Index, 46 illustrations (hereof 18 in full colour).
Index, 46 illustrations (hereof 18 in full colour).
Twenty-three years ago there was very little available information on Alexander's early life and it is remarkable how much things have changed over the intervening years. Vintage Australian newpapers can now be scoured online and three major biographies have been published, A Family History by Alexander's great niece Jackie Evans (2001), Michael Bloch's FM (2004) and the monumental doctoral dissertation by Jeroen Staring (2005). But, perhaps the most significant publication has been Alexander's Articles and Lectures (Mouritz 1995) that gave ready access to Alexander's early pamphlets for the first time since his death.
Rosslyn McLeod's vivid story-telling bringing home just how much society has changed from when Alexander's grandfather arrived as a convict in Hobart May 1831, the Melbourne gold rush of the early 1850s, Alexander's Tasmanian upbringing and his move to Melbourne. With her painstaking research to uncover long-forgotten documents in Australian archives, McLeod sketches out a backdrop to Alexander's life and a bygone era. Visiting the locations and meeting descendants of people who know the Alexander family often gives her writing and immediate and personal authority.
A fair proportion of the book deals with events outside the time frame of Alexander's life in Australia (1869-1904). The narrative begins with the arrival of the British in 1788. Alexander's grandfather Matthias and his brother Joseph were transported to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) in 1831 and were later joined by their brother John. In the 1850s gold was discovered in Victoria to the south of New South Wales and the population of Melbourne grew and prospered. John Alexander went prospecting in California and then Victoria making enough money to buy 1,500 acres of heavily forested land at Table Cape. My brief outline gives little sense of the hardships these early settlers had to endure; the difficult conditions of dense forests, swollen rivers and treacherous seas. Contrast this with Alexander's life in Melbourne and Sydney less than fifty years later, and the changes are remarkable.
But Alexander's own journey was no simple or easy matter. Before heading for the big city, Alexander made a name for himself as a reliable, hard-working clerk with the Mt. Bischoff tin mining company at Waratah. It was in these three years (1885-1888) that he developed his interest in the arts. By the time Alexander arrived in Melbourne the boom years were over but the Victorian city, with its grand public buildings, still had much to offer in the way of cultural societies and theatre. Alexander busied himself in his spare time performing with the Shakespeare Society and his voice teacher Frederick W. Hill's Olympians. There is an extended quote from Hill's Oratorical Trainer, that Alexander referenced as a major influence but it was Fred, not his famous father T. P. Hill (died 1879), whom Alexander had to thank for his elocutionary skills. Apart from taking a short period of convalescence in the sea-town of Geelong, Alexander worked tirelessly, in addition to day-time jobs, entering recital competitions and performing major Shakespearean roles with amateur companies. This was before the 'voice crisis' that forced him to reconsider his vocal style and begin developing his technique.
His return to performing in 1894, back in Wynyard was the beginning of a ceaseless drive to succeed as an actor - an ambition that he never entirely abandoned, even when he achieved fame and fortune with his teaching. It was at this time Alexander must have first met his friends and co-performers Robert and Edith Young (aka Tasca-Page) whom he eventually married.
Alexander wrote of his vocal studies in an important and revealing article for the Hobart Mercury (9th July 1894) and the influence of a booklet, Natural Elocution by Charles S. Hartley. This is virtually unknown today with only one existing copy known to your reviewer. Alexander's article, 'Elocution as an Accomplishment', is quoted in full.
The following year, Alexander embarked on his successful New Zealand tour where, among many others, he taught the travel correspondent Frederic Villiers and the memory expert 'Professor' Alphonse Loisette. On his departure from Auckland, the Mayor presented Alexander with a leather-bound testimonial signed by thirty-six admiring and grateful students that is reproduced in McLeod's book.
On his return to Melbourne, the reader will again be impressed by the tremendous energy with which Alexander pursued his dual careers as teacher and performer. It seems strange today, when regional accents are more or less celebrated, that Australian society should have been so self-deprecating about the way many of them spoke: 'that very common and disagreeable colonial twang which is usual amongst the young people of the State.' There was a ready market for the services of an elocutionist and biographical notes are provided on many of the church ministers, lawyers, politicians and medical doctors who had lessons:
"I regard your process of breathing as the most natural, philosophic and effective I have ever tried. What others teach in theory, you simplify and embody in practice, placing Nature's principles in reach of all' (Rev. E. Handel Jones).
