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Victor Emeljanow: In Memory of a Professor of Drama

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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 Emeljanow (Source: University of Newcastle Library).

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


[box]Main image: Professor Victor Emeljanow (L) and the cast of Manfred – Philip Bilton-Smith, Patrice Wilson and David Berthold, the University of Newcastle, 1988 via UON Library[/box]

9 responses to “Victor Emeljanow: In Memory of a Professor of Drama

  1. In 1974 I was one of a handful of UNSW Theatre Studies Department students who played anonymous sailors and wenches in that production of Black Eyed Susan at Bondi Pavilion Theatre, and it remains a cherished memory. Victor scared the shit out of us, of course. All we had to do was sing a shanty, dance a hornpipe and say “The Captain!” but I still remember the nerves. Sad to hear of his passing.

  2. Vale Victor. I remember the heady days of the UNSW School of Drama in the 1970s. The little collection of old tin sheds and nissan huts clustered around the square green lawn on the lower campus. They got rid of the lawn when they built the Io Myers Theatre (but that’s another story!) In addition to those mentioned by Julian I have fond memories of Jean Willem, Bill Pollack and Oliver Fiala also Aarne Neeme and David Watts were there as well. There was a great production of Don Juan in the old hut called Studio One (held about 70) directed by Philip Parsons with John Golder as the Don and Victor playing Sganarelle. Ah fond memories.

  3. “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.” Well put!

  4. Such a wonderful read, thank you so much for sharing your memories and time spent with my father Victor. It is so valuable to me what you have written. Many, many thanks!

  5. Vale Victor. I was one of a group of Hons students in the late 1970s at the Drama School UNSW, one of the most memorable times of my life. Victor was a brilliant lecturer, a fine director and a canny political operator who always managed to get grants for the School. I was involved in several productions in the old Studio hut and was then in a Meyerhold-inspired production of a short Chekhov play, Jubilee, director by Victor, in the new Io Myers theatre. This was a riotous affair involving much racing up and down stairs and across the mezzanine above the stage. I remember a line of back-clothed figures with upheld hands in white gloves above the stage at the climax of the play. My sympathies to Danusia and to Victor’s children. It is hard to believe he is no longer with us.

  6. Thank you Julian.
    I was a first year student at UON and my first introduction to theatre was your production of Clark in Sarajevo. I was enrolled in some rediculous Bachelor of Communication degree which had a drama component within the degree. Victor wrote me a letter, which I still have. He told me I showed a particular flair for the discipline. I dropped the communications degree in pursuit of a full blown BA which allowed me to take all the drama subjects. I’ve never looked back. I now run an acting academy for young people and make a good living. I owe my entire career to Victor and his encouragement. He became my mentor and dear friend over the last 10 years and we enjoyed many production projects together with him as director and myself as actor, including Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare (abridged), Waiting for Godot, Charley’s Aunt and finally what was to be a production of Beckett’s Endgame in July this year. Fittingly, Victor exclaimed to us (the cast) at what we now know was his last rehearsal that “we have an opportunity to make a bold statement with this piece”. Sadly, Victor’s final production won’t come to fruition…however, the statement was already made. It became his Endgame.

  7. I shall never forget Victor. He was my production supervisor on ‘Agnes of God’ in 1993 when I was at University of Newcastle studying the sadly defunct marvellous Master of Theatre Arts degree. He was truly inspirational and a fantastic lecturer and professor. He was always supportive of what I wanted to achieve and gave such marvellous assistance. He was the very best of the lecturers. He made ‘Measure for Measure’ by Shakespeare truly come alive. Unlike others, Victor was not just a dry theory lecturer. He knew the vital importance of theatre and not just academia. Vale Victor. I shall never forget you.

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