The Melbourne racing season was well underway and on Victorian Derby Night, 3 November 1906, The Spring Chicken had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, with later performances in Adelaide starting on 6 April and Sydney on 8 June 1907 and a revival in Melbourne for Show Week the following August.
The plot of this musical was simple, although some thought the storyline improper. Gustave Babori (Reginald Roberts) a staid lawyer and dutiful husband in winter is involved in flirtatious exploits and infidelity in the springtime, a practice which his dutiful wife, Dulcie (Olive Morell in her first appearance in Australia) wants to stop. There are endless complications—Babori falls in love with a client, Baroness Papouche (Alma Barber) who is seeking a divorce and he is also infatuated with Rosalie (Florence Young) a ‘playful’ French maid. He is aided in his amorous adventures by his father in-law, Mr. Girdle (George Lauri), who is similarly incline.
Clara played the part of Mrs. Girdle, the mother-in-law of Babori, a character role which suited her burlesque skill perfectly. Her performance was the subject of another cleverly drawn sketch.1
Mrs Girdle drew upon her experience of men and her female guile in dealing with her own flirtatious husband to benefit the ladies in their endeavours and to finally reconcile the parties. Clara’s rendition of ‘I Don’t Know, But I Can Guess (what I don’t know of Babori, or any other man, I can guess)’, a pointed reference to the philanders, was according to the Argus review one of the most lilting airs of the piece (and) the keynote of the whole production.2 And the Leader wrote that the song would have startled the moral purists out of their propriety.3
The Bulletin, however, in a biting comment, thought there was a lack of spice in the performance and that it was ‘not counteracted by the cloying sweetness of mother-in-law Clara Clifton … Charmingly chubby and coyly arch in her appeal to audiences, this ingratiating lady, regarded in the light of a pickle for devilled son-in-law, is sadly deficient in mustard, pepper and vinegar. ’4
While Clara’s comic skill was often acknowledged, little was said of her singing, although of her Mrs. Girdle performance in Sydney it was said that she sings very prettily and was also referred to as the ‘silver-voiced’ actress.5
W.S. Percy as Girdle’s Son, Clara Clifton as Mrs Girdle and Alma Barber as Girdle’s Niece in the 1907 production of The Spring Chicken. Photo by Talma, Melbourne & Sydney.
National Library of Australia Collection
According to the Leader there was a special feminine interest in the musical because the costumes were of the height of fashion—or what would be the fashion next week.6 Clara was fastidious with her stage wardrobe, which was splendid; she dressed as a fashionable society woman. Likewise, her off-stage attire was most elegant. The fashions seen on stage were often copied by stylish women and many in the social set attended the theatre merely to see what was in vogue.
Reviews of performances and ‘Ladies Pages’ in daily newspapers often devoted space to an actress’s wardrobe and the quality of her dress. Clara’s wardrobe was regularly singled out for comment including in her role as Mrs. Girdle in The Spring Chicken where it was noted that Clara’s handsome personality was more pronounced by two effective toilettes: ‘the second an exquisite gown of white brocade, the corsage draped with white chiffon and lace, a trail of bright crimson roses just giving the necessary touch of color, a couple of dark roses worn in the becoming grey hair.’7 The ensemble can be seen in the Talma postcard above.
Almost twelve months to the day when last in Melbourne, The Girl from Kay’s was again performed at Her Majesty’s, playing for a week in early December 1906. As a finale to the performance on 17 December, a number of popular selections from some of the Company’s previous musicals were performed, including a rendition of ‘Zo Zo’ from Kitty Grey by Clara, the song which first gave her prominence in Australia.
Two days later the company left on the Riverina for a tour of New Zealand with a repertoire of performances scheduled in major cities through to Easter 1907. The season opened at the Wellington Opera House on Boxing Day evening with a performance of The Orchid and Clara ‘easily stepped into the good graces of patrons, and she bids fair to become a warm favourite with New Zealand audiences ... If it were possible, the audience would have had her sing “In My Time” all night to them’.8
During the tour, the illness of George Lauri gave W.S. Percy the opportunity to play Meakin (the gardener) in performances of The Orchid at Christchurch and the press reported that his scenes with Miss Clifton were full of spontaneity and fun. 9
Cast list for The Dairymaids, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, October 1907. Click here to view program.
