Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Gender-Bending: Lady Emilia Don in Tasmania, 1862 and 1865

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Gender-Bending: Lady Emilia Don in Tasmania, 1862 and 1865

Article excerpt

Many leading ladies of the nineteenth century stage have attracted significant biographical attention from scholars in the field of theatre history. Lady Emilia Don, however, remains largely forgotten, even though evidence of her Australian tours suggests she was a highly acclaimed figure of the stage during the 1860s. Her two visits - first with her husband in 1861, and then again as 'name' star in 1864 - were widely publicised for a variety of reasons, and examining her Tasmanian publicity in 1862 and 1865 offers a valuable point of entry for analysing the reasons behind this fascination. A number of important events occurred in Tasmania that coloured perceptions of Emilia as a public figure and these, in turn, influenced her engagement with colonial audiences and her relevance to community culture. It is the aim of this article to shed new light on Emilia's significance by examining why aspects of her tours were reported by Tasmanian media men in such sharp detail. Revisiting the content of these colonial artifacts offers a rare glimpse into the professional life of one of the most popular visiting actresses of the 1860s, as well as addressing a longstanding gap in scholarship acknowledging Emilia's remarkable performances of gender.

Lady Don was apparently born Emilia Eliza Saunders,1 the eldest daughter of London actor John Saunders,2 sometime in the 1830s. She likely initiated a theatrical career prior to assuming her title, but there is little press to verify her stage activities prior to marrying a minor baronet-cum-actor, William Henry Don, on 17 October 1857.3 This could imply that her skills were unremarkable, although it is more likely that she only attracted historical interest after her marriage into minor aristocracy. One English writer of the early twentieth century claims that Emilia made her stage debut in Liverpool on 21 February 18594 thanks to her husband, but this seems unlikely considering she hailed from a theatrical family. Another English historian, G. Rennie Powell, wrote in 1919 that Emilia appeared alongside William on the Bristol stage during the 1858-59 season, and that between them the couple 'introduced two new items, "The Evil Genius" and the Farce "The Tragedy of the Seven Dials'".5 Early twentieth-century theatre writers in Australia have helped to reclaim part of Emilia's past before her marriage. A manuscript written around 1910 by Humphrey Hall and Alfred J. Cripps claims that 'in 1854 Lady Don, then Miss Emily Saunders, was playing with a stock company at the Queen's Theatre, Great Brunswick Street, Dublin'.6 Although Hall and Cripps also pay more attention to her husband, this piece of Emilia's past is a welcome addition to what stands as an obscure and incomplete picture.

That Sir William Don was a colourful character of pedigree, probably explains why historians fail to regard Emilia as a serious figure in her own right, although it is true that his circumstances greatly influenced hers. The 7th Baronet, Sir William Henry Don, was born in Scotland on 4 May 1825 to the 6th Baronet, Sir Alexander Don and his second wife.7 Biographical accounts claim that William was 'Page of Honour at the marriage of Queen Victoria',8 and that as an adult he served as 'a lieutenant in the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1843, and extra aide-de-camp to the Lord lieutenant of Ireland in 1844'.9 William married a German called Antonia Lebrun of Hamburg in 1847,10 and the union produced a daughter to Lebrun," although the couple (apparently) divorced. Don was called as a witness by the salacious Lola Montez, Countess of Landsfeld, at her 1853 trial for the assault and battery of the then prompter of the Varieties Theatre in San Francisco, George J. Rowe.12 Later, Don spent time in a debtor's prison. He wrote to the American dramatic superstar Joseph Jefferson while he 'languished' in the Ludlow Street jail in the United States in 1851, suggesting 'Come and see me. If you have not been in this establishment it will be quite a treat for you. …

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