The story of the stage-struck thief

10 Jan

The opening night of the former convict Robert Sidaway’s Sydney theatre was 16 January 1796. Edward Young’s The Revenge (1733) was performed that evening, with a gallery audience who paid in meat and flour rather than coin. The lead role of Zanga, the Moorish villain, was played by a convict actor, his face entirely smeared with burnt cork. Most likely Zanga’s costume was in the Elizabethan style, with a starched ruff at the neck and a great plumed hat and breeches. The evening’s costumes were supplemented by ‘some veteran articles from the York theatre’, a patron observed.

The items worn by the convict actors in the The Revenge had probably been stolen from the York theatre and brought over in one of the early convict ships. According to theatre historian, Robert Jordan, a one-eyed caster of plaster ornaments called William Richards was serving a sentence in Sydney for the theft of costumes from precisely that theatre. This roguish Richards was listed as a member of Sidaway’s theatre company staff in early 1897, and as an actor there a few years later. Back in England, he had been convicted for the theft of ‘sundry articles’ of theatrical attire, but was rumoured to have stolen much more:- to wit, a pair of scarlet morocco leather buskins, a pair of linen ruffles, three black feathers, a pair of paste knee buckles, and a fat silk sash.  Since convicts brought trunks of their belongings with them when they were transported, it is possible that Richards smuggled some of these items to the Antipodes.

An artful pair of buskins

William Richards appears to have become obsessed with stealing theatrical costumes well before the heist at the York theatre which caused his removal to Sydney. An announcement in the English Newcastle Covenant in 1890 declared that he was wanted for stealing items from the Manchester, Margate and Derby theatres as well as the one at York.  He was also found hiding in the Newcastle theatre with obviously suspicious intent.

As Robert Jordan says, it is unlikely that a fellow would steal theatrical costumes for their re-sale value. There were surely more profitable enterprises.  Richard’s thefts seem instead to have been motivated by a fascination with the stage. Here, then, was a man whose very transportation was caused by a passion for the theatre, and who likely took the proceeds of his theft to the colonies in the hope of pursuing that obsession anew. And here, too, was a fitting opening for a theatre built by a former convict: a play led by a convict actor decked out in hot items cunningly spirited across the seas from York.

Source: Robert Jordan, The Convict Theatres of Early Australia, 1788-1840 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2003), 40-3, 247-50.

PS: Incidentally, Hazel Waters singles out The Revenge as a singular example of racism on the English stage in her book on that subject. A heavily-robed Zanga appears on its cover looking down viciously at his white foe:


3 Responses to “The story of the stage-struck thief”

  1. Lefty E 10 January 2010 at 5:44 am #

    Nice to see our convict forebears rescued from the enormous condescension of assumptions about crass material motives. And welcome back to the stage yourself.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 10 January 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    Thanks, Lefty E. Robert Jordan’s book on convict theatre is in fact a long attack on the condescension of posterity in this regard. He shows that far from being the preserve of officer elites or the otherwise genteel in early Australia, theatre was chiefly a convict initiative. A great point. – M

  3. Lefty E 11 January 2010 at 3:28 am #

    Indeed, its easy to forget theatres were once mass entertainments. Which of course makes studying the history of theatre a far more significant exercise in popular culture than it would be today. a point no doubt well made in certain ARC applications I’d imagine… :>

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