The Academy





While Sydney may have had historical priority, Melbourne after the gold boom quickly established itself as the chief cultural city of Australia. This sub-web traces the history of theatre in Melbourne and demonstrates the depth of theatrical activity in the C19th and C20th.

See the general introduction below before using the scroll to the left to link to entries.

Unlike Sydney, Melbourne was built on undulating land, and this permitted the construction of wide streets on a regular pattern.  It was a layout which gave easy access to the city and, in the late 1840s, sizeable parcels of inner urban land could still be bought cheaply. The discovery of gold in the early 1850s then saw a rapid increase in population and gave a financial boost to the city's development. This included stimulus to the theatre district which was developing in the initially none-too-respectable area of eastern Bourke Street. 

Victoria was subject to New South Wales' legislation until it was declared a separate colony in 1859. One consequence was that, in theory, permission had to be obtained from the Colonial Secretary for the performance of locally written plays. Distance from the centre of government, however, had its advantages and control in Melbourne was in practice less restrictive than in Sydney.

In the period 1855 to 1860 the Victorian theatres were the meeting places for a young, male, well educated population, as well as providing entertainment which was seen as respectable enough even for parties from Government House to attend. These theatres were also, on occasion, the site for displays of vulgar wealth, where rowdy audiences tossed pieces of gold and banknotes onto the stage as a tribute to favoured performers.

The theatres built in this period tended to separate along class lines in their programmes and in the audiences they wished to attract. The spacious, ornate theatres, such as the Princess's and the Alexandra, concentrated on melodrama, the Theatre Royal looked for a middle class audience and the Bijou later favoured West End comedies. Melbourne entrepreneurs were soon offering tours by both American artists and the leading provincial performers of the British theatre, including G. V. Brooke and Barry Sullivan. From 1870, two rival theatrical entrepreneurs, George Selth Coppin and William Saurin Lyster, came to dominate Victorian theatre both in Melbourne and on the touring circuit.  

The gold boom, which was much more influential in Victoria than in its parent colony in New South Wales, effectively lasted until the late 1870s when it began to be replaced by the colonial land boom of the 1880s. Boom was, however, followed by economic depression after 1890, and the large and ornate theatres were not successful ventures for their owners and lessees. They were often vacant for long periods and, in September 1892, all the Melbourne theatres were closed for a time. Theatre began to revive in the mid 1890s but there was now not the money available for the spectacular productions or the magnificent buildings which had appeared in the boom years. Melbourne's larger theatres were refurbished in the years up until the first World War, but they became, and continued to operate as, part of the national chains and touring circuits. In the twentieth century Melbourne has, in addition, been the home of small, innovative, `alternative' theatres. These have included the Annual Australian Drama Nights run in 1909-1912 by William Moore, the New Theatre from the 1930s and the long-lived Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company. The post-World War two era has seen the Union Theatre Repertory Company, the Australian Performing Group and the emergence, initially through university involvement, of the now mainstream Melbourne Theatre Company.    


Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National