Allan Wilkie CBE 1878-1970
After four years’ touring, Wilkie claimed a world record: 1000 consecutive performances of Shakespeare.
The combined effects of the Depression and the ‘talkies’ forced Wilkie to disband his company in 1930; by then he had produced 27 of the hoped-for 37 plays.
Wilkie lived on to the age of 92, dying in Scotland on 7 January 1970. He was survived by his son, Melbourne journalist Douglas Wilkie (who died on 10 April 2002, aged 93).
Wilkie was not only an actor-manager in the grand tradition, he was also a skilled promoter. He cannily included curriculum plays in his repertoire and offered half-price concessions for school parties attending suitably sanitised matinee performances. He campaigned for government subsidies for the theatre and succeeded in getting free railway transport for his company – in effect, the first government subsidy of theatre in this country. From 1922 to 1924 he published The Shakespearean Quarterly. Claimed to be the only Shakespearean journal published in the British Empire, it covered Shakespearean study and stage production and was sold in the theatres where he performed. For a short period it was edited by Hector Bolitho.
After four years’ touring, Wilkie claimed a world record: 1000 consecutive performances of Shakespeare. According to the Hobart Mercury he believed that ‘in a small way he had done something towards preserving the integrity of the British Empire, and that however inadequately the plays might be performed, the mere representation of the language of Shakespeare improved the people who listened, and made them better citizens of the Empire.’ It was appropriate that in 1925 he was awarded the CBE for his services to theatre, particularly with regard to education.
In June the following year, all his costumes, scenery and props were lost in a fire at the Geelong Mechanics’ Institute. A national appeal financed a trip to London to buy replacements. Wilkie was back on the road again in January 1927. One of his players, J. Beresford Fowler, remembered him: ‘A hard man to get on with; he had nearly every actor in Australia working with him at one time or another.’ The roster included Lorna Forbes, Marie Ney, Augustus Neville, Leslie Manners, Frank Clewlow, John Cairns and Ellis Irving.
The combined effects of the Depression and the ‘talkies’ forced Wilkie to disband his company in 1930; by then he had produced 27 of the hoped-for 37 plays. He turned again to Restoration comedy and even to an Australian play – Doris Egerton Jones’s Governor Bligh. His next productions were incongruous: in February 1931 he premiered Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Tivoli in Melbourne and toured it and Drinkwater’s Bird in Hand though Queensland. Audiences were sparse, and Wilkie and his wife left Australia. With a modest presentation of scenes from Shakespeare, they toured through New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
In 1932, following a brief tour of England, Allan Wilkie virtually retired from the stage, though he visited British Columbia in 1938 and continued to give occasional recitals. Frediswyde Hunter-Watts died in 1951 but Wilkie lived on to the age of 92, dying in Scotland on 7 January 1970. He was survived by his son, Melbourne journalist Douglas Wilkie (who died on 10 April 2002, aged 93), and by his second wife, Kate, who donated his extensive personal archives to the University of Adelaide’s Barr Smith Library. The collection includes letters, clippings, programs, photographs, annotated prompt books and an unpublished autobiography, All the World My Stage.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
John Golder: ‘A Cultural Missionary on Tour: Allan Wilkie’s Shakespearean Company, 1920-1930’, in O Brave New World, Currency Press, 2001
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby, 1965
John Rickard: ‘Allan Wilkie’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12
Lisa Warrington: ‘Allan Wilkie’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995