By Paul Bentley
roar of laughter 1789-1850
The Crown of Wattle 1851-1900
Me Lucky! 1901-1950
Coming of the White Elephants 1951-2000. Due soon
With a roar of
When the First Fleet vessels
turned into Port Jackson, they brought with them the seeds of a new culture:
a copy of a popular 18th century play, a piano, a screw printing press and a
cargo of convicts. Decades passed before the seeds took root; a century or
more, before they flowered.
The early years of the penal
settlement were preoccupied with necessities: law and order, exploring and
taming the land, feeding and clothing the population. Imports included fresh
cargo of emaciated men and women in chains to add to the burden of the
precarious colonial economy. The convict and soldier population was largely
illiterate or poorly educated, ill equipped for cultural challenges in a
remote and alien environment.
Leisure time explored the
folk songs, street ballads, jokes and stories of an oral tradition rather
than a literary one; horseracing, cockfighting and pugilism, aided and
abetted by gambling and liquor, harnessed expression of a more physical
kind. The air and sunshine of the new colony offered a more open confinement
than the hulks of the Thames. But, as one commentator observed, "breaks from
the dull monotony were accompanied by the clank of chains ... everything was
calculated to blunt the finest feelings and render them susceptible to the
The dull monotony was
attacked on Boxing Day 1832, when two plays were presented in the saloon of
the Royal Hotel, Sydney. The melodrama Black-eyed Susan, according to one
observer, 'called for repeated approbation' and the farce Monsieur Tonson
'kept the house in a roar of laughter from beginning to end'.
The Australian theatre
industry was born.
Plays had been presented
before in Sydney. On 4 June 1789, in the presence of Governor Arthur Phillip
and officers of the garrison, a group of convicts had performed George
Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer in a mud hut decorated with coloured paper
and a dozen farthing candles. For cast and audience, it was a momentary
"escape from the dreariness and dejection of [their] situation."
In January 1796, a former
watchcase maker and convict-turned-baker, Robert Sidaway, opened Sydney's
first theatre - a convict-built 120-seater - in Bell Row (Bligh street) a
venture which operated intermittently until 1800, when it was closed as a
corrupting influence by the authorities.
Through the second and third
decades of the nineteenth century, the signs of civilisation appeared like
milestones. A town plan of Sydney was published in 1810. Business
enterprises stabilised the burgeoning economy: the first commercial shipment
of wool was sent back to England in 1811 and the Bank of New South Wales was
established in 1817. Macarthur, Wentworth and others stirred the pot of
political independence and the colony's first independent newspaper, The
Australian, was. published in 1824. Learned societies and institutions,
cultivators of the colonial mind, opened their doors: the Philosophical
Society of Australasia was set up in 1822; in 1827, the Australian
Subscription Library opened its collection of 1000 volumes to members in
Sydney and the first Mechanics' Institute was established in Hobart Town.
For those who found the cultivation of the mind or convict life too hard to
bear, a mental asylum had also been established at Castle Hill.
In 1817, the Earl of Bathurst
questioned whether the settlement was fulfilling its role as a penal colony.
By 1824, free settlers in the population of nearly 40,000 were in the
majority. One of their number, Barnett Levey, a merchant and auctioneer, was
convinced the time was ripe for regular, night-time entertainment. Advocacy
in 1824 was followed by action in 1827, when he laid the foundation stone
for a theatre to be built in a warehouse he was building in George Street,
The five feet two inch Levey
was not short of ideas and energy, but he did lack diplomacy. And one of
those with whom he crossed swords was the new Governor, Ralph Darling, who
blocked Levey's application for a theatre licence - even though a
convict-run theatre had been permitted 56 kilometres west of Sydney at Emu
Levey had to contend not only with the prevailing conservative attitude and
the hostility of Darling, but with his own propensity for taking on too many
things. He had gone ahead with the construction of the theatre, calling it
the Royal Assembly Rooms instead, and had held concerts there in 1829. But
his neglect of his other business interests led to financial difficulties
which forced him to sell his collection of buildings in George Street,
including store, warehouse, hotel, theatre, granary and mill in December
In 1832, his plans for a
theatre resurfaced. Darling had left the colony and Governor Sir Richard
Bourke, more favourably disposed to public entertainment than his
predecessor, granted a theatre licence on 22 December 1832. Four days later,
in the saloon sub-leased from the new owners of the Royal Hotel, he opened
his first season of 30 plays and farces.
By October 1833, the theatre
behind the hotel had been completed and, on 5 October, Levey's second season
of plays opened at the Theatre Royal. Apart from a break in 1835 and 1836,
he continued to manage the theatre until his death on 2 October 1937.
