Alfred Dampier was an English-born actor-manager and playwright whose career in Australia was largely carried out between 1874 and the early 1900s. During this time he was responsible for producing and premiereing a number of significant Australia plays and played an important part in helping develop the careers of many local actors.
1847- 1884: The son of a buildrer, Alfred dampier was born in Sussex and completed his education at Charterhouse School, Surrey. He began his working life in a barrister's office but after dabbling with local amateur theatre productions, he eventually decided against a legal career and turned instead to the stage. One of his earliest known engagements was with a Manchester-based theatre company headed by Henry Irving. After Irving left for London in 1866, Dampier became its leading actor. Shortly afterwards, however, he also made the move to the English capital and set about developing his craft there. He eventually graduated to lead actor status, and was subsequently invited to visit Australia in 1873 by Henry R. Harwood and George Coppin. He made his Australian debut later that year in his own adaptation of Faust and Marguerite (Theatre Royal, Melbourne), and soon afterwards formed a company made up of mostly local actors. The decision by Dampier to concentrate his efforts in Australia would, over the next three decades, not only see his organisation become one of the leading theatrical troupes operating in the Antipodes, but also make his a household name.
Dampier's considerable reputation as a Shakespearian actor gave him the opportunity to mount numerous productions of the bard's works throughout the colonies over the next few years (although none fared as well as his later melodramas, the theatrical enterprises that, in fact, became his trademark). The success he garnered in Australia and New Zealand during the mid-1870s saw him attempt to reproduce similar results in America in 1878, but the tour did not ignite much interest. He returned to Australia for a period before trying his luck on several tours through the United Kingdom. After failing to establish himself in Britain, he eventually returned to Australia, where, between 1880 and 1885, he alternated seasons in Sydney and Melbourne with occasional regional tours. During this time, he began to develop his own writing craft. His most significant collaborations were with playwrights such as F. R. C. Hopkins and journalist John Stanley James (aka Julian Thomas/'Vagabond'). Another of his successes from this period of his career was The Flying Dutchman (aka the Phantom Ship), written by his wife Katherine Dampier (nee Russell). It was first staged in 1880.
1885-1889: For some three years, beginning in 1885, Dampier settled into an almost continuous season in Sydney, first at the Gaiety Theatre and later at the Royal Standard Theatre in Castlereigh Street. Debut productions staged during the early years included his own Under the Southern Cross (1885); a collaborative adaptation with John F. Sheridan of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1886); F. R. C. Hopkins's All For Gold (1886); and another original work, Our Emily (1886). It was during his time in Sydney, too, that Dampier strove more and more to promote both Australian drama and Australian stories, not just his own works but also those of other playwrights. The strategy paid off almost immediately when he scored a significant hit with For the Term of His Natural Life (1886), a co-adaptation with Thomas Somers of Marcus Clarke's famous novel. The following year he premiered another original drama, The Wreck of the Dunbar. Dampier's activies around this perido also saw him organise a play competition as part of the country's centennial celebrations. He staged the winning entry, John Perry's The Life and Death of Captain Cook, on 28 January 1888.
1890-1908: As with many of his theatrical contemporaries, the depression of the late 1880s/early 1890s had a drastic impact on Dampier's financial resources. He was eventually forced to close down his Melbourne season in 1892 and attempted to address the situation by mounting a tour of New Zealand. This ultimately proved a disaster, however, and he subsequently entered into a brief period of insolvency. His initial reaction to this situation was to return to England and attempt to revitalise his career there, but he fared no better than the last time. Even his production of Robbery Under Arms at the Princess Theatre (London) failed to attract much positive attention from the London critics, although his acting was given much praise.
By now resigned to the fact that Australia still held the most promise for him, Dampier returned in 1894 and set about trying to re-establish his somewhat tarnished reputation. The task was by no means easy. Victoria remained a difficult place for him to tour for several years (due primarily to the fact that he had been declared bankrupt in that state), and while the rest of the country was supportive, the theatre industy continued to struggle throughout the remainder of the decade in an economic environment shattered by the depression. Added to these problems was a scandal concerning daughter Lily Dampier's private life and frequent health problems that he and his wife endured throughout their later years. Despite these problems, Dampier managed to claw his way back to the position he had commanded at the peak of his career in the late 1880s, a factor that undoubtedly endeared him to both the critics and public alike during the remainder of his professional life. Indeed, Richard Fotheringham in the Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995) notes that during this period, Dampier came to be regarded as a courtly gentleman and scholarly actor, who, although not challenging the more prosperous operations of J. C. Williamson, William Anderson, and Bland Holt, was nevertheless a sentimental favourite of the Australian stage at that time (p.180).
Alfred Dampier died in Sydney on 23 May 1908 of a brain haemorrhage. He left behind his wife Katherine, who, as an actress, had played a significant role in his career, his two daughters, and a son, the actor Alfred Dampier Jnr (aka Fred). He also left behind a significant legacy of achievement. His role in helping develop both an Australian theatrical tradition and the industry itself certainly cannot be questioned. Later prominent actor-writers such as Bert Baily and Edmund Duggan are known to have acknowledged his influence on their early careers. In addition, a number of leading actors of the era found employment with him for extended periods of time, and in turn passed on their experiences to other actors, whether as peers or as pedagogues. Such actors include Harry Leston, Harry W. Emmett, Lachlan McGowan, Carrie Bilton, Harry Sefton, J. R. Greville, Harry Stoneham, and J. B. Atholwood (father of actress Sybil Atholwood).