This thesis addresses a significant gap in the body of scholarship on Robert Helpmann by undertaking a systematic analysis of his work in Australia. The study demonstrates that Helpmann's early training and performance in various fields of the theatrical arts in Australia before leaving for the United Kingdom in December 1932, influenced the rest of his career, and provides the answer as to why, for Helpmann, the arts from musicals to opera had to be infused with a strong component of entertainment. The study takes account of contemporary cultural debates concerning the role of the performing arts in Australia during Helpmann's career; it constructs a career profile of Helpmann as a multi-talented artist and entrepreneur working in the specific industrial and artistic circumstances of early twentieth-century Australian commercial and subsidised performance forms.
The thesis documents the development of Helpmann's early training in Australia (1922-32) as a dancer in musical-comedies, pantomime and ballet, and as an actor and choreographer in experimental theatre. This is followed by an overview of his career in the United Kingdom (1933-1964) as premier danseur, stage and screen actor, choreographer, director of plays and operas. Helpmann's controversial dance-drama The Display for the Australian Ballet is analysed as a significant creation, both as Helpmann's own artistic expression of his Australianness and as the initiator of an authentic Australian ballet idiom; The Display was the catalyst not only for his decision to recturn to Australia but also launched the company overseas. Helpmann's various roles during his years with the Australian Ballet are also assessed: that of co-Artistic Director of the company (1965-74) and sole Director (1975-76); his ballets: Yügen, Sun Music and Perisynthon; and his role in promoting the company both nationally and internationally. Helpmann's directorship of the 1970 Adelaide Festival is evaluated for his establishment of the Festival as an internationally significant cultural event. Two of Helpmann's most extravagant productions: his 1975 balletic version of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow for the Australian Ballet and his direction of George Frideric Handel's Alcina for the Australian Opera in 1981 and its 1983 revival, are examined with particular focus on elements of the mise en scène. Finally, Helpmann's various theatrical activities both in Australia and overseas are explored to cover his freelancing years from 1976 until his death in 1986, just weeks after his final stage appearance as the Red King in Ninette de Valois' ballet Checkmate.
Data for the thesis were drawn from personal interviews with professional collaborators of Helpmarm, original documentary research in public collections in Australia and the United Kingdom, government and company archives, newspapers and secondary literature.