Since 2005 Cheryl has been the honorary theatre writer/reviewer/review coordinator for the 'Melbourne Observer' newspaper, and presented the non-professional theatre report on 3AW for six and a half years. She convenes the Bayside U3A Writers Group, and casts and directs the writers' radio plays for broadcast on 88.3 Southern FM.
Personal involvement in amateur theatre commenced in1958 in a play titled 'A Must for Dolly' (a sequel to 'Man and Superman' by George Bernard Shaw) written and directed by J. Beresford Fowler at the Arrow Theatre, Middle Park.
After working in ABC Television behind the scenes for 29 years, more recent amateur theatrical activities include performing, directing, choreographing, writing full-length productions and short plays, publicity, adjudicating, committee and front-of-house.
A love of amateur theatre inspired Cheryl to undertake a PhD research project with Swinburne University of Technology to explore the history and culture of the theatrical arts sector in Victoria. Her self-published book In the Name of Theatre: the history, culture and voices of amateur theatre in Victoria is based on the award-winning thesis and won the 2020 Collaborative Victorian Community History Award.
Born in 1893 in darlinghurst, sydney, Jack Beresford Fowler’s middle name given by his father honours the distinguished First Sea Lord Charles Beresford. A sip of ale would save the baby’s life when near death in the cradle, yet after that Jack remained a strict teetotaller because ‘I heard of so many actors ruined by drink’. His registered date of birth is 21 July, but Jack believed it should be 21 June because his mother’s friends said they never forgot his birthday as it was on the shortest day of the year. Such quirky debate would be synonymous with Jack Fowler’s colourful 79 years, dedicated mostly to his passion for theatre, sport, and literature.
I first met Mr Fowler in 1958. He had visited a Saturday afternoon class at The Alice Uren School of Stage Dancing where singing, acrobats, ballet, toe, and tap-dancing lessons had been taught since the 1920s. Alice Uren’s huge studio was located on the first floor of the Mutual Arcade in Flinders Street, Melbourne and many of her students went on to perform professionally, such as Val Jellay, Toni Lamond and Helen Reddy. Miss Uren chatted to the gentleman visitor and later told my mother that a director, Mr Fowler, had called seeking a girl to play the title role in his play A Must for Dolly (a sequel to George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman) to be presented at the Arrow Theatre, and I had been suggested. We were to meet with Mr Fowler at 97 Graham Street, Albert Park.
A single-storeyed Victorian terrace house matched the address, and while Dad and my young brother waited in our F.J. Holden, Mum and I were greeted at the front door by a smiling, cardigan-wearing gentleman with twinkling eyes who introduced himself as ‘J.B.’. When J.B. warmly ushered us into his compact one-room bedsitter, I instinctively sensed something special. The well-used typewriter with cluttered papers, theatrical scrapbooks and autograph albums stacked on shelves, costumes hanging on a rack and framed photographs adorning the walls formed part of a wonderful, atmospheric space enriched by Jack Beresford Fowler’s marvellous positive energy.
As we prepared to leave after the audition, actors began arriving to rehearse and Mum and I were asked to stay for at least another two hours. J.B.’s endearing unpredictability led to Dad organising driving lessons and a little Austin A30 for Mum to undertake future rehearsal runs. Until then, Dad and young brother Bernie spent rehearsal nights watching football at the South Melbourne Football Ground. A Must for Dolly, written and directed by J. Beresford Fowler, was presented by the Players’ and Playgoers’ Repertory Players on 31 October 1958 at the Arrow Theatre, Armstrong Street, Middle Park. The cast included J. Beresford Fowler, Violet Auburn, William Allen, Reg Campbell, Dawn Mott, Cheryl McPhee, Russell Johnson, Edward Jobbins, Dalene Koops and Frank Booth.
Throughout his life, Jack Fowler was an avid fan of football, cricket and the performing arts. The latter was thanks to his uncle Garnet Walch and parents Frank Harry Fowler and the former Fannie Adele Ellard. English-born Frank was a well-known musician in Brisbane who founded and conducted the Brisbane Liedertafel. Jack’s mother Fannie performed professionally during the 1870s and early 1880s as actress Ethel Adele with theatrical big names of their time such as Alice Dunning Lingard, Maggie Knight, Fred Marshall, J.C. Williamson, Maggie Moore and visiting American actor William H. Leake (Mrs Fowler’s first name officially spelt ‘Fannie’, is written as ‘Fanny’ by son Jack).
