Pantomime was a popular form of entertainment in 19th Century Australia and in 1895 J C Williamson produced a pantomime called Djin Djin, a Japanese fairy tale. The production had all the features of typical pantomime. It had a principal boy played by an actress, a dame played by a man and topical allusions. These allusions reflected the concerns and attitudes of the time. References to Federation support of nationalism and satiric references to the ‘new woman’ were plentiful in the show. Pantomime was an expression of Australian culture and to ensure its appeal it was necessary for it to reflect its audience’s concerns. Djin Djin was an enormous hit in Sydney and Melbourne and its manipulation of pantomime tradition was responsible for its success.
The 1890s were a decade of depression in Australia, the dramatic fall in the price of wool combined with land speculation had greatly affected the economy. In the early 1890s, unemployment was high and several investors lost their life savings in bank collapses.
In 1895 J C Williamson was Australia’s premier theatre manager and his company, which had a virtual monopoly on legitimate theatre in Australasia, was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Williamson was having trouble booking overseas stars, because the theatrical scene in Britain and the US was booming. No international star wanted the long trip to Australia when employment was so plentiful at home. So Williamson had to improvise, together with Bert Royle, he decided to write and stage a lavish original pantomime, Djin Djin, a Japanese Fairytale.
On the night of the last rehearsal, Williamson made an announcement to the cast. The company was almost bankrupt, if the pantomime was not a success, Australia’s largest legitimate theatrical chain was gone. He asked the cast and crew to take a cut in pay and they agreed. It was under these circumstances that Djin Djin opened at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne at the end of December 1895.
Pantomime was an Australian Christmas tradition and Djin Djin was the latest of a long line of lavish spectacles. Unlike many traditional pantomimes based on fairy tales, and consisting of unrelated scenes, Djin Djin had a coherent plot line. Its Australian hero, Prince Eucalyptus, and his faithful servant Tom Wallaby, travelled to Japan to obtain the hand of Princess Iris in marriage. However, an astrologer foretold that Iris would die if the family talisman was not saved from the grip of the evil demon Djin Djin. The pantomime concerned the voyage and adventures of Iris, Eucalyptus, Wallaby and their entourage as they confronted Djin Djin. It was an entertaining and simple plot.
One feature of Australian pantomime, especially those mounted by Williamson, was the spectacular settings. Djin Djin was no exception and it was the expenditure on props, costumes and scenery which nearly bankrupted the company. The scenes included a realistic earthquake, where Mount Fuji vomited spirits and demons from its top, a palace roof supported by a row of storks perched upon live tortoises and a golden city representing fairyland. The costumes were equally extravagant, featuring authentic looking oriental robes and silks of all colours. It was a magnificent display.
Pantomime as an art form originated in Europe with the harlequinade. 19th Century pantomime had little in common with that early form, but it had solid traditions of its own. English pantomime was the home of these traditions and the Australian version had strong ties to the English type. This was partly due to the large numbers of English professionals who were imported to Australia to perform in JC Williamson pantomimes. These actors brought the tradition with them and communicated it to their Australian comrades. Djin Djin was a typical pantomime. Although its plot was unusual, it did have some of the expected pantomime features. These included the casting of an actress as the principal boy, a comic dame played by an actor, and a script filled with topical allusions.
In pantomime, the principal boy was usually played by an actress wearing tights. In 1895, Florence Young was the leading lady of J C Williamson’s premier company, the Royal Comic Opera Company. Florence was selected to play Prince Eucalyptus in Djin Djin. She had a wonderful clear speaking voice, was a superb singer and filled out a pair of tights nicely. This latter was a prime consideration. The principal boy was a sex symbol; the exposure of the leading lady’s legs was titillation for the male members of the audience. Florence was the ideal choice for the role of Eucalyptus; she was a voluptuous young woman, 24 years old and very popular with audiences. Her figure would be considered fat in today’s terms, but at that time it was considered attractive and desirable. The fact that Florence had a beautiful singing voice was merely a bonus.
