‘Hokusai Morning’ – Maslin Beach, South Australia.
THE RISE OF THE AUSTRALIAN ACTOR: George Coppin (1819-1906)
George Selth Coppin (1819-1906) has been called “the father of Australian theatre” (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 1939). Whilst this may be disputed, nonetheless, George Coppin was one of the prime movers in establishing a professional theatre in Australia in the mid-colonial period. In many ways, he could be called 19th Century Australia’s ‘greatest showman’. As Sally O’Neill states, ‘Undoubtedly his enterprise was irrepressible; the business of entertainment suited his talents but, more important, he had an ingrained love of the theatre. He acted to make money but he found a stage in many other spheres.’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
George Coppin was born 8 April 1819 in Steyning, Sussex, England. His father, George Selth Coppin, was the son of a clergyman who gave up his medical studies to become an actor, and subsequently was disowned by his family. Hence, George Coppin was born into a theatrical family and started performing (with his sister) from the age of six. From 1835 he was working in the English provinces and at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he established himself as ‘first low comedian’. It was also in Dublin he met Maria Watkins Burroughs, nine years his senior, and they lived together from 1842-1848, Maria accompanying Coppin on first adventures overseas.
In 1842 George and Maria decided to leave the UK, with a choice between the USA and Australia. On a toss of a coin, they decided on Australia and arrived in Sydney 10 March 1843. From this point and for the next fifty years Coppin’s fortunes were like a rollercoaster, going from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’ several times. He worked in Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide, either as an actor-manager, or hotel owner. He created a number of theatres and hotels, including the Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, and the Semaphore Hotel, which gave the Adelaide suburb its name. It was also in Adelaide, in 1848, that Maria died.
In 1851, after going ‘bust’ again, he left for the Victorian goldfields, and whilst he did not find gold, nonetheless, he earned a considerable amount performing for the gold diggers. In 1853 he returned to Adelaide, paid off his creditors, and returned to England. He worked successfully in London and the provinces, and it was whilst working in Birmingham he met Gustavus Brooke (1818-1866), one of the leading British tragedians of the time. He engaged Brooke for an Australian tour and had a pre-fabricated ‘Iron Theatre’, specially built for the tour. In a way, Coppin’s ‘Iron Theatre’ prefigured popular ‘pop-up’ theatres in the 21st Century.
This marks the beginning of ‘international’ actors touring Australia. Whilst there had been a number of English and American actors touring Australia, the Coppin-Brooke partnership truly marks the successful touring of Australia by internationally renowned actors. These included Gustavus Brooke, Joseph Jefferson, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, and Maggie Moore and J. C. Williamson.
From 1858 Coppin also established a political career that lasted off-and-on until 1895. Time and space does not allow for any elaboration on Coppin’s political career, other than stating that it was relatively successful and he was a valued member of the respective Victorian parliaments and legislative committees on which he sat. It is, however, in his ‘off’ political years that Coppin furthered Australian theatre. This included acquiring the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which unfortunately was burnt to the ground in 1872. As the Theatre Royal was uninsured Coppin went ‘bust’ again. Nonetheless, he formed a committee and rebuilt the Theatre Royal. It was in this period that he also performed in the USA where he met J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore, and in 1881 engaged them to perform in Australia.
Suffering from gout from 1868, Coppin announced his retirement from the stage; an announcement he kept making for next twenty-odd years. He embarked on numerous ‘farewell’ tours in Australia and other British colonies but did not give up the theatre until the mid-1880s. His later years were mainly concerned with his political career, as well as developing the Victorian seaside suburb of Sorrento, where he lived with his family. In 1855 Coppin had married Harriet Hilsden, Gustavus Brooke’s widowed sister-in-law. Harriet died in 1859, and subsequently, Coppin married one of her daughters from her first marriage, Lucy Hilsden, in 1861. Coppin had three children from his first marriage, three daughters, and seven children from his second marriage, two sons and five daughters. Except for one daughter from his first marriage, Lucy and the other children survived him when Coppin died in 1906.
