Simon Plant

Simon Plant

SIMON PLANT BA (Hons) and Masters (University of Melbourne) is a Melbourne writer and historian. His 35 year career in journalism includes three decades at the Herald and Weekly Times as a reporter and editor specialising in arts and entertainment. Simon is writing a play about the novelist Ian Fleming and undertaking research into showman George Coppin’s travels in Civil War America.

Why was Summer of the Seventeenth Doll a misfire on Broadway in January 1958? SIMON PLANT seeks answers on the eve of Ray Lawler’s 100th birthday.

‘Synopsis: Two Australian field workers come to Melbourne for their 17th summer layoff in a row, planning to enjoy themselves with two barmaids, only to find one of the women is now married and must contemplate the fact that their time has passed’.

From Summer of the 17th [sic] Doll—Opening Night Playbill, January 19581

OUTSIDE, on the streets of New York City, the temperature was plunging and sending snow flurries dancing across Times Square.

Inside Broadway’s Coronet Theatre, at 230 West 49th Street, Ray Lawler was feeling the heat.

The 37-year-old Australian author and actor was standing in the wings, ready to make his entrance in an award-winning play he had written - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Theatrical legend Sir Laurence Olivier was in the audience. So was Australian-born actress Judith Anderson and US elder statesman Adlai Stevenson II. But Lawlermaking his American debutwas not only feeling first night nerves on the bitterly cold evening of 22 January, 1958. A good deal of money was riding on his tragi-comic tale of two Queensland canecutters flying south to party with barmaid girl friends in Melbourne. Australian, English and American theatre producers were all invested in it. And while The Doll, as it was popularly known, had enjoyed resounding success in Australia and the UK, Lawler wondered if the very quality that had made his play appealingits Australian-nessmight very well limit its prospects in the United States. Just days earlier, a New York journalist had noted: ‘A good Australian play is a rarity, even in Australia. In London or New York it is unheard of’.2

The Doll was especially remarkable for coming to America with an all-Australian cast: Lawler (as Barney Ibbot), Kenneth Warren (Roo Webber), June Jago (Olive Leech), Madge Ryan (Pearl Cunningham), Ethel Gabriel (Emma Leech), Fenella Maguire (Bubba Ryan) and Richard Pratt (Johnnie Dowd). This was the same cast that had enjoyed a seven month run on London’s West End, performed for Queen Elizabeth II and been praised by everyone from poet T.S. Eliot to playwright Terence Rattigan.3 London critics had been almost uniformly positive. Writing in the Observer in May, 1957, four days after their debut at the New Theatre, Kenneth Tynan hailed ‘the magnitude of Lawler’s achievement ... out of unremarkable gaieties and regrets, out of everyday challenges and defeats, he has composed a story as gripping in the theatre as it would be in life’.4

The Sunday Times went even further, describing Lawler as ‘a first rate dramatist’ and comparing The Doll favourably to John Osborne’s The Entertainer which opened a fortnight earlier.5

‘We were jubilant,’ The Doll’s English-born director John Sumner said.6 Especially after learning that Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had ‘lost a five shilling bet’ with Commonwealth Bank Chairman Dr D.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs that Lawler’s play would be ‘a flop in Britain’.7 They had proved him wrong. All through 1957, the plaudits kept coming, most notably the Evening Standard Award for Best Play on the London stage that year. By the end of the run in early December, the cast of The Doll had given 254 performances in Britain.

Sumner, a trailblazing theatre maker who came to Australia in 1952 to manage the University of Melbourne’s Union Theatre, reckoned ‘the play could have run longer ... bookings were still very strong’.8 But America beckoned. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), which co-produced the English season, had joined forces with St James’s Players Ltd in London and two prestigious Broadway organisationsthe Theatre Guild and the Playwrights’ Companyto present The Doll in New York. So, as a New Year dawned, the company boarded a Boeing Stratocruiser at Heathrow and lifted off in a gale, spearing across the Atlantic and down into wintry New York City. Sumner never forgot their hectic arrival:

‘Snow had been falling, cars clanked with chains and the roads were icy and slushy. We spent enormous amounts of time pulling on heavy coats, hats and gloves, dashing into overheated cars, taking everything off, before restoring it all and rushing into buildings where it all came off again. All that energy!’9

Sumner knew New York would be different from London. He had visited the city numerous times, first as a choir boy with the London Opera School; later, during the Second World War with the Merchant Navy. ‘It is one of the most exciting cities I know,’ he wrote years later. But Sumner’s affection for New York usually lasted ‘only about ten days, by which time it has exhausted me’.10

Broadway was the city’s theatrical heart. In the immediate post-war years, it had been galvanised by an influx of star-studded shows from abroad and a new wave of writers (Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, among others) whose tough but commercially successful plays (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman) were unflinching in their frank depiction of the American Dream. By the mid-50s, the city’s bustling theatre district was bolstered by a thriving Off-Broadway scene. The 1957-58 season was especially competitive. As Sumner made his first inspection of the Coronet, a cavernous auditorium four blocks north of Times Square, he would have noticed neon marquees advertising West Side Story, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet, Nude With Violin (starring Noel Coward), the William Inge drama The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, andabout to openHenry Fonda and Anne Baxter in Two for the Seesaw.

‘In America there is a substantial response to plays which deal with social problems,’ observed the AETT’s British-born executive director, Hugh Hunt. ‘Even American musicals tend to probe and analyse society, as if the people as a whole were examining and questioning the rightness and wrongness of their way of life.’11

The ‘serious musical plays’ of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were in a league of their own. Hugely popular post-war shows such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I broke new ground by fully integrating song, story and dance. By the mid-50s, at the height of their creative power, Rodgers and Hammerstein were working on a new musicalan original made-for-TV version of Cinderellabut its gestation proved complicated. The composer was in America; the librettist was in Australia. Hammerstein travelled to Victoria in November, 1956, to attend the Melbourne Olympic Games and corresponded with his writing partner via telegrams and letters.12 Lodging at the Hotel Windsor, near the city’s entertainment district, he also found time to see a performance of The Doll at Her Majesty’s Theatre (from 3 December, 1956). Hammerstein was ‘elated by the feeling that he had witnessed an event of theatrical importance’ and relayed his enthusiasm to Lawrence Langner at New York’s Theatre Guild.13

This revered producer and author established the Guild’s reputation for presenting high quality, non-commercial American and foreign plays.14 The Playwrights’ Company, established in the late 1930s, was also committed to ‘setting a high standard of writing and production’ in American theatre. Roger L. Stevensa real estate magnate said to have ‘unflappable air of an ambassador with the heart of a gambler willing to take risks’was one of its guiding lights and would also play a key role in getting The Doll on Broadway.15 A third man hastened The Doll’s trajectory half way round the world. He was sitting in the stalls of the Coronet as Lawler waited in the wings, and he was an unlikely ally, an aristocratic actor-knight who so identified with King and Country he was wont to say: ‘I am England, that’s all’.16 His name was Laurence Olivier.

A Hollywood film star in the late 1930s, Olivier emerged during World War Two as ‘the finest [Shakespearean] actor in the world’, acclaimed for his towering performances as Hamlet, Lear, and Henry V. His burgeoning stage and screen career was yielding a ‘fantastic harvest, a glorious house in the country, a Rolls Royce and a knighthood’ and his marriage to the celebrated actress Vivien Leigh was, in his words, ‘more perfect than anyone could dream of’.17  Anointed Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier in 1947, they ‘accepted the mantle of nobility and wore it everywhere’.18 That included the Antipodes. In 1948, the Old Vic Company took three plays (The School for Scandal, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Richard III) to six Australian capital cities and enjoying what they called ‘the glitter of our position’, Olivier and Leigh behaved like surrogate monarchschristening ships, addressing rallies and taking salutes. Australians, at the time, were desperately seeking international approval. But asked what the country might do to advance a ‘national theatre’, Olivier replied tartly: ‘Nothing, until you produce a playwright of your own’.19

Australian dramatists were not entirely extinct. Between the wars, Louis Esson’s Pioneer Players and Gregan McMahon’s repertory companies staged home-grown comedies and melodramas. Radio broadcasting gave voice to emerging playwrights (such as Douglas Stewart, author of the 1943 verse play Ned Kelly) while semi-professional companies (Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in Sydney and Brett Randall’s Melbourne Little Theatre, among others) encouraged ‘local writing’. ‘Worthy as such enterprises may be, they do not materially help the creation of an indigenous Drama’, critic Allan Aldous wrote in 1947.20 The tide turned a year later with the premiere of Rusty Bugles. Sumner Locke Elliott’s realist comedy dramabased on his own wartime experiences in Australia’s Top Endwas a success with audiences. Ironically, the author never saw it produced professionally.21 In 1948, hoping to advance his writing career, Locke Elliott travelled to the United States. ‘Without the incentive of a theatre which is anxious to present Australian plays, and which can offer good standards of performance, there can be no incentive to write [in Australia],’ Hunt observed.22 Locke Elliott’s exit was not unusual. In the early post-war period, Australia farewelled numerous actors (Leo McKern, Peter Finch, Keith Michell), designers (Loudon Sainthill, Kenneth Rowell) and singers (Joan Hammond, Sylvia Fisher).

To stem this brain drain, the Commonwealth government proposed financial help for independent Australian theatre companies. Visiting English theatre manager Tyrone Guthrie had a better idea.23 Judging private enterprise was ‘not doing the job’ in Australia, he proposed instead a ‘National Theatre’ project to lift standards of performance and appreciation.24 The Guthrie Report of 1949 was shelved after a change of government but working in concert with other prominent Australians, Dr Coombsa cultural powerbroker as well as a banker -secured Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ support for an Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). Founded in 1954, as a ‘continuing memorial’ of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1954 tour of Australia, this public body dedicated itself to providing financial and administrative assistance to ‘[Australian] organisations capable of presenting drama, opera and ballet of the highest artistic standard’.25

Another agent for change was the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. In 1955, its annual national play competition named Summer of the Seventeenth Doll joint winner with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents. Lawler welcomed the 100 pounds prize. He was a struggling actor at the timea member of the fledgling Union Theatre Repetory Company, formed by Sumner in 1953and a budding author with nine plays under his belt. A few had been staged as amateur productions but none had been commercially successful. ‘They had highly complicated plots and were about things I knew nothing about,’ Lawler admitted.26

The Doll was different. It was about ordinary Australians, hard working men and women who struggled to make ends meet. Lawler knew these people intimately, having grown up in gritty Footscray and left school at 13 to work in a factory, and he put believable lines in their mouths. Early on in The Doll, Olive tells Pearl: ‘Listen, lovey, you better make up your mind. These are a coupla sugarcane-cutters fresh from the tropics, not two professors from the university’. If Lawler had one foot in this working-class world, he had another in the world of words. Evening acting classes introduced him to drama and literature, and it was after hours - in the Melbourne Public Library’s domed Reading Roomthat he began to craft a new play. The plot was un-complicated:

‘Two Queensland cane-cutters, Roo and Barney, come down to Victoria every summer for the ‘lay-off’ season to stay with two Melbourne girls, Olive and Nancy, and Olive’s mother, Emma. This year, because Nancy has married, Olive asks fellow barmaid Pearl to take Nancy’s place; but somehow things don’t work out. Roo has a bad season and when he walks off the job after a bitter encounter with Johnnie, Barney does not back him up, and they meet again on very strained terms. Something has gone from the happiness they have all shared for seventeen years. Events work up to a dramatic climax.’27

The Doll was more than the sum of its modest parts. As one early viewer of the play observed, ‘Mr Lawler has something to say about the nature of man and the relation between man and woman which is not only true for Queensland and Carlton, but for all time and beyond the bounds of Australia.’28

Sumner thought so, too. Reading an early draft of The Doll, he was ‘swept up by some of the writing’ and liked the way Lawler treated his plain-speaking characters with sympathy and understanding.29 ‘But we knew the script needed work’, Sumner said. ‘It was too closed in. Everybody was in a tight circle with no way out’.30 Lawler returned to the drawing board and developed two characters: Bubba, the adolescent girl next door, and a young gun canecutter named Johnnie Dowd. They each signalled a road out. Months later, as Sumner headed for Sydney to take up a leading role with the AETT, Lawler gave him a brown paper parcel containing the re-written play. Sumner forwarded the script to Hunt who agreed ‘it was worth backing’.31 An opportunity presented itself in late 1955 when Lawler, now director of the UTRC, asked the Trust for help in presenting an Australian play in the company’s third season. Hunt suggested The Doll, with Sumner directing. They would have just two weeks’ rehearsal. Sumner was ‘grateful that Ray [Lawler] was in the cast for he made the language work. We were in strange territory: until then, little Australian drama had been able to catch the colloquial ear’.32

On The Doll’s opening night in Melbourne, on 28 November 1955, the curtain came down to ‘uncertain applause’. Afterwards, Sumner heard some people ‘lamenting that Australian playwrights could not maintain a three-act play’, that they ‘always ran out of steam’.33 But next day, the newspaper reviews were mostly favourable. Geoffrey Hutton, in The Age, declared it ‘a good play by any standards’34 while Biddy Allen, in the Argus, thought it ‘superbly true to Australian thought and to the Australian scene’.35 

Early on, Hunt had worried The Doll ‘would ... be unsuitable for the large theatres’36 but buoyed by audience reaction in Melbourne, he took an option for a Sydney production of Lawler’s play and hailed it, publicly, as: ‘The best play ever written about Australiapurely Australian but in quality to be compared with the work of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Sean O’Casey’.37 

The Doll opened at Sydney’s Elizabethan Theatre on 10 January, 1956 and the reception was ecstatic. ‘The packed first night audience ... would probably have kept applauding until dawn,’ the Bulletin reported.38Sydney Morning Herald illustrator George Molnar, who was in the stalls sketching, called it ‘a great night. All of us who were there felt that something important was happening in the history of Australian drama’.39 

Glowing reviews followed. ‘It has happened at last,’ the Daily Telegraph wrote, ‘someone has written a genuine Australian play without kangaroos or stock whips ... an indigenous play about city dwellers’.40 Overseas visitors sensed it too. Dame Sybil Thorndike, a pillar of England’s acting Establishment touring Australia, saw The Doll in Sydney and declared: ‘This is a play which could only have grown from the soil of the country’.41 By the middle of 1956, a refreshed cast (still featuring Lawler) was touring nationally. But some observers were asking: is The Doll ‘exportable’?

The Council of Adult Education posed this question in the September 1956 edition of its quarterly magazine. ‘There are nervous voices to be heard full of fear that the play will let Australia down,’ Ernest Burbridge OBE wrote. He went on to report that, alarmed by the unapologetic Australian-ness of its characters, some people were wondering: ‘Will she [The Doll] discredit Australia in English and American eyes?’ Burbridge, a ‘liaison officer for the British Council in Australia’, sought to allay those fears by insisting The Doll was ‘quite respectable’:

‘Doubtless, some innocent souls [overseas] will form the impression that Australia is full of cane cutters who idle away the ‘lay off’ on Manly and Bondi beaches in amorous dalliance. This type of thinking, however, is not prevalent among English and American playgoers’.42

FLYING DOWN OUT OF THE SUN

Having trumpeted The Doll as the Trust’s ‘first Australian play’,43 and watched it reap commercial rewards, Hunt felt confident enough to send a copy of Lawler’s script to Laurence Olivier Productions (LOP) in London. Olivier was impressed.

‘It’s a damn good play, it’s as simple as that’; he was quoted as sayingand promptly bought the British rights.44 Furthermore, it was agreed St James’s Players Ltd (an arm of LOP) would co produce a UK season of the play with an all-Australian cast. A ‘big crowd stood and cheered’ at the Comedy Theatre [Melbourne] when it was announced, from the stage, that The Doll’s home-grown stars were bound for London’s West End.45The Sydney Morning Herald thought the news ‘may well be found to mark the coming-of-age of Australian drama’.46 But there were still some sour notes on the eve of the cast’s departure for England in April 1957. ‘We will be judged by the raucous voices and the vulgar expressions of the typical (?) [sic] Australian characters in the play,’ wrote one Women’s Weekly reader.47 It was also noted that ‘a few people’ had ‘telephoned or written to the Elizabethan Trust, saying that the play will give a very poor impression of Australia’.48

Soon after arriving in the British capital, Sumner and Lawler met with Olivier. The 50-year-old actor-manager was ‘lying on a chaise, one foot in bandages, suffering from gout, trying to memorise a big speech from The Entertainer’, with Vivien Leigh dancing attendance. Sumner had last seen them both in 1949, when he stage managed Olivier’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (starring Leigh as Blanche DuBois).49 ‘I found him [Olivier] demanding but good to work with,’ he recalled. ‘I was again gripped by this man’s incisive voice, his dark direct look and inherent vitality’.

Sumner remembered the meeting: ‘There was talk of The Doll. He [Olivier] told Ray [Lawler] how much he had enjoyed the play and emphasised how glad he was to see me as a director’. But engaged in final rehearsals for The Entertainer, where he was playing the lead role of Archie Rice, Olivier regretted ‘that we would not see much of him’ during the Australian company’s pre-London provincial tour (to Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle).50

Olivier was nowhere to be seen at the start of their American debut either. In early January, 1958, he was in Englandmaking plans for a Broadway season of The Entertainerand did not arrive in Manhattan until January 21 (one day ahead of The Doll’s opening night). On arrival in New York, The Doll cast was met instead by Elsie Beyer, a diminutive theatre manager Sumner knew from his time on the West End.51  Beyer had travelled with the Olivier’s to Australia in 1948, as the tour’s general manager. Ten years on, she was managing the AETT’s theatre organisation with bad news for a jet-lagged Sumner: an out of town tryout was ‘not possible’.52  The Doll would open on Broadway, in front of America’s most discerning playgoers, after just nine previews.

