Rosemarie Benjamin and
The Theatre for Children in Sydney

Rosemarie Benjamin, c. 1935
Cast, possibly Frederik and Katherine, with Benjamin, second from left, c. 1950
Booklet,with script and illustrations.;
Costume, Soldier's Uniform

Rosemarie Benjamin (1901-1957) was an English dramatist and pioneer of children’s theatre, founding her Theatre for Children in Sydney and directing it for some twenty years from 1937- 1957. Born in London, she was educated at Roedean School, Brighton, then newly founded to prepare girls to matriculate to the university women’s colleges. She studied dramatic art with Faye Compton and voice with the renowned Elsie Fogerty and then worked as dramatist and producer in London. A member of the British Drama league, she founded and directed an adult repertory company (‘The Lyndinians’) dedicated to presenting new theatre. She also worked for ten years in the East End in conjunction with the London County Council organising dramatic clubs and playrooms, assisting at Girl Guide and Brownie camps, organising productions for YWCA dramatic circles and lecturing on theatre.

In the mid-1930s, Benjamin visited Moscow (apparently in the company of Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson) to study Natalya Sats’ children’s theatre where plays for children, often drawing on Russian literature, were performed by professional adult actors. This experience made a lasting impression on Benjamin and gave her a model she would seek to follow in London in 1936 with a Young People’s Theatre formed with the support of leading actors. There were, however, earlier attempts since the 1920s to start a cxhildren's theatre, notably by Joan Luxton, an enterprising young Australian actress, whose company in fact provided the means to stage performances in April 1936. Benjamin made much of this brief time, but in fact had soon left London for Sydney. More significant to her theatre work was a deep engagement with ideas of the 'new education' and Freudian influences, very possibly through the work of Susan Isaacs in London in this period. See the article on Benjamin and Isaacs in the Freud and Oceania blog.

Visiting Australia in November 1936, Benjamin did not intend more than a brief stay but was soon engaged in educational work and in promoting the children’s theatre. The outbreak of the Second World War made her return difficult, though by then she had made close friends in Sydney’s emigré European community. One such friend was Gertrud Bodenwieser, the renowned Viennese teacher and choreographer of modern expressionist dance, who encouraged Benjamin’s self-belief and linked the theatre’s activities with her dance school. Another Jewish friend and benefactor was Viennese musician and composer Sydney John Kaye (Kurt Kaiser) who composed and performed music for Benjamin’s productions and assisted financially in the war years before later establishing the Mercury Theatre. Scores of his music exist in the theatre archive.

Benjamin appears to have enjoyed an independent income enabling her to live, travel and organise productions. Robert Lloyd, later a well known stage designer, recalls her early influence as a boy of twelve recruited by audition to her theatre school, ‘a fairly rigorous training’ involving writing, performing, designing and making costumes, as well as ‘movement classes’ with Madame Bodenwieser (National Library oral history transcript, 2004).

During the period 1937 to 1955 Benjamin worked assiduously to publicise her cause in the press, writing articles and giving luncheon speeches and broadcasts on the ABC as well as organising seasons of productions with the enthusiastic amateurs and writing plays. From 1944 she operated from a small studio space in Northcote House in Reiby Place near Circular Quay. Colin McIntyre was a leading collaborator in this period, playing Rumplestiltskin and 'The Reluctant Dragon (see images).

Her theatre enjoyed its greatest success in the post-war years, before she returned to England from 1949 to 1951, sponsored by the British Council to study developments in children’s theatre in England and Europe. Some years later she fell seriously ill and was hospitalised for months in 1955. She closed the theatre at the end of that year when Northcote House was sold and eventually returned to London where she died in June 1957. Though her Sydney obituary stated that friends had‘plans to re-open the theatre as a memorial’, it seems the venture died with her.

Author: John McIntyre (2013)       Download full article (2014 version). A revised and expanded version of this article has been accepted for publication in the History of Education Review (January 2018).

The Rosemarie Benjamin Theatre for Children archive contains playscripts, scrapbooks, notebooks,photographs, correspondence, music and some 25 costumes. The archive was donated to the Sydney Jewish Museum who have arranged the conservation of some of the costumes. It was in the possession of the author, John McIntyre, inherited from his uncle, Colin McIntyre, Benjamin's collaborator.

Lynn Campbell and Barbara Maxwell
Lynn Campbell as Rumplestiltskin
Reluctant Dragon and Boy, about 1945
Music, probably by Sydney John Kaye.