This brief sketch doesn’t really do justice to the incredible life of George Coppin. As an actor, he specialized in ‘low comedy’, but was also successful in ‘classical’ works, such as Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Bob Acres in Sheridan’s The Rivals, Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Launcelot Gobbo in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The contemporary Australian critic James Smith described Coppin’s talent and ability to successfully portray “the ponderous stolidity and impenetrable stupidity of certain types of humanity—the voice, the gait, the movements, the expression of the actor’s features, were all in perfect harmony with the mental and moral idiosyncrasies of the person he represented, so that the man himself stood before you a living reality”. This suggests that there was an acute sense of observation of real life, and a kind of early ‘naturalism’ in Coppin’s characters, albeit in essentially heightened comic roles. This is complemented by his theatre-manager-director insistence on ‘correct costuming’ for his characters and productions (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
As well as building theatres, including the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, establishing new methods of advertising shows, and bringing international artists to Australia, Coppin also helped to establish copyright legislation for playwrights in Australia and was one of the first to advocate for a ‘school of acting to develop Australian acting’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
Coppin also advocated and brought camels to explore the interior Australia, some of the camels that Coppin imported were on the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition (1860-61). Whilst owner and manager of the Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, he arranged for the first aerial balloon ascent over Melbourne and helped to introduce English thrushes and white swans to Australia. This is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the truly remarkable George Coppin.
This series of post is about the identity of the Australian actor. It is partly based on recent public lectures I recently delivered at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra.
Currently, many Australian actors enjoy considerable national and international acclaim and success; however, whilst generally unknown and unacknowledged this has always been the case, from the colonial period to present day. Former posts have been about The Genesis of the Australian Actor, focusing on the convict performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in 1789, and how many features of that performance have their resonance in the modern world and instrumental in the formulation of the character and identity of the Australian actor. This series is focused on highlighting some of the most exceptional 19th and early 20th Century Australian actors who achieved national and international success and played a significant part in the forming of the Australian actor. Due to time and space, this is highly selective and only gives a hint at the diverse and extraordinary range of Australian actors and their respective careers.
Shakespeare wrote that actors enact the abstract and brief chronicles of the times (Hamlet). Whilst this is true it also relates to other crucial aspects about actors and acting. Relatively, no actor is remembered beyond his and her own times, unless they achieve an iconic status that reaches beyond a particular career. This series is partly designed to draw attention to the great but now largely forgotten Australian actors of the past. Why should we care? T. S. Eliot was once challenged by a young student with this question – Why should we study people from the past when we know so much more than they did? ‘Exactly,’ replied Eliot,’ and they are what we know.’
Acting is a highly emotional art form, attracting and triggering strong responses. We often talk about actors in highly emotional terms – “I love that actor” – “I hate that actor” etc. Whilst there may be a number of reasons for responses, one is that a particular actor triggers and sparks an individuals imagination and others do not. This involves the appeal (or not) of a particular on-stage (or on-screen) persona, their unique artistic identity. This can be defined by examining three particular areas:
TALENT – is what the actor is blessed with. It can be very difficult to define, as Constantine Stanislavsky stated, but we know it when we see it. Generalizing, an actor may have a great talent for comedy, or drama, and if particularly talented can do both. The most versatile actor is what in Musical Theatre terms is called the triple threat. This is the actor who can Sing, Dance and Act – such as Hugh Jackman. What is remarkable about the Australian actor is that many of them, past and current, enjoy this particular talent.
TECHNIQUE – is associated with skills. Just as there are many different types of actors, so too are there numerous techniques that assist the actor to unlock creativity when inspiration fails. In the US the so-called ‘method’ and its derivatives are naturalistically based and is something in which the American actor excels. All the contemporary Australian actors who have found success in the US and UK essentially have a technique and skills that complement this.
TEMPERAMENT – this is associated with particular stories and characters in which the particular actor is interested and excels, and in which complements their unique talent and technique. Subsequently, it is closely associated with a public persona – on-stage and off-stage – and is what we generally come to expect from a particular actor. This may be ‘personality’ based, in that it is essentially just one persona, or is ‘transformational’ and has radical variations. In US terms, is the actor a ‘movie star’ or an ‘actor’? They can also be both – such as Nicole Kidman. The question is – does the actor remain within a particular genre or ‘personality’, or does the actor work in numerous genres, aiming for ‘transformation’ – like Nicole Kidman.