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
After a successful run at the London Apollo Theatre the previous year, The Dairymaids had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday, 7 September 1907. The musical had been eagerly anticipated by Melbourne theatre patrons and the show attracted full houses throughout its season.
In this farcical musical, Clara played Lady Brudenell who had established a model dairy for the well-being of young ladies. Two of the dairymaids are her wards, Winifred and Peggy, played by Florence Young and Fanny Dango. It was Dango’s first performance in Australia and she also played the part of the chief Sandow girl.10 Emma Temple, in her first appearance with the Comic Opera Co., played Miss Penelope Pyechase the severe and pedantic schoolmistress. Besides the frolicsome dairymaids, there are naval officers, Brudenell’s flirtatious nephews and a gymnasium scene involving many young attractive ladies in clinging white gowns, doing various ‘Sandow’ exercises.11
The script, according to Punch, provided few opportunities for Clara to excel in what was described as a chanceless, thankless role. Moreover, as a capable vocalist Clara was not given the opportunity to sing, other than in chorus work, a shortcoming in the production which also applied to other well-known singers in the cast: Reginald Roberts, Alma Barber and Claude Bantock.12
The Melbourne Herald, however, considered Clara’s performance a great triumph, writing of ‘her wonderful skill in getting en rapport with her audience’ and that ‘she uses melodramatic phrases with almost perfect melodramatic enunciation and gesture’, concluding that ‘the part suits her to a nicety, and her style has improved since we first had the pleasure of seeing her in Melbourne.’13
Some four months later The Dairymaids played in Sydney for the first time on 1 February 1908 for a six-week season. As in the Melbourne production, Clara was said to be handsome and dignified as Lady Brudenell, with reference again being made to her singing—what little vocal work was attributed to the role was rendered with the artiste’s usual care.14
Writing on the Sydney show for Punch, ‘The Don’ felt The Dairymaids had suffered in comparison with The Girls of Gottenberg, the previous production at the theatre. It was, he said clumsily constructed, the comedy was fifth rate and the music commonplace and monotonous. On the contrary the reviewer said it was unnecessary to write anything about Clara’s character as ‘whatever the piece or the part, she is always Clara Clifton. “Semper Eadem” [always the same] is her motto, and she never shifts from her moorings’.15
With her public popularity Clara’s private life often caught the attention of the press and any titbit, sometimes less than flattering, was newsworthy. For instance, the Critic wrote: ‘Miss Clara Clifton goes riding into the country on fine days. Being no light-weight, she has to use great judgement in selecting a trusty steed. She generally finds him.’16 And the Bulletin also weighed in with an invasive passage: ‘the latest footlighter to turn to the “d.f. villa …” is Miss Cara Clifton. That genial soul, what time she isn’t impersonating ladies of various qualities, is enthusiastically playing housewife in a nest at Albert Park. Nowadays the imported busker frequently shows an amiable leaning towards domesticity, and modestly avoids the unblinking observation of public tables-d’hote.’17
Clara wrote an indignant denial and demanded the statement contradicted. The Bulletin reluctantly agreed, but not without a final barb— ‘Miss Clifton doesn’t cook her own chop in her own domicile. She hangs out at the Old White Hart, Melbourne.’18
Due to ill health, Clara could not take her role as Mrs Privett when Alfred Celier’s popular pastoral comic opera, Dorothy opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 20 July 1907 and was replaced by Pressy Preston. Clara returned to the role when the comic opera played for a week’s run in Melbourne the following October, Preston stayed on for the Melbourne production in the lesser role of Lady Betty.
