Australian Theatre in the 1920s

At the end of the First World War a tide of relief flooded the world. The bloodshed was over and it was time to celebrate life. A sense of joyousness pervaded all of society. The Roaring Twenties had arrived. Noise became a necessity. The old composers were served to jazz babies in ‘outrageous caricature’. The Sydney Mail complained in 1924 that Mozart was accompanied by ‘cowbell obligatos, shrieking, wheezing and sand paper rubbing sounds like the Conservatorium Orchestra in a farmyard at feed time.’ The noise of the music was accompanied by the cacophony of technology. There were motor cars, motor bikes, aeroplanes, and towards the end of the era, the talkies.

An increasing sense of freedom for women was represented by their short skirts and demands for economic independence. In Australia the sense of freedom extended to a quest for identity. Increasingly the adjective, Australian, was used to denote singers, dancers, actors and celebrities The sweeping social changes of the twenties were reflected in the theatre. Local stars became household names. Sensationalist dramas and musicals jostled with variety and silent films for patronage, and women’s stage roles became more complex and disturbing.

During the decade, the legitimate stage, primarily dominated by JC Williamson in Australia, concentrated on the production of light musicals and sensational dramas. A long line of musical comedies that featured local stars such as Gladys Moncrieff highlighted the 1920s. Amongst these were ‘Theodore and Co", ‘Oh Lady Lady,’ and ‘Maid of the Mountains’. ‘Maid of the Mountains’ was typical fare for the time. It was one of the better musicals and featured a large cast, lavish scenery and beautiful music. Gladys Moncrieff starred as Teresa, the Maid of the Mountains, The musical, more like a comic opera, centred around the love affairs of a brigand chief, Baldasarre. As the chief, Frank Freeman recited rather than sang his lines, and this highlighted the singing talent of Gladys. There was a strong comic element in the play and several veteran comedians were entrusted with it. Arthur Stigant, Mione Stewart, Phil Smith, and Leslie Holland were experienced manipulators of an audience’s funny bone.

Maid of the Mountains was representative of 1920s musicals. It was bright and  comedic. It was followed later in the decade by other musicals. Some examples of the genre were The Street Singer (1925), Rose Marie ( 1926) and Tip Toes (1927). The popularity of this form of entertainment was consistent during the period.

Another source of legitimate theatre entertainment was the sensationalist drama. In contrast to the relatively straight forward musical comedy plot, this kind of drama was convoluted and complicated. The names of the plays suggested their often strange character. In Sydney, plays called, The Bat (1922), The Bad Man (1925) and Cobra (1927) were indicative of the content of some 1920s drama. Many incorporated elements of the earlier melodrama form, although this was losing critical popularity.

The Bad Man was a conservative but representative example of the type. The drama concerned Gilbert Jones and his old Uncle Henry who lived on a heavily mortgaged farm. A wealthy financier and his wife stay the night and the mortgagee, Hardy, and his flighty daughter also appear on the scene. A quarrel is interrupted by the arrival of the famous bandit Pancho, who is determined to acquire the financier’s pretty wife. Suddenly Pancho realises that Gilbert was the man who saved his life in the past. Gilbert’s past must have been very colourful as he also had a previous association with the financiers wife. The financier realises this and the fact that his wife is still in love with Gilbert. He attempts to brand his wife on the face but is stopped, in the nick of time. Suddenly a mortally wounded Pancho arrives on the scene, but it is not him, it is his double. Finally the financier resurrects and attempts to kill both Gilbert and his wife, but is shot dead to the shock of nobody. Pancho returns and the mortgage is paid in full.

This complex plot with exotic characters, past love affairs, coincidences and complicated entanglements was fairly representative of the sensational type of drama. Of course all the ‘honourable’ participants lived happily ever after

Other plays of this type, such as ‘Cobra" were criticised for being ‘sordid sex plays’. These types featured a vampish woman who split the friendship of two decent men by her venomous wiles. Yet as in The Bad Man, all the ‘honourable’ characters received a just reward and the villains a just punishment.

