Theatre in Melbourne 1888

Melbourne was the theatre capital of the Colonies in 1888. It was also anniversary year so the city was awash with music and drama for the full twelve months. Melbourne boasted no less than five very large auditoriums and smaller performances were also staged at venues like the Masonic Hall, the Town-Hall, the Athenĉum Hall, the Victoria Hall and St. George's Hall. These smaller stages were host to a wide variety of comedians, ventriloquists, song recitalists, local dance troupes, bellringers, boxing, wrestling and even a visiting group of Swiss Mountain yodellers. The people of Melbourne were ready to lap up any sort of entertainment and 'Full House' signs were continually posted throughout this period. If audiences began to dwindle then within a matter of days works would be withdrawn, or revamped, in the hope of increasing the box-office. Just as today one is spoilt for choice on the number of movie screens listed in the local paper then in 1888 the same applied to theatrical entertainment.

Melbourne's main theatres were the Alexander Theatre (Lesses and Manager, Alfred Dampier), the Theatre Royal (Messrs Williamson, Garner and Musgrove), the Bijou (Mr Brough and Mr Boucloault), the H.M. Opera House (Martin Simonsen) and the spectacular New Princess Theatre (Messrs Williamson, Garner and Musgrove). Electricity was replacing gas and Melbourne theatres were now cooler during summer and pleasant during the winter months. The New Princess even had a dome that could be opened leaving the sky visible to the audience.

During the 1880s every play of any real importance, which had been produced in London or New York, was placed before the Australian theatregoer. Australians were better served than many international cities, and at a far less charge than was made to British or American audiences.

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1887 was a fairly dramatic year for Melbourne theatre. As it drew to a close the Royal Italian Opera Company, under the direction of Martin Simonsen, were on stage at the Alexander. This was their third appearance in Melbourne in less than twelve months. The operatic feast included 'Ernani', 'La Traviata', 'Lucia di Lammermoor', 'Un Ballo in Maschera' and the all time favourite 'Maritana'.

At the Opera House was 'Current Cash' with the Arthur Vivian's New Dramatic Company - boasted as a great spectacular military and emotional drama. This would run until January 13th.

At the Bijou the play 'Two Roses', by James Albery, with the Dion Boucicault Company, had been running since November 17th. "Mrs Brough and Miss Boucicault were an improvement on the other representations, insomuch as they looked the characters and did not suffer from a ponderosity of flesh."

At the Theatre Royal the new play 'First Class', by Frank Scudamore, was having a successful season featuring George Darrell and company. "Herbert Fleming played First Class, the gentlemanly ruffian, with careful understanding if he dual character he had to represent."

The highlight of December was William Garner Musgrove's Comic Opera Company in a season of Gilbert and Sullivan at the New Princess. This featured Leonora Braham from the D'Oyly Carte London Company. Also in the cast were Howard Vernon, Mr F. Federici, Ida Osborne, Alice Barnett and May Pollard who had to replace Leonora Braham for several performances of 'H.M.S. Pinafore'.


By tradition the ever popular pantomimes always opened on Boxing day. 1888 was no exception. 'Jack the Giant-Killer and Little Bo-Beep' opened at the Theatre Royal. This was written by Alfred Maltby and was hugely successful. It ran until February 10th. Alfred Maltby was responsible for the comic opera 'Mefistofele II' which had a fairly successful season in Bradford, England in 1881. 'Jack the Giant-Killer' featured Emma Chambers, in the title role ("seized every opportunity to give vent to her sprightliness and exuberant gaiety" ), and John Gourlay, as the Widow Jennie Johnson ("got through his comical episodes to the amused satisfaction of all beholders").

On Monday the 26th of December, 1887, the Comic Opera Company opened 'Ermine', with book by Harry Paulton and music by Edward Jacobowski, at the New Princess. 'Ermine' had been successful on Broadway in 1886 running for 571 performances. Edward Jacobowski was later to write the music for 'The Queen of Brilliants' with book by Brandon Thomas. This piece would run for 41 performances at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and featured Lillian Russell in the cast. This production featured F. Federici, C.M. Leumane, Howard Vernon, Maggie Moore, William Elton and Leonora Braham "Miss Leonora Braham's acting was characterized by that spontaneous gaiety and brightness which is the charm of everything she does.". It should be noted that the costumes alone for this production cost over £2,000.

