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.