Peter O'Shaughnessy

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Peter O'Shaughnessy OAM
Peter O'Shaughnessy (An actor in exile).png
Peter O'Shaughnessy 'Actor in Exile' by Karen Donnelly 1987

Peter O'Shaughnessy OAM (born 5 October 1923, died 17 July 2013, England, United Kingdom [1]) was an Australian actor, theatre director, producer and writer who presented the work of playwrights ranging from Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov to modern dramatists, such as Ionesco, Pinter and Beckett. He is best known as mentor to and collaborator with comedian Barry Humphries in his early career.[2]

O'Shaughnessy was a major exponent of Samuel Beckett, both in Australia and in Ireland. He produced the first Waiting for Godot in Australia in 1957. He played Krapp in the Australian premier of Krapp's Last Tape at the Arts Theatre in Melbourne in 1959. He also toured a second production of Godot in Sydney and Canberra in 1969, and later directed the Irish premières of Not I (1978),Footfalls (1978) and Rockaby (1984), and the unofficial world premiers of Theatre I and Theatre II (later published in modified form as Rough for Theatre I and II) in Cambridge in 1977.[3]

He is also notable for one-act performances of Diary of a Madman, adapted from Gogol. In 1968 he collaborated with Graeme Inson and Russel Ward on an illustrated anthology, The Restless Years, based on his award-winning television program of the same name (not to be confused with the 1977–1981 soap opera The Restless Years). After making significant inroads to bring Shakespeare to Australian audiences in the 1960s, his Australian career was cut short after a libellous review published in the The Australian by Katharine Brisbane. After a trial and an unsuccessful appeal, the case was ultimately determined in the High Court of Australia where he was vindicated.[4] However, he could no longer work in Australia. In 1970 he left for London and continued to act in and direct Shakespeare in the UK and Ireland. For The British Council he has lectured on the plays of Shakespeare to universities in many countries of Europe, and in West Africa and South America. As a historian, his two books on General Joseph Holt and his book on John Mitchel are significant contributions to Australian/Irish history.[5]

Collaboration with Barry Humphries[edit]

One of Peter O'Shaughnessy's most lasting legacies was when he mentored the young Barry Humphries who has acknowledged that, 'without O'Shaughnessy's nurturing and promotion, the character of Edna Everage would have been nipped in the bud after 1956 and never come to flower, while the character of Sandy Stone would never have taken shape as a presence on the stage'.[6] With O'Shaughnessy's encouragement, the character (Everage). . . developed considerably.[7]

O'Shaughnessy in September 1957 staged the first Australian production of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Waiting for Godot at the Arrow Theatre in Melbourne with himself as Vladimir and Humphries as Estragon. It proved a hit with both audiences and critics. The critic of the Melbourne Sun wrote 'so engrossing and well-done is this extraordinary adventure by Samuel Beckett regimented by Peter O'Shaughnessy's tender care that for me the evening passed by on wings.' Bruce Grant, The Age critic, hailed the production of a play which he knew had established its worth in London and was at last being seen in Australia and, with reservations, praised the performance.[8]

Later in the same year, O'Shaughnessy planned a production of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion for December, in tandem with a children's play to be performed at matinees. Part of the idea for a bush story involving a bunyip came from Frank Dalby Davison's book Children of the Dark People in which Old Man Bunyip is a wise guardian of the bush. After rejecting various scripts, O'Shaughnessy, Humphries and two radio scriptwriters, Jeff Underhill and Don Whitelock, produced their own script, which became The Bunyip and the Satellite.[9] The children's show was a hit, and Humphries' performance as the Bunyip widely praised. O'Shaughnessy himself wrote, 'Barry's performance as The Bunyip was the finest and most touching he had ever given in the theatre, and the character very close to his secret heart.' Humphries himself described his creation as a 'prancing bird-like clown with a falsetto that inevitably got huskier after twelve performances a week'. In an interview in the Australian magazine Theatre in 1960, Humphries went further by linking the bush creature with another of his recent creations, the suburban denizen Edna Everage: 'I notice Mrs Everage sometimes behaves in a slightly Bunyippy way . . . she gives a spasmodic leap, which I subsequently recognise as a rather bunyippy trait.[10] Their final production together was to be their most successful, the 1958 Rock'n'Reel Revue at the New Theatre in Melbourne where Humphries brought the characters of Mrs Everage and Sandy Stone into the psyche of Melbourne audiences. With O'Shaughnessy's encouragement, he would take them to the world.

