Australia's First Printed Document and First Theatre

By Crittenden, Victor | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Australia's First Printed Document and First Theatre


Crittenden, Victor, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


Many readers have most likely read about the recent arrival in Australia of the earliest piece of printing produced in this country. It came as a gift from the people of Canada and the Prime Minister of Canada recently presented the printed sheet to the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Howard, in a ceremony in Canberra. The document is now housed in the National Library of Australia and takes its place as one of the Library's treasures.

This is another of those surprising discoveries that occur from time to time. Books and documents long since lost or have disappeared turn up in the most unlikely places. How did this piece of early printing, a single sheet, turn up two hundred years later in Canada? What was its history? The explanation is that the Canadian Archives received an old album full of miscellaneous papers and documents. An intelligent Canadian archivist spotted the document and on checking found it was indeed an 1796 notice of a performance of a play in 'the Theatre, Sydney'. Now although there is a city of Sydney in Canada the Archivist realised that it was the Australian Sydney that was referred to. Then in an incredible act of generosity the Canadian Government decided that this document, the first example of printing in Australia, should be held in Australia and Rave it to us.

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There are other aspects of this play bill of historical interest apart from being the first printed document so far identified. On the back of the document there is a note to the recipient, George Chalmers Esq., in the handwriting of Phillip Gidley King and signed by him.

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Philip Gidley King was a member of the First Fleet and founded the settlement on Norfolk Island a few weeks after the arrival of the settlers in Sydney in 1788. King later became Governor of New South Wales. This play bill thus not only tells us what play was performed in Sydney in 1796, a play well known at the time called Jane Shaw, but the note on the back informs us of the title of the play performed on Norfolk Island in 1793. It was William Shakespeare's King Richard the Third Thus we have now further evidence of the plays produced in Sydney in the very earliest days of the colony.

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Although this new find is the earliest it is not the only play bill from this early period because there are two more play bills already in Australia. They have been held for many years in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. I have written about these two theatre notices a few years ago in an article in Margin. This was in the 'Australian Shakespearean Bicentenary 18002000 edition'. This edition of Margin was produced because in 1800 the first Shakespeare play Henry IV was performed in that same theatre in Sydney. As you will note it was four years after the play recorded in our latest national treasure and as we now know seen years after the Shakespeare play produced on Norfolk Island. All this points to the difficulty in stating that something was 'the first'. I now have to revise my statement that Henry IV was the first Shakespeare play performed in Australia except that I can argue that Norfolk Island is not part of Australia, but that is a different argument. The bicentenary it seems should have been in held in 1993. There is always the possibility that we will someday discover that there was an even earlier Shakespearean play performed in Australia.

As I pointed out in my article in Margin in 2000 Australia's first printer not only printed the notices but also took part on the stage of Sidaway's theatre. George Hughes, the printer, is the only person to appear on stage in all three of the Sydney plays. It is interesting to observe that the actors in the first play Jane Shaw, that we now know about, do not appear in the two plays produced in the year 1800.

We do know a little about our first printer. He was a convict who was, according to Captain David Collins, requested to set up the old printing press brought out on the First Fleet but not used. …

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