Sue-Anne Wallace

Sue-Anne Wallace

Dr Sue-Anne Wallace AM CF FAICD

Sue-Anne is an art historian whose doctoral research considered the liturgical theatres of the rock-cut churches in Cappadocia, Turkey. She has extensive experience in arts development and museums, with the Australia Council, National Gallery of Australia, Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney and Queensland University of Technology Cultural Precinct. In the latter position, she was also the director of the Gardens Theatre Brisbane. She is currently researching late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatre in Australia with a focus on renowned Scottish actor Walter Bentley who toured in UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand from 1873, settling in Australia in 1909. Memorabilia of Walter Bentley’s is housed in the State Library of NSW and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Sydney. Sue-Anne is an adjunct fellow of the Sir Zelman Cowan Centre, Victoria University.

Thursday, 02 September 2021

Theatrical Portraits of Walter Bentley

SUE-ANNE WALLACE continues her exploration of the life of her grandfather, the actor Walter Bentley. Taking the Falk Album as a starting point, she looks at Bentley’s choice of photographer and how his image was used throughout his career.

The impetus for writing this paper was the discovery of a suite of theatrical portraits of Walter Bentley in the Falk Album (Falk Album, Nick Henderson Collection, Digitised by Theatre Heritage Australia, 2019, hereafter referred to as the Falk Album), which came into the hands of Theatre Heritage Australia in 2019. [See The Falk Studios. The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, Bambra Press, Melbourne, 2021.] Like many celebrated actors, Bentley had commissioned Walter Barnett to take his portrait, in costume. I was interested to see how he used the pictures as devices for the promotion of his career. My findings were contrary to my expectations.

Walter Bentley (1849-1927), a Scottish tragedian, arrived in Australia in 1891 with Danish actress Laura Hansen, under contract to George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company. Melbourne had been anticipating Bentley’s visit for some years, with newspaper articles predicting his arrival as early as 1887. Ironically he was employed by George Coppin, who, in 1873, had rejected the fledgling actor’s entreaties to join his company, saying that Bentley, with only six months touring in New Zealand under his belt, was an amateur. With this assessment and no clear trajectory to the stage in Australia, Bentley left and headed back to Britain, where he took on the role of juvenile lead to Henry Irving at the Lyceum, before forming his own company and touring the country. From 1883–1886 he toured America to great acclaim, returning to Britain a more polished and accomplished actor. Coppin’s agents in London spotted Bentley and persuaded him to return to Australia. He was billed as a great tragedian, with a reputation for ‘legitimate art’.

Needing promotional photographs, Bentley sought the services of the Vandyck Studios, on Bourke Street, which ‘took some very fine pictures of the Scottish tragedian in private garb’ (Melbourne Punch, 26 November 1891). These pictures were readily translated into wood engravings which could be reasonably easily reproduced in newspapers.

Bentley’s season at Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was short in order to accommodate plans for an extensive tour of New Zealand. He opened with Rob Roy, an historical piece, based on the novel by Walter Scott, playing the outlaw, while James Faucitt Cathcart took the role of Baillie. Bentley was ‘fortunate to have chosen the right role’ claimed The Australasian (Melbourne, 21 November 1891). Vandyck’s image of Walter Bentley is not unlike others images taken by the studio in Sydney, working from 41 Market Street, showing the sitter from chest height, in profile, with a gradual fading into a background devoid of identifying features.

The Coppin season in Melbourne continued with Hamlet, which suffered mixed reviews, from disappointing to a brilliant success, followed by The Bells and Othello. More interest was shown by newspapers across the country when this newly-arrived actor was assaulted on his way home from the theatre:

Mr Walter Bentley, the actor at present playing at the Theatre Royal, had an unpleasant experience whilst proceeding home from the theatre at an early hour this morning. About a quarter to 1 o’clock, Mr Bentley and Mr Charles Bradley, who is to act as his agent through New Zealand, were conversing at the corner of Nicholson and Gertrude Streets. Walter Bentley who resides in Nicholson Street, opposite the Exhibition Buildings, had just left Mr Bradley when three men came towards him, one of whom asked him the time. He replied indefinitely without looking at his watch, whereupon two of the men seized him simultaneously. However, Mr Bentley, probably freshly remembering the effects of his Herculean feats in ‘Rob Roy’ was not prepared to submit without a struggle, and he dealt one of his assailants a severe blow, and swinging round, disengaged himself from the other. Mr Bentley’s calls brought his companion to the scene, and on seeing him approach, the miscreants ran away. In the scuffle, however, they succeeded in tearing away a scarf in which was a gold pin, valued at about £3 10s. The only return which Mr Bentley secured was to obtain possession of the hair of one of his assailants, which he brought to Russell-street, where he reported the matter. (The Argus, Melbourne, 9 December 1891)

This story hit the newspapers across Melbourne, out to Broken Hill and even to South Australia! What was not readily known, was that Bentley was an amateur boxing champion when he was resident in Dunedin, New Zealand, an attribute which he employed to distinct advantage on this occasion. It seemed Bentley was indifferent as to whether the press pitched a good yarn or reviewed his work on stage; publicity was publicity, particularly when his name was relatively unknown.

With their season concluding on 22 December 1891, Bentley and his company went aboard the ss Talune, for the four-day voyage to Dunedin, where Bentley was welcomed as an ‘eminent star’ returning to the town of his youth. Here he was known, and had a good reputation. But still there were no images to accompany the glowing reviews of his performances up and down the country.

Plans for a lengthy tour throughout New Zealand were abruptly cut short when Coppin’s Company collapsed in debt, causing Bentley to close in Auckland on 23 April 1892 and forcing the company to disband. The local press reported sadly that the company ‘dissolved and have gone their several ways in peace’ (Auckland Star, 30 April 1892). Bentley stayed a few weeks longer, giving recitals and lectures as he made his way to Wellington, where he pitched an idea to create a stock company for the Wellington Opera House. His concept of developing shares to support the proposal attracted some interest but insufficient for the idea to take hold. In defeat, on 16 May 1892, Bentley boarded the ss Haruto to Auckland, thence to Sydney on the ss Wakatipu.

By the time of Bentley’s arrival in Sydney, his name was now familiar, his successes on the New Zealand stage having been regularly reported by the Australian press. He was greeted warmly and with much anticipation. With Laura Hansen, he opened with Hamlet on 4 June 1892 in the Garrick Theatre and gained good reviews for this and his following performances in David Garrick, Cramond Brig, The Bells, Richelieu, The Lady of Lyons, The Merchant of Venice, closing with Othello. Bentley ‘has become a favourite during his all too short season here. It is a pity he is not supported by a more powerful company’, opined Referee (Sydney, 6 July 1892), as Bentley and his company headed to Newcastle and Brisbane. Laura Hansen was praised for speaking her lines clearly with evident understanding, while the rest of the cast was largely dismissed, without comment. Miss Hansen was lucky to survive the season without injury, as following the final curtain of Cramond Brig, the stagehands moved in to change the scenery for a short afterpiece, and a large piece fell on the stage. Bentley sprang forward, receiving the full weight of the scenery on his shoulder, saving Miss Hansen from injury. He apparently said, ‘That was a close shave Miss Hansen’ and repaired to his dressing room to nurse his bruises (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Newcastle, 14 July 1892). Another anecdotal story, and still no supporting images.

Bentley would have seen the studio portraits of other actors and actresses while he was in Sydney, as Falk Studios, under the direction of Walter Barnett, had been operating there since 1887 (Roger Neill, ‘H. Walter Barnett and Falk Studios’, The Falk Studios The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021, pp.4-19). He probably sensed he too would benefit from a suite of Barnett’s images.