Another traditional feature in the pantomime was the dame, played by a man and responsible for the comical parts of the piece. In Djin Djin the role was taken by John Coleman. Coleman was a variety performer who was loaned by Harry Rickards, the manager of the Tivoli Circuit. He was not a great singer, but his expressive features and comic dances overcame this limitation. Coleman played Okiama, an old spinster, desperate to find a husband. In the course of her search she attempted to seduce Tom Wallaby, the Vizer and even the evil demon Djin Djin. The character fainted at the merest sign of trouble, described herself as a young girl despite her aged looks, and generally made a fool of herself. In those pre feminist times, an older unmarried woman was pitied and portrayed on stage as desperate and unfulfilled. Okiama was a stereotype that was very familiar to audiences of the 19th century.
The script of Djin Djin also contained that essential element of pantomime, topical references. These were a vital part of the show’s appeal. When an English pantomime was imported to Australia, the local writers and producers would change the script to include references to Australian politics or social issues. Political allusions were particularly popular. Pantomime was an opportunity to satire pompous politicians and sanctimonious guardians of public morality. It was an important vehicle for social comment.
Djin Djin contained many references to political events overseas and at home. Iris was courted by a series of suitors from different countries. She refused the Irish suitor and said
Altho’ I rather like your style
You won’t give me Home Rule
This was a reference to the Home Rule debate that was taking place in Ireland at the time. In another scene Prince Eucalyptus referred to an Australian army hero Major General Hutton, and Wallaby, on seeing the golden palace in fairyland compared it to the gold boom in Western Australia.
‘Look at all the gold, Coolgardie isn’t in it’
In Djin Djin the topical references included allusions to popular brands of spirits when Wallaby punned on Djin Djin’s name;
Gin Gin! Hearing I’m rather hard on.
I’ve heard of Dry Gin, Gilbey’s Gin and Schnapps,
The language used through the pantomime was unique to the time, and words which were common to youth culture peppered the script. Okiama continually mentioned ‘mashing’ a Victorian term for flirting, and the Shogun used the term ‘Off their dots’ which presumably meant crazy. Pantomime was a family experience and much of it was designed to appeal to young people. This language reflected the youthful vocabulary of the time
The language and comments on contemporary life reflected the concerns and culture of the Australian population. Pantomime was popular culture, its snide remarks echoed the sentiments of 19th Century people. Djin Djin included comments on women’s issues, the working class, evolution and Australian nationalism, important subjects of conversation in colonial society.
The pantomime reflected the conservative view of women held by the male establishment. At that time, these conventions were being challenged by a nascent feminist movement lead by Louisa Lawson and the Dawn newspaper. This movement was concerned with social and economic rights for women, including women’s suffrage. The latter was an issue that was particularly important due to moves towards Federation. Djin Djin satirized the aspirations of these women with a duet between Okiama and Wallaby, the two comical characters in the pantomime.
The new woman is a product of the nineteenth Century
With divided skirts and ‘’So and So ‘’ and “Such and Such”
The ladies of today I think have lost their modesty
With their Ibsen and their “So and So” and “Such and Such”
Of course to pose in men’s attire they think is very rich
They try to copy man when they should stop at home and stitch
Contemporary views of the working class were also illustrated in Djin Djin. Tom Wallaby, the lovable, but clumsy servant of the Prince was a caricature of working class people. Tom used slang such as ‘Takes the cake’, and ‘Old Harry”. He was fond of beer, got drunk and was duped by the evil spirit. However, at the conclusion of the pantomime, it was Wallaby who stuck the final blow against the demon. He was innocent, naïve, friendly, loyal and funny. These were characteristics which were seen as typical of working class people. He was also in need of the protection of his master, Prince Eucalyptus, an indication of the paternalistic attitude typical of the upper and middle classes.
