Early Days - Colonial Drama 1788-1850
  • The colonial years of Australian drama were heavily influenced by the early settlers who strove to keep their cultural and artistic traditions alive in the new colony.
  • Most of the early works were European in nature but as time progressed, we see some Australian works making their appearance in early theatres. Interestingly, there is no evidence of plays that were written in New South Wales in the first thirty years of Australian settlement.
  • The earliest known play Les Emigres aux Terres Australes was written by a Frenchman Citizen Games and was actually performed in France for two weeks in 1792

Actors and Actor-Managers

  • Acting styles were European in nature and the early 'dignfied posture' favoured in Europe gave way to the more popular melodramatic style that favoured heightened speeches, studied gestures and noble tableaux.
  • As in Europe, we saw those that leased theatres in early Australia were actor-managers who both performed and produced their plays. They were in many respects 'jacks and jills' of the theatre, conducting both front of house business and on stage performances.
  • The first female actor-manager was an English actress by the name of Mrs Anne Clarke who was a successful actor in both plays and operas in Hobart and Sydney. Her company, in partnership with a Mr Capper, opened at the Theatre Royal in Hobart in March 1840. It was written in the Tasmanian Dispatch Weekly:

Mrs Clarke was the great attraction of the evening and we are happy to see her looking so wello and to hearing her in such excellent voice. A Criticism of the performance would be ungenerous as was the treatment the performers received from the audience, patronised by gentlemen in the boxes who would have been kicked out from any other place of amusement. (in Crawford, Hurst, Lugering, Wimmer, 2003. p. 257)

  • Clarke brought many of her actors from Europe for her productions because there was a notable absence of local artists - in 1847 she retired from her profession blaming a visiting entrepreneur of stealing members of her company.
  • Who was she referring to? George Sethh Coppin (1819-1906) arrived in Sydney in 1843, only 24 years old but he had worked in England from the time he was only seven. It was he that Clarke referred to and as students of Australian drama, it would be remiss not to note his importance on early colonial theatre.
  • Coppin built theatres as well as imported overseas actors. His theatres opened in Launceston and Melbourne in 1845 and later in Adelaide in 1946.
  • Interestingly Coppin was responsible for not only building theatres in early Australia but for a number of other innovative moves. He was said to:
  1. Introduce camels into the country as well as the English Thrush
  2. Introduced the idea of Turkish baths
  3. Introduced the idea of the Post Office savings account
  4. Introduced the St. John's Ambulance
  5. Introduced roller skating into Australia!
  • Criticism of levelled at Coppin for 'inhibiting' the development of local actors and local playwrights.

Theatre in the New Colony of New South Wales

It was in 1789 that Governor Phillip and his officers attended was the first theatre performance in the settlement of Sydney Cove: George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. The play was directed by Ralph Clark an officer in the Royal Marines.

Interesting facts about this production include:

  • There were only two copies of the script between actors
  • The cast were all convicts
  • Many of them were illiterate.
  • Thomas Keneally adaped the play for his novel The Playmaker published in 1857
  • It was also adapted for the stage by Timberlake Wertenbaker in a production called Our Country's Good
  • In 1988 it was performed for the bicentenary celebrations in Australia.

The Review of the Original Production?

I am not ashamed to confess that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the presentation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit and received the praises of the audiences.

(in Crawford, Hurst, Lugering, Wimmer, 2003. p. 259)

In 1796, one of the original cast members of the play Robert Sidaway, opened his own convict built theatre in Sydney with the play The Revenge written by Edward Young. Notable points include:

  • Payment for entry was one shilling for the gallery and sixpence for the pit or:
  • Flour, meat or spirits were also accepted.
  • The theatre was closed down after only two years because the governor of the time John Hunter argued that robberies had increased in the colony on the nights that the theatre was open.
  • During the years 1825-1830, another theatre was constructed by convicts on the Government farm at Emu Plains, 60 kilometres from Sydney. The audience were mainly convicts but the performances were patronised by some of the most respected members of Sydney society.

Barnett Levey, another worthy figure of note built the Royal Hotel in Sydney and was granted to hold balls and concerts in its saloon. A theatre was also part of this establishment with a traditional proscenium arch, green curtain and good lighting.

  • The governor, unimpressed by this passes an act to ban all unlicenced stage performance in the colony and any place allowing performances would be deemed 'disorderley' and would be fined 50 pounds.
  • Undeterred Levey went on to produce Douglas Jerrod's Black Ey'd Susan and a comedy Monsieur Tonson with leading actors of the time Mrs Love and Mr Meredith.
  • Over six hundred patrons saw the productions and the first line of Black Ey'd Susan showed the defiance to continue theatre in the colony.

I was one of the first to establish the regular drama in New South Wales, and assisted in placing it on that rock where nothing can shake it. (in Crawford, Hurst, Lugering, Wimmer, 2003. p. 260)

  • Levey went against the Governor in building a new theatre his Theatre Royal and in 1832 the new Governor Richard Bourke wrote to Levey informing him that there was no further objections to his theatre in the colony. The theatre opened in 1833 with the melodrama The Miller and his Men by Issac Pocock and a farce called The Irishman in London.
  • It was at this same theatre that the first Australian productions of Shakespeare's plays Othello and Richard III were performed.
  • Two rival theatres 'The Australian Olympic Theatre' (1842) and the 'Royal City Theatre' (1843) closed down soon after their opening.

