Australians are forever being told that sport reigns supreme in their country, that the footie and cricket suck up so much energy that little is left for anything else. Theatre directors no doubt feel this acutely, aware that a football match can pack out a stadium when their production is struggling to put bums on seats.
Back in the days when live performance was the thing, however – the whole 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th – this seemingly yawning distinction between theatre and sport didn’t exist.
As historian Richard Fotheringham puts it, until 1930 it makes sense to think of a single mass entertainment industry, embracing sporting, theatrical (later film) and catering interests. ‘Professional sport and professional theatre were characterised by a similar entrepreneurial instinct as to what would draw a crowd’, he says.
These days, when theatre audiences are full of Mercedes drivers and designer labels, it is hard to imagine the omnium-gatherum of humanity to be found in pre-1930 venues: factory workers, shop-girls, middling families, street-sellers, and the sorts of blokes who today would watch The Footy Show while downing XXXX beer.
In addition to these heterogeneous theatre crowds, there were also entrepreneurs by the baker’s dozen who invested in theatre and sport simultaneously. Take Hugh McIntosh, for example. He was the man who built the Rushcutter’s Bay stadium in Sydney (pictured above) in which he staged the 1908 world heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns. After that fight, McIntosh made a killing selling the film rights, which he promoted by having the fighters make cameo appearances on the vaudeville stage. From 1912, too, he ran the Tivoli vaudeville circuit and staged musical shows in legitimate theatres.
This seamless combo draws attention to the obviously theatrical elements in sport as we know it today. And it also alerts us in turn to the significance of theatre in the history of Western popular culture, whether in the land of The Footy Show or elsewhere.
Richard Fotheringham, Sport in Australian Drama (Cambridge & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
See also Richard Waterhouse, Private Pleasures, Public Leisure: A History of Australian Popular Culture Since 1788 (Sth Melbourne: Longman, 1995).
For more on Hugh McIntosh, see his online entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Image of the Johnson – Burns fight from State Library of NSW via Wikipedia Commons.