Djin Djin also included references to evolution. The Shogun’s son was turned into an ape by the evil machinations of Djin Djin. When the ape appeared, Okiama said,
‘Like his first cousin “man”, he s mashing me.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was used as a pretext for racism. It reinforced the idea that the Anglo races were superior to non Anglo races. This was a view that was very popular in Australia during the late 19th Century and it figured prominently in the Federation debate.
The movement for Federation was gaining popular support in the late 19th Century. Australians were beginning to see themselves as a nation, rather than a collection of colonies. Djin Djin mirrored the rising tide of nationalism sweeping the country. The plot of Djin Djin emphasized the bravery and courage of the Australian hero. It celebrated the joys of being Australian and was suffused with a sense of national identity. Eucalyptus told Iris that “All are free as kings in my fair land,” and he sang a song, called ‘Australia’,
And this shall be our battle cry, Australia, Australia
Before it every foe will fly, Australia, Australia,
In Sydney the song referred to the bravery of the ‘Sydney Volunteers’, in Melbourne it was the ‘Melbourne’ volunteers. This suggested a continuing sense of colonial rivalry between the two great cities.
The nationalistic sentiment was accompanied by a satiric look at the process of Federation. Dede, Iris’ maid punned
I’m not a tax collector
But still your duty you should pay to me
This was a reference to debates between free traders and protectionists. It was also a snide comment at colonial tariffs. These charges impacted greatly upon a business like theatre, which travelled from state to state.
Djin Djin’s setting and plot also told much about the attitudes of Australians toward the Japanese. Australian nationalism contained a very strong anti Asian element which was mainly directed at the Chinese. Racist rhetoric was a major component of the Federation debate and the depiction of Asian culture in the pantomime reflected a generalized view that has been referred to as Orientalism.
According to Edward Said, 19th Century orientalism portrayed Asian culture as eccentric, backwards and ‘other’. Writers in the 19th Century saw it as needing ‘western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.’ Djin Djin was a typical example of this attitude.
The plot imported a westerner, an Australian Prince, to an Eastern culture. The aim of the Prince was to rescue the Asian population from an Asian threat, the demon Djin Djin. The evil spirit had transformed the Shogun’s son into an ape, but the Shogun and all his army could neither capture nor destroy the spirit. It took the influence of the west, as represented by Eucalyptus, to rescue the Japanese.
The costumes reinforced the idea of the Japanese as other. The Japanese characters wore eccentric costumes with curious hats; the Shogun carried a fan, an unusual accessory for a ruler. In the script, the Shogun resorted to brutality when hearing that Eucalyptus had broken the law. The Japanese were also portrayed as people who sold their daughters into marriage. In an early scene the Daimio, Iris’ father, sang,
My daughter’s love is to be bought
Not simply thrown away
Who offers her the highest rank
Backed up, you understand
With cash enough to buy a bank
He wins my daughter’s hand
This was contrasted with Europeans who, ‘don’t marry for gold’.
These lines stereotyped the Japanese as brutal and mercenary and contrasted them with the supposed superiority of Western culture.
The language used to describe the Japanese also reflected an orientalist attitude. Tom wallaby continually used the diminutive ‘Jap’ and the final words of the pantomime were ’and Jappy dreams’. The use of this language suggested a paternalistic attitude towards Japanese culture.
The popularity of Djin Djin was assured because it skilfully reflected the culture and concerns of the Australian population. The combination of nationalism, orientalism and the pantomime tradition was a potent one.
Pantomime was a very popular form of entertainment in the 19th Century. Djin Djin proved to be a successful production of the form. It maintained the strong tradition of pantomime that was imported from Europe. This tradition was adapted to the Australian experience and the plot and script of Djin Djin reflected the attitudes and characteristics of contemporary society. It portrayed images of Australia that relied on racist stereotypes and satirized the rising wave of feminist thought in the country. Djin Djin was a snapshot of Australian society at the end of the 19th Century.