Colin Duckworth photographBiography

Colin Duckworth
Digging in Dark Places
Summer Symphony

Author of Steps to the High Garden and Digging in Dark Places

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Colin Duckworth was known internationally for major works on the 18th century, especially Voltaire and French counter-revolutionary espionage, and on modern theatre, with particular reference to Samuel Beckett. He was a freelance academic, writer and occasional television actor and theatre director. He held an M.A. in Modern Languages from Birmingham, where he studied singing at the School of Music. He also had a Ph.D. from Cambridge and a D.Litt. from Melbourne University, where he was an emeritus professor and professorial fellow. He was a Commander in the Ordre des Palmes académiques.

His theatre and book reviews, essays, stories and articles appeared in journals and newspapers in England, the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany. As writer, actor and director he was involved in works for radio, television and stage (including writing libretti for two children’s operas). He held British and Australian nationalities, was married, lived in Melbourne, and had two children.

Summer Symphony, his third novel, grew out of a short story, ‘Summer Lark’, which won the inaugural Melbourne Uni News short story competition.

Sadly, Colin Duckworth passed away in December 2012.

His obituary from The Age is below.


Steps to the High Garden cover

Steps to the High Garden
, (Calder Publications, 1992)
Digging in Dark Places cover

Digging in Dark Places
, (Ryan Publishing, 1997) $19.95 RRP
ISBN 0958705 941

The D’Antraigues Phenomenon: The Making and Breaking of a Revolutionary Royalist espionage agent

Translations and adaptations for theatre
The Underground Lovers: Twelve experimental plays by Jean Tardieu
The French Relapse (a bilingual adaptation of Vanbrugh and Voltaire)
Ubu Deceived and Enslaved (a bilingual adaptation of Alfred Jarry)
The Misfit (an adaptation for solo performance of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger)

Opera libretti
(music by Michael Easton)
Beauty and the Beast

Leon Bopp, Novelist and Philosopher
Angels of Darkness: Dramatic effect in Beckett and Ionesco

Critical editions
Samuel Beckett: En attendant Godot
Gustave Flaubert: Trois Contes
Ernest Renan: Le Broyeur de lin
    Le Comte de Boursoufle
    Nanine (with Marie-Rose de Labriolle)

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Obituary for Colin Duckworth

Scholar of French Literature Who Acted in TV Soaps
Mark Duckworth
The Age, 31 January 2013

Scholar, actor, writer
20 July 1926 to 6 December 2012

It is highly likely that Colin Duckworth was the only Melbourne University professor to act in Neighbours [the Australian television drama series].

Colin, who has died at the age of 86, was a scholar of international renown, an actor and a writer with a wide circle of friends, colleagues and students around the world. While being an impeccable scholar, he was also an accomplished actor and an intensely practical and compassionate man with a great sense of humour.

Undoubtedly he will be best remembered as one of the most significant writers on the works of Samuel Beckett. In 1966 he produced the first critical edition of En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot). His correspondence with Beckett is widely cited as answering many of the questions scholars and audiences have about one of the greatest works of modern drama.

Colin’s start in life was not one that promised the career he had. He was born on the outskirts of Birmingham in England’s Midlands, not long after the 1926 general strike in Britain. He grew up through the Depression and World War II in a family in which no one had finished school, let alone gone to university.

Colin’s father, Arthur Clement Duckworth, was a salesman, selling jam for Lyons. His mother, Doris Ryder, was a talented musician who was stopped by her father from finishing school or doing further study, even though she was offered the opportunity.

Colin became bilingual at an early age, at home speaking as his parents did and at primary school using the ‘Brummy’ dialect.

But he passed the ‘11 plus’ exam and went to Moseley Grammar School and there excelled academically and in sport.

Birmingham, despite its grim reputation, was, and is, home to several great cultural institutions, all of which Colin went to: the Birmingham Rep, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Stratford-upon-Avon is only 60 kilometres from Birmingham. Colin would ride his bike through what was then the countryside to see plays there.

When he was 14, during the darkest days of the war, he heard on the radio two French works of music: Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. He swore to himself then that he would devote his life to the country that produced such beautiful music.

So it was through music that his devotion to French began. Then, when he was 15, Voltaire’s Lettres philosphiques was a set text for the higher school certificate. Voltaire’s commitment to freedom of thought and his willingness to take on established authority had a profound intellectual, philosophical and political influence on Colin. In particular this was because France was then under Nazi occupation.

In 1944 he was called up to the RAF to be trained as a navigator in Bomber Command. As part of this he went to Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. He stayed in the RAF until 1948.

After the war he completed his BA and MA at Birmingham University in French and Spanish. He did brilliantly and took up a position in the English department at Montpellier University, where he was first offered the chance to do the type of detailed critical analysis of a text for which he became renowned. Colin loved minute analysis of manuscripts, examining changes and crossings out that revealed the author’s creative process.

In 1951 he returned to Trinity Hall on a scholarship to write his PhD. This was on the Swiss novelist and philosopher Leon Bopp and was awarded in 1954.

