The Age of Melodrama (1870-1914)

Melodrama had become immensely popular in the Australian colonies by the 1870's and many of the productions we saw here were adaptations of novels from overseas.

Some examples of these include:

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853 (America)
  • Cumberland Mary. The story of about a girl who stole in order to be transported to Australia from England so she could follow her lover.

As time progressed in the colonies however, many other themes such as bushrangers, the Gold Rushes and life in the outbank provided colourful melodramatic content for the Australian stage.

Some notable characters associated with the development of melodrama in the theatre include:

  • Edward Geoghegan who was a medical student accused of securing goods under false pretences was transported to Sydney where he then worked as a medical dispenser in the 'Sydney Infirmary'. He loved the theatre and became friendly with actor Frances Nesbitt who was a performer at the Royal Victoria Theatre. Records suggest that Geoghegan wrote the play The Hibernian Father (1844) specifically for Nesbitt. He based the play on a book called Travels of a German Prince. He was later accused of plagiarising from the Irish play The Warden of Galway but denied ever having read it. Geoghegan went on to write at least eight more plays including The Currency Lass and The Royal Masquer.
  • Franis Belfield who was based in Melbourne and was both an actor and a playwright was best known for Retribution or The Drunkard's Curse (1849) and The Rebel Chief.
  • Walter Cooper, a Sidneysider, was a lawyer, playwright, journalist and politician. He is best known for the comedy Colonial Experience (1868), Sun and Shadow (1870), Foiled (1871) and Hazard (1871). He also wrote Fuss and A Tale of the Exhibition (1880).
  • Archibald Murray's play Forged was considered to be an historical melodrama as it includes mention of The Gap in Sydney's Watson Bay - an infamous place for suicides. Of heightened language and context, the hero in this play fights with the villain on the precipice of the cliff until finally the villain falls to his death! Murray also wrote a play about bushrangers called Fleeced (1872).
  • Marcus Clarke wrote the now famous melodrama For the Term of His Natural Life as well as Foul Play (1868) and Plot (1872). He was also known for his translations of European plays and adaptations of novels and musical plays.
  • Francis R.C. Hopkins adapted plays from historical novels and also wrote Australian plays called All the Gold and L.S.D (1884). An interesting note is that L.S.D. stood for pounds, shillings and pence at the time of Hopkins writing of the play.

Of particular interest to us here is the rather eccentric journalist, opera singer, actor and stage manager of the Victoria Theatre, George Darrell. Davell emigrated from England in 1860 and wrote about 20 plays in all. Many were popular with the public especially The Sunny South. So moved were the audience by the pathetic and heightened melodramatic scenes that it was said that the tears of those in the dress circle area poured down onto the stalls wetting those below! This play was performed in England several times.

  • Darrell wrote about 12 melodramas in all and they predominately included an English hero who came to Australia and then returned to his English home. Spectacular in melodramatic conventions, there were grand sets and scenery, elaborate tableaux, swash buckling bushrangers or gold digger heroes and of course, the courageous Australian heroines. Of interest is the way Australian heroines were portrayed as far more stoic than their English sisters who appeared overall far more pathetic and powerless!
  • His last playThe Land of Gold was performed at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney in 1907 and in 1921, Darrell's body was found washed up on Dee Why Beach. He had committed suicide aged 70.

Another colourful actor, writer and manager of the time was Alfred Dampier - he and Garnet Walch adapted the novel Robbery Under Arms for the stage. It has an impressive cast of 40 and was first performed in 1890. Dampier played the bushranger Captain Starlight and his actress wife Katherine Russell played the brave heroine Kate Morrison. On opening night, the audience was treated to comic policemen discharging pistols and blank bullets, quintessential Australian scenery, and a real stagecoach!

It was said of Dampier (he was) not only a great actor but a man who was universally loved and respected (and who) did much for Australian national sentiment. (Sydney 'Truth' in Crawford, Hurst, Lugering and Wimmer, 2003. p. 270) Other plays of merit include:

  • The Miner's Right
  • The Scout (based on 'wild American' tent shows). This show used a 10x3 metre pool with ducks, cowboys on horse (riding with reckless disregard for their own safety, discharging revolvers!) and an epic battle between the cowboys and the Native Americans on stage. This show was a huge success in 1891 playing to over 31000 people over a twelve night season.

There was also an abundance of plays about Ned Kelly, the famous Australian bushranger. Some of these were:

  • Catching the Kellys by J. Pickersgill which made ridiculed and poked fun at the police for their failure to capture Ned and his gang.
  • Ostracized by C.E.Martin
  • The Kelly Gang by Dan Berry
  • The Career of Ned Kelly and The Ironclad Bushrangers of Australia by Arnold Denham
  • Outlaw Kelly by Lancelot Booth
  • Ned Kelly by Harry Leader and Bernard Espinasse

The Early 1900's

In the early part of the 20th century, it was the 'imported' plays that were viewed as the most 'serious' dramas performed in the colonies. However, there were a number of plays written and performed in Australia that are noteworthy here.

