Maggie Moore was one of the most popular women on the late-nineteenth century Australian stage. She came to the Australian colonies from America in 1874 with her husband and fellow actor, J C Williamson. This pair immediately made their names playing opposite each other in the hit American melodrama, Struck Oil. Maggie would later play alongside Williamson in one of his Gilbert & Sullivan standards, HMS Pinafore, in the perennially successful Dion Boucicault melodramas, The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue, and in numerous other productions.
During her career, Moore was often dubbed ‘the darling of the gods’. In other words, she was the special favorite of the rowdy members of the galleries in colonial theatres (the place where the larrikins would hang out). Her signature role, Lizzie Stofel in Struck Oil, was of the daughter of an immigrant shoemaker, who spoke in a Dutch-Philadelphian accent. Any accent besides an educated Anglo one being a sure index of ‘lowness’ on the popular stage. To add to this impression of picturesque ‘lowness’, Moore’s character was given to exuberant song-and-dances, ‘full of… fun’ as the Australasian put it, dressed in servant-girl attire as she mopped her father’s floors.
Another likely reason that Moore enjoyed popularity with boisterous Australian audiences is that she was of Irish-American extraction, and often played on her Irishness. Her roles in The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue attest to this in a professional sense. And she also played on her tomboyishness. As the English opera-cum music hall actress, Emily Soldene, put it:
“I always thought Mrs Williamson was Irish, but she tells me she is Irish-American, born in ‘Frisco – a ‘Frisco girl who always wanted to be a ‘Frisco boy – stage-bitten from when, as a tiny tot, she used ‘to get inter’ [her brother] Jimmy’s pants and go ‘wid Jimmy’ into the ‘cullered pusson’s Paradise’ – the top gallery of the theatre. And when she first played parts, she wore ‘Jimmy’s pants’ till ‘Jimmy’s pants’ fitted too snug’, and she had to have a pair of her own’.
In the late-1880s and mid-90s, Maggie Moore was indeed renowned for playing a role in snug-fitting pants: that is, the English apprentice and criminal, Jack Sheppard, in a burlesque called Little Jack Sheppard. As Sheppard, she was knowingly playful with her patrons, all rakish swagger and winks to the gallery. She sang a Cockney song, ‘Me and ‘Er, ‘Er and Me’ – surely a rip-off of Gus Elen’s music-hall hit in England – to the apparent delight of the audience.
Moore was not a beautiful actress by any stretch of the imagination. She was always inclined to roundness – very round, by today’s actressly standards, and even the Bulletin made a passing quip about her stoutness in her Little Jack Sheppard breeches-role. She also had a sort of vacuous plainness of face in most photographs which give little sense of her charisma on stage. This photograph from the National LIbrary of Australia’s collection perhaps comes closest to capturing her appeal: in it, she impersonates Trilby for the eponymous hit play of the 1890s, cigarette in hand; conveying some of the sassy mischievousness which endeared her to her fans.
As Moore grew older, her star slowly waned – an old old feminine/theatrical story. She continued to act in Australian theatres and on overseas tours into the 1920s, and had a stint as a theatrical manager early in the century, but her heyday had really ended with the close of the Victorian era. Nonetheless, the fact that a fiftieth anniversary of her first theatrical appearance in Australia was celebrated in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, in 1924, is testimony to a remarkably long-running career – particularly given that by the twentieth century, female actors were routinely expected to exude youthful charm. And her popularity before the end of the century is also testimony to the extent to which popular Australian audiences at that time valued high-spirited mischievousness as a more alluring attribute for an actress than conventional beauty.
Bulletin, 13 April 1895, p 8.
Josie Fantasia, ‘Considering gender in nineteenth-century Australian theatre: the case of Maggie Moore’. Australasian Drama Studies 21 (Oct 1992): 154-168.
Richard Refshauge, ‘Moore, Maggie (1851 – 1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974, pp 279-280 (avaiable online).
Emily Soldene, cited in Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story (Sydney: John Sands,1923), 36.
John West, Theatre in Australia (Stanmore: Cassell Australia, 1978), 52-53.
In 1891, Moore and J C Williamson split nastily, as celebrity actor-couples are wont to do. Williamson would later punish her for this by omitting her entirely from his autobiography. How could he have imagined it possible to write a credible story of his life, one wonders, while not even making a passing mention of her name? Nonetheless, J C Williamson’s own fame and the influence of his autobiography has meant Moore’s abilities and her own celebrity have been underplayed in the historical memory of late-Victorian theatrical history. It was for this reason that the (wonderfully-named) Josie Fantasia wrote her above article on Moore.