Sumner’s mood darkened further when he and Lawler, having booked into their East 57th St hotel, inspected Times Square and saw a ‘huge, five storey poster’ for Summer of the 17th Doll. Not only had the producers converted the word, ‘seventeenth’, into numerals against company wishes. They were advertising the play with a misleading image: ‘a very young girl wearing a shortie nightie and carrying a doll’.53 Her ‘troubled come-hither look’, repeated on Coronet billboards, echoed another monster-sized image which had caused a stir 18 months earlier. Midtown New Yorkers well remembered the block-long poster for the Hollywood film Baby Doll showing sultry actress Carroll Baker reclining in a crib and sucking her thumb. The sensational sign made Elia Kazan’s 1956 moviebased on a Tennessee Williams playsynonymous with sex. But as the New York correspondent for Sydney’s Daily Mirror observed, ‘it is hard to imagine that the respected Theatre Guild and Playwrights’ Company, which are jointly presenting the play, feel the public must be lured to the theatre on the pretext that they will see another Baby Doll’.54 

Signs of trouble were also visible inside the Coronet Theatre. Sumner was ‘worried about the shape and volume of the auditorium, very wide and high, and concerned for the intimate moments of the play. I was allowed to use only a fragment of our recorded musicsome union ruleso a lot of careful atmospheric work had to be undone. To cap it off, I was not allowed to light the show’.55 These concerns were not alleviated by the company’s first read through. ‘The performance had changed’, Sumner thought since he had last seen The Doll in London. ‘It was less clearly defined, as if subdued by English understatement ... it had lost some of its wholesome Aussie brashness’.56 

Upbeat preview stories in the theatre press quoted positive London reviews, reminded readers that ‘it was seen by the Queen’, and name-checked other successful Doll productions in Germany, Norway and South Africa. Best of all, Broadway reporters noted approvingly that the play had been ‘sold to Hollywood’.57  Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, to be precise. On 18 July, 1957, Australian papers announced this independent production company had bought film rights to The Doll for 134,000 pounds. HHL (founded by actor Burt Lancaster, producer Harold Hecht and writer James Hill) was associated with quality films.58  But doubters, such as Dame Sybil Thorndike, sounded a warning: ‘Watch out what those Hollywood fellows do to The Doll. They could play merry something-or-other with it’.59  Lawler went ahead and signed on the dotted line but he did so with his eyes wide open:

‘I was told in advance, I could work on the script with their script man [John Dighton] if I wanted to but they said, ‘We must tell you, we’re making this picture for world-wide distribution and we’re not interested in the Australian content’. So I said, ‘Well, that takes me out, I think’.60

Lawler knew Hollywood was a world unto itself, a vast entertainment machine which gobbled up ideas from everywhere, then re-purposed them in a quest for quick profits. He also recognised how different his country was from the US. LIFE magazine gave readers ‘down under’ a positive view of Eisenhower America and its baby-booming economy. Australian businessmen, going ‘Stateside’ on expense-account visits, confirmed these sunny reports. But Lawlerin charge of a small theatre companywas alert to local commentators who questioned the so-called ‘American way of life’. Robin Boyd was among them. This influential Melbourne architect and critic spent a year in the US surveying American architecture and thought it ‘inevitable that we should be drawn deep into the aura of American influence’.61 But in a provocative newspaper article written on his return, in late 1957, Boyd wondered if the ‘chauvinistic spirit’ which had helped local writers, artists and architects lay a ‘rough foundation for Australian art’ could survive the ‘hopeless yearning’ some Australians had for ‘the LIFE life’:

‘Culturewise (to use a means of expression which every good imitator of American fashion relishes), Australia is sinking into the Pacific and a new State is rising which we might call Austerica’.62

Boyd coined the term (an amalgam of Australia and America) to describe a growing tendency to slavishly imitate ‘all the worst aspects of many faceted U.S.A’: the garish advertising, the flashing neon, the love of plastic. Lawler, touring New South Wales and Queensland in 1956, would have seen ‘the happy state of Austerica’ for himself: not just in the carnival car yards and gaudy motels strung between Sydney and Brisbane but in the ‘matted fringes of the entertainment business’ where fake American accents were starting to invade the airwaves.63

Some observers hoped this copycatting might ‘only be a phase arising from the loosening of our ties with England’.64 John Douglas Pringle was not so sure. ‘Are Australians consciously imitating Americans?’ he asked in his 1958 book, Australian Accent. ‘The answer is clearly, yes. The wealth and power of American civilisation, as expressed in films and books and magazines, is everywhere a formidable influence’. Pringle, a Scottish-born newspaperman, added: ‘On a more profound level it is probably true that Australia sees in the United States of America an example of what she herself can hope to achieve in the future. Australia cannot hope – and does not want to be – another England’.65

Boyd and Pringle were writing at a time when Australians were, semi-consciously, making a switch in loyalty from one ‘Empire’ to another. This tension provoked, in some quarters, a desire to ‘discover and affirm what it is to be an Australian’.66 At a time of growing self assertion, The Doll seemed to answer a need ‘to define a distinctive national ethos and type’ and numerous commentators enlisted it in their own searches for the essence of ‘Australianity’.67 Independent producer-actor Peter O’Shaughnessy thought the play’s success ‘gives a boost to the conception of an indigenous theatre’68; academic Keith Macartney praised Lawler for ‘clothing a universal emotional situation in excitingly new and authentic Australian garb’69; and drama lecturer Eunice Hanger, writing in the literary journal Southerly, declared: ‘The Doll opens up the future as nothing else could have done’.70

That future included the USA. But if Lawler was able to keep Hollywood at arm’s length, he could not resist forces bent on cutting short The Doll’s London season for a New York run. Lawrence Langner was supremely well connected. Having been alerted to The Doll’s potential by Oscar Hammerstein, this Broadway grandee arranged for the play to be ‘read by the Guild’, opened negotiations with the AETT and accepted an invitation (no doubt from Olivier) to attend its London premiere. A report in the New York Times described what apparently happened next:

‘During an intermission, Mr Langner ran into the Broadway producer Roger Stevens. Mr Stevens ... suggested that they join forces and take the play [The Doll] to New York as a joint presentation of the Theatre Guild and the Playwrights’ Company, of which Mr Stevens is a member.’71

LOP encouraged the initiative. According to Sumner, ‘Olivier rang [him] enthusiastically’ after positive morning reviews of The Doll came out in London.72 So did Hunt, who was in Australia. Buoyed by box office returns, both men formed a view that The Doll might have a chance in America. The HHL movie deal, in July, surely stiffened their resolve. HHL and LOP were deeply enmeshed and it may well have been Olivier who commended The Doll to Hecht as a motion picture project.73 We cannot be certain that a film version of the play was contingent on it first appearing on Broadway but Sumner alluded to this in his book, Recollections at Play, writing: ‘A commitment had been made to present it [The Doll] in New York in early 1958, tied up with film rights’.74

Either way, the AETT, the Theatre Guild, the Playwrights’ Company and St James’s Players Ltd joined forces in the second half of 1957 to get The Doll ‘Stateside’. ‘They [the co-producers] wanted to push an American opening at the beginning of the winter season and go through’, Lawler remembered.75 And while not opposed to the idea, he was keenly aware of the risks involved. Lawler told an American journalist in early 1958: ‘Usually, a play starts on Broadway, goes to London and reaches Australia last. We have made theatrical history by reversing the procedure’.76

THE WHOLE DAMNED SEASON

‘The Time—Australian summer, the five month lay-off holiday for sugar cane workers. In Australia, where the seasons are the reverse of ours, the lay-off begins in December’

‘The Place—The home of Olive Leech and her mother, Emma, in a suburb of Melbourne, 2000 miles from the sugar cane fields’

This was how The Doll’s American Playbill program set the scene for theatregoers in January 1958. Lawler sensed that ‘fuller explanatory notes’ might clarify ‘aspects of season and distance’ in his play. So, he penned a ‘Prefatory Note from the Author’ for ‘better understanding’:

‘The summer of the title is the Australian summer, officially from December to January, including Christmas and New Year; it is an enduring season that usually lingers much later. This is the slack period for the sugar-cane cutting industry, the time when the fields are bare and the workers turn to other occupations until May. There are exceptions, of course: a minority of men look on the slack period as a lay-off time, an extended holiday of five months during which they squander the hard-earned wealth of the cane season. Roo and Barney, the cutters of the play, belong to this group.’

Lawler went on to explain: ‘Their choice of a lay-off place is Melbourne, the southern capital city of Victoria, roughly two thousand miles from their working grounds around Cairns, in Queensland. Melbourne has a much milder climate than the hot, tropical North. American audiences will appreciate the situation if they look for a parallel in their own country and think of seasonal workers, flying in an opposite direction, from Texas every year to spend the summer in Chicago’.77

These clarifications in the program did not help the Doll’s first New York preview. Sumner called it ‘a horrible experience’:

‘I stood at the back of the stalls and watched scores of people leaving very soon after the performance began. They filled me with fear: did they have early trains to catch? Had they just dropped in to see what sort of attraction it was for party-booking groups?’78

Seeking urgent answers, Sumner huddled afterwards with Lawler, Beyer, the American producers, and ‘some backers’. ‘The main problems were audibility,’ he said, ‘and then understanding what was heard through the strangeness of the Australian accent and idiom’.79

How ‘strange’ was it, really? Pringle, in Australian Accent, observed that Americans and Australians were ‘both easy, simple, democratic people, straightforward in speech’. ‘Englishmen who have been to America and Australia are almost invariably struck by the similarity between the American way of life and the Australian’, he wrote. Asking Americans what they thought of this, Pringle reported: ‘If they came from the Middle West or West they almost always said yes. If they came from the Eastern States, they generally said no’.80

Journalist John H. Valder, based in Sydney, was wise to this important nuance and in a report on The Doll‘From Down Under’he warned readers that ‘the play does, admittedly, contain many Australian expressions’. ‘Most of these are fairly straightforward and can be easily understood,’ he wrote, ‘but Americans might find it useful to know’ that ‘blokes are guys, no-hopers are bums, and blues are brawls’. As for ‘Up there Cazaly’, ‘Americans might not understand what it means but neither do most Sydney people’. Cazaly, he explained, ‘was a Melbourne football player and ‘up there Cazaly’ is now used by Melbourne football fans as a term of encouragement’. The New York Times also helpfully described the ‘17th Doll’: ’It’s what Australians call a kewpie doll, the sort you get on a stick at a county fair’.81

Learning from each preview performance, and keen to reduce the ‘audience retreat to a trickle’, Sumner urged Lawler to ‘put in some rewrites’. ‘The reception became warmer,’ he noted. ‘There were even smiles from the management’.82 But there was much that Lawler could notand would notchange in his play. The Doll had succeeded wildly in Australia because it had cried out ‘so genuinely to us, ‘Here you are! See yourselves! Hear yourselves!’83 The play’s unadulterated ‘Australianity’ had not alienated European audiences either. Theatregoers in London, Oslo and Johannesburg had all identified with The Doll’s canecutters and barmaids and their ‘difficult emotional situationthe ageing of hard men and sentimental women against a background of cheap domesticity’.84

English people, especially, had cottoned onto the slang. ‘Those who found the accent horrible were too polite to say so,’ noted Age London correspondent Bruce Grant, while others, hearing ‘Australian twang as a Cockney derivative’, were ‘fascinated by yet another reminder of their imperialist enterprise’. The United States would be different, Grant warned. ‘The Americans think of Australia as an independent nation (at least we hope they do), responsible for its own accent’.85

All these voices were ringing in Lawler’s head as the Coronet’s curtain rose on act one, scene one of The Doll. It revealed a ‘double-fronted terrace cottage in Carlton, Victoria’, inhabited by three women: Olive, Pearl and Bubba. Roo’s entrance came about ten minutes in, his first line‘Hey, wake up in there!’called off stage. Barney’s opening salvo was yelled from the wings as well: ‘You little trimmer, Emma, you little beauty!’

‘Trimmer’? ‘Little beauty’? What would the Yanks make of that? Lawler had no time to wonder. Moments later, he was striding onto a Broadway stage. Busting with false gaiety, ready for a fall.

‘It was a polite audience,’ John Sumner recalled.86 Well, mostly. At the first interval of The Doll’s first night in New York, Sumner Locke Elliottone of several expat Aussies in the stallsoverheard two American matrons making ‘bewildered and hostile remarks’ about the actors and offered to interpret ‘what the bitch was saying’.87 Two acts later, when Roo and Olive’s dreams are as broken as the smashed dolls around them and the curtain was lowered very slowly, Sumner thought ‘the applause was good’. But that was all. ‘We had no idea of our fate’.88

London’s opening night response to The Doll had been emphatic. Sumner, ‘an expert at foyer intelligence’, thought to himself, ‘It’s true, it’s a hit’, the moment he heard post show chatter on St Martin’s Lane.89 This time, at the Coronet, he was cornered backstage, fending off well wishers (such as Locke Elliott) and guiding VIP’s (Olivier, Anderson and Stevenson) into Lawler’s dressing room. ‘Then we were taken to a reception to go through the dreadful ordeal of waiting for the reviews’.90

In 1958, there were only two critics that really mattered: The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times. The ‘Butchers of Broadway’, people called them. As Grant explained: ‘If they [Kerr and Atkinson] say ‘it isn’t any good (and give their usually excellent reasons), they seem to be able to convince the play’s backers as well as the public’.91

Escaping wintry conditions outside, the Australian cast huddled in the ‘dark womb of a restaurant’ and made small talk with strangers. Lawler and Sumner were applauded on arrival. Champagne was poured. Cheers went up when it was announced that a television review of The Doll had compared it favourably with the plays of Inge. (Lawler had seen The Dark at the Top of the Stairs on Broadway between performances). Then, as night merged into morning, everyone drank more champagnewhisky as welland ‘coughed in an atmosphere of cigars and cigarettes’. ‘I felt it was all like a B-grade Hollywood movie,’ Sumner said later. Finally, very late, Beyer took Sumner by the arm and led him into a smaller, quieter room where ‘Ray and a few others were waiting. Elsie told us the morning reviews were not good and we should wait for a short while before leaving the restaurant’.92

The response was not entirely negative. Richard Watts, in the New York Post, was moved by what he called The Doll’s fundamental virtues’ and wished it ‘the success its integrity deserves’. But Watts alluded to ‘regrettable difficulties’: ‘The vitality of its impact is less startling in the American theatre, which goes in for vigour, whatever its other defects’. Frank Aston, of the New York World-Telegram and the Sun praised The Doll for being ‘slashingly played’ but judged the play ‘harsh and cruel’, while Robert Coleman (of the New York Mirror) called the production ‘vivid but seamy’. Walter Kerr, in his otherwise appreciative review for the Tribune, found the atmosphere of the play ‘dry’: ‘The difficulty is, I think, that the party is really over—not only for them, but for us [watching in the audience]. The daydream, having begun to collapse, does nothing but collapse further’.93

‘We were not used to this reaction to our play,’ Sumner admitted.94 The New York Times ‘notice’ delivered the hammer-blow. Atkinson opened his reviewtitled ‘Theatre: Down Underwith the ominous line: ‘Probably the trouble is the language’:

‘Since the Australians speak English and so do we, we assume that Summer of the 17th Doll [sic] says the same things to us that it does to Australians. But at the Coronet last evening, this theatregoer felt that the real quality of Ray Lawler’s play was escaping him ... we think we know the full meaning of what the Australians are telling us. We don’t’.

Perhaps unaware of the authors’ ‘Prefatory Note’, Atkinson went on to tell readers: ‘In Australia, the sugar cane gangers and the seasonal layoff probably have significance that they do not have here. And Australians can bring to Mr Lawler’s play a point of view that is missing here ... to an outlander, unfortunately, Summer of the 17th Doll seems like a commonplace drama written around commonplace people’. Atkinson praised ‘lively and unpretentious performances in all the parts’, reserving special praise for Lawler and Jago, but their efforts were not helped by ‘busy, noisy direction. The constant rushing around and the incessant shouting is like stock company work’. Atkinson’s verdict? ‘Although it is good natured, it lacks distinction’.95 Sumner never forgot the cold chill that descended on the group: ‘We stood around, deeply disappointed. I remember smiling at Ray, perhaps I touched his arm’.96 This simple gesture echoed one that Lawler described in a stage direction for the final moment of The Doll:

[After a pause, BARNEY comes in slowly to put his hands on the big man’s shoulders]: Come on, Roo. Come on, boy’.

Seeing this acted out in Sydney, Ernest Burbridgean Englishmanhad questioned its accuracy: ‘Surely they [Roo and Barney] would not put their arms round one another’s shoulders. Is not this sentimental in a very un-Australian way?’97 Grant thought not. Following The Doll’s London opening, he predicted ‘this aspect of the play may be drawn out more on Broadway, where sentiment is not forbidden’.98 But New York first nighters struggled with the play’s ‘common place’ characters and were perplexed by the Australian vernacular. As Lawler feared, the play had been lost in translation . Sumner felt ‘embarrassed and foolish’. ‘Eventually we filed out sheepishly to face the guests, only to find that the strangers had gone’.99

THE LAY OFFS IN THIS HOUSE ARE FINISHED

The Doll team had absorbed a tough lesson about American scale and Australia’s relative insignificance. Returning at dawn to his hotel room, Sumner ‘looked at the cliffs of skyscrapers dwarfing me and wondered how our unpretentious play could possibly catch the imagination of the people of this giant, driven city’.100 Hours later, dejected and tired, the author and director of The Doll regrouped and stepped back onto Manhattan pavement. ‘We could hardly breathe, the air was so cold,’ Lawler recalled.101 And as they trudged up to Central Park, a few blocks north, and watched squirrels foraging for food in the snow, both men reflected on their ‘dreadful opening’. Sumner was crushed: ‘We didn’t know them and they didn’t want to know us. They didn’t have time’.102

Lawler was more philosophical. The New York Times might have given his play the thumbs down but all the other ‘notices’ had been temperate in tone, helpful even. Besides, what a journey it had been! The glamour of The Doll’s Broadway opening was a far cry from its humble beginnings in Melbourne and in two years since then, he had gone from being a little knownand unmarriedactor-playwright to being a writer of some renown, an accomplished actor and a husband.103 Sumner was still seething a few days later when he farewelled the cast and flew back to Australia. ‘The Americans are only interested in success,’ he decided.104 Lawler stayed on with the rest of the company, giving two dozen more performances of The Doll during one of New England’s coldest nor’easters.

Lawler remembered; ‘The last night [February 15] was an absolute blizzard. [Laurence] Olivier got in touch with us and said, ‘What are you doing afterwards?’ and we said, ‘Well, the weather’s so awful, we thought we’d wait till next week and have a lunch’. I mean, we couldn’t get around. There were no taxis on the streets or anything. And Olivier said, ‘No you’re not! I’ll take you all out’. He was playing The Entertainer at the time, so he walked up to the Coronet from his [Royale] theatre [at 242 W.45th St]he couldn’t get a taxi eitherand took us to a little Irish pub he knew nearby and stayed with us until well after two o’ clock [in the morning]. We were the only ones in the place, talking about all sorts of things’.105

At some point, the conversation surely turned to why The Doll had failed to ignite American audiences. The reasons seemed obvious. The idiom of the play, for one thing. The bittersweet comedy for another. Lawler’s ‘ragged and deflationary humour had a ready English audience’.106 In New York, people were just mystified by it. But in analysing ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Grant found two other reasons that cut to the very heart of Lawler’s ‘study of the loss of illusion’.

‘In the first place,’ he wrote, ‘I do not think Americans would understand the social character of Roo and Barney. I feel sure no American audience would appreciate Roo’s shame at being forced to work in a factory; in addition, his life with Barney has a gallantry which Americans, inclined to regard their itinerant workers as hobos evading responsibility (such as the pursuit of success), would not easily understand.’ Grant’s second reason for The Doll’s failure on Broadway had to do with it being a ‘warm and heartening play’ in the tradition of Chekhov. ‘It is a fair reflection of the simple beliefs and hopeful energy of the country from which it came,’ he wrote. But set against the ‘run of guilt, frustration and great tragedy which Broadway has had in the post-war years’, typified by the Southern Baroque of Tennessee Williams, Lawler’s play seemed ‘tame’, and ‘the vigour of The Doll would not save it’.

Grant closed his analysis with a big picture view: ‘Ray Lawler’s gifts are theatrical and Broadway has long beenand will remainpart of the world’s theatre. For success, the two must come together. If they do not, it is a failure’. But failure, he emphasised, ‘is different from a fault. It is better to regard both The Doll and Broadway as valid, and try to work out what kept them apart’.107

In the last days of The Doll’s New York run, Lawler was already contemplating another play about ‘the Doll people’.108 That play would emerge 15 years later, in the shape of a prequel but in the early hours of 16 February 1958, Lawler faced a more pressing task: finding his way home.

‘When we came out of the pub, there were still no taxis,’ he said, ‘but we were OK and fairly near our hotel. Olivier was staying at the Algonquin, a good way downtown, and watching him head off along the street with the snow coming down, I thought: ‘What a wonderful thing to have done on our last night, probably just because he thought we were in the depths of gloom’. We weren’t, actually’.109

Note on Images

The photographs by Henry Talbot were taken in July 1956 during the play’s second Melbourne season at the Comedy Theatre. Lloyd Berrell played Roo on this occassion.

The publicity photographs used for both the UK and New York season’s of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll were taken by Angus McBean during the play’s try-out season at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham in April 1957.

