Pantomime in Australia

Pantomime was a tradition imported from England and hugely popular in Australia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like its English counterpart, pantomime in Australia featured actresses playing the principal boy and actors playing the colourful dame. The productions were characterised by topical allusions, lavish costumes and extravagant ballets and choruses. By this time the traditional harlequinade was seldom performed, or if shown was a feature for matinees. As the 20th Century progressed, the fairytale plots began to incorporate acrobatic and novelty turns as additions to the central story. However one thing remained constant, the popularity of the form and the entertainment it provided to all at Christmas and Easter.

Pantomime in Australia was centred around the two big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. At Christmas it was traditional for Williamsons to stage a huge panto in Melbourne and by Easter it would move to Sydney. Other proprietors mounted pantomimes at different times, for example William Anderson often held them at Christmas in Sydney. However, it was the Williamson shows that were the biggest and most popular. They featured well known legitimate stage performers, for example in the 1890s members of the Royal Comic Opera Company performed in both Matsa and Djin Djin, and were well known for their high quality production values. Williamson’s premier choreographers such as Minnie Everett arranged the ballets, whilst the music was in the capable hands of the company’s best composers.

Given that pantomime was a particularly English tradition, it was not surprising that many English stars came to Australia to showcase their talent. In 1918, Mr Henry Farrow, an experienced English dame played the role in Jack and the Beanstalk, and Arthur Stigant was recruited from England to be the dame in several pantomimes. In 1909 Stella Castelle played principal boy in Jack and Jill, and in 1919 May De Sousa, described as a ‘piquant principal boy from Drury Lane and the Gaiety London", appeared in Goody Two Shoes. These imported stars ensured the high quality of Australian pantomime and brought a strong English flavour to the local product.

Australian pantomime also maintained the pattern of having an actress play the principal boy and an actor playing the dame. Some major names, both imported and local played principal boy in Australia. Vera Pearce, Mabelle Morgan and Carrie Moore all played the role, their main qualification being their physical charms. The role was one that titillated by dressing a woman in male clothing, and therefore showing the outlines of the feminine form in a manner not seen in general society. Miss Mabelle Morgan’s physical attributes were commented upon favourably by The Referee newspaper, whilst Carrie Moore was generally thought to have the best legs in the business.

The dames were generally highly skilled male comedians who carried the show with their quick topical quips and jokes. One of the characteristics of these cross dressing funsters was their elaborate costuming. In fact many of their costumes were satirical references to current fashions. Arthur Stigant was well known for his outlandish dresses as the dame, and in 1918 The Referee said of his performance in Dick Whittington that ‘Mr Stigant’s costumes alone would guarantee him storms of applause’. Arthur had a talent for portraying the dame with gentle humour;

He has a happy knack of caricature, and the whims and foibles of the gentler sex are burlesqued by him without malice.

This was an important trait which kept female audience members, an important demographic, happy.

Australia saw a succession of brilliant performers as the dame. CM Harris and Harry Shine were just two of the names who played the role during the long run of pantomimes in Australia.

Pantomime usually included songs and sketches which commented on local events, personalities and news stories. In 1906, the pantomime, Sinbad was advertised as having ‘new songs, new topical allusions, new novelties, new ballets, new dances’. During World War 1, pantomime was extremely popular, and was an expression of patriotism. The 1914 version of Sinbad was a classic example. The Referee stated that ‘Patriotism is the keynote of Sinbad the Sailor…and quips at the expense of the enemy are plentiful.’

Often the pantomime incorporated tableaux and colourful displays of Allied symbols and flags. The patriotic theme was often used to raise funds for the war effort. In the intermission of Dick Whittington in April 1918, the audience was asked to subscribe to the war loan. Hugh Ward, managing director of J C Williamson made a speech which included the words ‘ Let the whole house give three cheers for the British Army , and that includes the Australians who are now in the fight.’

The identification of Australian with English culture was reinforced by the nature of the local pantomime. During the war the cultural identification intensified. Pantomime was an essential vehicle for conveying loyalty to the crown and a vital cog in war recruitment and morale building on the home front.

Over time the plots of pantomimes changed. Elaborate fairytale plots subsumed the harlequinade, the simple story of Harlequin and Columbine and by the 1890s the harlequinade was a novelty reserved for matinee performances. By the early 1900s the fairytale plots were being enhanced by the addition of novelty acts. In 1913, The Referee was lamenting the fact that ‘The principal boy and principal girl are now little more than ornamental figures. They are put in the shade by performers who rightly belong to the circus or music hall.’ This was a continuing trend and in 1919 the pantomime Goody Two Shoes included speciality turns such as Jewel’s marionettes and The Kenna Brothers, acrobatic comedians.

Through all the changes to pantomime one thing remained constant, the lavish costumes, superb choruses and ballets. In 1918 the ballets in Dick Whittington were described as ‘so numerous and delightful each in its own fashion that one’s eyes become dazzled with their gorgeousness and ever-changing splendour" First rate choreographers and dancers such as Maggie Dickenson, performed in pantomime, whilst JC Williamson had their best musical arrangers compose the scores.

Pantomime as an art form maintained its popularity in Australia for many years. It was significantly affected by the depression and emergence of moving pictures. The huge cost of production also ensured the decline in the tradition. However, during the early years of the 20th Century it was one of the most popular features of Australian theatre.

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