Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Alec Coppel: Australian Playwright and Survivor

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Alec Coppel: Australian Playwright and Survivor

Article excerpt

During his lifetime, Alec Coppel was one of the most successful Australian authors in the world. He had hit plays on Broadway and the West End, wrote popular novels and worked with luminaries like Alfred Hitchcock, Alex Korda and James Stewart. Yet today he is mainly remembered, if at all, for one credit - and a disputed one at that: the film Vertigo (1958) - which seems a little harsh for the first Australian writer to be nominated for an Oscar. There are several reasons for this neglect. One was his choice of genre: Coppel specialised in light-hearted thrillers, mysteries and sex comedies, the sort of writing which rarely receives serious critical appraisal. Another is the fact his work was devoid of a nationalistic impulse: he rarely featured Australian characters or dealt with Australian culture. Finally, much of Coppel' s work was simply not of sufficient quality to warrant serious critical attention: he frequently repeated himself, and often resorted to clichés. However, at his best, he was a highly skilled practitioner who helped to produce some marvellous entertainments. The purpose of this article is to draw some attention to the life and work of an unfairly forgotten writer.

Biography

Coppel was bom on 17 September 1907, in Melbourne,1 where he attended Wesley College from 1920 to 1925. He went to England to study medicine at Cambridge in 1927, but dropped out before graduating;2 he then began working in advertising, writing in his spare time. His first two produced plays - Short Circuit (1935) and The Stars Foretell (1936) - had only short runs, but I Killed The Count (1937) became a West End hit, racking up 185 performances;3 it premiered at the Whitehall Theatre on 10 December 1937, later transferring to the Duchess Theatre. This led Alex Korda to hire Coppel to work on the scripts for two films, Over the Moon (1937) and Just Like a Woman (1939); the writer also adapted Count into a screenplay (1939) and had another play on the West End, Believe It or Not (1940).4

Coppel returned to Australia in July 1 940 to direct Marie Ney in a series of plays for J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. He struck up a friendship with Kathleen Robinson, an Australian actor with London experience; Robinson (1901-83) had grown up on a station near Bourke, in New South Wales, and gone to London to study at RADA before returning to Australia in 1940. She met Coppel on the opening night of Ladies in Retirement, which he had directed for J. C. Williamson's, and together they formed Whitehall Theatrical Productions, operating out of the Minerva Theatre, Sydney.5 It was called 'Whitehall' because Robinson's last season in London had been at the Whitehall Theatre, which was also where Coppel had had his first success as a dramatist. Under Whitehall, Minerva became the only commercial playhouse in Sydney specialising in comedies, thrillers and mysteries - all genres that Coppel was to excel in; he directed the majority of productions there during a three-year stint, including a world première of his own Mr Smart Guy (1941). Theatre historian Lynne Murphy describes Coppel as a 'perfectionist' director at the Minerva, who strove for 'a standard which would satisfy the most exacting theatregoer'.6 Coppel also did some directing for 2GB 's Macquarie Radio Theatre7 and contributed to the screenplay of Smithy (1946), a locally made feature film about aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. He became one of the few Australian writers to have a play on Broadway when I Killed the Count had a brief run there in 1942; it premiered on 3 September 1942, and ran for twenty-nine performances.8

After World War II, Coppel - with his second wife, the English actor Myra Morton, whom he married in Sydney in 1942 - returned to England, where he kept writing plays, novels and screenplays. Their only child, Chris Coppel, says that they originally met in the south of France: 'Mother was there with her fiancé. Dad drove up in his 1930s Rolls Royce and my mother dropped her fiancé. …

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