Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage

M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage


UQP 2006 Australian Academy Editions The Theatre was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Australia during the nineteenth century. The plays presented were for the most part plays that had been previously performed on the British stage. One of the reasons for this, apart from their familiarity to the mainly immigrant audience, was that it was not necessary to obtain permission from the authorities to present the play. It had already been approved for public performance in Britain.

Some Australian written plays were performed on the colonial stage and they had been approved by the Colonial Secretary in Sydney. Censorship was considered necessary to prevent criticism of the government and to avoid any criticism of the convict system and transportation. There was also the question of libel which was used as one of the ways the government prevented any adverse comments. Convicts were prevented from writing for the theatre and writing on the subjects of convicts and bushranging (mainly convicts) had to be restrained.

The result was that many of the plays written for the Australian stage were not on Australian subjects nor portrayed Australian characters. Historical dramas set in England or on the European continent became one of the staples of the stage. One example was the play written for Eliza Winstanley called Isabel of Valois which I have already claimed was written by John Lang. During the nineteenth century many stories were published in magazines like The Australian Journal with a medieval background influenced by the Gothic revival in architecture, art and poetry.

Some of the Australian plays which were performed in Sydney and in some of the other Australian cities have been gathered together by Professor Fotheringham and published recently by the University of Queensland Press. This is an important book because it gives the full text of the plays together with a detailed introduction. There is a general introduction as well as numerous scholarly notes through out the book and also the book contains the music which often accompanied the plays.

There are in total ten plays included in this book which is a small proportion of the plays written and presented on the stage between 1834 and 1899. Some well known names appear such as Richard Henry (Hengist) Home and Walter H. Cooper.

The first play to be presented here appeared on the stage in Hobart. Things were much freer in Van Diemen's Land and the controls operating in Sydney did not apply. Thus the first play written and published by Henry Melville was Australian in character. It was called The Bushrangers or Norwood Vale. Such a play would not have received permission to be performed in New South Wales Hence it was possible to present bushrangers on the local stage in Hobart. In fact there were three bushrangers in the caste. It is a short play in two acts. The heroine is captured by the bushrangers. She is eventually rescued by her lover whom her father dislikes but all ends happily. There are a few Australian references. It is an important play because it presents the bushrangers for the first time in Australian literature. Charles Harpur's play The Tragedy of Donohoe also on a bushranger was never performed

The second play in Fotheringham's book has not been presented on the professional stage and was not given permission to be performed in Sydney in 1843. It was entitled Life in Sydney or the Ran Dan Club by A.B.C. The Colonial Secretary said it was libellous. This was a common method used by the government to prevent freedom of speech or publication, a method first promoted by Governor Darling when his attempt to restrict the press in New South Wales was thrown out by the British Government. The play Life in Sydney is interesting because it includes actual Sydney characters like a well known auctioneer and the famous walking pieman. Much of the humour passes us by because we are unfamiliar with the characters. …

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