Victor Emeljanow, who died this month, age 79, had handsome, leonine features, a lithe, powerful body (he’d been an Olympic fencer), and a way of holding his head stock-still whenever he wanted something from you.
I was a junior lecturer at the University of Newcastle 2000-01, where he was a distinguished, battle-scarred Professor of Drama (Victor approved of a fight, as proof of vitality).
The son of an Estonian father and a Welsh mother who fled to New Zealand from war-torn Europe, he ran his Department in feudal manner, dragooning his odd-ball staff-subjects into a semblance of order. He led from the front, with a splendid, bass voice that could penetrate concrete.
We were a scruffy bunch, and required firm executive leadership, in his view. Never short of opinions, he laid these out with crisp authority. When he walked, he rolled his hips slightly, giving him a jaunty, piratical air. Victor was pleased with himself, and pleased with life. Things displeased him, but not for long, not during my time.
If I think of him now, I feel pleasure, and am reminded of what he thought life, and the theatre, were for: to be enjoyed. He was a 19th century popular theatre scholar, a brilliant and painstaking one.
In the Department, it was the custom for all teaching staff to attend maiden lectures. After mine, he bowled up, accusingly. “Were you wearing a tie?” I explained my mother had bought it for me. His eyes narrowed, and his head fixed me like a chook marked for the Easter raffle. “Don’t do it again.”
Victor’s antecedents lay in the legendary Drama Department of the University of New South Wales – the first in Australia – which included luminaries such as Robert Jordan, Marlis Thiersch, Margaret Williams, John Golder, Phillip Parsons and the Ur-man of post-War Australian theatre, Robert Quentin.
The critic and historian John McCallum once explained to me what had happened in the sherry-swilling days of the Menzies torpor, when artists fled overseas in container-loads and a successful theatre show meant a two-week run and one review.
King Lear-like, Quentin had tri-partitioned the theatrical kingdom he did much to build: the National Institute for Dramatic Art established in 1958 (going to John Clarke); the Old Tote Theatre, predecessor of the Sydney Theatre Company established in 1963 (going to Robin Lovejoy); and, of course, the UNSW Drama Department itself, established in 1966 and the first such in the country, which Quentin ran until his retirement in 1977.
Victor was one of a new breed coming through, more raucous and political. In the 1970s, he directed a seminal production of the Victorian melodrama, Black Eyed Susan, at the Bondi Pavilion, whereupon the Department told him he had to choose between an academic career and a professional one.
I find this moment easy to imagine. I was fed the same blarney myself 20 years later. But it took Victor out of the professional theatre loop, and banished him to the role of critic (for The National Times) and to directing mainly student productions, which he did with an adept choreographic eye and a grip on the play text like an industrial magnet.
The cut and thrust of theatre politics in the Quentin era entailed the use of edged weapons. Victor learnt how to fight committee-style from those who never lost a stoush, save against each other. It was terrifying, or would have been if, by the time it reached me, it had not been the comical shadow of its former destructive self.
For that, Victor must take some of the credit. He was Master and Commander, not ruthless tyrant. Within the instrument of his colourful personality lay a mind that was rational and progressive. He absorbed the negative beliefs of the Quentin era and ensured they were not passed on.
There were two junior lecturers in the Newcastle Drama Department during my time, and we were treated like favoured children. These days, it is fashionable to weigh young staff down with heavy teaching loads and suck up their remaining hours in administrivia that accomplishes little and means less. At Newcastle, we were given light teaching commitments and encouraged to develop research interests that involved the region we lived in.
Newcastle was at that time between personas – no longer a smog-filled BHP steel town not yet a renewed Sydney satellite. The earthquake was only a decade gone. The streets were wide and quiet and full of the past. I loved it. I began research into the Hunter Valley Theatre Company that led to the publication of its history in October last year.
Victor was a director, a teacher and a scholar. He published with the historian Jim Davis, who was as physically unlike him as could be imagined, but they were close in every other way – a true intellectual marriage. More recently, he co-authored extensively with Gillian Arrighi, developing the work of other researchers through edited collections and the academic journal of which he was most proud, Popular Entertainment Studies.
Victor never critiqued my research, or set me publication targets. He expected me to work hard, to address my deficiencies, and join the small cohort of Australian theatre scholars to which he belonged. That expectation did more to motivate me than a tsunami of KPIs.
When I left Newcastle in 2002 to take up a job at Melbourne Theatre Company, he took my desertion from his crew with equanimity. The ominous rumble of a major university restructure could be heard in the distance. I asked him how he could stand it. He said, “when you’ve enjoyed the good years, you have to put up with the bad”.
After his Department was reduced to just one staff member, he took a more critical view. He retired in 2009 but continued to contribute to the University in both practical and intellectual ways. When I got my Chair at Flinders in 2012, I stayed at his historic East Maitland home and he took me to lunch to discuss “how I was going to be a professor”.
With relish he laid out the impossible virtues needed – the force of personality; the strategic acumen; the firmness of purpose; the endless self-belief. While I ate my fish and chips I wondered how on earth I could live up to even one part of my new role.
Later, we walked down to the train station to meet his beautiful wife, Danusia, coming back from work, as the early Spring sun threw its golden light over the beautiful Hunter landscape.
Victor, seeing me glumly preoccupied gave me a dazzling smile and told me to cheer up and “remember to enjoy it”; which is not a bad command for a pirate-king to give his vassal.
Details of Professor Victor Emeljanow’s career can be found here