Melbourne's first theatre was a ramshackle timber structure adjacent to the Eagle Tavern, a Bourke Street pub. The Royal Victoria Theatre, otherwise known as the Pavilion, the Theatre Royal and the Victoria Saloon, opened in February 1842 with a series of 'amateur' performances led by the professional actor George Buckingham. The colonial secretary in Sydney would not license a professional company until July 1842. Early performances included Rob Roy and The widow's victim.
In 1845 a more substantial venue of brick and stone, known as the Queen's Theatre Royal or simply the Queen's, was built in Queen Street by Melbourne city councillor John Thomas Smith. Actor-managers associated with the Queen's included Conrad Knowles, Francis Nesbitt and the man who was to dominate the profession during the gold-rush years and after, George Coppin. As well as the English repertory of Shakespeare plays and melodrama, Melbourne's first 'home-grown' pantomime, Goblins of the Gold Coast or Melbournites in California, had its premiere at the Queen's in May 1850.
The gold discoveries of the 1850s and the attendant increase in population led to a demand for entertainments. During the next 30 years seven large theatres were built, some holding more than 3000 people, as well as several smaller music halls. Entertainments shifted from the western end of the city to Bourke Street East, Spring Street, Lonsdale Street and Exhibition Street. International stars such as actor G.V. Brooke, the singers Catherine Hayes and Anna Bishop, and the notorious Lola Montes drew large houses at Bourke Street's Theatre Royal, opened in 1855. Australia's first large-scale opera company, formed by W.S. Lyster, began in 1861 and toured the Australasian colonies from Melbourne until his death in 1880.
In the 19th century theatregoing appealed to a very wide audience. The moneyed classes paid up to seven shillings to sit in the dress circle and boxes, while the pit and galleries, at sixpence or a shilling, were filled with just as appreciative members of the so-called 'lower orders'. The auditorium was often not darkened, and the atmosphere was informal and lively. Play titles reflected the content of the London stage at the time, coupled with a colonial diversity. A typical theatre program of the 1860s might include Hamlet followed by a 'laughable farce' such as The double-bedded room. At the same time a 'legitimate' theatre such as the Haymarket or the Princess could present equestrian or quasi-circus shows such as the Great World Circus and Mazeppa.
Christmas pantomimes were popular with adults as well as children. Based on a mixture of Italian commedia dell'arte and fairy tales such as 'Jack and the beanstalk' and 'Cinderella', they contained political satire, lavish production, chorus girls and a leggy curvaceous actress as principal boy in 'localised' productions by Melbourne writers such as Marcus Clarke, William Akhurst and Garnet Walch.
Overseas stars included Melbourne in their itineraries. The Italian actress Adelaide Ristori toured with her Italian Dramatic Company in 1875, and the 'self-taught' Mrs Scott-Siddons, claiming to be a granddaughter of Sarah Siddons, drew audiences in 1876. In 1891 the Princess Theatre rang to the dramatic tones of Sarah Bernhardt as she acted (in French) the great dramas of the Paris stage, such as La dame aux camellias, Cléopâtre and Sardou's drama Tosca.
Foremost among the local stars of the 1880s was Sydney-born Nellie Stewart, who seemed equally at home in opera, operetta and pantomime. Daughter of actors Theodosia Stirling and Richard Stewart, she was known as 'Australia's darling'. There were many other Australian-born or Australian-trained stars. During the 1850s and 1860s London-born Julia Matthews learnt most of her craft in Melbourne, as did Marie St Denis, who arrived from Belgium at the age of 14 and suicided in 1868, aged 21. Violet Varley was a promising young actress and singer of the early 1890s who died in childbirth in 1895. Eugenie Duggan, sister of writer Edmund Duggan and wife of entrepreneur William Anderson, was a popular actress well into the 20th century.
During the booming 1880s Melbourne's only surviving 19th-century theatres, the Princess and Her Majesty's (first named the Alexandra) were built. This decade also saw the production of many plays with Australian settings. These included The sunny south by George Darrell, first shown at the Melbourne Opera House in 1883; in 1889 Alfred Dampier, a popular English actor, and writer Garnet Walch exploited the current optimism and George Augustus Sala's phrase with the play Marvellous Melbourne. In 1890 Dampier and J.H. Wrangham adapted Robbery under arms from the Boldrewood novel. Both plays had their premieres at the Alexandra Theatre.