References

Allan Aldous, Theatre in Australia, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1947

The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: The first year, Sydney, 1956

Baillieu Library Exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the MTC: Keeping The Drama On Stage, University of Melbourne, 2003

Katharine Brisbane, ‘Growing up in Australia’, Introduction to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978

Ernest Burbridge, ‘Is The Doll exportable?’, Adult Education, September 1956

Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2001

Wal Cherry, ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’, Meanjin, Autumn 1956

Gwendda Coalstad, Theatre in Victoria, Council of Adult Education, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1950

Peter Coleman (Ed.), Australian Civilization: A Symposium, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1962

Peter Fitzpatrick, After the Doll: Australian Drama since 1955, Edward Arnold, Melbourne, 1979

Bruce Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, Meanjin, September 1957

Bruce Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Adult Education, March 1958

Fiona Gregory, ‘High Cultural Histrionics: Judith Anderson’s 1955 Australian Tour’, Australasian Drama Studies 48 (April 2006)

Derham Groves, The Doll Theatre Project: Designing a theatre for Ray Lawler’s Doll Trilogy, slv.vic.gov.au

Hugh Hunt, The Making of Australian Theatre, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960

Geoffrey Hutton, It Won’t Last A Week: The first twenty years of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1975

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2014

Ray Lawler, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978 edition

Ray Lawler, The Doll Trilogy: Kid Stakes, Other Times, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978

Keith Macartney, ‘The Shifting Heart’, Meanjin, June 1958

John McCallum, ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995

Garry O’Connor, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Hodder & Stoughton, Melbourne, 1984

Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Development of theatre in Australia: A Survey 1956-57’, Meanjin, April 1958

Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor, Coronet Books, Great Britain, 1982

John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent, Chatto and Windus, London, 1958

Todd S. Purdum, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2018

Robert Ray, ‘The Rise and demise of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’ (Part 1), Theatre Heritage Australia, theatreheritage.org.au

Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, Miegunyah Press, 1995

Melanie Sheridan, ‘Meet John Sumner & Ray Lawler’, Melbourne Theatre Company, mtc.com.au

Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier: A Biography. Harper Collins, London, 1991

John Sumner, Recollections at Play: A Life in Australian Theatre, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1993

John H. Valder, ‘From Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll is First Australian Play to Be Done Here’, New York Times, 19 January 1958

Endnotes

1. Playbill for ‘Summer of the 17th [sic] Doll’, Coronet Theatre, New York, January 1958, playbill.com

2. Ray Lawler quoted in John H. Valder, ‘From Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll is First Australian Play to Be Done Here’, New York Times, 19 January 1958, p.1

3. British dramatist Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) was renowned for his hit West End plays such as the Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948) and Separate Tables (1954). Having attended The Doll’s London opening on 30 April 1957, he told reporters: ‘I found the play utterly modern, absolutely contemporary, about real people, and deeply moving. I will come to see it again’. Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1957

4. English theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980) wrote weekly columns in the Observer. In his 5 May, 1957 review of The Doll, Tynan praised Lawler for presenting ‘working people’ as ‘human beings in their own right, exulting in universal pleasures and nagged by universal griefs ... we have found ourselves a [new] playwright, and it is time to rejoice’. Quoted in ‘The play in the Theatre’, from Ray Lawler, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press Sydney, 1978, p.xxxiv

5. Harold Hobson, Sunday Times, 5 May, 1957, ibid p.xxxi

6. John Sumner, Recollections at Play: A Life in the Australian Theatre, p.76

7. Sydney Sun, 9 May, 1957

8. Sumner, p.76. John Hackman Sumner (1924-2003) entered professional theatre as an assistant stage manager in Dundee, Scotland and was later stage director and manager for the London-based commercial entrepreneur H.M. Tennant Ltd. Arriving in Melbourne in 1952 to manage the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne, Sumner persuaded the University to support a small professional acting company that could use the theatre when it was not required by students. The Union Theatre Repetory Company (UTRC) was born, dedicated to presenting ‘theatrical entertainments not generally offered by commercial managements’. Through the UTRC, Sumner also wanted to ‘encourage [Australian] playwrights’ by presenting their work ‘whenever practical’. For a biography of Sumner, see the Australian Live Performance Hall of Fame. liveperformance.com.au

9.  ibid, p.77

10. ibid, p.76

11. Hugh Hunt, The Making of Australian Theatre, p.40. British born theatre director and producer Hugh Hunt (1911-1993) was executive director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) for five years (1954-59). He came to Australia with a sterling reputation as a theatre maker, having managed the Old Vic Company in London and Ireland’s Abbey Theatre.

12. Oscar Hammerstein’s long distance correspondence with Richard Rodgers, from the Hotel Windsor, is described in Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, pp.10-11. Hammerstein visited Melbourne with his Australian born wife, Dorothy Blanchard, ‘a former chorus girl from Tasmania’, p.180

13. Valder, p.3

14. British born Lawrence Langner (1890-1962) arrived in the United States in 1911 and co-founded the Theatre Guild in 1919. The Guild’s progressive reputation was built on its enduring support for playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill. Langner, a prominent patent attorney, also wrote and produced plays for the Provincetown Players and established the Westport Country Playhouse.

15. Roger L. Stevens (1910-1998) co-produced West Side Story, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Man for All Seasons. See New York Times  Obituary, 4 February 1998, nytimes.com

16. Quoted in Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier: A Biography, p.235. Between the wars, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) made his name on the British stage playing Shakespearean roles, but his wider fame in the late 1930s rested principally on Hollywood films such as Fire Over England (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1939).

17. Confessions of an Actor, p.174

18. Spoto, p.182. ‘He [Olivier] was ever conscious of his place in the English hierarchy. Vivien [Leigh], with her beauty, intelligence and talent, quickly adapted to the demands of their august status’.

19. Cited in Valder, p.1

20. Allan Aldous, Theatre in Australia, p.45

21. Rusty Bugles premiered at Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in October 1948 and was the first Australian play to be given a professional production after World War Two. Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991), a Sydney actor and dramatist, only heard a reading of it before his departure to the United States in July that year. See Katharine Brisbane’s ‘Rusty Bugle’s entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press Sydney, 1993, pp.515-516

22. Hunt, p.16

23. Tyrone Guthrie, who visited Australia in April 1949 as a guest of the British Council, observed: ‘The best local actors – many of whom have talent of potential top standardcontinue to leave Australia, and with great difficulty struggle in Britain and America. If successful, they become British and American actors and their gifts are totally lost to Australia, and cannot truthfully be regarded as an expression of Australia’. Quoted in Gwendda Coalstad (Ed.), Theatre in Victoria, p.4

24. The Guthrie Report, prepared by Tyrone Guthrie (a former administrator of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells), noted standards of performance were very low in Australia and recommended a contentious ‘import-export’ strategy: importing first class British productions to elevate audience appreciation, and exporting ‘theatre workers’ to London to help them meet ‘cosmopolitan, not provincial standards’. See ‘Guthrie Report’ entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, pp.255-256

25. The AETT was backed by government subsidy and public subscription. Dr Coombs said ‘the ultimate aim of the Trust must be to establish a native drama, opera and ballet which will give professional employment to Australian actors, singers and dancers and furnish opportunities for those such as writers, composers and artists whose creative work is related to the theatre’. See H.C. Coombs, ‘The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’, Meanjin, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1954, pp.283-285

26. Valder, p.3. Lawler was just 23 years old when he sold his first stage play to J.C.Williamson. His early plays included Hal’s Belles, Storm in a Haven, and Cradle of Thunder (which won the 1949 Commonwealth Jubilee play Competition). Reflecting on his early scripts, Lawler said: ‘My advice to young playwrights is: stay away from backgrounds you don’t know intimately’.

27. Summary in Adult Education, September 1956, p.8

28. ibid, p.6

29. Sumner, p.62

30. Quoted in Geoffrey Hutton, It Won’t Last a Week: The first twenty years of the Melbourne Theatre Company, p.29

31. ibid, p.30

32. Sumner, p.64. ‘The vernacular [of the play] tended to make people put on an exaggerated accent,’ he recalled, ‘so things could sound very forced’.

33. ibid, p.66

34. Hutton, p.31

35. Cited in Katharine Brisbane, ‘The Play in the Theatre’, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, p.xxiii

36. ibid, p.xxvi

37. Cited in Peter Fitzpatrick, After The Doll: Australian Drama Since 1955, p.1

38. The Bulletin, 18 January 1956. The magazine’s anonymous critic thought the play needed ‘more of a canecutting ending ... unless it is to be wild, extreme and exalted like Lear, the drift into age makes merely a depressing theme; and in any case, Lawler’s two canecutters seem still too young to go tottering off’.

39. George Molnar, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January, 1956, reproduced in The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: The first year, Sydney, 1956

40. J. Griffen-Foley, ‘True Australian Play at Last’, Daily Telegraph, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxvii

41. Dame Sybil Thorndike, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 January 1956. Dame Sybil and her husband, actor Sir Lewis Casson were starring in an AETT sponsored production of Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, with Sir Ralph Richardson.

42. Ernest Burbridge, ‘Is The Doll exportable?’, Adult Education, September 1956, p. 6

43. Sumner, p.68. Following its first successful Sydney season, The Doll went on tour, visiting 60 country towns in New South Wales and Queensland in three months. The play returned to Sydney in March, as part of the ‘classical tour’ by the newly formed Australian Drama Company. The Doll was played in tandem with Twelfth Night and The Rivals.

44. Laurence Olivier, co-producer, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxx. Sumner remembered ‘complaints in Adelaide that ‘This really is not a very nice play’. Then, with the news that Hugh Hunt had interested Sir Laurence Olivier in presenting it in London with an Australian company, some of the distrust evaporated’.

45. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1956

46. Critic Lindsey [sic] Browne in Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1956. Browne was the SMH’s chief music, drama and film critic from 1947 to 1960.

47. Cited by Derham Groves, The Doll Theatre Project: Designing a theatre for Ray Lawler’s Doll Trilogy, slv.vic.gov.au

48. ibid

49. Sumner, p.71-72. ‘Vivien Leigh came in and greeted me warmly ... she stayed with us a while, providing refreshments and chatting, and we were soon to see more of her’.

50. ibid. In an unpublished 2011 conversation with the author, Lawler remembered: ‘With our out of town tour in England, Vivien [Leigh] came with us and took us around ... she was wonderful and made sure we were happy and well looked after’.

51. Sumner, p.77. ‘Ray once summed Elsie up, wisely I thought, by saying she was most in her element when things went wrong; then, she could be a tower of strength’.

52. ibid. Sumner: ‘I asked for some weeks of out-of-town tryout to allow the cast to become adjusted to American audiences’.

53. Daily Mirror (Sydney), 23 January 1958, report from New York bureau. Sumner called The Doll’s giant Broadway postershowing ‘a sexy girl by a lamp post’‘unsuitable’, p.78.

54. ibid

55. Sumner, p.77

56. ibid

57. Valder, p.1

58. Hecht-Lancaster Productions earned a Best Picture Oscar for Marty (1955). A year later, under the new name Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, it enjoyed critical acclaim for Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and a box office hit with Separate Tables (1958).

59. Dame Sybil Thorndike, Adelaide Advertiser, 25 July 1957

60. Lawler and Plant, 2011

61. Robin Boyd, Age, 21 September 1957. See Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, p.171-174. Serle, who describes the ‘Austerica’ article as ‘a classic of pamphleteering invective’, reports that the Australian-American Association was ‘gravely offended’ by Boyd’s remarks.

62. ibid

63. ibid, p.172. Boyd explained: ‘Austerica is on no map; it is, as an Austerican advertisement would say, not a place but a way of life ... Austerica’s chief industry is the imitation of the froth on the top of the American soda fountain drink. Its religion is ‘glamor’ and the devotees are psychologically displaced persons who picture heaven the pool terrace of a Las Vegas hotel’.

64. Textile manufacturer and arts patron Claudio Alcorsco, in a letter to Robin Boyd about ‘Austerica’, 22 September 1957. Quoted Serle, p.174

65. John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent, p.17

66. Poet James McAuley, ‘Literature and the Arts’, in Australian Civilization: A Symposium edited by Peter Coleman, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1962, p.122

67. bid. ‘The myth of true Australianity is still something to be reckoned with,’ McAuley wrote.

68. Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Development of theatre in Australia: A Survey 1956-57’, Meanjin, April 1958, p.60

69. Keith Macartney, ‘The Shifting Heart’, Meanjin, June 1958, p.188. Associate director, critic and producer’, Macartney was attached to the English department at the University of Melbourne.

70. Eunice Hanger, ‘Forebears of The Doll’, Southerly, vol 18, 1 March 1957, p.29. Hanger went on to write: ‘There have been plays by Australians successfully staged in England before now; but they were never done with an all-Australian cast, they were not often on an Australian theme, and when they were, they were not comparable in kind with The Doll’.

71. Valder, p.3

72. Sumner, p.76

73. New York Times, 17 July 1957, ‘London Stage Hit Bought for Film’. Olivier befriended Lancaster and Hecht after they secured film rights to The Devil’s Disciple. Olivier agreed to play British General John Burgoyne in their movie version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, hoping HHL might finance his film of Macbeth. Production on The Devil’s Disciple (starring Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) did not start in America until late 1958, when HHL was simultaneously shooting Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in Australia.

74. Sumner, p.76

75. Lawler and Plant, 2011

76. Valder, p.1

77. ‘Prefatory Note from the Author’, Playbill for Summer of the 17th Doll, private collection

78. Sumner, p.77

79. ibid

80. Pringle, p.19

81. Valder, p.3

82. Sumner, p.77

83. Hanger, p.31

84. Hilda Spiel, ‘Australian Writers Come of Age, Southerly, vol. 19, December 1958

85. Bruce Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Adult Education, vol. 2, March 1958, p.10

86. Sumner, p.77

87. Hutton, p.31

88. Sumner, p.77

89. Cited in Bruce Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, Meanjin, September 1957, p.295. Grant noted: ‘Unlike most contemporary plays, The Doll did not divide the critics: it united them, high and low’. But Sumner went on to tell Grant that ‘fundamentally, it did not matter whether the play went well in London or not. It would not disprove anything about the play’.

90. Sumner, p.77

91. Grant, ‘Why The Doll failed on Broadway’, p.11

92. Sumner, p.78

93. Review extracts of The Doll by Watts, Aston, Coleman and Kerr cited in Grant, ‘Why The Doll failed on Broadway’, p.11

94. Sumner, p.78

95. Brooks Atkinson, ‘Theatre: Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll Staged Here’, New York Times, 23 January 1958, p.23. One well-travelled reader, David Reddig of New York, leapt to The Doll’s defence in a letter to the NY Times on 2 February, 1958: ‘Having witnessed performances of Summer of the 17th Doll in London and in New York, I wish to rebut your critic’s comments on the play. Although Ray Lawler is writing of ‘commonplace people’, he states some verities which are all too often forgotten. How many of us today have substituted an illusion for the real thing? Mr Lawler has not only captured the true atmosphere of his homeland, he has given us an evening of theatre singularly free of the Freudian overtones so common to contemporary American drama’.

96. Sumner, p.78

97. Burbridge, p.8

98. Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, p.298

99. Sumner, p.78

100. ibid

101. Lawler and Plant, 2011

102. Sumner, p.78

103. Lawler met Brisbane actress Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher on the Queensland leg of The Doll’s Australian tour, where she appeared as Bubba. They were engaged in June 1956. Kelleher replaced Fenella Maguire as Bubba but pregnancy, later that year, prevented her from replaying the role in England. Maguire was also committed to another commercial production. So, Sumner turned to Zoe Caldwell, an 18-year-old Melbourne actress who had appearedwith Kelleherin the AETT’s 1955 production of Medea (starring Judith Anderson). Caldwell was also maid of honour at Kelleher’s wedding. In The Doll, Sumner said Caldwell ‘gave a lovely portrayal [as Bubba]’ but when Maguire became ‘available again’, she was chosen for the English tour. See Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey, Text Publishing, 2001, pp.53-54.

104. Sumner, p.78

105. Lawler and Plant, 2011. The Entertainer, starring Laurence Olivier, opened at New York’s Royale theatre on 12 February, 1958three days before the curtain fell on The Doll. The Coronet’s next production (from 4 March, 1958) was The Waltz of the Toreadors.

106. Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, p.298

107. Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, pp.10-12

108. In his introduction to The Doll Trilogy, 1978, Sumner remembered: ‘Very soon after the opening of The Doll in New York, in January 1958, Ray Lawler mentioned that he felt he still had another play to write about the characters he had created’. p.vii. Lawler, in fact, went on to write two more plays about The Doll characters, tracing their lives from the summer of the first doll (Kid Stakes) through World War Two (Other Times) to the fatal seventeenth year. The trilogy was performed twice by Melbourne Theatre Company in 1977.

109. Lawler and Plant, 2011

 

SIMON PLANT concludes his exploration of the artists Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton backstage at the Bijou Theatre.

In the late 1880s, Melbourne’s entertainment district was concentrated in and around the eastern end of Bourke Street. Hemmed in by grog houses, coffee palaces and shops selling ‘notions and novelties’, theatres still carried a whiff of impropriety but the city’s significant playhouses—the Princess, the Alexandra, the Theatre Royal and the Bijou—were becoming ‘more respectable’ and equal to anything seen in London. Their interiors, replete with statuary and urns, chandeliers and elaborately chased spittoons, all telegraphed High Art aspirations. ‘The artisan in the ‘Gods’ attended much the same plays and operas as the merchant in his box and the shopkeeper in the stalls,’ writes urban historian Graeme Davison. But ticket prices established a definite pecking order: a private box cost five guineas, a reserved stalls seat was five shillings and one shilling bought a ‘standing room’ place in the upper circle.

McCubbin could probably have afforded a box—he was appointed acting master and instructor at the National Gallery School of Design in 1886 with an annual salary of 300 pounds a year—but such extravagance was out of the question for a newly married man. Roberts, best man at McCubbin’s wedding, was still supporting his art with part time work as a photographer’s assistant. A reserved stalls seat suited him ... not that this 32-year-old bachelor would often have been spending his own money. By the autumn of 1889, Roberts was the only Melbourne artist on the Government House reception list.

Melbourne theatregoers were spoiled for choice. As Easter loomed in 1889, they could enjoy arias at the Prince of Wales Opera House, comic opera (The Yeomen of the Guard) at the Princess, patriotic drama (Bland Holt’s Union Jack) at the Theatre Royal, and—if they were lucky enough to snare a ticket—Robbery Under Arms at the Alexandra. Only the Bijou was ‘dark’, awaiting the return of Brough and Boucicault’s company of players. When they did re-open, it was only for one night: the Bijou burnt down on 11 April. Spong lost sketches and photographs in the Easter Monday blaze but sets stored close by were rescued and hauled north. The whole organisation relocated to Sydney’s Criterion Theatre and Money—featuring Roberts’ Old Master ‘paintings’—was ‘announced’ as a new season highlight. Preoccupied with preparations for a Melbourne exhibition of small ‘impressions’, Roberts was not present for the play’s opening night in June but his absence did nothing to diminish his reputation with Brough and Boucicault. The duo promptly engaged him to co-design an act drop for Melbourne’s soon to be rebuilt Bijou.

The act drop—the scene that fell to hide the stage between theatre acts—remained in constant view of the audience during intervals in the performance and was created without deference to the demands of plot, actors, costuming or lighting. The act drop was complete in itself, the scene artists’ diploma of merit. Boucicault set his team a tight deadline—5 April 1890, in time for the delayed Melbourne premiere of Money—but in a January 1890 letter to James Smith, he expressed confidence in their abilities: ‘I think with Roberts on the figures, Spong will be able to make a pretty picture’.

Only five months earlier, Smith—a pillar of Melbourne’s Anglophile Establishment—had savaged Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton in print. Reviewing The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, at Buxton’s Rooms, the Argus critic took issue with their attempt to show ‘effects of a fleeting character’ and described the sketchy scenes on show as ‘a pain the eye’. One scene, Streeton’s Princess & ‘Burke & Wills’ (1889), offered a view of the Burke and Wills monument in front of the Princess Theatre in Spring Street. To Smith, these cameos on cigar box lids were marked by ‘slap dash brushwork’ and ‘sleight of hand methods of execution’, redolent of paint pots being ‘accidentally upset’ over panels.

