Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Negotiating National Identity at the Circus: The FitzGerald Brothers' Circus in Melbourne, 1892

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Negotiating National Identity at the Circus: The FitzGerald Brothers' Circus in Melbourne, 1892

Article excerpt

'What is a city? Flow do its economy, society and culture act and react upon each other?". Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne.

Throughout the 1890s and early twentieth century, the FitzGerald Brothers' Circus was the largest homegrown circus touring Australasia. Headed by two brothers. Dan and Tom. the FitzGeralds' Circus came to broad colonial attention as a result of its first huge season in Melbourne in 1892 when it played for fourteen consecutive weeks at a city site, then performed through the suburbs for ten more weeks. Other circuses visiting Melbourne in the period 1890-92 - even large international companies such as Harmston's American and Continental Circus or the Sells Brothers' Circus from America - could sustain tuns of no more than four consecutive weeks in the Victorian capital. The length of the FitzGeralds' first season in Melbourne seems particularly contradictory when framed by the prevailing socio-economic situation: the city was experiencing the worst fiscal depression in living memory and the years 1892-93 have been recognised by historians as the toughest of the depression." It was also the leanest of times for Melbourne's theatres and during this period some of Australia's best known circus organisations departed overseas or faltered due to financial difficulty exacerbated by the state of the national economy."

When the FitzGeralds set up their tents in Swanston Street next to the Hibernian Hall - now named Storey Hall - on Easter Saturday. 16 April 1892. they had arrived at a time of declining industry, contracting service sectors, and diminishing resources of disposable cash. Yet. as a direct result of their popularity and by inference, their ticket-box takings, the FitzGerald Brothers" Circus grew materially and consolidated its presence in the Australian cultural imaginary. In the twelve months following the inaugural Melbourne season, some of the continent's principal newspapers enthusiastically validated their tent as a fashionable site and as a locus for the expression of patriotic sentiment. In 1893. the circus was assigned an iconic national status by Sydney's press which construed the defining attributes of national identity in their organisation: camaraderie, collectivism, pluck. enterprise, athleticism and materialism were all discerned as part of the collective persona of the circus. Sydney's journalists promoted the notion that attending the circus was an opportunity to show consumer support for a national institution that had battled its way out of the bush.5 From late 1892, the pro-nationalist, pro-federation Bulletin broadcast the FitzGeralds" successful rise from the backblocks. via Melbourne, in terms that approached mythopoeia.''

This article brings forward the paradoxes of the FitzGeralds' first metropolitan season in Melbourne, discusses some of the entrepreneurial and production strategies mobilised by the circus, and examines ancillary cultural influences that contributed to their extraordinary success. It matches popular culture to the formation of national identity and argues that, while the circus's popularity undeniably stemmed from the merits of its programmes, the FitzGeralds also attracted patronage as a result of other contributing factors: their nationalist agenda suited the times; they successfully created community at their democratic performance site: and the escapist nature of their shows helped spectators to cope with the economic uncertainties that were unsettling social life in Melbourne.

The polilicisation of the FitzGerald Brothers' Australian Circus

First appearance in Melbourne of FitzGerald Brothers" new and greatest all-feature circus ... conic and see what Australians can do now. We brook no difficulty, nor do we care for expense, fhis is an Australian speculation, worked with Australian money. Australian brains, and Australian artists. You have just had an inroad of all kinds of circus. English and Continental. …

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