On stage, among fellow performers were his friends Robert and Edith Young, Lilian Twycross (contralto), Gertrude Summerhayes (violinist) and his teacher, the veteran actor James F. Cathcart. Cathcart had a long and eventful acting career with Charles Kean. Again, despite many triumphs, Alexander had to withstand the inevitable tribulations that befall any traveling theatre company:
'Mr. F. Matthias Alexander and his company, will have reason to remember their first visit to Bathurst. There is no doubt that it will be the last and the impressions of a Bathurst audience which Mr. Alexander will convey to the management of several first-class companies in the Metropolis will certainly make them chary about showing here. The 'gods' said unmistakably last night they did not want Shakespeare [The Merchant of Venice] - but then other and decent people did - and the latter were in the majority. If the former objected to the piece, well, there are several large doors attached to the building and it would have been the easiest thing in the world for the miscontents to have cleared out. . . . Matters got so bad last night that Mr. Alexander came to the front and attempted to make himself heard in an endeavour to appeal for fair play. No: the howling ignoramuses perceived that no one attempted to check them and they refused to listen to a gentleman and an artist.' The Bathurst Daily Free Press, 17 June 1902.
It is still not clear whether Alexander's small 'no longer extant' treatise (1896 or 1898) is similar to the 33-page brochure he published to announce his Sydney teaching practice (1900). A complete copy of the latter, The Human Voice Cultivated and Developed for Speaking and Singing by the New Methods! was kept by Alexander's sister Amy and remains with family (Evans 2001, pp.129-130).
A chapter is devoted to Dr Alexander Leeper. In October 1907, Alexander's brother A.R. was appointed advisor to the newly-formed Board for Teachers of Elocution with Leeper as Chairman. In London, Leeper had lessons with Alexander and wrote his 'Report on Physical Culture in the United Kingdom' for the Victorian Teachers and Schools Registration Board (1909). A major portion recommending Alexander's method is included. At the time, breathing formed an obvious link between elocution and physical culture. Diseases of the lungs were a major health concern and, though A.R. advertised himself as a teacher of elocution, he also taught Physical Culture based on the popular Sandow System.
This is only a snap shot of the material contained in Rosslyn McLeod's book. Even if you have an earlier edition, it would be well worth purchasing this latest version. It is said that, once Alexander was living in London, he tended to disguise the facts of his colonial past but this well-produced book gives a powerful sense of his formative years in Australia; of his intelligence, persistence and determination of spirit.
2018 © Malcolm Williamson. Reproduced with permission.This edition © Mouritz 2018. All rights reserved.
Any history buff or armchair traveler who'd enjoy a closer look at the context of F.M. Alexander's early years in Australia should pick up the revised and enlarged fourth edition of Rosslyn McLeod's book, first published in 1994, which now includes additional information, pictures, and appendices. This early biography of FM turns a spotlight on the colonial history of Australia and examines the ways in which it allowed the Alexander family, and FM in particular, to flourish. My own understanding of Australia's colonial origins was greatly enhanced by McLeod's clear and well-researched writing.
McLeod starts by giving an overview of the history that led Australia to become a major destination for transported convicts, including members of FM's family. The rugged conditions of Tasmania were a proving ground for Alexander's grandparents and parents and the ebbs and flows of the colony's economic development shaped the opportunities that eventually led to FM's interest in acting and career as a reciter and vocal teacher.
She includes many delightful details throughout, including a list of FM's reciting repertoire and the text of his own poem, used often in his performances, 'Dream of Matthias the Burgomaster.' It was fascinating to get a glimpse into Alexander's acting and reciting career from his repertoire choices, reviews from publications of the day, and reproductions of some of his advertisements and programs.Having heard many accounts about FM during his years living in England and running the training course, it was fun to read more details about the development of his interest in acting and elocution, starting with his first post away from home at the Mt. Bischoff Tin Mine in Tasmania and following with his moves to the cultural capitals of Melbourne and Sydney before ultimately emigrating to London. McLeod vividly describes the gold mining frenzy that created the population centers and the society that was left in its wake. One imagines the possibility and optimism of these frontier colonies and their citizens where the rules of society were more fluid and reinvention was just a dream away.
I also was fascinated to learn how FM chose to market his teaching practice; I observed how his ideas shifted through the printed advertisements he left behind - from teaching vocal arts to his full-breathing method to the use of the self that we treasure today.The new edition includes many wonderful photographs and descriptions that illuminate the landscapes, locations, and characters that populated FM's world along his early journey. If you're curious about the environments and circumstances that led FM to his famous discoveries, I highly recommend Rosslyn McLeod's book.
2018 © Emily Sapa. Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2018. All rights reserved.