Smith, nudging 70, wished to see ‘proper’ pictures combining realism—the ‘correctness’ of a photograph—with poetic expression and a fine finish. In other words, the easel equivalent of stage scenery. Roberts responded like a canny theatre promoter and pinned the Argus review to the door at Buxton’s. In came the crowds, eager ‘to view the dreadful paintings’. Smith had his supporters. Even Spong thought ‘the works [in the 9 by 5 Exhibition] could not bear comparison with the slightest sketch by a genuine artist-craftsman’ but his admiration for Roberts’ versatility ran deep. Visiting Grosvenor Chambers in the first half of 1889, he would have seen the big ‘history painting’ his friend was working on (later known as Shearing the Rams) and another large story painting titled Jealousy (1889). Both canvases—shown in the company of a new McCubbin work titled Down on his Luck—confirmed Roberts’ compositional skills and ability to orchestrate multiple figures.

The central observing figure in Jealousy has been identified as the actress, Alfreda Bevan. Roberts called on her talents again for Cream and Black (1889), a smaller work where Bevan was shown reclining on a chair in layers of white chiffon. Art historian Angus Trumble admires ‘the ease with which Roberts handles the textures of feathers, lace and the sheen of stiff bombazine’ in his 1888 portrait of private school mistress Madame Pfund. Robert Hughes has also noted how ‘he [Roberts] enjoyed the transparency of veils, the texture of silk, fur and feathers, and complicated lights on hair’.

This sympathy for fabrics, and the very correct adornment of female figures, perhaps explains why Brough and Boucicault invited Roberts to design costumes ‘of the seventeenth century’ for a ‘new romantic drama’ titled Devotion. It was a tricky commission, requiring ‘an elegance of deportment such as only to be found in great French theatre’. This seems at odds with the wristy studies he was making in mustering yards along the Murray but as Manning Clark has pointed out, Roberts was accustomed to leading a double life: ‘By day in the bush or on the beach ... corks were to be seen dangling from his hat in the style of a swaggie. By night, he patronised the pleasures of the city’s bourgeoisie, wearing the top hat, white tie and swallow tail coat of high society’.

Accustomed to this freedom of movement, Roberts must have chafed against restrictions imposed on him in the design of the Bijou’s act drop. Artists tackling such a prestigious commission were expected to paint either classical allusions or ‘souvenirs of imaginary Grand Tours’ such as temples and pastoral scenes. Boucicault admitted: ‘A new subject is hard to find as the field is so limited’. On this occasion, he favoured a decorative composition combining classic theatre signatures (a mask, a musical instrument) and insisted ‘the colouring must be bright’. Boucicault, a fastidious man, even had a title in mind: ‘Comedy banishing Melancholy’. We have only a crude black and white drawing from the Australasian newspaper to suggest the finished product but it is possible to make out sketchily drawn figures reclining or taking flight amongst Doric columns and swagged drapes. Certainly, no expense was spared. The ‘beautiful and commodious’ new Bijou was rebuilt at a cost of 32,000 pounds, the act drop alone costing 350 pounds. How much of that Roberts pocketed for himself remains a mystery but distracted by ill health and ‘preoccupied with the shearing shed canvas’, he would have welcomed his fee.

Going Through a Stage

Roberts missed the act drop ‘reveal’—he was away again, on a painting trip in Tasmania—but by the time he returned to Melbourne in May 1890, the Bijou was back in business. So was he. In July, Roberts sold Shearing the Rams to a stock and station agent for 350 guineas. This sale enabled him to give up his photographic studio job. Frustratingly, Roberts was still unable to interest the National Gallery of Victoria in any of his paintings.

Streeton had more luck in April 1890 when the National Gallery of New South Wales agreed to purchase ‘Still Glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’. This was the first of his works to enter a public collection and buoyed by the interest shown, he travelled to Sydney in June. It did not go well financially. ‘Things are very slow here,’ he reported to Roberts in a letter signed ‘Wretched Smike’, adding, ‘Victorian people I think are a bit quicker to feel Art’.

Streeton’s Sydney sojourn at least sated his appetite for live theatre. ‘I have seen ‘Frou Frou’, ‘Macbeth’, Dolls House [sic],’ he crowed ... all starring the respected English actress Janet Achurch. Touring Australasia at the time with actor-husband Charles Charrington, Achurch befriended Streeton and bought one of his harbourside studies. ‘I go & dine at Charringtons [sic] at Woollahra very often,’ he boasted. ‘They are fine people’.

Streeton was even invited to attend a lavish ‘At Home’ soiree inside Her Majesty’s theatre in Sydney, noting how she ‘arranged the stage beautifully with Carpets & Chairs Umbrellas & lounges draperies lights ... music in full swing in the dress circle’.

Melbourne’s ‘Impressionists’ were stirred by a similar visual sense when they stage managed The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. Inspired by a landmark London exhibition displaying ‘small atmospheric sketches’ by James McNeill Whistler, they hung ‘scarves and draperies of soft clinging silk’ from redwood picture frames and arranged ‘Japanese umbrellas, screens and handsome jardinières’ to create a ‘most harmonious arrangement of colour’.

Roberts’ flair for showmanship was paramount. Visiting Grosvenor Chambers in 1889, Nancy Elmhurst Goode remembered, ‘there was always a bowl of gum [leaf] tips ... and tall bulrushes in an Ali Baba jar’. Another visitor in the early 1890s marvelled at how ‘the walls are draped from frieze to floor with china blue muslin ... leopard skins, large vases filled with feathery grasses’.

Streeton occupied Roberts’ studio in the first half of 1891 and confessed: ‘Since you’ve been away [in the Riverina] I seem to have only painted one thing & that I did in a few days’. This lean period coincided with his scene painting work at the Bijou, and a good deal of socialising with the ‘theatrical set’. A January jotting noted: ‘Just had lunch & back from Williamstown & Queens Whf. [sic]’ in the company of ‘[Robert] Brough & all the rest’ which included Walter Spong, Mrs Spong and their budding actress-daughter Hilda‘ (‘Very fine and charming’). March saw him at the ‘Austral salon’—a newly formed Collins Street club for women advancing cultural pursuits—where ‘they had lots of pretty people there & some music’. Then, in June, he delighted in hearing Charles Cartwright—a celebrated English dramatic actor—‘rehersing [sic]’ a ‘song of his downstairs on stage ... Ive [sic] met him nice chap’.

In the same letter, probably dated the second week of June 1891, he wrote: ‘Just met [character actor, George] Anson, [artist Julian] Ashton making sketches of him here’. Then there was Janet Achurch, back in Melbourne for a return season. ‘I see Miss Achurch a good deal,’ he reported, adding ‘her acting is very splendid & great’.

Streeton relished the company of actors and musicians. ‘A man whose eyes were misty with spiritual longings’, he would have found them responsive to his ruminations on classical music and romantic literature. And if their chatter was ‘tinged with a certain degree of ‘shoppiness’, to quote Robert Whitworth (Velvet and Rags), ‘members of the [acting] profession’ were said to be ‘far more entertaining than that heard at the bar of military mess’.

Whitworth believed theatre people were ‘imbued with a kind of civilised nomadic instinct’, living ‘as it were’ in ‘a world of their own, half of which is as unreal as the other half is a matter of fact and actual’. The Heidelberg School painters were nomads as well. Their lives were equally uncertain and, like actors, they knew they were only as good as their last show. There was one other less tangible connection. Devotees of Impressionism sought to capture fleeting atmospheric effects by painting in front of a specific motif at a particular time of day. As Roberts explained: ‘Two half hours are never the same’. He could just as easily have been talking about theatre. Every audience was different, every performance subject to the vagaries of chance, and Streeton was forcibly reminded of this when he saw Sarah Bernhardt in Melbourne. The legendary French tragedienne—described by devoted fans as the ‘Queen of Actresses’—visited Australia in the winter of 1891 and had audiences ‘hoorooing [sic] from the stalls’. Bernhardt’s ‘Governor’s Night’ performance of La Tosca at the Princess Theatre on 3 June was disorderly if Streeton’s account is accurate:

The Evening of Sara [sic] La Tosca. Some boys started singing Clementine. People did not like it & kicked up a row—but twas [sic] long time to wait and it was going jolly—then the Gov. came in Orchestra God save her nibs & all the house standing – the boys make it ‘Jolly good fellow & c’ Such a picnic. Smike

Describing Madame Bernhardt’s performance, Streeton swooned like a teenager: ‘She herself is splendid Oh Grand’.

Grandest of all was Shakespeare. Explaining his lifelong devotion to the Bard, McCubbin harked back to his student days when ‘Bible subjects, then Shakespeare’s plays ... were the two great sources of our inspiration’. As usual, Streeton was more emphatic: ‘Great God or Shakespeare, where’s the difference it should be written on our brows—to keep us firm & to our purpose’. Impresario George Coppin claimed ‘he always lost money by Shakespeare’, without a star, but the Bard’s plays—revered for their ‘literary and moral virtues’—were a pillar of mid-nineteenth century theatre. Hamlet was Melbourne’s most performed play in the 1860s.

Much Ado About Nothing was another favourite. Notable productions, all at the Theatre Royal, featured Barry Sullivan in 1865 and the W.J. Holloway company in 1888. Inspired by an acclaimed Henry Irving production in London, Brough and Boucicault ‘announced’ their own Much Ado for the reopening of the Bijou. The cast list included two familiar names in Streeton’s letters: ‘Miss Hilda Spong’, as Ursula, and ‘Mr G.W. Anson’ as Dogberry. But, as the Australasian reported, ‘there were too many difficulties in the way for its production at the time and eventually Money was played in its stead’.

Work on Much Ado’s 15 scenes, all set in Sicily, commenced in the second half of 1890. Spong was said to be ‘painting now and then ... sometimes getting a week’s work at it without a break.’ ‘It gradually grew and as each scene, or portion of a scene, was completed it was stored away carefully till wanted’. Art historians Geoffrey Smith and Humphrey McQueen date the involvement of Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton from around October that year. Callaway prefers to put them in the Bijou frame from mid-1891: ‘Although the production had been in preparation for some time, a waiting period of 14 months seems unlikely’.

By January 1891, a journalist was describing ‘some of the biggest cloths yet painted for the Bijou’ and telling readers how Spong and Churchward, his chief assistant, were close to having ‘the marble floor for the ballroom scene finished at last ... getting out the perspective alone took nearly a fortnight’.

By mid-year, major work would have been well advanced, perhaps awaiting the addition of human figures by ‘local artists’. Streeton was certainly available. In a June 1891 letter to Roberts, describing his routine, he jotted: ‘11.30am Monday morning Bijou Theatre’. The time of day indicates a work commitment, not a front-of-house occasion. Roberts was still up on the Murray River, working on a companion picture to Shearing the Rams titled A Break Away! He would not return to Melbourne until the end of the month.

‘With his fastidiously trimmed beard and his leather bound copies of Shelley and Ruskin, he [Roberts] must have cut an odd bohemian figure around shearing sheds,’ writes Davison. But being ‘erudite, stylish, Academy trained, French speaking and a literary aficionado’, he could ‘always immerse himself in the context of his present surroundings’. Writing to the Argus in July 1890, Roberts relayed the ‘delight and fascination’ he felt ‘lying on piled-up wool bales, and hearing and seeing the troops come pattering into their pens’. Perhaps he found the same ‘subdued hum of hard fast working’ in the Bijou paint room, another unpretentious environment where the slap of wet brooms replaced the ‘rhythmic click of shears’, where the winching of coloured cloth was heard instead of the ‘screwing of presses’.

Were Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton ever in the room together? We know all three were in Melbourne in July 1891 but can only imagine the scene. Bearded and bespectacled ‘Bulldog’, pressing his spatula-like thumb onto paint-smeared cloth; eager young ‘Smike’ moving back and forth with a fine bristle brush to get his ‘eye’ in; and the avuncular ‘Prof’, muttering and whistling Wagner the way he always did at Box Hill. No wattle blossom backstage, of course. At the Bijou, they were splodgers. Not smudgers.

Curtains

Out in the field, Roberts urged fellow easel artists to open their eyes to natural wonders, to the ‘exquisite delicate variations in colour and glow in the sky at sunset and the cosy flush of the afterglow’.

The theatre world was different. Subtler effects of nature were lost in the artificial glare with gaudy sunrises and bright blue skies outgunning the quiet greys of dawn. But scene artists were becoming more sophisticated. Previewing Much Ado at the Bijou, the Australasian noted how ‘the audiences of today have been educated up to such a standard, both in dresses and scenery, that the simple sets of years gone by ... which could be drawn back or pushed forward at pleasure, would be howled out’.

Theatre reviews in 1891 confirm it. Reporting on a refurbished Theatre Royal in July, the Age relished John Brunton’s ‘beautiful’ new ‘act drop scene’ of Stratford-upon-Avon, ‘surmounted by a medallion of the divine bard’, and lavished ‘nothing but praise’ on the ‘scenery and general stage effects’ in its new drama The Dancing Girl. Theatregoers were particularly enchanted with a seascape showing ‘bold jutting cliffs, flowing into the blue waters of a peaceful bay’.

Spong’s scenery in Devotion, opening at the Bijou in August, was described as ‘charming’ but ‘dresses designed by Mr. T. Roberts’, and judged to be ‘correct in detail and very handsome’, attracted special kudos. As it turned out, Devotion was a misfire and closed early. Brough and Boucicault’s Melbourne contingent travelled to Sydney’s Criterion, presumably leaving Spong to complete his epic backdrops for Much Ado. At the play’s full dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve, he was said to look ‘thoroughly fagged’ and still fussing over ripples in a painted garden lake. He need not have worried. When the Bijou’s curtain finally rose on Boxing Day, ‘round after round of applause acknowledged the skill of the artist’.

Reviewing Much Ado, the Age critic remarked on the ‘unprecedented gorgeousness’ of the ‘magnificent tableaux’ which ‘for brilliant effect and elaborate fidelity has not been remotely approached in this country previously’. The Sicilian setting, he added, was of such ‘unusual merit’ that it took some time for ‘the artistic sense of the house’ to ‘recover from the first glamour of an impression’ and ‘centre, once more, on the performance’. ‘In saying this ... our aim is to insist that the brilliant work of the scenic artist must be considered after the intelligent and brilliant acting of the company’. In other words, the man from the Age walked out of the Bijou humming the scenery. What he failed to do was credit the three Heidelberg School painters who had helped Spong work his magic.

Two weeks before Melbourne’s best and brightest attended the opening of Much Ado, another show quietly closed. This Great City—a new home grown drama by Alfred Dampier—had opened on 21 November at the Alexandra and was promoted in the press as a ‘powerful attraction’ ... but not powerful enough. Dampier—who had prospered with Robbery Under Arms and another Boldrewood adaptation, The Miner’s Right—was in financial strife and brought the curtain down on 11 December. By June 1892, he was insolvent. Rallying to his aid, the ‘whole of the theatrical profession’—including Coppin, Williamson, Musgrove, Brough, Boucicault and Hennings—organised a ‘complimentary matinee’ for his benefit. It was a show of force but with Melbourne newspapers pronouncing ‘The End of the Boom’, every theatre manager had reason to fear for the future.

In early 1892, crime was rampant in the ‘Queen City of the South’. Unemployment was soaring. ‘Commotion and anxiety prevailed in the business world’. With the end of its material prosperity, Melbourne’s ‘culture’ evaporated as well. ’Oriel’ of the Argus forlornly noted: ‘I pass down Bourke Street every day and see the doors of the [Theatre] Royal hermetically sealed’.

Starved of lucrative portrait commissions and struggling to sell weekend ‘impressions’, artists left town too. Roberts and Streeton were among the first to leave, steaming out of Port Phillip Bay in early September 1891, bound for Sydney. Streeton explained: ‘I want to stay here [in Australia] but not in Melb. ... I intend to head straight inland ... and create some things entirely new’.

By December, Streeton was west of Sydney and observing the construction of a zig-zagging railway line across the Blue Mountains. His painting, Fire’s On, depicted real on-the-spot human drama—the death of a railway worker in a dynamite explosion in the Lapstone Tunnel—and was exhibited at the VAS in May 1892. Displayed nearby was A Break Away! , Roberts’ long awaited painting of a stockman vainly trying to stop a mob of thirsty sheep. McCubbin, still resident in Melbourne, considered A Break Away! ‘strongest all-round picture in the show’ but conceded Fire’s On ‘has a fuller quality’.

Roberts’ reply is not known. Instead of returning to Depression-ravaged Melbourne, as Streeton did, he boarded a ketch and sailed up the coast to Cape York. Another Bijou opening (Much Ado) came and went without him but, somehow, Roberts retained good relations with the people who employed him as an occasional scene artist. In 1895-96, he painted separate portraits of Brough and Boucicault—one gazing back at the artist, the other leaning nonchalantly on a cane. These cameos on cedar panels were intended for a set of images billed as Familiar Faces and Figures and had a longer shelf life than Roberts’ Bijou act drop. In April 1893, barely 18 months after it was painted, the Argus reported ‘the slightly anemic muse set down by Tom Roberts in the midst of [Walter] Spong’s pleasantly wooded background’ was being ‘packed up with the rest of the old props’. Sure enough, by May, ‘Comedy banishing Melancholy’ had ‘given way to a new scene by Mr Spong, representing a pleasant spot in the Forest of Arden’.

McCubbin, the miniature scene maker of yore, had the last laugh. In 1895, Down on his Luck was brought to life at the Princess Theatre as one of a sequence of ‘living pictures’. An actor wearing the same ‘woebgone expression’ as McCubbin’s redoubtable swaggie fronted an ‘atmospheric bush setting’ painted by George Gordon. In the audience on opening night, McCubbin was reportedly ‘delighted with the fidelity with which it [his painting] had been reproduced’. The success of any tableaux vivant, the term for this style of presentation, relied on broad familiarity with the artwork being acted out. Down on his Luck was an obvious choice. McCubbin’s beloved picture, an emblem of loneliness and fortitude, was widely exhibited after 1889 and circulated as a popular photographic print.

How ironic that more people probably saw it on stage than on a wall.

References

Christine Angel, ‘The Woman Who Did: Janet Achurch, Ibsen and the New Woman, Australia 1889-1891’, PhD, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania 2014, eprintsutas.edu.au

Leigh Astbury, ‘Memory and Desire: Box Hill 1885-88’, in Terence Lane (ed.) Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

Anita Callaway, Visual Ephemera: theatrical art in nineteenth-century Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000

Manning Clark, A History of Australia V: The People Make Laws 1888-1915. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981

Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1955

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries: panoramic entertainments in nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002

Julie Cotter, Tom Roberts & the Art of Portraiture, Thames and Hudson, Port Melbourne, 2015

Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979

Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike: the letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1930, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne, 1989

John Gordon, ‘Scene Painting in Australia’, in The Lone Hand, 2 November 1908

Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, 1966

Elisabeth Kumm, The Busy Bees: a theatrical biography of Robert Brough, Dion Boucicault Jnr and their circle, unpublished manuscript

Terence Lane, ‘Grosvenor Chambers, A Phenomenon of Marvellous Melbourne’, in Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

James Macdonald, The Art of F. McCubbin, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1986

Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, 1996

H. McQueen, ‘The Fortunes of Tom Roberts’, in Terence Lane, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

‘Much Ado About Nothing: how a great piece is rehearsed’, Australasian (Melbourne), 2 January 1892

National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Impressionism: NGV Education Resource, ngv.vic.gov.au

Roger Neill, ‘H. Walter Barnett and Falk Studios’ in The Falk Studios: the theatrical portrait photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, Melbourne, 2021

Philip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995

Juliette Peers, ‘Two tenants of Number 9 Collins Street: Tom Roberts and Kate Keziah Eeles’, press-files, anu.edu.au

Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965

John Poynter, The Audacious Adventures of Dr Louis Lawrence Smith 1830-1910, vol. 2, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2014

Ron Radford (ed.), Tom Roberts Retrospective, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Exhibitions Australia, 1996-97

Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1970, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1971

Geoffrey Smith, Arthur Streeton 1867-1943, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995

Arthur Streeton, ‘Eaglemont in the ‘Eighties’, Argus (Melbourne), 16 October 1934

Alex Taylor, Perils of the Studio: inside the artistic affairs of bohemian Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2007

Angus Trumble, ‘Colony and Capital in Australian Impressionist Portraiture’ in Terence Lane, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, 2007

Bridget Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991

Robert Percy Whitworth, ‘Behind the footlights’ in Velvet and Rags: a series of theatrical stories, 1886, digital.slv.vic.go.au

With special thanks to Claudia Funder (Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne) and Elisabeth Kumm (Theatre Heritage Australia)

Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton knew how to make a good impression with theatre scenery, writes SIMON PLANT

IN OUR MIND’S EYE, we see them outdoors—standing under a blazing sun in front of an easel at Box Hill, Mentone or Eaglemont.

