A short history of the Australian theatre to 1910.



Australian theatre has a long and distinguished history. It is a history which was influenced by the two great western powers, the United States and Britain. The influence of the British tradition on Australian theatre should not be underestimated. British born entrepreneurs were the fathers of Australian theatre. Despite the shadow of the two great powers, Australian theatre had it's own peculiar characteristics. It grew to be a unique institution for a unique land.


Australian theatre began a year after the establishment of Sydney as a penal colony in 1788. In 1789, a play was performed to celebrate the birthday of King George of England. The play was called "The Recruiting Officer " and was presented by a cast of convicts. It concerned the recruitment of men for the army, in a small town, and was a comedy. It was performed in bleak surroundings, in a convict's hut, and observed by an audience of around sixty. Most of the audience were officers of the garrison. The Governor also attended


Whether convicts should be permitted to participate in or observe theatrical entertainment was a matter for debate in the early years of the colony. Several considerations influenced this debate. Firstly, the purpose of a penal colony was punishment. Theatre, a frivolous exercise, was designed for pleasure. Pleasure was not appropriate for those undergoing punishment and could corrupt the convicts. Secondly, theatre by it's very nature caused disorder. It was associated with indolence, wantonness and rioting. This was particularly the case when the audience, as convicts, had a predisposition towards these traits.


In 1794 ,it seemed that the corrupting influence of theatre upon convicts was confirmed.. The Lieutenant Governor, King, had hoped that allowing theatrical entertainment would distract the convicts and residents of the colony from other, idle, more destructive pursuits such as gambling or drinking. Unfortunately the behaviour of the audience was so unruly that the performance was interrupted. This confirmed the fears of the more conservative rulers of the colony


Another attempt was made to establish a theatrical presence in Sydney in 1796. Robert Sidaway, a baker, opened a theatre in Bell Row, (now Bligh Street). Entry was gained by paying either a shilling, or the equivalent in flour, meat or spirits. Unfortunately whilst the audience watched such edifying entertainment as "The Revenge", less respectable citizens would rob their unattended residences. In 1798 the continual theft from the patrons in terms of burglary and pick pocketing led to the closure of the theatre. This was a convict colony after all.


In1828 another attempt at establishing a Sydney theatre was attempted. Barnett Levey, a Sydney merchant applied for a theatre licence from Governor Darling in that year. He was refused.


The next year the Governor allowed him to hold concerts and balls at his Royal Hotel. Levey tried for a theatrical licence again in 1832, and applied to the new Governor, Bourke. Bourke was more liberal than his predecessor. Levey was granted a licence and in 1833 opened the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Levey almost bankrupted himself in the process. In 1838 a man called Joseph Wyatt opened the Royal Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street. Theatre in Sydney can be said to date from the establishment of these two theatres.


Theatre came to Victoria a little later. In 1841, a bar man named Hodges, persuaded his employer to build a theatre in Melbourne. Hodges called the theatre, The Pavilion. He called it this to circumvent the penal law. Hodges applied for a licence to operate as a theatre, but was refused. He did gain permission to hold concerts and balls at the Pavilion.


Hodges and his associates presented several amusements which were not considered suitable by the authorities. They presented a concert that was judged tasteless and rude. After ignoring a warning about repeating the performance, Hodges was gaoled.


In 1842 a group of gentlemen reapplied for a theatrical licence for the Pavilion. They proposed to produce a benefit for the Melbourne Hospital. A licence was granted for twelve months from 1842, and The Pavilion , also known as the Theatre Royal, was in operation again.


The building was rickety and knowledgeable patrons brought their own umbrellas, to avoid getting wet. The roof leaked and the wooden building swayed in the wind. Plays such as "Rob Roy" and "The Widow's Victim" were performed during this period. They were produced under the management of George Buckingham. But the theatre was not well patronised and fell into financial difficulties. When the licence expired in 1843 the magistrates refused to renew it



In April that year, Councillor J T Smith applied for a licence to build a theatre which would cater to a better class of patrons than those who attended The Pavilion. His licence was granted and he built what was known as the Queen's Theatre, on the south west corner of Queen Street and Little Bourke Street. It was through Councillor Smith that George Coppin, regarded as the father of Victorian theatre, came to visit Melbourne. By the mid 1840s theatre had truly arrived in Victoria.



Theatre audiences had in the 1840s been rowdy, riotous and ill behaved. There were brawls in the stalls, members of the audience frequently leapt on stage in the middle of performances and the performers themselves often misbehaved. All this behaviour combined, reinforced the stereotype of theatre as an activity which encouraged immoral activity. The rowdy behaviour was typical of audiences of the period. Performers often used the stage to ad lib indelicate jokes, or to poke fun at members of the upper classes.


This type of behaviour was unacceptable to the middle and upper classes. As the middle class grew in number in Australia, with the arrival of free settlers and pastoralists, they brought with them a conservative morality. This morality was influenced by evangelicalism and the general cultural milieu of the Victorian era.


This group of people generally saw theatre as a medium by which a morally uplifting message could be widely communicated. Theatre could be used to educate, intellectually stimulate or provide a moral or Christian message. Those that held this attitude supported the production of Opera, Drama, morality plays, and Shakespeare. This kind of theatre was generally regarded as "legitimate theatre."


Parallel to this attitude was a belief in theatre as a medium designed purely for entertainment. Popular theatre such as pantomime, circus, minstrel shows and vaudeville came to represent this tradition.


