The Empire Actors: Stars of Australasian Costume Drama 1890s-1920s

By O'Connor, Barry | Australasian Drama Studies, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Empire Actors: Stars of Australasian Costume Drama 1890s-1920s


O'Connor, Barry, Australasian Drama Studies


Veronica Kelly, The Empire Actors: Stars of Australasian Costume Drama 1890s-1920s (Sydney: Currency House, 2010)

The Empire Actors surveys the costumed players who bestrode the Australasian (Australia and Aoteoroa-New Zealand) stages of these newly emerging modern nations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of the imperial commerce in mores, manners and materials. It is, in brief, a study of habits and habitus; a veritable 'material stage history', as Kelly herself quips, befitting 'melodrama in its Sunday clothes'. Costume drama, an acknowledged popular genre - embracing dramatic forms as various as Shakespeare, musical theatre, Scribean plays and the newly emerging drama of ideas - is a fitting site to trace those household names who achieved their significant careers on the Australasian stages touring by steam power across vast distances from Dunedin to Auckland, from Charters Towers to the Kalgoorlie gold fields and most stops in between. Prominent among this empire of players are: Julius Knight, Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton, Minnie Tittell Brune, Maud Jeffries and Roy Redgrave. They all had careers beyond Australasia; however, The Empire Actors argues, they became stars Down Under playing for J. C. Williamson or its competition, whom 'the Firm' typically silenced by takeover or expunction.

The actors of the Australasian costume drama performed the empire's interests as its cultural capitalists, all the while negotiating their own star status with a surprisingly modernist audience eager to leam how to play out their newly emerging identities in relation to their sense of their past histories and those yet to be written.

For Australasian audiences, plays involving Napoleon, Roman emperors, Robin Hood, the French Revolution and the Valois court were not just musty legends, but vital historical emblems validating or interpreting political and social values familiar from education, visual art, literary, historical or light romance reading, popular religious tracts or newspaper editorials ... In a culture itself haunted by history, the actors of costume drama generated vital historical 'hauntings', as past and present fused in the costumed actorly image to form an eerie hybrid revenant, neither quite of the present nor totally of the past. (12)

These popular hagiographies became the stuff of amateur theatricals and costume parties, tableaux vivants and pageantic displays, private dreamings and public protests. The identification of the audiences with the heroes and heroines of the costumed melodramas of the day afforded them ready exemplars with which to make their own voices heard on the civic stage of the time. When Belgium was attacked on the eve of World War I, the figure of Belgium led the pageant through the streets of Sydney decorated in the Belgian national colours and honouring her gallant defiance of the Hun. At the Domain, Joan of Arc anachronistically led a band of Belgian Infantry, followed by Napoleon and his fellow generals, all of whom featured as characters in the popular Napoleonic melodrama A Royal Divorce, a star vehicle for Julius Knight.

The audience's use of the old Napoleonic enemy of 1815 as a new ally in 1914 was arguably due to the magnetism and impact of the matinee idol Julius Knight, the 'boy from Dumfries': the subject of the first of the major studies in this book. He brooded mesmerically as Napoleon (in A Royal Divorcé), stunned crurally as Marcus ('Legs and the Man') Superbus, whose gladiatorial performance in The Sign of the Cross foreshadowed the self-sacrificial heroes of Anzac Cove and later iterations such as Chesty Bond the Bondi Life Saver. Knight also embraced more effete masculinities. He cut a dash with his rapier in The Duke's Motto playing Henri de Lagardère, and played the dandy as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Monsieur Beaucaire in those eponymously named plays by Orczy and Tarkington respectively.

An enigma to the last, Knight controlled his on-stage and off-stage personae: keeping 'his charisma for his stage roles', he 'publicly performed the well-bred professional gentleman' in society. …

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