But around the time they were creating classic Heidelberg School paintings such as A Break Away!, A Bush Burial and Fire’s On, the three painters most commonly identified with Australian Impressionism found time to paint indoors ... at the Bijou Theatre.

Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton were engaged as ‘guest artists’ for a summer production of Much Ado About Nothing, presented by the Brough and Boucicault Comedy Company. And when they converged on the Bijou’s upstairs paint room, they were not asked to embellish backcloths with pictures of settlers and swaggies. Shakespeare’s merry comedy called for soldiers and sailors. So, Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton got to work: adding figures to theatre scenery painted by others.

Frustratingly, there are no extant images of the sets designed for the Bijou’s Much Ado. Theatre managers of the late nineteenth century regarded scenery as disposable. Big back cloths were habitually painted out when the canvas was required for the next production or discarded when they had deteriorated from use and travel.

We cannot even be sure when Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton were engaged—historians differ on the timing—but we know for certain the work was undertaken and completed. A newspaper listing for ‘Shakespeare’s Comedy’, Much Ado, is dated ‘Boxing Night, Saturday December 26th, 1891’ and credits ‘W.B. Spong’, ‘his assistant Hedley Churchward and son Edward Spong for ‘The Scenery’. A secondary line advises: ‘Figures Painted by Messrs Tom Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin’.

Why were they engaged ahead of others? Who issued the invitation? And what images did the trio paint? So many questions follow from the knowledge that three of our most significant artists were, for a time, moonlighting as theatre scene painters.

Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton first came together in the mid 1880s, chafing against art school tradition by painting Australian subjects in the outdoors and bonding as ‘Brother Smudgers’ at ‘camps’ on Melbourne’s suburban fringe. In August 1889, they were identified with a much discussed display of ‘modern’ art, The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition where small, spontaneous oil studies—or ‘impressions’—were painted on cigar box lids. Soon after, the trio broadened their vision with large subject pictures that spoke to growing nationalistic sentiment: Roberts with Shearing the Rams (1888-90), McCubbin with Down on his Luck (1889) and Streeton with ‘Still Glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890).

Roberts was depicting a masculine world of work on a sheep station, McCubbin the back breaking hardships of pioneering life, and Streeton the sun-streaked glories of the inland. Connecting them all was a desire to break free of Eurocentric views of the Antipodes, to capture the flickering light and stillness of Australia’s bush, and celebrate authentic aspects of an emerging national character: mateship, courage, hard work and resourcefulness.

As art historian Robert Hughes has observed: ‘The Heidelberg painters were basically disciples of “natural vision”: the unpretentious look at familiar things’.

Bark huts and bush breakfasts would seem to have little in common with theatre, a world of glitter, gaiety and calculated pretence. But in my research for this essay, it has become evident that scene painting was not just a nice little earner for Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton. Theatre mattered to each of them. They attended live shows, befriended theatre people, and were alert to the look of stage scenery. Even the way their paintings were constructed, especially those of the late 1880s and early 1890s, tended to align with aspects of theatre: from the ‘casting’ of real actresses as models to the precise direction of ‘scenes’, right down to costumes, props and lighting.

There are gaps in this story which refuse to be filled but by recounting the occasional scenic excursions these Heidelberg School artists made into theatre paint rooms, the memorable images they were making elsewhere acquire new layers of interest and it becomes possible to view Australia’s founding ‘Impressionists’ in a new light.

Fair Play

Eighteen months before Much Ado debuted at the Bijou, the curtain went up on a very different show—Marvellous Melbourne. This parochial melodrama, at the Alexandra Theatre, was part of extended celebrations in the Victorian colony to commemorate a century of British colonisation and its title recycled an oft repeated phrase coined by the British journalist George Augustus Sala. Visiting Melbourne in 1885, Sala had been hugely impressed with the city’s material progress and lively social life and declared the place simply ‘marvellous’. Alfred Dampier, an enterprising actor, dramatist and manager, exaggerated that compliment with a loose miscellany of city scenes and local ‘allusions’, and turned Marvellous Melbourne into a home grown hit.

In the same year, Dampier succeeded with Robbery Under Arms , a dramatic adaptation of Rolf Boldrewood’s bushranger novel of the same name. ‘Every canvas affording a fresh glimpse of Australian bush scenery was applauded as it came into view,’ the Argus critic wrote. Robbery Under Arms proved beyond doubt that local audiences were willing to embrace Australian themes but this quickening of the nationalist pulse was evident in other spheres, too; in the popularity of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s poems in The Bulletin, in brisk sales for Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) and in the gradual appearance of Australian art on suburban walls.

Progressive painters—among them, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton—were adopting the plein air (open air) mode favoured by modern artists in Europe and getting down what they saw—a streetscape or a bush scene—in quick, painterly strokes. Together, they were challenging the ‘conviction that Australian nature was monotonous and melancholy’ and giving new ‘naturalistic interpretations of the Australian sunlit landscape’.

The audience for this work was small. So small that Roberts could only make ends meet by working three days a week as a photographers’ assistant. Eleven years younger, Streeton was apprenticed to a lithographer and supported his sketching with freelance black and white art. McCubbin—the oldest of the three—also sought work as an illustrator for newspapers, depicting urban events, bush workers and pioneer settlers. He only had an assured income after being appointed a drawing master at the National Gallery School. Gallery trustees paid little attention to emerging Australian artists, rarely purchasing their work. But, in August 1888 on the occasion of the Melbourne International Centennial Exhibition, space was allowed for ‘local’ art. Among the many hundreds of pictures representing ‘masters of the great European schools’ were eight canvases by Roberts: four portraits, three ‘outdoor anecdotes’ and a flower piece. Two won orders of merit.

Returning to Melbourne in 1885, after four years away travelling and studying in Europe, Roberts had a rare skill set: the ability to do academic portraits, realist figure paintings and—thanks to a passing acquaintance with French Impressionism—fresh and immediate landscape studies. ‘Portraits put jam on Roberts’ bread and butter,’ historian Humphrey McQueen writes. Middle class professionals—doctors, lawyers, retailers—were keen to announce their ascendancy in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and by 1887, they were beating a path to the door of Roberts’ William Street studio. Their wives and children came too. A Mrs Spong was the subject of A Head Study in early 1888 but it was with her husband that Roberts forged a firm friendship.

Walter Brookes Spong (1851-1929) had arrived in Victoria from England three years earlier, headhunted by Robert Brough and Dion ‘Dot’ Boucicault to be resident scenic artist at their Bijou Theatre. These British actors and theatre managers valued Spong’s experience at Drury Lane, where he had designed scenery for D’Oyly Carte’s company, and through the late 1880s he rewarded their faith with ‘luxurious and appropriate [stage] settings’ in Melbourne. Spong was an accomplished watercolourist as well and had held exhibitions of his own work in London. Sensing a kindred spirit, British born and Academy trained, Roberts secured his support in forming a new break away organisation for professional artists (the Australian Artists’ Association) and welcomed Spong into his new residential studio at the top end of Collins Street.

Grosvenor Chambers was purpose-built for working artists and Roberts—hungry for his share of Marvellous Melbourne’s prosperity—wished to attract discriminating buyers. To that end, he drew on his experience at Stewart’s photography premises in Bourke Street (where he managed props and lighting) and decorated his studio like a theatre set with silks and draperies, agate vases and Japanese screens. His portrait of Mrs L.A. Abrahams (1888) offered fugitive glimpses of his studio’s raffish style but to fully appreciate its charms, one needed to pay a visit on Wednesday afternoon when guests were served tea, serenaded with music and urged to inspect new canvases. These bohemian ‘conversaziones’ attracted pastoralists and captains of industry, Roberts’ conduit to middle class money. Melbourne’s ‘artistes’ came in as well with orator Rev. Charles Clark, contralto Ada Crossley and soprano Nancy Elmhurst Goode all playing bit parts at Grosvenor Chambers.

Between times, Roberts’ second floor studio was a tightly run workplace and by early 1889, he was developing an ambitious ‘history subject’ painting about shearing. The previous spring, he had sketched shearers working at Brocklesby Station in the southern Riverina district of New South Wales and was starting to build this large (122cm x 183cm) picture as a hymn to ‘strong muscular labour’. Comprising 19 figures, several of them in motion, Shearing the Rams was proving a challenge. Around this time, Roberts received a commission that had nothing to do with sheep or ladies in hats: would he consent to paint some theatre scenery?

The offer came from Brough and Boucicault who had ‘thoroughly renovated and redecorated’ their mid-sized playhouse. They were set to resume their Bijou residency at Easter with a season that included Bulwer-Lytton’s classic comedy Money and wanted Roberts to paint ‘Old Master’ pictures for the show’s second act ‘gold scene’. Spong, in charge of sets, thought him eminently suited to the task. Here was a worldly man who had not only copied Old Masters as part of his Royal Academy training in London but had viewed Titians and Rembrandts in European galleries. Perhaps Spong was also struck by the way sitters in Roberts’ portraits often gazed back at the viewer like performers in a play. Whatever the case, his Melbourne artist friend accepted the commission.

Smudgers and Splodgers

It was not unheard of for an easel painter to cross the theatre threshold and paint scenery. Distinctions between the two realms were not immutably fixed in the late nineteenth century and there was traffic between the two. The stage offered artists ‘the best prospects for money making’ and ‘their chance at good earnings came from the preparation of stage sets’. But theatre historian Anita Callaway warns against assuming ‘an artist was forced to work in the theatre’ at this time. ‘Some painters chose to work in both fields,’ she writes.

Conversely, the scene painter ‘considered himself an artist rather than artisan’. This meant he—and it was almost always a ‘he’—felt comfortable exhibiting his small scale artworks to an appreciative audience. John Brunton showed at the Royal Academy in 1886 before designing sets for Melbourne’s Theatre Royal. Spong exhibited his watercolours at the VAS in 1889. But if today’s hierarchical positioning of painting above theatre scene art did not always hold true in the 1880s and 90s, the singular nature of theatre did.

This was a world unto its self, governed by strictly enforced rules and arcane superstitions. Journalist Robert Percy Whitworth captured the atmosphere in Velvet and Rags, an 1889 collection of ‘Australian Theatrical Stories’:

It would be hard to imagine a more prosaic place than the stage of a well conducted theatre at, say, the rehearsal of a new piece. It is a matter of pure, stern, uncompromising business. In the wings are little knots of persons waiting for their entrance cue, or intent on studying their ‘parts’. On the stage are perhaps two or three others rattling perfunctorily through the dialogue of the play, a melancholy washed out looking man seated at the prompt table, book in hand, and the stage manager, irascible as those most worried of potentates, stage managers usually are, directing, imploring, gesticulating and—I am afraid—occasionally swearing , in turns.

In the orchestra is seated in solitary state, the leader, violin in hand and shivering with cold, as he watches for the music cues, while behind the ‘flats’, as the framed scenes are technically called, is a small army of carpenters and other stage hands, busy as bees, while upstairs in the paint room reigns supreme the only man permitted by stage tradition to smoke, the scenic artist, attended by his ‘splodger’.

The marvellously Dickensian word, ‘splodger’ described the scene artists’ assistant who hauled pots, mixed paints and cleaned up afterwards. Under supervision, these young go-to blokes plunged brooms into ‘gallons of distemper’ (aqueous paint bound with animal glue) and painted sections of scenery. George Gordon(1839-1899) had been a splodger once. Apprenticed to his father, the great English scenic artist William Gordon, he learnt the ropes in provincial English theatres. By 1882, he was in Melbourne and contracted to the theatre triumvirate of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove. Unlike his predecessors, who achieved illusions of distance by painting trompe-l’oeil images on a flat surface, Gordon worked in three dimensions: creating scene models ‘in correct proportion’ and ‘transposing’ separate painted sections to the stage:

His canvas is divided into many different sections—‘back cloths’ and ‘ground cloths’, ‘borders’, ‘wings’ and ‘set pieces’—and he sees the entire composition only in his mind’s eye as he paints each part of the scene. It is not until the scene is set upon the stage and ‘pulled together’ that he sees his picture complete.

Some nights, in response to sustained applause for his lovingly detailed renditions of a country cottage or Japanese temple, Gordon—a garrulous Scot—would don an Inverness cape and take a bow. But son John Gordon, a fine scene painter in his own right, insists his father never lost sight of his essential role: to set a scene, impart atmosphere and provide ‘quiet unobtrusive background to brilliant action’.

Unlike England, where contracts were given out to artists running their own establishments, Australian scene painting was mostly done in the theatre. Melbourne’s 1500-seat Bijou was typical, employing a ‘house’ artist who had direct association with the stage director, the players and the heads of various departments. Contracts to repeat a London play in Australia often came with ground plans and scene photographs but some local managers were inclined to request new sketches and models. It was the job of the master mechanist to enlarge these models and hang all the cloths required for painting on giant vertical frames. The scenic artist typically worked in a loft high above the stage or swung about in a bosun’s chair. Gordon—known for his exceptional ‘energy and application’—worked fast, commencing his canvas ‘at the top’, then working ‘downwards a foot at a time’.

A theatre scene was not properly ‘finished’ until it had been ‘dressed’—flowers added to a bush, lattice to a porch—and illuminated with artificial light. By the late 1880s, electricity had replaced gas. James Smith (1820-1910), the respected art critic for the Argus, judged this to have ‘altered the tonal balances of stage properties’ in the scene artists’ favour. With ‘magnesium, lime and electric light’, he can ‘throw the blush of dawn, the glow of sunset and the glamour of moonlight over his pictures’.

McQueen has observed ‘lighting was one link between stage effects and impressionist painting’ but there was a significant difference. As John Gordon pointed out: ‘In a flat, framed painting, the painter selects his own key of colour, high and bright as in [Arthur] Streeton’s works, or low in tone as in [Frederick] McCubbin’s. The scene painter, on the other hand, must give his figures [performing on stage] prominence. The quarrel of two human beings would take precedence of Nature’s greatest cataclysm’.

In nineteenth century theatres, the word ‘Nature’ invariably came with a capital N and referred to sylvan European landscapes of ‘nobility and beauty’. This was unsurprising, given that ‘only the cream of the world’s plays came to Australia’ from England and America, but the odd local drama—with gum trees—was permitted.

An 1873 pantomime titled Australia Felix; or, Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat, illustrated ‘young Australia growing to meet adult challenges’ with colourful cockatoos, helpful wallabies and enchanting bush scenery. A decade later, an adult play titled No Mercy delighted colonial audiences with its ‘background of hills, bush road, winding streams and scrub’. ‘We have seldom seen a more genuine and artistic presentment of Australian inland scenery,’ the Sydney Morning Herald opined. The scene artist responsible was John Hennings (1835-1898).

In old age, McCubbin remembered visiting Melbourne theatres with his parents in the 1860s and delighting in the ‘local scene painting in the Theatre Royal and Princess’. As Hennings was resident scenic artist at the Theatre Royal at this time, young Fred’s ‘early efforts directed at making paper theatres’ were likely to have been inspired by his handiwork.

‘What delight I had in those scenes remembered from the different plays I had been to,’ he wrote. ‘The decoration of the Proscenium in water colours, the side scenes and back cloths, the little figures cut out of paper.’

Such was his obsession, teenage McCubbin kept making ‘little theatres’ while employed as a junior clerk at a Bank Place law firm. It ended badly. His ‘ingenious little contrivances’ having been discovered, he was shown the door. Fortunately, showing an aptitude for drawing, McCubbin went on to enrol in painting classes at the Melbourne National Gallery School where one of his chums was an ‘earnest draughtsman’ named Tom Roberts.

McCubbin never lost his love of making a scene. Old Stables (c.1884), empty but for a small white bird, closely resembled a stage set waiting for players to come on and perform while Melbourne 1888—a very still city scene juxtaposing the commercial with the ecclesiastical—was devoid of any visible life. In fact, Melbourne that year was at its bustling, hustling best. The old commercial port built on the back of gold was now a fully fledged metropolis of some 400,000 inhabitants (two thirds native born) and Roberts’ painting of Bourke Street West on a hot summer’s day, Allegro con brio (1885-90), conveyed some of its restless energy with billowing dust, fluttering flags and scurrying figures.

By 1888, Melbourne threatened to overtake Sydney as Australia’s economic engine room. As historian Manning Clark explained: ‘While there was land to sell and buyers to invest and auctioneers to bring buyers and sellers together, there was every prospect of a land boom continuing forever’.

Outer suburbs were rapidly encroaching on countryside and this is where Roberts and McCubbin bonded. In the summer of 1885-86, the two artists packed their art materials in swags and camped on a property at the end of a train line near Box Hill. Out there, among the ‘young blue gums’, they sketched and painted directly from nature, working up bush scenes ‘on the spot’. With his picture, The Artists’ Camp, Roberts worked like a stage director, cropping a close up view of their tent so there was no hint of creeping modernisation. McCubbin’s direct experience of the bush at Box Hill affected his own practice, his customary palette of dark browns giving way to lighter silvery greens and greys.

Their ‘impressions’ did not find many buyers. At the annual spring exhibitions, Melburnians favoured sentimental narratives with an improving tone. Roberts and McCubbin began to craft their own ‘anecdotal pictures’, telling a story while giving the impression they had captured something ‘seen’. A Summer Morning Tiff, painted in the early autumn of 1886 at Box Hill, was carefully orchestrated with Roberts ‘casting’ McCubbin’s sister Harriet as the woman in white standing ‘in sunlight amongst some exquisite young white gum saplings’. Lost, painted by McCubbin in the same year, also carried ‘the smell of gum leaves’ and depicted another young girl alone in the alien bush—in fact, his other sister Mary (known as Dolly).

Figures were not Arthur Streeton’s strong suit but this eager 19-year-old artist, a pupil of McCubbin’s at the National Gallery School, possessed other talents: strong eye-to-hand co-ordination, skilful brushwork, and a disciplined use of colour and tone. Encountering Streeton by the beach at Mentone, and admiring the vivid ‘light and air’ of his landscapes, Roberts and McCubbin invited him to join their ‘camp’. From that moment on, they were ‘Brother Smudgers’, a term of affection which Roberts cemented in song: ‘Now, Brother Smudgers list to me/ And don’t indulge in fancy free/ Nor never from your line depart/ To have a fly at ‘Higher Art’.

Nicknames went with the territory. Roberts was ‘Bulldog’, a salute to his doggedness. McCubbin was ‘The Prof’ because of his inclination to philosophise around the campfire. And Streeton? The others called him ‘Smike’, the name of a dreamy character in Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby and a nod to young Arthurs’s ‘lifelong engagement with literature and music’.

The Sunny South (1887) was an enduring image of their brotherhood. For this painting, depicting three nude bathers by the bay, Roberts looked to his mates for inspiration. It is Streeton edging towards the blue water, McCubbin standing among the banksias and Louis Abrahams—another Box Hill ‘regular’—sitting down. A year later, when the ‘smudgers’ exhibited together, James Smith decided the trio ‘may be grouped together on account of the similarity of their procedure in landscape painting’ which fell ‘more and more under the influence of the French Impressionists’.

