An article in The Guardian (UK 30 October 2003) discusses why a new play exploring Sir Eugene Goossens’ downfall is threatened by legal action…
The following, titled Australia revisits the trials of a conductor, is taken from the Guardian Unlimited:
Australia revisits the trials of a conductor
New play exploring Sir Eugene Goossens’ scandalous downfall is threatened by legal action
David Fickling in Sydney
Thursday October 30, 2003
The controversy surrounding the private life of one of the 20th century’s leading conductors, Sir Eugene Goossens, has resurfaced in Australia as legal action is threatened to stop the performance of a play about his life.
The new play, The Devil is a Woman, by the Sydney-based writers Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra, tells the story of the scandal that ruined Goossens.
Lawyers for the conductor’s former assistant and partner, Pamela Main, aim to prevent the single scheduled performance on Saturday on the basis that it uses copyrighted material written by Goossens himself.
Goossens was born in London and worked as assistant to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. He moved to the US in the early 1920s before going to Australia to become the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1947. In the 1950s he initiated the founding of the city’s opera house.
The conductor’s celebrity was huge – as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra during the second world war he had commissioned Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. On his arrival in Australia he earned more than the prime minister, and went on to nurture the career of a young Joan Sutherland.
But rumours that Goossens had an unusual interest in the occult began to circulate. At Sydney airport in March 1956, customs officers intercepted his luggage and found more than 1,000 pornographic photographs, films and books, along with three rubber masks.
The ensuing scandal destroyed Goossens’ career, marriage and reputation in a matter of weeks. Reporters followed his every move, and his wife went to ground in a French convent.
“The publicity material for the show says that it is based on diary extracts, poems and letters, to which my client holds copyright,” said Deborah Tobias of the Riley law firm which is acting for Ms Main.
“We had requested a copy of the script so we could establish whether or not this was the case, but Mr Nowra refused that. He said my client would have to come to see the play to find out.”
Goossens’ story has attracted much interest in the past decade, as Australia has reassessed its conservative postwar years and the attitudes of the 1960s. Another play, a novel, and an opera have been based on the story.
The composer Drew Crawford, who is writing an opera about Goossens’ life, said the story was a sad one. “Eugene continued these occult practices because he felt that they made his life worth living, that they were the source of his creativity,” he said.
Central to the scandal was Goossens’ association with Rosaleen Norton, a mediocre artist whose interest in the occult had made her a figure of notoriety before the pair met. Local newspapers labelled her the Witch of Kings Cross, after the bohemian, seedy suburb where she lived with her partner, the poet Gavin Greenless.
Norton’s book, The Art of Rosaleen Norton, had scandalised straitlaced Australian society when it was released in 1952, and led to an obscenity trial. She was accused in court of conducting black masses, and did little to dispel the rumours: contacted by a tabloid investigating claims of Satanism in Sydney she donned a black mask and posed for photographs kneeling in front of a painting of the Greek god Pan.
In 1955 a Sydney tabloid was offered more details of her lurid lifestyle, in the form of a collection of photographs and letters stolen from her flat. Among the hoard was correspondence from Goossens to Norton, suggesting that the pair had worshipped Pan and engaged in orgies together.
Goossens’ patrician style had already raised hackles in Australia, and many in the government, police and media were keen to see him humbled. It was a tipoff from journalists that led to the interception of his luggage at Sydney airport.
A doctor’s note citing mental and physical collapse ensured his absence from the ensuing court case, where his plea of guilty to importing prohibited goods earned the maximum fine of £100.
His lawyers hinted that he had smuggled in the material under threat of blackmail, although the allegation was never pursued. Goossens left Australia soon afterwards, and died in Britain six years later.
“It’s not shameful that he was into these things,” Mr Crawford said.
“The shame was that he couldn’t reconcile that part of his life with the part that required recognition and status.”