JC Williamson

  • MOORE, Maggie (1851-1926)

    American actress & vocalist. Née Margaret Virginia Sullivan. Born 10 April 1851, San Francisco, California, USA. Daughter of James Edward Sullivan and Bridget Mary Whelan. Married JC Williamson (actor & manager), 2 February 1873, San Francisco, California, USA (div. 1899), (2) HR Roberts (actor), 12 April 1902, New York City, New York, USA. Died 15 March 1926, San Francisco, California, USA.

    On stage in Australia from 1874, performing in G&S, comedy, drama, pantomime. One of her early successes was in Struck Oil alongside JC Williamson.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, page 93.

  • Old Melodrama Made J.C. Williamson’s Fortune

    1 banner 3J.C. Williamson & Maggie Moore (photos by J. Noble, Melbourne, 1874) (NLA) – Character sketches as John Stofel and his daughter, Lizzie in Struck Oil

    With a background in journalism, CLAUDE MCKAY was initially appointed as a private secretary to J.C. Williamson in April 1908, before subsequently becoming press agent, reader of plays and directing the advertising policy of J.C. Williamson Ltd. for the next 11 years. In 1952 McKay penned the following reminiscence of JCW for The Sunday Herald.

    WhenMr. J.C. Williamson was governing director of “The Firm,” the theatre in Australia reached its most brilliant period. As many as fifteen touring companies were on the Australian and New Zealand circuit. Six theatres and two music halls provided entertainment for Sydney. Her Majesty’s was the most distinguished theatre, and housed always the principal Williamson attraction. It is questionable if anywhere in the Empire there was a more powerful theatrical organisation than Williamson directed. He knew show business on both sides of the curtain and the theatre was his sole existence. He was a striking personality and a familiar figure in all the capitals of the world where the theatre flourished. When he passed on the vitality his management had imparted was never regained.

    James Cassius Williamson came to this country from USA with Maggie Moore and a trump card in Struck Oil.1 The legend is that the old melodrama was the foundation of his fortune. But before he obtained his command of the theatrical field Williamson had his ups and downs. The situation was desperate at the final rehearsal in the nineties of Djin–Djin, a pantomime written by his then secretary, Bert Royle. For Williamson told the company that all he had and more was in the production, and that it was in their hands when the curtain went up the following night whether they sank or swam. Djin–Djinwas a resounding success, and never again was Williamson to bow anything but a full treasury.2

    He became probably the most powerful theatrical entrepreneur in the Empire. “Williamson is in London” was exciting news to authors and actors thereafter for a quarter of a century. Whether he staged the work of dramatists or not he bought the Australian rights to do so. This effectively shut out anyone who thought of invading his territory. Authors wanted ready money which Williamson had, and he purchased their plays at bargain basement prices.

    One of his “buys” was the Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. At the time pirated versions were enriching managers in America. The copyright laws were full of pitfalls, and Williamson made a deal with D’Oyly Carte to pay £200 a year to stage in Australia and New Zealand whatever the famous librettist and composer let Carte have for the Savoy.

    He was hurrying from London to Australia with the scene plot and score of The Gondoliers, Williamson once told me, when in New York he found that he had left the orchestral parts behind him. He scared up a musician to score them, and in a few days was on his way to San Francisco to catch the ship to Sydney.

    “The musician who did the orchestration,” he related, “was a young man named Phillip Sousa, of whom you would have heard.” Sousa’s orchestration was still being used in revivals of The Gondoliers when Williamson was alive and for all I know it still is.3

    Williamson had a custom of engaging newspaper men as secretaries, and I was supposed to fill that hazardous occupation as well. For there was a high rate of mortality in the job. As well be secretary for W.M. Hughes in later years. Fortunately for me, Williamson had a highly competent secretary in Miss Cissie Jamieson. 

    I don’t think I ever took more than half a dozen letters from his dictation. One, I recall, was to Bernard Shaw. (Critics were demanding Shavian theatre and Williamson bowed finally to their insistence.)4 The letter was long and disingenuous; it told of a backward cultural country, of meagre population and of a manager’s foolhardiness in

    attempting to offer it intellectual drama. It spelt, of course, financial loss and by reason of this being inevitable, five guineas a performance was a reckless offer to make for plays for eclectic audiences, if such existed in Australia.

    The old boy was manifestly pleased with this appeal for mercy and the letter went off. A month or so later he passed Shaw’s reply over to me. It was sardonically instructive in vital statistics, wealth of our cities, the date when compulsory education was introduced here, the standing of our universities (listed), the flourishing condition of theatres, and much about ourselves of which the writer was surprised Mr. Williamson should be ignorant. In all the circumstances the Shaw royalties for Sydney and Melbourne were 15 per cent, of gross takings and 10 per cent, in other State capitals. “He's as good a businessman as he is an author and that’s saying a lot,” commented Williamson wryly.

    It was his policy nevertheless to keep abreast of the development of the drama in London, New York and Europe. Many times he confirmed this by stating it as his belief that a gap could occur which it would be difficult to bridge; that if we didn't keep pace with the movement of drama where the theatre was vital, our theatre as a living force would cease to be.

    He had an instinct for both sides of the curtain and a genuine love of the stage. He was a true cosmopolitan and the best things in life were good enough for him. So far as he could be said to have a home, it was in the subdued elegance of a mansion at Elizabeth Bay. Everything he surrounded himself with was of the best. Longstaff had painted his portrait and the portraits of his two girls, and hung on the walls were the landscapes of Australia’s most gifted artists of the period.

    He was an easy host and you would be a sybarite when he lunched you, he recommending a wine and taking keen pleasure in your enjoyment of it. He had a claret that was truly poetic. It was from Queen Victoria’s bin. He bought it from her wine merchant at her death, securing all that was left in the merchant’s cellar.

    Once on a mission for him to Hollywood, my dining-room steward gave me a clue to Williamson's philosophy of being able to do without the necessities of life if he could have the luxuries. Somehow Williamson’s name came up.

    “Ah,” said the steward, leaning lightly over my table, “that man Williamson is a genius.” “A genius?” I asked. “Yes, a genius,” he affirmed; “if there’s only one pineapple left on the ship, he gets it.”

    Although from America, Williamson disdained the product of their tailors. All his clothes came from Savile Row, his hats from Scott’s, his shoes handmade by a London shoemaker. He was a strikingly handsome man and preserved his figure by eschewing physical exercise in favour of massage. A hansom cab, driven by an old Irish-man took him to and from the theatre. One evening, on calling for him, this jehu said to him through the roof, “Thim's a couple of foine comedians you have at Her Majesty’s, sir, thim Gilbert and Sullivan.”

    When I joined him he had taken in two partners as managing directors, Gustave Ramaciotti in Sydney and George Tallis in Melbourne. They each paid £7,500 for a quarter share, Williamson retaining a half interest in the enterprise. Mother Goose returned them more than their investment, Ramaciotti informed me. This pantomime, with Florence Young as principal boy, was the first joint venture of the triumvirate.5

    Ramaciotti was then a colonel, and on Saturday mornings would appear at the office in military uniform. He rode a spirited charger, and in order not to prick his mount he showed us how he had inserted two sixpences for rowels so that the animal would be easier held when the spurs were applied. When he left the room, Williamson remarked dryly, “Ramaciotti will be putting someone’s eye out chucking his money about like that!”

    Montague Grover, an ex-Williamson secretary, was in my room one afternoon when the Guv’nor looked in. Grover was then editing the Sun. Over the building in which it was housed Williamson held the mortgage. As an incentive, Monte had been given a parcel of shares, and, being aware of this, Williamson began needling him on putting on fat, “like all capitalists.” I put in, “I notice nobody is commenting on my painful thinness.” Next day Williamson sent for me, and handed me a piece of scrip in the Firm. “This might help to fatten you up,” he said.

    On rare occasions Williamson would take a particular interest in the stage presentation of a play and it was then one saw his thoroughness in squeezing the last ounce of drama from a scene. I recall his rehearsing of The Climax, a one-act drama.5 Jimmy Atholwood, an old-time actor, was cast as a music master. He had in a dinner scene to pick up a knife, walk round the table, and stab the seducer of his daughter. His dramatic timing was faulty. Williamson acted the business seven or eight times and held the intensity of the situation so that it gripped. Finally he had Atholwood try again.

    “Damn it all, he hasn’t got it now,” I couldn’t help exploding. Williamson, whom I hadn’t noticed come into the darkened stalls, was behind me. “No,” he said, “and he never will.”

    He set great store on stage business, even in musical comedy. In one of the Gaiety pieces two comedians, in an ancestral room where supper was set, began a burlesque fencing bout with a claymore and a rapier.

    “The public won’t think it funny,” pronounced Williamson. “Put a long twisted loaf on the table and a carving knife as well. Fence with them,” he directed. “Burlesque,” he said to me, “must always be with objects familiar to everyone in the audience, the more ridiculous the better.” Anyhow, it got the laughs his way.

    He was never tempted to venture into management in London or New York. Nearest he got to it was when George Edwardes, so long supreme in musical comedy at the London Gaiety, got into financial low water, mainly through his racing stable. He had Lehár's The Merry Widow, but was shy on production costs. Williamson let him have £10,000 as a loan. The Viennese hit quickly restored George Edwardes’s fortunes.7

    With Carrie Moore transferred from the Gaiety in the title-role and Andrew Higginson as Danilo, The Merry Widow played in Australia to business never heard of before.

    At this time Williamson shows were toured in all States and New Zealand. It was a highly organised routing of attractions. But bad patches were sometimes struck, as on the goldfields in Western Australia.  A touring manager’s report on Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, I remember, amused Williamson. It said that receipts were ruinous as a result of the authorities stopping gold stealing.

    About this time opposition of a serious nature came about. Meynell and Gunn found backing to produce The Arcadians with a company of fresh faces.8 The Royal Comic Opera Company, favourites though they were, were hardy perennials, (the chorus also in the veteran class.)  The impact of new principals and rounded dancing limbs the rival management offered gave Williamson’s a much needed shock. The public immediately benefited.

    The bid for supremacy lifted the theatre to the highest level of attraction it ever was to know. Meynell and Gunn imported Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton with a London company in Shakespeare; also Ethel Irving in Maugham’s plays;9 Williamson came back with H.B. Irving and his Shakespearean players, Margaret Anglin and Henry Kolker, Genée and her ballet, Melba in grand opera, Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird (Claude Rains as stage manager), a new musical comedy company and a ballyhoo about star engagements ahead.10

    16 Oscar Asche Lily BraytonAsche as Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ with his wife as ‘Desdemona’


    17 H B Irving Dorothea BairdNational Library of Australia, Canberra

    The pace in rivalry was short-lived, however. A merger was the outcome and “the theatrical combine” was with us once again.11 Williamson always preferred it that way. It was the American way of the unassailable might of the theatrical trust of the times. (His own family “trust” secured for them £400,000.) He had come to Australia as other American actor-managers had before him, intending to return to the USA.

    The Sunday Herald (Sydney), 5 October 1952, p.9, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18507113/1054912

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    Compiled by Robert Morrison

    [1] The 3 act comedy-drama, Struck Oil; or, The Pennsylvania Dutchman, based on the unproduced play The German Recruit by Sam W. Smith, adapted and expanded by Clay Greene as The Deed, or Five Years Away; subsequently retitled with further revisions by J.C. Williamson, premiered at Salt Lake City, Utah on 23 February 1874 and received its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 1 August 1874 for an initial 43 performances. This was followed by a return season of a further 13 performances commencing on Derby Day, 31 October and “every night during the Great Cup Week” concluding on 14 November. The play was then given a “Farewell Performance” as a Complimentary Benefit for the Williamsons on the final night of their Melbourne season on 21 December 1874, resulting in a record tally of 57 performances.

