Born: Established: 24 Jan 1871 Geelong, Geelong City - Geelong East area, Geelong area, Geelong - Terang - Lake Bolac area, Victoria, ; Died: Ceased: 23 Mar 1936 Buckinghamshire,
Australian actor, manager, librettist, director, producer, author, and inventor. Arguably one of Australia's most successful actor/directors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Oscar Asche studied theatre in Norway, and later established a considerable reputation in England with Benson's Shakespeare Company and Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree. He later formed his own stage company with his actress wife Lily Brayton, leasing such London theatres as the Adelphi and His Majesty's and presenting a largely Shakespearian repertoire. Asche and Brayton toured Australia in 1909-10 and again in 1912-13. Although his initial success as an actor and director was largely the result of several acclaimed Shakespearian productions, none of these compared to the success he had with his extravaganzas. The first significant production was the Eastern spectacle Kismet (1911).
Inspired by the public's reaction to that show, Asche put together in 1916 another Eastern-inspired spectacle, Chu Chin Chow. This production was his greatest success. It ran in the West End for a record-breaking five years and played on Broadway for six months. Hugh D. McIntosh produced the first Chu Chin Chow production in Australia in 1920. Asche returned to Australia in 1921 for J.C. Williamson's Ltd, staging a number of productions, including Chu Chin Chow, his follow-up hit Cairo (1921), and Maid of the Mountains, the long-running musical that had premiered in London in December 1916 under his direction. After returning to England in 1924, Asche appeared in several films, wrote two novels, and produced a number of stage shows. His career nevertheless declined significantly and he died in poverty in 1936.
Born John Stange(r) Heiss Asche at Mack's Hotel, Geelong (Victoria), Oscar Asche is described by Eric Irvin in the Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914 as a 'theatrical pioneer of no mean order... a big man with big ideas' (p.11). Indeed, during his career, he created several visual spectacles that were later taken up by stage and film producers such as Florenz Ziegfeld (staircase scenes) and Cecil B. de Mille (bath scenes). Asche also innovated the curved-shell stage (which deepened the spatial perspective) and panoramic lighting techniques (for creating sunsets, rain, and clouds) almost a decade before they became the vogue of European theatre. An extremely capable and ingenious amateur cook, he even invented a portable cooking stove that travelled in his car and could be used for up to twenty people.
The son of a Norwegian barrister, Oscar Asche was educated at Melbourne Grammar School. In 1890, he sailed to Norway to study acting. After Asche had studied briefly in Bergen and Christiania (now Oslo), he followed playwright Henrick Ibsen's suggestion that he iron out his Australian accent and look to advance his career in England. Asche soon afterwards made his British stage debut in Man and Woman (Opera Comique Theatre, 1893) and over the next decade and a half carved out a considerable reputation as an actor, notably through his associations with F. R. Benson's Shakespeare Company (for eight years) and, from 1902, with Sir Herbert Beerbolm-Tree. He later formed his own company with actress Lily Brayton, whom he married, and together the pair toured the provinces and, on several occasions, leased theatres in London. Notable seasons were staged in London's Adelphi and His Majesty's (1907-08). The Asche/Brayton repertoire at this time was largely Shakespearian, with their most popular productions being The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and As You Like It (which ran for 155 performances alone during its 1907-08 season). Some time around late 1908 or early 1909, Asche collaborated with Norreys F. Connell to adapt Stanley Weyman's 1901 novel Count Hannibal for the stage, as a play of the same name. Shortly before it closed, he and Brayton signed a contract with Messrs Meynell and Gunn to undertake a six-month tour of Australia (1909-10), the first time Asche had returned to his homeland in almost twenty years.
The Australia tour was a much anticipated event, with his success in England having been publicised in the local theatre press for a number of years previous. The Theatre Magazine had, for example, been reporting on a possible tour as far back as February 1907 (p.14). The company, which came with its own scenery, costumes, and properties, included Raymond Pechotsch as music conductor and lasted just over a year, such was the demand from audiences. Its repertoire comprised mostly Shakespearian works, notably As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello, along with The Virgin Goddess, John Tobin's The Honeymoon, and Count Hannibal. According to Hal Porter, Asche was overjoyed to be famous on his return home, writing, 'What a home coming it was. Nothing, nothing can deprive me of that. I had made good, and had come home to show them. Whatever the future years held, or shall hold for me, nothing can eliminate that' (p.97).
Interest in the tour was not confined only to its male lead, however. Audiences were also taken with Lily Brayton, as were the critics. A waltz was even written and dedicated to the actress by F. Wynne Jones. Titled 'Lily Brayton Valse,' the music was published by Albert and Son with a portrait of Brayton reproduced in several tints for the cover (Age 28 August 1909, p.18). Interestingly, while audiences were excellent for the tour and most newspaper criticism positive, the Theatre Magazine appears to have taken an almost antagonistic viewpoint, with a number of snipes and criticisms levelled at Asche. Scene-Shifter, one of the magazine's columnists wrote, for example, that his treatment of Othello was 'mutilated... barbarous and blasphemous' and that As You Like It was 'a mess' (October 1909, pp.24-5). Another critic, writing in the same issue suggested, too, that the company's overall acting was 'much-puffed (p.8).