In June 1892, Bentley visited the Falk Studios to create a portfolio of theatrical studio portraits. Such portraits were posed in costume, as if performing on the stage (Isobel Crombie, ‘H. Walter Barnett and the Evolution of Theatrical and Celebrity Portraiture’, The Falk Studios The Theatrical Portrait Photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021, pp. 21-32). Isobel Crombie identifies Barnett’s two styles, documentary pictures with even, bright lighting and chiaroscuro moody intimate images, both styles being apparent in the images of Walter Bentley.

These so-called cabinet cards were often bought by theatregoers as mementoes of their favourite performers. Furthermore, actors and actresses shared their cabinet cards. Bentley carried a photo of Adelaide Ristori with whom he performed in Britain in 1882; he commented a number of times about how precious the photo was to him. When she performed in Sydney in 1914, Ellen Terry, who knew Bentley from their time together with Henry Irving in Britain in the 1870s, gave him a signed photo, in addition to a mantlepiece clock which she inscribed to her former colleague. Van Diemen’s Land politician and Colonial Treasurer, John Henry, became very friendly with Bentley when he was performing in Hobart. In May 1893, even Henry presented Bentley with a photograph as a remembrance. The attraction between the gentlemen must have been mutual, as Henry’s letter is found in one of Bentley’s scrapbooks in the State Library of NSW (hereafter SLNSW) (Green scrapbook, SLNSW ML MSS 8395 Box 1X). Henry and Bentley were to remain in touch for some years, particularly during one of the Federal Conventions when Henry telegrammed Bentley, commenting on the absence of the Queensland delegates, questioning whether ‘the presence of the delegates, though desirable, would materially alter the [constitutional] bill’ (Brisbane Courier, 3 September 1897). Bentley duly reported the communication to the press, comments which would not have delighted Queenslanders!

Barnett’s theatrical celebrity portraits were in contrast to his social portraits, which largely dispensed with scene setting, showing the figure against a neutral background with a minimum of props, enough to imbue the sitter with certain qualities of elegance, refinement and wealth.

The portrait above advertises the Falk Studios’ ‘Instantaneous Portraits’ at 496 George Street, Sydney. Fashionable ladies and gentlemen could apparently satisfy their need for cabinet cards without delay.

The Falk Studio images of Bentley were intended to provide dynamic illustrative evidence of his theatrical abilities. Of the nine images, five are standing portraits and four show him in a seated position. He is throughout regally garbed as Hamlet, with the accoutrements of his role, including dagger and sword. Two portraits (Falk 066/2 and 066/3) are posed with billowing curtains framing the actor; in the next three images (Falk 066/4-6) Bentley appears self-assured and contemplative; the final three images of this sequence (Falk 066/7-9), where background and chiaroscuro lighting have been dispensed with, are attempting to portray the actor in action. However, in these last images in particular, Bentley appears somewhat ill at ease, especially in the last image of the sequence where his stiff and unresponsive stance is in complete contrast to his more dynamic, but nevertheless mannered, pose in Falk 066/7.

The only profile photograph is in a separate sequence (Falk/067/1), an image of the actor standing, arms crossed, staring into the distance. The sheen of his long, curly hair, the velvety folds of his cloak and the glistening handle of his dagger, render this a quiet, pensive image, which could translate well, almost no matter what role Bentley took to the stage.

Presumably actors chose the role they wanted to portray for the photographer. Bentley chose Hamlet. It is likely that he thought this would suit most occasions, but then J.C. Williamson called him back to Melbourne for a season of The Silver King. Laura Hansen had moved on and his new leading lady was to be Henrietta Watson. And the Falk pictures were not going to be appropriate!

Publicity the night before opening included an image of Walter Bentley, after the earlier Vandyck photograph.

Opening on 20 August 1892 in the Princess Theatre [called in this article Princess’s Theatre], Bentley was presented a few days later with an ebony walking stick, with a silver-plated handle inscribed: ‘Presented by J.C. Williamson To Walter Bentley The Silver King Princess Theatre Melbourne August 20th 1892’ (now in the collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney). It was, he is reported to have said, one of his treasured possessions, which he continued to use throughout his career.

Naturally, the leading man in The Silver King was the focus, and another sketch appeared, showing Bentley dressed as Wilfred Denver, looking very much the dapper man about town, carrying Williamson’s walking stick.

Some months after Bentley’s Falk images were taken, finally, the first of the Falk pictures was published in September 1892 in the Illustrated Sydney News, accompanying an almost full-page article about Walter Bentley by an Old Stager. And the image chosen was the static, mannered, standing portrait of Bentley confronting his adversary, sword ready for battle.

The Old Stager had met Bentley in Edinburgh, when he was a child, then known by his birth name, William Begg. At the invitation of Bentley’s father, the Reverend Dr James Begg, one of the feisty moderators of the Free Church of Scotland, he stayed in the Begg house and breakfasted with the family the following morning. Ten years later, in 1874, Bentley turned up on the doorstep of the Old Stager’s editorial office in The Strand in London, with a letter of introduction from his aunt, Miss Emily Faithfull, well known as a philanthropist, journalist and avid campaigner for women’s rights from the 1860s. Their next encounter was in Sydney, when Bentley was playing Hamlet in the Garrick Theatre, his success due to ‘determined perseverance and unremitting study’ according to the Old Stager, who concluded ‘his great success has yet to come, and this will be when he possesses the opportunity of creating a new part in a new play’.

Travelling across the Tasman Sea, Bentley and his new leading lady, Katherine Hardy, opened in Invercargill on 3 October 1892, before heading to Dunedin for a lengthy season at the Princess Theatre. His manager, Mr J.H. Lohr, was a master publicist and he would surely have generously supplied the Falk pictures along with information about Walter Bentley.

New Zealand’s press seemed more interested in caricatures, like the caustic comparison between Walter Bentley’s packed audiences and those sparsely-filled seats in Pastor Blaikie’s church. There must have been some realisation at the Observer’s Auckland offices that Bentley provided good copy, especially concerning the opposing positions of the church and the stage, on morality and education. For two consecutive weeks Bentley was featured as the successful advocate for the stage in face of the declining popularity of the church in the late-nineteenth century.

The scandal of the actor dining with the Bishop, with phantoms of Bentley’s father, Reverend James Begg DD Edinburgh, and grandfather, Reverend James Begg DD New Monkland, bearing down over both gentlemen, had great traction in New Zealand, and undoubtedly Bentley stirred the pot with letters to the editor about the educational and moral values of the stage. Afterall, it was publicity and it kept Bentley’s name in the press, for one reason or another. And he was enamoured enough with the cartoons to keep them in his scrapbooks.

One of the first uses that I can find of a theatrical portrait from the Falk Studio in New Zealand newspapers was in November 1893. Primarily the article was about the church and stage issue, suggesting it should be put to bed: ‘the question is whether the time has not arrived when enough has been said concerning the elevation of the stage, the superior moral structure of the player, and the refining and beneficial influence of the play. … The fact that an actor—Mr Bentley, to wit—dines with a Bishop affords matter for comment and cartoon in New Zealand, but this is probably the last occasion on which any notice will be taken of a by no means singular though not insignificant occurrence’ (‘Acting as Art. In Praise of the Player’, The New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, National, 21 January 1893). It was entirely irrelevant whether Bentley was playing Hamlet or Wilfred Denver. He was merely an example of an actor, but his pedigree made him the exceptional actor to choose to illustrate such an article.

