Arthur Stigant 1871-1959
Australian theatrical managers often imported foreign stars to Australian stages. During the years of the First World War this became more necessary. One effect of the war was the exodus of young Australian men to the trenches of Europe. Thus a lack of manpower effected the stage. Theatre managers took to importing older men from the UK or American artists to fill the gaps.
One man who came to Australian under these circumstances was Arthur Edward Stigant. He came to Australia in 1914 to play the dame in JC Williamson pantomimes. Stigant remained in the country until his death in 1959.
Arthur was born in Chatham, Kent in 1871. His father, George, was a draper and Arthur was the youngest of four children. His mother had died before he reached the age of nine, but he was sent to school with his older siblings by his father.
By 1901, Arthur was identifying himself as an actor. At that time he was boarding with the Gallvard family in Cheshire. Another boarder was a man called Charles Nolydd, a vocalist. Little is known about Arthur’s professional career in England, although he probably became a specialist in the pantomime ‘dame’ role.
In 1910 Arthur got married, he was still in England and his wife was known as Dolly Stigant. He was 39 years of age and three years later his wife gave birth to a son, Arthur Ellis.
By this time a JC Williamson scout had spotted Arthur and in 1914, he came to Australia to star in the pantomime Cinderella, at Her Majesty’s theatre in Melbourne. Arthur was a much-travelled man, and the trip to Australia would not have been a burden to him.
It was Stigant’s first appearance on an Australian stage, He was forty three years old, and his age probably precluded him from war service. He was thus an ideal replacement for absent Australian actors. He was a distinguished looking man with a long rectangular face, deep eyes, a long straight nose and a wide cheeky smile.
Critics warmly received Arthur’s appearance in Cinderella. His ability to tell a story and his droll facial expressions entertained large audiences. He was obviously an experienced dame as his characterisation was praised by the press for its restraint and professionalism. As the dame, his was one of the most important comic roles of the pantomime. His ability to perform the role was appreciated by his employers, who subsequently cast him in it for five other pantomimes.
Arthur also seemed to have an appreciation of theatrical tradition. This was shown by his willingness to play in the harlequinade that was performed at the Cinderella matinees. Arthur played the butcher in a show that relied on visual impact, slapstick and chase scenes.
Cinderella gave him an opportunity to see the East Coast of Australia during 1914-1915. In December 1914 the production opened in Melbourne, in March it travelled to Sydney, by May it was in Brisbane and in August it travelled to Tasmania. The pantomime gave Arthur a guaranteed eight months work during the war, a major achievement for an actor.
In 1916 Arthur appeared in Sybil. In this show he sang the song ‘ I can dance with everybody but my wife’. The sheet music was sold publicly and featured ‘as sung by Arthur Stigant’ on it’s cover. This was an indication that Arthur’s name was beginning to be recognised throughout the country.
Arthur appeared in another pantomime the next year, The House that Jack Built. He played the dame role again, and contributed to the production’s success by writing a song. ‘ Oh I love him dearly.’ One of the dame’s traditional characteristics was to fall in love with a wildly inappropriate character. Perhaps this song illustrated that situation.
Arthur’s pantomime appearances continued in the next two years. In Dick Whittington, (1918) he was praised for his ‘wealth of absurd costuming’ continuous ‘flow of brightest pantomime business’ and ‘delicate touch in comedy’. He was also commended for ‘toning down’ the dame part. This probably referred to the increasing pressure on performers to eliminate risqué suggestions from theatrical entertainment.
An example of Stigant’s absurd costuming was seen the next year in Goody Two Shoes. As the dame in this production he wore jet earrings, white cotton gloves, a red flannel petticoat and a ginger wig. Arthur’s dialogue was applauded for it’s comedic skill. However, some reviewers commented on the fact that one of his pieces ‘The Maiden’s prayer’ was a bit ‘over the top’. This indicated that Arthur’s dame contained some elements of ribaldry that did not suit the reviewers of the day. Arthur’s performance was heavily influenced by earlier theatrical forms such as music hall, and incorporated elements which were becoming unacceptable during the early part of the 20th century.