As previously stated time and Space does not permit for me to go into great detail about the great Australian acting pioneers. There are, however, a number that I wish to highlight, who in many ways encapsulate and represent the evolution of the Australian actor throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century. These are – Eliza Winstanley, George Coppin, J. C. Williamson, Maggie Moore, Nellie Stewart and Oscar Ashe. All these actors were triple threats (and more), and all enjoyed national and international acclaim and success.
ELIZA WINSTANLEY [O’FLAHERTY] (1818-1892)
Eliza Winstanley has the distinction of being the first Australian actor to achieve international success. She was the first Australian actress to appear and have a successful career in the UK and USA.
Eliza Winstanley was born in England in 1818 and emigrated with her family to Australia in 1833. Her father, William Winstanley, was a scene painter and decorator at Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal, the first successful professional theatre in Sydney, and it was here that she made her professional debut in 1834. She married the actor-musician-writer Henry Charles O’Flaherty in 1841 and henceforward acted under her married name – Mrs. Eliza O’Flaherty. With her husband, she also worked as a theatre manager, primarily at the Olympic Theatre in Sydney. Along with another female Australian theatre pioneer, Anne Clarke (c. 1806-1847), Eliza Winstanley brought a new level of respectability and social acceptance of actors into the growing cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart.
Despite beginning in the operatic and musical theatre it soon became apparent that her particular talent and skills lay in the world of classical theatre and popular melodrama.The melodramas were of the blood-soaked horror kind, such as Madeline the Maniac, the title suggestive of the extreme emotional characters in which she excelled. She was the first to appear on the Australian stage as Shakespeare’s Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as scoring considerable success as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Hal Porter in his Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965) cites critical responses to ‘this tall, dark-eyed, lively, comely, and intelligent girl. With her “agreeable form”, “rich voice”, “graceful deportment”, and countenance susceptible to strong expression”, she quickly became Sydney’s favourite actress.’ She also attracted negative responses – ‘Miss Winstanley is too affected and making improper use of the letter “h” ‘, and “if she had not displayed such a wish to be in heroics she would have succeeded better’.
Eliza Winstanley’s bold theatrical and personal temperament is suggested by two incidents. In 1840, whilst she and her sister Anne were walking home after performing they were accosted by a group of young men who wore ‘cabbage tree hats’ as a symbol that they were ‘native’ born. The Winstanley girls were regarded as English and not ‘native’ born, and subsequently were seen as inferior. Previously they had been heckled numerous times with profanities whilst performing on-stage. This night a young teenager called Charles Davis threw his ‘cabbage tree hat’ at Anne Winstanley’s feet, which Eliza Winstanley then kicked out of the way. Davis then threatened to kick them ‘for attempting to tread on the cabbage tree’. When this came before the authorities Davis changed his story, stating that he would have kicked them ‘if they were not women’. This incident was reported in the Sydney Monitor (1 January 1841) and was also dramatized for the Sydney stage by Henry Charles O’Flaherty, in a number of sketches – Thespis in Austalia: or The Stage in Danger – in which O’Flaherty appeared as ‘Knight of the Fiddle, and Champion of the fair Eliza’, stroking ‘the place where his beard should be’ and claiming that he received a black-eye in the incident. This was followed by a poem The Battle of the Cabbage Tree, which was a satiric parody of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It is possible that these dramatic pieces were part of O’Flaherty’s wooing of Eliza Winstanley as they were married the following month on 6 February 1841. (Australian Plays for the Colonies 1834-1899. Ed. Richard Fotheringham. University of Queensland Press. 2006. 49-50).
Another example of her independent spirit and temperament is the minor scandal she caused in 1842 when she appeared as Richard III in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Whilst it was not uncommon for women to play male roles in the early Australian theatre, mainly out of necessity, nonetheless, for many contemporaries, this was far too audacious for the times.
In 1846 she and her husband went to England, and after appearing with a number of provincial theatre companies she made her successful London debut at the Princess Theatre, London. In 1848 she also successfully toured the USA. She was the first Australian actress to appear and achieve success in the London and New York theatre. Back in London in 1850 she played leading roles with Charles Kean’s company at the Princess Theatre, establishing herself as one of London’s most popular and successful actresses of the time.