Sensation drama, a popular form in London, was brought to Australia by Bland Holt, Alfred Dampier and the MacMahon Brothers in the late 1880s. From the 1890s to the 1910s (the early days of cinema) audiences were still thrilled by the extreme realism of the staging. Intricate machinery was installed, which included treadmills and moving scenery, allowing horses to appear to be running a race. Huge water tanks permitted the melodrama's heroine to be rescued by the hero, or sometimes by a (well-trained) dog. A run of luck, The derby winner and The breaking of the drought were among Bland Holt's hits, and he often imported productions directly from London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
The scenic artist was a vital part of the theatre world, and from the 1850s Melbourne attracted talented artists. Some had connections with English theatre. W.J. Wilson was the son and grandson of British scenic artists and from his arrival in 1855 painted scenery for many Melbourne theatres. He also managed theatres in Sydney and Melbourne. George Gordon was already a well-known scenic artist in Great Britain when he arrived in Melbourne in 1880. Alexander Habbe, born in Denmark, was an artist noted for his fine pantomime sets. But German-born John Hennings, from the time of his arrival in 1855 until his death in 1898, was the most admired scenic designer in Melbourne. He was involved in painting the majority of Theatre Royal sets during that time and had a hand in the scenic management of other Melbourne and Sydney theatres.
Light entertainments such as vaudeville and minstrel shows helped people forget economic difficulties. From the 1860s they were presented in the smaller halls of Bourke Street (such as the Polytechnic, the Varieties, the Colosseum, the Apollo, St George's Hall and St Patrick's Hall) and in Melbourne suburbs. As well as singers, dancers and comedians, programs included contortionists, magicians, ventriloquists and animal acts. The notorious cancan dance was seen for the first time in Australia at the Varieties in 1868. Moving panoramas of topical subjects such as the Russo-Turkish War, the wreck of the Loch Ard and the capture of the Kelly Gang were popular at St George's Hall. At Kreitmayer's Waxworks in Bourke Street, wax figures shared the show with live variety.
Under the management of Harry Rickards, the Opera House in Bourke Street became the Melbourne home of his Tivoli vaudeville enterprise. There in 1896 the American illusionist Carl Hertz gave the first demonstrations of projected moving pictures. In 1901 Rickards built a new theatre, calling it the New Opera House (after Rickards' death in 1911 the theatre was renamed the Tivoli). Another vaudeville house, Brennan's National Amphitheatre, opened at the top of Bourke Street in 1912. Other new venues were the King's Theatre in Russell Street (1908) and the Auditorium, a concert hall built for entrepreneurs J. & N. Tait in Collins Street (1913).
In the early years of the 20th century Melburnians flocked to see exact reproductions of English and American musical comedies and European operettas, among them The merry widow (with Geelong-born Carrie Moore, 1908), The Arcadians, Our Miss Gibbs (1910) and The chocolate soldier (1911). The growing popularity of moving pictures, however, eroded audiences for melodrama and the broad appeal of theatre began to wane. The principal managements operating at this time were J.C. Williamson's, J. & N. Tait, the Fuller organisation, the Tivoli Circuit and entrepreneurs Clyde Meynell and John Gunn, often working in partnership with Sir Rupert Clarke and John Wren.
World War I made the importation of overseas stars extremely difficult, and managements were forced to promote local talent. Theatres frequently staged patriotic fundraisers and encouraged recruiting drives. Among the most popular 1920s attractions were lavish musicals such as Geelong-born Oscar Asche's Chu Chin Chow (Tivoli, 1920) and The maid of the mountains (Theatre Royal, 1921). The latter made a star of Gladys Moncrieff. Prima ballerina Anna Pavlova danced in Melbourne in 1926 and 1929, and Nellie Melba followed the success of her 1908 tour in grand opera with further seasons in 1924 and 1928.
In 1928 J.C. Williamson's built the intimate Comedy Theatre in Exhibition Street on the site once occupied by George Coppin's Olympic. After a shaky start the Comedy became the preferred Melbourne venue for modern drama and light comedies. The auditorium of His Majesty's was destroyed by fire in 1929, shortly before the depression hit all forms of live theatre. Most of the city's remaining live venues shut their doors or were 'wired' for the recently introduced 'talkies'. The beloved Theatre Royal closed in 1933 and the Bijou, the Melbourne home of Fuller's revues, the following year. Both were demolished.