    [2]The pantomime Djin-Djin: The Japanese Bogie Man by Bert Royle and J.C. Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and additional numbers by H.J. Pack, premiered at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 26 December 1895 for a seven week season. Due to the economic depression of the 1890s, which followed on from the collapse of the land boom of the previous decade, the Firm of Williamson and Musgrove was in a serious financial crisis and staging the pantomime was JCW’s last ditch attempt to recover revenue lost from their other failed theatrical productions at the time. The immediate success of the production, which subsequently toured to the other Australian colonies, New Zealand and South Africa, helped to restore JCW’s fortunes.

    [3]W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera The Gondoliers (which had premiered at the Savoy Theatre, London under the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte on 7 December 1889 for a run of 554 performances) received its Australian premiere at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 25 October 1890 for a run of 8 weeks, closing on Friday, 19 December before going on tour to the other colonies and New Zealand. An aficionado of the works of G&S (on which he modelled his own comic operas) John Philip Sousa was also responsible for re-orchestrating one of the ‘pirate’ productions of their earlier success H.M.S. Pinafore staged in the U.S. in the late 1870s.

    [4]JCW subsequently purchased the Australasian performing rights to George Bernard Shaw’s plays and the first of these to be given its professional premiere in Australia by J.C. Williamson Ltd. was Arms and the Man staged at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on 26 February 1910 for an initial run of 5 performances in a season of plays starring Julius Knight. (In later years Shaw’s play The Millionairess received its world premiere performance in English by the Gregan McMahon Players for JCW Ltd. at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne for a season commencing on 7 March 1936. The play was first performed in German at the Burgtheater at the Akademie Theater, Vienna on 4 January 1936. Ironically, Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak correct English by Professor Henry Higgins, was also first performed in German at the Hofburg Theater in Vienna in October 1913, before Beerbohm Tree’s London premiere production at His Majesty’s Theatre in April 1914.)  

    [5]The Drury Lane pantomime Mother Goose (with a book by J. Hickory Wood and songs from various sources) was given its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 22 December 1906 for a 12 week run, before going on tour. The cast included Harry Phydora in the title role, Florence Young as the principal boy ‘Colin’ and Celia Ghiloni as the fairy ‘Heartsease’. (The program may be viewed on-line at https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE21360608 )

    [6]The one-act drama The Climaxby Edward Dyson was staged as a matinee attraction at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney commencing on 28 December 1909, as noted in the following item published in The Daily Telegraph(on page 8):

    The first of a series of matinees of “The Climax” is announced by the J.C. Williamson management to take place at Her Majesty’s this afternoon at 2. Interest in the event is heightened by it marking Miss Florence Young’s first in a dramatic role, that of Adelina von Hagen, an operatic student. This calls for a soprano, as three songs are incidental to the play. These are “The Even Song,” “Youth’s Appeal to Age,” and “The Song of the Soul,” written for "The Climax” by Carl Breil. Messrs. J.B. Atholwood, Reginald Roberts, and Dion Titheradge will also appear in the cast. The final rehearsal took place yesterday forenoon, under the personal supervision of Mr. J. C. Williamson. “It was one of the most striking plays I saw on my last tour abroad,” he stated yesterday; “it has originality, and takes a sympathetic view of life, while the characters are all very human.”

    [7] George Edwardes’ production of the Franz Lehár operetta The Merry Widow in its English adaptation by Basil Hood, with lyrics by Adrian Ross, created a sensation at Daly’s Theatre in London, where it opened on 8 June 1907, starring Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne and featuring George Graves as ‘Baron Popoff’, Elizabeth Firth as ‘Natalie’ (the wife of Popoff), Robert Evett as ‘Camille’ and W.H. Berry as ‘Nisch’, with costumes by Lucile and Percy Anderson. The London production ran for an extraordinary 778 performances and toured extensively in Great Britain.

    The Australian premiere of the Hood and Ross adaptation was given by JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on Saturday, 16 May 1908 for a run of 11 weeks concluding on 31 July with its 77th performance followed by an Australasian tour. In addition to Carrie Moore in the title role and Andrew Higginson as ‘Prince Danilo’, JCW’s Royal Comic Opera Company cast included Florence Young as ‘Natalie’, Reginald Roberts as ‘Camille’, Victor Gouriet as ‘Baron Popoff’ and Fred Leslie as ‘Nisch’.

    [8]The ‘fantastic musical play’ The Arcadians (music by Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot, lyrics by Arthur Wimperis, book by Mark Ambient and Alexander M. Thompson) premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London on 24 April 1909 under the management of Robert Courtneidge and ran for 809 performances. It received its Australian premiere under the management of Clarke and Meynell at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 26 March 1910 for a run of 11 weeks closing on Friday, 10 June, before going on tour. Its cast included Maie Sydney as ‘Sombra’, William Cromwell as ‘James Smith’ aka ‘Simplicitas’, Harold Thorley as ‘Jack Meadows’, Gertrude Gilliam as ‘Eileen Cavanagh’ and Tom Walls as the jockey ‘Peter Doody’.

    [9]Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton commenced their Australian tour for Meynell and Gunn at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with The Taming of the Shrew on 17 July 1909 followed by Othello and As You Like It. The season concluded on Wednesday, 29 September and their company headed to Sydney to open at the Criterion Theatre, followed by seasons in Adelaide at the Theatre Royal and Perth at His Majesty’s Theatre. Return seasons in Melbourne and Sydney ensued in which they played in The Merchant of Venice, Count Hannibal, The Merry Wives of Windsorand The Honeymoon. Initially scheduled for 26 weeks their tour was extended a number of times before finally concluding in Perth at His Majesty’s on 27 August 1910.

    English actress, Ethel Irving and her London company commenced a seven-month Australian tour for Clarke and Meynell at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 8 July 1911. Her repertoire of plays included The Witness for the Defence by A.E.W. Mason, Somerset Maugham’s Lady Frederick (performed with the one-act curtain-raiser Dolly's Little Bills by Henry Arthur Jones) and Frederick Fenn’s English adaptation of the French play Dame Nature by Henry Bataille. Following seasons in Adelaide and Sydney (plus return visits to Melbourne and Sydney, where her tour concluded on 2 February 1912) JCW Ltd. negotiated for her to pay a flying visit to New Zealand under the Firm's auspices for a six-week tour, which concluded on 21 March 1912.

    [10]H.B. Irving (the elder son of Sir Henry) and his wife, Dorothea Baird commenced their six-month Australian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 24 June 1911. Their repertoire of plays included Hamlet, The Lyons Mail, The Bells, Louis XI (made famous by Sir Henry in Britain), and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

    Canadian-born actress, Margaret Anglin commenced a six-month Australian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on Saturday, 27 June 1908 with a company that included New York actor, Henry Kolker. Her repertoire of plays included The Thief, The Truth, The Taming of the Shrew, Camille, Zira and Twelfth Night

    The Melba-Williamson Opera Company commenced its Australian tour at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney with a production of La Traviata on 2 September 1911. The company’s repertoire consisted of twelve operas in all, of which Melba sang in six: Verdi’s La Traviata, Rigoletto and Otello; Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette and Puccini’s La Bohème. The season included two Australian stage premieres, Tosca and Samson and Delilah (which commenced on 5 September under the title of Sansone e Dalila, being sung in Italian), with the remaining operas comprising Madama Butterfly, Carmen, Aida and Lohengrin. The eight-week Sydney season was followed by a truncated season of six weeks at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne commencing on 28 October and the company returned to Sydney for a final two weeks from 11 December.

    The Danish ballerina, Adeline Genée and the Imperial Russian Ballet commenced an Australasian tour for JCW at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 21 June 1913 performing in the triple bill of Coppelia, The Secret of Suzanne and assorted Divertissements. Other ballets in the company’s repertoire included The Daring of Diane, Les Sylphides, Arabian Nights, La Camargoand Robert Le Diable. The tour concluded at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 7 October before departing for New Zealand.

    The Blue Bird by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck received its Australian premiere with Frederick Harrison’s Haymarket Theatre Company at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney on Saturday, 6 April 1912, and concluded its season there on Friday, 17 May after a run of six weeks, followed by a tour to the other Australian capitals. English actor, Claude Rains, who stage managed the tour, would gain fame in later years as a notable Hollywood character actor in such films as The Invisible Man (1933) The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Casablanca (1942) Caesar and Cleopatra(1945) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) amongst others.

    The theatre program for the Melbourne season (which commenced at the Theatre Royal on 22 June and includes photos of the cast ‘in character’) may be viewed in full here on Trove.

    Norman O’Neill’s incidental music composed for the play may be heard on YouTube, played by the Court Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, recorded by Columbia in Wigmore Hall (London) on 25 February 1927.

    [11]Clyde Meynell joined JCW Ltd. as a managing director in 1911 and celebrated his 30th year in theatrical management in 1921, as recounted by the following newspaper report marking this milestone:


    Mr. Clyde Meynell, one of the four managing directors of J.C. Williamson, Ltd. enters to-day upon his 30th year of theatrical direction, during nearly half of which his artistic experience and good judgment have powerfully influenced for good the course of stage enterprise in this country.

    Not many people are aware, outside the immediate circle of his intimate friends, that the manager comes of an old Dutch family, which established itself in Yorkshire shortly after the arrival in England of William Prince of Orange. His own name Is Clyde van Straubenzee, and many of his relatives are in the British army, notably his brother, General Casimir van Straubenzee (retired), who before the war, was colonel of the Suffolk Regiment at Aldershot, and afterwards was in France until disabled, ultimately sharing a divided command as general in the north-east district, with Leeds as headquarters.

    When 16 years of age Clyde Meynell adopted that stage-name, in order to join the company of his old friend, Carlotta Leclalr, a celebrity, who at the same time started another beginner, Violet Vanbrugh. Young Meynell’s parents urged him to study medicine, however, and after a year’s experience in “stock” he took his degree at Edinburgh University, … and was coached by Dr. Richard Berry, now the learned anatomy professor at Melbourne University. Nevertheless, after practising as a surgeon for a year, Mr. Meynell returned to his first love, first with Frank Harvey’s company (that actor-manager being father of the artist so well-known here), and then with the famous Compton Comedy Company, of which Harcourt Beatty was then a member. From that time on Meynell took up management, beginning with Horace Lingard and Alice Dunning, next with Miss Fortescue, who was awarded £20,000 for breach of promise on the part of Earl Cairns’ son (a still standing law record), and again as resident manager of theatres at Bournemouth and Southampton.

    Various speculative enterprises in England followed before Mr. Meynell represented Beerbohm Tree, and in that way came to Australia in 1903 as general manager for the Julius Knight and Maud Jeffries combination in “Resurrection,” “The Eternal City,” and “Monsieur Beaucaire.” Independent management on this side in partnership with the late John Gunn led to the importation of various English stars, and in 1908 Sir Rupert Clarke joined the firm. A very noteworthy period In our stage history began with “Miss Hook of Holland” and “The Arcadians” and sustained by the arrival of Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton, Ethel Irving, and Matheson Lang. Sir Rupert Clarke and Meynell amalgamated with J.C. Williamson, Ltd., in 1911 and the latter was for five years (1915–1920) London representative, during which period he joined Sir Alfred Butt in staging “High Jinks” at the Adelphi, where the piece ran for more than a year.

    The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Thursday, 7 April 1921, p.10, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15958129

    Additional Sources

    Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.A Short Biography of James CassiusWilliamson, The Elizabeth Tudor Press, NSW, 1974

    Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre 1788–1914, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985

    Viola Tait, Dames, Principal Boys … And All That, Macmillan, Melbourne, 2001

    Michael & Joan Tallis, The Silent Showman, Wakefield Press, South Australia, 1999

    Raymond Mander & Joe Mitchensen, Theatrical Companion to the Plays of Shaw, Rockliff, London, 1954


  • Said J.C. Williamson (Part 1)

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    After forty-five years of the stage, the veteran actor-manager J.C. WILLIAMSON tells Bookfellow the story of his professional career in  Part 1 of a two-part transcript of an article first published in 1907. 