Frank Fowler died when Jack was just three months old, leaving Fannie to care for four boys. She moved Horace, Frank, Noel and Jack to Melbourne in 1896, and lived in Elsternwick, Brighton, Armadale and Hawksburn, where Jack would attend Hawksburn State School. His uncle, Garnet Walch, had dramatized Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms into a stage production for Alfred Dampier, and Jack recalled getting free seats to see his first-ever play. Jack’s first musical theatre experience was at age three in 1896, seeing the pantomime Djin Djin presented at the Princess Theatre by J.C. Williamson and George Musgrove, with music by Leon Caron and libretto by J.C. Williamson.
Fannie Fowler enjoyed Dickens, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the ‘good theatre’ of the day, as well as taking her children to the Tivoli to see Paul Cinquevalli the juggler and Dante the magician. She produced two successful juvenile productions of HMS Pinafore to augment her income, having played Hebe in the first Australian professional production. An Elsternwick performance involved the Fowler brothers: Frank as Captain Corcoran, Horace played Sir Joseph Porter, Noel was Dick Deadeye and Jack portrayed the Midshipmite. A non-singer, young Jack was hooked on theatre performance. The second juvenile production featuring Jack’s classmates from school, was presented at the Prahran Town Hall. One day Jack overheard the family Doctor talking with his mother. ‘Jack is deaf’. His mother was in disbelief, but the Doctor insisted, ‘Yes, I’m sure he is’. Jack reckoned it was not until twenty years later that outsiders noticed his deafness.
Jack’s first employment was with M.S. Sowerby’s Dental Depot in the Burke and Wills Chambers at 145 Collins Street, Melbourne, starting at 5/- per week and staying for two years. He describes ‘varying fortune’ with other dentists, including a sacking after one week ‘for not being good enough’.
In 1910, aspiring young playwright Jack Beresford Fowler‘s first play about Major-General Robert Clive, first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency, was courageously sent to J.C. Williamson producer Gerard Coventry. The play was not produced, but Mr Coventry invited Jack and his mother in to see The Catch of the Season. Undeterred, Jack submitted his next attempt, a dramatization of Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. Gerard Coventry returned the manuscript twelve months later before leaving for England, encouraging ‘Master Fowler’ to persevere for success and to never give up or lose heart.
Sydney professional producer and actor Gregan McMahon launched his Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company in 1910 and Jack Fowler contacted him. For his first production, McMahon alternated presenting Act Two of Richard Sheridan’s The Critic and St John Hankin’s The Two Mr Wetherbys with Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, presented at the Turn Verein Hall, an old German beer hall in Victoria Parade, East Melbourne. Medical student Frank Kingsley Norris portrayed Borkman and J.B. Fowler played Foldal, the Old Clerk. A reviewer from The Booklover praised both players as being ‘startlingly good’. The Age described Norris’s portrayal of Borkman as ‘unparalleled among amateur achievements for many a day.’ Jack Fowler was later invited to present a scene with Norris from John Gabriel Borkman on the same program as Nellie Melba for the Conservatorium of Music. Frank Norris would later become Major-General Sir F. Kingsley Norris KBE, CB, DSO, ED.
Prominent people appearing in McMahon’s early productions included Mrs Fanny Fowler, Doris Fitton, later producer for the Independent Theatre in Sydney, Jack Cussen, son of Judge Cussen, Louie Dunn who taught Irene Mitchell who would work at St Martin’s Theatre and Gregan McMahon.
Jack Fowler performed with Gregan McMahon from 1911 to 1914. He transitioned to professional theatre just before his twenty-first birthday, performing in 1914 with the J.C. Williamson firm in Louis N. Parker’s dramatization from Genesis, Joseph and His Brethren at the Theatre Royal. He recalled prejudice against amateurs and being introduced to producer Cecil King with: ‘This boy is only an amateur. He has played however in Ibsen.’ Mr King reasoned that Joseph and His Brethren were earlier than Ibsen and cast Jack as an Extra. During the show’s run in Adelaide, actor Godfrey Cass was missing and Jack Fowler, waiting in the wings, went on and played his scene, delighting producer King. When Jack made one hundred in a cricket match between the Theatre Royal and His Majesty’s Theatre, King shouted him a drink and Jack requested a part in the next touring production, Sealed Orders. George Musgrove invited Jack in 1914 to join Nellie Stewart’s touring company opening in Sydney, as actor and assistant stage manager in David Belasco’s Madame Du Barry and Paul Kester's Sweet Nell of Old Drury.
Writer/director/theatrical manager Albert Edward (Bert) Bailey, actor/playwright Edmund Duggan and business manager Julius Grant, united in 1911 to lease The King’s Theatre from entrepreneur William Anderson, establishing The Bert Bailey Dramatic Company.