As suggested above, one of the limitations of the Falk pictures for reviews of performances during a season was Bentley’s extensive repertoire. If not playing Hamlet, the Falk images were largely irrelevant and although Bentley frequently opened with Hamlet, his programs ranged much wider across a number of Shakespeare’s plays – Macbeth, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice and other popular offerings, such as Garrick, Richelieu, The Bells, Money, The Fool’s Revenge, The Lyons Mail and The Lady of Lyons.

On his return to Australia in February 1893, Bentley headed to Adelaide with a new leading lady, Marie Fraser. Kate Bishop who had played with Bentley for some years continued on the road with the company, which included a couple of other old colleagues, Lachlan McGowan and H.R. Roberts.

One image became predominant in the publicity and stories about Walter Bentley; it was the wood engraving based on one of Barnett’s photographs. For some years, this image was the headline to introduce Bentley to audiences in the various states in which he toured.

Other images still had currency, including the engraving based on the earlier Vandyck photograph. The press rolled out the articles, including potted histories of Bentley and his family—father, Reverend Dr James Begg, aunt Miss Emily Faithfull, Robert Burns’ house because Bentley’s family claimed lineage from Robert Burns (although it was distant and through marriage), Adelaide Ristori and Henry Irving. The page below is found somewhat tattered in one of Bentley’s scrapbooks. He must have enjoyed the esteemed profile that was created by such articles.

Finally, rather than an engraving or sketch, a photograph was in the press in Adelaide’s The Standard, but it wasn’t Barnett’s. It was again the Vandyck image which Bentley had taken in Melbourne in late 1891.

Between 1895 and 1899, Bentley resided in Brisbane, teaching dramatic arts at the Central Technical College (now part of Queensland University of Technology), and running his own classes in elocution at his Queensland School of Oratory and Dramatic Art, a remarkably successful venture which saw him take to the stage at regular intervals with his students. To promote the performances, Bentley had a new suite of photographs taken by Wiley. Perhaps Merchant of Venice was more appropriate for his students than Hamlet. Bentley now needed images reflecting his role as Shylock. The Falk Studio pictures of Hamlet had almost seen their day.

The efforts of his teaching were always appreciated. He was apparently a demanding but skilful teacher. ‘The labour bringing a bank of amateurs to such a state of histrionic discipline that they may be trusted to play Shakespeare must be very great’ said the Queenslander (Brisbane, 2 April 1898). Not everyone was as confident about the success or otherwise of the performance. ‘A Girl’s Letter’, signed Dot Dashaway, took the Brisbane Amateurs to task, suggesting it was ‘altogether too severe a test on the budding abilities of the students, nevertheless a few of them gave very creditable interpretations of the different characters, the most praiseworthy being the Nerissa of Miss Sheehan, and the Bassanio of Mr N. Townley’ (Worker, Brisbane 2 April 1898). Bentley’s Shylock did not come out covered in glory either, as the reviewer thought his Jew ‘far too exaggerated, and altogether too bloodthirsty’. This reviewer preferred [Kyrle] Bellew’s Shylock, ‘a more refined and possible interpretation’.

Bentley abruptly left Brisbane in 1899 and headed to Sydney where he established an elocution college. The venture was short-lived, as he was soon reviewed appearing in Tasmania. By April he was back in New Zealand, at the start of a seven-month tour of the islands. His role, as John Storm in The Christian, praised for its ‘metaphysical excellence and significance’ (Wanganui Chronicle, 10 July 1900), clearly needed new and different images. It is likely these were taken in New Zealand as they were not reproduced in Australian papers when Bentley took the role.

Here we have a pensive Walter Bentley, garbed in clerical collar, with his head turned just enough to enable us to see his distant gaze. The chiaroscuro mood is sombre, the scene devoid of props and stage scenery.

In Wellington, Bentley reprised the role of Wilfred Denver in The Silver King. The earlier images from his Australian performances of the play must have been considered dated, both for the actor and for photographic techniques, as a completely new picture accompanied the publicity for the Wellington season of the Douglas Ancelon Dramatic Company (Free Lance, Wellington 7 July 1900). Shown in contemporary dress, the actors sit under dramatic lighting which models face and hair, directing the viewer to the intensity of the gaze. These are moody, evocative portrait busts, as far as possible from the narrative, performative sequences taken by Barnett. Playing opposite Bentley was Ada Woodhill, who took the role of Gloria Quayle. This suite of images shows the actors and actresses in their costumes. Publicity in other papers renamed the company as the Walter Bentley Dramatic Company, and used different style of theatrical portraits, such as the highly theatrical pose of Ada Woodhill in Free Lance, and Douglas Ancelon in the New Zealand Mail, which also published a more generalised pose of the actress.

                                                    Picture24Picture25  Picture26

(L) ‘Miss Ada Woodhill as Glory [sic] Quayle’, Free Lance (Wellington) 7 July 1900; (centre) ‘Miss Ada Woodhill and (R ) Mr Douglas Ancelon,
of the Walter Bentley Dramatic Company’, New Zealand Mail (Wellington), 28 June 1900

Then, after almost ten years in Australasia, Bentley left for America, playing in San Francisco and New York, with Ada Woodhill, Ethel Hunt and Douglas Ancelon. From New York, he sailed to Britain and resumed his career in London and on the touring circuit in Britain. 

By the time Bentley returned definitively to Australia, in 1909, aged 60, the Falk images were almost twenty years old and relevant only to articles which reviewed his career on the stage. ‘Old Stager’, who we met back in 1892, recounting his meeting with Bentley’s father and the young William Begg, was back in print in 1909, in a recapitulation of the history with a few additional lines (‘Theatrical Memories. 5. Walter Bentley’, The Theatre, 1 December 1909). This article, signed by John Plummer, suggests that Bentley appeared at his London Figaro office a few years after that first meeting, seeking assistance to go on stage, after which he went to New Zealand in 1870. He would have been about fourteen years old, which was not unheard of in the 1860s. Henry Irving, for example, with whom Bentley was to work in the Lyceum Theatre in the 1870s, was working in a law firm when aged only 13, and on the stage professionally at 18. It is more likely, however, that Bentley, who showed little interest in the theatre when he was young—which is not surprising given his father’s vehement opposition to the stage—developed his commitment while he was in New Zealand, and that he appeared at Mr Plummer’s office when he returned to London in 1874, determined to make his career in the theatre.

Accompanying Plummer’s article was the Falk image of Bentley as Hamlet, an image that had appeared as a caricature in the same magazine a few months prior.

At times newspapers printed images that were entirely inappropriate for his performances, such as the swashbuckling image which accompanied news of his Passion Play recital in Adelaide in December 1912.

A previously unseen photograph appeared in a Sydney paper in 1913. Given the similarities with the Vandyck image of 1891, it is obvious that this was taken on the same day as the more widely publicised picture!—the clothes are the same, the pose slightly different. As Bentley was playing Hamlet at the Royal, the Falk Studio photographs would have been more appropriate, than his town attire, looking more like Wilfred Denver of The Silver King.

Under the headline ‘Walter Bentley. A Romantic Career’ The Theatre Magazine (1 October 1915) had a five-page spread on the actor, accompanied by three images, a large contemporary photograph by May Moore, a roundel titled ‘At the age of thirty-five’, and one of the Falk images of Bentley as Hamlet. Bentley kept a copy of the magazine, which is now found with his scrapbooks (SLNSW ML MSS 8395 Box 3X).

Interestingly enough, the picture described as the actor at the age of thirty-five, is the Vandyck image of 1891 when he was forty-two years old. Was it Bentley’s lapse in memory that caused the image to be described as the actor at age thirty-five, when in fact he was not in Australia, but in the midst of a three-year tour of America?

