IN MARCH 1865, this buccaneering showman from the Australian colonies landed in New York with a view to presenting the eminent English tragedians Charles Kean (1811–1868) and Ellen Kean (1805–1880). Coppin’s plan was to make some fast money and then sail home. Calamitous events overtook the touring company and not even the most audacious theatre manager in the Antipodes could outdo real life drama in the horribly dis-United States.
Entertaining Mr. Coppin: An Australian showman in Civil War America will recount this unlikely theatrical tour, conveying the gaslight and greasepaint atmosphere of a vanished world and the peculiar sights and sounds of mid 19th century American life. Melding biographical portraiture with social history, the book will meticulously reconstruct the 18-month tour Coppin undertook with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean. Readers will be by their side as they travel from Sydney to San Francisco, go north to British Columbia, south to Panama, along America’s eastern seaboard to New York, across the Mississippi, through the mid-west and up into Canada. This journey—undertaken on sailing ships, steamboats and locomotives—was long and hazardous and complicated by skirmishes between Coppin and Mr. Kean. Divided by age, temperament, experience and class, they were constantly at odds and inadvertent witnesses to history when the Civil War ceased in April 1865. Coppin was in New York for the fall of Richmond, the surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, supplying a rare first-hand account of events surrounding the awesome funeral that followed.
Drawing on diaries, journals, letters, illustrations and period photographs, Entertaining Mr. Coppin will not only revisit the theatres, concert halls and museums of old Broadway but the outsized characters who occupied them: impresario P.T. Barnum and tragedian Edwin Booth, mercurial manager Matilda Vining Wood and blackface minstrel Neil Bryant, Shakespeare scholar James Hackett and Irish comic Barney Williams. Coppin stands front and centre like the ringmaster at a circus, orchestrating events as best he can in a nation he has not visited before and struggles to understand. This indefatigable show man eventually came to admire America’s optimism and can-do energy but in recreating his journey through the fractured Republic, Entertaining Mr. Coppin will remind us of the many obstacles he faced ... and the emotional price he paid.
SIMON PLANT is a Melbourne writer.
He was a Herald and Weekly Times reporter and editor for 30 years, specialising in arts and entertainment. Simon, BA [Hons] and Masters [University of Melbourne], has also written two plays and co-curated three significant exhibitions: 1956 Melbourne, Modernity and the XVI Olympiad (1996), at Heide Museum of Modern Art; Star Spangled Manner: Americans and the birth of Australian television (2000–01), at Arts Centre Melbourne and Screensound Australia, Canberra; and Making a Song and Dance: The quest for an Australian musical (2005–06), at Arts Centre Melbourne.
Simon writes regularly on popular culture. Recent articles include:
‘Mr. Coppin’s Face Book: An 1865 album of celebrated people in America’, The LaTrobe Journal. State Library Victoria, September 2020, Simon Plant - Mr Coppin's face book - an 1865 photograph album of celebrated people in America.pdf (slv.vic.gov.au)
‘Show Time: George Coppin turns 200’, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn 2019, Theatre Heritage Australia - Show Time: George Coppin turns 200
‘Standing Orations: Campbell McComas and the Goodfa Business Theatre Company (1985–1993)’, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Spring 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia - Standing Orations: Campbell McComas and the Goodfa Business Theatre Company (1985–1993)
‘The Character Building Camera of H. Walter Barnett’ in The Falk Studios: The theatrical portrait photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021
Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (part 1), On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Summer 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia - Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (Part 1)
Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (part 2), On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn 2021, Theatre Heritage Australia - Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (Part 2)
Winter of the Seventeenth Doll: Ray Lawler in New York, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn, 2021, Theatre Heritage Australia - Winter of the Seventeenth Doll: Ray Lawler in New York
The following text is a transcript of Simon Plant's 2022 THA AGM address.
HOW he loved an audience!