Smith singled out Streeton’s Settler’s Camp (1888) for praise, admiring its ‘poetical interpretation’ of the ‘lonely and self reliant’ free selector. But whereas Roberts and McCubbin tended to regard the bush as a setting for compositions dominated by figures, Streeton’s real interest lay in the setting itself.

This preference was made plain in the summer of 1888-89, at Mount Eagle near the village of Heidelberg. Captivated by the shimmering heat, the dry grass and blue skies, Streeton dubbed their Eaglemont camp ‘our hill of gold’ and compared it to a kind of outdoor theatre where, sitting ‘in the upper circle’, he could see ‘all the light, glory and quivering brightness’ passing ‘slowly & freely’ before his eyes. Streeton set down his feelings of joy in an open-air sketch he called Impression for ‘Golden Summer’ (c.1888). Charles Conder (1868-1909) depicted this small sketch in his own picture of the Impressionists’ Camp (1888) at Eaglemont. Roberts had befriended Conder a year earlier in Sydney.

Streeton’s ‘impression’ ballooned into his largest (81.3cm x 152.6cm) painting yet: Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889). An even bigger landscape followed: Still Glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890), which depicted the Yarra meandering through river flats. In going wide, Streeton was breaking with the bush close ups espoused by his ‘Brother Smudgers’ and following a lead set by colonial artists. But where big picture men such as Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) and Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) ‘strove to portray ... Nature in her grandeur rather than in her homely moods’, he sought a more personal relationship with Australia’s landscape. One that allowed him to focus on the sensation of looking at, and being at one, with the natural world while not offending the taste of the city people he needed to sell to.

Streeton struggled to describe the poetry he sensed around him:

I picture in my head the Murray ... & the great gold plains & all the beautiful inland Australia & I love the thought of walking into all this and trying to expand and express it in my way. I fancy large canvases all glowing & moving in the happy light.

Streeton’s vista vision encouraged flights of lyrical imagery comparable to poetry. Callaway invites another comparison: ‘As his paintings broadened both in a figurative sense and in their actual dimensions, they became more and more like panoramas’. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a panorama as ‘a view from a great distance that covers a very large area’ but in the late nineteenth century, this word also described a hand-cranked theatre device for presenting an unbroken succession of painted scenes for the purposes of enjoyment and instruction. Panorama ‘exhibitions’ were hugely popular in Melbourne, describing voyages and historical events by unfolding images ‘like passing scenery glimpsed through a carriage window’. In 1889, they were superseded by cycloramas, new ‘illusionistic entertainments’ commonly displayed inside a large (400 feet long by 50 feet high) drum like structure made of brick and iron. Viewers ascended a raised central platform, via an internal staircase, and found themselves surrounded by continuous 360 degree panoramic paintings depicting everything from the ‘Battle of Waterloo’ to the ‘Eureka Stockade’.

Streeton visited one of Melbourne’s early cycloramas on Victoria Parade in Fitzroy, and was impressed with what he saw. In a letter to the Victorian Artists’ Society, dated 26 September 1890, he wrote: ‘The Cyclorama has drawn the multitude simply because it contains, as well as good [painted] work, a certain spontaneous magic—which, as most people know does not pervade our Exhbn [sic] room’.

We do not know if this encounter had a direct impact on his practice but Callaway argues ‘the notion that Streeton could have been influenced by scene painting in some way is not too far-fetched’. In October 1890, this young painter with Kipling stories and Browning poems in his coat pocket was put ‘on the pay roll of the Brough and Boucicault company’, ‘assisting Mr. W.B. Spong’ on Bijou theatre scenery. ‘I worked till late at night,’ he recalled later, ‘and usually mounted the dark hillsides for home at 1 o’clock in the morning’.

Streeton earned ‘one pound a day’ at the Bijou and gained access to that ‘inscrutable gangway, the stage door’, through which he could then mingle with ‘The Company’: from ‘the Grand Panjandrum—the stage manager himself—down to Johnny, the call boy’. George Gordon, across the street at the Theatre Royal, was a drinking friend and two black and white drawings—one titled, Among the Flies, Theatre Royal (1890)—testify to Streeton’s privileged backstage access.

It is a stretch to say this proximity to theatre scenery shaped Streeton’s wide angle work but, like Gordon, he was in the business of illusion and spectacle. Theatre managers emphasised this parallel, too, erecting gold frames around their prosceniums and implying its worth as ‘Art’.

Roberts was more front-of-house than behind the scenes. Well connected with Melbourne’s ‘coterie of theatrical identities’, he was a flamboyant first nighter, his propensity for wearing cloaks lined with red satin and a ‘crush’ topper rarely seen outside London the talk of social pages. This play acting as a ‘Society Bohemian’ had a serious purpose: recently returned from London, after studying abroad, Roberts needed to court the colonial bourgeoisie if he was going to prosper as an artist and its well-heeled members were often found—after hours—in plush theatres, bars and saloons.

His connection with Caleb Williamson (1828-1905) was especially important. Manager of a prominent city department store, Williamson had ‘a great appreciation of art and music’ and introduced Roberts to ‘a circle of ‘like-minded business associates’ who, subsequently, sought portrait commissions.

 

To be concluded in the next issue

 

References

Christine Angel, ‘The Woman Who Did: Janet Achurch, Ibsen and the New Woman, Australia 1889-1891’, PhD, School of Humanities, University of Tasmania 2014, eprintsutas.edu.au

Leigh Astbury, ‘Memory and Desire: Box Hill 1885-88’, in Terence Lane (ed.) Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

Anita Callaway, Visual Ephemera: theatrical art in nineteenth-century Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000

Manning Clark, A History of Australia V: The People Make Laws 1888-1915. Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981

Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1955

Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries: panoramic entertainments in nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002

Julie Cotter, Tom Roberts & the Art of Portraiture, Thames and Hudson, Port Melbourne, 2015

Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979

Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike: the letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1930, Oxford University Press Australia, Melbourne, 1989

John Gordon, ‘Scene Painting in Australia’, in The Lone Hand, 2 November 1908

Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, 1966

Elisabeth Kumm, The Busy Bees: a theatrical biography of Robert Brough, Dion Boucicault Jnr and their circle, unpublished manuscript

Terence Lane, ‘Grosvenor Chambers, A Phenomenon of Marvellous Melbourne’, in Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

James Macdonald, The Art of F. McCubbin, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1986

Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Macmillan, 1996

H. McQueen, ‘The Fortunes of Tom Roberts’, in Terence Lane, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007

‘Much Ado About Nothing: how a great piece is rehearsed’, Australasian (Melbourne), 2 January 1892

National Gallery of Victoria, Australian Impressionism: NGV Education Resource, ngv.vic.gov.au

Roger Neill, ‘H. Walter Barnett and Falk Studios’ in The Falk Studios: the theatrical portrait photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, Melbourne, 2021

Philip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995

Juliette Peers, ‘Two tenants of Number 9 Collins Street: Tom Roberts and Kate Keziah Eeles’, press-files, anu.edu.au

Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965

John Poynter, The Audacious Adventures of Dr Louis Lawrence Smith 1830-1910, vol. 2, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2014

Ron Radford (ed.), Tom Roberts Retrospective, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Exhibitions Australia, 1996-97

Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1970, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1971

Geoffrey Smith, Arthur Streeton 1867-1943, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995

Arthur Streeton, ‘Eaglemont in the ‘Eighties’, Argus (Melbourne), 16 October 1934

Alex Taylor, Perils of the Studio: inside the artistic affairs of bohemian Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2007

Angus Trumble, ‘Colony and Capital in Australian Impressionist Portraiture’ in Terence Lane, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, 2007

Bridget Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1991

Robert Percy Whitworth, ‘Behind the footlights’ in Velvet and Rags: a series of theatrical stories, 1886, digital.slv.vic.go.au

With special thanks to Claudia Funder (Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne) and Elisabeth Kumm (Theatre Heritage Australia)

The goodfa business theatre company

 

No props or costumes or video. The Goodfa Business Theatre Company only worked with words. On the 35th anniversary of its controversial debut performance, founding member SIMON PLANT remembers a small ensemble which spoke volumes during Melbourne’s comedy renaissance of the 1980s.

 

On the evening of October 30 1985, six Melburnians stood on the stage of the Southern Cross Ballroom and gave a Royal Command performance.

The occasion was an official dinner dance to celebrate Victoria’s Sesquicentenary in the presence of The Prince and Princess of Wales, then touring Australia. Comic speech maker Campbell McComas had been engaged to provide entertainment for the dinner and, in preparation, gathered together a troupe of young, occasional actors to ‘act out’ a presentation: an ‘historical revue’ tracing the intertwining lives of the City of Melbourne and the Royal Family, from the first Royal tour in 1867.

The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company was born ... but almost didn’t make it through the night. Midway through the presentation of Royal Melbourne, several high society women staged a walkout, claiming to be offended by our irreverent script. In particular, a tongue in cheek reference to the colloquialism, ‘Pommy bastard’. [1] The show went on—after a dramatic pause—and the press had a field day, both here and overseas. ‘Revue ruins a night of nights’, ran one headline, in the Sunday Telegraph. ‘Fuss over PB’s in front of the HRHs’, ran another, in The Age. The South China Morning Post called the fracas ‘A right Royal pommie [sic] row’. McComas begged to differ. ‘Storm in a Royal Doulton teacup,’ he sniffed. Prince Charles was on our side: ‘Offended?’ he responded to a reporter. ‘Not at all. Were you?’ On receipt of a leather bound copy of the Royal Melbourne script, ‘Their Royal Highnesses’ thanked McComas for a ‘splendid memento’ of ‘an extremely enjoyable evening’.[2]

The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company had passed a huge test on its first outing. Not wishing to sound too grand, the ensemble soon changed its name to The Goodfa Business Theatre Company ... and the rest is ‘hysterical’, as McComas used to say. Over the next eight years, Goodfa was called on to entertain, amuse and inform some of Victoria’s most notable institutions: Scotch College, Elders IXL, the Australian Institute of Management, and the Royal Melbourne School of Nursing, among others. These engagements were all bespoke. As Goodfa’s prospectus explained: ‘Through meticulous preparation and personal involvement, the Company is committed to creating tailor made performances of the highest standard’. Goodfa members—drawn from the realms of government, business, academia, journalism and the law—also staged sell-out black tie balls where topical events were lightly burlesqued. Like Royal Melbourne, those orations got ovations.

Between 1985 and 1993, Royal Melbourne-Goodfa Business performed 11 original shows to thousands of people and played a small but significant role in Melbourne’s emergence as Australia’s comedy capital. The Company’s heyday coincided with the birth of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, a surge in stand-up comedy clubs and an Australian humour boom on prime time TV. Goodfa’s place in that firmament of fun has been rather overlooked, not out of any deliberate neglect, but because it stood apart. The Company was exclusively theatrical, it commandeered non-theatrical spaces for its presentations, and it prided itself on ‘one off’ performances where there was no scope for repetition or reproduction. Goodfa’s aloof position in Melbourne comedy aligned with McComas’ own practice. The one-time lawyer turned comic speechmaker regarded television as ‘the great over exposer’ and aside from fitful appearances on TV in the early 80s, and an ongoing ABC radio spot, he confined his practice to the podium. [3]

Up there, McComas was in a league of his own. Before he took it up professionally in 1979, speechmaking was largely the province of corporate motor mouths, ‘blue’ comics, and retired sportsmen who lazily recycled their material at footy club smoke nights and service club luncheons. McComas broke with this dull anecdotage. Enamoured with the ‘noble and neglected art’ of after-dinner speaking, he set about ‘researching, creating and presenting original characters for State occasions, conferences, dinners and other major gatherings’ in Australia and overseas. [4]

‘I’m not aware of anyone else anywhere doing speeches like mine’, he said in 1986. [5] No wonder. McComas’ unique brand of corporate comedy was hugely labour intensive. He insisted on at least three months’ notice for any assignment and having accepted a commission, proceeded to make a forensic examination of his client:

‘I work like a lawyer and use the same processes of reasoning. I’m given a case, I develop an argument, and I stand up and present that case before an audience’. [6]

The man delivering that ‘case’ kept changing, of course. One audience would see McComas masquerading as Comrade Ivan Topov. Another would encounter Dr Roscoe G Headlammer. It was Harley C. Weymouth who spoke at a meeting of the Meat and Allied Trades Federation, Dr Karl Kaufman who addressed a Motor Trades AGM, and laconic Bert Aitken who reflected on ‘Patients, Patience and Pain’ at an Australian Physiotherapy Foundation Conference. McComas invented them all and rarely resorted to eleborate makeup and costuming. Inheriting a ‘sheer, unadulterated love of language’ [7] from his father, the veteran Melbourne broadcaster Geoff McComas, he relied instead on words: all of them precisely calibrated for speeches that possessed their own special rhythms. The best ones commingled satiric comedy with sly observations, provoking laughter and reflection in equal measure. ‘I enjoy picking up the jargon of my clients and, in a sense, throwing it back at them,’ McComas once said. [8] And having made his closing remarks, this comic chameleon would whip off a pair of glasses (one of his few props) and invariably say: ‘Thank you very much for having me but, then, I think you’ve been had too’. [9]

McComas’ first memorable appearance, at Monash University in 1976, was a hoax. For a prank, the final year law student pretended to be a distinguished Cambridge academic—Professor Granville Williams - and delivered a po-faced dissertation entitled, ‘When No means Yes—Rape, Consent and the Law’. Hundreds of fellow students and staff fell for the lunchtime leg-pull which newspapers dubbed ‘one of the most amazing hoaxes in campus history’. [10] Later, having created a hugely successful speaking business (Speechmasters), McComas came to regard the hoax element as a ‘nice bonus ... not an end in itself’. [11]

McComas was into his sixth year as a speechmaker when he was summoned by ‘royalty’ to pen a ‘Historical Epistle to Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales’. True to form, he spent months mining mountains of material, looking for nuggets to illuminate two centuries of royal kinship. But when McComas appeared at the Southern Cross Ballroom, in the guise of Roycroft Fawkner Batman Melville Esquire (‘Unofficial Acting Town Clerk of the City of Melbourne’), he was attended by five bow-tied courtiers. I was one of them. Writing about the event, in a subsequent newspaper article, I recalled how ‘the VIP lounge door swung open and off we marched, swinging bells and shouting, ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ over the assembled throng. We were ‘on’, with 2000 eyes concentrated on our flag-bedecked stage. No first night nerves allowed. No fluffed lines and definitely no second chances. Our act had to be as smooth and well oiled as a Royal itinerary and it was, despite unexpected interjections’. [12]

Forty minutes long, and supported with music, Royal Melbourne was the product of ‘more than 300 man-hours of research, writing and rehearsal’. [13] It also established Goodfa’s signature style, albeit it in a raw and unvarnished state: a narrator to the side, a Greek chorus front and centre, and every member moving with military precision. No props, no costumes, no video. Our brief on that glittering night was to stand up and serve sentences. Pure and simple.

Royal Melbourne was directed by Tim Blood. He and McComas became great friends through Tin Alley Players, the University of Melbourne’s longstanding graduate theatre company, and shared a love of drama. [14] To ‘build’ a supporting cast for their regal gig at the Lady Mayoress’s Committee Dinner Dance, Blood looked again to Tin Alley where he tapped Meg Mitchell, Mary Fotheringham, Elisabeth Wentworth and myself. All of us had experience in university revue and were dubbed, for the occasion, ‘Purveyors of Superior Theatrical Services to Businesses and the Professions’. [15] Consolidating as Goodfa in 1986, the troupe soon added fellow thespians Helen Rollinson, Mark Williams and John Billings to its ranks, all ably stage managed by Field Rickards and Anthony Bartel.

By the time we embarked on our second engagement, a revue for the Queens College Centenary Wyvern Dinner in August 1987, the shape of Goodfa was set. McComas and Blood declared it would be ‘specialising in research, scriptwriting and production of short plays, sketches and musicals as a component of large scale conferences and other major gatherings’. [16] Asked how he viewed Goodfa, McComas called it ‘a logical extension to my established format’. [17] The word ‘extension’ was revealing. Working solo, McComas could be anyone he wanted to be. Performing with Goodfa, he had four—sometimes five—extra voices amplifying the message. He was, in effect, going from mono to stereo. Even full surround sound. This brief passage from Royal Melbourne, announcing the ‘arrival’ of a certain Prince at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop, signalled our happy union:

TB: I’m His Royal Highness Philip? Arthur? George?

CMc: Charles!

EW: Charles

SP: Earl of Most Earldoms, Duke of the Others

TB: Heir to the Throne, Move over Mother!

MF: Lord of Lords and king of Kings

SP: Knight of knights and all good things

TB: Owner of the Oval, the Queen’s first child

MF: Marquis of the MGB, Viscount Special Mild

SP: Commander of the Corgis, Czar of Silver Spoons

TB: And Colonel-in-Chief of the Order of the Goons

MF: Pooh-Bah of All Creatures Here Below

EW: And 21st Prince of Wales. Hello!

CMc: Well!

In November 1986, Goodfa laid its other key stone: an end of year revue. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, presented at the South Melbourne Town Hall, unpacked a years’ worth of news through songs and skits. Our approach owed a debt to English exemplars—Oxbridge revue, the ‘60s TV satire, That Was The Week That Was, and The Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker was one of McComas’ comic heroes)—but our humour was grounded in home soil, evidenced by this wry 1988 Bi-Centenary ditty:

ALL: ‘I’ve been to Sydney, it should be closed down/To Brissy, Perth, Adelaide and old Hobart town/But no matter how much this years’ been a failure/I still call Australia ... Australia’.

Melbourne was Goodfa’s heartland. In show after show, we ripped headlines from local papers, quoted local identities and name-checked familiar haunts. Footy nearly always got a guernsey:

CMc: Over to you, Tim Lane, at the Park

SP: Thanks, Lou. Well, the crowd in the stand above us, which we can’t see, is jam packed I think you’d agree, Drew

MF: Yes, Tim, and it looks like Michael Toss has won the Tuck. Over to you KB

MK: Thanks Scottie. Well, there it goes, the left boot is on its way

CMc: And so was Melbourne in their best season for 23 years!

Goodfa did not thrive in isolation. In the mid-’80s, its ‘associates’ swam in what comic scribe Shane Maloney called ‘a reservoir of absurdity and playfulness’. [18] So, while we were lobbing jokes over dinner dance tables in Camberwell and Albert Park, other young writers and performers (such as Richard Stubbs, Mary-Anne Fahey and Mary Kenneally) were ‘working for peanuts in sweaty little theatre restaurants all over the inner north’. [19] The Melbourne International Comedy Festival gave this talent pool a proper stage. Launched in 1987, and conceived by John Pinder of Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant fame, it shone a spotlight on the ‘new generation’ who were ‘trying out material, collaborating in different combinations, experimenting with characters and voices, and taking risks in front of local audiences’. [20]

To Maloney, a cultural officer with the City of Melbourne, the festival gave people ‘a license to be silly’ and this invitation was accepted in very different ways. Larrikinism powered Rod Quantock’s popular Bus Tours. The migrant experience was upended in Wogs Out of Work. And old fashioned clowning animated the anarchic duo, Los Trios Ringbarkus. The Doug Anthony All-Stars (DAAS) were downright aggressive and got people’s attention with stunts involving lighter fluid.  Goodfa was never angry. Or dangerous. For corporate commissions, our job was to celebrate, not subvert. To unify, not fragment. The gala revues were our ‘Fringe’, a place where we could cut loose a bit, even drop a few expletives, but we had nothing in common with anarchic ‘improv’. Goodfa was no fan of formlessness and always stuck to the script—a legible gender-neutral script that aimed to be ‘entertaining, relevant, insightful and original every time’. [21] The Company was even orderly behind the scenes. Once commissions were secured, and a cast was locked in, some members would be dispatched to undertake research. Others would take the lead on scripts. Being a truly collegiate company, the whole troupe influenced the drafts that followed but our ‘artistic directors’ had the final say. In all decisions, they adhered to the ‘three prongs’ of Goodfa: That we are the main attraction on the night, that we play to no fewer than 500 people, and that we stage manage the entire night from start to finish. Once original music was added, and rehearsals were complete (six weeks was typical), the show would get a ‘dry run’ in front of family and friends. After that, it was show time!