Of the other two photographs, one was a Falk image from 1892, the other a new photograph by May Moore, in all likelihood taken in 1915. Bentley was to patronise Moore’s studio for the rest of his life.

In complete contrast, Bentley’s picture kept popping up in various advertisements, such as this one for Hean’s Essence, a remedy for coughs and colds. May Moore’s photograph became the dominant image in future articles.

Bentley retired from the professional stage in 1915, turning his focus to running his elocution college, which went by a number of different names including the College of Voice Culture and the Austral College of Music and Dramatic Art. His role as co-founder of the Actors’ Association of Australia occupied considerable time, as an advocate for the arts, entrepreneurial organiser of charitable benefits, and host of many social occasions. (For Bentley’s role with the Actors’ Association of Australia see ‘Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia, Theatre Heritage Australia - Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia (Part 1) December 2020 and Theatre Heritage Australia - Walter Bentley and the Actors’ Association of Australia (Part 2) March 2021)

At monthly intervals, Bentley appeared with the Walter Bentley Players, most frequently in St James’s Hall, Sydney, taking the lead role in support of his amateur students, a number of whom went on to the professional stage.

Newspapers were focused on the developing war in Europe and yet among a page of photographs commemorating the dead and depicting wounded soldiers was a tribute to Bentley’s birthday. Obviously, fond memories remained of his stage career. The accompanying photo was by May Moore.

The final performative photos for Walter Bentley were for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, which produced a benefit performance of The Merchant of Venice in 1921.

Illness progressively denied Bentley the opportunity to remain on stage. He spent the last months of his life confined to bed in his flat in Phillip Street, Sydney, occasionally holding forth with his old colleagues, but even that became too tiring. He knew the end was near and allowed one last interview, accompanied by pictures by May Moore. It was a poignant interview in which he passed the baton of his college to his wife, Mildred, a former student herself.

Less than a month later, Bentley died by his own hand, a tragedy which was broadcast across the nation, in newspapers in major cities and regional towns, but given the circumstances, images were not considered appropriate.

It remains to question why the Falk Studio portraits, which so many actors and actresses commissioned, were, at least during Walter Bentley’s career, if not the careers of others, so infrequently used in publicity pieces or reviews. In the 1890s, we could suppose that the inclusion of photographs added to publication costs and complicated printing processes. We could assume that their currency was limited because they were tied to particular roles. Or we might suggest that the images were primarily cabinet cards for adoring audiences, other actors and actresses and close friends, and that any reproduction by the press was an unexpected, additional bonus.



I would like to thank Clay Djubal for sharing his research on Walter Bentley with me and Elisabeth Kumm for her comments on a draft of this paper.


In the second of a two-part article, SUE-ANNE WALLACE concludes her look at the Shakespearean actor Walter Bentley and his involvement in one of Australia’s first actors’ unions, the Actors’ Association of Australia.

The AAA’s Benefit Fund and other charitable activities

Bentley was recognised for his business sense as a canny Scot as much as for his philanthropic gestures.Picture10‘A Trump Card Walter Bentley the Silver King and Money’, Green Scrapbook. State Library of NSW, ML MSS 8395, Box 1X, p.35.

In September 1893, the veteran actor George Collier died, destitute. He and Bentley, with Lachlan McGowan, had appeared on the stage together in Auckland in 1873. Apparently when Bentley was starting his journey on the stage, he ‘received many a little word of kindly advice from the now dead and gone actor’. Hearing the news of George’s death, Bentley gave his widow £5 and paid the expenses of the funeral.

This trait was one he had grown up with, following the example of the generosity of his father, the Reverend Dr James Begg, one-time moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, and his aunt, philanthropist and feminist, publisher and journalist, Emily Faithfull, who had financially supported Bentley as he began his acting career and introduced him to Henry Irving in 1874. In contrast, Bentley’s father railed against his son, never condoning his theatrical career. This was the clash of Church and Stage. Bentley gave as good as he got, running a vigorous crusade in the press and through public lectures, excoriating the church’s objections to the stage. Many an editor and cartoonist was on Bentley’s side, as were the audiences who packed the theatres.

‘Bentley, of course, was not the only actor widely recognised for assisting in various charitable efforts. From its inception, the actors and actresses of the AAA strove to support those in the profession who had fallen on hard times through the Benefit Fund. To raise funds for these worthwhile purposes, members of the AAA held frequent benefit performances in Sydney and Melbourne, and elsewhere in Australia.


But beneficiaries were needed! Public announcements in newspapers in late September, and again in October 1912, called for applications from Melbourne’s and Sydney’s aged actors and actresses desirous of support from the Benefit Fund, irrespective of their membership of any association or union. A committee comprising Messrs V. Prince, G. Cass, N. Montagu, W.S. Percy and W. Bentley would deal with all claims sent to the office of the AAA at 554 George Street, Sydney. Some actors made public donations, including 10 guineas from Oscar Asche and Lily Drayton. Bentley hoped others would heed the call and follow suite.

Actors’ Day was inaugurated by the AAA in September 1912 to support the Benefit Fund. Right from the start there were great ambitions for Actors’ Day, presenting a huge variety of attractions, drawing on Sydney’s prominent actors and actresses and even offering rehearsals of a new but unnamed play to close a long day of celebration, from 1.30pm until late in the evening.

Growth of the association was rapid, and the AAA’s fundraising successes were published, undoubtedly with great pride. In 1912 the AAA had £24/12/- to its credit, in 1913 £375, largely from a bequest by J.C. Williamson, and in 1914 £1247/18/8, certainly due in part to the success of Actors’ Day that year [Sunday Times Sydney 12 April 1914].

J.C. Williamson’s beneficiaries included the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, the Hospice for the Dying, the Newboys’ Home in Sydney, the Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and the AAA. Williamson’s racing and breeding stud were auctioned, around £300 of the proceeds going to the AAA, along with his theatrical library and prints. Williamson’s estate, disbursements from which were made to family, as well as the charities, was sworn for probate in October 1913 at £193,038 [equivalent to almost $24 million]. With the death of J.C. Williamson, the AAA ‘agitated’ [Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1914] to start a fund for a memorial to him. Work on the proposed Williamson Theatre began in Melbourne at the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale Streets in November 1913. The Williamson Wards were erected at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Sydney.

Of course questions were soon asked: where does the money go? Titheradge responded to a gathering in Her Majesty’s Theatre, outlining that over the previous year charity disbursements had been made to those of the theatrical profession who were in need. He announced that the AAA had taken over the care of ‘the Home in Melbourne’ [it’s not clear what this institution was, for elderly actors and actresses? or orphans?] and acknowledged appreciatively J.C. Williamson’s bequest. It was announced that no actor or actress who had applied had been turned away. Almost a year later, in 1914, it was noted that none of the beneficiaries were members of the AAA and it was decided that hereafter benefits would ‘shortly’ be restricted to members only.

Fundraising efforts were collegial, such as a matinee at Her Majesty’s in October 1919 which raised £500. Every company then playing in Sydney contributed to the performance and more than 500 offers of assistance were received, undoubtedly making coordination of the event challenging.

An association for its members

The AAA served its members in many ways. Their first rooms were at 554 George Street, Sydney, a three-storey building built after 1880, on the intersection of Bathurst and George Streets, diagonally opposite St Andrew’s Cathedral. Next was the then- and still-trendy Cunwulla Chambers at 67 Castlereagh Street where the AAA settled in 1914. These chambers were Sydney’s first skyscraper, comprising twelve stories and completed in 1912, remaining Australia’s highest building for 45 years. In 1916, the AAA moved again, to the Penzance Chambers at 29 Elizabeth Street, where their neighbours from 1917 included the Imperial Services Club and the Liberal Catholic Church.

