Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'Does All Melbourne Smell like This?': The Colonial Metropolis in Marvellous Melbourne

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

'Does All Melbourne Smell like This?': The Colonial Metropolis in Marvellous Melbourne

Article excerpt

MELBOURNE became marvellous in 1885, when George Augustus Sala appealed to the vanity of the colonial city with a series of articles that included one entitled 'Marvellous Melbourne'--indeed Graeme Davison asserts that the colonial inferiority complex of the time ensured that 'if London's Mr Sala said Melbourne was "marvellous", then marvellous it surely was' (30). The combination of Melbourne's desire to eclipse the other colonial cities in terms of prestige, the knowledge that it was prospering in the current land boom, and the preparedness of the local population to believe an assertion that their city was internationally renowned all helped to cement the phrase 'marvellous Melbourne' into popular usage. Nineteenth-century theatre was often quick to capitalise on the public's appetite for celebrating itself, so it is little wonder that a play entitled Marvellous Melbourne should be written and performed some four years after Sala's essay was published. It appeared on the stage of Melbourne's Alexandra Theatre in January 1889 for an unusually long season: from 19 January to 1 March.

Although Sala's use of the term 'Marvellous Melbourne' was designed to praise what was often seen, at the time, as the premier city of the Australian colonies, the play uses the term sarcastically to describe the seedier side of Melbourne's urban life. When the New Chum, Charles, says to the villain, Robert, '"I say, old chappie, what sort of a place is Melbourne?"' he is told, '"Sala called it Marvellous. (laughing) But don't meander into the Yarra Bend, don't take up your residence in No 2 Boiler, Queen's Wharf, and don't trust your food to the Eight o'clock rush or you'll be disappointed"' (Marvellous Melbourne I,i). When the same characters are in an opium den, Melbourne seems much less than marvellous:

CHARLES: The howid smell seems to get thicker and thicker dontcherknow.

ROBERT: Nonsense you'll soon get used to it.

CHARLES: Does all Melbourne smell like this?

ROBERT: Sometimes.

CHARLES: Perhaps that's why Sala called it Marvellous sMelbourne. (Marvellous Melbourne II,i).

This 'Marvellous Smelbourne' joke was popularised in the late nineteenth century by the Sydney Bulletin, largely because open drainage was still a feature of Melbourne life. But more generally, nineteenth-century audiences in Australia, and indeed many parts of the industrialised world, were fascinated by images of urban low-life, including crime, poverty, and the underworld. Marvellous Melbourne taps into this strong literary, journalistic, and dramatic tradition of representing images of social depravity. In addition, as an 'urban sensation' melodrama, Marvellous Melbourne was part of a strong theatrical tradition: presenting images of life in the world's industrialised centres. This essay will discuss the play's literary, journalistic and theatrical precedents, and consider them in relation to the emphasis placed by enthusiastic audiences on the local.

Marvellous Melbourne was not the first urban melodrama to show Melbourne itself on stage. Its predecessors include The Streets of Melbourne (produced in 1863), which acknowledged that it was a localisation of Dion Boucicault's famous play The Poor of New York. Notwithstanding the success of such adaptations, the attempt to establish a national theatre tradition had proved lucrative for Alfred Dampier, with plays such as For the Term of His Natural Life (1886), Robbery Under Arms (1890), and To the West (1898). By this time in his entrepreneurial career,

   Dampier ... had a success[ful] formula: local colour, broadly drawn
   local types, plenty of rollicking comedy, panoramic scenes of bush
   beauty spots and city landmarks with a generous amount of spectacle,
   and an appeal to new-found nationalism in the prestige staging of
   dramatized 'classics'. (Williams 156-57)

These plays propagated the type of agenda that was advocated by the Bulletin; they offered a romantic view of the bush. …

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