The 1988 ‘historical revue’, Visions of Boyhood: The World of Scotch College, tested Goodfa’s ensemble approach. Not only were we selected to present a 50-minute entertainment tracing the history of the school (McComas’ alma mater) from its inception in 1851 to 1988. We were asked to do so four times at four fund raising dinners in the Scotch Memorial Hall. Blood advised the team: ‘While this revue will be broadly similar in style to Queen’s College: 100 Not Out, it will be a significant departure in terms of depth, content and the variety of memories, personalities, qualities and emotions conveyed’. [22]

Sure enough, it took the writing team ‘two months, seven drafts and scores of arguments’ to produce the final 25-page script. A decent amount of our research eventually lay on the ‘cutting room floor’ but Company chieftains wisely emphasised ‘balance, perspective and a brightly focused statement on what makes Scotch special’. [23]

Accents were a Goodfa specialty and this big gig, with its ‘cast’ of staff, students and assorted Scots, gave us scope to show off Highland burrs, English trills and Ocker slang. Relaying a century and a half of Scotch history also called on our physical skills. Parade ground drills, track and field events and tuckshop tales were all enacted with appropriate schoolboy zeal.

Flush with sentiment, ‘Visions of Boyhood’ was borne up on the wings of skirling bagpipes ... not to mention a choir, an organ and a bell. McComas, who cast himself for the shows as Forbes Lawson Donaldson McMaster, declared: ‘It all worked perfectly. I can’t remember feeling better on a stage’. [24] Did John Dorman Elliott hear about Goodfa’s standing ovations at Scotch? If not, this buccaneering businessman and Liberal Party kingpin had very probably heard of our ‘inspirer-in-chief’. By the late ‘80s, McComas was exceeding 700 characters and being hailed as Australia’s ‘Prince of the Podium’. Whatever the case, it was Elliott who gave Goodfa the thumbs up to star at the Elders IXL 150th Anniversary Dinner, planned for spring 1989.

‘This engagement is undoubtedly our most significant achievement to date,’ a delighted McComas reported, ‘and the first occasion when there was little or no personal contact to create the opportunity in the first instance. We submitted an unsolicited proposal which has been accepted without any qualification’. [25]

Blood remembers it differently. ‘The welcome we got at John Elliott’s office was rather intimidating,’ he says. ‘After chatting for a while, he put down his papers, looked at us over his reading glasses, and said gruffly, ‘Well, you can do your show then ... but it better be good!’ [26]

Coming out of the meeting, Blood was concerned Goodfa had ‘finally bitten off more than we could chew’ but McComas, brimming with confidence, insisted they press on. [27]

In the debt-fuelled, ‘capital efficient’ 80s, Elders-IXL was a corporate juggernaut: a behemoth that bolted together a one-time jam company with a pastoral empire. Elliott was its public face, a garrulous corporate warrior whose bravado—and barnstorming style—was gleefully satirised on ABC-TV’s Rubbery Figures. ‘Pigs arse!’ was his puppet’s immortal catch phrase. Goodfa’s 1987 revue had some fun at Elliott’s expense as well:

ALL: ‘We are the navy blue/ we are the corporately controlled navy blue/ We’re the team that pours the Fosters down/ We’re John Elliott’s cash base crown’

Embarking on Elders: 150 for Australia, a revue spanning 150 years of agribusiness, resources, finance and brewing, we went hunting for colourful stories that conveyed the push and shove of empire building. We excavated dusty archives in Adelaide and Sydney. We deconstructed complex takeovers and stock trades. And we turned part one of our 50-minute show into an annual general meeting, chaired by Alexander Henry Dormant Barr-Elliott, ‘John’s Elder brother, from the Dormant side of the family’:

CMc: Let’s look at the accounts. For the year ended 30 June 1989, I’m pleased to report that the Company’s final result was

EW: The total of the difference between the amount of deferred interest in the Finance Group

MK The number of short sold sheep in the Agribusiness Group

MF: And the square root of the convertible notes in the Resources Group.

SP: Which is all equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of the Brewing Group ... hic!

Part two of Elders: 150 for Australia brought the company’s history up to date, neatly twining corporate shenanigans with the Carlton Footy Club, where Elliott presided as President:

CMc: Welcome back to ...

MK: Footy Round Up. I’m Harry Beitzel. It was a very level playing field here today for the big interstate clash of Season ’81, as Elders GM finally drew with Henry Jones IXL.

EW: In a sensational move after the siren, half the Elders GM team hung up their boots.

SP: And the entire Henry Jones team, led by rugged veteran centre half forward Johnny Elliott, went across to Elders in a record breaking transfer.

EW: That’s certainly put some pressure on the Elders salary cap, Harry.

MK: I’m sure they’ll find a way round it. They’re a very creative club.

If Goodfa’s Scotch show was sturdily constructed, our Elders script displayed the highest level of craftsmanship. Reading it today, as a document describing the fluctuating fortunes of a major Australian company, it comes across as cogent and concentrated—a tribute to the research and writing effort led by Mary Fotheringham and Mark Williams.

The script’s emotive power came from the way it transcended raw data to humanise not just the people who led Elders but the people who served it. In one memorable passage, addressing hierarchy, we adopted the structure of a classic British comedy sketch (‘The Class System’ made famous by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett), and grafted Australiana over the top:

CMc: (aka John Elliott) I used to have two blue suits,45 blue shirts, 55 pairs of black socks, one blue blazer, one pair of black shoes, one Elders tie and one pair of 25-year-old thongs. Then Amanda [Elliott] came along. I’ve thrown out the thongs.

MK: I’m a quiet, orderly man. My suits and ties are well tailored, my hair is smooth and my desk is always neat and tidy.

EW: I’m so quiet and orderly that nobody knows what suits and shirts I wear

MF: Ah, I’m so, ah, disorderly that, ah, my shirt is usually hanging out of my dacks

SP: I’m a well dressed man, and a well dressed man needs a well dressed beer, and the best dressed beer is Vic – Victoria Bitter (Drinks). Aaaaah!

Our composer-in-residence, John Billings was skilled at crafting anthems and penned a stirring heart-tugger for the Elders gig. ‘One Hundred and Fifty Years’ carried lyrics that harked back to Kirkcaldy, in Scotland, ‘where the dream was born’. Then, in a bridge that ‘Let our voices sing’, Billings’ words conjured a bright future where ‘We all can tell/ Elders IXL/ Will never treat the race as though it’s run’.

The anthem’s beguiling melody tickled ears from the get-go. Billings, on piano, had it rippling under monologues and pivotal plot points. As the show climaxed, a backing track bolstered the song with the sound of crashing waves and bagpipes. Voices rang out and spirits soared as we lunged into the final verse:

‘Let us all take pride in Elders/ Be thankful for the joy, though there’ve been tears/ Glad to have come this far, proud that today we are/ 150 Years’.

Elders: 150 for Australia was a triumph. ‘You promised me a performance that would match the importance of the occasion,’ Elliott wrote, in a letter addressed to McComas and ‘Goodfa Business Theatre Co.’.‘You delivered in spades’. [28]

This landmark occasion, which took us back to the Southern Cross Ballroom, was attended by ‘600 of the most important Australian and international people from the world of Elders IXL’. It is inconceivable that a local comedy troupe would have been granted such a stage even two years earlier. In the mid-80s, before Melbourne had a comedy festival, Australian comics made odd incursions into the ABC but they were rarely seen in the mainstream, least of all at blue ribbon corporate events. Tables started turning in the late ’80s when the fringe dwellers of Fitzroy and Collingwood gate crashed commercial radio and fired up free-to air TV. All of a sudden, local comedy was ‘cool’. Or, ‘So excellent’, to quote Mary-Anne Fahey’s scowling schoolgirl Kylie Mole on The Comedy Company. Debuting on Network 10 in 1988, this sketch comedy show presented a gallery of recurring Aussie types. Channel Seven responded with a programme conceived by Steve Vizard (another lawyer-turned-entertainer). Fast Forward (1989-1992) pilloried Australian popular culture by splicing spot-on TV parodies with mock commercials and Rubbery Figures puppetry. It, too, was a ratings winner.

McComas had more in common with satirists John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, whose po-faced political ‘interviews’ on Nine’s A Current Affair made no effort at impersonation. But scorching satire was not his forte. Instead of going for the jugular, McComas went for the vernacular. And nowhere was this more pronounced than in the show Goodfa presented for the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) in 1991. At first glance, the subject matter—winning in work—seemed daunting. But this revue, at a 50-year anniversary dinner, was a gift that kept on giving: a chance to throttle industry jargon and satirise the US management- speak infecting Australian business life:

MW: Are we on? Welcome to the not-the-AIM Goodfa Institute of Total Mismanagement. Please welcome visiting Emeritus Professor Willard P. Wafflebanger

SP: The Third

MW: Author of 5 books, 6 videos and 12 t-shirts, all on sale in the foyer. Tonight’s lecture: The Logical Linguistics of Management.

CMc: Hi, OK, you’re welcome. Tonight, back to basics. I’ll be asking for a formal envelope to hold a grass roots brainstorm, tethering factors and polarising tendencies in a hands on semi autonomous one-on-one intergroup work group. Any questions so far?

SP: Professor, are we working through Maslow’s Theory, Walton and McKenzie’s Analytical Framework, or the model of Hackman and Oldham?

MF: Or Deveson’s Theory of Coalface Negotiation?

CMc: Smartass ... we want peak performers, wave riders, corporate pathfinders and change makers, but beware the plateauing trap. What we really have to master is

SP: A multi level mind mix approach?

CMc: No, more of a blinding flash of the obvious.

MW: Oh, doing more with less.

CMc: Yep. It’s innovate or else, the attacker’s advantage!

Revisiting the script, I’m struck by its dizzy wordplay, the way we piled up sentences to create a mood of escalating absurdity. Heightening the hectic mood was a more informal structure. In decoding AIM’s credo of ‘Change, Challenge and Commitment’, we ditched the convention of a single narrator and divided the show into four acts, the final one unfolding as the dot-point diary of ‘Darren Stevens, 43, Divorced, Organisation and Methods Manager for one of 6000 company members of AIM ... but personally heading nowhere’.

The AIM show was, in many ways, our most unconventional outing: a sign of the Company straining at the leash, creatively, and bending the formal stand-and-deliver format we had established five years earlier. The Melbourne Olympics: What Am I Bid?, in May 1990, was a return to standard operating procedure. This 25-minute dinner dance revue ‘tracing the association of the City of Melbourne and the Olympics’ was another journey through time, teeming with VIP names and lists in a style redolent of Royal Melbourne  but there were significant differences. First, Goodfa was not only supplying ‘the talent’. The entire team helped to arrange, plan and present a lavish black tie event for a fictional organisation known as the ‘Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ (OMOC). The production schedule shows we attended no fewer than 14 rehearsals. Second, What Am I Bid? served another  purpose: to introduce McComas’ 1000th character in the presence of real life ‘supporters’. The evening’s guest list was a Who’s Who of Australian power and influence at the time, proof of the hosts’ impeccable connections, and the assembled throng gave William Granville Melvin Millichamp (‘A man who needs no introduction’) a thundering ovation. [29] A chuffed McComas-Millichamp responded: ‘Our heavyweight corporate structure belies our light-hearted strategic objective which is to celebrate, in grand style, a monumental milestone in the annals of Australian professional speaking’. [30]

Blood sees the OMOC evening as a shining example of Goodfa’s collaboration with McComas. ‘When we were in control of an event, Campbell could relax in the knowledge that everything would be perfect,’ he says. Beyond that, McComas relished the rehearsal room camaraderie of Goodfa. Blood explains: ‘He loved being part of the gang. Goodfa was his only professional engagement with other actors and writers which he greatly valued.’ [31] In conversation with me, McComas conceded speechmaking ‘can be a lonely business. You are working on your own gut feeling most of the time’. [32]

The Conference – first proposed in 1992 - intended to build on the OMOC example. McComas and Blood conceived this ‘Everyday Farce in Three Acts’ as part of a real conference, complete with lobby registration, delegates and speakers. They hoped it could even become ‘a major long running Melbourne show’ but despite ‘valiant attempts’ to craft a viable script, The Conference was reluctantly shelved. [33] Another mooted project cast members of ‘The Goodfa Business Theatre Company (Australia)’ in a ticketed Melbourne International Festival event. The Great New World Debate of 1492: That America Won’t Be Discovered (and by whom?) imagined historical figures behind lecterns and was advertised in Richard Wherrett’s 1992 festival programme. It never came to pass. [34]

Goodfa itself was changing. With ‘associates’ raising families and building careers, it was time to refresh the cast for 1993’s Goodnight Nurse but this compact revue - chronicling the Royal Melbourne School of Nursing - was to be our last hurrah. [35] McComas pressed on, character building his way into a new century. ‘If I ever stopped reinventing myself, I’d cease to exist altogether,’ he said. By late 2004—just months before he died, aged 52—McComas had amassed 1822 alter egos. A man of many parts, indeed. As Barry Humphries observed: ‘Campbell created his own genre and triumphed in it’. [36]

Two other characters are missing from this story. One is Oliver K. Goodfa, a self-described ‘show business legend’ whose stellar career began as ‘an out-of-work sound recordist for silent films’. The other is Alastair Baxter, a mysterious impresario more at home behind the scenes. In the case of our shows, as far behind the scenes as he could get. Their presence was flagged on Goodfa letterhead, where they were listed as co-artistic directors, but Company members were the only ones who ever ‘saw’ them. That’s because Oliver K. was a McComas alias and Baxter, a nom de plume for Blood.

For a Company dealing in facts and fictions, it made complete sense to acknowledge the existence of these make-believe men. Indeed, any personal correspondence from Oliver K or Mr Baxter only served to confirm your fortunate membership of a very exclusive club. Goodfa, you see, was not just a production unit. It was a unique eco-system, buoyed by a shared love of theatre and warmed by friendships dating back decades. The depth of that friendship was made plain in April 2006 when members of Goodfa reassembled at the Crown Palladium for Campbell McComas—A Selection.

Compiled, written and directed by Blood, and presented as part of a Leukaemia Foundation Dinner, this show was a ‘collage of excerpts’ from McComas ‘character speeches, scripts as a radio and television performer, and his many roles as Master of Ceremonies’. Prof Granville Williams was ‘present’ and accounted for, of course. So was Alexander Kennedy, the first paying passenger on a Qantas flight; Aaron B. Conover, a White House technology policy adviser; and Sir Winston Cholmondley-Somers, the British yachting ‘expert’ whose 1983 America’s Cup address prompted (another) infamous walkout, this time in Newport, Rhode Island. [37]

‘Campbell McComas could be anybody you like,’ we all declared, ‘but there was nobody like him’. [38]

The Goodfa spirit lives on in 2020. And when Company members reunite, I’m always reminded of that fabled evening—35 years ago—when we joined McComas in front of the world’s most famous married couple and wondered out aloud: ‘Will Royal tourists still be here in the Age of Charles the Third?

SP: What about King William the Fifth?

MF: Our welcome will always be heard.

TB: And still we’ll stand in Swanston Street

EW: At Flemington and the Shrine

SP: And the local lasses will cheer for Him

MF: And the lads will cry, ‘She’s mine!’

TB: They’re as much a part of Melbourne as the footy or a tram

EW: It never pours here when they reign

CMc: And until they don’t, I humbly remain your obedient servant, sir and ma’am

Roycroft Fawkner Batman Melville

Clerk ... clerk? Lord Clerk! 30 October 1985

Melbourne’.

 

REFERENCES

Papers of Campbell McComas 1975-2004, MS 10268, National Library of Australia

Tim Blood (ed.), The Goodfa Scripts, Goodfa Business Theatre Company, 2008

Lorin Clarke, ‘Weeds are as important as trees’: Where now for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?’, Meanjin Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 1, 2011

‘Stunted growth: a hoaxer’s rise and rise’, The Monash Quarterly, Spring, 1991

Simon Plant, ‘The night Charles offered me an MBE’, Sunday Observer, 3 November 1985

Simon Plant, ‘Man of 617 faces ... and counting’ (unpublished article, 1986)

Sue Thomson, 30 Years of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Culture Victoria 2016, cv.vic.gov.au

 

INTERVIEWS

Tim Blood (29 June and 10 July 2020)

John Billings (4 July 2020)

*With special thanks to Tim Blood, Wendy McComas and Alistair McComas

 

ENDNOTES

1. ‘Pommy bastard’ is defined in The Australian National Dictionary as: ‘Of or pertaining to a ‘pommy’; British, English (often as a term of affectionate abuse)’, p.492.
2. Letter from David Roycroft, The Assistant Private Secretary to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, to Campbell McComas, 2 November, 1985, Goodfa Correspondence.
3. McComas made his TV debut on New Faces in 1973. He also played a comic boffin on The Don Lane Show, appeared on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday and moderated ABC TV’s World Series Debating.
4. Biographical note in ‘The Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ prospectus, February 1990, Goodfa Correspondence.
5. Campbell McComas interview with Simon Plant, 1986, cited in ‘Man of 617 faces ... and counting’ (unpublished article), p.2.
6. Quoted in ‘Campbell McComas – A Selection’, in Blood, Tim. (Ed.)The Goodfa Scripts, Goodfa Business Theatre Company, 2008, p.289.
7. Blood, p.292.
8. Plant, p.3.
9. Blood, p.299.
10. ’Stunted growth: a hoaxer’s rise and rise’, The Monash Review, Spring 1991, p.10.
11. Plant, p.3.
12. Plant, Simon. ‘The night Charles offered me an MBE’, Sunday Observer, 3 November 1985, p.4. The term, ‘Pommy bastard’ was used twice in the Royal Melbourne script and ‘not directed at Their Royal Highnesses’. ‘If it had’, I wrote, ‘it would have been hastily excised from the script which was carefully screened by protocol officials before we began rehearsals’.
13. ‘The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company’ prospectus, 1986, Goodfa Correspondence.
14. Tim Blood was president of Tin Alley Players in the 1980s.
15. RMBTC prospectus, 1986.
16. Ibid. In January 1986, members of the Company also participated in MLC Life Ltd’s Centenary Ball in Sydney.
17. Plant, ‘Man of 617 faces’, p.5.
18. From 2010 Shane Maloney interview, cited in Clarke, Lorin. ‘Weeds are as important as trees: Where now for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?’ Meanjin, Vol. 70, Number 1, 2011. In the festival’s first year, Maloney was seconded to help plan the programme.
19. Ibid. ‘The MICF emerged from the anti-establishment theatrical traditions of the Last Laugh and other venues’ such as The Comedy Cafe, The Flying Trapeze Cafe, La Mama and Le Joke.
20. Ibid.
21. McComas in Blood, p.300.
22. Letter from Tim Blood to Goodfa members, 14 December, 1987, Goodfa Correspondence.
23. McComas, Campbell, ‘A date with history’ in Great Scot, newspaper of the Old Scotch Collegians’ Association, No.47, April 1988, p.9.
24. Ibid.
25. Letter from Campbell McComas to Goodfa members, Elders: 150 for Australia proposal, 17 January 1989, Goodfa Correspondence. McComas wrote: ‘Our clients’ expectation is as high as you would expect for an event they now regard as the event for 1989.’
26. Plant interview with Blood, 29 June 2020.
27. Ibid.
28. Letter from John Elliott to Campbell McComas, Tim Blood ‘and your team’, 23 August, 1989. Elliott closed with the words: ‘On behalf of the Board, sincere thanks for a display of great professionalism and panache’.
29. The Melbourne Olympics: What Am I Bid? was performed at a ‘millennium’ dinner dance in the Hyatt-on-Collins’ Savoy Ballroom. McComas conceived the ‘Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ as a vehicle for the evening’s festivities. Invited ‘ex officio’ members of OMOC’s fictitious ‘1000 Club’ included Richard and Jeanne Pratt, Bob Ansett, Sue Calwell, John Elliott, Donald Cordner, John Bertrand and Professor Louis Waller.
30. McComas, OMOC prospectus, op cit.
31. Blood interview, op cit.
32. Plant, op cit., p.4.
33. Letter from Campbell McComas to Goodfa members, 30 May 1995, Goodfa Correspondence. McComas and Blood conceived The Conference in early 1992. Work on it halted in May 1995. In September 1997, Goodfa was invited to workshop a ‘final draft’ at Playbox Theatre Company but this did not eventuate.
34. The Great New World Debate of 1492: ‘That America Won’t Be Discovered (and By Whom?)’ was meant to be ‘posthumorously, retrospectively and irreverently’ presented by Goodfa at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 13 and 20, 1992. According to the advertising spiel, ‘Speakers will be auditioned and selected from a multicultural constellation of the known world’s most brilliant debaters of 1492’ (Christopher Columbus, Hernando Cortes, Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Isabella I, among others) with a ‘guest appearance by J.Westward Ho Jnr, the first American to greet whoever it was’.
35. Goodnight Nurse, performed as part of a Royal Melbourne Hospital Nursing Education Gala Dinner, marked the arrival of three new Goodfa cast members: Tamsin West, Julie Thompson and Samantha Woodward.
36. Barry Humphries, cited in Blood, p.298.
37. Sir Winston, one of McComas’ most celebrated characters, so ‘offended’ an American Vice-Commodore and his wife that they got up and walked out. His controversial address in Newport, Rhode Island, to the Challenger 12 Syndicate, included the following observation: ‘While some people claim the America’s Cup is a matter of life and death, I myself don’t share that view. It’s much more serious than that.’ Ibid, p.290.
38. Ibid., p.300.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019 17:17

Show Time: George Coppin turns 200

coppin header George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks. George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217

April 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Selth Coppin, actor, theatre owner and entrepreneur. Simon Plant pays tribute to a man whose contribution to this country’s advancement stretched beyond just things theatrical. 