This success was due not only to her particular talent, skill, and temperament but also to the changing theatre scene in London. After considerable pressure, the 1843 Theatre Act dissolved the previous 200 years old monopoly of Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket theatres, subsequently allowing for more than 20 new theatres in London. One of these was Charles Kean’s Princess Theatre. Furthermore, the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert loved Kean’s epic productions of Shakespeare so much that they had a permanent box at the Princess Theatre. As Hal Porter states, Kean’s productions were ‘tastefully opulent, archaeologically correct to the minutest detail, with hundreds of supernumeraries including horses and hounds, spectacular scenery, and hand-picked casts in which Eliza Winstanley shone’. (Porter. 25).
In 1848 Queen Victoria revived the staging of a Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle by invited companies. For Eliza Winstanley this led to another ‘Australian first’. Eliza Winstanley was the first Australian actress to take part in a Royal Command Performance; playing for the benefit of the young Queen Victoria and the royal family the role of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals. She subsequently appeared in many other Royal Command performances; as well as touring extensively throughout the UK and the rest of the world. As Hal Porter states, ‘Possessed of inexhaustible vitality, without which no actress in that age of body-breaking stage labour and grisly traveling facilities could survive, she toured widely: Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston – playing the Cape as she came out, and Canada as she returned – France, Germany, Italy, and even Russia. enacting the Shakespearian roles by which she had earned her fame.’ (Porter. 25).
In 1865, at the age of 47 years old, she retired from the stage and took up writing, successfully publishing over the next 15 years 33 novels, as well as her own autobiography Shifting Scenes in Theatrical Life (1864). Significantly, most of her novels were set in Australia, including For Her Natural Life: A Tale of 1830 (1876), which was her ‘proto-feminist’ re-working of Marcus Clarke’s popular convict novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1870-72).
In 1880 Eliza Winstanely (O’Flaherty) she returned to Australia. After initially staying with her sister Anne in Geelong, she moved to Sydney, where she died of ‘diabetes and exhaustion’ in a house on Clarence Street December 2, 1882. She is buried in Waverly Cemetery, right next to Henry Lawson.
Eliza Winstanley [O’Flaherty] was quite an extraordinary actress, person, and pioneer. What is significant is not only her wide and diverse and internationally successful career but also what her artistic identity represents in regard to the character of the Australian actress. Independent, intelligent, strong, determined, expressive, bold, and, as Hal Porter stated, possessed of an inexhaustible vitality. Such characteristics could equally apply to many, and many of those are modern Australian actresses – but Eliza Winstanley was the first.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Actors’.
4. The Actors
We do not know the names of the convict actors who performed The Recruiting Officer. What we do know is that ‘some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praise of the audience’ (Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales. London. 1793. 25). Furthermore, they had no higher aim than ‘humbly to excite a smile’ (David Collins. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. London. 1798). It may, however, be assumed that they were amongst the few who could read, and possibly write. It may also be reasonably assumed that they may have seen in England a production of The Recruiting Officer.
Subsequently, whilst speculation, they may have modeled their performances on the current style of the acting in the English theatre in the late-18th Century. This is exemplified by such actors as David Garrick (1717-1779), Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), John Phillip Kemble (1757-1823), and Dora Jordan (1761-1816). It is quite possible that the convict actors may have seen these popular actors, particularly Dora Jordan who was the leading comic actress of the time.
The acting style may have been illustrative and demonstrative, complementing the relatively ‘romantic’ and ‘sentimentality’ of contemporary popular tastes. However, in regards to these convict actors’ performance, any excessive gesturing may have been somewhat restrained due to the intimate ‘One-Room’ performance space of a small convict hut. One over-excited hand wave may have knocked over a candle and the whole place would have gone up in a blaze
What also can be assumed is that the convicts were an ensemble of ‘amateur’ actors.
In modern Australia ‘amateur theatre’ is the largest and most diverse of theatrical activity and engagement in the country. Furthermore, whether it be in a high school or university production or with a local amateur theatre company, this is where most Australian actors begin.
‘THE PLAYMAKER’, ‘OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD’ & ROBERT SIDAWAY
Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker (1987), and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s stage adaptation Our Country’s Good (1988) is about this convict production of The Recruiting Officer. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play has been successfully staged throughout the world, is still being produced, and is particularly popular with drama schools.
