Pictures Librarian Linda Groom describes the process of acquiring the archive of theatre designer and director Robin Lovejoy.
Drew Forsythe chasing chooks was not enough. I vividly remembered those moments at the Parade Theatre in 1972. To anchor a scene in rural Australia, the director had given two lordly roosters a brief strut on stage, and Drew was only just managing to keep their strut to the brevity intended. I needed, however, to remember more. As the taxi flicked through Mosman streets, I tried to recall the rest of the production. It was The Taming of the Shrew, and the setting, quite radically for the time, was Padua via Mudgee. Hence the chooks. John Bell, if memory served me correctly, did the taming; Drew certainly did the chasing; but had the director been Robin Lovejoy? My taxi was rapidly closing on the home of Lovejoy’s widow, Patricia, who had offered his paintings, photographs and papers to the National Library. It was my job to help assess the collection, and in such assessments context is important. I had consulted the Library’s biography files and found information on Lovejoy’s career as one of Australia’s leading directors of theatre and opera from the fifties to the seventies, but had not found any mention of a production of the Shrew. It would have been useful to put my own memories, from my days as a passionate and newly-salaried theatre-goer, into context before seeing the material, but the missing pieces of the jigsaw refused to fall into place.
When I arrived at Mrs Lovejoy’s house I was relieved to see my colleague, Manuscript Librarian Graeme Powell, waiting on the footpath. Graeme has been in the business of assessing the significance of peoples’ personal letters and diaries for decades. During that time he has absorbed the gossip of Australia’s first families, though he dispenses it only in tantalisingly rare and discreet anecdotes. He is a reassuring presence, the embodiment of Context.
Patricia Lovejoy and her daughter Kate gave us a sparkling welcome. One of the pleasures of hunting and collecting for the National Library is encountering people like Patricia and Kate. Over lunch they entertained us with affectionate anecdotes of Robin Lovejoy’s life and filled in much of the information that had been missing from the Library’s biography files. One of Patricia’s stories concerned Robin Lovejoy’s debut as a theatre director. He had been on an island in the Torres Strait, where he served with a radar unit in World War II. To entertain the men he directed Shaw’s Pygmalion. Resourcefully, he painted the backdrops with his shaving brush, and cast a burly sergeant as Eliza. That must certainly count as the requisite Humble Beginning to a stellar career.
After lunch Graeme and I moved into the dining room, walking softly but carrying big notebooks. The dining table and chairs were covered with piles of programs, cuttings, letters, scripts, posters, paintings and photographs. We settled into several hours of happy sifting. Graeme found correspondence that reflected Robin Lovejoy’s wide circle: with Ray Lawler, Hugh Hunt, Elizabeth Durack, Joan Sutherland, Robert Helpmann, and Don Dunstan. The life of a Manuscript Librarian is the reverse of name-dropping. It’s a kind of name-picking-up, and Graeme was clearly delighted with what he was finding.
Among the piles of material that Graeme and I examined were many folders of press cuttings. They told a story of a remarkable life. After the war Robin Lovejoy studied interior decoration, then the closest available course to stage design, at East Sydney Technical College. He left without his final qualification after leading a small revolt of students when the College’s administration reversed a previous decision that students would earn their diploma after three years concentrated study rather than five.1 He was only in his early twenties when he was asked to design the costumes for the ballet Corroboree. He moved on to directing and designing plays for the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and formed the Trust Players with Hugh Hunt in 1958. In 1965 he was appointed co-director of the Old Tote Theatre Company, and in this capacity directed Richard II, the opening theatre production at the Sydney Opera House, in 1973. After retiring from the Old Tote in 1974 his reputation ensured he had a steady steam of work as a free-lance director. He worked with major companies such as the Queensland Theatre Company, the South Australian Theatre Company and the Victorian State Opera. In 1974 he was awarded an OBE for services to theatre. From1982 he was head of design and directing at NIDA. His outstanding contribution to Australian theatre ended far too soon, when he died in 1985, at the age of 61, of cancer.