    “AND NOW” (he said) “it is nearly time to take in sail. The burden of theatrical direction is heavy; the pressure is unceasing—and I am no longer young. After forty-five strenuous years in the service of the public, I feel that I owe a little to myself, a great deal to my wife and children. At sixty a man may fairly rest from active labour. It is not easy to give up when one feels so well and strong; but my desire is to relinquish management in the very near future.”

    I WAS BORN at Mercer, Pennsylvania, USA, on 26 August, 1845. Mercer is a county town where my father was a doctor. Both my father and mother were Americans. He was of Irish descent, she of Scottish. Of course I look upon America as my native country. Sometimes people have said to me, “Your fortune is bound up in Australia now; why don’t you get naturalised?” I don’t see that. Australia is my country too, and I expect to spend the rest of my days here, but I think a man should never deny his mother country.

    I had a good common school and high school education, and the American schools in those days were excellent. One thing they seemed to do was to make every boy wish to hit out for himself. That was the first idea of every American boy in my time, to get away from home as soon as possible and start and make his own way. The schools encouraged independence of character. I don't think they do so now —I don’t know, of course, because I haven't been in close touch with America for a long time—but it seems to me that the American boy of to-day is less ambitious than we used to be. He isn't so eager to go ahead and do something for himself at an early age.

    While I was a boy, our family shifted west to Milwaukee, the capital of Wisconsin, where my uncle was a merchant in a big way of business. There was a large family of us boys and girls, but I was the only one with a turn for the stage, and I don’t know that any of my father’s or mother’s people was ever inclined that way.

    “Jimmy” was the Bloodhound

    I used to act in amateur theatricals, and when I was sixteen I got an engagement with a company at the Milwaukee theatre. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and did pretty well everything. My mornings were spent in learning fencing and dancing. In the afternoon I’d look after the box office, and at evening help the stage manager and take my part—sometimes three or four parts.

    I remember I even painted some of the scenery for a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I knew nothing about scene-painting, but I did the ice scene—with the blocks of ice made out of candle boxes—and when Eliza and her child were escaping across the ice I shouted and waved the red fire, and looked after the barking of the bloodhound. I was the bloodhound.

    Eliza crosses the ice George Cruikshank 1852‘Eliza Crosses the Ohio on the Floating Ice’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Drawing by George Cruikshank, 1852. The Victorian Web.

    Well, one of the company arranged to go to Canada, and asked me to come along. That was in 1862. I went to my uncle—who was my guardian, my father being dead—and told him about it. I suppose they saw there was no stopping me; but he said “Remember, if you go, you go for good: there must be no coming back unless you give up the stage altogether. You can't do a little of this and a little of something else.” He wanted me to go to Harvard or Yale and study for a profession. “All right!” I said, and off I went, and from that day to this I have been connected with the stage, and I can say truly that I have made my own way and never had help from anybody to the extent of a shilling that I didn’t earn.

    * * * * * * * * *

    We played in Canada one year, and when the company broke up I determined to come to New York. That was in 1863. New York, of course, was the centre of our theatrical world, and it seemed there wasn’t much chance there for a youth of seventeen. However, I came along, and met a Mr. English whom I had seen with the company in Canada. He was running a high-class vaudeville entertainment at the Olympic Theatre, and he told me that he was going to put on a farce to play before his entertainment, and offered me a small part. I was to be “Quicksilver” in The Artful Dodger. He offered me ten dollars a week, and I took it gladly. I was engaged in New York!

    Engaged in New York

    Well, when the rehearsals came on I saw there was likely to be trouble. The principal actor objected to me playing “Quicksilver,” the fact was he had a friend of his own whom he wished to put on, and he would not hear of me. So one day I went in and saw Mr. English, and he said: “Jimmy, I can’t give you that part.” “But,” I said, “you've engaged me.” “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry, but the fact is Mr. So-and-So objects. He says you're too young.” “But,” I said, “I'm engaged!” “I can’t help that,” he said; “you can't have the part.” The end of it was he offered me another and smaller part. “But,” he said, “I can only give you five dollars a week!” “Never mind; I'm engaged!” That was my idea to have an engagement. Five dollars is only £1 a week, but I didn’t care: I could live on that, and I went on and took the part. The result was that in a few nights the actor who was playing “Quicksilver” didn't turn up, and I played “Quicksilver” for the rest of the run of the piece.

    I had an idea I could do better, so one day I went and saw the elder Mr. Wallack. Wallack’s Theatre at that time was the leading theatre of America, and there never has been a better company on the English-speaking stage than Wallack’s company was then. There were no stars, but nearly every performer was an artist worthy of being starred: and if the same company could be brought together at the present time under the existing conditions of theatrical affairs there would not be a theatre in New York which would hold money enough at regular prices to pay the salaries they could command. That is because salaries were comparatively very low in those days. The most I ever drew at Wallack’s was fifty dollars a week. They used to stage the old comedies like Sheridan’s, and newer ones like Robertson’s. I remember Charles Mathews was the light comedian one season, and Charles Wyndham (now Sir Charles) was another.

    I called at the old gentleman’s house—he was over seventy at that time. I met him just as he was getting into his carriage, and he consented to see me the following day. The following day I called, and was shown into a waiting-room—and I’ll tell you a singular thing. Do you see that picture of John Kemble as Rolla hanging on the wall? That was offered to me some years ago as a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. I made enquiries, and the history seemed to be all right, it being the original study for his great picture in the Peel gallery, so I bought it. Well, I couldn’t help thinking that I had seen it before; and one day, as I was looking at it, the memory came back to me. It had hung in old Mr. Wallack’s house, in the room where I sat waiting for him. I looked into the papers I had got with it, and sure enough I found that it had been owned by the elder Mr. Wallack. So it had travelled from England to America and from America to Australia, and had come to remind me of my first important engagement.

    Taken on at Wallack’s

    When I was shown into the old gentleman’s room I told him I wanted an engagement to fill a vacancy there would be in his company the next season. He put his hand on a pile of papers that seemed about two feet high, and he said “Do you see that, my boy? Two-thirds of those letters are from people who want the little engagement you are asking me for.” Then we talked, and he asked me to call again. I called, and found he had gone to the seaside. When he came back I called again, and he told me he was going to give me the part. So I came on at Wallack’s.

    * * * * * * * * *

    Just before I joined I had a joke with Mr. English. He was forming a company to go touring, and he met me one day and offered me a place in the company. I thanked him, and said “No,” I didn't think I'd be able to; I thought of taking an engagement at Wallack’s. That rather took him aback, for, of course, he didn’t believe the thing was possible, because Wallack’s was a close corporation in those days. To show you the strength of their company at that time, they played The Rivals in New York one night, complete to the smallest part. Every part was played by an actor, and by a good actor too. The same night the other half of the company played The School for Scandal at Brooklyn, also complete, with a good actor for every part. All the actors in both pieces belonged to the regular company, and either of those casts would be considered star casts nowadays.

    I made my first big New York success as Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop with “Lotta”—America’s most popular star comedienne—during a summer season at Wallack’s.

    A Treble Recall and a Waiting “Star”

    Altogether I stayed with Wallack’s for seven years, playing all kinds of parts, and gradually improving my position. Generally I was cast for dialect parts. I took all dialects—French, Dutch, Irish, Chinese, Negro, Yorkshire, Somersetshire—anything that came along. Perhaps the greatest success of my young days was gained one night that I was playing “Sim” in O’Keefe's play of Wild Oats. I had a scene with Lester Wallack, who was a great actor. Now, Wallack’s Theatre in those days was a regular home of stage tradition, so far as the old comedies were concerned. The prompt books contained all the business that had been set down for the regular parts in all the plays, often going back many years and commencing with the business directed by the authors. The books were regarded as a kind of stage Bible, and any departure from them was simply not to be thought of.

    Well, in this scene with Lester Wallack, between Rover and Sim, I seemed to feel the part much better in my own way than in the way it was set down for me by the prompt-book. I told that to the stage manager—Mr. John Gilbert—and he was properly shocked. “My boy,” he said, “it’s not to be thought of!” But when I got on the stage I felt as if I must take the part my own way after all, and I did. When my scene was over I went back to the dressing-room, and after a bit (it seemed quite a good while) a call boy came along and said “Mr. Williamson, you’re wanted!” I came out wondering what was up, and thinking the old gentleman was going to take me to task for altering the business. To my surprise I was told to go on in front; the audience had called for me—a remarkable thing in the middle of a scene. I went on, and they applauded furiously. Then I went off and was called back for more applause. Then I went off again, but the public would not let Mr. Wallack go on with the scene and a third time I was called back, and we had to do the end of the scene over again before they would let us go.

    Well now, Mr. Wallack was a star, and I was only a youngster, and it was a very unusual thing that the star should be made to wait while the audience recalled the junior who had played with him. I always think that was one of the finest things that ever happened to me; and I was very proud of being specially complimented by Charles Fechter, who was in front.

    “Where’s Jimmy Williamson?”

    One night old Mr. Wallack came to me and said that, owing to the illness of John Brougham, I must play the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger in The Rivals on the following night. It is a very long part, and there were only a few hours to get it up in. “Jimmy,” he said, “you've got to do it!” “Well,” I said, “I'll try.  So after the play that night I went home and wrote out the part, which took me till about two o'clock, and studied it. Then I went to bed for two or three hours, woke up, had some strong coffee, and at it again. At night I played the part letter perfect. That was my idea, always to be ready for anything, and never miss a chance of getting on. The consequence was that, in the last years of my time at Wallack’s, whenever there was anything out of the way to do, they said “Where's Jimmy Williamson?”

    After that I got an engagement at the Old Broadway Theatre as principal comedian; till in 1871 John McCullough, manager of the California Theatre, came to New York looking for a comedian. The California Theatre at San Francisco was a very big affair in those times, and prided itself upon its superiority. Their leading comedian, John Raymond, was leaving them, and after looking all round the manager offered me his place. That, of course, was a high testimonial, so I signed on at a very fine salary, and said good-bye to New York. In San Francisco I had great success at the California, with occasional trips starring round about. While I was in San Francisco, Dion Boucicault, senior, father of Dot Boucicault, came over to play a season, and I’ll tell you how he dished the ’Frisco reporters. They thought themselves smart men, as indeed they were, and when Boucicault’s season was announced they all sharpened their pencils, and it was hinted that Dion was going to have a warm time.

    How Boucicault Dished the Reporters

    Well, of course, he heard all about it, and this is what he did. On his first night he introduced a sketch called Boucicault in California. In this he appeared at home in the Occidental Hotel, just arriving. I was Murphy, his servant, with remarks on all and sundry; Barton Hill came to tell him about the pieces he was going to play; then came in an actress to play the part of a debutante with a San Jose reputation (which is as if a debutante with a Parramatta reputation came to play at Sydney)—and so on. Then came in the reporters, especially W.A. Mestayer, as Bogus Push, of The Weekly Pill—and Boucicault talked to the reporters. He told them his opinion of everything, especially California—and left the genuine reporters without a leg to stand on. He simply said on the stage everything they had to say in the papers, and left them nothing at all to write. That always struck me as a particularly happy instance of turning the tables.

    * * * * * * * * *

    After three years of San Francisco I determined to try a trip to Australia. Horace Greeley’s advice, “Go West, young man! Go West!” was a popular saying in America about that time, and we determined to go still further West. Well, we came to Australia and landed in Melbourne in 1874, and opened at the Theatre Royal with Struck Oil. I suppose there’s no better known piece in this country. I’ve met hundreds of people who date their acquaintance with the theatre back to that piece. Men meet me and say “Look here, Mr. Williamson, I know you well! I remember when I was a boy my father took me to see Struck Oil.”