Having new rooms was a good reason for a party, and a delightful one was held for the opening of the rooms in Penzance Chambers. ‘Theatrical folk are splendid company at parties, especially when they are quite at their ease’ said the Newcastle Morning Herald [6 October 1916]. Modelled on the “at homes” of the Lamba Club in New York, theatrical people could certainly be at their ease, especially Walter Bentley, who was described as in his element, mingling with every well-known actor in Sydney [Daily Mail (Brisbane), 17 June 1918].

The AAA was their club and members were always welcome to use the rooms for letter writing and socialising, and to receive mail in the chambers.

The Council of the AAA represented members at various events, many of which were celebratory afternoons and evenings. The highest levels of society sought invitations to their social occasions, and of course a deal of lobbying was undertaken on the side. Bentley was one of the best networked members and he used his connections to great advantage.

Even hard-nosed journalists were overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of the AAA. Its calendar in Sydney, likely provided by the energetic secretary, was hectic and impressive [Sunday Times (Sydney), 10 May 1914]:

  • Monday morning meet the Commissioner of Railways to seek reductions in fares for members, a privilege then reserved only for managers;
  • Monday afternoon the weekly Council meeting in the Cunwulla Chambers;
  • Wednesday morning welcome Ellen Terry and present her with an address at the Railway Station, now Central Station;
  • Thursday afternoon a benefit performance for Mr William Holman at the Theatre Royal with George Titheradge as Jacques, a role which must have been familiar to actors at that time, H.R. Roberts playing Orlando in an excerpt from As You Like It, while Walter Bentley and William Holman selected the third act of Othello, Bentley as Othello and Holman as Iago.

Presumably the AAA’s Council members had other activities and personal commitments to slot into their week! For example, towards the end of the month, on Empire Day, 22 May, Bentley delivered an address. He continued to run his College of Elocution and Dramatic Art, support the Walter Bentley Players in their monthly costume recitals in St James’s Hall, King Street Sydney, which also served as fundraisers, and continued his engagement with various other associations such as the Highland, Shakespeare and Burns Societies. Bentley was a favourite for the Burns Society, as he claimed a relationship to Robbie Burns because his great grandfather’s brother, Mr John Begg, had married Isabella Burns, the poet’s sister!

The AAA was also present at funerals, particularly those of AAA members, among which were those of George Rignold in December 1912 and George Titheradge in 1916. Two commemorative services were arranged for Henry Irving, who had died in 1905, and his son Lawrence Irving, who died in May 1914. Bentley may have been instrumental in organising these services, both held in 1915, as he had been juvenile lead to Henry Irving for three years. At the time of the commemorative services, H B Irving, Henry Irving’s oldest son, was playing in Australia and the AAA sent condolences to him.

On a brighter note, the AAA welcomed and farewelled actors and actresses arriving and departing. One headline arrival was the English actress Ellen Terry who arrived, probably by steamer in May 1914, and returned to Sydney by train five months later. Bentley would have been keen to welcome Ellen Terry, with whom he had a personal relationship from his days at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Indeed, there must have been a mutual feeling as she presented Bentley with a clock which remains with his family. It wasn’t a premeditated gift as the clock was manufactured by Hardy Brothers in Sydney! While in Sydney, Terry gave two farewell Shakespearean recitals. Bentley suggested she play Portia in the trial scene in Merchant of Venice with George Titheradge as Shylock, Bentley and Roberts taking minor roles. With the indifferent acoustic properties of the Town Hall, the program took place at Her Majesty’s.

Inscribed Walter Bentley/from Ellen Terry/1914

The AAA welcomed in the new year in late January 1917 with a reception which attracted 100 members and a decision was taken to hold innovative social Sunday evenings in their rooms. A reception in March for the American actor Hugh Ward, managing director of J.C. Williamson from 1913, following Williamson’s death, was hosted by Mr and Mrs Bentley—now that’s a surprise because Bentley did not legally marry until 1918. It was at least his third marriage!

Almost immediately he became president in 1919, Bentley invigorated the AAA’s charm campaign, presenting the Lord and Lady Mayoress with badges as associates of the AAA in Sydney’s Town Hall. The Lord Mayor, who had expressed an early penchant for the stage, said he had always ‘regarded thespians as particularly good citizens, always the first to come to the fore in any call for help’ [Sunday Times (Sydney), 18 May 1919]. It seems eternally the way, doesn’t it?

The AAA and the war movement

Among others, the beloved Madame Melba encouraged the theatrical profession to help the wounded. Patriotic actors and actresses heeded the call in no small measure. Moreover, they continued to raise funds for the AAA’s Benefit Fund and the Comic Opera Sick Fund, both of which needed support as significant donations had been diverted to the war effort. Members of the AAA threw themselves into contributing to the war effort. Their secretary spoke at recruiting events and took the high moral ground on drinking, especially with newly-recruited troops.

A gala event was planned for the AAA’s third Actors’ Day in February 1914, a whole day of performances at White City, Sydney, a pleasure park at Rushcutters Bay, commencing at 2 o’clock, to support those going to the war front. It was to be a veritable theatrical carnival, various shows and booths were installed, including a gypsy fortune teller; Jack Cannot, and his famous freak show; ‘The Merry Whirl’; the American Burlesque Company in charge of an American candy wheel; a ducking pond, for which a number of actors volunteered to straddle a wooden bar beneath which was a tank of water, drawing tens of thousands of throws at a penny each and sufficient frequent duckings; the Lilliputians who were represented by the smallest of the group, ‘Little Spec’; the largest collection of reptiles; a hat-trimming competition, hats to be trimmed by actors and then sold by auction; the Richardson show, a 20 minute show of burlesque with high drama and plenty of violent deaths, with Julius Knight, Harry Roberts, Walter Bentley and others. Yet more actors were to be placed outside various shows, spruiking the entertainment. At 2.45pm and again at 4.45pm—if he was feeling well enough—dancing comedian Fred Leslie was to meet the famous American lightweight boxer Harry Stone, a championship event for the Australia Hotel, with a silver belt presented by Prouds Ltd. A photographer was present to take photos of patrons with any star they chose. But what? There’s more?—yes, a Parade of Stars at 11.15pm, in which all the members of the profession participated, to be followed by a theatrical revue and ‘tango tangie’ to which the public was invited. Heavens, what a day was had! You can be sure the event was exceptionally enjoyable, not to mention profitable, raising £923 [equivalent to $111,000 today]!

When Actors’ Day in February 1915 was looming and a call went out for ‘lady helpers’ at act as ushers. Bentley was in charge of the details and applicants were encouraged to contact him at Cunwulla Chambers. In May, there was another war-time effort to assist Belgium Day.

The first Australia Day was the next big date on the calendar, held on 30 July 1915. The day we now call Australia Day, 26 January, was in the early nineteenth century called Foundation Day. It wasn’t until 1935 that 26 January was renamed Australia Day in all states and territories. The purpose of the national event in 1915 was to raise funds for the troops wounded at Gallipoli. It was a significant step for the nation, three months after the landings at Gallipoli and 14 years since Federation. In Sydney, a gala performance was planned for the Lyceum Theatre on the afternoon and evening of the commemorative day, while the combined theatre managers were presenting a matinee at Her Majesty’s. The day was a great success. There were countless community events across the states, raising £839,000 [equivalent to $88 million] in NSW and £311,500 [equivalent to $32.5 million] in Victoria. Incredible efforts!