Both schools of thought influenced the development of theatre in Australia in the nineteenth century. Just as two attitudes grew, so too did the two means of expressing them. Popular and legitimate theatre arose simultaneously during the nineteenth century in Australia. Historian Richard Waterhouse refers to this development as the "bifurcation of Australian Theatre."


In the 1850s there was an increase in the amount of Shakespeare and Opera being performed.

The gold rush of the 1850s also led to an increase in popular theatre production. The influx of gold seekers, primarily young men, into the colonies lead to a demand for more earthy, frivolous entertainment. This demand was met by a number of touring companies, many of whom brought the minstrel tradition to Australia


During the 1850s and 1860s, touring minstrel companies became a fixture of the provincial gold mining towns. During this period a number of American minstrel companies toured Australia. The companies drew miners to their performances in both city and country.The patrons showed their appreciation for the shows by showering the stage with gold.


The minstrels performed in black face and sang Stephen Foster songs. They performed in the traditional manner with end men and interlocutor. Similar to the funny man and straight man of a modern comedy duo. Their repertoire was not controversial at this stage. However, they played on the prejudices of the day. The mining communities were known for their anti Asian sentiments. The minstrel companies played on these sentiments. For example they often used derogatory Asian impersonations as part of their repertoire. Their representations of African American culture also relied on stereotypes. In addition the companies often included light operetta as part of their programme.


Audiences of popular and legitimate theatre in the northern hemisphere were quite distinct entities. The legitimate theatre was generally patronised by the middle and upper classes in the United States and Britain. In these same countries the popular theatre was patronised by the working classes or lower working classes and characterised by bawdiness and satire.

The situation in Australia was different. There was considerable cross over between the audiences of popular and legitimate theatre. People from all walks of life had attended both kinds of theatre because of limited choice. Entertainment in 19th Century Australia was scarce and people, regardless of wealth or social standing were keen to experience it. A small population, especially in the early years of the colony, also contributed to this cross over.


The content of the material presented on stage reflected this broad appeal. The minstrels were never overly ribald, although music hall entertainment which was not very successful in Australia, tended to that direction. The managers of the minstrel troupes discouraged content that was either too risqué or controversial. In the later period the vaudeville theatre owners also employed this strategy. In this manner they maximised their possible cross over appeal.


The lack of proper theatre buildings in the country also contributed to the cross over . Often Opera, Drama and variety would share the same stage. Primarily because there were few specialised opera houses or music halls available. For example in 1855 The Olympic Theatre in Melbourne opened with the Wizard Jacob's tricks, and was followed by the drama


In the 1870s and 1880s theatre was growing in popularity in both Sydney and Melbourne. A wide variety of productions were being performed in both cities.


In 1874 J C Williamson and his wife Maggie Moore made their first appearances in Australia. Sydney in 1879 saw the first sanctioned performances of HMS Pinafore. At the end of the 1880s Ibsen's The Dolls House was presented at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne.



By the late 1880s the minstrel companies were becoming less popular, and being replaced by vaudeville and variety companies. Graduates from the minstrel troupes soon became fixtures in the variety theatres. In this manner the appeal of minstrelsy and the influence of it on Australian popular theatre was preserved. Irving Sayles and Charlie Pope, men who had begun their careers with a minstrel troupe, soon became regulars at the Tivoli vaudeville theatre.


All this activity lead to the creation of new theatres. In 1872, George Coppin rebuilt the New Theatre Royal on the site of the old one at Bourke Street. By 1886, Melbourne had five major theatres. These included The Princess, Alexandra, Theatre Royal, The Bijou and the Opera House. The city also had a wide range of other venues which presented entertainment.


In 1893 Harry Rickards took a lease on the Garrick Theatre in Sydney and presented variety acts. Drawing heavily on the minstrel tradition. The first part of his programmes was usually a minstrel style show, the second part was more traditional vaudeville fare. His Tivoli theatre circuit soon became a legend in the country. .


By the 1900s many aspects of the Australian theatre had become entrenched. The wide appeal of both legitimate and popular theatre, the influence of minstrel tradition, and the cultural influence of the theatre had been established. The minstrel tradition was maintained by the inclusion of blackface routines in many variety and vaudeville turns.


In 1910, The Referee newspaper published an article discussing the creation of new theatres in Sydney. The article distinguished between "theatres" and such places as the Tivoli, and the National Amphitheatre. These two being variety halls associated with the "popular" form of entertainment. The distinction suggested that there was still a stigma attached to the popular type of theatre. The article stated that by the end of 1910 the city of Sydney expected to be hosting twenty houses of public amusement. Included in this were picture theatres. It was a large number for a small city of only 600 thousand people. It indicated the popularity of theatre in Australian life.


In 1910, theatre in Australia was still being influenced by Victorian ideas of what was moral and appropriate. The theatre experience was more formal than it had been previously, and the entertainment more family oriented. The theatre managers had changed the shows to appeal to a wider, more diverse audience.


By 1910, technology was beginning to encroach on the traditional theatrical sphere. Moving pictures were becoming more popular, and would eventually push out the traditional theatre. They particularly ate into the audience of the popular theatre. By the last third of the twentieth century, vaudeville or variety in Australia was dead. It's place taken by cinema and films. In 1910 nobody involved in the industry would have dreamed that this was possible.


-Leann Richards


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