ASCHE, John Stanger Heiss Oscar (1871-1936)


ASCHE, John Stanger Heiss Oscar (1871-1936)
always known as Oscar Asche
actor
was born at Geelong, Victoria, on 26 January 1871. His father, a Norwegian, a graduate of Christiana university, was a barrister, but never practised in Australia. After being a digger, a mounted policeman and a storekeeper, he became a prosperous hotel-keeper in Melbourne and Sydney. His son was educated at the Melbourne Grammar School which he left at the age of 16. He then went on a holiday voyage to China and after his return was articled to an architect who died soon afterwards. Asche found the little he had learned useful when he became a producer. He wanted to go on the land but his parents objected. A few months later he ran away and lived in the bush for some weeks and then obtained a position as a jackeroo. He returned to his parents and obtained a position in an office, but he had now decided to become an actor, and made a beginning by getting up private theatricals at his home. He paid a visit to Fiji and on his return his father agreed to send him to Norway to study acting. At Bergen, where he was instructed in deportment and voice-production and had the run of the theatre, he found Norwegian acting to be excellent, easy and natural, with perfect technique. Two months later he went to Christiana, now Oslo. There he met Ibsen, who wisely advised him to go to his own country and work in his own language. Asche then went to London and was so impressed by Irving and Ellen Terry in Henry VIII, that he saw the performance six times in succession. More study followed in London where he had his "Australian accent" corrected. He was fortunate in having an allowance of £10 a week from his father, but could not get work. In December 1892 he went to Norway again to give a Shakespeare recital, which was successful and brought him a little money. On 25 March 1893 he made his first appearance on the stage, at the Opera Comique Theatre, London, as Roberts in Man and Woman, with Arthur Dacre and Amy Roselle. He then joined the F. R. Benson Company and for eight years had invaluable experience. He began with small parts, and was certainly well cast as Charles the Wrestler in As You Like It, for he had then a magnificent physique. He had a salary of £2 10s. a week, but his father had been involved in the 1893 financial crisis and was unable to send him any allowance. At vacation times when he had no salary Asche sometimes slept on the embankment, and was glad to earn trifling tips for calling cabs. However, his salary was raised to £4 a week, and he was never in such straits again. He played over 100 characters with this company including Brutus, King Claudius and other important Shakespearian parts. He married Lily Brayton, another member of the company, and the two were associated in most productions for many years. In February 1900 Asche appeared with the Benson Company at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and gave a good performance as Pistol in Henry V, and he was also praised for his Claudius in Hamlet. He had a great success at the Garrick Theatre in 1901 when he played Maldonado in Pinero's Iris, his first important part in modern comedy. Joining the Beerbohm Tree Company in 1902, in 1903 he played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing to the Beatrice of Ellen Terry. Other parts were Bolingbroke in Richard II, Christopher Sly and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Angelo in Measure for Measure.
In 1907 Asche began his management of His Majesty's Theatre and played among other parts Jacques in As You Like It and Othello. He made his first tour in Australia in 1909-10 and was enthusiastically received in Petruchio, Othello and other characters. Asche was much touched by his reception at Melbourne. In his autobiography which appeared in 1929 he said, "What a home-coming it was! Nothing, nothing can ever 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." On his return to London he accepted a play Kismet by Edward Knoblock with the understanding that he could revise it. He shortened and partly re-wrote it and produced it with much originality and artistry. A tour in Australia followed in 1911-12 when Kismet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Antony and Cleopatra were added to his former successes. Back in London Kismet was revived successfully and in October 1914 his own play Mameena based on Rider Haggard's The Child of Storm, though at first well received, proved a financial failure, largely on account of war conditions. In 1916 he produced his play Chu-Chin-Chow which ran from 31 August 1916 to 22 July 1921, a world's record never likely to be beaten. Asche played the part of Abu Hasan and confessed that "it got terribly boring going down those stairs night after night to go through the same old lines". But the performance was never allowed to get slack. He established a great reputation as a producer and during the run of Chu-Chin-Chow produced The Maid of the Mountains for the George Edwardes Estate, which also had a record run for a play of its kind. In 1922 Asche visited Australia again and made successful appearances as Hornblower in Galswortthy's The Shin Game, Maldonado in Pinero's Iris, in Julius Caesar, and in other Shakespearian plays.
Though Asche had been making a large income for many years he also spent largely. He was much interested in coursing, kept many greyhounds, and lost many thousands of pounds by them. He bought a farm in Gloucestershire which far from bringing him any income, was a constant expense. After his return from his third visit to Australia some of his theatrical ventures were unsuccessful and he became insolvent. His principal creditor was the Inland Revenue, though Asche stated that he had paid many thousands a year for years whenever a demand was made. He had in fact no knowledge of business methods, and as he frequently did not fill in the butts of his cheques, did not even know what he had spent. In his last years he appeared in several British film productions. He died in England on 23 March 1936. His wife the well known actress Lily Brayton survived him. His interesting autobiography, Oscar Asche his Life, must be read with caution whenever figures are mentioned. He also wrote two novels the Saga of Hans Hansen which appeared in 1930, an improbable but exciting story, and The Joss Sticks of Chung (1931). His play Chu-Chin-Chow was published in 1931, but the other plays of which he was author or part author have not been printed. Among these were Cairo, Mameeno, The Good Old Days, and The Spanish Main (under the name of Varco Marenes). He collaborated with F. Norreys Connell in writing Count Hannibal, and with Dornford Yates wrote Eastward Ho.
Asche was a good athlete and a fair cricketer and played for the M.C.C. against minor counties. He was a constant attendant at important matches at Lords. Life to him was a great game to be played with boisterous heartiness, but he took his art seriously, and as a producer was a great influence in his time. He had much feeling for colour and timing, and was sensitive about the dividing line between opulence and vulgarity. As an actor in his early days he would sometimes make a small part like the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice or the Duke of Norfolk in Richard II become comparatively important. His Petruchio was excellent and The Taming of the Shrew in his hands went with immense go from start to finish. He was an interpretative artist who knew the value of tradition, but did not fear to depart from it if there seemed to be good reason for doing so. His Jaques was played by no means on traditional lines. His Othello was taken quietly at the beginning, the speech to the senate erred rather on the side of want of eloquence, but he rose to great heights in later scenes. The writer was present one evening when a member of the audience was so carried away when Othello was smothering Desdemona, that his vigorous protest held up the action for several moments. His presentation of Hornblower was carefully thought out and consistent, and whatever was attempted was carried out with competence. It would perhaps be going too far to call Asche a great actor, but it may at least be said that he was a thoroughly good actor who had his great moments.
Oscar Asche, Oscar Asche his Life by Himself; The Times, 24 March 1936; The Argus, Melbourne, 25 March 1936; J. Parker, Who's Who in the Theatre; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.


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