Colin’s love of theatre came to the fore while he was at Cambridge. He became involved in many productions and was president of the Cambridge Comedy Theatre Club. He once played the lead in The Insect Play, a satirical Czech play by the Capek brothers. He played the tramp and sported a few days’ growth of a beard. One of the moths (with a green face) was a young chemist working at the Chivers factory in Cambridge: Mary Adams. So Colin met his wife Mary on stage and their love of theatre drew them together.

Colin became a lecturer at Bedford College at the University of London. His first articles and critical editions were on Thibaudet, Scribe, Renan, and Flaubert.

His edition of Flaubert’s Trois Contes was very well received. An editor wrote to him in the early 1960s offering him another text to subject to critical analysis, stating in the letter ‘if you can make sense of this rubbish, good luck to you’. The text was En attendant Godot.

So Colin’s encounters with Beckett began. At that time, not many people were writing on Beckett. Colin started a correspondence with him that lasted till Beckett’s death.

Colin’s critical edition and introduction remains one of the standard works on the play. He first met Beckett in a pub in London on a cold January day in 1965. Beckett invited Colin, if he happened to be in Paris, to come to see the original text. In April 1965 he spent some hours in Beckett’s apartment going through the manuscript before Beckett came back with a silver teapot and a large tube of condensed milk in a jug, for which he apologised. ‘I don’t get any milk delivered up here,’ Beckett explained. Colin was the only person Beckett allowed to study the original manuscript in detail. In 1971 Colin published Angels of Darkness, an analysis of the plays of Beckett and Ionesco. The work remains an important source for Beckett’s views about his own plays.

In the early 1960s Colin’s administrative talents were recognised by his appointment to oversee the completion of a new intercollegiate hall of residence for 400 students at London University - Commonwealth Hall. Colin became its first warden until 1972.

The Queen Mother opened Commonwealth Hall in 1963. Colin accompanied her to the reception in the new building. They both got in the lift, which became stuck. The Queen Mother commented to Colin, ‘I always have this effect on lifts.’ For many years at graduations and other formal events, Colin and the Queen Mother would meet and, on seeing him, she would say ‘Ah, the lift.’

In 1966-67, Colin was a visiting professor at the University of California, Davis. A few years after that he accepte an appointment as professor of French at the University of Auckland.

Then in January 1978 he became professor of French at the University of Melbourne. Again he threw himself into writing, teaching and directing. He directed several Australian premieres of Beckett plays at La Mama: Ohio Impromptu, Rockaby and Rough for Theatre. He was also dramaturge for Ngundalelag Godotgai, an Aboriginal translation of Godot that was part of the 1997 Festival of Dreaming in Sydney.

He wanted to bring French theatre to a wider audience, through bilingual adaptations, often with the Melbourne French Theatre. He was also vice-president of the Alliance Francaise de Melbourne. The French government recognised Colin’s contributions to French language and literature by appointing him a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques.

His acting continued, including roles on TV and in film, such as Tibor the vet in Blue Heelers and three different roles over several seasons in Neighbours. In Melbourne he also found great friendship and kindred spirits devoted to acting, writing and music at the Savage Club.

He was a truly outstanding teacher. Across Australia and around the world there are many former students who still recall his lectures. He brought to them his acting skills and a sense of drama that made them memorable. They were so highly regarded that other academics at Melbourne University sometimes attended. In one particularly memorable lecture he would launch, without introduction, into Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot. Once, by mistake, he started to deliver this speech to a lecture theatre filled with astonished accountancy students, many of whom nevertheless asked to come to listen to the rest of the lecture as they found it more interesting than what they were studying.

Colin loved teaching and writing but hated the ever-increasing bureaucracy in Australian universities. In particular he detested the constant measuring and form-filling imposed by the Commonwealth government. One form asked him to set out how he accounted for his time. ‘Filling out useless forms for federal bureaucrats’ was his response.

Tired of this, he took early retirement at the end of 1988, and was reappointed immediately as an honorary professor so he could continue to teach. He was also appointed an honorary professor at La Trobe University where he taught on its drama course. But above all he wrote: three novels, many articles in refereed journals, newspapers and magazines. In addition to this he gave much of his time to many boards and committees, including those of the Castlemaine State Festival, the Friends of the Grainger Museum, and the Journal of Beckett Studies.

Then in his late 70s he started a series of dramatic adaptations of Camus, Proust, Duras and Stendhal for performances at the Stork Theatre, to great critical acclaim. Even last August despite failing health he was struggling to complete a new adaptation, based on Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

In the last few years he was afflicted by a rare neurological syndrome that left his mind as sharp as ever but sent his body into decline. Supporting, as ever, the interests of inquiry, and at the request of his specialist, Colin left his brain to the Victorian Brain Bank Network to help with further research into the rare condition.

He gave his last public lecture in 2009 at Melbourne University - quite fittingly on why Voltaire is still important to the modern world. You can still see the lecture online at The Monthly.

But Colin was never happier than with his family: Mary at his side for almost 60 years, with their children Tessa and Mark and six grandchildren.

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