The war continued and as always actors and actresses rose to the occasion. The AAA offered to assist the Win-the-War League Day, in cooperation with the NSW recruiting committee. Bentley designed an honour board, made of polished Queensland maple, for those actors serving in the war. At the unveiling, held in the AAA’s rooms in March 1918, Sir Ronald Munro Craufurd, Governor-General of Australia, said the honour board carried the names of the 70 members who had gone to the front, taking the world as their stage, and those with a VC to their credit (Victor Dartnell), and the four members who ‘had won the highest honour of all, the cross of a soldier’s grave’, namely Max Fitzgerald (known as Max Clifton), Tom Dawson, Frank Shapira and Alf Stevens. On behalf of the Council, Bentley presented the Governor-General with a badge, declaring him a member of the AAA. Referring to those who obeyed the call, Bentley said they ‘threw up big salaries to do their part in the great struggle’ [Sun, 28 March 1918].

Throughout the war years, there was a growing movement to discourage drinking among recruits and the AAA assisted, providing ‘rational amusements’ instead of those found in the bar. Six o’clock closing was the catch cry of the frequent public meetings, which attracted huge audiences in Sydney, almost always with Bentley on stage encouraging abstinence, an irony giving his early acting years and his alleged drinking habits.

The 1919 pandemic

By 1919 the first deaths were being recorded from the influenza pandemic which was to cause 15,000 deaths; 40% of the Australian population of five million were to fall ill. Theatres fell silent. Audiences disappeared. The AAA raised a deputation which met with NSW’s Attorney General, seeking compensation for Sydney actors, Bentley claiming practically everybody but actors had been compensated’ [Sun Sydney 20 March 1919]. Relief was apparently available only for those whose salaries were less than £5 a week. Accordingly, around 60 or 70 professional actors had not been authorised to claim from the relief depots. Mr Jack Cannot had provided advances to some actors but they would have to be repaid. ‘Actors’ said Bentley’ ‘were not looking for compensation of their salaries, only living expenses’ as their income had disappeared for five weeks. ‘They did not want expenses for drinks or anything like that’, he reassuringly added. Mr Hall said the request seemed reasonable. Actors had been most generous with charitable events, and patriotic fundraising efforts. He would take the case to government with a favourable recommendation. The situation seems familiar to us in 2020 when theatres closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but for six or more months rather than five weeks, with little compensation for those engaged in the theatrical industry, and less for individual actors and actresses, who generously provided the on-line entertainment for locked-down residents. 

A political actor

Whether Bentley appeared in an official or private capacity, his connection to the AAA was omnipresent, ensuring that the association benefitted from his regular public lectures, letters to editors, his acting college and performances.

Late in 1915 and until the state election in January 1916, while in the throes of campaigning for the AAA and managing its business and fighting for early closing, Bentley announced he was standing for the seat of Drummoyne as an independent, on a reform ticket and pressing for military efficiency. There were six candidates for the seat. Bentley’s move prompted newspapers to print a longish poem of which verse five went as follows:

It’s a new game for Walter Bentley,
A new game, I know;
It’s a new game for Walter Bentley,
And a darned long way to go;
Farewell, Prince of Denmark,
Farewell, fame and coin;
What a great stunt if Mr Hamlet
Were MP for Drummoyne!

[Sun (Sydney), 21 January 1916]

Bentley was accustomed to his press appearances - poems, cartoon and scoops followed him throughout his career. Cartoonists in New Zealand in particular found he was good material for their pen and wit.

Walter Bentley as Rob Roy, using the word ‘damn’, fragment of newspaper in Walter Bentley’s scrapbook, State Library of NSW, ML MSS 8395

However, there were no farewells to the stage. Although his elocutionary powers were said to hold him in good stead, Bentley came in fourth. Somehow, he circumvented his strident criticisms of government members during the campaign and resumed his AAA role, lobbying the same government for support for the theatrical profession.

Bentley’s health started to trouble him and he convalesced for some time during the year, prompting the AAA to propose a benefit matinee. Bentley’s absence possibly contributed to a quieter year for the AAA as references to the association seem thinner during this period. The testimonial to recognise Bentley’s commitment to the AAA and his public spirit was to be a collaborative affair, including participation from other associations where he played key roles - the Highland Society, Burns Anniversary Club and the Shakespeare Society of NSW.

The changing environment – the AAA moves on

The Government Gazette announced the winding up of the AAA in April 1920. Walter Bentley, Frank Percy Noble, Henry William Varna and Floris St George were appointed liquidators. After their work was complete, in 1921, Bentley resigned as president. But we know it wasn’t the end. These canny actors secured a heartier future for their association. The phoenix rose and has continued its flight, now as the MEAA and the state-based Actors’ Benevolent Funds.



SUE-ANNE WALLACE has been researching the life of her celebrated relative, the Shakespearean actor Walter Bentley, and has discovered that he was heavily involved in the founding of one of Australia’s first actors’ unions, the Actors’ Association of Australia.

Walter Bentley

WALTER BENTLEY (1849–1927), renowned Scottish tragedian, who toured Australia and New Zealand from 1891 through to 1900, returned definitively in 1909, aged 60, settling in Sydney. We learn from the newspaper archives and Bentley’s scrapbooks housed in the State Library of New South Wales, that he had a finger in everything going on in Sydney, both on and off the stage, from theatre to politics and campaigning, so it is no surprise to find he was instrumental in establishing the Actors Association of Australia in 1910. Memorabilia of Bentley’s acting career is in the collections of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, including a silver-topped ebony walking stick, inscribed ‘Presented by J.C. Williamson to Walter Bentley The Silver King Princess Theatre Melbourne August 20th 1892’.

When he returned to Australia in 1891 under George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company, Bentley opened in Melbourne in the Theatre Royal, taking the lead role in Rob Roy, with Laura Hansen as his leading lady. The season was brief and before year’s end the company headed to New Zealand, starting their tour in Invercargill and Dunedin.

Bentley was equally well-known in Australia and New Zealand, but particularly revered in Dunedin where his half-brother resided and where Bentley and his brother Ferdinand Faithfull Begg had lived in the 1870s. Dunedin took special pride that it was in their city where Bentley first went on the stage, in an amateur production of Still Waters Run Deep in 1873. When he returned to the city in 1892, the Mayor presented him with a leather-bound address, praising Bentley for his ‘histrionic genius … [remembering] the distinction gained by you in old times, as much in athletics as in art’.

On his return to Sydney, Bentley took the opportunity to have a series of portraits taken by the Falk Studios, which served him well in future publicity. During the 1890s, Bentley was to return to New Zealand twice for tours around both islands, but he spent most time in Australia, touring widely through NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland, where he resided from 1895 to 1900.

Known as a Shakespearean tragedian, Bentley also enjoyed many other roles, usually travelling with a repertoire of up to fourteen plays, including favourites Richelieu, Rob Roy and David Garrick.

A call back to the stage—after a second unsuccessful attempt to become a politician—saw Bentley depart Brisbane in a hurry, leaving instructions for his possessions to be sold. First Sydney, then Melbourne and a tour of Tasmania, Bentley reprised his popular roles in Crammond Brig, The Christian, Silver King, with permission from J.C. Williamson and George Musgrove, The Bells and Hamlet, among other plays. By the time the company arrived in Tasmania, they had accumulated over 60 tons of scenery which was to be taken to New Zealand for six months, before Bentley left to tour the west coast of America, arriving late 1900, culminating in a short season in New York, signalling the time to return to London and the British stage in 1901.

Early theatrical associations in Australia

The Actors Association of Australia (AAA) was not the first association to be established—and registered—for those engaged with the professional theatre, that honour going to the Sydney Stage Employees Association (1908–1950) and the Musicians Union of Australasia New South Wales (1908–1909), closely followed by the short-lived Australian Theatrical Choristers Association (1910) and the Australian Federated Stage Employees Association (1910 – 1912). The Australian Vaudeville Association was also active in 1910, although not registered until 1914.

