Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cecil Robert Quentin (1917–1979)

by Julia Horne

This article was published:

Cecil Robert Burnett Quentin (1917-1979), professor of drama and theatre director, was born on 3 August 1917 at Coulsdon, Surrey, England, and named John Burnett, third child of Lieutenant George Augustus Frederick Quentin, army officer and later inspector of schools in Egypt, and his wife Edith Florence, née Beazley. John's name was changed to Cecil Robert by the time he entered Lancing College, Sussex. Robert read English language and literature at St Edmund Hall, Oxford (B.A., M.A., 1945), worked in various theatrical enterprises and passed his final examinations in July 1939.

In 1940 Quentin joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Commissioned on 6 December that year and promoted lieutenant in August 1942, he carried out intelligence duties at Cape Town, South Africa (from 1941), and in Sydney (in 1945). At St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 8 September 1945 he married Shirley Medea Nichols, a 20-year-old radio actress; their marriage ended in divorce. He produced The Importance of Being Ernest at Bryant's Playhouse and directed Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra at the Independent Theatre for (Dame) Doris Fitton before becoming stage director for J. C. Williamson Ltd. After returning to England in 1947, he worked for the Old Vic Theatre Company, at Bristol (1947-49) and in London (1950-51), and as a freelance producer until he left in 1953 for the United States of America where he continued to be involved with theatre and lectured on drama at several universities.

In 1955 Hugh Hunt, the executive-director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, appointed Quentin general manager of its opera company, which was to be established in Sydney and to tour the country. This ambitious project provided a strong base for local operatic talent. On 8 February 1957 at the registrar-general's office, Sydney, Quentin married Verna June Collis, a 26-year-old actress. He had no children by either marriage.

Helped by H. C. Coombs, chairman of the trust, and (Sir) Philip Baxter, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Quentin (as founding director in 1959-63) and Hunt established the National Institute of Dramatic Art at the U.N.S.W. to train professional actors and teach stage-skills. Quentin was also associate-professor in the school of English, which was to offer drama as an academic subject. A separate school of drama, with Quentin as professor and its first head, was established in 1966. His drama department attracted students and enhanced the university's reputation. He was also director of drama (1964-65) for the A.E.T.T.

Meanwhile, Quentin had helped to found several professional drama companies that encouraged mainstream theatre. In 1963 he and Thomas Brown, N.I.D.A.'s new director, established the Old Tote Theatre Company to specialize in the classics. The Old Tote was located in a renovated tin shed (next to the old totalizator building) in the university's grounds. Its first production, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which was directed by Quentin, set a new standard for professional theatre in Sydney. He was involved in the short-lived 'Three Shilling Theatre' (1963) at the Palace Theatre, where patrons could eat their sandwiches during a forty-minute lunchtime performance. In 1966 Quentin and others established the Jane Street Theatre, a venue for new Australian plays: H. G. Kippax described its opening as 'the theatrical event of this Sydney year'.

Yet, there was disquiet. Quentin believed that theatre, one of life's great educators, was under threat from an entertainment industry catering to the 'lowest common denominators of public taste'. This belief informed many of his projects. He held that the academic study of drama was a means of acquiring knowledge and taste, and might help to create an informed audience; and he saw N.I.D.A. as a training-school which would provide Australian dramatic productions with high technical standards.

Quentin was associated with a number of organizations to promote Australian theatre: he was chairman of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's local committee for the arts, president of the Australian centre of the International Theatre Institute, deputy-chairman of N.I.D.A. and of Australian Theatre for Young People, and vice-president of the Professional Drama Council. In December 1977 he tried to rescue the finances of the Old Tote with his last production, Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, but the company went into liquidation next year.

Following his retirement from the U.N.S.W. on 31 December 1977, Quentin settled at Robertson with his wife, their dog and eight cats, a move which reflected his reserved nature and quest for a quiet life. Survived by his wife, he died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 7 July 1979 at his home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bachali, Jane St Theatre (Katoomba, NSW, 1998)
  • Uniken, no 19, 1977, p 3
  • Australian Centre-International Theatre Institute, Newsletter, Feb 1978
  • Kino, 48, 1994, p 22
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1945, 30 May 1963, 22 Nov 1966, 14 Apr 1973, 30 July 1976, 9 July 1979
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 14 July 1963
  • Nation (Sydney), 6 Sept 1969, p 12
  • BRF-Robert Quentin papers, personnel and leave files (University of New South Wales Archives)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Robert Quentin (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Julia Horne, 'Quentin, Cecil Robert (1917–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Quentin, John Burnett

3 August, 1917
Coulsdon, Surrey, England


7 July, 1979 (aged 61)
Robertson, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.