High Court Case[edit]

One of the most significant events in Peter O'Shaughnessy's career occurred when he received a scathing review, for the 1967 Sydney production of Othello that he both directed and played the part of Othello, from theatre critic for The Australian, Katharine Brisbane. She said, in part: 'Stupidity and lack of talent are forgivable; brave failures are deserving of praise – these are every day human failings. But the waste and dishonesty of this production . . . made me very angry indeed.'[11] The case for O'Shaughnessy was argued before the High Court by 27-year-old junior counsel Mary Gaudron (who would later herself become a High Court judge) in her first High Court case after O'Shaughnessy sacked her senior Clive Evatt QC. According to O'Shaughnessy, 'she cut a valiant figure, this "slip of a girl", who stood unsupported before the five legal elders of the land. They were obviously impressed by her courage, her sheer elegant dash, her shining intellect finding expression in felicitous language, her good manners, charm, poise. And perhaps, when all is said and done, by her sheer cheek in taking on the case.'[12] O'Shaughnessy won with a unanimous judgment, successfully arguing that Brisbane had imputed that O'Shaughnessy had promoted his performance at the expense of his fellow actors, and that it was open to the jury to find that the use of the word 'dishonest' imputed such a dishonourable motive and therefore could be viewed as a statement of fact which had to be justified by evidence of which there was none to that effect. In a joint judgment, Barwick C.J., McTiernan, Menzies and Owen JJ stated, 'This is one of those cases where the critic, in making her evaluation that the production was a disaster . . . did not plainly confine herself to commenting upon facts truly stated; she wrote what could, we think, have been regarded as amounting to a defamatory statement of fact, viz. that the producer dishonestly suppressed the roles of other players to highlight his own role.'[13] In a separate judgment, Windeyer J went further, 'the matter published by the respondent in its newspaper was a vigorous, and in parts abusive criticism of a public performance of "Othello".'[14] The court held this was not fair comment on the performance as such, and ordered a retrial. However, it did not go back to court. The Rupert Murdoch owned paper ultimately settled with O'Shaughnessy. However, it had a lasting impact on O'Shaughnessy's career, for he left for London shortly afterwards effectively ending his career on the Australian stage. As for Brisbane, she saw it the making of her career: "So they settled . . . which was a bit sad. But after that my columns were read."[15]


Phillip Adams wrote in the The Australian under the banner "Gonged but not forgotten" an article pointing out a number of Australians who had made a significant contribution to their respective fields who had not received the public recognition of an Order of Australia. ' . . . here's a partial list of the worthies who didn't make the cut . . . Peter O'Shaughnessy for his titanic and sadly overlooked services to Australian theatre in the 1960s'.[16] However, in the 2013 Australia Day Honours List, O'Shaughnessy was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) 'for service to the performing arts as a writer, theatre director, actor, historian and folklorist'.[17]

Books by O'Shaughnessy[edit]

  • Peter O'Shaughnessy, Graeme Inson, and Russel Ward, The Restless Years – Being Some Impressions of the Origin of the Australian, The Jacaranda Press (1968), ASIN: B004H4EYJI.
  • Peter O'Shaughnessy, The Fabulous Journey of Mac Con Glin, Sabrainne (1989), ASIN: B0007BNZPY.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PETER O'SHAUGHNESSY (From Daily Echo)". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  2. ^ Debbie Cuthbertson Arts Editor (2013-08-02). "Death of actor who helped shape the Dame". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  3. ^ Russell Smith and Chris Akerley,"Samuel Beckett's Reception in Australia and New Zealand""The International Reception of Samuel Beckett" Martin Feldman and Mark Dixon eds. London, Continuum 2009 pps.108–128.
  4. ^ "Othello Case"[1970] HCA 52
  5. ^ UK2.NET. "Peter O'Shaughnessy". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  6. ^ Barry Humphries More Please 1992 Viking pps.176–177
  7. ^ Richard Stone,"Bunyippy Traits"National Library of Australia News 2003,Vol XIII No 4 p.12
  8. ^ UK2.NET. "Peter O'Shaughnessy". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  9. ^ "Bunyippy Traits"
  10. ^ "Papers of Peter O'Shaughnessy, [manuscript]. - Version details - Trove". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  11. ^ "O'Shaughnessy v. Mirror Newspaper Ltd"(1970) 125 CLR 166 at 172
  12. ^ UK2.NET. "Peter O'Shaughnessy". Retrieved 2014-06-01. 
  13. ^ O'Shaughnessy at 174
  14. ^ Ibid at 177
  15. ^ Rosalie Higson,"The journey from stage to page""The Australian", 26 July 2011
  16. ^ Phillip Adams,"Gonged but not forgotten"The Australian, 23 June 2012
  17. ^ Honour Roll,[1]It's an Honour, 26 January 2013

External links[edit]