From J.B. Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, UK, 1968
Jack joined the company for two years playing Billy Bearup in an adaptation of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, touring Australian towns from Geraldton in Western Australia to Cairns in Northern Queensland. Jack also acted at Melbourne’s King’s Theatre on Easter Saturday, 22 April 1916, in the company’s reproduction of the play The Squaw Man by arrangement with J.C. Williamson Limited.
In July 1916 Jack Fowler enlisted to serve his country in World War One. On his last night with the Bailey and Grant Company, he was presented onstage at the King’s Theatre with a luminous dial wristlet watch. The inscribed message from the company wished Jack ‘the best of luck in the part you are going to play in the world’s greatest tragedy.’
‘Miss Ethel Adele’, Brisbane Courier, 20 August 1928, p.12
J.B. Fowler, Stars in My Backyard, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, 1962
J.B. Fowler, The Green-eyed Monster, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., Ilfracombe, Devon, 1968
Barry O. Jones and Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Fowler, Jack Beresford (1893–1972)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 14, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1996
Almost one thousand professional and Amateur performers had been rehearsing the musical pageant Hiawatha for several months, carefully planned by the Melbourne City Council to coincide with the 1939 Spring Racing Carnival. The announcement of World War Two in September that year did not deter those involved with the production, and Hiawatha with pageantry, music and drama, opened on 21 October, 1939. Presented until 4 November at the Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton, the well-attended season included thirteen evening and two matinee performances. Seven thousand school children had been invited to see two dress rehearsals.
Based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem and comprising three cantatas composed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the pageant Hiawatha was adapted, dramatized and produced by Thomas C. Fairbairn. This was the first time Hiawatha had been performed in Australia, but the spectacular musical pageant was already well-known in England, having been presented annually by Fairbairn at the Royal Albert Hall between 1924 and 1939. The only exception was in 1926, when the production could not proceed due to the United Kingdom’s General Strike between 3 May and 12 May.
Fairbairn had been asked by London’s National Institute for the Blind to present a charity event in the Royal Albert Hall, and he premiered Hiawatha there in 1924. The production featured a real waterfall, 10,000 square feet of backcloth, a snowstorm, ballet, hundreds of ‘Native Americans’ and a medicine man played by a genuine Mohawk called Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton, a trained singer. Australian baritone Horace Stevens was cast in the lead role, and Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor, the composer’s son, conducted the first performances. In later performances, Fairbairn cast another Australian in the lead role, baritone Harold Williams, but when a third Australian, Norman Menzies of Geelong fell ill at a final rehearsal and could not perform, it was the first time the role of ‘Hiawatha’ had not been sung by an Australian. Fairbairn’s recognition of Australian talent also included artist Frederick William (Fred) Leist, who designed the costumes for the 1924 Royal Albert Hall production and also painted the huge backcloth depicting the Rocky Mountains, fir trees and wigwams for the oratorio, Song of Hiawatha. Horace Stevens would later reprise his title role in the 1939 Melbourne production, sharing the role with another Australian, opera singer Walter Kingsley. This news would have surprised a writer in the Junior Section of The Age who had advised his readers that a ‘Native American’ would be playing the lead role.
Extracted from Iroquois folklore, Longfellow’s poem tells of the deeds of legendary Native American hero Hiawatha, a Mohawk Indian chief (or described by some sources as leader of the Onondaga tribe) born circa 1525. Hiawatha is attributed with having united five tribes to form the Iroquois Confederacy.
For Melbourne’s three-act production, Fairbairn installed a stage in the Exhibition Building measuring one hundred and fifty by forty-five feet. The cast of almost one thousand performers and musicians included a chorus of seven hundred singers (aged sixteen to sixty-four) from various Melbourne Choral Societies, a ballet of eighty dancers under the direction of Miss Jennie Brenan, principal dancers Laurel Martyn, Serge Bousloff and Lawrence Rentoul, and a seventy-five-piece, full symphony orchestra led by Edouard Lambert under the musical direction of Bernard Heinze. Fairbairn’s significant overall role in presenting Hiawatha is emphasised in this sentence in the theatre programme: ‘Entire Production under the Personal Direction of T. C. Fairbairn’.
The cast of Melbourne’s three-act production was led by Horace Stevens as Hiawatha. Performers alternating in principal roles included Walter Kingsley (Hiawatha), Thea Phillips and Strella Wilson (Nokamis), Phyllis Curnow and Vera Hickenbotham (Minnehaha) and Marion Daniels and Elizabeth Coote (Fever). Other principal roles were performed by Fred Collier (Iagoo), Tom Minogue (Famine), Wilma Berkeley (Spring), Browning Mummery (Chibiabos and The Monk), Cecil Atkinson (role not listed in programme) and Reg Hood (Gitchie Manito). Principal dancer Laurel Martyn’s performance in Hiawatha was noticed by ballet director Edouard Borovansky, who successfully persuaded her to join his fledgling Borovansky Ballet in 1940.