The history of early theatrical associations omits the founding of the AAA in 1910, perhaps as it was not immediately registered. Nevertheless, although registered in 1912, the AAA is still absent from formal records. Some eight years later, in 1920, the announcement was made of its winding up, which seems to have been completed in 1921. At various times newspaper reports refer to the AAA as the Australian or Australasian Actors’ Association or the Actors’ Association of Australasia or Australia, perhaps causing more confusion.

This early history of the AAA is absent from the Australian Trade Union Archives (ATUA), which nevertheless capture the registration of another association, the Australian Actors Union, for one year in 1912, followed by the Actors Federation of Australasia in 1919 and a second registration with the same name a year later (1920–1936). It seems this route of the various associations led to Actors Equity of Australia in 1936, the Actors & Announcers Equity Association of Australia in 1945, reverting to Actors Equity of Australia in 1982 and finally folding into the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) in 1993, which, of course, continues today. [See accessed 6/11/20] The Actors Benevolent Fund was separately established in 1944.

Given the absence of the AAA from the ATUA’s records, I hope this short paper will secure the early history of the efforts of actors and actresses to support and enhance their profession during the second decade of the twentieth century, and their long history of benevolence.

Against the background of active associations of theatrical people and the widely reported activities of international associations, it was a logical step for actors in Australia to establish their own association. Both Walter Bentley and George Titheradge are credited with founding the association, Titheradge taking on the role of president from its registration in 1912 and Bentley founding secretary from 1910.

Surprisingly, however, an earlier report [Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, 22 December 1909], which predated the call to form the AAA, had noted ‘friendly, familiar notices’ were already in theatre foyers with appeals for the Actors’ Orphanage, and notices for the Actors’ Association and the Benevolent Fund. I think this points to the loose associations of actors which became formalised the following year, surely in response to the successes of similar associations in Britain, America and Germany around important issues such as salaries, contracts and conditions. There was a growing ground swell for action in theatre circles.

An application was lodged for registration of the Australian Theatrical Actors Association with the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in May 1910 which presumably lapsed, perhaps because of the counter move to form the AAA, which could also have been what prompted J C Williamson to apply for the annulment of the registration of the short-lived Australian Theatrical Choristers Association.

Mustering support and registering the Actors’ Association of Australia—and criticisms

1910 had opened with questions on the underpayment of actors and indeed what it took to be an actor. ‘At present an actor was anybody who said he could act and was paid for his work … a steady flood of incompetence and conceited incompetence from all ranks of life was appearing on the stage … the actor’s calling was a calling of paupers … impressing upon those concerned with the calling, the necessity for something approaching a trade union’ [Newsletter, 8 January 1910]. This idea of a trade union was to prevail even after the AAA was established.

The call went out for the formation of an actors’ association. Those willing to be part of the movement were advised to contact Mr Harold Mercer, who already had the names of a number of those willing to assist. The next mention of the fledgling association is in November 1910 when a meeting was held for the purpose of creating an Australian actors’ association, noting there were difficulties ahead but expressing confidence of success.

A short article in the Sydney Morning Herald [19 July 1911] suggested that an actors’ association would probably ally itself with theatrical employees and would in time be as solidly organised as the association in America, where no one could be employed in a theatre if not carrying a union ticket and the UK where the profession was pressing for payments for rehearsals. Mr Huckerby, of the Federated Theatrical Employees Association, en route to New Zealand to develop an industrial award for NZ members, highlighted a problem had arisen at the Princess Theatre Melbourne, which had brought in amateur musicians, leading to theatrical employees withdrawing their services.

While there was strong support for the new association, nevertheless there were strident criticisms in the press, right from the start, and particularly in Sydney’s Truth:



Melbourne “IMPS” and Sydney “AVA”


Decent Actors Turn Down the Hamfat, the Booby Boy, and the Gushing Vaudevillian Girleen

[Truth (Sydney), 8 January 1911]

Citing The Imps in Melbourne and Sydney’s AVA, Truth declared the first was a drinking venue for theatrical people, mainly ‘out-of-collar pros.’, as the ‘top-notchers’ of the profession were rarely seen in The Imps. Actors’ associations had petered out, continued the font of wisdom in the Truth, because engaged actors did not want to ‘brush shoulders or hob-nob’ with professional people who were out of work! The Green Room Club in Melbourne was written off as private enterprise, although praised for the good meals served there.  The first Australian Vaudeville Association had certainly launched successfully for a brief period, producing a theatrical paper, The Stageland, which had a short life. This first version of the association seems to have floundered.

A year later, Truth was still persisting in its damning commentary, the headline reading:



Grease Paint Giant’s Gonce-Grabbing Game


“My lud, the Kerridge Vaits” at £5 per Vait

Redfern Romeos, Surry Hills Shylocks, Ultimo Hamlets and

Lears from the Loo

[Truth (Sydney), 14 January 1912]

The AAA is off and runninggetting governance going

In March 1912, the AAA was registered as a company limited by guarantee. Signatories to the document were C.R. Bantock, L. Holland, A. Hunter, B. Wright, A. Higginson, F. Greene and Miss Olive Godwin. The association’s purpose was to encourage and promote the art of acting, and to safeguard the status and interests of actors and actresses. At the following general meeting in July 1912, Walter Bentley was re-elected as permanent honorary secretary, a role he was to hold for nine years in total. Reg Roberts was in the chair at the time, and again in September, and George Rignold, Leslie Holland, W.S. Percy, Reginald Roberts (again!)and one other, whose name is no longer legible in the press clipping, were elected vice-presidents. Harry Hill was honorary secretary in Melbourne. The annual general meeting was set for March the following year.

By 1914, the Council of the AAA was meeting weekly, on Monday afternoons at their rooms at the new, modern skyscraper, Culwulla Chambers in Castlereagh Street, while general meetings of members were held each quarter.

Although there were several ladies on the Council of the AAA, their AAA roles were predominately hosting of events. Bentley even corralled a group of actresses into a committee to assist him with the entertainment to be given by the Walter Bentley Players in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Fund.

It would have been a sad day for the AAA with the death of their then-president George Titheradge in January 1916—‘a prince among actors’, said Bentley [Sydney Morning Herald 25 January 1916]. There were many representatives of the theatrical profession present at his funeral and among the wreaths were those from the AAA, J.C. Williamson Ltd and the Horticultural Society, as Titheradge had been on their council. Bentley spoke a few ‘graceful words’ of appreciation and regret at the graveside.

With Titheradge’s death, the position of president was vacant and Walter Bentley was elected to the role. When no-one was prepared to take on the role of secretary, he resigned as president a month later and reverted to his former position. Julius Knight stepped into the presidential role. Towards the end of the year, in recognition of his service, Bentley was awarded life membership, a fitting tribute.

Walter Bentley took on the role of president again in 1919, having worked tirelessly in the secretary’s role since the foundation of the association. The Argus Melbourne [22 May 1919] had nothing positive to say about his election, declaring he was ejected from the role previously because he was a theatre manager not an actor, completely false as he had been on the stage since 1873. Not unexpectedly, Bentley shot back a letter to the editor, outlining the reason he stepped down in 1916 and that his ‘sympathies have always been actors and actresses. … I do not desire antagonism to exist between actors and managers, as in my opinion they are interdependent’. How true! 

Annual dinners, at homes, social occasions and lobbying

Hospitality and the AAA went together, providing opportunities for socialising, networking, relaxing and, importantly, advocacy.