Despite the Theatre Magazine's criticism, the tour was a financial triumph and served to provide the capital necessary for Asche to produce another season of Shakespeare in the West End when he returned to London. His first significant London box office success was not one of the Bard's plays, however, but the controversial Eastern extravaganza Kismet (1911), which he adapted from Edward Knoblock)'s play Hajj's Hour. Described by W. Macqueen-Pope in Carriages at Eleven as a 'barbaric spectacle' (p.202), the controversy surrounded a nude female bath scene. The play ran for almost ten months at the Garrick Theatre.
The day after Kismet closed, Asche, Brayton, and the company returned to Australia for a second popularly received tour (1912-13), presenting several recent Shakespearian successes, notably Antony and Cleopatra and a new version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (which was accompanied by Mendelssohn's incidental music), along with Kismet. Following his return to England, Asche opened a season at the Globe Theatre (London). On 10 March 1914, he revived Kismet for London audiences, and the season (which advertised the West End premiere as the 381st production) lasted until 9 September. Shortly afterwards, he debuted his new production Mameena, a dramatisation of H. Rider Haggard's A Child of Storm. Asche had secured the rights to the novel when he met the author in Brisbane during his previous Australian tour (ca. March 1913). Essentially a play with music, Mameena opened in London in late September 1914 and, despite the turmoil of the period, ran for three and a half months. Also in 1914, Asche and Brayton, along with other members of their company, appeared in a silent film adaptation of Kismet.
In 1916, inspired by the public's reaction to Kismet, Asche put together his greatest success, the Eastern spectacle Chu Chin Chow. It ran for 2,238 performances over five years (a West End record that lasted almost forty years) and made Asche a millionaire. Chu Chin Chow also had a successful six-month run on Broadway. During Chu Chin Chow's record run, Asche found time to work on several other shows, one of which was the hugely successful musical Maid of the Mountains. For this production, Asche not only co-designed the scenery and costumes (with Joseph Harker) but also directed the production. After opening on 23 December 1916 at the Prince's Theatre, Manchester, under the management of Robert Evett, the production transferred to Daly's Theatre, London, on 10 February 1917, where it ran for 1,352 performances (closing 1 May 1920). He also managed to write and produce Eastwood Ho! (1919), a hybrid revue/musical comedy that once again drew on Asche's fascination with the Middle East and theatrical spectacle. The show was not a critical or financial success for him, however.
Chu Chin Chow was produced in Australia in 1920 when Asche toured under Hugh D. McIntosh's Tivoli organisation. He staged it again in 1921, this time under the management of J. C. Williamson's Ltd. His tour of Australia for the firm also included the first production in this country of The Maid of the Mountains (with Gladys Moncrieff in the lead role) and Cairo (1921), his follow-up to Chu Chin Chow. Although the tour itself was a success for Asche, he departed the country amidst considerable controversy and acrimony. Following a quarrel with the Williamson management, his contract was terminated. He also endured quite a deal of ridicule from the Australian press after he judged the Daily Telegraph's 1923 play competition and was accused of inducing a fellow judge to change his vote to give first place to Betty Hiscock's Desire of Spring (set in India). This raised a storm of protest because the local industry believed that the winner should have been a play set in Australia.
Returning to England in 1924, Asche found that his once-original extravaganzas were becoming unfashionable, and his career undertook a significant decline. At the same time, he found it impossible to change his lifestyle, continuing to over-spend on personal interests, notably his passions for coursing and greyhounds. A farm he bought in Gloucestershire also lost him a good deal of money. In the meantime, he staged a couple of unsuccessful shows, including The Good Old Days, which was produced in 1925 with financial assistance from his ex-wife Lily Brayton, and wrote his autobiography, Oscar Asche : His Life by Himself (1929). He also published two novels, The Saga of Hans Hansen (1930) and The Joss-Sticks of Chung (1931). One of his last theatrical endeavours was to direct Lily Brayton's final stage production in 1932. During the 1930s, he appeared in several motion pictures, beginning in 1932 with My Lucky Star, and followed by Don Quixote (1933), Two Hearts in Waltz Time (1934), Scrooge (1935), Private Secretary (1935), and Eliza Comes to Stay (1936). None of these roles served to reignite his flagging career, however. Despite having been one of the theatre's most influential directors, amassing several million pounds during his career, and garnering much critical acclaim, Oscar Asche's final years were professionally, personally, and finacially disastrous, and he died in poverty.