Born: Established: 26 Aug 1845 Pennsylvania ; Died: 6 Jul 1913 Paris
vn3524457 Marked CFB per KK download. JK 7/7/08 Copy-edited CM2, 17/2/11
Actor and theatrical manager.
James Cassius Williamson was the third child of James Hezlep Williamson, physician, and his wife, Salina (nee Campbell). They were a family of Scots-Irish Presbyterian descent. The family moved from Pennsylvania to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, around 1856, where Williamson was educated and made a clandestine theatrical debut in 1857. Attendance at a performance of The Merchant of Venice in that year led to a lifelong infatuation with the theatre. After working for various theatrical companies, he moved to New York, where he became known as a dialect comedian. His most famous roles (John Stofel in Struck Oil, Myles na Coppallen in The Colleen Bawn, and Kerry in Kerry) were all roles heavily dependent on dialect. Williamson made his name in character and low comedy roles at Wallack's Theatre in New York, where he also learnt the skills of play production and stage management.
In 1871, Williamson joined the California Theatre in San Francisco, replacing the enormously popular comedian John T. Raymond. He soon won over the critics and on 2 February 1873 married Margaret Virginia Sullivan, a talented young actress who joined him at the California Theatre. Williamson bought a one-act play, The German Recruit, from amateur playwright Sam Smith, and then paid Clay Greene to expand it into a three-act play. Williamson retitled it Struck Oil and on 23 February 1874 they starred in the melodramatic play in Salt Lake City, before leaving for Australia. It had been arranged with the actor-manager George Coppin that they would perform in Sydney and Melbourne. So popular was Struck Oil in Melbourne that it ran for forty-three nights, the longest to that date in colonial theatre. During five months in Melbourne, the Williamsons made almost £7000. They were to receive an even greater response from Sydney, where they performed until July 1875. The Williamsons then embarked on a tour of England, Europe, and the United States that lasted until 1879.
In July 1879, the Williamsons left for Australia again, purchasing the Australasian rights to H.M.S. Pinafore. Williamson took legal action to protect his rights to the operetta and later referred to his fight to establish British copyright in Australia as influential in his decision to settle in Australia (Dicker, p.93). H.M.S. Pinafore was a resounding success in Sydney and Melbourne, prompting Williamson to secure the rights to The Pirates of Penzance, which opened in Sydney in March 1881. Williamson provided a higher standard of theatrical production than Australia had ever seen before. Audiences overlooked his limited vocal capacity as he was so popular.
Williamson's long career as Australia's most prominent theatrical manager began with his lease of the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, on 8 September 1881. He had already formed his own Comic Opera Company in 1880. Thus began 'The Firm', when the triumvirate of Williamson, Arthur Garner, and George Musgrove jointly leased the Theatre Royal. The latter had been his two main competitors. Their alliance lasted nine years and brought to Australia a brilliant series of international artists. There was often criticism that they had crushed the old repertory system and made it hard for local actors to flourish.
Professional rivalry over Nellie Stewart saw Musgrove secede from 'The Firm' in 1890 but Williamson, Garner and Co. had a spectacular success with the visit of Sarah Bernhardt to Australia in 1891. Dicker comments, 'For Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide the Bernhardt visit was the theatrical and social event of the decade. Her coming did much to dispel, at least for a time, the prevalent colonial attitude of cultural defeatism' (p.123). At the end of that year, Williamson bought Garner out and George Musgrove rejoined him in 1892.
Williamson's wife left him for the actor Harry Roberts, and in 1899, he married Mary Alice Weir, a dancer. One consequence of the break up was a legal dispute over Maggie Williamson's decision to revive Struck Oil with her own theatre company. She appealed his injunction and her appeal was upheld in March 1894. Williamson never played his favourite role of John Stofel again. In 1896, Williamson risked everything on the Christmas pantomime Djin Djin, which he wrote with Bert Royle. It was a spectacular success, playing to packed houses for months in Australia and New Zealand.
Musgrove fell out with Williamson over risky London ventures and a failure to consult. The partnership was dissolved in December 1899. Williamson continued as sole lessee of the Princess's Theatre, Melbourne, until 1900 and renovated the Alexandra Theatre as Her Majesty's. A stream of imported stars continued to draw audiences and in February 1902, Williamson mounted a lavish production of Ben Hur at a cost of £14,000. Huge losses were incurred when the theatre burnt down, but Williamson had it rebuilt by August 1903. In 1904, he and George Tallis, his Melbourne manager, became partners. 'The Firm' specialised in visually sensational shows. The proprietary company, J. C. Williamson's Ltd., was formed in 1910 by Williamson, Tallis and managing director Gustav Ramaciotti. The following year it absorbed Clarke and Meynell Pty Ltd, with Williamson becoming governing director.
From 1907 onwards, Williamson withdrew from some aspects of theatre management, spending more time with his two young daughters. This did not stop him organising H. B. Irving and Nellie Melba to visit Australia in 1911, however, with the event coinciding with the jubilee of his first stage appearance. Williamson opposed an effort by local actors to form a union in 1913 and his last performance on the Australian stage was that February, in a Sydney benefit for the widows of Captain Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition. He died in Paris later that year.
As Dicker comments, 'This young American was so much better attuned to the callow colonial culture than was the usual British mentor. ... The very plays in which he scored his greatest triumphs were, in fact, the melodramas and farces which appealed so strongly to the colonial taste. To this understanding Williamson added a high degree of artistic and technical proficiency gleaned from the leading playhouses of America and England' (p.196). George Titheradge, an actor, wrote, 'You meet very good business men and you meet very good imaginative men, but the capacity of Mr Williamson to be both architect and builder of his huge theatrical structure seemed to me quite unique' (cited in Bevan).
(Sources: Ian Bevan, The Story of the Theatre Royal (1993); Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.: A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson (1974); Helen M. van der Poorten, 'Williamson, James Cassius (1845 - 1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne UP (1976): pp.406-407.
See also the full Australian Dictionary of Biography Online entry for 'Williamson, James Cassius (1845-1913)'.