In addition to dramatic sensationalism, and musical comedy, vaudeville continued to be popular. Vaudeville was the form of entertainment most threatened by the new motion picture technology. In the post war era, traditional vaudeville gave way to variety or revue style entertainment, probably in response to this threat. Traditional vaudeville consisted of a series of discrete acts, unique in character. Revue, however, included chorus girls, sketches and a full cast finale. After 1924, when JC Williamson Ltd became managers of the Tivoli circuit, revue became the more prominent style. Often the JC Williamson Tivoli productions included sketches from legitimate theatre productions. In addition, under Williamson’s management, Tivoli performers had a greater opportunity to perform on the legitimate stage. For example, in 1925, Athol Tier appeared on both the Tivoli and Her Majesty’s stages in Sydney. Gus Bluett was another who made the transition from Tivoli revue comedian to musical comedy star. With the consolidation of theatre management, the differences between legitimate and popular stage became blurred.

The changing role of women in wider society was reflected on the stage. In 1926, the Sydney Mail was lamenting the increasing economic independence of women

The stay at home girl is practically non-existent nowadays.

…as soon as she leaves school, her thoughts are all towards

earning for herself and, indeed, in many cases she becomes

the actual breadwinner

The paper added a dire warning.

Women were never meant to enter into the race with men

and they must find this out sooner or later.

The stage productions of the time echoed conventional wisdom. Although many showed independent women, they were mostly portrayed as ‘vamps’ and finished either penitent or dead. For example in Cobra, an adulterous woman attempted to entangle her husband and his best friend in her web. Although unsuccessful with the friend, she was adulterous with another man. Her fate was to be burned to death in his arms. The play was described as ‘vulgarly melodramatic’ and the woman as ‘cunning’. The paper considered it ‘unfortunate’ that Judith Anderson should choose to star in such a part in front of her Sydney friends.

There were many significant female roles at the time. The 1920s was the era of Dorothy Brunton as fainting Fanny, a character who made a living by fainting in men’s arms and picking their pockets. It was also the time of Gladys Moncrieff playing Yvette, a woman masquerading as a street singer, in The Street Singer. Madge Elliott was another big name of the time.

Each woman was expected to follow the conventional route and marry. Dorothy Brunton was constantly questioned about marriage well into the 1930s. Dorothy made a joke of the situation saying in 1931,

Of course you heard that one about my being married

and having a husband in America who paid me a handsome income

so long as I never set foot in the States.


Dorothy married some years later and left the stage. Madge Elliott married her best friend and dance partner, Cyril Ritchard, to still gossip. In the early 20s prominent actress Audrey Worth, a Sydney native, left the stage to marry. It was a common lot for women of the time to make the choice of family over career.

Male performers such as, Gus Bluett, Cyril Ritchard and Stiffy and Mo joined Madge, Dorothy and Gladys Moncrieff, on stage. All were Australian born, and applauded as such. It was a time when being Australian was noticed and there were attempts to create an Australian theatre. There were revivals of local plays such as "On Our Selection" and ‘The Sentimental Bloke". The repertory companies also attempted to produce local product, but with little success.

The Sydney Mail noted the vacuum . In 1927, it was lamenting that

The Australian playwright with something new to say was conspicuous by his absence

The paper suggested that using the repertory companies to try new plays was a badly needed remedy. The fact that remedies were being sought indicated that it was a recognised problem and that efforts were being made to rectify it.

The decline in the economy in the later part of the decade ended these discussions. The theatres turned to cheaper and safer forms of entertainment. Revivals of Maid of the Mountains, and Gilbert and Sullivan productions began to reappear. The arrival of talkies and the proliferation of radio accompanied the decline of the economy. Economic reality and technology combined to return theatre to a more conservative art form. The ebullient twenties with it’s flappers, jazzed up classics and speeding cars, gave way to the grim lines and hardship of the depression.

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