Australia’s first theatre ‘critics’ were government officials. Commenting on a performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer on 4 June 1789, Captain Watkin Tench noted that some of the actors ‘acquitted themselves with great spirit’. The Judge-Advocate, David Collins, reviewing a performance in the colony’s first playhouse in 1796, was less concerned with the performances of the actors than with the unlawful behaviour of the audience. While theatrical performances continued until 1804 or 1805, they received little local publicity—perhaps reflecting successive governors’ sensitivities to the existence of a playhouse in what was intended as a place of punishment.
In the late 1820s, as the convict proportion of the population diminished, critics argued for the need to re-establish theatre as a cultural institution that provided intellectual and moral stimulation. In 1832, Governor Richard Bourke sanctioned the establishment of a playhouse. The sporadic and anonymous reviews that appeared in the Sydney press in the 1830s were often critical of the inferior performances of the actors and the rowdy behaviour of audiences. They also disapproved of some of the plays chosen. In the 1840s, the poor performances by actors and riotous behaviour of audiences continued to draw the censure of Melbourne critics, but in Sydney the emergence of a repertoire grounded in Shakespeare and opera, combined with higher quality acting and more attentive audiences, led reviewers to claim that the colonial stage had finally emerged as a refined institution.
After the gold rushes, Melbourne replaced Sydney as Australia’s theatrical centre. This period also witnessed the emergence of publications providing space for theatre material, including those that specialised in theatre programs and reviews. Both in Sydney and Melbourne, publishers of dailies like Sydney Morning Herald and the Argus also produced weeklies, namely the Australasian and the Sydney Mail. Specific theatre journals included Entr’acte (1861), Green Room (1863), Lorgnette: A Journal of Amusements (1876–98), and later, Theatre Magazine (1904–23). A number of colonial poets and novelists—including Henry Kendall and Marcus Clarke—worked occasionally as drama critics, but the most influential reviewers were Dr James Edward Neild (Australasian) and James Smith (Argus) in Melbourne and F.C. Brewer and Gerald Marr Thompson (both Sydney Morning Herald). Sara Jenny Fischer, who from 1879 wrote music and drama reviews for the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Mail, was Australia’s first well-known female theatre reviewer.
These influential reviewers were united in their conservative views. They supported the notion of high culture as morally and aesthetically superior, and believed that theatre had an important role to play in nurturing an educated colonial elite. Neild was critical of the traditional declamatory style of acting and favoured a more realistic approach.
World War I cut off Australia’s access to overseas productions, and was followed by the arrival of ‘the talkies’. Both diminished the role and influence of theatre in Australia. With the larger operations like J.C. Williamson and Fullers focusing on musical comedy and vaudeville, it was left to small, mostly amateur theatrical outfits like Allan Wilkie’s Shakespearean company, Gregan McMahon’s and Doris Fitton’s repertory companies and the New Theatre movement to perform classic and contemporary drama. Mainstream critics ignored New Theatre performances. Although they praised the repertory and Shakespeare companies for their attempts to introduce ‘intelligence and literacy’, they condemned them for their acting and production standards.
As the status of theatre fell, so did that of reviewers. (Sir) Paul Hasluck, who reviewed for the West Australian between 1933 and 1938, was regarded as the last of the classical reviewers. In Sydney, theatre reviewers wrote in the long shadow of Neville Cardus, the Herald’s music reviewer during World War II.
In the 1940s, Leslie Rees led a number of critics in lobbying for the re-establishment of an Australian theatre. He called for local playwrights to write plays that focused on their own culture and environment, but related local to universal experience. Vance Palmer and A.A. Phillips proposed the establishment of a subsidised national company as well as state-based troupes with repertoires that included Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill and the works of local writers. This agenda anticipated the direction that the Australian stage was to follow in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hugh Hunt, the artistic director of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (est. 1954), disliked Australian plays, with their plebeian language and ‘slice of life’ themes. But the Trust’s staging of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll led to an explosion in Australian playwriting and performance. It also stimulated a revival of the craft of theatre reviewing, and new journals like Nation and Theatregoer appeared. The Sydney Morning Herald brought Lindsay Browne back from New York in 1946 to review drama, music and ￼￼film, and John (‘Griff’) Griffen-Foley reviewed drama, ballet and film for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs (1954–69). Bruce Grant (1949–57) and Geoffrey Hutton (1959–74) were influential Age theatre critics.
However, the two reviewers who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as perhaps the most influential of their era were Katharine Brisbane and H.G. Kippax. Kippax wrote theatre reviews for Nation before becoming the Herald’s drama critic. A cultural conservative, he admired Shakespeare’s plays not only because of their intrinsic merit, but because they provided actors with effective training for contemporary drama. He appraised the plays of Ray Lawler, Alan Seymour and Patrick White, but was critical of the works of subsequent Australian writers. As national theatre critic for the Australian (1967–74), Brisbane exerted greater influence than Kippax, and was more radical in her understanding of the role of theatre. Brisbane accurately predicted the direction in which Australian theatre was headed. The actors and directors setting the agenda at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and the Nimrod in Sydney in the late 1960s and early 1970s were bent on breaking down the formal three-act structure and the barrier between high and popular culture. All the major companies now included Australian works in their repertoires, a development supported by the most influential critics such as the Age’s Leonard Radic. The boom in Australian theatre was accompanied by the launch of new magazines like Theatre Australia (1976–82) and Australian Theatre Record (1987–96). In the 1990s, the capital dailies began to include dedicated arts/entertainment pages.
Yet since the 1980s the influence of theatre critics has declined, a direct corollary of the blending of high culture into entertainment, the emergence of a more educated audience, the widespread view that aesthetic judgements are always subjective and the opportunities provided by the new social media for anyone to become a public critic. Alison Croggon, who reviewed theatre for the Bulletin and the Australian before being appointed performance critic-at-large for ABC Online, argues that the internet offers informed criticism and that newspaper reviewers can no longer claim to be exclusively authoritative. Critics of mainstream press reviews have also suggested that these have become uncritically promotional as a means of ensuring advertising revenue from performance companies.
REFs: K. Brisbane, Not Wrong but Different (2005); P. Parsons, A Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995).