Having recently given a talk on the history of amateur theatre in Victoria at a booked-out event at The Channel, when THA presented their last event for the year in association with Arts Centre Melbourne, Cheryl Threadgold now explores the early days of non-professional theatricals in Australia and the first performances by convicts.
It is important to respectfully acknowledge the cultural performances presented by Aboriginal Australians over many centuries.
These Indigenous rituals, sacred ceremonies, and Dreamtime stories of Creation represent the first known performances presented in Australia by members of a community, for their community.
Aboriginal Australians continued this entertainment for white incomers, and today are respected and admired worldwide for their high-quality music, dance, song and dramatic performances
Pretending to be someone else, even temporarily, is an artform that has been enjoyed by humans through the ages. It is therefore not surprising that on 2 January, 1788, at sea on board the Scarborough before the first fleet anchored at Botany Bay, marine John Easty logged in his diary: ‘This night the convicts made a play and sang many songs’. At the time the first fleet left for Australia, amateur and professional theatre in England and Ireland had a well-established history. People from all walks of life could have enjoyed live performance of different genres, in varying venues and sizes of importance, whether as participants or spectators.
The convicts, free settlers and officers arriving in Australia would have included actors and playgoers, who most likely would have brought play texts on their sea journey. Props were no problem for improvised or scripted live performances, as the convicts could source naturalistic items such as trees, grass, water, and real blood if required.
Almost half a million Irish immigrants re-settled in Australia between 1788 and 1921, but although only 12 percent of convicts were of Irish nationality, it did not take long for Irish theatre to impact on this early colonial settlement.
The Recruiting Officer
On 4 June 1789, just eighteen months after European settlement, Irish playwright George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer was presented by convicts in a makeshift theatre in Sydney Cove to an audience of about 60 people. The occasion was to celebrate the birthday of King George the Third to an audience including Governor Arthur Phillip.
According to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s (1991) play Our Country’s Good, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker (1987), Governor Arthur Phillip was supportive of convicts presenting theatre. The character of Governor Phillip in Wertenbaker’s play refers to theatre offering an expression of civilisation to the convicts, encouraging a more refined way of speaking, and providing temporary escapism from the image of ‘despised prisoners’. Wertenbaker’s play and Keneally’s novel have influenced public opinion that the first production of George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer in Australia, was initiated and led by officers.
In contrast, historian Robert Jordan points out that theatre in that era was mostly motivated by convicts, many bringing with them to Australia an existing cultural knowledge and ability to present their own theatre productions. Jordan emphasises he is not criticising Keneally and Wertenbaker’s researched fictional works, but his research into convict theatre reveals the views disseminating a popular image of the cultural environment in early colonial Australia, may not be entirely accurate.
Convicts were known to write their own plays, and some were of a high standard. For example, the three-act comedy Jemmy Green in Australia, written by English-educated convict James Tucker in the 1840s, was eventually broadcast nationally by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1987.
Tucker also wrote the novel The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh, which was discovered when the 300-page, hand-written manuscript appeared at a Royal Australian Historical Society exhibition in Sydney in 1920.
Written during the 1840s and first published as a novel in 1929, the story exposes the horrors of convict life, presumably from Tucker’s own personal experiences. Shining amid harshness and brutality is the character of Cockney comedic prisoner Jemmy King, who obtains the Superintendent’s blessing to establish a theatre company in the camp.
Tucker reveals Kings’ inventiveness to make costumes from bags and left-over materials, lamps from tin and their orchestra playing a ‘tolerable melody’ which included a tin violin, a flute, tambourine and a drum.
Ballads were popular among the transportees, with original lyrics often used to protest about living conditions in their new environment. Songs of complaint written by convicts included ‘The Plains of Emu’, ‘The Convict Maid’ and ‘The Death of Captain Logan’. But while convicts and their audiences may have enjoyed the escapism offered by theatrical performances, opinions differed between free settlers and authorities regarding the moral and political suitability of entertainment in a penal colony.
Performances by convicts on Norfolk Island were active between 1793 and 1794, at Emu Plains near the Blue Mountains in New South Wales in 1822, and at Port Macquarie and Parramatta in 1840. Considered ghastly by today’s standards, an alternate form of entertainment during early colonial settlement was the viewing of executions, presented to mass audiences. An even worse popular form of entertainment were the publicly performed dissections on bodies of the executed in hospitals.
In 1796, former convict Robert Sidaway opened Australia’s first regular theatre in Bell Row, now Bligh Street, Sydney, using convict actors. Authorities believed the theatre had an adverse influence on public law and order and closed the premises two years later.
Public theatre performances were sparse in the early 19th century, mostly due to Government regulations and also because potential performers became assigned to private masters in isolated areas.
However, determined thespians found performance spaces, including the Debtors’ Room at Sydney Gaol in 1826, and theatrical performances involving officers and convicts remained popular, particularly at Parramatta and Emu Plains.
After witnessing the hanging of convict-turned-bushranger Matthew Brady in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1826, Scottish journalist David Burns wrote a play titled The Bushrangers. Burns’ play was not performed in Australia at the time, perhaps because he exposed harsh conditions in the penal colony, and included a criminal protagonist. However, The Bushrangers was performed three years later in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in 1971 before an Australian audience when presented by high school students in Sydney.
The acting profession was introduced to New South Wales by Merchant Barnett Levy after first staging concerts in 1826 in the assembly rooms of the Royal Hotel in George Street, Sydney. After encountering various obstacles, Levy eventually obtained a licence from Governor Richard Bourke to open the Theatre Royal inside the hotel in 1833, first presenting the Gothic melodrama The Miller and his Man and the farce An Irishman in London. It is interesting to note these performances were advertised as ‘amateur theatricals’ to convey respectability, in view of theatre’s rowdy reputation at the time.
The performative styles and content of English and Irish traditional productions presented by early colonial theatre would have filtered through to influence the fledgling amateur theatrical arts sector in Victoria mid-19th century.
In 1842, Melbourne’s first live theatre, The Pavilion (later known as the Theatre Royal) opened in Bourke Street. Theatre at that time was associated with public houses, so accordingly, The Pavilion theatre was located next to the Eagle Tavern. Accessed from Bourke Street, the wood-structured Pavilion measured 65 feet by 35 feet. The Colonial Office in Sydney initially refused to issue a licence for professional performances, suspecting the venue would operate inappropriately with rowdy audiences.
Six gentlemen enrolled themselves as an Amateur Theatrical Association for charitable and benevolent purposes, and the Sydney authorities permitted The Pavilion to open for monthly theatrical presentations.
Amateur theatre had now arrived in Victoria. Eric Irvin believes theatre was ‘in the blood’ of the people in the early nineteenth century, and it is pleasing to observe that two centuries later, nothing has changed. In 2018, over one hundred amateur musical and non-musical theatre companies operate in Victoria alone, with thousands of volunteers throughout Australia dedicating their time, talent and skills, for the love of theatre.
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