The Prefatory to the original musical score explains that composer S. Coleridge-Taylor initially only planned to set ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’, which was produced at a students’ concert presented at the Royal College of Music, South Kensington, London on 26 October, 1898. The second section, ‘The Death of Minnehaha’, resulted from a request that the composer contribute a choral work to the North Staffordshire Musical Festival produced at Hanley on 26 October, 1899. The third section, ‘Hiawatha’s Departure’ was written for, and performed with the preceding sections by the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 22 March, 1900.
John Aldous was six years old when attending the Exhibition Building to see his mother, professional performer Mabel Aldous, sing in the 1939 Hiawatha pageant. John says his first memory is of the height of the ceiling and the glow of light. ‘My mother, a contralto, was in the second bottom row of the choir, dressed as an Indian squaw with her cheeks daubed with coloured stripes’. John remembers the lead performer, Horace Stevens, making his appearance high up at the back of the stage. ‘Dressed in a brown tunic with a large feathered headdress, with its feathers hanging down to his waist. With his arms outstretched, he called to the choir, the singers got up as one, and in a flurry of brown tunics they ran towards him’.
John clearly recalls walking with his parents across the gardens to the cable tram wheelhouse at the top of` Swanston Street, which he says later became the Carlton Brewery. ‘I believe my mother in costume was with my father and me on the ride from the city to the St Kilda Esplanade’, reflects John. ‘The inside of the cable car was dimly lit and the varnished timber walls and ceiling were very dark for a sleepy six-year old’. John remembers alighting at the stop outside the St Moritz Ice-Skating Rink. ‘My father carried me across the little park to Pollington Street, where I was put to bed’.
Sponsored by the Melbourne City Council headed by The Rt. Hon. Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Councillor A. W. Coles, this grand-scale spectacular was presented in aid of the Australian Red Cross and related funds. During the months of pre-production planning and rehearsals for Hiawatha, the organisers had not known that World War Two would commence before the show’s scheduled opening night. The decision to proceed with presenting this production at a time of war was regarded by some as questionable when other Australians were selflessly committing to enlist in the Forces.
The contrasting moods of this new wartime era, only one month after the outbreak of conflict, can be recognised in the Hiawatha theatre programme. Earlier pages describe various theatrical aspects of the production, then in serious contrast, the last page contains an advertisement for The Argus newspaper: ‘READ the WAR NEWS’, and ‘SEE the WAR NEWS in Airmail pictures and up-to-date COLOURED WAR MAPS’. On the back page, in another change of mood, is an advertisement for sparkling wine, featuring a glamorous, silky-gowned lady triumphantly holding high a glass of wine in celebratory style. The patriotic, goodwill intentions to stage the well-received production would appear to justify such grand scale entertainment proceeding at this difficult time in Australian history. Patrons in the three thousand, five hundred strong audience on opening night included the Governor, Sir Winston Dugan, Lady Dugan and other leading Victorian citizens.
An article written by Kenneth R. Hendy, published on 21 October, 1939 in Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper, attempts to counteract concern with staging the production by pointing out the patriotic value of presenting Hiawatha at this worrying time. Headed ‘Hiawatha Comes to Melbourne’, and sub-headed ‘An Anglo-Scot Uses Greek Form in a Play about an Indian by a Half-caste Negro’, the article first tells of the old legend of Hiawatha. Hendy reminds us that the great native American prophet, statesman and teacher had played a part in building the British Empire with his formation of a powerful confederation of five Indian tribes, which fought with the British settlers in the wars and brought Canada under British rule. Seeking to justify presenting this show at a time of national uncertainty, Hendy suggests the Hiawatha production symbolises a form of weaponry: ‘Now the dramatic presentation of part of the Hiawatha legend is to aid the Empire in its fight against Hitlerism’.
Hendy also recognises the international influence associated with Hiawatha, such as the story of a Mohawk Indian told by an American poet, set to music by ‘the half-caste West African negro, Coleridge Taylor’ (English-born composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, known as the ‘Black Mahler’ was the son of a doctor from Sierra Leone) and dramatized by an Anglo-Scot, Thomas C. Fairbairn. Hendy believes the production ‘has taken something of the form of the ancient Greek drama’ and praises Fairbairn as ‘probably the only Englishman since Milton who has attempted such an enterprise’. Convinced that Fairbairn had done more than merely adapt the Greek form to English presentation, Hendy writes: ‘He has captured something of the Greek outlook on life, of the spirit of the great civilisation that reigned 500 years before the Christian era’.