In Keneally’s novel and Wertenbaker’s play, the convict actor Robert Sidaway (1758-1809) is a member of the cast for The Recruiting Officer. There is no proof that this was the case, nonetheless, despite speculation, it is quite possible as Robert Sidaway has the distinction of being amongst the first of recorded Australian actors.
Robert Sidaway was born in London in 1758. By 1782 he had been identified as a notorious thief, was convicted of ‘grand larceny’, and sentenced to death. This was commuted to transportation, and hence Sidaway found himself as part of the ‘First Fleet’ on the ship Friendship.
Sidaway was a ‘trickster’. During the voyage to Port Jackson, his name was recorded by Lt. Ralph Clark on two occasions and was put in ‘irons’ for ‘impertinence’. Whilst it is unknown whether or not he was a member of the convict cast of The Recruiting Officer, nonetheless, his name reappears in 1789, being involved with the hanging of Ann Davis, the first woman to be executed (for theft) in the new colony. In 1792 Sidaway received a conditional pardon and a full pardon in 1794, with a contract to be a baker for the resident troops.
In 1796 he opened a 120 seat theatre in Bell Row (now Bligh Street), Sydney, with the permission of Governor John Hunter. He put on Nicholas Rowe’s The Tragedy of Jane Shore, which was followed by other, including a revival of The Recruiting Officer. Unfortunately, Sidaway’s theatre was closed in 1800, being regarded as exerting a ‘corrupting influence’ on the fledgling town of Sydney.
During the brief period in which Sidaway’s theatre operated, he produced an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be staged in Australia. Like other contemporary adaptions of Henry IV it is reasonable to assume that this adaptation focused primarily on the popular character of Falstaff.
David Malouf in his 1998 Boyer Lecture – A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness contends that Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the one that best encapsulates the nature of the Australian character. Similar to Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer Falstaff is a clever, witty, and mercurial ‘trickster’. It is possible that these roles, and their perceived relative popularity, mark the beginning of the Australian ‘larrikin’ character. Furthermore, dramatic ‘trickster’ characters are notorious for their mercurial characteristic and qualities, being able to adapt and exist in multiple worlds, high and low. As will be later discussed in future posts, this mercurial, anti-authoritarian, ‘trickster’, ‘larrikin’ character will become a major feature of the Australian actor, nationally and internationally, as exemplified by such Australian actors as Snowy Baker, Errol Flynn, Mel Gibson, and Hugh Jackman.
This concludes this series on The Genesis of the Australian Actor. To re-cap – these are the elements regarding the convict production of The Recruiting Officer that still have an influence today:
- Modern satiric comedy that is relevant, particularly reveling in ‘trickster’ characters.
- The Event – that festivals complement the highest and most diverse theatrical activity in modern Australia.
- ‘One-Room’ Theatre – that intimate performing spaces are the most common throughout Australia, producing a cultural habit and expectation in regards to Australian acting that is intensely physically and emotionally immediate and intimate.
- Amateur Theatre – that the unknown convicts who performed in The Recruiting Officer in 1789 were amateur actors, and that amateur theatre is the largest and most diverse form of theatrical activity in modern Australia, and is where most professional Australian actors begin their respective careers.
This may the ‘Genesis’ of the Australian actor – but there is so much more – which will be explored in future posts.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Performing Space’ and the influence of ‘One-Room’ Theatre.
3. The Performing Space – ‘One-Room’ Theatre
The anniversary of his majesty’s birthday was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of the Recruiting Officer was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am 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 countenance of the sixty persons, of various description, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales. London, 1793. 25.
Watkin Tench’s eye-witness account of this first theatre performance in the new colony is one of the very few that exists. What can be gleaned from Tench’s account, however, is of considerable significance. Previous posts in this series have highlighted the choice of the play, George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy, The Recruiting Officer, and its immediate ‘modern’ relevance to the contemporary audience, and that it complemented an ‘event’. Both these issues are still relevant and influence the formulation of the Australian actor. Of even greater significance and influence, however, is that the play was performed in a convict hut, with mud walls, and ‘three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles. This is, in modern theatre parlance, intimate theatre – ‘One-Room’ theatre in which the demarcation between audience and actor is relatively minimal.