By 1919, Arthur was well recognised by Australian audiences as a talented comedian. His entrance as the dame in Goody Two Shoes was warmly applauded by the gallery and his witticisms and riddles were keenly anticipated. Arthur had become a fixture in JC Williamson pantomimes
His talents were not limited to acting. Arthur also wrote several musical comedies during this period. These comedies had titles such as ‘ When you play at kissie kissie’ (1917), ‘Mary’ (1917) and "Tom Tom the Pipers son.’ (1919) These titles suggested that Arthur’s comedies were firmly grounded in the late Victorian pantomime tradition. Unfortunately by 1919, that tradition was fast fading.
Stigant’s writing style may have looked to the past, but he clearly looked to the future with his acting style. In 1921, Arthur participated in a production, which was a straight musical comedy. It also launched the career of one of Australia’s favourite musical comedy stars, Gladys Moncrieff.
Arthur Stigant played a supporting role in Maid of the Mountains in both Sydney and Melbourne. He played the comic role of General Malona. The audience reaction to his antics proved that he was able to adapt his comedic style. The play revolved around the love affairs of the brigand chief and Teresa, the maid of the mountains. Gladys Moncrieff played Teresa and her singing and acting abilities provoked wild enthusiasm. Arthur had one duet with Gladys, ‘ When you’re in love.’ It was well received by audience and critics.
The production centred on Gladys Moncrieff. So enthusiastic was the audience in Sydney on the first night that they insisted that Gladys make a speech. She was so emotional that she was unable to do so, and it was necessary for co star Phil Smith to rescue her from the demanding spectators
By 1921 Arthur had performed with some of the most outstanding musical comedy stars in Australia. These included, Barry Lupino and Dolly Castles, in Cinderella, Vera Pearce in Dick Whittington, and Madeline Harrison in Goody Two Shoes. Most importantly he had managed to emerge from the ‘dame’ character and play a role in a major musical comedy. He had proven himself a versatile performer.
When Arthur was not performing he was writing plays. In 1923 he patented ‘Babs and the woof woof', He also registered a dramatic work, "Roses all the way’ that year. Arthur’s writing was becoming as diversified as his acting.
He became more active on stage in 1927. That year he appeared with Dutch actress Beppie De Vries, in Madame Pompadour. It was a musical and Arthur played Joseph Calicot. Arthur introduced the show with the chorus and in the first act he and Vera Spaull sang a duet. "If I were king’. In the second act he sang "Joseph’ with the star of the show, Beppie De Vries. Act three saw Arthur and Vera Spaull sing another duet, "Two little birds". His role was a significant one and once again Arthur was performing with a major musical star.
During the run of Madame Pompadour Arthur described his hobbies as gardening and playwriting. He lived in Hawthorn, near Melbourne with his wife Dolly and his son. He apparently had a wonderful garden where he grew fruit, flowers, and vegetables. Arthur considered himself a real Australian who was settled permanently in the country.
Arthur Stigant was fifty nine in 1930. He played in the revival of Maid in the Mountains that year. He had tickled the funny bones of Australians for almost 15 years and was a well-known comic performer.
Arthur continued to gain roles well into the 1930s. There was another revival of Maid of the Mountains in 1933. Arthur may have reprised his role of General Malona in this production. In 1934 he appeared in White Horse Inn at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. White Horse Inn was a musical. Arthur played the role of John Ebenezer Ginkle, a supporting comedic part. A publicity photo showed him with rolled eyes, dressed in full Tyrolean costume. At age sixty three, Arthur was a white haired veteran of the Australian stage.
In later life, Arthur and his wife Dolly, settled in Camberwell in Victoria. Arthur had his two hobbies to keep him busy and was settled in Australia. He died unheralded on January 19th 1959. He was buried at Box Hill Cemetery in Melbourne a week later.
Arthur Stigant was one of many actors, comedians and singers who came to Australia and never left. He brought the gift of laughter to a country reeling from the shock of World War One and continued to contribute to the stage for two decades. He is little known but is one of many people who helped in the development of the Australian theatre.