Other men quivered at the very thought of public speaking but George Selth Coppin relished any opportunity to stand before a crowd and talk. His voice, at once rasping and fluty, could carry to the far corners of any room and no interjections could stop him when he was in full flight.
So, when the Colony of Victoria’s most industrious theatre manager rose to speak at Morton’s Hotel in Melbourne on the evening of Monday February 22, 1864, in front of 50 friends, everyone knew it was time to settle down. ‘I hope I don’t intrude’, he began. That single opening line provoked roars of laughter in the Bourke St hostelry. Coppin was known for this catchphrase which always introduced his favourite low comedy character, busybody Paul Pry. But on this hot summer’s night, with sweat moistening the stiff collars of his all male audience, Australia’s best known showman was determined to be himself ... and make an important announcement. Sinking fingers into the pockets of his water silk waistcoat, Coppin drew himself up and declared he would shortly ‘proceed from these Australian Colonies to San Francisco’ and, ‘from thence, travel through America’. Furthermore, he said, a contract to that effect would be signed the very next day at the United States Consulate in Collins St! The room erupted.
THIS IS THE OPENING STANZA to my forthcoming book ENTERTAINING MR COPPIN: AN AUSTRALIAN SHOWMAN IN CIVIL WAR AMERICA. As many of you know, George Selth Coppin led a crowded life. Between his birth in England in 1819 and his death in Australia in 1906, he juggled multiple roles: that of comedian and theatre manager, politician and philanthropist. In Melbourne, Coppin is perhaps best known as the Father of Sorrento – a seaside resort at the southern end of the Mornington Peninsula – but that enterprise was only accomplished in later years.
The book I’m building focuses on a hectic 18-month period between July 1864 and January 1866 when Coppin travelled to the United States of America. Or, as it was then, the dis-United States. America was being torn apart. The secession of Southern States in 1861, over the issue of slavery, had ignited conflict with the North and the battles that followed had turned farms and villages at Gettysburg, Antietam and Bull Run into killing fields. Coppin was powerfully aware of America’s Civil War when he boarded a sailing ship in Sydney, bound for San Francisco, in the winter of 1864 but a big idea fixated him. Desperate to discharge debts and secure a nest egg for his expanding family, Coppin was determined to put Shakespeare on Broadway and now – finally – he had the two people he needed to make that happen: Mr and Mrs Charles Kean. The Keans were English theatre royalty, renowned for their grand, period perfect productions of Shakespeare. In the Australian colonies, Coppin had already presented the husband and wife team with some success but the welcome mat was wearing thin. All three knew it was time to press onto California ... war or no war!
This episode has not gone entirely unreported. In his 1965 book Coppin The Great, Alec Bagot gives a solid account of the American tour Coppin undertook with the Keans but no scholar has brought a forensic eye to the letters and diaries associated with it ... until now. For five years, between other projects, I have been delving into archives held at the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia, looking to reconstruct the journey with all its triumphs, trials and tribulations. Coppin’s diary jottings tell us who he was meeting on any given day, where they met, sometimes what they talked about. His letters home to wife Lucy, in Melbourne, are more discursive and offer penetrating insights into his plans and private pain. Then there are the newspapers. In reports to the Melbourne Herald from California and New York, Coppin relayed his views on different aspects of American life: from guns and gambling to fire engines and horse-drawn cabs. Most of all, he wrote about the theatre: the histrionic temples where the Bard of Avon often competed with minstrels and mesmerists, bell ringers and wire walkers. I want to recover that vanished world and take readers back to those gaslight and greasepaint days. I want to write a great fruit cake of a book, bulging with surprises.
