McMAHON, Gregan (1874-1941)

McMAHON, Gregan (1874-1941)
actor and theatrical producer
the eldest son of John Turner McMahon and his wife, Elizabeth Gregan, was born at Sydney on 2 March 1874. His father was in the civil service, and both parents were Irish. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney, McMahon played in the Riverview football team, and took first-class honours in classics at his matriculation examination. Going on to the university, Sydney, he graduated B.A. in 1896 and during his course established a reputation as an amateur actor. A critic on one occasion spoke of his performance being so artistic that he seemed like a professional in a company of amateurs. At the conclusion of his university course McMahon was articled to a firm of solicitors at Sydney, and remained with them for some years, but in May 1900 was invited by Robert Brough to join his comedy company. His first professional appearance was as the waiter in The Liars at Brisbane in the beginning of June, and during the next 12 months he toured in the east playing a variety of small parts. Returning to Australia he played with the W. F. Hawtrey and Brough companies, and by 1902 was receiving important parts, his Horace Parker, in A Message from Mars, was highly praised in this year. Seasons followed in New Zealand and Australia, largely in companies under the J. C. Williamson (q.v.) management. Early in 1911 McMahon, who had been playing in Melbourne, organized a repertory theatre movement. The first performances took place in June, the plays selected being St John Hankin's The Two Mr Wetherbys, the second act of Sheridan's The Critic, and Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. It was soon realized that McMahon was a producer with a wide knowledge of his craft, able to get the best out of his cast. Though mostly amateurs, under his direction they were quick in learning the finer points, and in most cases gave performances of great distinction. Among the plays produced during the next six years were Candida, Getting Married, Major Barbara, The Doctor's Dilemma, Man and Superman, Fanny's First Play, You Never Can Tell and Pygmalion by Shaw; Rosmersholm and An Enemy of the People by Isben; The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House by Granville Barker; The Pigeon, Strife and The Fugitive by Galsworthy; The Seagull by Tchekhov; The Mate by Schnitzler, many other plays by leading dramatists of the period, and several by Australian authors. The 1914-18 war, however, made difficulties, several leading actors enlisted, and by 1918 the public was giving distinctly less support to the movement which had to be abandoned for a period.
McMahon then returned to the professional stage and acted as producer for Williamson and other managers. In 1920 he arranged with the Messrs Tait to start a repertory movement in Sydney. This was carried on for several years, the productions including The Dover Road by Milne; Abraham Lincoln by Drinkwater; Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman; Franz MoInar's Liliom; Galsworthy's Foundations, Loyalties, and Windows; and many others. Back in Melbourne again in 1929 McMahon revived the repertory movement under the name of the "Gregan McMahon Players" and in 11 years placed about 90 plays on the stage, including several of the later Shaw plays; Pirandello's Right You Are and Six Characters in Search of an Author; several plays by James Bridie; and others by Galsworthy, Drinkwater, Somerset Maugham, Chesterton, Eugene O'Neill, Sean O'Casey, Daviot and Casella, in the presentation of which a generally high standard was reached. In spite of difficulties caused by war breaking out again, McMahon was still keeping up his standard of production when he died suddenly on 30 August 1941. He married in 1899 Mary Hungerford who survived him with a son and a daughter. He was created C.B.E. in 1938.
A man of kindly and generous nature with artistic sensibilities, McMahon deliberately chose the type of work that could not bring great financial success. As a producer and actor he possibly had one fault. If he felt that a part was not going over, he was inclined to try to put more into it than the part would hold, but from the beginning of his career he had always striven to get the best out of every part however small it might be. Starting with Brough he inherited the Brough and Boucicault (q.v.) tradition of attention to detail and complete harmony in presentation. Whether McMahon should be called a great actor may be a matter of some doubt. He was certainly a most intelligent and finished actor with a wide range of parts. His Mr Burgess in Candida was a delightful study of a comparatively small part, and having seen that his excellent rendering of Sylvanus Heythorp in Old England was quite to be expected. But such diverse parts as John Tanner in Man and Superman; Louis Ferrand in The Pigeon; the father in Six Characters in Search of an Author; Shaw's Charles II, and King Magnus in The Apple Cart; Lob in Dear Brutus, Ulric Brendel in Rosmersholm and a host of other characters, revealed an actor who was much more than merely competent, because essentially he was an artist who loved and respected his craft.
The Herald, Melbourne, 30 August 1941; Souvenir Repertory Theatre Ball, 1914; S. Elliott Napier, The Sydney Repertory Theatre Society; information from family; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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