Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

'Very Scanty Covering for the Chocolate Body': The Art of Burlesque and the Fijian Cricket Team in Australia, 1907-1908

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

'Very Scanty Covering for the Chocolate Body': The Art of Burlesque and the Fijian Cricket Team in Australia, 1907-1908

Article excerpt

Press accounts of public appearances by the Fijian Cricket Team that toured Australia in 1907-08 expose broader social trends in contemporary understandings of commercialised sport, popular entertainment and male sexuality. The centrality of the Fijians' apparel to the sexual display within their performances suggests that the team fused humour with a desire to appeal to the massive crowds that patronised their matches - upward of 9,000 spectators at some games. By simultaneously appropriating a national game - cricket - the team engineered a forum for entertainment that confronted Edwardians with illustrations of raw power, physical prowess and near-naked Fijian masculinity. To this day, these reports offer vivid examples of how the team enticed Edwardians with performances combining sport, ethnographic display, and titillation.

The Fijian Cricket Team arrived in Sydney aboard the Atua on 4 December 1907.1 Ostensibly a tour designed to showcase a series of 'exhibition games' between December 1907 and March 1908, the team's on-field performances in reality evolved into remarkably popular public displays featuring Fijian dances, chants, and sacred and secular songs in full traditional costume.2 It is the contention here that this display of cultural exoticism contained plural performance genres. Such was the plurality of the team's on-field and off-field presentations during the course of their three-month Australian tour that the Geraldton Guardian claimed: 'We shall see the Fijians on the oval during the day and on the boards during the night'.3 Contemporary press accounts report that during exhibition matches Fijian cricketers - wearing full traditional garb - would remove articles of dress as part of a collective performance during the course of on-field play. The removal of clothing in a choreographed manner may be defined asa 'burlesque' gesture in a performance denoting the ambiguities of identity. Edwardian audiences developed such an appetite for the performances of the Fijian cricketers that one publication quipped: 'Their every movement has been carefully noted by curious crowds which combined the kindliest feelings of friendship with their crazy curiosity'.4 While spectator interest undoubtedly united amity with a healthy dose of 'crazy curiosity', closer examination of the remaining ephemera makes possible another reading of their popularity: that the tour itself was deliberately planned to create and manipulate interest among Edwardian audiences for the 'novelty' of witnessing seminude Fijians 'in native costume'.5 It would seem that Edwardian audiences attended matches anticipating viewing the Fijian body in various states of undress in spite of the Fijians' regular appearances in liturgical services and reported significance 'as trophies of Methodism's great missionary effort'.6

Among the team's 1907 contingent were two Fijian Princes: Ratu Penaia Kadavu Levu, theVunivaluofBau.and his cousin, Ratu Pope Epeli Seniloli Cakobau, as well as one non- Fijian, Australian-born Edgar John Marsden 'the only white member of the team'.7 The team played their final Australian match in Sydney on Monday 30 March 1908.®

THEATRE AND SPORT?

Fijian team manger George Vasey Allen (1860-1913) single-handedly revolutionised the arena of the cricket-ground in showcasing the Fijian Cricket Team's potential as a public and theatrical attraction.9 Allen's conception of theatre in many ways echoed John Russell Brown's contention: 'When you go to the theatre, it is like being present at a game: neither you nor anyone else knows exactly what you will see'.10

Allen incorporated the Fijians' exceptional performance skills into large-scale ethnographical displays of on-field 'Fijian-ness' - occasionally billed as 'Open-Air Entertainments' and 'Promenade Concerts'.11 The Fijians' capacity to excite what Hobart's Mercury described as a 'remarkable a degree of curiosity' contributed to redefining the pitch as the stage for a specific genre of burlesque-like theatrical entertainment. …

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