Clara’s role of Mrs. Privett, the sister of Squire Bantam, was that of a comely, middle aged widow and reviews of her performance were mixed. The Age, for instance, commented that she ‘went through her appointed task on conventional lines, but never once looked as though she felt them to be either appropriate or convincing.’19 Whereas Table Talk wrote that she was a superb Mrs. Privett and was the perfect foil to George Lauri’s, Lurcher which enabled him to fully realise the humorous possibilities of the piece.20 This comment was echoed by the Bulletin which wrote: Lauri and Miss Clifton got full allowance of applause and delighted guffaw for their buffoonery as Lurcher and Mrs. Privett. 21 And the Gadfly said of her role that she loses more of the Clara than usual and assumes a good deal more of the character.22
The Royal Comic Opera Co’s next attraction was the military musical comedy The Girls of Gottenberg which had its first Australian performance at Her Majesty’s, Melbourne on 26 October 1907, in a season which coincided with the Cup racing carnival. There was a packed house on opening night and most numbers were encored by an enthusiastic audience, many who were no doubt buoyed by a successful day at the races. Following its very successful run in Melbourne the musical moved to Sydney as the Christmas holiday attraction.
Cast list for The Girls of Gottenberg, Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, October 1907. Click here to view program.
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
The musical was an extravaganza of colour from the military uniforms to the costumes of the chorus girls and the dressing of the principals. A cast of some thirty characters included most of the Company’s principal players, with Clara in the role of Clementine, the Burgonmaster’s daughter. Of particular note was the appearance of the Comic Opera tenor Reginald Roberts after an absence of 18 months in America, as Otto Prince of Saxe-Hildesheim an officer in the Blue Hussars.
The storyline concerned two regiments, the Red and Blue Hussars, both which are languishing in Rottenberg where there is only one girl. Both groups want to be transferred to Gottenberg where there are plenty of beautiful, fun-loving girls at a military college. The Kaiser choses the Red Hussars but then enters Max Moddelkopf (George Lauri) a trickster who impersonates a special envoy, switches the orders to have the Blue troops transferred to Gottenberg. Throw into the mix a prince, the burgomaster and daughter, an innkeeper and daughter and a General and his daughter and plenty of romantic intrigue.
As Clementine, Clara’s was once more a buxom and attractive lady with her humorous persona at its best and her song ‘You Know How Shy I Am’ and her duet with George Lauri, ‘Birds in the Trees’ were redemanded by the audience. In one of Clara’s comic sketches the audience was ‘almost broken up when she bundled Adolf, the Town Clerk (W.S. Percy), almost onto the footlights for daring to interfere between father and daughter’.23
From about the 1907 season of the Opera Co., or possibly earlier, some theatrical scribes had noted a changing role for Clara and that despite her being a vast favourite with musical comedy audiences, she was being restricted to minor character roles. The reviewer for the Melbourne Leader for instance, in a backhanded compliment, thought that Clara as Clementine had been given more prominence than she has recently been afforded, 24 and the correspondent for the British Era magazine thought that ‘Miss Clara Clifton a veritable idol to both sexes of playgoers, had too little to do as the Burgermeister’s daughter, but it was good vocal and histrionic ballast in a ship freighted with frivolity’.25
The ‘too little to do’ comment was also noted by ‘The Don’ of Punch in his review of The Lady Dandies when he wrote that Clara as Egle (and Evelyn Scott as Liane ) have little or nothing to do, 26 a view echoed elsewhere—Miss Clara Clifton as Egle has nothing to do with the action of the piece (but does brighten the third act with her song).27 And as a throw-away line, Miss Clara Clifton as Egle and Miss Evelyn Scott as Liane, are also in the cast.28
The Lady Dandies, a comic opera of the French Revolutionary days during the infamous Directoire, began its season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney on 21 March 1908 and was later transferred to the Theatre Royal in early April before its final performance on 9 May. Clara played Egle the flirtatious young wife of her gout ridden old husband, Des Gouttieres (Arthur Hunter), secretary to the Directors.
Shortly after the season finished Clara was on board the RMS Britannia for a five-month holiday in England, leaving Sydney on 6 June 1908, with the stated intention to return to Australia in time for the Christmas production of The Duchess of Dantzic. When interviewed on her return on board the RMS Orotava in Perth, Clara reiterated her intention: ‘I am now travelling direct to Sydney for the purpose of joining the “Duchess of Dantzic” Co.’29
But her return to the stage did not eventuate. Clara’s role as Egle in The Lady Dandies was her last with the Royal Comic Opera Company.
