The Australian Theatre to 1910


Australian theatre has a long and distinguished history. It is a history which was influenced by both the United States and Britain. 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. It was called “The Recruiting Officer” and was presented by a cast of convicts. It concerned the recruitment of men for the army 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. The purpose of a penal colony was punishment. Theatre was designed for pleasure. Pleasure was not appropriate for those undergoing punishment and could corrupt the convicts. Also 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.  Lieutenant Governor King had hoped that allowing theatrical entertainment would distract the convicts and residents of the colony from other  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. The new governor, Bourke, was more liberal than his predecessor and Levey was granted a licence. In 1833 he opened the Theatre Royal, at the rear of his Royal Hotel 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 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.  They saw theatre as a medium by which a morally uplifting message could be widely communicated. It could be used to educate, intellectually stimulate or provide a moral or Christian message. This attitude supported the production of Opera, Drama, morality plays and Shakespeare. This kind of theatre was generally regarded as “legitimate theatre.”

The gold rush of the 1850s led to an increase in popular theatre production. The influx of gold seekers, primarily young men, into the colonies led 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 a number of American minstrel companies toured Australia. They became a fixture of the provincial gold mining towns and drew miners to their performances in both city and country. The patrons showed their appreciation for the shows by showering the stage with gold.

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 JC 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, being replaced by vaudeville and variety companies.

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.

Extract from an article by Leann Richards.  http://www.hat-archive.com/shorthistory.htm

 

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