John Strehlow

John Strehlow (born 1946) is a stage director and author best known for the publication of The tale of Frieda Keysser: Frieda Keysser & Carl Strehlow, an historical biography. This work is a two volume book about his grandparents, Lutheran missionaries Carl and Frieda Strehlow who served for many years at Hermannsburg Mission in the Northern Territory of Australia.[1]

Early life

Strehlow was born in 1946 in Adelaide, South Australia into a family closely involved with Aboriginal people for three generations. His parents are Ted and Bertha Strehlow and his paternal grandparents are Carl and Frieda Strehlow.[2]

Strehlow received his early education from Adelaide Boys' High School from 1958 - 1963 and while at school he studied piano, clarinet and, later, the organ. As an organist he Organ Music Society of Adelaide competition in 1962.

Strehlow studied Classics at the University of Adelaide from 1964 - 1966 before changing to Modern European and Asian History in 1967 from which he graduated with honours in 1969; his thesis analysed Mahatma Gandhi’s use of tradition to further the Indian independence movement. In these university years Strehlow also reviewed theatre and film and, from 1968 until graduation, ran the student film society there.

Following graduation Strehlow spent 6 months in India, staying mostly in Calcutta and spent short periods in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.


From 1970 - 1972 Strehlow taught drama in South Australia and during this period he met and established relationships with many Pitjantjatjara people and groups from the Flinders Ranges. It is because of this that Strehlow decided to learn the Pitjantjatjara dialect and undertook a course at the University of Adelaide, under the Reverend Bill Edwards. From 1972 - 1975 Strehlow lived in Alice Springs, where he established a clothing business. In 1975 Strehlow left Alice Springs after receiving a grant from the Australian Schools Commission to tour theatre and run workshops in all NT towns, as well as 12 Aboriginal settlements, performing to all age groups under a wide range of conditions for 6 months.[3] A big part of Strehlow doing this was to try and understand the predicament of Central Australia and the plight of the Aboriginal peoples living in the communities round Alice Springs; which so many of his family had devoted their lives to doing.[1]

In 1976, inspired, Strehlow returned to Adelaide where he established a theatre company which would travel the world and perform to more than 300 theatres in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. Of the more than 50 productions performed, specialising in Shakespeare's plays, 4 were written by Strehlow; Ali Baba, Revolution's Son, The Slaying of the Dragon King and The Elusive Reality.[4][5][6] During this period, for almost 30 years, Strehlow based himself in London.[1]

In addition to writing play Strehlow has also written for newspapers and magazines, given interviews for radio and television and acted as an adviser for numerous cultural institutions holding materials relating to Aboriginal Australians.In 2000 he contributed to Mr Strehlow's Films (directed by Hart Cohen) based around the work of his father Ted Strehlow.

In the 1990s Strehlow became increasingly curious about the lives of his grandparents, Carl and Frieda Strehlow after discovering the existence of Frieda's diaries, written in old script German,[1] in Berlin and the realisation that this personal record of her life in Hermannsburg, from 1897 and 1908 which revealed previously unknown details of their lives their and happenings in the community and more generally around Central Australia. Strehlow began work on what would become a two volume set in 1994 and the final volume was published, in two parts, in 2019; the launch was held at The Residency in Alice Springs on 17 December 2019.[7] At this launch Ted Egan said that Strehlow has "contributed monumentally to the historic records of the NT" and that this work "will be of benefit to all scholars".[7]

Strehlow records these stories in the first person saying that:[8]

It is my story, when I got going on it properly I thought either I had to tell it completely in an objective fashion as if I’m not really part of it or I had to make it really clear that it is my story. I couldn’t do both. It could have been told the other way but it would, for me, ring false. Obviously I wanted to know the story. To some extent these events have really, I wouldn’t say totally dominated my life, but they’ve certainly been a very powerful shaping force.

— John Strehlow, Alice Springs News Online

Research for this work took Strehlow to more than 50 archives in the UK, Germany and Australia and rests not only on Freida's diaries but other untapped sources only published in German (which Strehlow learnt for this purpose).[7] The ultimate result includes a detailed record of day-to-day life at Hermannsburg, the forming of stations in the area, the survival of the Arrernte and Luritja people in the area and the pressure the missionaries faced.[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e Rothwell, Nicholas (11 February 2002). "John Strehlow, son of the great anthropologist, grandson of the trailblazing missionary, has added his own indispensable contribution to the literature of remote indigenous Australia". The Australian.
  2. ^ Koerner, Bernhard. (2010). Deutsches geschlechterbuch (genealogisches handbuch b rgerlicher familien.). Nabu Press. ISBN 1-174-84201-6. OCLC 945350021.
  3. ^ Australian Schools Commission (1975). "Australian Schools Commission Grant No. 95/5013". Cite journal requires |journal=
  4. ^ Tideman, Harold (25 February 1977). "Dream acted with vitality". The Advertiser.
  5. ^ Neilson, Sandy (8 September 1978). "Aladdin and Ali Baba". The Scotsman.
  6. ^ Koopmans, Jaap (18 January 1980). "Review". Rotterdams Nieuwsblad.
  7. ^ a b c "Hermannsburg Mission: questions of survival – Alice Springs News". Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  8. ^ "'Soul of the whole past time' – Alice Springs News". Retrieved 27 April 2020.

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