childhood, children, contributions of emigres to Australian Culture, New Education, Psychoanalysis in Education and Theatre, refugees, Rosemarie Benjamin, Susan Isaacs, Sydney Children's Theatre, Theatre in education, what have we found here?
I am delighted to introduce my first guest posting. Dr John McIntyre, a Canberra based education research and policy consultant and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canberra has kindly accepted my invitation to write a post for this blog. His subject is Rosemary Benjamin and influence of Susan Isaacs in Sydney’s Theatre for Children during the 1930s.
A brief exploration through Google shows that John McIntyre has worked for over 25 years in the professional preparation of adult and vocational educators at the University of Technology Sydney where he was a senior researcher and Director in the UTS Research Centre for Vocational Education and Training. His research has focused on outcomes and participation in ACE in Australia, much of it commissioned by government. He has also published work on early school leavers and equity strategies of VET providers, research methodology and policy and research relationships in adult education.His recent work includes ‘Client engagement in a learner-centred system’ and a feasibility study on a national internet portal for adult learners. In 2007 he evaluated the Victorian ACE Research Circles for the Adult, Community and Further Education Board, Engagement, Knowledge and Capability:Connecting Research and Policy to Practice. These and other publications can be found on his website.
John McIntyre is also deeply interested in theatre and the arts. After reading my posts about Susan Isaacs’ Australian tour in 1937 here and here, John contacted me with information about Rosemary Benjamin and the influence of Susan Isaacs’ thinking in the the Children’s Theatre Benjamin created in Sydney during the 1930s. You can find some more about Benjamin at this lovely site: http://www.artpages.com.au
Here is John McIntyre’s post….
Recently I have been exploring the history of the Theatre for Children, Sydney, that was founded and directed for one twenty years by an Englishwoman of Jewish background, Rosemary Benjamin (1901-1957).
Arriving in Sydney in late 1936, Benjamin soon made friends with Jewish emigrés from Europe including the Finkes, the psychoanalysts whose daughter Ruth acted in the theatre, Gertrud Bodenwieser, the leading exponent of expressionist dance and composer and musician Sydney John Kaye (Kurt Kaiser). Rosemarie Benjamin is another link in the story of ‘Freud in Oceania’.
By the time she began her Sydney work, Rosemarie Benjamin had developed her ideas about appropriate theatrical performance for children, ideas formed by early twentieth century progressive education and profoundly influenced by Freudian thinking in London of the 1930s. For Benjamin’s generation, Freud’s discovery of the unconscious enriched new ideas of play, creativity and development and contributed to the ferment of the ’new education’ in a way that is now hard to appreciate.
Benjamin believed that children’s theatre should be authentic, performed as serious theatre by adult actors in plays and draw deeply upon myth and fairy-tale. Through such theatre, children could encounter their inner conflicts in symbolic terms, identifying with characters expressing ‘difficult’ emotions of guilt, fear, anxiety and horror. Allegorical figures drawn from myth could act as intermediaries in this cathartic process. Authentic theatre understood in this way could serve the expressive needs of children and ‘child development’. These ideas are outlined fully in Benjamin’s ‘Story of the Theatre for Children’ (available on-line at the State Library of Victoria).
In the years 1925-1936 Benjamin as a young woman was working as a play organiser for the London County Council, a new kind of educational work, while seriously pursuing a career in drama, twin strands that eventually merged in children’s theatre. Benjamin’s narrative always highlights her 1930s visit to Soviet Russia to study children’s theatre as a life-changing experience, though her explanations of children’s theatre are wholly Freudian.
Who influenced this Freudian strand in Benjamin’s thinking? In 1930s London, Benjamin must have come in contact with the leading edge of Freudian thought as it was being absorbed in progressive education, when Susan Isaacs was coming to prominence. Though direct evidence in Benjamin’s papers is lacking, I think there are three clear indications of Isaacs’ influence:
- Benjamin emphasises emotions, especially difficult emotions (fear, guilt, anxiety, aggression) and the way these can be called forth in expressive play. Theatre employing plays based on myths and fairy tales permits children to encounter and deal symbolically with such forces. A broad understanding of phantasy (as it was later outlined by Isaacs in her famous 1948 article) appears to be assumed.
- Isaacs discovered that ‘new education’ rather than being wholly permissive, children need to have a structured context to help them manage the expression of difficult emotions. Benjamin is insistent that theatre performances need to be structured with devices that help the child to respond to reactions aroused by the play. Such devices include allegorical figures like ‘Jester’ that ‘come in front of the curtain’ act as intermediaries between the real world and the fantastic world of the play.
- There is a commitment to systematic observational of children’s experiences as a way of testing and informing theoretical understandings. Benjamin encouraged audience participation and practised the serious study of children’s responses to characters to inform the crafting of performance. Underlying this is a strong conviction about the developmental value of children’s theatre.
It may also be that Susan Isaacs (as a columnist and educator) gave Benjamin the inspiration to promote new ideas to the wider audience, for Benjamin was a tireless advocate of her cause, and quite possibly a better publicist than producer.
At the end of 1936, Benjamin left London for a Sydney holiday. By then, Isaacs was leading the new department of child development at University of London and had published two defining works in the field. She was a leading figure in the New Education Fellowship which the next year held its World Congress in Australian cities, with Isaacs as a key member.
In Sydney, Benjamin no doubt participated in the Congress, and she was on the NSW committee of the NEF until the war years. This World Congress contributed much to enthusiasm for new educational thinking in Australia, and this took place alongside other streams of cultural modernism permeating the Antipodes. Benjamin must found among her Jewish emigré friends a congenial milieu in which her own novel enterprise might prosper. She returned briefly to Europe after the war for a study tour, but after resuming her work in Sydney suffered a long illness before she died in London in 1957.
Enquiries: John McIntyre, firstname.lastname@example.org
Benjamin (c1949) ‘The Story of the Theatre for Children’. FilmStrip NSW. On-line at
Free Education. Profile of Susan Isaacs. http://free-educations.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/educator-profile-susan-isaacs-18851948.html
McIntyre, J. (2014). Rosemarie Benjamin and the Theatre for Children in Sydney, 1937-1957. [Journal article, submitted]. Available at http://www.artpages.com.au/Theatre_for_Children/Theatre_For_Children.html