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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 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 cabbage-tree hat Powerhouse Museum Sydney‘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.