With its auditorium and foyers rebuilt in art moderne style, His Majesty's reopened in 1934 with the spectacular operetta White Horse Inn. Over the next few years the theatre hosted several significant and influential seasons by visiting Russian ballet companies.
Towards the end of 1933 Francis W. Thring presented the Australian musical Collits' Inn at the Princess; other local musicals followed, notably The cedar tree at the Princess and the J.C. Williamson presentation of Blue Mountain melody at His Majesty's. To celebrate the centenary of Melbourne in 1934, Sir Benjamin Fuller staged an ambitious season of grand opera in English at the Apollo (formerly the National Amphitheatre and the Palace) in Bourke Street.
In the 1930s, too, the activities of smaller, largely amateur groups started to attract notice and, eventually, audiences in work pioneered by Gregan McMahon with his Melbourne Repertory Theatre Company (established in 1911) and by the Pioneer Players, founded in 1922 by Louis Esson and Vance Palmer. Brett Randall and Hal Percy formed the Melbourne Little Theatre Company in 1931. Headquartered initially in a kiosk in Fawkner Park, South Yarra, and later in a tiny nearby disused church, the company built a fine new home in 1956 and, renamed St Martin's Theatre Company, survived until 1973. The Hartwell Players, formed in Camberwell in 1938, remain Melbourne's longest performing community theatre group.
The left-wing Melbourne New Theatre evolved from the Workers' Theatre Group, founded in 1935 by Betty Roland and Frank Huelin. Also in 1935, the noted Australian soprano Gertrude Johnson, fresh from a career in London, founded the National Theatre Movement to provide training and performance opportunities for young people in opera, dance and drama. For many years the National was based in the hall of St Peter's Eastern Hill. Today the schools are housed in the converted Victory cinema in St Kilda. At the University of Melbourne, Keith Macartney and Maurice Belz founded the Tin Alley Players in 1939. Nearly 30 years later this group had the distinction of presenting David Williamson's first play, The indecent exposure of Anthony East (1968).
During World War II ex-Pavlova dancer Edouard Borovansky founded the Borovansky Ballet under the aegis of J.C. Williamson's. In the war years Williamson's also presented a seemingly endless stream of drawing room comedies and unadventurous revivals of popular musical comedies and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Tivoli produced predictably escapist revue-style entertainment, often with morale-boosting content. Local favourites Roy Rene 'Mo', George Wallace, Jim Gerald and Jenny Howard were the stars.
After the war the Tivoli reverted to imported variety headliners such as Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey and George Formby, but local artists continued to top the bill at the Plaza in Northcote, a former cinema that served as a live suburban variety venue from 1949 until 1957. With the end of World War II, J.C. Williamson's commenced the importation of 'the best of Broadway', starting with Annie get your gun (His Majesty's, 1947). Oklahoma! arrived in 1949. Many more followed. From late 1946 until early 1949 the Comedy was host to the extraordinarily popular Kiwis Revue Company, an all-male group of New Zealand ex-soldiers.
The Princess resumed its role as a live theatre in 1947 and became the base for Garnet H. Carroll's theatrical activities. The English Ballet Rambert danced at the Princess that year, and Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh appeared there with the Old Vic Company in 1948. The Princess also provided a venue for a number of major opera-ballet-drama festivals staged by Gertrude Johnson's National Theatre Movement. Landmark National Theatre productions included Aida in 1951 (with the great Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence as Amneris), the Australian premiere of the complete four-act version of Swan Lake (with prima ballerina Lynne Golding, 1951); Rex Reid's original version of the ballet Corroboree (with music by John Antill, 1951), the Australian premiere of Menotti's modern opera The consul (with Marie Collier, 1953) and Offenbach's The tales of Hoffmann - a gala performance of which was attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh during their 1954 royal visit, the first time a reigning British monarch had visited a Melbourne theatre.
While the major commercial managements - J.C. Williamson's, Garnet H. Carroll and the Tivoli - catered for largely unadventurous middle-class audiences, it was the smaller, usually non-professional groups, such as the Little Theatre in South Yarra and the New Theatre, that provided more challenging fare. Lorna Forbes and Sydney Turnbull's Melbourne Repertory Theatre used an old cinema in Middle Park to provide opportunities for emerging acting talent. Ray Lawler's first play, Hal's belles, was staged there in 1945. In 1951 the play's star, Frank Thring, took over the lease of the theatre and relaunched it as the Arrow with a controversial production of Oscar Wilde's Salome.
