Colonial Drama Revealed, or Plays Submitted for Approval

By Pelosi, Janette | M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Colonial Drama Revealed, or Plays Submitted for Approval


Pelosi, Janette, M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia


For most people studying Australian nineteenth century drama perhaps the last place they would consider heading for their research is State Records in Sydney. However the State archives there include the scripts of no fewer than thirty Colonial plays. The series Colonial Secretary; CGS 908, Plays submitted for approval prior to being performed, 1842-52 provides a great resource for students of Colonial drama in New South Wales. The plays include tragedies, dramas, melodramas, comedies, farces, burlesques, burlettas, operettas, a musical extravaganza and even two pantomimes. At least sixteen Colonial authors are represented, many of whom came from the ranks of actors and theatre managers.

Copies of plays were submitted to the Colonial Secretary for approval prior to being performed. This was in accordance with an Act of the Governor in Council, "An Act for regulating places of public exhibition and entertainment" (9 Geo. IV No. 14, 1 September 1828). The Act specified that: 'if any person, or persons, shall act, represent, or perform ... any interlude, tragedy, comedy, opera, concert, play, farce, or other entertainment ... without authority and license from the Colonial Secretary' that person shall be fined the sum of 50 [pounds sterling] for every such offence. Thus a theatre was required to have a theatre license, renewable each year, before it could offer theatrical performances. A register of licenses issued under this Act and the subsequent "An Act to amend the Law for regulating places of Public Exhibition and Entertainment" (14 Vic. No. 23, 1 October 1850) is also held for the period January 1829 to April 1863. The register includes early licenses for such theatres as the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney and the Queen's Theatre, Melbourne. Among the conditions of the license were that 'such plays and entertainments only as shall have been performed at one of Her Majesty's Licensed Theatres in London' could be performed [4/1710 p. 497]. By May 1847 the license also permitted locally written plays 'for the representation of which express permission shall have ... been given by the Colonial Secretary' [4/5784 p. 85].

Many theatres held collections of the plays that had been performed in them. Sadly the destruction of such theatres by fire also destroyed their collections. Indeed the Royal Victoria Theatre in Pitt Street, Sydney was destroyed by fire in July 1880. Some Colonial plays have only survived because the actors who had performed them retained a copy. Thus the survival of so many nineteenth century plays in the letters of the Colonial Secretary is remarkable. The plays themselves were sent with a letter submitting them for the approval of the Colonial Secretary. The Colonial Secretary required a copy of the play to be retained. However frequently the authors requested that they borrow the copy submitted in order to make a prompt copy. In some cases they never returned the original to the Colonial Secretary so the play has not survived. The Colonial Secretary did not approve every play and indeed not every play was subsequently performed.

One of the most prolific playwrights of the 1840s was Edward Geoghegan yet his name appears on very few of the surviving plays. He came to New South Wales from Ireland, arriving on 25 January 1840 as a convict on the ship Middlesex. He had been convicted on 6 June 1839 of 'obtaining goods under false pretences'. He was transported for seven years. One of the conditions of the early theatre licenses was that if the licensees 'shall employ, permit, or suffer any convict whether under a temporary remission of sentence or otherwise, to act, perform, or appear on the stage of the said Theatre at any time ... then ... this License shall be and become absolutely null and void' [4/1710 p. 498]. Hence the plays written by Edward Geoghegan were submitted under the names of the actors or managers of the theatre where they were intended to be performed.

Edward Geoghegan wrote to the Colonial Secretary in 1846 submitting his play The Jew of Dresden for approval. …

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