The poor state of knowledge currently relating to pre-1930s Australian variety theatre is reflected not only in the huge gaps in the history of even the most prominent minstrel and vaudeville companies and practitioners of that era, but also in the large number of erroneous conclusions contained within the published history. Two case studies will be included within this dissertation's broader study of the variety industry between circa 1870 and 1930, demonstrating that that Australian theatre history has failed to properly account for variety theatre production during a period when, as Charles Norman succinctly calls it, 'vaudeville was king.' The purpose of this thesis is therefore to argue first, that the methodological approach taken by historians to date is inadequate for dealing with variety industry activity both on a national scale and at a level of operations below that of the Tivoli circuit. The second purpose is to propose an entirely new methodology - one which allows historians the ability to uncover substantial new evidence about the organisation, personnel, and creative product of that industry.
One case study addresses the absence of any sustained research into the partnership of Nat (Stiffy) Phillips and Roy (Mo) Rene, arguably Australia's most influential and significant comedy duo of the first half of the twentieth century. The thesis demonstrates that much of what currently stands as knowledge about their onstage relationship is wrong, particularly the assumption that Mo was the dominant comic and Stiffy the straight man. The second case study identifies several erroneous conclusions that als exist today as historical fact. The issues examined here relate to the generic form and structure of the 'revues' staged from World War One up until the late 1920s. The research undertaken clearly shows that these productions were not a sequence of songs, dances and sketches carried out under some umbrella theme but were instead narrative-driven one act musical comedies - initially referred to in the industry as 'revusicals.'
At the core of this dissertation's hypothesis is the realisation that historians need to engage with the variety industry on its terms - by responding to the infrastructure and social networks through which it operated - if they are to gain insight into its production and reception as popular culture entertainment. As a result of this new methodological approach it has been possible to track the movements of hundreds of performers as they criss-crossed the county (some over several decades), thereby providing new reserves of data and historical insights previously unattainable to historians. The evidence supporting the dissertation's conclusions is contained not only within the thesis itself, but also as part of several extensive production and biographical databases reproduced in the Appendices section. This evidence also makes available for possibly the first time in more than ninety years, four original Stiffy and Mo scripts written by Nat Phillips, including the first two productions ever staged by the troupe.