The above images are derived from a later period, nonetheless, they give the impression of what convict ‘slab-huts’ were like – they were not very big at all. It was in such a place, however, in which the convict production of The Recruiting Officer took place – intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre and performing space.
In the English theatre, it wasn’t until the mid-18th Century that the lights in the auditorium in a theatre were turned down, creating what is known as ‘Two-Room’ theatre, with a clear demarcation between auditorium and stage. This was a French theatre innovation that was taken by David Garrick and introduced to English theatre, partly in order to quieten the audience, to make them passive observers and focus on the action on-stage. By 1789, however, this innovation was still relatively new.
Watkin Tench’s account references the rather improvised design of the production. It is easy to overlook the fact that the particular items cited – three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles – were actually precious and relatively rare commodities in the new colony. There was no printing press to churn out paper, nor was there an ready and easy supply of wax for candles. In relative terms to the dreariness and dejection of their situation, this was an expensive production; a marvel that it even went on at all.
The play was performed under candle-light, which was also common practice in the English theatre. This is a much softer light on actor’s faces, and subsequently often demands heavier and more defined make-up. In an intimate performing space, candle-light can also influence gesture and physical expression; any overt and reckless gesture could knock over a candle and the whole theatre could have gone up in a blaze of fire.
‘One-Room’ theatre demands and exerts a considerable influence on the physical nature of performance. There is a physical, and subsequently emotional, intimacy between actor and audience. Over the years, and centuries, this steadily become a ‘cultural habit’ – and is very much a part of contemporary theatre practice. Whilst the larger proscenium arch ‘Two-Room’ theatres play a major part, particularly for commercial theatre (i.e. musicals), most Australian actors begin their careers and acting experience in intimate ‘One-Room’ theatres. The very immediacy and physical presence inform the acting style and approach – and this began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
Throughout Australia in major cities and in regional communities, there is a plethora of intimate ‘One-Room’ performing spaces. These can be school halls or old buildings that have been converted into theatres. Examples include The Stables Theatre in Sydney, which originally was an old stable for horses, as well as The Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, which originally was an old bakehouse, and the Powerhouse Theatre in Brisbane, which was an old electrical powerhouse. There are many others – including the La Mama Theatre in Melbourne, the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, the Blue Room in Perth, and Whilst all the major subsidized state theatre companies have proscenium arched ‘Two-Room’ theatres, they also have smaller intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre performing spaces.
Subsequently, the ‘cultural habit’ and influence of ‘One-Room’ theatre is firmly entrenched. Audiences and actors are accustomed too, and very often prefer the physical and emotional intimacy of ‘One-Room’ performing spaces – and this ‘cultural habit’ and legacy began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Event’.
2. THE EVENT
This production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was arranged and performed as part of an ‘event’ – in honour of King George III’s birthday. It is highly likely that Governor Arthur Phillip and the rest of the ‘First Fleeters’ had no idea that by this time King George III had succumbed to the first in a series of serious mental health battles, which quite possibly was the generic disease ‘porphyria’ that has plagued other members of the British royal family. Besides, the approximately 1,500 people who made up the ‘First Fleet’, convicts as well as officers, free settlers and their respective wives and servants, had their own concerns – mainly survival in a strange and hostile land.
Lieutenant Watkin Tench (1753-1833) was a Marine officer with the ‘First Fleet’ and provided one of the few eye-witness accounts of this production of The Recruiting Officer. Tench wrote, ‘That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced will not be wondered at’ (Trench – A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales (1793). 25. Tench’s comment reflects the genuine concern and fragile position that faced the ‘First Fleeters’ in establishing the colony. There were only copies of two English plays that accompanied the First Fleet – George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the sentimental The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714) by Poet Laureate Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718). Considering the difficulties, the ‘dreariness and dejection’ felt by Tench and one can assume by many others, Governor Arthur Phillip wisely chose Farquhar’s comedy to honour King George III’s birthday.
The complementary matching of theatrical performances with respective events is still very much a part of the annual modern Australian theatre scene. It is notable that the occasions in which there is the most heightened theatrical activity occur during the numerous festivals throughout Australia. This includes the Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Darwin Festivals – plus others – such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, which is the second largest in the world.
