The Prairie King is believed to have been one of Garnet Walch's last known works to be staged in Australia. Advertising for the 1897 MacMahon brothers revival indicates that it contained 'with startling vividness and romantic flavour, the life and customs of WILD AMERICA, with its Red Indians, Scouts, Cowboys, Mexicans, Chiefs, Half-breeds, Guides [and] Frontiersmen' (Sydney Morning Herald 6 Nov. 1897, p2).
One of the scenes involved an attack on a settler's hut by a band of indians and the abduction of a young woman, Lucy Hamber. She is later rescued by Harold Hume (the Prairie King), a scene which leads to one of the play's more sensational moments (see note below).
1897 : Lyceum Theatre, Sydney ; 6-19 November. Dir. Alfred Woods ; Prod. MacMahon Brothers. - Cast incl. King Hedley (Harold Hume, 'The Prairie King'), Maud Williamson (Lucy Hamber, the Prairie Belle), Harry Overton (Rattlesnake Joe), L. Chateaux (Colonel Ebenezar Doolittle), E. D. Marsland (Seth Strawbones), Neville Mayman (James Hamber), Harry Shine (Hector O'Hooligan), J. Driscoll Foley (Konrad Kroppengeisser), Steve Adson (Menser Motzakleis), A. W. Boothman (Vance Renard), Charles Woods (Dusty Rhodes), Charles Blake (The Gopher), E. Gratton Coughlan (Primrose Snowball), W. J. Merton (Yellow Feather), Ethel Gray (La Belle Mexicane), Lullie Roberts (White Cloud).
Additional characters included: Tramps - Tired Tommy, Duey Eyes, Early Morn, Mournful Michael, Weary Willie, Sleepy Sammy; Indians: Sleeping Crow, Man-who-rides-on-the-wind, man-who-shoots-with-a-stick, Sharp Knife, Surefoot, Many Scalps, Big Spear, Red Giant, Red Blanket; Cowboys: Lasso Sam, Broncho Bill, Rifle Jack, Deerfoot Dick, Mountain Mick, Kills Enemy; and US Troops.
NB: This production was a revival. No earlier production has yet been located.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the 1897 Lyceum Theatre premiere was hit by several disasters. The first occurred only minutes before the opening curtain when a 20ft x 15ft x 6ft water tank used for several 'sensation' scenes split, sending water everywhere. Advertisements placed in the same newspaper indicate that production involved 'absolutley the largest body of real water ever shown on the stage, forming a reservoir 50 feet wide and containing upwards of 160 tons of water' (6 November 1897, p2). Because the the entire show hinged on these water scenes, with the most important being a climatic bridge collapse, the producers had to delay the starting time while a large emergency staff patched and hammered at the back of the scenes. Although the tank was repaired it took some while to fill it again, so the opening act (which included a cinemtographic performance) and intervals between scenes were strung out at a dawdling pace.
Shortly after the tank was filled, and with the action by then being played out with its 'old vigour,' another water-related accident occurred, this time to lead actress, Maud Williamson. While attempting her escape from the wild indians, Williamson (attired in a 'very tasteful tracker's costume with moccasins to match') fell head over heels 'with a mighty splash' into the water tank. As the Herald's critic writes: 'For an appreciable length of time no one seemed to know that anything out of the way had happened... Some of the actors continued the action of the play; but the anxious groping of Mr King Hedley, three or four of the hostile indians, and a stage hand round the edge of the tank showed that something was wrong, and in a moment more the curtain fell.' A fireman is said to have dived into the tank and freed the almost unconscious actress from the canoe that trapped her. She was able to return to the stage in the third act, but with her costume ruined was forced to re-appear in a black velvet dress and with her hair tied tightly up. 'The audience pardoned the costume,' writes the critic, 'and acknowldged her courage with a ringing cheer'.
Another possible disaster also hit the production, this time during the play's climactic sensation scene. This moment in the story involved a collapsing bridge, and the dropping of a horse fifteen feet into the water below while its actor/rider clung to a broken railing above. The Sydney Morning Herald's critic notes that the scene 'required exceptional demands both on the nerve of the actor and the skill of the mechanist'. It appears to have also required exceptional nerve on the equine cast members, too. When the horses ridden by Miss Williamson and Mr Hedley both refused to mount the bridge, Hedley in desperation, 'pluckily mounted an untried horse. The animal, unaware of its part in the proceedings, dashed on to the bridge which collapsed with a woeful creaking of timbers. Down went the horse into the water and Mr Hedley, catching the railings as he fell, swung over the abyss by one hand and made a very pretty revolver practice with the other. The feat has never been more admirably done, and it deserved the cheers which brought down the curtian to a furore' (Sydney Morning Herald 8 November 1897, p3).