Harry Tighe, Australian Playwright

Australian playwright, Harry Tighe, was born Henry Tighe at Lambton, New South Wales in 1877. He was the youngest of ten children. His father was Atkinson Tighe and his mother, Arabella.

Harry spent most of his youth in Petersham, in Sydney’s inner western suburbs. He was a sickly child. When he was seventeen he was sent to England for health and educational reasons. Harry enrolled at Cambridge University and his health improved in England

Harry was happy there. He felt an affinity for the countryside and climate. An affinity which was missing in Australia. He was however, aware of being an alien in England. Occasionally the English would shun him, presuming that he came from convict stock. This was a common problem for those identifying themselves as Australian in the early 20th century.

Regardless he remained contented in England. He continued to identify himself as Australian. To Harry, the fact that he was an Australian more contented in a foreign land than at home was a cause for sorrow. Questions of identity were to concern him for most of his life and played a significant part in his writing.

At age 21 Harry decided to turn to literature as a full time occupation. It was a decision that did not please his father, who was a well respected businessman and former state politician. However, Harry stood by his decision and had a moderately successful career as a writer.

His first published work was Jean, a play in three acts, written in 1901. This was followed by Remorse and other essays in 1902. By the early 1930s he had written sixteen novels and had four plays produced in London. Amongst his novels were Women of the Hills (1922) and With the Tide (1925). Women of the Hills was described as ‘passionate and atmospheric’ by critics. With the Tide concerned the fight of a middle aged woman to retain her youth. It was a modern novel, which sold well. Many of Harry’s writings concerned the feminine mind . It was this fact which led a reporter to describe Harry as a clever writer on feminine psychology.

Harry was better known as a playwright. He had one play , Insult, produced in New York. It was presented at the 49th Street Theatre in September 1930, but only lasted for twenty four performances.

Another play, Atonement written with Cecil Rhodes, gave some idea of Harry’s major themes. The play was set in Spain and concerned a condemned man and a priest. The priest took the condemned mans place in his cell when he discovered that the man was the father of his sisters child.  The plot was the traditional melodramatic one of the time. Although it had no female characters, it did address issues which seemed to preoccupy the author. In particular issues relating to identity.

Harry lived in England for close to forty years with few visits to Australia. He lived in Kensington and had a wide social circle. One article of the 1930s stated that ‘His parties are much enjoyed by many people with famous names.’

One of Harry’s favorite stories concerned an encounter with Nellie Melba. The diva once sang a song, at an informal gathering at Harry’s request. It seemed that Harry, despite his alienation from Australia, associated with many Australians whilst in London. Another story told of a meeting with Charles Ryan, a prominent Melbourne doctor.. The two were on a cruise around Turkey. As they passed Gallipoli, Ryan pointed to a spot where he had sat with a friend. He had shared a cigar with the man, urging him to sit on a sandhill for comfort. The man had followed the doctor’s advice, and lit the cigar. After one puff a sniper had felled him. Ryan told Harry that he blamed himself for the man’s death.

In 1932 Harry returned to Australia. He said that this was due to financial reasons beyond his control. It was probably due to the depression. Harry settled in Sydney, in a house on Cremorne Point.

The depression had taken its toll on Sydney’s theatre scene. As a playwright, Harry did not have many options. Theatre at that time was confined to amateur theatre companies such as The Independent Theatre and the Sydney Repertory Theatre. The larger Theatres such as The Royal had few live theatre productions and showed motion pictures.

Harry decided to join forces with Doris Fitton and the Independent Theatre. Fitton was Phillipines born and Australian raised. She had entered the acting profession at a young age and moved from Melbourne to Sydney, where she performed with the Turret Theatre group. From this group arose the Independent Theatre. The Independent was founded by a group of theatre lovers who each subscribed ten pounds. They had club rooms on the corner of King and York Streets in Sydney where they rehearsed. They were known for their polished productions of high quality plays. The group used venues such as St James Hall and the Savoy Theatre. Some productions such as "the Constant Nymph" were so well received that they were transferred to the commercial theatres. By 1932 Doris Fitton was being compared to legends such as Lillian Bayliss for her contribution to Sydney Theatre.

Harry Tighe had been interested in The Peoples Theatre movement run by Nancy Price in London. Fitton’s Independent Theatre was based upon similar ideas. Both Tighe and Fitton lived on Sydney’s North Shore, and were probably introduced by mutual friends.

Harry gave a lecture at the Independent Theatre clubrooms in 1932. The lecture was titled, ‘The Art of Acting’. It reportedly had a ‘splendid reception.’

He then produced a Noel Coward play, The Young Idea for the Independent Theatre.The play concerned the activity of two children who tried to reconcile their divorced parents. It was a comedy. Mr Bruce Bennett Smith starred as the father and Winifred Heath Green as the mother. Miss Grace Hart and Mr James Pratt played the two children.

The play had its first performance at the Savoy Theatre in Bligh Street Sydney on Saturday 2nd July 1932. It was well received by a ‘large and appreciative’ audience.

The Sydney Mail newspaper particularly praised the efforts of Mr Bennett who played his part, ‘excellently’. The newspaper also stated that the play carried on the ‘high tradition’ of the Independent theatre. Mr Harry Tighe, producer, must have been well pleased with the review. The play continued for five performances.

Whether Harry continued his association with Doris Fitton is unknown. He announced that he was going to consider the foundation of a school for Australian playwrights. He may have spent the remainder of his time in Australia promoting and working on this project. Certainly, Harry had an interest in promoting Australian theatre. Yet the depression and subsequent decline in Australian theatre activity probably interfered with his plans

Harry Tighe returned to England. The place where he felt most comfortable. By the late 1930s he had been awarded a silver medal by the Instituit Litteraire et Artisique de France At that time he published two thinly disguised autobiographical accounts of his life. They were called, By the Wayside (1939) and As I Saw It’ (1937). In both books the author is hidden by the name ‘Chard’. By the Wayside is a traditional narrative of the author’s life. It includes anecdotes about his early life and his meetings with famous theatre personalities of the time.

As I saw it, is less traditional. It has long stream of consciousness passages and discursive paragraphs. It is set in the 1930s and contains some interesting descriptions of Sydney at the time. It also gives some insight into the insecurity of the day, and questions the nature of Australian identity. It addresses issues of race in a manner which would be deemed racist by a modern reader. Harry’s inability to find peace in his homeland is a disturbing element of the book

During the 1940s Harry continued to write. In 1945 He published The Art of acting, possibly an extended version of the speech he gave to the Independent Theatre,

Harry Tighe died in 1946. He was not a major Australian playwright, but his plays are interesting examples of the type of work being produced in the early 20th century. His two semi autobiographical novels are also interesting historical documents. In particular his descriptions of Sydney and accounts of meeting famous theatre personalities are useful. His fiction may not have aged well, but his autobiographical work gives an insight into questions which plague the Australian population to this day.

 

Note; Harry Tighe was my fourth cousin.

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