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
On the high seas on a warm summer night, 2 January 1788, convicts entertained passengers on board the Scarborough ship with a play and songs. Amateur theatre would soon arrive in a mysterious, unknown land, but for now, after tedious difficult months at sea, the magic of live performance would glow for the passengers like a warm, comforting beacon.
Pretending to be someone else, even temporarily, is an escapist phenomenon common to many art forms enjoyed by practitioners and audiences through the ages. At the time the first fleet left for the Great Southern Land, later known as Australia, amateur and professional theatre in England and Ireland had a well-established history. People from all walks of life had the opportunity to enjoy live performance of different genres in venues of varying sizes and prestige, either 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, and although only twelve percent of convicts were of Irish nationality, it did not take long for Irish theatre to impact on this early colonial settlement.
The Scarborough: Voyage from New South Wales to Canton, in the year 1788: with views of the islands discovered by Thomas Gilbert, London, 1789.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, DSM/Q981/26A1.
Leongatha Lyric Theatre Incorporated presented Our Country’s Good in 2017.
Image courtesy of David Tattersall, archivist for Leongatha Lyric Theatre Inc.
The Recruiting Officer
On 4 June 1789, just eighteen months after the arrival of the first fleet, Irish dramatist George Farquhar’s comedy, The Recruiting Officer, became the first recorded amateur theatrical performance presented in Australia. Presented by convicts in a make-shift theatre in Sydney Cove to celebrate the birthday of King George the Third, the audience comprised approximately sixty-five people, 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. His character 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, discovered years later when the three hundred-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.
Undaunted by these conflicting opinions, convict theatre remained active, particularly on Norfolk Island 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, theatre-lover Robert Sidaway, also a watch-case maker and former convict, used convict labour to build Australia’s first regular theatre containing one hundred and twenty seats in Bell Row, now Bligh Street, Sydney. Alas, authorities closed the theatre two years later, for as well as the rowdy audiences, convicts were suspected of pickpocketing patrons and robbing their homes while they attended the theatre.
Earlier allegations of misbehaviour influenced the third Governor of New South Wales, Governor Philip Gidley King, to disapprove of theatres after his appointment in 1800. Public live performances also declined because potential actors became assigned to private masters in isolated areas. Early nineteenth century playwright, Scottish journalist David Burns, wrote The Bushrangers after witnessing the hanging of convict-turned-bushranger Matthew Brady in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1826. With its criminal protagonist, romance and observations of torrid conditions in the penal colony, The Bushrangers was performed three years later in Edinburgh, Scotland, but not in Australia until 1971, when presented by high school students in Sydney.
Merchant Barnett Levy introduced the acting profession to New South Wales after first staging concerts in 1826 in the assembly rooms of the Royal Hotel in George Street, Sydney. He eventually obtained a licence from Governor Richard Bourke to open the Theatre Royal inside the hotel in 1833, and the first show presented was the Gothic melodrama The Miller and his Men. When Levy died in late 1837, the theatre closed. It is interesting to note that these performances were advertised as ‘amateur theatricals’ to convey respectability, in view of theatre’s rowdy reputation at the time.
Cover of novel The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh by James Tucker, Currey O’Neil, South Yarra, Vic, 1981 (first edition published 1929).
State Library of Victoria, SLT 819.93 T797A (1981).
Playbill: For the benefit of J. Butler and W. Bryant, George Hughes, Govt. Printer for Theatre, Sydney, 30 July 1796.
National Library of Australia, nla.obj- RBRS N 686.2099441 F692.
It would not be long before amateur theatre would commence in Victoria, influenced by the performative styles and content of English and Irish traditional productions presented by early colonial theatre.
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 sixty-five feet by thirty-five 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. Today, 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.
This is a revised version of the article originally published December 2018
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