Karen Donnelly, The Actor in Exile, Peter O’Shaughnessy

An old friend, Peter O’Shaughnessy, has just died in Winchester, the cathedral town in Southern England where he lived for many years in the St. John’s Charity almshouse in The Broadway, and in whose chapel his funeral is being held as I write these words.

Peter was a rising star in the Australian cultural firmament in the 1950s and 60s, a key member of a brilliant set that included Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) and Germaine Greer. He was a pioneer collector and interpreter of Australian myths and legends. In 1967 Peter was poised to become a leading figure in a mooted Australian national theatre. Then it all fell apart. A disastrous Othello, which Peter both starred in and directed, a savage review, a subsequent lawsuit for defamation which was settled in Peter’s favour but which effectively ended his professional life in Australia. The story is laid out in a Wikipedia article, with a sketch of his subsequent career as author, actor and director, and a notice of his award in the Australia Day honours early this year, the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM), a belated recognition I am glad to say Peter lived to see and to relish.

I met Peter O’Shaughnessy at the University of Waterloo in the early 1970s. He had been recruited by another Aussie expatriate, my colleague and friend J.F.H.New, then dean of Arts, on the strength of little more than a memory of a charismatic director New had seen years before in Melbourne. It should be said that Waterloo was in those days, in the words of an aristocratic German lady visitor I once met—she chose the English expression with great care—The Wilderness. By which she meant a kind of provincial mentality both touching and ridiculous, although as far as the university was concerned the expression also could be taken to mean a wide open, non-bureaucratic way of doing things. New located Peter in England and offered him a full professorship as head of Drama Division, although Peter had never attended any university nor ever held an academic post. Deans could do things like that then.

At Waterloo Peter batted aside an entrenched and incestuous coterie of “theatre” people who it seems had mostly done nasty little contemporary closet pieces, and mounted immediately an ambitious programme of plays—big, difficult projects: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Brecht, Beckett—facing down every sort of opposition, resentment and jealous intrigue with singular will and determination honed over years in professional repertory theatre. He lived for a good part of the time with me and my then wife. We were drawn into his projects, acting in plays, finding props, I even directed a production of The Master Builder for a little company we formed on the side.

I think Peter rather enjoyed the obstructionism, and even the hatred, of the mediocrities, the lazy and untalented students. He never brought his family to Canada nor perhaps ever intended really to settle for good in Waterloo, although he toyed with the idea of establishing at Waterloo a Chekhov festival. Eventually, too, the old ways of doing things came under attack at the university. New’s successor, having none of New’s imagination, annoyed by the precedent of the anomalous professorship, bought Peter out. Peter returned to England.

We met from time to time afterwards. In Hampstead, in Oxford, in Kent, in Bristol. I saw him on stage in Swindon, as Praed, in a travelling production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession with Susan Penhaligon. Penny and I once joined him and his daughter and his grandson, whom he called The Boy, on a same-day round-trip lark to Cherbourg, so Peter could load the boot of his car with duty-free booze. Our contacts tapered off. Briefly, later, in Winchester, in Gloucester, at Stinchcombe. Then, very little.

I have been thinking lately about this long relationship, and I realize there was always an uneasiness in it. Peter could be difficult, temperamental, high-handed, manipulative. I came early to understand that part of him saw me as an American naïf, a Jimmy Stewart character. I got no credit from Peter, for example, in defending him to the students at Waterloo by appealing to their better natures, to their sense of fairness, etc. And he was right. It was naive. What I eventually saw was that Peter was an acute psychologist, a realist about human natures, and that his profession had much to do with this outlook, the result of self-education in the classics of art, literature and music, the master-practice night after night of the extraordinary and mysterious art of representing character on the stage, the ruthlessness, exploitation, cruelty even, required to coax poetry from a cast of players and supporting technical people, all at cross-purposes, many of them thick, awkward, malicious, never letting down your guard for a minute, looking always for the unlikely spark that might be made a small, hard shining gem. I could not have done what Peter did, but watching him work and listening to him talk enriched my life hugely. I saw that acting, putting on a play, was a comprehensive understanding of life as gesture, as construction, as figuration, in its way both humane and healthy-minded, a liberation from self and sentimentality.

The last time we saw Peter was the winter of 1996-97. He and The Boy came to visit us in Stinchcombe where Penny and I rented a converted schoolhouse. One afternoon of a cold Sunday we all decided to drive to Gloucester to the cathedral. Already dark by the time we got to the cloisters, Peter dawdled over a bit of glass here, a tomb design after Flaxman there, mostly to provoke a volunteer attendant, a retired military type, whose courteous remarks about closing time got more elaborately courteous as his patience grew strained. We were the last visitors and the man was no doubt eager to get to his sherry and slippers. Peter became yet more obtuse, finding yet other small treasures to linger over, drawing out for our benefit the rich absurdity of the scene. He was in a play, of course, an extempore comedy about the hypocrisy of English manners (Peter was never far from his Irish and Australian prejudices) in which we and The Boy were both extras and audience.

Afterwards, we went over the road to the Gloucester New Inn, a fifteenth-century coach house and tavern in whose deep, galleried well of a courtyard Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, may have performed. By now it was snowing. The courtyard was empty, lit only by the glow of lights from the tavern. Peter and The Boy were both thinly dressed. We were all stamping and hugging ourselves. Then Peter struck a pose. Without preamble, looking up into an imagined distance beyond the galleries he began reciting, in his best classical intonation, Duncan’s lines,

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

We looked together as one, Penny and me and The Boy, and there it was: Inverness, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth waiting within.

Peter O’Shaughnessy, 1923-2013, RIP.