The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 6









List of papers







By Paul Bentley

4 October 2013



Program for JC Williamson production of Matsa, Queen of Fire (see story below) 

Programs are central to the documentation of music and theatre history.


They provide the essential information about performances - what was performed, who performed it, when they performed it, and where the performance took place. But they are also valuable sources of biographical details, production notes, illustrations of sets and costumes, photographs of performers, the duration of performances, the number of people likely to be attracted to them, the cost of admission and details of other performances.

According to the late Sydney music critic, Fred Blanks, collections of concert and recital programs have a number of benefits.


They may be used to analyse the repertoire at particular times and changes to repertoire over any period. They may be used to assess changes in the format of programs. They may be used to assess the results of musicological developments (eg the early music movement) on events. They may be used to examine the actual performance repertoire of individual composers. They may be used to analyse Australian content. They may be used to gain insight into taste and popularity with reference to particular authors, composers and works. They may be used to accurately date specific performances and appearances. They may be used to investigate whether particular works have been performed. And they may used as a starting point for library searches and other investigations into various aspects of events,


The value of programs is illustrated by items in Australian libraries, including the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts, which held one of the nation’s major collections before the Sydney Opera House Trust closed it in 1997.


Responsibilities and approaches for managing program collections in Australia have evolved over the past forty years, influenced by the establishment of collections in arts centres, increased interest by major libraries and advances in technology. These developments suggest that new strategies are required to minimise duplication and wasted effort.


Program rather than programme was the regular spelling until the 19th century and, according to Fowler, continues to be the preferred spelling ‘as conforming to the usual English representation of the Greek gramma, as in diagram, telegram, etc…although the British preference for programme seems to be as firmly established as the American for program’. Pepita, author of a language column in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television magazine 24 Hours explored the etymology in March 1980.

Program is the original English spelling, and was for hundreds of years the only one. About the middle of the last century, the longer form came into use, presumably taken from the French word, and became popular as the more ‘genteel’ usage. It seems to have reached Australia, oddly enough, via the USA was adopted by some of the country’s leading publishers. Some old Sydney printers used rather to enjoy confusing the issue by calling the longer form the ‘American style’, which of course it was in the history of their craft.

However, Australia’s oldest newspapers, which had begun publication when program was the only form in use, never saw fit to change their style for the sake of fashion; it remains to this day, and is used also in their modern mass-circulation magazine subsidiaries.

For some reason no longer readily discoverable, the longer form was the only one taught in most Australian schools during the early decades of the 20th century. This is no longer so; and – again for some reason not readily discernible – there seems in this country to be a fairly rapid conversion to the original spelling. The Australian Government Style Manual now requires its use in all Government publications. ABC Publications have always used the short form, as being what we considered the better English.


From the Greeks to the 19th century

The history of the program is inextricably linked with the history of the theatre poster, which began in Greek and Roman times in the form of hand-lettered drawings on walls to entice the population to theatre arenas.

In the late 16th century, essential information appeared on crude handwritten sheets called daybills, which were pasted on theatres and city posts. Then, as now, word of mouth was an important way of spreading the message: loud-voiced barkers or vexillators, accompanied by drumbeats, were employed to walk through the streets, announcing performances. From the theatre tops, flags signalled the type of play; black flag for tragedy, white flag for comedy.

With the invention of the printing press, daybills with limited information were distributed more widely and, by the end of the 17th century, larger bills or great bills, with red lettering, were produced in addition to the smaller black-lettered bills for London theatres.

In the 18th century, further details begin to appear on the daybills, including a list of actors, characters and admission price. The bills were sold with the theatres – at first by orange wenches, then by married women or by the stock old maids in theatre companies – and outside, by street urchins. The great bill – the immediate ancestor of the theatre poster – was printed after the smaller bill and was therefore more up-to-date.

The development of printing in the 19th century, particularly of colour lithography, in part led to the emergence of posters (emphasising the pictorial elements) and programs (providing the details) as two distinct and separate publications. The changes in style and format which took place during that century and during the 20th century can be studied from examples in Australian library and museum collections.

