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.