Perhaps best described as a 'burletta', this two-act theatrical adaptation of Pierce Egan's picaresque novel of 'fast' city living, Tom and Jerry: Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1820-1821) was one of many staged in England and Australia during the 1800s.
The plot in this version begins with the arrival of Jerry Webber in the colony. Upon being made a member of the Ran Dan Club, he is taken under the wing of Tom King and Bob Logic. The three make their way from Macquarie Place (where Tom wins a £50 bet) to the Shakespeare Tavern. They join a fight between the 'Cabbage Tree Mob' and the police, go to a ball, visit an auction mart, and later find themselves at The Rocks, where one can 'see life as low as ever you did in St Giles in London' (qtd Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama, p.61). Three young women who are keen on the Ran Danners disguise themselves as sailors in order to follow them, which leads to a sing-a-long. The police cut this short, another fight ensues, and the men escape. They talk next of going to the theatre, at which point Logic says to Jerry, 'my dear fellow, the Victoria is really a tolerable good theatre, superior to many in London... some of our native talent, and of those who never saw a theatre but a Sydney one, may vie with those who have been born as 'twere upon the stage' (qtd Rees, p.61). The final scene, set in a court house at Woolloomooloo, sees the three women 'bagging' their men. It ends with a jolly chorus.
Although there is no record of any production of Life in Sydney having been staged until the 1970s, it serves to demonstrate, as Margaret Williams argues, just how little leeway a local playwright was allowed in depicting the often none-too-salubrious realities of life in colonial Australia (Australia on the Popular Stage, p.22). The burletta was submitted in late August 1843 for the Colonial Secretary's consideration, as required of all new works, but it failed to gain approval because no one had claimed authorship of the work. Rather, someone had signed the letter (with an almost illegible signature) on behalf of the author. A second letter was forwarded immediately following the rejection, this time signed by Henry O'Flaherty on behalf of the still anonymous author. The Colonial Secretary's reply indicates, however, that no approval would be sanctioned because it contained 'matter of a libellous character, independently of other objections' (qtd. Williams p.24).
The original letter to the Colonial Secretary, a copy of which is held in the New South Wales Archives, claims that the burletta is a localised adaptation of the W. T. Moncrieff operatic extravaganza about London low society, Tom and Jerry, or, Life in London (1821). The Australian version, as Margaret Williams notes, 'seems an innocent enough localisation of Moncrieff's burletta, to which it makes continual reference almost as if it were a play within a play' (p.24). However, as Williams further indicates, the original play, 'a light-hearted version of the town and country mouse fable, enlivened with a few topicalities, takes on a much more pointed and specific edge in the smaller, more circumscribed world of Sydney in 1843' (p.25).
There is some conjecture over the identity of the author of Life in Sydney. Helen Oppenheim claims in 'Colonial Theatre: The Rise of the Legitimate Stage in Australia' (Mitchell Library, MSS 3266, ca. 1960) that the play was written by H. C. O'Flaherty. Margaret Williams similarly proposes that he was the likely author (Australia on the Popular Stage, p.191). Their argument is largely based on an analysis of O'Flaherty's correspondence with the Colonial Secretary which shows a similar handwriting style to his manuscript for the drama Isabel of Valois. Williams also notes that O'Flaherty, then a young violinist and actor, was employed at the Royal Victoria in 1843. This ties in with an inscription on the NSW Archives manuscript, which records, 'written expressly for the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney, July 31st 1843'. Leslie Rees points to the manuscript's subtitle, 'A Burletta in One Act, by F.O.C.H.,' suggesting that the initials are very likely the reverse of H. C. O'Flaherty. Rees surmises, however, that because the letters are circled and scribbled out, others may well have been associated with the writing of the burletta (p.60). The names of those whose involvement has been suggested include James Tucker and Isaac Nathan.
Graham Pont has put forward composer Isaac Nathan's name as one of the burletta's authors. He proposes that the connection 'is almost certain' because Nathan claimed to have been the originator of Life in London and would have had a personal stake in the adaptation. Furthermore, a number of the actors who were to appear in the production are also known to have been closely associated with him during his time in Sydney (ctd. 'Abstracts of Papers', Theatre History Conference, University of NSW, 1998). The link remains somewhat tenuous, however, as Nathan's relationship to the London version cannot be proven.
Richard Fotheringham, in his introduction to the play in Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage: 1834-1899, disputes any suggestion that O'Flaherty was the sole author, arguing that the author of Life in Sydney should be identified as 'A. B. C.', under whose hand the original letter to the New South Wales Colonial Secretary (applying for permission to perform the play) was written. His assessment of the 'author's' initials, which Leslie Rees suggests are 'F.O.C.H.', is that they are indecipherable and could just as plausibly be read as 'A. B. C.' (as the accompanying letter was signed) or 'F. A. C. T.' Fotheringham sides with Rees when he proposes that several authors, including O'Flaherty, must have been involved in the burletta's creation, noting that the manuscript appears to be the result of several pairs of hands.
1978: Downstairs Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 29 March 1978.