Furthermore, a number of festivals are targeted towards specific audiences, similar in a way to the target audience of The Recruiting Officer – the respective Marine officers and their wives. Examples include The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Festival, and the Oz-Asia Festival in Adelaide.
In conclusion, whilst a number of Australians are regular theatergoers, nonetheless, it would seem that Australian audiences really love ‘events’ with theatre attendance soaring during such ‘events’ like the annual festivals, combined with and complementing the vast range and diversity of productions that can be seen and experienced in these respective ‘events’ and festivals. Many of these productions are in ‘site-specific’ locations, such as the convict production of The Recruiting Officer, which is the subject of the next post in this series. Whilst it may be somewhat romantic (and theatre is a romantic world), the combination of heightened theatrical activity and events helps to produce a ‘spirit of play’ in the formulation of the character of the Australian actor.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Play’ itself.
1. THE PLAY
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was a popular ‘Restoration’ comedy that had been first produced in London in 1706 and had remained in regular performance throughout the 18th Century. It concerns the social and sexual exploits of two officers, Captain Blume and Captain Brazen, in the rural country town of Shrewsbury, and the recruitment of soldiers from the local farming community with the ‘trickster’ Sergeant Kite to assist them.
One of the central tenets of ‘Western’ theatre is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), that ‘the purpose of playing’ is ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’; that the theatre is a reflection of life and the human condition in all its myriad forms. More often than not this a reflection of immediate contemporary life – as was the case with this convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
What does the title – The Recruiting Officer – suggest? This is a play involving the military, and subsequently, it had an immediate contemporary relevance for its elite audience of Marine officers and their wives and the ‘free settlers’. Recruiting was something they would have all be very familiar with, particularly being often enforced by the notorious “press gangs’. Furthermore, as Humphrey Hall and Alfred J Cripps state in The Romance of the Sydney Stage (1996) it is more than likely that the convict actors were dressed in borrowed clothing from the officers and their wives. Somewhat ironically, the convict actors were dressed as their jailers.
In modern theatre parlance, this would have been a ‘modern dress’ production of a relatively old and ‘classic’ play. This issue, plus the immediate relevance and topicality of the play has remained a relatively common feature in Australian theatre, film, and television – we like our dramatic works to be ‘modern’. Whilst we certainly do ‘historical drama’, nonetheless, for the most part, Australian audiences like their plays/films to be of immediate contemporary relevance.
This is particularly evident in the numerous ‘modern’ dramas and especially in satiric Australian ‘comedy of manners’, exemplified by the plays by David Williamson (amongst others), of which Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971) remains the most popular. Other examples include Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) and Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White (2017). Subsequently, Australian actors are not only distinctively ‘modern’, reflecting their times, but are also experienced and skilled in ironic and satiric comedy. The mischievous ‘trickster’ character of Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer is arguably the first in a long line of ‘larrikin’ characters.
The next installment in this series on The Genesis of the Australian Actor will look at The Event, and how similar events and festivals are those which are the most heightened times of theatrical activity in Australia.
STAR WARS VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017) is the latest film in what is arguably the most successful and influential modern film series of all time. The imaginative power of STAR WARS is thrilling and exciting. Subsequently, expectations are high for any new film, especially after the success of the previous film STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), directed by J.J. Abrams.
This latest installment, written and directed by Rian Johnson, has all the right ingredients – engaging characters and thrilling action scenes, beautifully designed and filmed – and yet has attracted a certain level of disappointment. What is the reason for this? The following is my attempt to explain the possible cause in what otherwise is a very successful film. Essentially, it deals with audience expectations about heroes, and how in this case that expectation has been radically denied. Significantly, The Last Jedi doesn’t really have any heroes – not in the conventional ‘Star Wars’ form. The only exception possibly being the mighty Chewbacca who at least does something active and positive and successful in the course of the film. This is unlike his fellow original cast members, R2D2 and 3PO, who play no significant role in the film narrative and are little more than extras.