The Argus newspaper favourably reviewed the thirteen-night production, and an article titled ‘Pageantry of Hiawatha’ described the show as ‘an event which musical Melbourne will long remember’. The review praised the show, saying ‘Mr T.C. Fairbairn, the musical director, Professor Bernard Heinze, the leader of the orchestra, M. Edouard Lambert, the principals and the one thousand performers came through a herculean task with high honours’. The review notes that, ‘the great audience of three thousand went home thoroughly satisfied and happy that, though the war had caused the cancellation of most of the events of the Melbourne spring carnival, Hiawatha had survived’.
The 1939 production of Hiawatha in Melbourne was elaborate and large scale, but was not the first musical performance staged in the Royal Exhibition Building post-World War One. Mimi Colligan’s article titled ‘From Hallelujah to Hiawatha’ refers to musical ‘occasions’ presented from 1920 to celebrate various grand events.  Hiawatha, together with Fairbairn’s lavish staging, fringed Indian costumes and feathered headdresses, is described by Colligan as having a ‘spectacular visual impact’. On 1 July, 2004, there was global recognition for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens when the site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, becoming the first built heritage site in Australia to be declared ‘World Heritage’. A later study of the Exhibition Building concludes that the two-week run of the choral pageant Hiawatha in 1939 was ‘one of the most extravagant musical concerts ever to be staged at the Exhibition Building in the twentieth century, and, ironically, one of the last’.
1. Kenneth R. Hendy, ‘Hiawatha Comes to Melbourne’, The Argus, Weekend Magazine, 21 October 1939, p. 2; https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11248349 (accessed 24 April, 2020)
2. Mimi Colligan, ‘From Hallelujah to Hiawatha’ in Victorian Icon: the Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne by David Dunstan with contributions by Mimi Colligan [and fourteen others],The Exhibition Trustees in association with Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, Victoria, 1996, p. 345.
3. Jack Cowdrey, ‘June Story of the Month: The Royal Choral Society and the Royal Albert Hall, 2012, https://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2012/june/june-story-of-the-month-the-royal-choral-society-and-the-royal-albert-hall/ (accessed 6 May, 2020)
4. BBC News, ‘What was the General Strike of 1926?’, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-13828537 (accessed 1 May, 2020)
5. Cowdrey, Ibid.
6. Colligan, p. 344.
7. Hendy, Ibid.
8. Martha Rutledge, ‘Leist, Frederick William (Fred) (1873-1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leist-frederick-william-fred-7166 (accessed 28 April, 2020)
9. Ralph Rover, ‘The Musical Pageant of Hiawatha’, My Weekly Chat, The Age, Junior Section, 29 September 1939, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/206338665 (accessed 25 April 2020)
10. HistoryNet, ‘Hiawatha’, https://www.historynet.com/hiawatha (accessed 25 April 2020)
11. Colligan, Ibid.
12. Hendy, Ibid.
13. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hiawatha theatre programme, 1939, presented by the Melbourne City Council, The Specialty Press Pty. Ltd., p. 3.
14. Michelle Potter, ‘Laurel Martyn (1916–2013)’, 2013, https://michellepotter.org/news/laurel-martyn-1916-2013 (accessed 28 April 2020)
15. Henry W Longfellow. & Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Prefatory Note, ‘Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha’, Op.30, Novello’s Original Octavo Edition, 200 pages, Novello and Company, London, 1928. Courtesy of Dr John Aldous, 2020.
16. John Aldous, Recollections of attending Hiawatha in 1939 (2020).
17. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Ibid.
18. Hendy, Ibid.
19. ‘Pageantry of Hiawatha’, The Argus, 23 October 1939, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11265689 (accessed 25 April 2020)
20. Colligan, pp. 342-343.
21. Colligan, p. 345.
22. Victoria State Government, ‘About Heritage in Victoria: World Heritage’, https://www.heritage.vic.gov.au/about-heritage-in-victoria/world-heritage (accessed 6 May 2020)
23. Peter Lovell & Kai Chen, Royal Exhibition Building & Carlton Gardens World Heritage Management Plan, Melbourne, The Exhibition Trustees, Museum Victoria, Volume 1, 2.12.6, 2013, p. 55, https://www.heritage.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/55202/Vol-1-2.0_Part4.pdf (accessed 7 May 2020)
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.
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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