    The History of “Struck Oil”

    The history of the piece is rather interesting. While I was at the California I was told that an old miner named Sam Smith had written some plays and was anxious to sell them. I was looking round for some things to take to Australia, so when a friend asked me if I would go and hear him read one I said “Certainly.” The piece the old man wanted to show me was called The Blue and the Grey, but I saw there was not much in that. “Well,” he said, “I have another piece if you’ll let me read it. It’s called The Deed, or Five Years Away.” So he read that, and it contained the basis of Struck Oil. I saw there was a good deal in it, and a great deal that would have to be cut out and altered. So I bought it right out, giving the old fellow a hundred dollars more than he asked for it; and got a friend of mine—Clay Greene—to re-write it. A little later, I went starring to Salt Lake City, and I thought I'd try this piece. We rehearsed it, and I saw the last act wouldn’t do.  So one Sunday morning I started upon it and wrote and re-wrote until I had made it suit my own notion, giving out the parts to the company as I went along. We played it the next night, and it went very well, so we took it back to San Francisco and played it there, and I brought it along to Australia.

    One of my friends, Mr. William Hoskins (so well known in Australia), said to me in San Francisco, “What have you got to take out there?” “Well,” I said, “I've got so and so, and so and so,”—and I mentioned Struck Oil. He said, “Don’t give them that in Australia on any account, it will be an utter failure. There are no Germans out there, and they won’t understand it.” Then, coming over in the ship, I used to have a look at it now and again, and read a bit here and there. The captain stopped one day to hear me, and he said, “Now, if you'll take my advice, you’ll keep that in your box. A thing like that won't go down in Australia.”

    Well, I suppose I ought to have been discouraged, but I wasn’t, and I’ll tell you how I came to play it on our opening night in Melbourne. The night before we opened, I had gone to the Opera House, and Richard Stewart was there playing Prince Cassimir in the Princess of Trebizond. About the only German he used was “Mein Gott in Himmel!” and that seemed to go down so well with the audience that I said, “We'll have Struck Oil.” And of course you know how it caught on.

    A Nightmare Adventure

    In 1875 I went to India. It was at the time that the Prince of Wales was visiting there—the present King—and India was en fête. I suppose there has never been such a time there since. I had the honour of meeting the Prince of Wales in Charles Mathews’ dressing-room (for he was in India too), and I can tell you a story in connection with Mathews. One night after the play a lot of English officers came to supper with him, and I was there, and we had a very jolly time, and sat up till three in the morning. Their talk was all military, and they told us the awful tales of the Mutiny, of the well at Cawnpore, the massacre at Delhi, and so on— a very gruesome set of stories.

    With all these things ringing in my head I went to bed and dreamed of throat-cutting and smothering, and all kinds of horrible things, and suddenly I woke to consciousness and realised that I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes, and saw what seemed to me (scarcely half-awake) a horrid black figure holding my nose with one hand, while he brandished a razor in the other. I gave a fearful yell and caught up the pillow and dashed it at him—sent him flying into one corner of the room, and his razor into the other. Next moment I was out of bed ready to defend myself, and I saw this darkey crouching at the other side of the room, and chattering pitifully. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, and for a moment I didn’t understand either. Then it came to me that it was the native barber who was accustomed to come in early in the morning and shave me while I lay in bed, and he had just been starting operations when he got mixed up with my dreams of the Mutiny.

    THE BOOKFELLOW, 10 January 1907, pp. 11-12

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    WELL, to continue. After India a few months were devoted to a jaunt through Egypt, Italy, France and Germany. Then, on Easter Monday, 1876,I opened at the Adelphi under the management of F.B. Chatterton, who had also the Drury Lane Theatre. Chatterton was the author of the much-quoted remark, “Shakespeare spells ruin.” We commenced our season with Struck Oil, the engagement being to star for three months with the option on the part of the manager to extend. This option was almost immediately exercised, extending the season from Easter to Easter—twelve months in all. We played Struck Oil 100 nights, which was a good run in those times, thirty years ago.

    AdelphiSilk theatre program for the Adelphi Theatre, 1876

    We then went into Irish drama, doing a revival of Arrah-na-Pogue with a big cast, including such London favourites as William Terriss, Sam Emery, Mrs. Alfred Melon and Shiel Barry — the great Michael Feeney. We played Arrah-na-Pogue for four months, with such success that the manager wished to continue us in Irish drama, and insisted upon putting up The Shaughraun. I wouldn’t agree to this, because I knew the piece was Dion Boucicault’s. It was copyrighted in America, but the copyright did not extend to England, and legally we were free to play it. But Boucicault would not give his consent, though the manager offered him every inducement—and I held out that I would not play till Boucicault did give his consent. The manager went so far as to cast the piece and call rehearsals, and when he found I was determined he commenced an action at law against me for breach of engagement, but the case fell through. In fact, he had no chance, for I had Charles Mathews, Joe Jefferson, and others ready to back me up, and prove that he had no business to make the cast without the star’s consent. But the dispute ended our Adelphi season, and after touring two years in America, starring in Struck Oil, I decided to make another trip around the world, and came back to Australia. That was in 1879, and I've been here ever since; except for trips every two or three years to get new plays, new people, and new ideas. I believe in keeping myself right up to date.

    I had always said I would never go in for permanent management, because you see a manager’s life is never his own: he has to be at work all the time. I was doing well enough as an actor, and when a star actor wants a rest he can simply knock off and take a holiday for six months, or as long as he likes and then begin again. But a manager has no rest. Once he starts he has to keep going all the time. So I had always said “No management for me!”

    At the Head of the Australian Profession

    But when I came to Australia the second time, I brought out among other new pieces Pinafore, and the first thing I had to do when I landed was to take out injunctions against the people who were playing it without authority. Pinafore went very well, and then I got The Pirates of Penzance. George Musgrove was running an opera company at the time with Tambour Major, and Arthur Garner was running his English comedy company, and they came to me and said “We had better go into partnership!” Well, I held out for a bit, but eventually agreed, and that started what people called “The Triumvirate,” which lasted for nine years. Then Musgrove went out, and Garner and I were together for two years. Then I bought Garner out for a time until Musgrove rejoined me. We were together for seven years, and I was alone for four years until I joined forces with my present partners, Mr. George Tallis and Mr. Gustave Ramaciotti—both friends long associated with my affairs—Mr. Tallis as my Melbourne manager and Mr. Ramaciotti as legal adviser.

    So now you’ve got a very fair outline of my professional career. A good deal of it has been spent in playing, but there’s a good deal that has not been play by any means. The stage has given me a lot of pleasure, a fair share of success, and a great deal of very hard work. I think it is capacity for hard persistent work that the Australian-born actor sometimes lacks. Sometimes he wants perseverance: he doesn’t keep plugging away, and he doesn’t think enough of the stage when he’s off the stage. If a man wants to be a good actor, he has to give his mind to the profession all the time. It’s not enough to gain applause at night, if you think so much about the applause next morning that you forget to look out for the next chance. An actor should be always studying to improve himself, always studying to fit himself for better parts, always studying to make himself such a trustworthy man all round that when there's an opening ahead, he'll be chosen to fill it.

    Australian Actors

    In our profession it is difficult to know enough, and you can never know too much. As a young man, when I was not engaged in a piece, I used to go round to the other theatres, wherever I happened to be: picking up an idea here, a wrinkle there, or storing away a little bit of business for future use: watching the other fellows take a part and deciding how I would take it if I got the chance, and so on: and, what is most important, studying what to avoid in order to correct my faults. Australian actors have great talent, naturally—and, mind you, I'm not making any sweeping condemnation, but I do think that it may fairly be said that some are deficient in application, deficient in painstaking ambition, too apt to forget that stage laurels will fade if they are not continually refreshed by new achievements. It seems to be the fault of the country. Things ripen too quickly. The fruit ripens quickly, the crops mature quickly—but the harvests are irregular.

    THE BOOKFELLOW, 24 January 1907, p.8


    Additional Source

    Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.—A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson [The Elizabeth Tudor Press, NSW: 1974]

    Original Sources of Photos and Illustrations

    The Harvard Theatre Collection: Wallack’s Theatre, c.1865; J.W. Wallack, Sr.; JCW c.1868; Maggie Moore (1873); Poster for Struck Oil

    California Historical Society, San Francisco: John McCullough; The California Theatre c.1871; JCW c.1871

    The New York Public Library Theatre Collection: Playbill for Wallack’s Theatre

    J.C. Willamson’s Life-Story in His Own Words [N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Ltd., 1913]: JCW and family

    J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd., Sydney: Script page of Struck Oil

    (The original 1874 orchestra parts for the incidental music for Struck Oil remain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra—see https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/23704496)


  • Said J.C. Williamson (Part 2)

    The Australian Stage.

    What it Demands of the Actor, the Author, and the Manager

    An Interview with J. C. WILLIAMSON

    1 H.M. Theatre Syd 1903Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 1903

    IN what I have said of Australian actors I allow for exceptions, of course. But I’m speaking to you frankly, as you asked me; and speaking with all kindness, because a manager in his own interest always wishes to help people on if they’ll give him a chance—and some Australian actors don’t give the manager chance enough. They don’t exhibit the qualities that make a manager say “This fellow is ambitious: he works hard, he takes his present part well—he is taking trouble to fit himself for better parts. That’s the man I want.” Managers in Australia never get enough of that class of Australian actor.

    The women are better in that way. They work harder, and they work more persistently. Then they seem quicker and more adaptable. If you think of all the good Australian actresses we’ve had though I needn’t mention any names—you will see my point. They have talent as well as the men, and they stick more closely to their profession. There’s any amount of talent, but often it is not talent that perseveres. And as I’ve said that, I ought to say, too, what good colleagues I’ve found in Australian actors, actresses and singers; what fine support. When they are interested, they don’t spare themselves in their efforts to help, and their natural aptitude is so great that they learn very quickly. What I would like them to do is to maintain their interest and their effort all the time, because my experience teaches me that’s essential. As soon as you let go in our profession, you lose ground.

    Advice to Players

    Let me show you in one of my old scrapbooks a notice which I have always treasured and many times referred to with pride when thinking over old times. It was written by Augustin Daly over 41 years ago, when he was one of the leading dramatic critics on the New York press. He afterwards became, as you know, America’s leading manager, and succeeded to the position formerly occupied by the Wallacks.

    [This is portion of the article referred to by Mr. Williamson.]

    Room for the Little People of the Stage! Make way there! and let us bow in the third and fourth rate actors, who, as “lords,” “gentlemen,” “Marcellus and Bernardo” or “Catesby” and the “Lieutenant of the Tower” have so often in their turn bowed in the Star of the evening.

    The first-rate actors have their chroniclers; the second-rate actresses have their flatterers; who shall be the historians of the neglected ones of the lower grade? Shall we not lift them from the small notoriety of their favourite porter-house, and make them proud of something more than the awful admiration of little dirty boys along the street?

    Is not the “utility man” worthy of honourable mention beside his distinguished co-labourers on the stage.

    Let us see.

    In the first place, the position of the fourth-rate actor demands of him the following qualities: Great versatility—for he must be one night a comedian of the old school, then a gay fellow of the genteeler comedy, then a noble patriot of the ante-Christian era, then a respectable tragedian of the modern period, then a howling bandit in a cavern, then an innocent rustic in a smock, then a belaced courtier of the Shakspearian drama, and then a red-shirted creature of the sensational.

    Great application—for he must study hundreds of new parts in the course of the year;

    Great patience—for he must wait and wait and bide his time for advancement through many weary seasons;

    Great hopefulness—for he must never despair;

    Great amiability—for he must endure the insults of stars and the jeers of his equals.

    In fact—it requires more real ability to be a fourth-rate actor with his ceaseless and unnoticed labours, than to be a distinguished star who has half-a dozen stage pieces which he enacts all the year round, and who sees his name constantly mentioned in the papers.

    It is a matter of congratulation that we are now having a better class of people in the humbler roles. If every stage only had a competent manager, to assist in developing the young talents, many famous actors might be made of the staff at present under command.