George Selth Coppin—actor and impresario, parliamentarian and philanthropist—was always chasing the next best thing. A new act, a new speculation. Something to entertain and amuse colonial audiences who expected nothing less from the man they dubbed ‘The Father of Australian Theatre’.

One day in March 1865, in New York City, forty-five-year-old Coppin found himself sitting still in front of a camera at Charles D. Fredericks’ Photographic Temple of Art.

This palatial establishment on Broadway was the biggest, most stylish photographic studio in Gotham and specialised in portraiture, producing small albumen prints mounted on card—known as a carte-de-visite—which could be pressed into albums.

Coppin, who had arrived on America’s West Coast three months earlier, had already left some of his plain calling cards at theatres he hoped might host a season of Shakespeare starring the eminent British tragedians Charles Kean and Ellen Kean. But this industrious English-born entrepreneur faced an uphill battle. These were the dying days of America’s terrible Civil War. England was unpopular, seen to have sympathised with the soon to be defeated South. And Broadway theatre managers were prospering with all-American stars such as Edwin Booth (playing one hundred nights of Hamlet at the Winter Garden).

In the Colony of Victoria, his adopted home since the early 1850s, Coppin was a household name. One of the most prominent men in the burgeoning city of Melbourne. Friends and enemies alike referred to him as ‘The Artful Dodger’ because of his numerous enterprises in and out of the theatre world. But in New York, he was just another showman hustling for business. So, on his second or third day in America’s show business capital, Coppin was ready for his close-up.

  • FL10250471

    George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks.

    George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217

  • FL544469

    Portrait of Charles and Ellen Kean, New York, 1865. Photo by Matthew B. Brady.

    State Library of Victoria, H31489

The Fredericks studio—favoured by American Presidents, Generals and eminent actors—was renowned for capturing not just the look of a person but the very essence of their character. Coppin’s portrait, taken slightly side on, suggests a strong personality. A stocky block of a man whose partially unbuttoned waistcoat strains to contain an expanding waistline. The camera lens accentuates all the positives: Coppin’s high domed forehead and squarish jaw, full lips and penetrating gaze. But there are deep bags under those arresting eyes. Having been on the road with the Keans for more than six months, Coppin was fatigued and anxious about finding a suitable theatre in Manhattan. His ‘old enemy’, gout, was also giving him hell.

‘Your poor old hubby is having a great deal of knocking about,’ he confessed in a letter home to his young wife Lucy Hilsden. ‘Since I left you (in October, 1864) I have travelled ... 17,821 miles.'

But Coppin’s journey up and down America’s East Coast had only just begun.

Indeed, after the Fredericks photograph was taken and pressed into a Biblical looking album of carte-de-visite celebrity portraits, he had another 40 years of busy public life in front of him: a period during which he won a seat in Victoria’s Parliament, established Old Colonists’ cottages for retired actors, set up a post office savings bank, helped form the St John Ambulance and bankrolled the seaside resort of Sorrento. All this in between managing Melbourne’s Theatre Royal, staging lavish pantomimes, importing stars (such as the American duo James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore) and giving numerous ‘farewell performances’.

Coppin’s life in Australia was no less frantic in the 20 years before his North American adventure. Within a fortnight of arriving in Sydney in March 1843, in the company of an older actress (Maria Watkins Burroughs), this young gun was ‘on the boards’ and winning plaudits for his ‘low comedy’ characters.

Coppin’s sly alter egos—Paul Pry, the meddlesome snoop, Jem Baggs, the vagabond fiddler, Billy Barlow, the salty yarn spinner—would be staple parts of his comic repertoire for decades to come.

His biographer Alec Bagot writes: ‘Coppin knew the pieces in which he excelled ... characters that demanded the best of the comedians’ art.’

Successful seasons followed in Van Diemen’s Land, the Port Phillip District and South Australia. By 1848, the year Maria died, Coppin was a resourceful manager as well, with theatrical and hotel holdings in Adelaide—not to mention a few racehorses.

An ‘incurable gambler’, to quote author Hal Porter’s description of him, Coppin’s good fortune was invariably followed by adversity. In the early 1850s, he invested in copper when everyone else was chasing gold. Then, trekking out to the diggings himself, he struck nothing but trouble and trudged home ‘without sixpence in his pocket’. 

  • Nla.obj 142851096 1

    George Coppin (in top hat) in the bar of one of his many theatres, c. 1860, possibly the Crystal Bar at Cremorne Gardens. Copy of 1860s' photo by Talma, c. 1900.

    Coppin Collection, National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/17

Facing insolvency, Coppin bounced back by entertaining the miners. Comedies and concerts, melodrama and opera ... everything was grist to his mill as the manager of two theatres in Geelong. By 1855, Coppin had repaid creditors and was ready to unveil his biggest ‘amusement’ yet: a five thousand pound prefabricated theatre for Melbourne, imported from Manchester.

The Olympic, or ‘Iron Pot’ as it was nicknamed, was located in the heart of the city and hosted a hugely popular season of plays starring the acclaimed English Shakespearean actor Gustavus Vaughan Brooke. Emboldened by their success, Coppin and Brooke went into business together, adding the Theatre Royal, Astley’s Amphitheatre and Richmond’s Cremorne Gardens to their property portfolio.

Cremorne Gardens—on the banks of the Yarra near the Punt Road crossing—was the jewel in the crown. Purchased by Coppin and Brooke in 1856, this amusement park and pleasure garden boasted an open air theatre (Pantheon) and bandstand, sideshows and shooting galleries and spectacular pyrotechnic representations of Vesuvius erupting.

Cremorne was also the site of ‘instructive novelties‘, most notably the first balloon ascent in Australia. Coppin ran it all with clicking efficiency but his enthusiasm for entertainment waned as a life in politics beckoned. First as a Richmond councillor, then as a Member of the Victorian Legislative Council.

‘My part as an actor is played out,’ he declared in June 1858. Three years later, Coppin was compelled to ‘resume the active duties of my [theatre] profession’ due to ‘a series of unforeseen financial misfortunes’.

Not only had Coppin’s partnership with Brooke dissolved. He had also invested unwisely in suburban railways. As Bagot observed: ‘Coppin, apprenticed to the stage since birth, was forever trying to leave it but always, by force of circumstance, compelled to return’.

  • FL10236924

    George Coppin, aged 6, playing the overture to Lodoiska, 1825.

    State Library of Victoria, H39751

  • George Coppin By ST Gill B 341 SLSA

    George Coppin, 1849. Drawing by S.T. Gill.

    State Library of South Australia, B 341

Born to a family of strolling players in Sussex, in 1819, young George was just six when he made his first stage appearance playing a ‘cuckoo solo’ on the violin. A sketch made at the time depicts him holding a fiddle half as big as himself but Bagot observes this ‘tubby little lad’ looks ‘preternaturally serious ... if not a prodigy, at any rate a boy of exceptional precocity’.

On the road with his parents, Coppin learnt the mechanics of his profession. He absorbed its language, customs and superstitions along with the air he breathed. But unlike his father, the rebellious son of a clergyman, he was not content to be a busker touting at taverns.

Impatient and fired with energy, Coppin struck out on his own as an itinerant actor and secured ‘low comedy’ spots with touring companies. Larger character roles followed in plays including Polonius in a production of Hamlet starring a young Charles Kean. Coppin’s intimate association with Burroughs was forged on a stage in Ireland and together, the pair decided to ‘elope’ to Australia in late 1842.

Coppin quickly connected with colonial audiences. Sociable and at ease among ordinary folk, especially if a round of sherry and bitters was being served, he had an instinctive feel for popular taste. His characters were, for the most part, common men. And disguised as Billy Barlow, an apparently daft but shrewd commentator, Coppin was able to make topical allusions on stage that would have been considered litigious if pronounced in the public domain.

His voice, sometimes raspy, had great carrying power while his gift for mimicry knew no bounds.

‘He parodies everyone,’ one observer marvelled. Coppin’s burlesque imitation of Lola Montez’ famous ‘Spider Dance’ was so accurate, writes Bagot, it was ‘only saved from a charge of vulgarity by the side splitting roars of laughter it provoked’.

He stood barely five foot six but barrel-chested Coppin gave the impression of greater size. Especially when he threw punches, turned somersaults and slapped his stomach like a bass drum.

Mme Céleste de Chabrillan, wife of the first French consular agent in Melbourne, noticed how ‘the audience adores him [Coppin], they applaud with all their might,’ and was enchanted by his habit of going down to the bar at interval.

‘He keeps his stage costume on while serving his customers,’ she wrote. ‘He’s director, artist, wine merchant and waiter all in one’.

Even his toughest critics admired Coppin’s ability to ‘lose himself’ in another character. Five vignettes of him in ‘various costumes’, photographed in 1864, shows just how transformative he could be.

  • FL10250471

    Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.

    George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

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    Five vignettes of Coppin in various costumes, c. 1864. Photo by A. McDonald, Melbourne.

    State Library of Victoria, H9470

 

Behind the scenes, Coppin was a dedicated, if unconventional, family man. Marrying Harriet Hilsden (Brooke’s sister in law) in August 1855, he domesticated Cremorne—planting it out with mazes, shrubs and ferns—and enjoyed coming home late, in his carriage, and finding supper ready for him, ‘kettle steaming on the hob’.

The marriage was short-lived. Giving birth to their third child, Harriet died in 1859. Eighteen months later, in a move that raised many eyebrows, Coppin married his 17-year-old stepdaughter Lucy.

‘Neither of the contracting parties was perturbed,’ writes Bagot, ‘least of all the bridegroom to whom matrimony was no new venture’.

This time, Coppin was rarely at home. Losing control of the Theatre Royal, and unable to discharge his debts, he was compelled to tour the gold fields and New Zealand.

Breaking with Brooke, who returned to England, Coppin claimed to have ‘always lost money by Shakespeare without a first class star’.

In 1862, Coppin found the stars he needed to stave off insolvency: Charles and Ellen Kean. They were British theatre royalty, renowned for expensive, historically accurate productions of the Bard, and their appearances at Coppin’s new Haymarket Theatre drew appreciative audiences.

The Kean’s grand tour of the Australian colonies lasted nine months. Pressing on to California, the Midwest and New England, again under Coppin’s management, they made a small fortune. Coppin prospered, too, returning to Melbourne in early 1866 with new ‘speculations’ ranging from soda water fountains to roller skates. As always, his mind moved by flashes and whims, some enterprises paying off (his roller-skate rink, the first in Australia, was a big hit), others not.

Coppin’s resilience was legendary. When his Theatre Royal burned down in 1872, uninsured, he promptly built another one. Another source of income to stand him in good stead was his copyright agency. It was badly needed in the 1880s, when Coppin’s ambitious promotion of Sorrento as a tourist destination swallowed vast sums.

Worse still was the ‘bank crash’ of the 1890s. Coppin, ‘greatly aggravated by mental anxiety’ over his finances, was only saved from insolvency by box office receipts at his happily revived Theatre Royal.

  • Portrait Of George Selth Coppin C. 1895 99 By Tom Roberts NPG

    Portrait of George Coppin by Tom Roberts,
    c. 1895-1899.

    National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2003.212

  • The Anchorage Sorento. Propt. Hon. George Coppin Esq SLV

    George Coppin in his garden at Pine Grove, c. 1905. Photo by J.P. Lind.

    Views of Pine Grove, Coppin Papers,
    State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

This indefatigable showman kept making ‘farewell appearances’ until 1901, when the effects of advanced age—and gout—confined him largely to his beloved Richmond home ‘Pine Grove’. Photographs taken around the turn of the century show him enjoying the garden but Tom Roberts’ 1895 portrait of him is more illuminating.

Here is the legend caught unawares, shifting his considerable weight in a chair and looking ruddy cheeked. Coppin’s receding hair is almost frosted white but there’s a jaunty air about him, a twinkle in those blue eyes.

Taken ill at Sorrento, Coppin took his final bow in Richmond on 14 March 1906.

How great was ‘Coppin the Great’? Other entrepreneurs made their mark on colonial Australia—Henry Deering and Bland Holt, George Darrell and J.C. Williamson to name a few—but having his hand in so many amusements in so many places over so many years, Coppin is the undisputed colossus. The pre-eminent entertainment figure in the second half of the nineteenth century.

It could be argued that this self-made man stretched himself too thin, that he might have achieved even more in the theatre world had he not kept chasing ‘respectability’ in the political sphere. But Coppin’s roller coaster career—a series of advances, retreats and comebacks—was part of his enduring appeal with Australians, magnifying his fame while pointing up his human qualities.

Coppin’s own comic performances spanned the reign of Queen Victoria, an astonishing feat and a tribute to his prodigious energy. He was by no means the most innovative actor of his day—familiar character types were his forte—but down the decades, as an impresario, he was never afraid to embrace the new and the novel.

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, perhaps it is Coppin’s role as ringmaster that stands as his greatest legacy. He opened up spaces for performances by others—bellringers and minstrels, conjurors and Shakespearean actors—and the parade of tricks and marvels he orchestrated over 60 crowded years hugely enriched Australia’s popular culture.

Late in life, Coppin delighted in telling friends how his 1840s journey from England to the Antipodes was decided on the flip of a coin. It was heads America, he said, and tails Australia.

‘Fortunately for the colonies—and myself—Australia won!’

 

FL10236924

George Coppin, aged 6, playing the overture to Lodoiska, 1825.

State Library of Victoria, H39751

George Coppin By ST Gill B 341 SLSA

George Coppin, 1849. Drawing by S.T. Gill.

State Library of South Australia, B 341

A128691h

George Coppin, c. 1855. Photo attributed to Thomas Glaister.

Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales, DL Pa 54

FL9887351

Coppin’s Olympic Theatre, 1855.

WG Alma Conjuring Collection, State Library of Victoria, P.326/No. 113

Cremorne 1857

Cremorne Gardens, 1857.

Private Collection

Capture Theatre Royal December 1961

The first Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Stephenson’s team of English Cricketers in the foreground, 1861.

Private Collection

Nla.obj 142851096 1

George Coppin (in top hat) in the Crystal Bar at Cremorne Gardens. Copy of 1860s' photo by Talma, c. 1900.

Coppin Collection, National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/17

George Selth Coppin C. 1863 By Unknown Artist NLA

George Coppin, c. 1863.

National Portrait Gallery, 2010.36

Charles Ellen Kean

Portrait of Charles and Ellen Kean, New York, 1865. Photo by Matthew B. Brady.

State Library of Victoria, H31489

Coppin 1865 Detail

George Coppin, New York, 1865. Photo by Charles D. Fredericks.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS8827/13/217

FL544469

Five vignettes of Coppin in various costumes, c. 1864. Photo by A. McDonald, Melbourne.

State Library of Victoria, H9470

704117403

Coppin as Crack the Cobbler in The Turnpike Gate. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

FL10250471

Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

704117404

Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

704117402

Coppin as Daniel White in Milky White. Photo by E.C. Waddington & Co, Melbourne.

The Coppin Portfolio, George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

FL9825820

The second Theatre Royal, Melbourne, 1877. Photo by N.J. Caire for Anglo-Australasian Photo Co.

State Library of Victoria, H84.3/17

FL10249980

Complimentary Benefit to George Coppin, Exhibition Hall, Geelong, 22 July 1882.

George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

The Anchorage Sorento. Propt. Hon. George Coppin Esq SLV

The Anchorage, Coppin’s home in Sorrento, c. 1880s. Photo by Fred Kruger.

Album of Victoria Views, State Library of Victoria, H41138/26

Nla.obj 142849640 1

Pine Grove, Coppin’s Richmond house, c. 1880. Photo by J.P. Lind.

Coppin Collection, National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/4

Nla.obj 142852140 1

George Coppin, First Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Victoria, July 1885. Photo by Harrison & Co.

National Library of Australia, PIC Box P863 #P863/24

George Coppin B 22860 SLSA

George Coppin, c. 1890. Photo by Hibling & Fields, Melbourne.

State Library of South Australia, B 22860

Portrait Of George Selth Coppin C. 1895 99 By Tom Roberts NPG

Portrait of George Coppin by Tom Roberts, c. 1895-1899.

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2003.212

FL10254996

George Coppin in his garden at Pine Grove, c. 1905. Photo by J.P. Lind.

Views of Pine Grove, Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827

FL10203777

Plaque dedicated to the memory of George Coppin, installed in the foyer of the Comedy Theatre, site of the Coppin’s Olympic Theatre, 1939

State Library of Victoria, H13044

 

SOURCES

Alec Bagot, Coppin the Great, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1965
Brian Carroll, Australian Stage Album, Macmillan, Sydney, 1976
Manning Clark, A History of Australia: IV The Earth Abideth Forever 1851-1888, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978
George Selth Coppin Papers, State Library of Victoria, MS 8827
Sarah Engledow, ‘The Multifarious Career of George Selth Coppin’, Portrait 13, Spring 2004,
https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/13/the-multifarious-career-of-george-selth-coppin (accessed 11 March 2019)
Kate Flaherty and Edel Lamb, ‘The 1863 Melbourne Shakespeare War: Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean, and the play of cultural usurpation on the Australian stage’, Australian Studies, vol. 4, 2012, pp. 1–17
J.M. Hardwicke, Emigrant in Motley: the journey of Charles and Ellen Kean in quest of a theatrical fortune in Australia and America as told by their hitherto unpublished letters, Salisbury Square, London, 1954
John Kardross, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre, New Century Press, Sydney, 1955
Benjamin McArthur, The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and nineteenth century American theatre, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2007
Helen Musa, ‘George Coppin’, entry in Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995, pp. 161–162
Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, Rigby, Adelaide, 1965
John Poynter, The Audacious Adventures of Dr Louis Lawrence Smith, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2014
Simon Plant, Acting Their Age: Kean and Sullivan playing for fame in the Southern Hemisphere, Viglione Press, Black Rock, VIC, 2017