The infant theatre industry
was precarious and volatile.
The Royal employed up to 100
people, many of them earning 2 pounds to 3 pounds a week, except on benefit
nights, when popular performers could earn as much as 90 pounds. The
production quality was not high and Levey was subjected to frequent
criticism not only from the press but from his own employees. There was
little discipline among the inexperienced actors, who were known to walk out
of the theatre in a fit of pique just before performances were about to
Theatres were not places for
respectable people. Audiences were unruly and prone to violence: actors
often had to duck bottles, stones, fruit and other missiles; actors and
members of the audience sometimes indulged in fisticuffs on the stage.
Whores plied their trade in the theatre and patrons ran a gauntlet of abuse
from the footpath drunks outside the hotel.
The Theatre Royal was
destroyed by fire in 1840, after it had closed in 1838, the same year in
which Joseph Wyatt opened Sydney's second permanent theatre, the Royal
The prime mover of theatre in
Van Diemen's Land was a Mr Sampson Cameron who rented Freemanson's Tavern
for performances on 24 December 1933. In 1834, homage to the crown as again
in evidence when a Theatre Royal opened in Argyle Street, Hobart, only to
close in 1836. Another Theatre Royal, in Campbell Street, opened in 1837.
Adelaide's Theatre Royal was established in 1838, followed by the Royal
Victoria in 1839, the Argyle Rooms in 1840, Queen's Theatre (the first real
theatre building) in 1841, the Pavilion in 1845, the Royal Adelaide in 1846,
another Queen's Theatre in 1846 and the Dramatic Hall in 1850. Melbourne
made its start in 1841 with the Royal Pavilion, followed by the Queens
Theatre in 1845.
Some of the early theatre
ventures were short-lived, but the spark ignited by Barnett Levey, by 1850,
Circus was introduced to
Australia in 1841 at Joseph Wyatt's Royal Victoria Theatre by Luigi Dalle
Casse, a gymnast, equestrian and "specialist in living statues". The
following year, Signor Dalle Casse opened the first arena theatre, the
Australian Olympic, in Sydney, a venture which lasted for only three months.
A more successful enterprise was begun in Launceston by hotel proprietor,
Robert Radford, whose Royal Circus (Radford's Royal Circus) opened in 1847.
It was here that two men who were to make a lifetime contribution to the
development of the colonial circus made their first appearances on
Australian soil - John Henry Ashton and John Jones [later St Leon].
The early musical life in the
colonies mainly found expression in the military ceremony, social ball and
parlour. In 1826, Barnett Levey and others had formed the Sydney Amateur
Concert Society which presented 8 variety concerts during the year. And
later, the Theatre Royal offered employment to musicians as well as actors.
One of those serving in the
pit of the Royal was John Phillip Deane, manager of the first Theatre Royal
in Hobart. Deane had arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1822. There he had
established a livelihood as merchant, hotel proprietor and auctioneer and,
from 1825, had been involved in the musical life of the town as a teacher,
church organist and concert promoter. When his business failed, he moved his
family to Sydney in search of better financial rewards for his musical
talent. Deane is credited with introducing chamber music to Australian
audiences in 1836. Of his seven children, four were musicians and continued
to be involved in performance and teaching after Deane's death in 1849.
The printing press which
arrived with the First Fleet was first operated by convict George Hughes,
who was employed to produce government orders, broadsides and several
playbills from 1796. It was Hughes who issued the earliest surviving
playbill in Australia - publicising a performance of The Recruiting
Officer at Sidaway's theatre in 1800.
Hughes was replaced as
government printer by another convict, George Howe, who in 1802 published
the first book in the colony, New South Wales Standing Orders. In 1803, he
published the first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales
Advertiser and, 16 years later, the first literary work, The First
Fruits of Australian Verse, by Judge Barron Field. Howe's sons, Robert and
George Terry, continued their father's work in Sydney and Van Diemen's Land.
Robert was responsible for the first periodical to appear in Australia,
The Australian Magazine; or Companion of Religion, Literature and
Miscellaneous Intelligence, and in 1826, Wild Notes from the Lyre of
a Native Minstrel, the first books of poems by an Australian-born poet,
Early publishing in Australia
was sporadic and for more than one hundred years depended on the interest
and publishing enterprise of local booksellers. James and Samuel Tegg were
prominent between 1835 and 1847 and, in their stock, was a work which they
no doubt believed would not only sell but would provide other benefits to
the colonial population - Manual for Intellectual Improvement, Volume