The press cuttings frequently mentioned his personality. It seems to have been one of the hot topics of the Sydney theatre world. As a director he was a perfectionist and disciplinarian. In his comments on critics and administrators, he did not mince words. To a journalist in 1976 he remarked that good theatre critics needed experience, literary ability and humanity, but that ‘frankly, I don’t find any one of those three qualities in most of the people who are reviewing now’.2 He was also, however, a deeply humane person with a sense of humour, and was willing to tell jokes against himself. To another interviewer he recounted that, as a boy, he had shown an early leaning to art by painting his father’s fowls – not by making a painting of them but by applying green enamel paint directly to the astonished birds’ feathers.3
Somewhat distracted by yet another reference to poultry, I returned to examining the pictorial material on the dining room table. I found photographs from a galaxy of significant productions, including Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness, Anthony Coburn’s The Bastard Country, Jean Anouilh’s Time Remembered, Rodney Milgate’s A refined look at existence, and David Williamson’s What if you died tomorrow. There was a good selection of portraits, which are the bread and butter of biographical research, by photographers who had later become famous, such as Helmut Newton and Richard Woldendorp. There were beautiful costume and set designs, for Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernardo Alba, Sheridan’s The Rivals and several other productions. The drawings often bore hurried inscriptions which showed that, however beautiful, they were also Lovejoy’s working tools. Miss Lydia Languish was to wear an ‘over-pinafore of pinky fawn cotton (like Holland), pleat frills of white cotton’. On the back of a painting of a seemingly dashing character called Mosca, Lovejoy had written ‘This man will need to wear padding under his tights – legs are thin’.
It was clear that this was a significant collection. It had good chronological coverage, from 1944 through to the letters of condolence after Lovejoy’s death in 1985. It also had an excellent range of material, including, as Graeme pointed out to me, such useful items for biographers as Lovejoy’s address book. It was a tribute to Robin Lovejoy and his family that the collection had been kept together and in such good condition. I was already more than happy to acquire it when I found Lovejoy’s original costume designs for the Corroboree ballet, first performed in Sydney in 1950. Corroboree, set to music by John Antill and choreographed by Rex Reid, was a significant and controversial production. It has since been described as a travesty4 for its appropriation of Aboriginal steps and motifs, though others have written of it as a progressive step that created a space through which later companies such as the Bangarra Dance Theatre could emerge.5 Lovejoy’s costume designs for the ballet, probably based on illustrations in Spencer and Gillen’s books6 , were part of the subsequent debates. Librarians have a very comfortable relationship with controversy. Taking no sides, we meet any suggestions that controversial material should not be acquired with the disarming question ‘But don’t you think the debate should be more informed?’ The inclusion of controversial material in a collection makes it a particularly good acquisition.
But what of the chooks? I found some of the missing jigsaw pieces that day at Patricia Lovejoy’s house. Among the hundreds of photographs were six of The Taming of the Shrew. One included Drew Forsythe. The caption identified it as produced by Robin Lovejoy, for the Old Tote Theatre Company, at the Parade Theatre, in 1972. I was delighted to find that it had been a Lovejoy production. It seemed fitting that part of the legacy of such a director were scenes that could be recalled thirty years later. I was just a little disappointed, however, that the photographs contained no evidence of any avian actors.
The Robin Lovejoy collection is now safely in the National Library, where it joins and complements the papers of David Williamson and John Antill, the photographic record of the J.C. Williamson Company and thousands of theatre programs in the Prompt Collection. And it was in the Prompt Collection that I finally tracked down the last piece of the puzzle. In the very fine print for the program for that 1972 production of the Shrew, there is a line ‘Scampa and Box trained and owned by Gwyne Brookes’. Impressive names for chooks, but it was an impressive scene, in an impressive production, in a career that left Australia a richer place.
1. Robin Lovejoy: a Herald profile in Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 1966. Page 5.
2. Robin Lovejoy, quoted in: Patricia Angly. Robin marches on in The Australian, 2 June 1976,. Page 12.
3. Lindsey Browne. The Lovejoy touch in The Bulletin, 19 March 1961 .
4. Candice Bruce and Anita Callaway. Dancing in the dark: black corroboree or white spectacle? In Australian journal of art, vol. 9. 1991. Page 92.
5. Amanda Card. From ‘Aboriginal dance’ to Aboriginals dancing
6. Sir Baldwin Spencer and F.J Gillen. The Arunta: a study of a stone age people. London : Macmillan, 1927 and Sir Baldwin Spencer. Wanderings in wild Australia. London : Macmillan, 1928.