The Australian Literature Resource
The Australian Popular Theatre subset was established in 2006 with a focus on variety theatre of the 19th and early 20th century. It is designed to provide information on a large number of Australian-based stage artists and writers, and the scripts, designers, entrepreneurs, and others in this rich area of popular culture history which to date has received little analysis, but which is increasingly being recognised as a key site for the expression of ideas about Australian people, identities, and behaviour.
|The University of Queensland takes responsibility for the development and enhancement of the Australian Popular Theatre subset. The Australian Drama Studies Project under the direction of Professor Veronica Kelly, within the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, sees its core mission as being to document and analyse aspects of the historical record of the live stage in Australia since European settlement. The Australian Drama Studies Project auspices this subset and it is led by Professor Richard Fotheringham, with research and content development undertaken by Dr Clay Djubal.|
The Australian Popular Theatre subset will continue to evolve over time eventually bringing the coverage to the present day. AustLit welcomes contributions from scholars and specialists in the area in order to build an authoritative and detailed resource for research and general interest. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
NB: Composers of accompanying music are indicated as creators, where known.
This subset contains details about live theatre activities offered as popular entertainment, including short and not necessarily story-based stage acts (i.e. sketches, comic performances, vaudeville turns). The AustLit records cover revues, revusicals, pantomimes, musicals, burlesques, extravaganzas and other forms of theatrical entertainment. Biographical information on performers, writers/librettists, composers/songwriters, entrepreneurs, and other industry practitioners is also provided where known.
Chronologically, the subset begins with the emergence of variety theatre in the 1850s; a period when minstrelsy, pantomime and burlesque dominated the Australian popular stage. The second half of the nineteenth century saw increasing numbers of overseas performers and entrepreneurs touring Australia, bringing with them new ideas and greater levels of professionalism. Some, like Harry Rickards and J. C. Williamson eventually settled here, establishing permanent operations that, in turn, helped variety establish itself as the major creative industry in the years before and immediately after World War One. As the Australian population expanded rapidly around the country so did the variety industry, leading to the employment of thousands of local performers, managers, writers, composers, scenic artists, costume makers and other ancillary theatre professionals.
Variety eventually moved away from minstrelsy and burlesque to encompass the ragtime and jazz age, through genres such as the revusical, the follies and musical comedy. Although live popular culture entertainment began to decline as a major entertainment form in response to increased competition from film (particularly the arrival of the 'talkies') and the advent of the 1930s' financial depression, the industry continued to find other outlets. Radio and film offered the initial opportunities for work and creative expression, while live popular culture theatre maintained its presence through the nation's club circuits and revue companies like the Phillip Street Theatre . It was the arrival of television in 1956, however, that allowed variety entertainment its greatest source of exposure since late 1920s.
The re-emergence of a strong live theatre industry in the early 1970s saw the Australian stage gradually expand its creative horizons to include numerous hybrid popular culture entertainment forms, particularly musical theatre works. The 1970s and 1980s in particular were a time when the search for the 'great Australian musical' became more apparent, leading to a plethora of styles ranging from traditional musical forms to rock opera and bio-musicals like The Boy from Oz (about Peter Allen) and Shout (Johnny O'Keefe).
Although the Australian theatre industry in the twenty-first century struggles to compete against constant advances in technology, mass media entertainment and sport, this has not resulted in the abandonment of live popular culture entertainment. The Australian Popular Theatre subset continues therefore to map its practice and dissemination, not only in the Australian context but also in the international arena.
See Glossary for definition of terms used in the subset.
Until recently the popular culture theatre industry in Australia lay outside the priority interests of academics and professional historians. Much of what was known about the industry prior to the 1930s, for example, was a combination of recycled myth, unreliable memoirs (from retired industry practitioners or social observers), or piecemeal information located by historians as they researched other areas of theatre activity.
Recent research by academic theatre historians, particularly at The University of Queensland, has begun to supplement and correct the historical record, and this sub-set records their findings as a first step. There is now ample evidence demonstrating that variety theatre, for example, made a key contribution to Australian popular culture between the 1850s and late 1920s. Peaking in the years after 1916, when the First World War forced the major variety organisations to rely more on local talent, the industry not only increased its overall professional ranks, but also established possibly the first ever locally-created theatrical genre – the Australian revusical. With its performers constantly moving around the country via a network of established circuits, the industry was uniquely placed to transmit and respond to everyday issues of concern and interest, much as the television industry does today. Many of its performers became national celebrities. Some, like Nat Phillips and Roy Rene (Stiffy and Mo), George Wallace and Jim Gerald, became legends during their careers.
The initial entries in the subset have been provided by Dr Clay Djubal, based on his research into Australian-written musical theatre. This research includes the appendices to his doctoral thesis '"What Oh Tonight": The Methodology Factor and Pre-1930s' Australian Variety Theatre' (University of Queensland, 2005). Further entries have been provided by Professor Richard Fotheringham, as an offshoot of his Australian Research Council-funded project on Australian stage comedians 1915-1930.
A particular challenge for this project has been to find a methodology able to cope with the fact that popular theatre practitioners, and particularly variety artists, moved rapidly from venue to venue in city, suburb, on tour and across the country. In an attempt to chart this dispersal of activity, an attempt has been made to search suburban and regional papers and magazines and other non-metropolitan sources, rather than rely only on Sydney and Melbourne daily and weekly newspapers. A further challenge has been that city-based entrepreneurs (Harry Clay, for example) often did not advertise in metropolitan papers, preferring to rely on their own publicity including printed flyers distributed in the streets and in letter boxes, advertisements on hoardings, and publicity stunts. The archival records held in the repositories listed below have therefore been invaluable.
A particular characteristic of the Australian Popular Theatre subset is the importance of non-standard sources, such as posters, postcards, and even sound recordings and silent and early sound films, which directly or indirectly recorded the performances of variety artists and so preserved them for historical re-examination. While considerable caution has to be taken in reading film or audio performance as evidence of live stage acts, nevertheless these survivals are an enormous step forward from the script, review and still photographic evidence that are all studies of earlier Australian stage performances can be based. These include a few "Stiffy and Mo" sketches c. 1928 (the last year of their partnership) and comic topical monologues c. 1928-1932 by Pat Hanna, and songs and patter by various local stage artists, female as well as male.
This material allows us, for the first time, to examine the aural aspects of popular performance. Where possible the subset will link to this material. Where this is not possible, details of how to access it will be provided.
We particularly thank the staff of the following libraries and archives:
- Fryer Library of Australian Literature, The University of Queensland (the 'Stiffy and Mo' archive)
- Performing Arts Collection, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne (the Pat Hanna collection)
- Veronica Kelly, and her two volume indexes: Annotated Calendar of Plays Premiered in Australia 1850-1869 and 1870-1890
Richard Fotheringham and Clay Djubal
Australian Popular Theatre is a separately published work within AustLit.
No part of this work may be reproduced without permission.
ISBN 0 9750867 4 X
AustLit: The Australian Literature Resource 2004-
Australian Popular Theatre: a bio-bibliography.
ISBN 0 9750867 4 X.
1. Australian theatre - Bibliography.
2. Australian theatre - History and criticism - Bibliography.
I. Fotheringham, Richard. II. Djubal, Clay.