I spent another week at Mitchell Library, Sydney. That strange velvety dust from old paper on my fingers; crick in my neck as I leant over the laptop hours on end. There were boxes and boxes of old playbills and posters, some crumbling hopelessly as I turned them, and scrap albums in which theatre buffs had carefully glued reviews, usually (infuriatingly) with no indication as to date or city. What a humbling thing it is to pick over cryptic remnants of the past like this, residuum of other people’s preoccupations and hopeful enterprise. Sometimes it makes me feel hopfeul as well – how wonderful, that people have been creating and striving and toiling all this time, and how wonderful to be able to participate in it now – and sometimes it feels almost horribly plaintive: time to fend off fatalism and melancholy.
At the moment I haven’t really been looking at mystic theatre per se. I’ve been trying instead to give myself an education about popular theatre in late nineteenth-century Australia at large: burlesques, variety shows, minstrelsy, and to a lesser extent, pantomime. This is partly because of how caught up I became in writing and researching my paper on larrikins for the AHA conference in Armidale (I loved writing that paper). And it’s also how keen I am now to write one more specifically on larrikin women, looking at the ways in which they used variety theatre characters as an inspiration for their own identities and style.
I’m not sure yet whether this is going to end up taking me in a slightly different direction to the one I’d planned for this project, but I figure I will follow where the interest takes me for the next little while. And it’s here at the moment: in the attempt to visualise nineteenth century popular theatre, its restless, chaotic, open-ended and interactive character, so different from anything I know, and which, I’m convinced, was far more important to Australian culture than I’ve been thinking up until now.