Simon Plant

Simon Plant

SIMON PLANT is a Melbourne writer and curator.

He was a Herald and Weekly Times journalist for 30 years, specialising in arts and entertainment, and has been contributing to On Stage since 2019.

Simon—who holds a Master of Arts from the University of Melbourne—has also co curated several exhibitions including ‘Making a Song and Dance: The Quest for an Australian Musical’ (2005), at Arts Centre Melbourne. He is currently writing essays about 1890s Melbourne—one to do with theatre scenery, the other theatre portraits in the Falk Album—and researching George Coppin’s picaresque travels in Civil War America.

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



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

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,

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,

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,

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




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,



Tim Blood (29 June and 10 July 2020)

John Billings (4 July 2020)

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



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!’



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


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

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


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


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

State Library of Victoria, H9470


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


Coppin as Paul Pry, 1860s.

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


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


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


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

State Library of Victoria, H84.3/17


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


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


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



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, (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