Easier said than done, of course. For many months, I struggled to make sense of all the material I was gathering and only broke through after reaching two important decisions. First, I decided to compress the time frame. I would not go beyond January 1866, when Coppin returned to Australia from America. And whatever happened before his departure for the States would be recalled in flashback. Second, I would tell the tale from Coppin’s point of view: by sitting on his shoulder and watching the passing parade through his eyes. At one point in their journey, Mr and Mrs Kean broke away from their Australian agent to enjoy a holiday in Havana. In my telling of the tour, the reader stays with Coppin ... and follows his solo journey onto New York. By staying in the moment, by not leaping ahead of events, I believe the narrative gathers momentum. It becomes more active and, therefore, more readable.
So ... am I writing historical fiction? Sort of. Entertaining Mr Coppin is not a thesis. It’s a melding of biographical portraiture and social history which puts the reader right alongside Coppin as he disembarks at Battery Park and rides a carriage up Broadway, as he talks humbug with impresario P T Barnum and watches brooding Edwin Booth play Hamlet. To make all that happen on the printed page, some imagining – some old fashioned storytelling - is required. However, I am not taking liberties. In my book there are no made up places or composite characters, no contrived scenes or fictitious dialogue. The quotes are real and, in some cases, stranger than fiction. Coppin was in New York in April 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington and his journal supplies an extraordinary first-hand account of events surrounding this terrible event. I can set the scene in Entertaining Mr Coppin but his words of shock and dismay are the essential foundation.
AS writers and researchers into so many facets of theatre history, I’m sure you have all had a Eureka moment, when a new discovery opens up your chosen subject. My Eureka moment came in 2018 when a librarian alerted me to a photograph album Coppin had sent home from America. ‘Mr Coppin’s face book’, as I called it, held dozens of carte de visite photographs of famous Americans – politicians, entertainers, writers and military men. Coppin met a few of them, viewed several from afar and admired many from a distance. Inspecting the album at the State Library, I knew instantly that any story about his American travels needed to teem with period images. And those images, for maximum impact, needed to be folded through the text. The idea of a book was born. Elisabeth Kumm and other colleagues at Theatre Heritage Australia shared my vision and their vote of confidence has galvanised the project.
Entertaining Mr Coppin divides into six chapters across two acts. Those acts include a prologue, entre’act and epilogue connecting events on America’s West and East coasts. As of today, four chapters are complete. A fifth nears completion. Come Spring, I should be stomping up the streets of Manhattan with George. Not that Coppin always stomped. Prone to gout, he was often bedridden. I’ve boned up on gout and its cures for this book. I’ve also familiarised myself with currency exchanges and tariff debates, shipping intelligence and rules governing 19th century theatres. To write convincingly about ‘stock’ companies in the 1860s, I need to know how managers such as Coppin set ticket prices, printed playbills, courted newspapers, fended off rivals and handled difficult actors.
No actor of the era was more maddeningly mercurial than Charles Kean. He and Coppin were separated by age, education and experience but temperament was the biggest divider. Whereas Coppin was open to the world, always on the front foot, Mr Kean tended to distrust people and envied the success of others. Money mad, he would also do anything to trim expenses. So, it was inevitable that relations between the Eton-educated Englishman and the one-time strolling player from Norfolk should deteriorate. Their animosity and mutual disdain lies at the very heart of Entertaining Mr Coppin and conflict, as you know, is the driver behind every good book.
In some ways, I am writing a travelogue. This is a story of far flung places: a book about footprints and footfalls and foaming wakes. I’m still chasing down leads, unearthing playbills and scrutinising maps. But Coppin’s passage across the Pacific, through California and into the Eastern States via the Isthmus of Panama, is not only a physical journey. It’s a psychological one. The Coppin who arrives in San Francisco, his head bursting with positive images of American life, is not the same man who leaves New York twelve months later. He’s excited by the country’s ingenuity and can-do energy but he’s chastened by its violence and inequality and yearns to escape what he calls ‘this unhappy country’. How did a visitor from the Antipodes reconcile these competing visions? Entertaining Mr Coppin must answer that.