Clara retired and soon after married George Cartwright on Monday, 15 February 1909 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne.
George Cartwright was educated in England and had work experience at the Woolwich Arsenal before he came to Victoria in 1901, aged 21 to work at the Colonial Ammunition Company in Footscray. The following year he was appointed its Manager. The company played a prominent part in Australia’s World War 1 activities.30
The Cartwrights had two sons and a daughter and resided on Beaconsfield Parade, St. Kilda, with a rural property near Officer, Victoria.
Little was heard of Clara following her marriage. On one occasion Table Talk of March 1912 noted that Clara had emerged from retirement for one day to work at a Theatrical Carnival in East Melbourne in aid of the Theatrical Charities Fund31 and Punch, the following year, referred to Clara and her husband being among guests attending the opening of the new Auditorium concert hall in Collins Street with appearances by Madame Clara Bolt and Mr. Kennerly Rumford.32
Clara died on 13 March 1940, she was predeceased by her husband who died on 24 January 1937.
Clara Clifton the English stage actress was full of vivacity, humour and charm. She began her career as a teenager performing in pantomimes, graduating to plays and musical comedies on the English provincial theatre circuit and later in South Africa. In 1904, in a bold and courageous move she travelled, unaccompanied, to Australia, to ply her craft and soon found engagement with J.C. Williamson’s Royal Comic Opera Company. Over the next five years Clara performed in most of the company’s musical comedies: The Orchid (her role as Caroline Vokins arguably her finest), Florodora, Veronique, The Geisha, The Girl From Kay’s, The Shop Girl, The Little Michus, The Spring Chicken, The Dairymaids, Dorothy, The Girls of Gottenberg and The Lady Dandies, often as an outstanding low comedienne, and generally applauded for her clever, comic character sketches.
At the time Clara was a huge favourite with musical comedy audiences throughout her relatively short career in Australia. But for an actress once cherished with warm affection, little is known about her today and she is worthy of better recognition. She deserves to be remembered.
1. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 June 1907, p.7
2. Argus (Melbourne), 5 November 1906, p.5
3. Leader (Melbourne) 10 November 1906, p.22
4. Bulletin (Melbourne), 6 December 1906, p.11
5. Sunday Sun, 9 and 23 June 1907, pp. 2 and 3
6. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1906, p.22
7. Critic (Adelaide), 10 April 1907, p.4
8. Referee (Sydney), 9 January 1907, p.12 & 16 January 1907, p.12 and Manawatu Standard, 22 January 1907, p.4
9. Christchurch Press, 19 February—report in Port Melbourne Standard, 9 March 1907, p.4
10. Fanny Dango was specifically engaged by Williamson to take the part of Peggy and she quickly became a favourite of local audiences.
11. Eugen Sandow promoted physical culture through weight training, attracting many students including young women.
12. Punch (Melbourne), 12 September 12, 1907 p.36
13. Herald (Melbourne), 5 November 1906, p.4
14. Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February, 1908, p. 6
15. Punch (Melbourne), 6 February 1908, p.33
16. Critic (Adelaide), 19 September 1906, p.9
17. Bulletin (Melbourne), 19 September 1907, p.21
18. Bulletin (Melbourne), 3 October, 1907, p.21
19. Age (Melbourne), 21 October 1907, p.9
20. Table Talk (Melbourne), 24 October 1907, p.21
21. Bulletin (Melbourne), 24 October 1907, p.8
22. Gadfly (Adelaide), 23 October 1907, p.8
23. Herald (Melbourne), 28 October 1907, p.3
24. Leader (Melbourne), 3 November 1907, p.33
25. The Era (London), 1 February 1908, p.21—Amusements in Australia
26. Punch (Melbourne), 9 April, 1908, p.39
27. Australian Star (Sydney), 23 March 1908, p.2
28. Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 March 1908, p.4
29. Daily News (Perth), 17 December 1908, p.1
30. Punch (Melbourne), 3 August 1916, p.6
31. Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 March, 1912, p.10
32. Punch (Melbourne), 29 May 1913, p.37
Shirley & Stephen Rieger