Who is ‘the last Jedi’? Well – from the build-up you would expect it to be Luke Skywalker. However, there are a number of other contenders who also have essential ‘force’ to be a Jedi warrior. Mark Hamill is terrific as the now older Luke Skywalker, and his return to the series is as welcome as was Harrison Ford’s and Carrie Fisher’s in The Force Awakens. However, all the potential heroes in this film, except for Chewbacca, have some deep-seated psychological problem that prevents them from being a hero. Everyone is flawed in one way or another; they are either naive, reckless, impotent, frustrated, deceitful and/or suffering from some form of repression/depression. They all need a good session on a psychiatrist couch. This is despite the action that is going on around them.
This film is very busy in regard to action, and some of the action sequences are truly thrilling. The final battle sequences on land and in space are terrific, but the journey to this is odd. Everyone has a problem that prevents full engagement with the action; exemplified by the brief but wonderful appearance of the character Maz Kanata, who is fighting off disgruntled union representatives about which we know nothing about.
Most of the characters are presented as passive-aggressive. They are noble, committed, but constrained by either outside forces or internal ones. It seemed at times that Luke had a touch of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in him, as for most of the film he was relatively inactive. I did like his first appearance – being offered the sacred light-sabre and the quickly tossing it over his shoulder – that made me giggle. I thought – ‘Great’ – a bit of self-effacing humour to keep us alert; but that type of gag disappeared pretty quickly. Chewbacca, however, had a couple of moments with the new furry penguin-like critters called ‘Porgs’ who plagued him and the ‘Falcon’. Chewie to the rescue – again!
I started to realize pretty quickly that this film would be different from the others. It has a frustrating element to it that is slightly annoying – at least to me and very annoying to others. For example, the rather pointless sub-plot involving the destruction of a tracking beam that dominates the middle of the film and includes a number of major characters – Finn, Poe, Rosa, and BB8, as well as a new character, the codebreaker DJ, played by Benico del Toro. It is easy to be frustrated by this sub-plot even though it does contain a couple of good action sequences, such as the chase on the casino planet Canto Bright. You feel frustrated by the ultimate failure of this mission – all that effort wasted, and you can’t help feel manipulated because it would seem the whole purpose of it all was to ensure that Finn and Rosa are on the same First Order space ship as Rey and Keylo Ren as they battle it out for Luke Skywaker’s light-sabre after Keylo Ren has killed the Supreme Leader. Again – this sequence,set in an all red set is rather exciting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere – and how does Chewie rescue Rey from all this anyway???
Carrie Fisher is, of course, wonderful as Princess Leia, and it is heartbreaking to watch her knowing that she died so soon after filming her main scenes. Like the ‘stars’ in this film, such as Benico del Toro and Laura Dern, there is a charismatic appeal. With Carrie Fisher, as well as Mark Hamill, we have a history that adds to the depth of these characters. Unfortunately, neither Luke nor Leia actually do very much – although the final light-sabre fight between Luke and Keylo Ren is terrific – with echoes of the fight between Darth Vader and Obie One in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977).
No – the only true hero in The Last Jedi is Chewbacca. He is active from the very start – breaking down the door of Luke’s grey-brick island hovel. In the final battle sequence, he brings in the Falcon to draw off the First Order Fighters, somehow collecting Rey along the way. This also echoes the sudden reappearance of the Falcon with Hans Solo and Chewie at the climax of A New Hope. It is due to Chewie that the ineffective resistance fights manage to escape. Go – Chewie!
It should be pointed out that there are a number of new actors in these familiar roles – such as Jonas Suotamo taking over from Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. Fair enough – this is 40 years on from the first film, and Peter Mayhew was still involved as ‘advisor’. There is also Jimmy Vee as R2D2. Only Anthony Daniels as C-3PO remains the sole actor who has appeared in all the Star Wars films.
I did enjoy this film, but I can understand the frustration and annoyance of others. Passive-aggressive heroes are always problematic as due to whatever problem they become essentially ineffective and a little tedious, constantly bemoaning their downtrodden state rather than just getting on with it – like the heroes in the original Star Wars series. However, they were the products of the Baby-Boomer generation, aimed at those (like me) who in 1977 were still teenagers and at the tale-end of the Baby-Boomers. The new 2017 heroes are far more passive-aggressive – and this is reflected in Rey, Finn and the others in this new series of films. It isn’t bad – it is just different – but does take a bit of adjusting too in regards to expectations. These characters are not the same as the original Luke, Leia and Solo et al – the only true remnant of that period is Chewbacca – Go Chewie!