  • On our Selection was an adaptation of Steele Rudd's 'Dad and Dave' stories - stories about two lovable larrikins and their life and times with their wives, mum and Mabel on their farm in 'Snake Gully'. This play was performed not only in Australia but in London in 1919.

There was more humor to the square itnch of 'On our Selection' than to the square fathom ofmanyh allegedly humourous plays which are hauled hitherward, at more or less expense, from London or Noo Yark. On Saturday night, an audience which packed every corner of the house, rocked with laughter throughout. A large man, with a red face, leaned his head over THE BULLETIN'S seat and gasped, "I wouldn't miss this for quids." That was the first occasion on which this paper has agreed with a large man with a red face. (Source: 'The Bulletin' in Gadaloff, 1991. p.19)

  • C.J. Dennis's long poem called The Sentimental Bloke (1915) was also adapted for the stage and was a popular offering. It was the colourful language of the 'bloke' that made this play so popular:

I'm crook: me name is mud: I've done me dash

Me flamin' spirit's got the flamin' 'ump

I'm longin' to let loose on somethin' rash

Aw, I'm a chump!

If this 'ere dilly feelin' doesn't stop

I'll lose me block an' stoush some flamin' cop! (in Gadaloff, p.19)

  • Chu Chim Chow was a musical comedy by Oscar Asche, an actor, playwright and musician. He had trained with Henrik Ibsen in Swenden as an actor and then again in London. He was an acclaimed Shakespearean actor as well and Chu Chim Chow opened in London in 1919 and had a five year successful run. It was performed in Australia in 1922.

Ministrel Show, Vaudeville and Revue Shows

These forms of theatre became popular first in the 1890's and enjoyed popularity until after World War 1.

What are some of the more notable highlights of this era of Australian theatre?

  • You will undoubtedly have heard of the Tivoli Theatre in Brisbane. Its name origins can be found in the early established Tivoli Theatre in Sydney founded by Harry Richards in 1892. The idea of the Tivoli Theatre expanded to Sydney, Adelaide and to Brisbane. Its claim to fame was to showcase imported 'minstrel' stars which were supported by Australian acts.
  • From 1916 to 1927 the most popular vaudiville comedy team in this country were Nat Phillips and Roy Rene known professionally as Stiffy and Mo. In the 1920's it was George Wallace.
  • James Brennan opened a new vaudevillean house next door to the Tivoli in Castlereagh Street in 1906 and then he moved on to present vaudeville at the Gaiety Theatre in Melbourne and then on to Hobart and Brisbane. His company was known as the Brennan-Fuller Vaudeville Circuit and when it was taken over by Ben Fuller, it became known after World War 1 as the Fuller's National Theatre.
  • Linked with vaudeville was the 'travelling tent theatre' where companies toured from the outback to the coast keeping this form of theatre alive.
  • J.C.Williamson in 1913 presented a well known revue Come Over Here as the Christmas offering at Her Majesty's Theatre in Sydney.

War to Depression

The first world war affected the flow and availability of imported artists to Australian theatre circuits and for the first time young Australians were given the opportunity to take on leading roles in theatre performances. One of our biggest stars to emerge from this time was Gladys Moncrieff ('Our Glad').

Moncrieff starred in many musicals including The Maid of the Mountains and H.M.S Pinafore.

Read the following excerpt of Moncrieff's excitement after her opening night of The Maid of the Mountains

The night was completely wonderful. The audience rose at the end and we had to take curtain call after curtain call until the tally reached eighteen. Soon, the stage was massed with floweres and I particularly remember one floral star about five feet across and a huge boomerang of flowers. Floral emblems were lavish in those days. Perhaps flowers were more plentiful than they are today. People believed in saying it with flowers then, and it was wonderful for artists to receive such tributes. In those days the usherettes would walk through the aisles carrying the flowers. It was a magnificent sight. (Source: 'My Life of Song' in Gadaloff, p.21)

The only real serious theatre in the decade preceding the Great Depression was that of Scottish actor, Allan Wilkie and Australian Gregan McMahon. In 1920 Wilkie formed his own company and toured all Australia for ten years playing Shakespeare to eager audiences.

Gregan McMahon established the Sydney Repertory Society and produced many classic but also showcased Australian plays such as Dead Timber The Time is Not Ripe by Louis Esson.



Gadaloff, J. (1991). 'Australian drama'. Melbourne: Jacaranda Press

Crawford, J. Hurst C. Lugering M & Wimmer, C. (2003). 'Acting in person and in style in Australia'. Sydney: McGraw Hill.







© Copyright Dr Tracey Sanders 2006