The Theatre, Sydney, 1796

The first production in Australia was George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, which was performed in a tent by a party of convicts in Sydney on 4 June 1789. Convicts also opened the first permanent playhouse in the Australian colonies - at Norfolk Island in 1793. The oldest surviving playbill is for productions of three plays at Sidaway's Theatre, Sydney, on 30 July 1796 - Jane Shore, The Wapping Landlady and The Miraculous Cure. This was printed by George Hughes on a screw printing press that had arrived with the first fleet and was presented by the Canadian Government to the National Library of Australia in 2007. The State Library of New South Wales also has playbills for productions at Sidaway's Theatre -The Recruiting Officer and Henry 1V - performed in March and April 1800, The originals are 8” long. The hand-press printing is crude. The cost of admission is five shillings.

Black-eyed Susan, 1832

Thirty-two years later, the playbill for Black-eyed Susan at the Theatre Royal, Sydney (held by the State Library of New South Wales) illustrates the extent to which the art of printing had developed. A variety of typefaces give prominence to important details. The manager, Mr Meredith, has made sure his name is larger than the others. There are references to scenery, machinery and decorations. The top seats are still five shillings.

The Carandini Programs, 1850s

Program for the Duke of Edinburgh command performance , Melbourne, 1869.

Concerts given by the Australian singer and opera impresario, Marie Carandini, were among the earliest concerts represented by programs in the Dennis Wolanski Library, deposited in 1981 by her great grandson, the British actor Sir Christopher Lee. A concert version of Lucy of Lammermoor, performed at White’s Assembly Rooms, Adelaide in 1858, was conducted by Lewis Lavenu, whose progeny included another renowned film actor, Tyrone Power.

The Carandini collection includes a gala program on silk, a style of program introduced overseas in the last decades of the 18th century. The Carandini example, on white silk with a blue lace border, was printed for the Royal Command night in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh during his second visit to Australia in 1869 – nearly one year after the attempt on his life at Clontarf in Sydney.

The program also draws attention to a benefit night for Rosina Carandini, although benefit nights, as a system of earning income, had become almost defunct by the mid–nineteenth century.

The earliest playbill held by the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts, was from England, dated 22 May 1789 – a benefit concert for Mr and Mrs Bernard at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The earliest Australian program was for “a grand promenade concert” at the Salle de Valentino, 12 December 1853.

Lorgnette and L’entracte

In the last decades of the 19th century, theatre programs predominantly took the form of a daily or weekly newspaper in which the old-style playbill was printed on the centre of the front and inside pages. These pages carry a plethora of theatrical lore, puns and gossip. The merchants, storekeepers and medicine men of the town had by this time realised the potential of the program as an advertising medium.

They carry a wealth of information about Victorian theatre:


Program for George Darrell's production of The Double Event,  Sydney, 1898

The variety of entertainment. Opera, ballet and farce were standard fare on the evening’s program with other diverse and minor attractions as well. The audience of the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on 17 November 1883, for example, was treated to: a one-act play called The Bonnie Fishwife; a concert featuring Nellie Stewart; another one act play called Cool as a Cucumber; Colonel Ike Austin, the great American rifleman who “will give an exhibition of fancy rifle shooting”; and Harlequin Telegraph! Old Mother Shipton “a pantomime burlesque with lots of fun including new tricks and effects, the magic umbrella, the inexhaustible beer jug and Holloway’s new ball costume with patent inflated headdress”.

The thrills and spills. In the program of George Darrell’s production of The Double Event at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, on 3 August 1898, for example, the management confidently state that they will provide ”the most perfect and realistic racing scene ever presented on the stage at any period or in any part of the world. In the race itself, no less than twenty thoroughbred horses ridden by professional jockeys will compete”. Before the reader lets forth a gasp of wonderment at the thought of this spectacle, the extract from the review in Table Talk should be noted: “…twenty horses rushing past is effective even if their gallop is that of the circus instead of the field.”

The hype. The audience attending the production Turned Up at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 16 May 1891 was promised a night of escalating excitement: “Act 1 is a breeze! Act 2 is a storm! Act 3 is a hurricane!” The observations of NL Parker in 1882, writing about the theatre poster, may be relevant in this context: “Accuracy is scarcely a strong point with these ‘posters’ for when seen on stage, the crowds are not so fierce, the shipwrecks a little less awful, whilst the cliff down which the hero descends in immaculate garb (without crumpling his collar) provides at least a hundred foot lower than the cliff at which the street-boys gaze full of wonder and excitement”. The admission price to Turned Up, incidentally, is still five shillings. Eighty-eight years without a price hike!

