‘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.
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 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.
Charles Conder (1868-1909) is regarded, along with friends and colleagues Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, as the finest Australian Impressionist artists. Born in Tottenham, Middlesex, U.K. Charles Conder was a bit of a rebel. His strict civil engineer father disapproved of his artistic bent, and sent the 16 years old Charles to Sydney in 1884 to work for his uncle as land surveyor. Charles Conder, however spent more time drawing landscapes than surveying them, and in 1886 he left his uncle’s employ and started working as an ‘artist’ for Illustrated Sydney News. After meeting Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he moved to Melbourne, sharing a studio with Streeton and Roberts. Arthur Streeton, ten years Conder’s and Robert’s senior, was a significant influence on both. Whilst the time they all spent together was relatively short, just 18 months, nonetheless, this type of artistic collaboration produced many of their best works. Despite early studies of beach scenes in Sydney it is A Holiday at Mentone that marks not only the first major success of the then 20 year old Charles Conder but also the beginning of Australian artists capturing the unique beauty, splendour and light of Australian beaches. A Holiday at Mentone has often been called a ‘celebration’. This is not only because of its light ‘holiday’ theme and tone but also because it was painted and exhibited as part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 1888. Furthermore, the painting is highly regarded for its composition and colours. The influence of the American artist James Whistler is possible due to the white and mauve bridge that effectively cuts the painting into two halves; but there is so much more to be gleaned when examining the painting closley. There is also the discernable influence of the then popular Japanese Aesthetic Movement, as well as popular Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. The Japanese influence can also be seen in the up-turned red parasol, and as art critic Jane Clark has noted, the calligraphically-like seaweed. However, despite all this brilliance, as well as the celebratory nature of the painting I find there is something a little disturbing about this painting. Despite the brightness the respective characters are not in summer clothes. Furthermore, no one seems to be actually communicating. The seeming asleep man at the centre of the painting seems more dead than asleep; the discarded red paper, like the red parasol, hint as something lost than something gained. Furthermore, the couple at the front of the painting are distant – an argument perhaps? The figures in black add to this unsettling tone. The elderly couple nearest the gentleman are watching the couple – concerned parents? Whilst the remote black woman with a child behind the woman reading could be a nanny with the couple’s offspring. The seaweed hints at something fractured rather than ordered. The painting, for me, starts to take on a similar complexity to Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), or Stephen Sondheim‘s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) with the expectation that any second someone is going to state – ‘It’s hot up here!’