The comedy Sophia, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 'Tom Jones', by Robert Buchanan (1841-1901), opened at the Bijou on December 26th and this would run for the entire month of January. This production featured Cecil Ward, as Tom Jones. "Mr Cecil Ward made Tom Jones no mere theatrical personage who spoke his lines well - on the contrary, he has steadily thought out the character, and every line in his dialogue, so that the hero was an actual human being in whom the identity of the actor was quite lost."

At the Alexander the Royal Italians continued with alternating productions of 'The Huguenots', 'La Gioconda', 'Il Trovatore', 'Faust', 'Norma', 'Lucretia Borgia', 'La Sonnambula', 'Rigoletto', 'Maritana' and the popular 'Martha'. The season closed on January 14th. There was a benefit concert for the Company at the Town-Hall on February 16th before touring around the rest of the country. The Alexander went dark for the rest of the month.

At the Opera House Arthur Vivian's 'powerful dramatic' Company changed its programme on Saturday the 14th. 'Missing at Lloyd's' was billed as a Nautical melodrama in four acts. This featured Mr. W.G. Carey and Helen Vivian.


When the season of 'Ermine' finished at the New Princess Williamson despatched several of the cast to Sydney for a lengthy season in that city. The remainder staged the English hit 'Dorothy' on Saturday the 28th of January. This ran throughout February. This featured the hottest star of the era, Nellie Stewart, who had just returned from several months in England. William Elton, Alice Barnett and Fanny Lydiard were also in the cast and the composer, Alfred Cellier (1844-1891), conducted. Cellier had recently arrived in Australia. When 'Dorothy' was first produced in Australia, in 1887, it was not the success that had been hoped for. This new production was an immediate hit. Melbourne's Age says of Nellie Stewart: "Miss Stewart's performance was successful in all respects, her appearance picturesque, her manner charming, and her singing such as to interpret the music with graceful and appropriate expression."

The Princess Theatre:
Opened in 1854 as Astley's Amphitheatre with a 2,000 seat auditorium. After a few alterations it was renovated and reopened as the Princess's Theatre in April 1857. The first production in the new venue was Bellini's opera 'Norma'. In 1886 Williamson, Garner and Musgrove commissioned the design of a new theatre for the site. The New Princess opened December 1886 with a three level auditorium lit by electricity and was ventilated by a sliding section of the ceiling dome. The Princess Theatre is still in use today.


Arthur Vivian's season at the Opera House concluded on Friday the 27th of January and the following day the mesmerist, Professor T.A. Kennedy, took over the stage. Billed as 'the 8th wonder of the world' Kennedy would play to packed houses all through February and well into March. The audiences loved this sort of entertainment and it was probably a great diversion to the other types of material currently on offer in Melbourne theatres. After the first night Professor Kennedy's reputation was fully established.


'Jack the Giant-Killer' concluded its season at the Theatre Royal on Friday the 10th of February and the next day the theatre's own dramatic company opened with the melodrama 'Sentenced to Death' which was taken off after six performances and replaced with 'Drink' adapted by Charles Reade (1814-1884) from Emile Zola's 'L'Assommoir'. Leading English actor Charles Warner, fresh from a recent London revival, led the cast. 'Drink' was successful enough to run through the rest of February and well into March. "Mr Warner's Coupeau must be seen to be appreciated, and once seen will never be erased from the memory."

The Alexander reopened on February the 4th with the Saint Maur Comedy Company in Sydney Grundy's 'Arabian Nights'. This comedy in four acts was based on a German story by Gustav von Moser and proved to be very popular with Melbourne audiences. The next production of the season (opening on the 25th) was the farcical comedy 'Brighton' by James Albery and Bronson Howard (1842-1908). 'Brighton' (an adaption of an earlier Howard play 'Saratoga') opened on February 25th and ran into early March.

At the Bijou, 'Sophia' finished on Saturday January 28th. W.J. Holloway's 'powerful' Company opened with a season of Shakespeare on January 30th. 'Romeo and Juliet' was the first work presented followed by 'As You Like It' on Saturday February 18th. The leading lady was popular Shakespearian actress Essie Jenyns. "Miss Jenyns possesses the primary requirements for the character she portrayed, and her Juliet was a charming bit of acting throughout."

For more history of theatre in Australia during the late 19th century and for an in depth look at the productions of Gilbert and Sullivan in Australia and New Zealand check out Gilbert and Sullivan Down Under

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