    As it is, Mr. Williamson, of Wallack’s company, Mr. Burrows, of the Winter Garden, and Mr. Rockwell, of the Olympic, promise (if their modesty continues) to be actors of no mean order five years hence. But Mr. Williamson will be better than them all—not because he is more ambitious—but because he is more attentive and less vain!

    Will the little people of the drama take some brief advice?

    Give as much time to your dressing as a great actor gives to his. When Florence, the comedian, was a utility man, he used to make his own dresses and wigs for every little part he played—in order to look the character he was cast for. Florence was only a poor boy too, and had to stint himself to do it.

    Never be ashamed, when on the stage in the presence of a “star,” to speak your lines with the emphasis you shall have studied in your own chamber.

    Do not spend your leisure in idleness with those on whose level you now are, but retire early to your homes and study for a higher position.

    Do not criticise the actor above you in the discontented circles of the green room, but try and learn from him how to be as good or as great as he. Fleury, the greatest of French comedians, when in his glory under the Empire, one night consented to play a part of but one scene, and in which he had but five words to speak. It was that of an insignificant old seigneur, to whom an appeal is made by a poor woman whose husband upon their wedding day is under arrest. Fleury seemed to listen to her at first, with the indifference with which a nobIeman usually receives the applications of such rude and ignorant peasants as she pretended to be; then all at once struck with the dignity of her manner and sentiments he fixed his eyes upon her, and while continuing to listen, as if by instinctive, almost involuntary movement, his hand was raised by degrees to his hat, which he finally raised from his head and lowered before her as if mechanically. When the wife was done speaking the old man was in the attitude of most respectful obeisance. The pantomime was so true, so delicate—it expressed so naturally the feeling of respect and surprise at finding the woman so superior to what she seemed, that the effect was electrical, and Fleury, who had not spoken a single word, was greeted with the most tumultuous applause.

    A poor devil of an actor, who usually took the part, could not understand this at all: “Only see,” said he, “what prejudice does. Fleury got three rounds of applause just for taking off his hat; and I never got any applause in the part—and yet I never move my hat at all.”

    But this is one thing the Little People must learn, above all, and remember—that if actors deserve it the public will reward them whether they are “stars” or not.

    Always ask yourself what such or such a character would be apt to do in real life and govern yourself accordingly—never forgetting that in real life the simple message of a servant conveying important news is always as impressive as the circumstances justify. 

    When a servant says: “Sir, your carriage is waiting”—he will, of course, do so in a business-like way. But should he have to announce: “Sir, your son is dead”—in real life, he would undoubtedly exhibit as much real concern in face and voice as the person whom he informs would be likely to feel. This simple illustration presents the case. Know the object of what you have to say, and ordinary discretion will suggest the mode of saying it.

    Since we have no school of acting whence professionals may graduate, every humble performer must make his closet his college and tutor himself. With his looking-glass, his book, and a good deal of diligent observation and thought, every actor may be an artist, but it is equally certain that with foolish company, and discontented mind and disordered life—every drudge will remain such to his dying day.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    I think those remarks are well worth a young actor’s study.

    Australian children are wonderfully gifted. There are no brighter children on the stage to he found anywhere. Go and see the children dancing in the Pantomime now: it’s a pleasure to watch how well and heartily they do it.

    Australian Drama

    About Australian drama? Room for it? Of course there is room for it. Hundreds, I might almost say thousands, of plays have been submitted to me, but the authors are either too literary, or they forget the prime requisites of a play. What are those? Well, a good play must have heart interest. It must hit the audience below the collar button. And it must have head: it must have a good plot, and not be intellectually below contempt. And in the third place it must admit of an appeal to the eye. Perhaps I should have put these qualities in the reverse order. The audience has first to be pleased through the eye; then it must have the appeal to the heart; and then there should be sufficient plot, sufficient intelligence, to leave a pleasant after-taste in memory.

    If you look over all the plays that have been great successes, right from the very beginning, you will find they all have these qualities. There must be the love interest, there must be the plot, and the language must not be above the heads of the average playgoer. People go to the theatre as a distraction, as an amusement, as a relaxation after the toil of the day, so that they can drop their burdens and forget their troubles for a little while. They do not go to be instructed, or to be puzzled, or to be bored—and being human beings, the same human qualities appeal to them generation after generation. Take any play that has been a striking success—take The Silver King. That shows you what I mean. We can revive that play time after time, and always to good audiences. It has the love interest, it has the plot, and it is not a stupid play—though it does not profess to deal in problems. There is the child interest in it which always appeals to an audience, and it admits of being well staged so that it attracts the eye.

    Where Local Drama Fails

    So far Australian drama has failed to give us these things, or to put them in the right way. Certainly an Australian play could be made like In Mizzoura, but not so well,  because in Australia the types have not crystallised yet. America has been longer settled, and the Dutchman, the Negro, the Yankee, the Irishman, have all become well-known types of national life. In Australia it is not so. There is a bushman, of course, but he is not so definite a type as those I have mentioned, and he is not comparatively so interesting to a city audience.

    Struck Oil is another play of the kind I mean. There is the old father—simple, honest, shrewd and kindly, and his happy laughing daughter. You see them together—father and child. The man goes away to the war, and Deacon Skinner comes in—the villain of the piece—the same old villain that you find in a hundred pieces. There seems to be nothing extraordinary in the story, yet that play always holds the audience, because it is sincere, because it is human, because it is true. Those are the keynotes of the play that lasts—humanity, sincerity, truth.

    Of course there have been some fair Australian plays. Alfred Dampier did well with His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms; and those are typical Australian plays. Very good in their way, no doubt, and in a sense representative. The fault I find with them is that they always bring in the revolver. That is always introduced when the dramatist gets in a difficulty. There is the bushranger, the heroine, and the villain, and they get along all right up to a certain point—then somebody must be shot in order to clear the air and let the play proceed. That seems to me to show a certain poverty of invention. A play should go easily and naturally, and nothing outrageous should occur in it. I suppose in convict and bushranging days the revolver episode was the natural thing; but it isn’t the natural thing now, and I don’t see why it should be so characteristic of the Australian drama we have. The Sunny South was another very good play of George Darrell’s—his best, I think. That was Australian; and there again—he had to use the revolver.

    6 Robbery Under ArmsA scene from the Alfred Dampier and Garnet Walch play Robbery Under Arms at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (1890). National Library of Australia, Canberra.

    The Way to Write a Play

    Well, your authors have got to write better before they will make a really successful play. The way seems obvious, and yet they don’t manage it. Authors bring plays to me: I have taken lots of trouble with some of them; and I’ve pointed out this thing and that which my experience tells me must be altered. They always profess themselves quite ready to alter and improve—always glad of suggestions, and so on—but somehow they don’t carry out the suggestions. They take the play away and bring it back, revised, but the faults are there just as before. It almost seems as if it wanted two men to write an Australian play, one to create it, and another to put it into shape for the stage. In the case of The Silver King the two authors had the valuable assistance of the technical knowledge and stagecraft of Wilson Barrett.

    Perhaps that is why so many journalists fail. Their ideas are good enough, their language is good enough—sometimes a little bit too good—but it isn’t the kind that tells on the stage, and they don’t get the situations right. Then, they don’t seem to me to take enough trouble at the beginning. Now, I have had good authors under contract to me to write plays—Dion Boucicault and W.S. Gilbert, for example—and I know something of the way they set about it. I was particularly impressed with the trouble Gilbert took with his scenario: it was almost as long as the play. He wrote the scenario first to get his general effect, his main points, and his leading situations; and he spared no pains to put everything in the exact place where it was wanted for stage representation. It was only after he had made a scenario that would act that he set to work and wrote the play, filling in the language, creating the characters, and polishing every line until, in any play of Gilbert’s, you will find there is very little that can be dispensed with—very little indeed that can be cut with advantage. The reason is, as I say, that he has his careful scenario behind his language: his play is built before it  is decorated.

    Words and Plot

    A drama may be literature, but the words are not the essential thing about it. The essential thing is that it should live and move like a piece of real life—and that depends on the construction. Words are only the clothes, the dress of the drama itself. Struck Oil, for example, was in a great measure written upon the stage, as you might say. My part wasn’t even committed to paper until we had taken it all round Australia. We used what we call a skeleton manuscript, with only the cues given, and one night a good phrase would occur, another night we would invent a little bit of business, and so on, until the whole thing was different from the play as conceived by the original writer. But, mind you, behind the whole there was always the living interest—the heart-interest that I have spoken of. That must be the basis of a really successful play: that is what gives it vitality. Then the play must be built so that this interest can be effectively displayed, and last of all you drape it with words to interpret the interest and construction to the audience.

    Australian authors usually seem to go the other way about. They write the words, and as long as the thing makes a continuous story, and the language is good, they seem to think the play looks right. But all they do in most cases is to dress a lay figure. You have to start from the other end—start from human emotions, human instincts, and base your plot on them, and only when you’re sure you have the play, and the interest of the play, and the construction of the play, go on to the language. In real living drama the language is the last thing to think about.

    The First Act

    Another thing about a play is that when you get a good one it goes of itself, it unfolds itself. I agree that the last act should always be the strongest: too much strength in the first act is a mistake—because you can't live up to it. I remember a very interesting example of that in a New York theatre. There was a play of Dion Boucicault’s—I think it was The Shenandoah. The first act simply amazed the audience—they couldn’t contain themselves. They applauded and applauded. The stage manager came round to Boucicault in a great state of excitement. “We've got them this time, Mr. Boucicault.” “No,” says Boucicault, “no.” “What?” said the other fellow. “What? Don’t you hear that applause?” “No,” says Boucicault, “we’re done. The play’s a failure. That first act is too strong.” And it turned out exactly as he said. The play could not live up to the first act, and it never succeeded. That shows you how stage experience and stage insight come in. Of course the elder Boucicault was a very clever man, one of the very cleverest men that have been connected with the modern stage. He was a great author, he was a great actor, and he was a great stage manager—a man with great ideas.

    It is always difficult to foretell the success or failure of a play from the first act, and when I am telegraphing to my partners after the first act of a first performance I am always very careful to add some qualifying words. Sometimes the first act appears to go very well indeed, but you can’t trust it. In order to be quite sure, you have to wait. There is something in the attitude of an audience that tells you things are going right, or they are not going right—some magnetism, quite apart from the obvious signs. I mean by obvious signs, for example, an audience coughing, or things like that. When you hear a few little coughs, that clearing of the throat, you have to pay attention: something’s going wrong.

    The play’s not holding the attention of the audience. The man in the chair has lost interest, and as soon as he ceases to be absorbed with the stage he turns his head away and gives that little cough—the manager’s danger-signal.

    The Verdict of the Audience

    A very curious thing is the way in which intelligence about a play is communicated. You produce a play on Saturday night. Everything appears to go well, and yet you’re not convinced. The audience separate and go away, and then—the fate of the play is settled between Saturday night and Monday night. Perhaps you get flourishing notices in the papers on Monday morning, after a first-rate house on Saturday night, and yet Monday morning’s booking falls off, and Monday night’s house drops to half, and the play does not run. It has failed to hit them, somehow.  The people settle it going home in the trams, or when they meet on Sunday: I don't know how. Time and again that has happened. A successful Saturday night; first-rate press notices on Monday; and on Monday night—the audience missing! They’ve given their verdict going home in the trams, and the air has carried it like microbes.

    Captain Swift was a case like that. We opened in Captain Swift at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. It seemed a good play, with popular Charles Warner in the title role; it had a splendid reception, got splendid notices in the papers; and yet there was a poor house on Monday night, and it only ran a fortnight. In England a manager has time to recast and re-model his plays, and so he can convert a failure into a success. Several of George Edwardes’ musical comedies have been first-night failures. The audience simply wouldn’t stand them—but he has improved them night by night, and turned them into successes. In Australia we can’t do that, because the average run of a piece doesn’t give us time. In London people keep on going to the house, and there is population enough to give the manager a chance at mending. 