The size of the market. The Stage, a program newspaper similar to Lorgnette and L’entr’acte, sometimes boasted its circulation figure of 20,000 – useful information on the theatre-going public of the day.


Matsa Queen of Fire, 1897

Toward the end of the 19th century, theatre managements printed more elaborate and more visually stimulating program souvenirs. JC Williamson’s program for Matsa, Queen of Fire or the Apples of Isis, the Dates of Osiris and the Little People of the Mountains of the Moon – Onn and Oph - performed in Sydney at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1897, includes the libretto as well as a number of other features: a colourful and exotic cover; details of the cast and magnificent scenery etc; a synopses of scenery and events including a grand ancient Egyptian floral ballet; a startling fire ballet, the rising of the Nile (a grand and realistic screen of the inundation and rescue of Simbal’s party); a sensational aerial ballet by Miss Mary Weir; and photographs of the stars and scenes – including the rising of the Nile.

The Twentieth Century

Program for The Valkyrie, Princess Theatre, Melbourme, 1907

In the Edwardian period, a long, slim format (4” x 10”) became common, with more pages and more illustrations. The covers were occasionally in colour.

The program for George Musgrove's production of The Valkyrie in 1907 (a single sheet of heavy paper folded in the middle) provides an example of the value of programs in highlighting aspects of contemporary social behaviour. In days well before the office smoker is ostracised, “ Gentlemen are kindly requested to refrain from smoking in the foyer, accommodation being provided for that purpose on the balcony”.

This program, slim as it is, also offers interesting notes on stage effects and the duration of the performance.

"The management desire to point out that there be no cause for alarm at the fire scene at the end of the opera as no fire is used. All materials required for obtaining the effects are non-inflammable and non-combustible...The indulgence of the audience is asked by management for what is, in Australia, a lengthy time between each act. The stage settings and effects in the opera are so intricate that 25 minutes (or more) will be required to accomplish each change. It is anticipated that the final curtains will fall at 11.10pm.” The opera commenced at 7pm.

In the 1920s through to the 1950s, JCW’s Magazine Programme was a particularly informative example of the theatre program. Following the format of the long running American Playbill, its magazine section was packed with information and photographs of the local theatre and music world.


The Wolanski Foundation is continuing research on this important topic, based on its experience at the Sydney Opera House 1973-1997, reports by Paul Bentley to the AusStage performing arts gateway 2000-2001, reports relating to the establishment of a performing arts research centre in Sydney 2001-2004, work on behalf of NIDA and the Seaborn Broughton and Walford Foundation 2001-2008 and other initiatives. In 2008, the foundation assisted University of Technology student Stephanie Volkens to conduct a survey on practices at the National Library of Australia, State Library of NSW, State Library of Victoria, Queensland Performing Arts Museum, the Victorian Arts Centre's Performing Arts Collection, the Performing Arts Collection of South Australia and AusStage.

We will by making available the result of this work in the near future.


Additional sources

The Century of the Programme: an Archive of Theatre Programmes, From Their Inception in the 1860s Through Their Continuous Development to the 1960s. Romney: Motley Books, 1985.

Entertaining Australia: an Illustrated History, edited by Katharine Brisbane. Sydney: Currency Press, 1991.

Fowler, HW. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 2nd ed revised by Sir Ernest Gower. Oxford: Clarendon Pressm 1965.


Haill, Catherine. Theatre Posters. London: HMSO, 1983.

Marchant, Sylvia. Tales of a Theatre Playbill. How a small theatre playbill for the Theatre, Sydney, 30 July 1796, Australia's earliest printed document came into the National Library collection. In National Library of Australia News, December 2007

Meacham, Steve. Rough and Ready Colony Had Theatrical Flair. In the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2007.

Related articles

Australian Culture 1789-2000
Being There Without Being There: the Arts in the Age of YouTube (2012)

Catching Lightning in a Bucket: Archiving the Performing Arts in the Digital Age (2013)
Evolving Stages: Australian Performing Arts Online (2005)


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