from the editor's desk

Patricia Hackett as I Knew Her

Leading in to the announcement of our winner of the Patricia Hackett Prize for 2014, it seems only appropriate to remember this piece from the issue the prize was announced, Westerly 1965, iss.1: ‘Patricia Hackett as I Knew Her’, by K. Kyffin Thomas.

I think I must have been one of Patricia Hackett’s earliest acquaintances, her near relatives excepted. I was introduced to her in London in 1909, when her father and mine were fellow delegates to the First Imperial Press Conference. My diary records “Mrs. Hackett took me to see her lovely children”. This meeting was, of course, more my pleasure than hers, for Patricia was only one year old.

After leaving school Patricia went to London where she took her degree in law and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple. It was as a practising lawyer in Adelaide that I met her again and came to know her well. She had many gifts: a lovely speaking voice, a keen legal mind and a great love for poetry and drama.

Having settled down with her family in Adelaide and entered into a legal partnership, Patricia’s thoughts turned towards the amateur theatre and she was soon taking a number of parts with the Repertory Players and gaining valuable experience. A high-light during this period was in 1932 when, at very short notice, Patricia deputised for her mother at the opening of the Winthrop Hall at the University of Western Australia. Reference is made in the editorial of this issue to the oration she delivered on this great occasion.

In 1934 Patricia decided to acquire her own theatre and a basement in an Adelaide building was soon transformed for this purpose with a low wide stage, a sloping floor, and comfortable chairs for 150 people. She named it ‘The Torch’. For two seasons she produced a formidable list of plays, usually taking the leading role herself. The first production was Salome, which startled her audience somewhat. This was followed by Medea, Beaux Stratagem, The Giaconda Smile, Caprice, The Circle of Chalk, The Virgin Unmasked, Homage to the Unknown, and an adaptation from the Song of Solomon.

Her team of players, though varying from time to time, was trained and moulded, often from raw material, into good and reliable performers. She allowed no prompting and insisted on many rehearsals. The sets were always correct in period and nothing slipshod was tolerated. Patricia’s memory was amazing. I remember her going for a short weekend to her cottage in the hills in oder to learn the name part of Gilbert Murray’s translation of Medea. She returned word-perfect not only in her own part but also in all other parts as well, in fact, one could not help thinking that acting and play production should have been her life’s work. Her talents were almost too widespread.

After eight productions in two years, a visit to England in 1936 brought this first Torch Theatre to an end. Some months after her return, Patricia was invited to do some legal work at Tulangi in the Solomon Islands. She fell in love with these Islands and wrote a number of poems dealing with their beauty and their people. For several years she spent some time at Tulangi, but the entry of Japan into the war forced the evacuation of British women and the end of these happy visits.

On her return from the Solomons, Patricia offered her services to the Army but women lawyers were not acceptable. She then joined up as a munitions worker – a very heavy and inappropriate occupation for one of her intellectual gifts – but her health proved unequal to the strain. The theatre called her again before the war was over. Patricia joined the University Theatre Guild and was soon producing and acting in ‘The Hut’ in the University grounds. As well as taking many parts in straight plays, she experimented with Joanne Priest in performances of voice and ballet, with musical accompaniments, which were particularly charming. During these years her interests were divided between her legal practice and the theatre, and her talents in both directions reached a high plane.

The Torch Theatre came to life again in 1952, this time in the basement under her own home in an Adelaide suburb. With an entrance made from the side of the house, the stage set, the floor covered with tan, aboriginal designs painted on recesses of the walls, dressing-rooms fixed, the chairs at the back placed high, and intimate – and unique – little theatre seating fifty people resulted. One of its special features was the excellent stage lighting. There was also a foyer and ambulatory. It gave its membership more than full value – and it gave many young people an education in dramatic work and an opportunity to develop their talents under meticulous direction. About a dozen full plays and some poetry recitals, all running for four or five nights and one matinee, were produced over several years, until the insistent effort involved became too great a strain on its owner. The Torch was revived for a final programme presented at the first Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960.

One could not complete a picture of Patricia Hackett without referring to her love and understanding of children. For many years a Saturday seldom passed without a flock of them going to the house where she entertained and delighted them – often in the theatre when the children themselves provided the entertainment with their performances. All children loved her and learned a great deal from her without being aware of it.

Patricia Hackett died suddenly in August, 1963, after some years of ill-health. She had a great number of talents and a special beauty of her own. She was very kind and generous to her friend but, except for a selected few, did not seek them. Her intellectual standards were high but not always appreciated or understood. Perhaps that is why the spontaneous affection she evoked from children gave her more happiness than she could find in adult spheres. It is good to know that the prize given in her name is for the encouragement of creative writing. That would have pleased her, for she was a poet at heart.

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