    English and Australian Audiences

    Perhaps English audiences are creatures of habit to a greater extent than Australian. They get used to an actor; they get used to a theatre; and as long as that actor and that theatre are above ground they will never leave them if they can help it. The Australian audience wants the actor and the theatre to justify themselves every time. If an actor fails in a new part, it doesn’t matter how often he’s succeeded before; if a new piece fails, it doesn’t matter how many other pieces have succeeded before: the audience stay away until the actor or the theatre offers them something better. Australian audiences are hard to please in that way. They’ve been used to the best things, and they want the best things all the time.

    You may be sure that sooner or later an Australian author will make a good play on the lines I’ve suggested, and if it is good the Australian audience will soon let him know. You can trust their judgment, you can trust their appreciation. I have mentioned two or three Australian plays; we have had one or two good musical dramas like Tapu, with bright, original music; and I think that our pantomimes, such as Djin-Djin and Matsa, will bear comparison with anything of the kind done anywhere. And in Parsifal, just now, you have a successful play that’s made right on the Australian premises—our own scenery, our own scenic artists, our own costumes, as well as our own play. The whole thing is done here. In London it is quite different.  A theatrical manager sends for his costumes to one place, for his scenery to another, and so on. I don’t suppose there is a London theatre that employs a permanent staff of scenic artists. Here we have to do everything, as I say, on the premises.

    Australian audiences are in many ways the best in the world. They are most difficult to please, for the reason that they have been accustomed to nothing but the best. Almost every play is tried in London or New York before it is staged here, and you never see the failures. You get scenery and costumes as good as London’s, and you get the most attractive plays. So audiences have naturally a high standard, and when a manager falls below that standard they are apt to complain. On the other hand, when they are pleased they support you well. They are very intelligent, very responsive, and very ready to excuse accidental shortcomings. When they do not like a play they do not hiss or make a row, they simply stay away—and they stay away with very great unanimity.

    An Actor and His Part

    When the Australian audience likes you their applause is very genuine. It’s a great thing to feel that you have an audience in your hands, and that their emotions respond directly to those you are portraying. The part I myself like best is the part which gives you an opportunity to make an audience cry one minute and laugh the next. “John Stofel” is such a part, and “Rip Van Winkle.” The scene where the old man is trying to recall himself to his daughter’s memory, I have always considered a test of the strength of my acting. I’ve never failed in that part to make the actress who was taking the daughter’s part cry—really cry. Never but once—the exception was a woman who paid no attention at all: she might just as well have been eating lollies. She wasn’t really concentrating her attention on the business of the piece. So I said to her one day, “Why don’t you wake up and listen to what is going on? Surely you have feelings: surely you understand the scene?” After that she did pay a little more attention, and she did feel the pathos. Before she had been letting the mind wander, with the result that I could not touch her at all.

    An actor, I think, must keep control of himself, he must not let himself, as people say, be “carried away by the part,” for the result is that he ceases to play the part. He is merely himself. But you can feel a part intensely, and still remain in full possession of your faculties. You can realise the way the thing is going, and watch it, and decide how it shall go. To lose control so far that you forget you are on the stage at all—well, I doubt if it ever happens; and if it did happen, I should think the actor had made a mistake. He is there to act the part and if he forgets that he forgets the reason of his presence on the stage.

    Stage Aspirants and “Twang”

    One thing I do not like to notice, and it is a thing I have remarked about before: that is the twang that so many Australian children are growing up with. To my mind it is the result of simple carelessness. The children are not taught at school or at home to speak with the proper intonation. At the school, of course, the teachers may be as bad as the scholars. I think parents are at fault for not correcting their children in the home; I think teachers are at fault for not correcting the children in the school; and I think the Government is at fault for not correcting the teachers—for not saying that the first qualification of the teacher should be that he can speak correctly the language he is using. Government should insist that teachers are properly trained before they become teachers at all.

    I hear this twang, of course, very frequently in the girls that come to me and offer to sing or act. So many of them have charming voices and excellent qualifications otherwise, if they would only speak correctly. Many, I am sorry to say, have no qualifications at all; and I think that girls who are aiming at a stage career should at the very outset of their training see somebody who would tell them this—somebody who would be able to say decisively that their voice, or their age, or their appearance disqualifies them for the stage. That would save many of them from wasting years at work which they ought never to have undertaken.

    Some Old Parts

    My favourite part—well, I can’t tell you that—I've succeeded in many. “John Stofel” in Struck Oil was a very good part, of course; and that part of “Sim” in Wild Oats was very popular in its day. Then I loved to play “Dick Swiveller,” “Kerry,” “Rip Van Winkle,” and lots of other parts which blended pathos and comedy. I can remember the first big round of applause I ever got—it was when as a boy of sixteen I took the part of “Ross” in Macbeth, and was applauded for the lines of Ross’s reply to Macduff: “Stands Scotland where it did?”

              Alas! poor country;
    Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
    Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
    But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
    Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rent the air
    Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
    A modern ecstasy; the dead men’s knell
    Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
    Expire before the flowers in their caps,
    Dying or ere they sicken.

    That seems a very long time ago now, and indeed it is a long time since I thought about these things at all. Theatrical management keeps you too busy for personal recollections. It’s not alone keeping the companies going—though that is no light task in itself—but sometimes I have to take part in stage management. In Parsifal, for example, I staged the play and invented things as I went along. Then there is the continual labour of keeping in touch in order to be up to date. Weekly letters come from our agents in London and New York telling us what is going on there, and these have to be carefully considered. You have to keep an eye open for new men—for rising talent both in the field of authors and in the acting field. You have to see not only that the whole machine works, but that every part of it works so well that there is the least possible friction.

    13 Parsifal Act 1Act 1 scene 1 from Parsifal—Summit of the Grail Mount (scenery by W.R. Coleman). The old King of the Holy Grail, Titurel, blesses his son Amfortas as he sets out, armed with the Sacred Spear to attack the castle of the sorcerer Klingsor. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

    A Manager’s Responsibility

    And then you keep a general lookout on what’s going on around you. Often I come home from my office and bring my work with me, and my secretary to deal with a heap of correspondence that can’t be crammed into the day; and then, maybe, it’s necessary to sit up till two or three in the morning reading plays, or looking over the English and American dramatic papers, so as to miss nothing that will be of service. It requires constant watchfulness to keep you from falling behind and I think I can say that I am well abreast of everything that is doing in the theatrical world. But the labour it involves!—in addition to the responsibility and worry. That is what has made me ask myself frequently of late what am I getting out of it all.

    Here I am at 61, still straining at the collar. Well, I haven’t many more years to play with, and I ask myself should I not try and get a little leisure. There is no such thing as leisure in management; the responsibility is always with you. And I think not only of myself, but of my wife and children. I would like to give my children the chances which I have often regretted missing for myself. My little girl Marjorie, for example, whose picture by Longstaff you see over yonder—will soon be of an age to travel, and I should like her to see the best pictures, hear the best music, read the best books, attend the best theatres, and meet bright, clever people. That, I think, is the best education a girl can have, and she should have it in her youth when her mind is receptive.

    And while my children are growing up, I want to be with them. To me it is the greatest pleasure in life to be in the company of children. My other little girl had a birthday party in Melbourne the other day; she was four years old: so all her little friends came to luncheon, and afterwards they went along to the theatre to see Mother Goose—there happened to be a matinee performance; and I tell you the day I spent with them, watching them enjoy themselves so heartily, was one of the pleasantest I can remember. There happened to be a lot of little girls from the Orphan Asylum up in the gallery; and it was good to watch them too.

    Personal Plans

    So I should like to take my family and go away for a long trip, entirely free from care and worry. But the time is not yet come: for my business engagements have still some years to run. I am going to try and slacken the strain gradually. Next week, for example, I am going to New Zealand. I took a company through New Zealand twenty-five years ago; but since then I have not been back except on hurried visits, so I am going to renew my acquaintance with the country under its changed and improved conditions, and I shall spend some time in visiting all the leading towns. The New Zealand public always treat my companies splendidly. I shall keep in touch, of course, with my partners, who already relieve me of a great deal of the strain of management, but I shall try to make my visit as much of a holiday as possible. Perhaps later on I shall take a long trip to Europe, giving myself more leisure than I have previously had, and devoting my attention rather to securing new material, new plays and new actors, than to the direct business of management. So possibly I shall be able to slacken off work by degrees.

    I’m not complaining; I’m explaining. In many ways I’m a fortunate man. I am deeply and sincerely grateful to the friends, and partners, and actors and actresses, and other assistants, who have made my success possible; and I am especially grateful to the Australian people, who have given me so warm a welcome and have made me one of themselves. As I told you, I’m still an American, for I don’t think a man should disown the country he was born in. But I’m Australian too, and when I have had the long holiday that I feel is necessary to my family and myself, this is the country I’m coming back to; this is the country where I want to live and die.

    THE BOOKFELLOW, 31 January 1907, pp.14–17

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *


    Compiled by Robert Morrison

    Plays mentioned in the article:

    In Mizzoura—4 act comedy-drama by Augustus Thomas premiered at Hooley’s Theatre, Chicago on 7 August 1893; written as a star vehicle for American comedian, Nat Goodwin who played in its Australian premiere at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 1 August 1896 for a 1 week season and subsequently on tour amongst his repertoire of plays.

    For the Term of His Natural Life—Drama in 6 tableaux and a prologue by Thomas Somers (pseud. of Thomas Walker) and Alfred Dampier, based on Marcus Clarke’s novel His Natural Life (1874) premiered at the Royal Standard Theatre in Sydney on 5 June 1886 and played for an initial 42 performances. The play was subsequently revised by Walker and Dampier and produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 30 November 1895 for an initial 19 performances.

    Robbery Under Arms—5 act drama by Alfred Dampier and Garnet Walch, founded on Rolf Boldrewood’s novel (of 1888) premiered at the Alexandra Theatre, Melbourne on 1 March 1890 and ran for an initial 42 performances.

    The Sunny South—5 act drama by George Darrell premiered at the Opera House, Melbourne on 31 March 1883 for an initial season of 36 performances.

    Struck Oil; or, The Pennsylvania Dutchman—3 act comedy-drama, based on the unproduced play The German Recruit by Sam W. Smith, adapted and expanded by Clay Greene as The Deed, or Five Years Away; subsequently retitled with further revisions by J.C. Williamson, premiered at Salt Lake City, Utah on 23 February 1874 and received its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 1 August 1874 for an initial 43 performances. This was followed by a return season of a further 13 performances commencing on Derby Day, 31 October and “every night during the Great Cup Week” concluding on 14 November. The play was then given a “Farewell Performance” as a Complimentary Benefit for the Williamsons on the final night of their Melbourne season on 21 December 1874, resulting in a record tally of 57 performances. (The original 1874 orchestra parts for the incidental music for Struck Oil remain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra—see https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/23704496)

    The Shenandoah—no play of that title is listed amongst the works of Dion Boucicault, however JCW may have been referring to Boucicault’s Belle Lamar, a play based on an episode of the American Civil War set in the Shenandoah Valley in the Spring of 1862, which opened at Booth’s Theatre, New York on 10 August 1874, and, failing to live up to audience expectations, closed on 13 September after a limited run of 34 performances. Although JCW was performing in Melbourne at the time and did not witness the play at first hand, he would have subsequently heard the anecdote about its failure at a later date, possibly from Boucicault himself.

    The Silver King—5 act drama by Henry Arthur Jones and Henry Herman premiered at the Princess’s Theatre, London on 16 November 1882 and received its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 27 October 1883 for an initial run of 49 performances. (The biographical Life and Letters of Henry Arthur Jones by his daughter, Doris Arthur Jones [Victor Gollancz, London: 1930] quoted Jones with regard to the play’s authorship: “Herman gave me the end of the second act, but he never wrote a line of it.”) Its popularity was such that it was regularly revived in Australia up to the late 1920s.

