To exorcise the ghost of Dion Boucicault

5 Dec

When the playwright Dion Boucicault visited Australia in 1885, theatre managers told him everywhere he went that colonial audiences weren’t up to scratch. ‘You must not regard our audiences as if they were a West End public’, they said. ‘They range between Peckham Rye and Whitechapel’. Whether managers really told him this or whether Boucicault simply said they did is an open question – Boucicault was in the business of making up stories, after all, and not exactly the most scrupulous fellow in town. Either way, the rank snobbery of this statement almost takes the breath away. God forbid that one’s taste should fall somewhere between Peckham Rye and Whitechapel!

To the privileged Londoner exquisitely honed to social distinctions based on suburb (the kind of reader Boucicault was presumably addressing through this statement), the idea of living between the plebeian regions over the Thames to the south and the pulsing heart of the city’s East End conjured images of irredeemable vulgarity. It evoked people who chomped on food with their mouths open, who guffawed at dumb jokes and thought Uncle Tom’s Cabin at their local theatre was the best thing they’d ever seen. The theatres and music halls around Peckham were seen as dingy, gaudy places, given to coarse melodramas or full of people ‘ready to be pleased with dull songs, hoary jokes, stale sentiment, and clap-trap patriotism’. Those of the East End were more base and unwholesome yet, if the lurid posters advertising their content and snide reviews by bohemian critics were to be believed.


Dion B. and wife (Hutton Archives/Getty Images)

One of the reasons that Dion Boucicault looked down his nose at Australian theatregoing was the fact that all of the colonies’ key theatres in 1885 had to cater to socially heterogeneous crowds. The size of Australia’s population could not support anything like the network of neighbourhood venues one found in Victorian and Edwardian London, most of which drew a more locally-based clientele. The audiences attracted to theatres like the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel were not all of the one stamp, of course – London’s East End was more socially mixed than its reputation as a den of iniquity implied. But venues such as Brisbane’s Gaiety Theatre or Sydney’s Royal Standard Theatre catered to even more of a social melange. The dense workers’ suburbs of Spring Hill, Petrie Terrace, and Woolloongabba, honeycombed with boarding-houses and cottages on tiny lots, were all in easy walking distance from Brisbane’s Gaiety Theatre, located on the site of the old School of Arts in Adelaide Street. Going to see variety shows and the occasional melodrama at city venues like the Gaiety was an important part of one self-confessed larrikin’s life in the 1890s: he walked in from where he lived with his family in Red Hill. Such larrikins and others of little funds would buy seats for the Gaiety gallery, crammed up beneath the ceiling of the auditorium, sitting cheek by sweaty cheek beside other patrons on long benches high above the stage. But the Gaiety’s central location and the scarcity of other large-scale productions meant that Brisbane’s more affluent citizens also flocked to its shows, arriving by carriage or train and buying seats in the more spacious circles or boxes below.

When catering for this hotchpotch of patrons, colonial venues such as the Brisbane Gaiety or Sydney’s Royal Standard Theatre dished up a rich stew of attractions. This was also true of the various Theatres Royal in the larger cities: the barn-like Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, as with those in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. It was not at all unusual for such venues to show opera one week and a blackface minstrel show the next, before switching to melodrama or light comedy. This heterogeneity presented difficulties for anyone wishing to categorise the social character of colonial audiences. Perhaps it was for this reason that English commentators were encouraged to speak derisively about them, reducing them all to a kind of gelatinous mediocrity. As the London critic Evelyn Ballantyne assured his readers in 1892, there were three qualities which summed up Australian audiences. Three things, and all of them started with ‘p’ – wait for it: Puritan, Provincial, and Philistine.

When I was at the University of London Royal Holloway for an Australian Studies conference not too long ago, the director of Jacaranda Theatre, Debra Low, spoke about her company’s performances of Australian theatre in London. She still had to contend with a certain snobbery towards Australian culture and theatre in London, she said. But a lot of it was in her head rather than expressed by the patrons who came to see Jarandah shows. I guess, as Australians, comments such as  Ballantyne’s still die hard – even if they were made as far back as the nineteenth century. It is hard not to imagine that Australian theatre is still being placed between Peckham and Whitechapel, even if one rejects the negative connotations attached to those localities. But that’s why I hope to catch a Jacaranda Theatre production when I next go to London for a Victorian Popular Theatre conference in April next year – to find out that most of it is in my own head, and thus exorcise the ghost of Dion Boucicault.

Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1890, cited in Benny Green, ed., The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion (London: Pavilion, 1986), 34-5.

Evelyn Ballantyne, ‘Some Impressions of the Australian Stage’, Theatre (London) 19 (1892), 186.

Dion Boucicault, cited in Harold Love, ed., The Australian Stage: A Documentary History (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1984), 102-6.

Ronald Lawson, Notes for a PhD Thesis, 1970, Fryer Library, University of Queensland, F407.

Ronald Lawson, Brisbane in the 1890s: A Study of an Australian Urban Society (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1973), 100

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