form a stage.

In 1976 Wilson joined playwright Roger Pulvers in a campaign for the ANU Arts Centre and in October launched the space with Pulvers’s edgy original play, Drop Drill. During the 1980s he co-founded the Classical Theatre Ensemble, then, later, Rawil Productions. In 1988 he was awarded the OAM. That year the Canberra Times named him Canberran of the Year and E Block Theatre at Gorman House Arts Centre was renamed the Ralph Wilson Theatre. During his final years, in which he suffered the debilitating effects of leukemia, his focus turned increasingly to the dark, comic plays of Samuel Beckett.

Known for his wildly unorthodox and unpredictable rehearsal methods, Wilson liked to move among his actors in an extemporaneous approach that he called ‘physicalising my texts’ (Pulvers 1994, 72). A large, sociable man, he was charismatic but could also be intimidating. A pen sketch by the Canberra artist Stephen Harrison captures the prophetic, moody authority of his character (see Throssell 1994, 20). He rarely left Canberra, although he once walked to Melbourne ‘to get the “feel” for the Australian history classes he was teaching’ (Nugent 1994, 53). A wine connoisseur and gourmand, he packed his diaries with recipes. Survived by his wife, daughter, and son, he died at Red Hill on 28 May 1994. He had produced over two hundred plays for the Canberra stage. His legacy of theatre-making is honoured in the Ralph Indie program at the Ralph Wilson Theatre.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • National Archives of Australia. C123, 12046
  • ACT Heritage Library. HMSS 0007, Ralph Wilson Papers
  • Edgeworth, Anne. The Cost of Jazz Garters: A History of the Canberra Repertory Society’s First 50 Years, 1932 to 1982. Kingston, ACT: Diplomat Agencies, [1995]
  • Nugent, Ann. ‘The Hungering, Creative Spirit Who Loved Life.’ Canberra Times, 4 June 1994, 53
  • Pulvers, Roger. ‘He Brought Light to the Darkness under the Lighthouse.’ Theatre Australasia, July 1994, 72
  • Throssell, Ric. ‘Elegy for a Friend.’ Muse, June 1994, 20

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Helen Musa, 'Wilson, Ralph Campbell (1917–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-ralph-campbell-28123/text35835, published online 2019, accessed online 19 October 2019.

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