    Captain Swift—4 act comedy-drama by Australian playwright, Charles Haddon Chambers premiered at the Haymarket Theatre, London on 20 June 1888 and received its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on 16 February 1889 for a run of 12 performances. (In the original published text of his article JCW erroneously stated that the play had opened at the Princess’s in Melbourne, but this has been amended in the present transcription. The play was not included amongst Charles Warner’s repertoire during his prior Melbourne season at the Princess's Theatre from 31 March to 14 June 1888 and was only added during his later Sydney season at the Theatre Royal, after it had achieved success in London in Beerbohm Tree’s production.)  (See also “The Idiosyncrasies of the Australian Play-goer” by Gerald Marr Thompson in The Centennial Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 10; May 1889, p.699—https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-3083699840/view?sectionId=nla.obj-3089613560)

    Tapu; or, A Tale of a Maori Pah—2 act comic opera with a book by Arthur H. Adams and music by Alfred Hill premiered at the Opera House in Wellington, New Zealand on 16 February 1903 for a season of 6 performances and received its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 9 July 1904 for an initial run of 19 performances. (The original orchestra parts for Tapu remain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra—see https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/15801772)

    Djin-Djin: The Japanese Bogie Man—pantomime by Bert Royle and J.C. Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and additional numbers by H.J. Pack, premiered at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 26 December 1895 for a seven-week season. (The original orchestra parts for Djin-Djinremain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra—see https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/21824012 ; the published script is also available to read on-line from State Library Victoria at https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE6980073&file=FL19756886&mode=browse)

    Matsa: Queen of Fire—pantomime by Bert Royle and J.C. Williamson, with music by Leon Caron and George Pack, premiered at the Princess’s Theatre, Melbourne on 26 December 1896 for a seven week season. (The published script is available to read on-line from State Library Victoria at https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE4122792&mode=browse)

    Parsifal; or, The Redemption of Kundry—4 act drama by Rev. Thomas Hilhouse Taylor premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 22 December 1906 for an initial season of 51 performances. (Incidental music selected, arranged and composed by Christian Hellemann, and included the Prelude to Wagner’s opera.)

    J.C. Williamson’s favourite parts included:

    “John Stofel” in Struck Oil (see play details above).

    “Sim” in Wild Oats—a comedy in 5 acts by John O’Keefe (which premiered in London at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on 16 April 1791), was first played by JCW for a season at Wallack’s Theatre, New York which commenced on 20 December 1869.

    “Dick Swiveller” in Little Nell and the Marchioness—a 4 act drama by John Brougham (“Partly adapted from the principal incidents of Charles Dicken’s The Old Curiosity Shop”), was first played by JCW for a season at Wallack’s Theatre, New York from 15 August 1867 opposite Lotta Crabtree in the dual title roles. He subsequently reprised the role for a two week season at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which commenced on 17 October 1874, in which JCW’s first wife, Maggie Moore played the dual roles of “Little Nell” and “The Marchioness”, and her brother, James Moore made his Australian debut.

    “Kerry” in Kerry; or Night and Morning—a one-act play by Dion Boucicault, in which the title role was apparently first played by JCW at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne during a four week season, firstly as a curtain-raiser to Uncle Tom’s Cabin— “an emotional drama in 3 acts founded upon incidents connected with the world-read novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe” (in which JCW played the title role and Maggie played “Topsy”) from 21 September 1874 and again as a curtain-raiser to The Fairy Circle; or O’Carolan’s Dream— “a romantic and legendary drama” in 3 acts by H.P. Grattan (in which JCW played “Con O’Carolan” and Maggie played his wife “Molshee”) which commenced on 3 October 1874.

    “Rip Van Winkle” in Rip Van Winkle—a 3 act drama by Joseph Jefferson (based on the story by Washington Irving) first performed by Jefferson at Washington D.C. in the U.S. in 1859 and in Australia at the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney on 3 February 1862, and subsequently revised by Dion Boucicault for a production at the Haymarket Theatre, London, starring Jefferson, which premiered on 4 September 1865. JCW first played the title role in the Australian premiere of Boucicault’s revised version for a two-week season at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which commenced on 30 November 1874. Maggie Moore was suffering from a severe cold at the time, so in order to give her a rest from performing, he hurriedly learned the role in three days and played it for the first time the following Monday. He subsequently wrote in a letter (dated 12 December 1874) to his actor friend, Henry Edwards in San Francisco: “I achieved a complete success the first night, and greatly improved upon it afterward, the press were unanimous in their praise. We played it two weeks.”    


    Additional Sources

    Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australian Theatre 1788–1914 (Hale & Iremonger, Sydney:1985)

    Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson[The Elizabeth Tudor Press, NSW: 1974]

    Lynn Earl Orr, Dion Boucicault and the Nineteenth Century Theatre: A Biography [Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College: 1953]

    The New York Times

    The Argus (Melbourne)


    An insight into the financial aspects of The Firm and the scale of its operations in Australia and New Zealand in the era in which J.C. Williamson was interviewed is provided by the following newspaper article published in 1906.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *



    SALARY LIST OVER £100,000.

    The relation of the stage to literature, to public morals, to the church are subjects of frequent discussion and controversy. Its relation to the industrial life of the community is never considered. The economist and the statist who delve fearlessly into almost all sorts and conditions of life and occupation, hang back from the stage door, as nervous as the youth with his first billet doux. All the same, the stage is a considerable factor in industry, and even in a population relatively small, like that of Australia, the magnitude and extent of its operations are unguessed by most of those who are excellently acquainted with it from the front of the house.

    The various companies now controlled by the firm of Messrs. Williamson, Tallis and Ramaciotti include no fewer than 650 persons on the permanent staff. Of these 187 are actors or actresses, 83 musicians, and 52 mechanists and stage hands; while what might be termed the “headquarters staff” —to which falls the task of supervising the whole of this vast enterprise through the managers of the various departments—numbers 12. In addition to these persons, there is a large “floating” staff, consisting of the supers and assistants picked up at the cities as they are reached by the different theatrical companies. Although, of course, only casually employed, those who draw salary in the course of a year in this way must number nearly as many as the regular members of companies.  Indirectly there are a host of persons who derive work and wages from the enterprises. In fact it is only necessary to consider the immense figures supplied yesterday by Mr. J.C. Williamson to realise how much of the shilling which the playgoer pays for his amphitheatre seat is distributed again in wages to a multitude of trades. When the money has reached the treasury of the theatre the cue has come for “Enter Omnes.”

    In salaries and wages, Mr Williamson paid away during the year 1905 no less than £110,183 [approx. equivalent to $17,435,832 in today’s currency], the greater part going to Australians. The printing and advertising cost £22,469 [$3,555,591]. The columns of advertisements published throughout Australia and New Zealand, placed end to end, would reach over two miles [approx. 3.2 km]; while the posters and bills exhibited on hoardings or walls, covered an area just under three acres [approx.1.2 hectares].

    The rent bill amounted to £19,428 [$3,074,370], and the cost of lighting was £9,783 [$1,548,104]. Scenery cost no less than £10,593 [$1,676,282], 14 square miles [approx. 22.5 square km] of new canvas and 9½ miles [approx.15.3 km] of new timber having been used.  Even these immense figures do not represent all the raw material which was transmuted into landscapes and architecture, for nearly as much old canvas and timber again was repainted, and made available for stage presentation. Nearly the whole of the money spent under this head is distributed in Australia. There is a complete staff of scenic artists and assistants at both Melbourne and Sydney. The same system is followed in respect to the properties, which, inclusive of furniture and furnishings, absorbed £6,627 [$1,048,685]; and the costumes, in which the year’s expenditure was £5,390 [$852,937]. The employees in the costume department and wardrobe stores work without cessation all the year round.  Whether a big production is approaching makes but little difference to them. There is always something to do, and in the storerooms the strenuous life is discovered. In Sydney the whole of a building, formerly used as a skating rink, is used to store surplus wardrobe. The floor space is covered with hundreds of huge baskets, and day after day the contents of these are taken out and sorted, brushed, exposed to air and sunlight, and repacked with a fresh supply of preventives against the ravages of moths. In this store the costumes are the accumulation of 25 years of management, dating back to the time when the firm of Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove dominated the Australian stage. Added to the costumes purchased by this firm are those obtained during the periods when Mr. Williamson and Garner were in partnership, when Mr. Williamson controlled the enterprise alone, when Mr. Musgrove joined him, and when, subsequently, after another period of sole proprietorship, he became the senior partner of the present firm.

    “These costumes would be worth a fortune for anybody who could find a use for them,” said Mr. Williamson. “In England and America managers are able to dispose of their surplus stocks for the provincial tours. Here there are no such means of recovering a portion of the initial expense. We cannot sell the costumes. All we can do is keep them in order, on the off chance of making use of the parts as opportunity arises.”

    In 1905 over £5,000 [$791,222] was paid away in royalties to authors and others holding the copyrights of plays produced. In addition to such plays, however, Mr. Williamson holds the full Australasian rights of 105 musical operas and musical plays, 40 comedies, and 91 dramas which he has at different times bought outright. Such purchases have been spread over many years, and include the most successful musical and dramatic works produced in London for the last 20 years, as well as many American successes.

    One of the largest items in expenditure is transportation. Last year £12,858 [$2,034,705] was expended in fares and freight. The Gilbert and Sullivan Company, which finished its Sydney season last Friday, started immediately for Adelaide, there to take the steamer for Perth, where it opens on October 1. For this season of three weeks only over 80 persons were despatched, and the fares alone amounted to over £1,000 [$158,244]. Companies now travel in a manner never dreamed of 10 years ago, the most striking instance of all being provided by the record of one week in 1905.  Within seven days the Repertoire Company started from Perth to Sydney; the Royal Comic Opera Company travelled by special train from Sydney to Port Adelaide to catch the steamer for Perth; the Nance O’Neill Company arrived in Sydney from San Francisco, and took train immediately for Melbourne; the Andrew Mack Company travelled to Sydney; the Gilbert and Sullivan Company from Melbourne to Sydney; the Tittell Brune Company from Melbourne to Wellington via Sydney; and the Knight-Jefferies Company from Sydney to Brisbane. During last year the various companies covered 76,674 miles [approx.123,395 km].

    The Argus (Melbourne), Tuesday, 25 September 1906, p.5, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article9655665

    * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    N.B. Ticket prices for JCW productions in 1905 amounted to 5/ (shillings) (for seats in the Dress Circle & Orchestra Stalls), 3/ (Stalls), 2/ (Back of the Stalls) and 1/ (Ampitheatre or Gallery) =  $39.56, $23.74, $15.82 and $7.91 respectively in today’s currency.

    20 PrincessTheatre Melbourne 1893Princess’ Theatre, Melbourne, 1893. Photo by Charles Rudd. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.


  • The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 2)

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    Prior to the construction of Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in 1928, the site was used for a variety of entertainment uses, including a film studio, as RALPH MARSDEN discovers in Part 2 of Comedy Theatre story. First published in On Stage in 2004, these articles have been updated, including new picture research.

    Film shows were beginning to oust stage melodrama in popularity with the public and on 30 July 1909 the site reopened `under new management’ as ‘The Paragon Pictures’ with the boasts of ‘comfortable seats’ and an ‘unobstructed view for 4000 people’. The program was made up of short films and a few vaudeville acts accompanied by a ‘full Bavarian Band’. After mid August the site was briefly advertised as ‘Majestic Square’ but by early October this was dropped in favour of ‘Paragon Picture Pavilion’. The change of names seems to have done little to popularize the venture, however, and it closed early in November 1909.

    The Argus of 13 December 1909 reported: ‘The Hippodrome, in Exhibition street, has been transformed into a theatre, and henceforth will be known as the Criterion. Rows of seats occupy the old ring, a stage has made its appearance out of the wall, and an orchestra has taken the place of the brass band. The lessee, Mr. Phil Bernard, aspires to entertain his patrons with healthy dramas and musical comedies.’