Was was happening in Australian colonies throughout the 1800's? Below is a brief overview of some of the more notable points. I would urge you however, to explore these areas further if you are interested, particularly the early theatre of Brisbane.

Theatre in Tasmania

'The Freemason's Tavern' in Tasmania was the site of the first play in Hobart Town. Called The Stranger, it enjoyed a seven month run from December 1933-1834.

  • The leading role was played by actress Cordelia Cameron who peformed throughout the other colonies of Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne as well. Her fellow actors of the day included her husband Samson Cameron, Conrad Knowles and Francis Nesbitt.
  • The now famous The Bushrangers' by Henry Melville and The Bandit of the Rhine were both peformed at a makeshift 'Theatre Royal' in Hobart until the new theatre was built in 1837. It is still there today.
  • Local plays such as theTransportation and the Demon Discord were also staged there.

Theatre in Victoria

The colony of Melbourne was founded in 1834 and the first recorded professional production was staged in 1842 - interestingly enough, it was a Shakespeare play Othello rather than a colonial offering that was its first production. It was not until the 1850's that theatre in Victoria begain to boom.

Theatre in South Australia

Yet another 'Theatre Royal' opened in Adelaide two years after the colony was founded in 1836. However, it was only opened a short time. It was the Victoria Theatre (1838) managed by actor Samson Cameron that made the most impact - it offered a variety of theatrical forms, domestic drama, burletta, interlude and farce.

Coppin was also on the scene in South Australia opening 'The New Queen's Theatre' - a converted billiards room. Opened in 1846, it operated until 1850.

As in other colonies, the drama was light with the more intense 'dramas' being staged by visiting overseas 'stars'.

Theatre in Queensland

The colony of Morton Bay was not opened to free settlets until 1842 and this meant, we were a little slower than the other colonies in establishing a theatre tradition. The first theatre in South Brisbane was an amphitheatre which was managed by Gerorge Croft who was a local skilled tightrope dancer. Many a traveling circus and minstrel show was held in this amphitheatre.

Theatre in Western Australia

Small non professional groups were the mainstay of theatre in the Perth settlement. The remoteness of the colony was considered one of the reasons that many touring groups who would frequent Sydney or Adelaide simply would not make the journey to Perth. Earliest records document that the first public performance at The Swan River colony was a corroboree given by local Aboriginal performers in 1833 and attended by the Lieutenant Governor

The first melodramas were performed by Hodge's Hotel by amateur groups around 1842.

Early Australian Playwrights

As previously mentioned, many of the early plays in Australia's theatre history were of English origin. There were however, some local playwrights that need be noted here - it is they they provide the foundation of many of the Australian playswrights we honour and celebrate today.

  • In 1821, Australian writer Michael Howe's play The Terror of Van Dieman's Land was actually performed in England but sadly, no copies of the play can be found today in any archieve.
  • An operatic drama written by W.T.Moncrieff was also very popular in Britain - consider the chorus of the play:

We'll go and shoot kangaroos

Their skins will make rare leather breeches

We'll snare the wild cats and emews (sic)

And revel in all sorts of riches.

  • But it is Henry Melville's play The Bushrangers at that is hailed as the first play with an Australian theme, written by an Australian and performed on Australian soil.
  • Melville published the play first in his magazine called Hobart Town and it was performed in Hobart and Launceston in 1834. Stylistically, it was a melodrama in three acts with thirteen scenes. The story focused on a settler and his daughter who was saved from a bushranger's attack by her Aboriginal lover
  • Another name to note, Charles Harper, was the son of convicts and is for all accounts, the first Australian born playwright and poet. He wrote the play The Tragedy of Donohoe which traced the life of bushranger Jack Donohoe - sadly, the play was never produced.
  • The Bandit of the Rhine by Evan Henry Thomas (1835) took the theme of the bushrangers yet again for its focus. It was performed in Launceston in 1835 and in Hobart in 1836. An Irishman, Thomas was said to have also written two other plays The Rose of Wilderness and The Bandit but no copies of these plays have been found.
  • Scot David Burn was a migrant to Tasmania in 1926 - he was quite a radical who wanted representative government rather than ruling from Britain, and he wrote several historical plays, Regulus (about Ancient Rome) and The Queen's Love (about James IV and Anne of Denmark) - but it was his first Australian play The Bush Ranger which we focus on here. Performed first in Edinburgh in 1929 it is based on fact, the life of bushranger Matthew Brady who was an escaped convict. We can still find the manuscript in the The Mitchell Library in Sydney - interestingly, the play was never produced in Australia - it is suggested because it was so critical of the convict plight.
  • His other work The First Lieutenant was a two act farce and was performed in Edinburgh (1830), Hobart (1843) and Sydney (1844). His last play Sydney Delivered, a satire focused on political issues such as French Imperialism in Tahiti and the Sydney City Council - again, because of the issues it explored, it was never produced.


Crawford J. Hurst, C. Lugering, M. Wimmer, C. (2003). Acting in person and in style: In Australia. Australia McGraw-Hill Pub. Pgs.255-262






© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006