To close, I will quote the final lines of the book’s overture. It is Saturday April 30 1864 and Mr Kean is on the stage of Coppin’s Haymarket theatre, in Melbourne, giving a farewell speech before leaving for America: ‘Allow me to take this opportunity of stating how fortunate I consider myself in having been associated in business, during out Australian tour with your old favourite, George Coppin’. Mrs Kean echoed these sentiments. Writing to a friend in England, she said of Coppin: ‘We find him a very honest minded man, much respected and looked upon as trustworthy’. Privately, Mr Kean was less charitable and described his Australian agent as a ‘common man, possessing a certain rudeness which is very unpleasant’. Coppin’s own opinion of Mr Kean was less than flattering. The Englishman, he confided to wife Lucy, could be ‘very bad tempered and offensive’. But in public he only spoke of Mr Kean’s genius and well known kindness of heart.
Coppin was an actor after all.
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Volunteers are vital to our work
In 2022, THA will undertake a new Oral History Program involving long-form recorded interviews focusing on Australian performing arts practitioners, with a view to creating a specialist resource for performing arts researchers, including theatre historians, arts journalists, educators and students.
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|Diana Burleigh||Vice President|
|Jenny Fewster||Committee member|
|Peter Johnson||Committee member|
|Judy Leech||Committee member|
|Rob Morrison||Committee member|
|Jasna Novaković||Committee member|
|Robert Ray||Committee member|
|Cheryl Threadgold||Committee member|
|Sue-Anne Wallace||Committee member|
Our goal in 2022 is to raise $10,000 to enable THA to digitise and publish historic ephemera, photographic, film and manuscript material relating to the history of Australian theatre and make it available for research and educational purposes.
Theatre Heritage Australia (founded in 1995 as Victorian Theatres Trust) is a volunteer-run charity which promotes and encourages study and research into Australia’s theatre history; preservation, renovation and use of Australia’s theatres; and identification, documentation and preservation of items relating to Australia’s theatre history.
In recent years, THA has undertaken a number of major digitisation projects, including the JCW Scene Books , The Riley/Hailes Scrapbook and The Falk Album . Help us continue this important work by making a donation.
Please note: All donations over $2 are tax deductible. See below for ways to donate, or contact us to discuss other donation options.
Theatre Heritage Australia adheres to ethical fundraising practices. You can view our Fundraising Policies below:
In 2022, Theatre Heritage Australia will begin a new Oral History program, with the focus on Australian performing arts practitioners.
Theatre Heritage Australia builds its Oral History repository with a view to creating a specialist resource for performing arts researchers, including theatre historians, arts journalists, educators and students. The interviews unfold in the form of interactive exchange between the interviewer and the artist/theatre maker with the purpose of sourcing information and expanding knowledge.
While pursuing the common objective of Oral History to preserve the records of personal, lived experience – in this case that of performing arts practitioners – THA seeks to avoid putting the emphasis on biography alone. Rather, the main thrust of the interview is on artistic achievements and the uniqueness of the ideas, concepts and artistic means used in the work. The rationale for this is drawn from the principles of art practice: it is the ideas/concepts and their realization in performance that win an artist critical acclaim and, ultimately, a place in history. Biographical detail is outlined as an integral part of the artist’s journey or as a tool for grasping their work and is not the sole focus of interview.
Consequently, the interviews conducted under the banner of THA are neither evaluative nor confrontational. They uncover the fields of artist’s interest and the driving forces behind personal search for an idiosyncratic form of artistic expression, creating a broad platform for future critical inquiry.
Comprised of diverse profiles of performing artists of merit, the THA Oral History repository thus sheds light on the trajectories of and influences on artists’ lives and careers, their creative collaborations and achievements. It is as much a research resource as a biographical dictionary in oral mode.
William (Bill) Miles died on 29 August 2021 and designer Anna French is putting a file together on his life and career for inclusion in The Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
He was a costume maker, and taught at WAAPA in Perth. She is looking for reminiscences of him and his work and any work photos.