    A revival of an old musical, My Sweetheart, complete with ‘Sheep supplied by Angliss and Co.’, was the opening attraction on 11 December. Another musical followed this but by late January 1910 these had given way to weekly change melodramas which continued until about mid March.

    The property now also caught the eye of the colourful promoter Hugh D. McIntosh, who would later control the Tivoli vaudeville circuit. McIntosh took out a lease in April 1910 and commissioned plans from architect Frank Stapley for a large two-level octagonal-shaped stadium for boxing matches. Although the plans, dated 18 November 1910, were lodged with the Board and the site leased to a McIntosh company in October 1911, the building was never begun.

    It's quite possible that McIntosh’s ambitions outreached his resources; it’s also possible these ambitions reignited Williamson’s interests in the property, for within a short time The Firm had acquired the lease. Aside from thwarting McIntosh’s threatened incursion opposite their august Her Majesty’s Theatre, The Firm obviously saw the prominent corner as perfect for a modern playhouse. This would be ideal for more intimate offerings than the spectacular melodramas and musical comedies then occupying their larger theatres.

    The Firm first announced the creation of a ‘Williamson Theatre’ for comedy productions here in July 1913. This was to be a memorial to their founder, James Cassius Williamson, who had died in Paris earlier that month. According to press reports in The Age and The Argus, plans had been commissioned from architects Kent and Budden of Sydney and William Pitt of Melbourne. Although building was announced to start ‘almost immediately’, nothing was done before the declaration of war in August 1914 threatened the economic outlook, thus halting the project.

    Meanwhile, threats of a different kind were coming in the shape of American film versions of plays to which The Firm held Australasian performance rights: the film Sealed Orders with J. Warren Kerrigan had opened in Sydney in May 1914, during the run of JCW’s stage production of a popular melodrama of the same name. The Firm had been forced to seek an injunction to prevent further screenings, while the question of copyright was debated.

    This case may well have given rise to the idea of JCW venturing into film production for itself. That this was public knowledge by mid-1914 is made clear by an item in the Adelaide paper, The Green Room: ‘Melbourne theatrical people and picture showmen are still discussing the proposed entry of the J.C. Williamson firm into the film business, but, from all accounts, it may not come to pass. What will probably happen, however, is that on the return of Hugh J. Ward (one of JCW’s directors) The Firm will film a number of its plays and send them on tour in the smalls hitherto not reached by any properly equipped dramatic company.’

    In fact, JCW held fire for a further nine months before acting—a slight added incentive coming in December 1914 with the introduction of a Commonwealth Government import duty on all overseas-produced films. The Firm was again goaded, in late January 1915, by Melbourne screenings of The Sign of the Cross with William Farnum. The Wilson Barrett play on which this film was based had been an outstanding popular vehicle for their matinee idol Julius Knight.

    Decisive action was essential: while injunctions against further screenings of The Sign of the Crosswere granted, a ‘Notice of Intent to Build’ dated 29 March 1915 was lodged with Melbourne City Council (there was no compulsory submission of plans at this time). A.W. Purnell, acting as architect and builder, was to construct a ‘wood and fibro-cement studio’ with work to commence on that date on land at the south-east corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets, of which The Firm was now the owner. The total estimated cost of the building seems to have been £66/6/6—little more than $5000 in today’s currency.

    The idea of using the cleared corner site for a film studio may well have originated late in 1914 when, on 5 December, motion picture inserts for JCW’s stage musical comedy The Girl on the Film were photographed there under the direction of English stage producer Harry B. Burcher. Punch carried a pictorial feature on the Saturday morning shoot of the period film within the play, Napoleon and the Miller’s Daughter, with Charles Workman and Dorothy Brunton in the title roles: ‘Surrounded by an interested crowd, the actors and actresses went through their parts, not under the limelight, but in the broad light of day, while the operator turned the handle …’

    The Hawkletconcluded: ‘The JCW Ltd have taken possession of the old Hippodrome site on Exhibition Street, opposite Her Majesty’s Theatre, for the sole purpose of building a studio, etc. for the developing of films of their productions.’ The Bulletinreported: ‘The Firm will film some of the Niblo and Julius Knight shows in its own studio, and a Yankee picture-play producer has been engaged to instruct the companies how to make Get-Rich Quick Wallingford etc. interesting in a silent potted form.’

    The studio seems to have been completed within a few weeks and the same paper noted that The Firm had ‘fixed up its cinema studio, Pathé system … It’s a simple affair, just a wooden shed with two sides and the roof of glass.’ The glass roof and walls were an essential feature of studios at this time, as daylight was the primary source of illumination for the interior sets. The harsh sunlight was diffused either by use of frosted glass, or by muslin drapes strung across clear glass to give a soft, even light to the scenes being shot.

    The first production from the J.C. Williamson studio was a four-reel (approximately one hour) version of George M. Cohan’s comic play Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, starring Cohan’s brother-in-law Fred Niblo, who along with his wife, Josephine Cohan, became one of The Firm’s most popular ever importations.

    Everything about this first humble Australian effort was rushed, however: W.J. Lincoln’s scenario is said to have been prepared in a few days and, although The Firm had tried to hire an experienced American director, it was probably pressure of time that resulted in Lincoln, then Niblo, being appointed, as the Niblos were booked to sail from Sydney for San Francisco on 5 June.

    Most of the filming seems to have been completed in little more than a fortnight. Within a few days of finishing Wallingford the Niblo company were hard at work on their second film: another adaptation of a George M. Cohan play, Officer 666. The film was completed by late May 1915, but as with the Wallingford film, release was delayed for nearly a year.

    The studio’s third film, a propaganda feature, Within Our Gates, was the first to be released, premiering at the Victoria Theatre, Melbourne on 19 July 1915. Of the four stage adaptations filmed by JCW it seems likely that Within the Law (their fourth film) was the best, with Muriel Starr in the lead. A second war movie, For Australia followed. Most of the film seems to have been shot in and around Sydney, but post production, including shooting of inserts, titles and film editing, was probably completed in the JCW studio in Melbourne.

    The Firm lodged a second ‘Notice of Intent to Build’ with the Melbourne City Council on 29 October 1915. This recorded the proposed erection of an ‘insulated building measuring 50 ft x 100 ft (15.24m x 30.48m) on the JCW studio site for what seems to have been a total estimated cost of £80/9/9 (about $6100 today).

    Work was due to start on 1 November and seems to have been completed in about a month. An MMBW Melbourne Water map made after this date shows the plan of an irregularly shaped building of around these dimensions, set about 35 feet (about 10.6m) away from what appears to be a plan of the original JCW Studio Building. It’s probable this second building was intended for film storage, laboratory, cutting room or administrative purposes rather than as additional studio space.

    The fourth and final JCW stage adaptation to be filmed was a four-reel version of Seven Keys to Baldpate, directed by Monte Luke. The script was adapted from another George M. Cohan play that had been a popular stage vehicle for Fred Niblo. English actor Fred Maguire performed Niblo’s role in the film supported by Australian stage favourite Dorothy Brunton. Seven Keys to Baldpateseems never to have had a city screening in Sydney or Melbourne, but was first shown at the Hub Theatre, in suburban Newtown, Sydney, on 24 May 1916 and seems to have been ignored by reviewers.

    JCW feature production activities were halted after completion of this film, and late in January 1916 The Firm sent Monte Luke to the USA to study film production techniques, but ‘after witnessing work on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, he returned, overwhelmed, to recommend that Williamson should abandon production and leave it to the Hollywood experts’.

    Although J.C. Williamson’s feature production activities were halted after the completion of Seven Keys to Baldpate, the JCW studio on the Exhibition/Lonsdale Street corner was not immediately left idle.

    Early in February 1916, W.J. Lincoln, now released from his Williamson contract, returned to production with an independently financed project, Nurse Cavell, inspired by the real life story of the heroic World War I English nurse executed by the Germans in October 1915. No doubt Lincoln was also inspired by the box office success of a recent NSW production on the subject, The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell.

    Lincoln’s Nurse Cavell seems to have been shot largely at the JCW studio in just four days, from 16 to 19 February. It premiered at the Palais Pictures, St. Kilda, on 21 February 1916.

    Less than a fortnight after the release of Nurse Cavell, Lincoln was preparing a second film of the same subject, La Revanche (The Revenge).

    Production of La Revanche seems to have taken only a little longer than its predecessor and within a fortnight the film was ready for preview. The Winneropined: ‘In the manner and mounting and dressing, everything is on a more elaborate scale than has hitherto been the case with locally produced screen subjects, and some striking effects have been achieved. A notable feature of the film is the bright, crisp photography for which, it is said, natural light was used throughout.’

    In spite of this goodwill, La Revanche failed to draw; it was pulled from the Britannia Theatre, Melbourne, just three days after its 10 April 1916 opening.

    The public may have felt the novelty of the Cavell story wearing thin after three films in as many months and may also have found the French title off-putting. Lincoln was nothing if not resilient; The Winner of 7 June 1916 reported him ‘busy just now looking for types, locations for exteriors, and a lot of other things for his forthcoming film based on the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon’.

    After six years of hopeful activity, Melbourne’s motion picture production business had also ground to a halt. A Bulletin item noted: ‘Of three movie studios erected in Melbourne, one is now used as a laundry, another as a store and the third is full of cobwebs.’ The cobwebs seem to have remained undisturbed at the JCW studio until 1918 when the Australian Red Cross decided to add film production to its other fund raising activities.

    A driving force behind the Melbourne production was Captain N.C.P. Conant, the young aid-de-camp to the Governor of Victoria. He devised a scenario set in England entitled His Only Chance, about the spoiled son of a wealthy family who is saved from a life of dissolution when he enlists in the army.

    His Only Chancewas the last chance for the JCW studio; with no further film production planned by The Firm and no apparent interest from independent producers the old studio building was converted into a scenery dock for Her Majesty’s Theatre—the original purpose J.C. Williamson had originally intended for the site back in 1908.

    Fresh plans for a smaller theatre to house repertory plays were then drawn up by Albion H. Walkely and C.N. Hollinshed and imminent construction was announced in April 1927.

    The Comedy Theatre, as it was now to be called, was a five storey building whose upper floors became the administrative headquarters of Williamson’s entire Australasian organisation. The exterior was modelled on a Florentine palace and the theatre itself comprised the wide rather than deep auditorium with two levels of seating in stalls, dress circle and boxes to a capacity of 1050. There was much use of marble and artificial Italian stone in the foyer, and the decorations included two large, Spanish style chandeliers and an intricately painted wood beamed ceiling in the auditorium. There was also what was claimed as the first thermostat regulated heating and ventilating system in any Australian theatre, according to The Argus of 27 April 1928. The prevailing colours were green, gold and walnut but the original ‘unlucky’ green front curtain was held responsible for the deaths of several theatre personnel soon after.

    Costing over £100 000, the still incomplete Comedy opened on 28 April 1928 with Canadian born Margaret Bannerman in W. Somerset Maugham’s society drama, Our Betters. The Bannerman season, which was only moderately well received, was followed on 16 June by the Ben Travers farce, Rookery Nook, with Hastings Lynn (brother of the play’s original London star, Ralph Lynn) and Basil Radford.


    To be continued


  • WILLIAMSON, J.C. (1844-1913)

    American actor, vocalist & manager. Né James Cassius Williamson. Born 26 July 1844, Mercer, Pennsylvania, USA. Married (1) Maggie Moore (actress), (2) Mary Weir (dancer). Died 8 July 1913, Paris, France.

    On stage in USA, Australia and England from1860s. Arrived Australia in 1874 under engagement to George Coppin. Went to found Australia’s most important theatrical companies, J.C. Williamson Ltd.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, pages 62, 93, 286.