A dinner held in Sydney to celebrate the association’s registration in July 1912 was addressed by Mr W.S. Percy, comedian, who reminded guests that actors and actresses would be in ‘poor plight’ if not for the bountiful columns in newspapers, describing and reviewing their performances. He ‘called upon the Press to report the birth of the Actors’ Association of Australia, so that future researchers would find in the Mitchell Library [that] it was a mighty and powerful body with a roll of half a million … so that future historians did not have to search beyond the “feature” columns of today’s newspapers’ [Sun (Sydney), 29 July 1912]. How prescient!

The AAA was hitting its stride, holding a second annual dinner in July 1913, Madge Titheradge providing the entertainment. The dinner tradition was to endure, along with ‘at homes’, tea parties and other social occasions. The AAA would not, however, participate in everything on offer, declining to be engaged with the Shakespeare Memorial Festival, to celebrate in April 1916 the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Members, however, were free to do so individually.

Bentley certainly was involved. He was president of the Shakespeare Society and a member of the committee for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial, which began meeting in 1912. A lavish ball was held and other activities which raised £500 [equivalent to $62,000 based on RBA inflation figures in 2019]. Ideas for the memorial were put forward, including a statue—but who knew what Shakespeare’s face looked like?—and Bentley’s grand idea—a Shakespeare memorial building with a Corinthian front, with a statue of Will Shakespeare in the foreground, and a theatre, classrooms, offices—a conservatorium of acting, where young Australians could be educated for a stage career. Guess where the new offices of the AAA would be? Some of the committee remarked it would be a daring thing to say they would erect a Shakespearean theatre. Eventually the idea, although it attracted some attention, was said to be too expensive.

Finally, it was agreed to build a memorial library, which was delayed by the First World War, then years of depression through the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, by 1925 the committee had raised £1,400 [equivalent to more than $173,000] which was handed to the Trustees of the Public Library to build a Shakespeare Memorial Library. The little-known Shakespeare Room in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, a tantalising gem memorialising the Bard and works by and about him, was not realised until the 1940s. The bust of Shakespeare housed in the Shakespeare Room was originally donated to the Australian Museum in 1857, transferred to the National Gallery of NSW in 1912, and finally given a home at the Library in 1955. The original committee would likely have been long gone, denied the pleasure of seeing their dreams realised.

At the AAA’s third annual dinner in 1914, honouring Julius Knight, president George Titheradge advised members never to forget they belonged to an honourable profession and that ‘dignity was the backbone of their standing in the community’ [Referee Sydney 25 February 1914]. He reiterated the principles of the AAA, based on dignity, unity and equity.

The AAA always needed to be perceptive about political issues which affected their profession. They networked astutely with politicians at their various events, social occasions and performances. This work became more obvious in 1917 when the AAA approached the acting premier of NSW about bogus theatre managers, in particular to seek coverage for touring companies who could be left abandoned mid-tour—as indeed Bentley and his company were in the 1890s in Auckland, when George Coppin’s Australian Theatrical Management Company collapsed.

Unionism versus dignity, unity and equity?

Registration of the AAA seemed to portend the death knell to the proposed actors’ union, amid suspicions about unionism and the influence of Trades Hall. But it was not so and quite some antagonism arose around the principles of the two groups. A meeting in September 1910, presided over by Reg Roberts, resulted in condemnation of the proposed registration of the actors’ union as the Conciliation and Arbitration Act did not include art as an industry. Moreover, said the AAA, the members of the union were not representative of the profession and the union was a retrograde move. The motion was carried [Telegraph (Sydney), 2 September 1912]. Despite the earlier motion, the AAA’s members denied any personal animosity to members of the proposed union, their objections being primarily based on legal issues.

The actors’ union would not quietly die. A multi-lateral council, named the Theatrical Industries Association, representing the Theatrical Employees Association, the Musicians Union, the Vaudeville Artists Association [sic], the Actors Union, the Supernummaries Union and the Billposters Union met in Her Majesty’s Theatre, coincidently at the same time that actors from the AAA were giving a matinee performance, supporting the Actors’ Benefit Fund and a General Theatrical and Pension Fund.

It was the judges of the High Court of Australia who made the decision about the Actors’ Union’s application for registration, taking into consideration objections lodged on behalf of J.C. Williamson Ltd, George Marlow Ltd, Hugh D. McIntosh, Brennan’s Amphitheatres Ltd, William Anderson, Allan Hamilton, Julius Grant, and Walter Bentley on behalf of the AAA, which by that time had 105 members. ‘Actors’ said Bentley ‘were incapable of joining or being concerned in any industrial dispute … art should be divorced from industry … it is not possible to standardise acting’ [The Sun (Sydney), 1 April 1913]. Asked if he was aware that Labor legislation encouraged union membership, Bentley, a one-time Labor candidate in Queensland, said ‘I have been sorry I ever wasted my time on the hustings’, a passing thought as he was to stand twice more in Sydney elections.

On consideration, the Court dismissed the application of the Actors’ Union, with costs to the union, a decisive defeat.

But again the debate around an actors’ union was not disappearing. In December 1915 the AAA called an open meeting to discuss the question of the union and the vaudeville association. They advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald inviting the profession to attend, proposing it might be more appropriate to form an actors’ equity association. The Australian Vaudeville Association joined in suggesting it would amalgamate with the new union. The meeting must have failed to reach a decision to the AAA’s liking. Bentley called a further meeting the next day, more private this time, in his studio.

The question of unionism did strike a chord with journalists and their comments likely annoyed members of the AAA, for at their next AGM in March 1916, they determined to exclude journalists. ‘Actors Act Alone’ said the headline, ‘Press Excluded’ [Sun (Sydney), 13 March 1916]. ‘I espy a Stranger’ exclaimed Bentley as his eyes lit upon a journalist from the Sun. Members then voted to exclude the press, although they were usually delighted to welcome them. Then they ‘espied’ another journalist from the Daily Telegraph. ‘He is an associate member’ said Bentley, and the journalist assured the meeting he was there as a member not a journalist and would not communicate anything he might hear to his paper. Yet the report in the Sun stated ‘the discussion the majority of the meeting did not wish the public to know had reference to a motion that the theatrical profession should form a trades union’! While it wasn’t the Daily Telegraph which ran with the news, it made a mockery of the assurances of ‘off the record’.

Was the AAA capitulating on its attitude to unionism? While the association continued to step gingerly around the union issue, it remained a persistent thorn in their side. So they determined to bring together theatre managers and the profession generally to define mutual points of interest. These efforts were successful. J.C. Williamson Ltd, George Marlow Ltd, and Bert Bailey, Grant and Duggan struck an agreement with the AAA, revising existing conditions, so that written contracts would be obligatory, a week’s work would be six nights and two matinees, extra matinees would be paid at one sixth of the week’s salary. In a 12-month contract, J.C. Williamson would guarantee 45 weeks salary; other management 40 weeks. Expenses when travelling by train would be considered. And if disputes arose they would be adjudicated by the theatre management in concert with one, two or three members of the Council of the AAA. The AAA was having a decidedly positive impact for the profession—and starting to look a little like a union!

Publication of a letter in the Daily Telegraph in late January 1917, claiming a meeting had been held for the purpose of amalgamating into one big union with actors, stage employees and musicians immediately elicited a letter to the editor from Bentley, stating that the council of the AAA, ‘the only representative body of actors and actresses in Australia, comprising … nearly all the influential members of the theatrical profession’ had not received any communication about such a subject.

Nevertheless, a year later the AAA took an important decision, to form one big association with employers and employees alike, confusingly retaining the same name, the Actors’ Association of Australia. It seems the concept of unionism was starting to infiltrate the AAA.


To be concluded in the next issue