In 1953 John Sumner founded the Union Theatre Repertory Company for the University of Melbourne. Renamed the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1968, it is Australia's oldest professional theatre company. The company's first home was the university's Union Theatre; later venues have included the Russell Street Theatre (1966-94), St Martin's in South Yarra, the Athenaeum and, currently, the Playhouse and the George Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. Ray Lawler's Summer of the seventeenth doll had its premiere at the Union Theatre in 1955. In the next production, a revue called Return fare, Barry Humphries introduced Edna Everage to an unsuspecting world.
The success of the Melbourne Theatre Company (and the eventual predictability of its repertoire) encouraged others to found 'fringe' companies. Wal Cherry's innovative Emerald Hill Theatre operated in South Melbourne (1962-66), presenting challenging productions that ranged from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to John Antrobus' You'll come to love your sperm test.
Other small groups pioneered opera and dance. Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild, founded in 1947, became the Victorian Ballet Company in 1963 and Ballet Victoria from 1967 until its demise in 1976. The Victoria State Opera (1976-96) could trace its lineage back to a performance of The pirates of Penzance by the Mont Albert Choral Society in 1943. There were, too, many enterprising individuals who explored the byways of the performing arts: E. Stanley Brookes with his Dickens characterisations, J. Beresford Fowler with Shakespeare for schools, and Joan and Betty Rayner with their peripatetic Australian Children's Theatre are examples.
The establishment of the government-funded Australian Elizabethan Trust in 1954 led to the formation of two major touring companies. First, the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company (later the Australian Opera and now Opera Australia) was formed largely from singers who gained experience with Gertrude Johnson's National Theatre Opera Company. Though based in Sydney, it has played at least one season in Melbourne every year since 1956 - except for 1965, when J.C. Williamson's presented an opera company headed by Joan Sutherland and the then comparatively unknown Luciano Pavarotti. Second, the Australian Ballet formed in 1962 under the artistic direction of Peggy van Praagh, largely from the corps of the Borovansky Ballet. Based in Melbourne, the Australian Ballet tours Australia and overseas.
J.C. Williamson's continued to stage accurate reproductions of London and New York musicals and plays. Among the most successful were My fair lady (Her Majesty's, 1959), Oliver! (Her Majesty's, 1961) and Man of La Mancha (Comedy, 1967). Williamson's presented the Australian musical The sentimental bloke at the Comedy in 1961 and Camelot, designed locally - and lavishly - by young St Martin's-trained John Truscott, at Her Majesty's in 1964. At the Princess the Garnet H. Carroll management scored with Kismet (1955), The sound of music (1961) and The King and I (1962). Hits for the Tivoli included June Bronhill in the Sadler's Wells production of The merry widow (1960) and the stage version of the British television hit The black and white minstrel show (1962). The latter was co-produced with Kenn Brodziak's Aztec Services, who also promoted the sensational Beatles' tour in 1964.
The introduction of television in 1956 further eroded audiences for live theatre. The Garnet H. Carroll organisation did not long survive Carroll's death in 1964. His family company leased the Princess Theatre to the Australian Elizabethan Trust from 1969 till 1985. J.C. Williamson's applied for some form of government assistance; this was not forthcoming, so after virtually a century as the pre-eminent theatrical organisation in Australia, 'the Firm' bowed out in 1976, and rights to use the name 'Williamson' were acquired by Kenn Brodziak's Aztec Services. The Tivoli ceased production in 1966 and its theatre was destroyed by fire the following year. Tivoli-style glamour was the staple of David H. McIlwraith's Lido nightclub in Russell Street, opened in 1965 on the site of the old Savoy Theatre. Traditional variety entertainment continued at Tikki and John's convivial theatre restaurant in Exhibition Street, also opened in 1965. George Miller's Bowl Music Hall, opened in 1960 in a basement in Swanston Street, revived the 'hiss the villain' type of melodrama, until local liquor laws forced the enterprise to relocate to Sydney.
In 1967 Betty Burstall leased a tiny Carlton shirt factory and gave it new life as La Mama Theatre. It opened with a short play by Jack Hibberd and went on to become the launching pad for generations of local acting, writing, designing and directing talent. The Australian Performing Group (APG) was 'born' there and in 1970 moved to a larger home - the nearby Pram Factory. APG opened there with Marvellous Melbourne, a satirical romp by Jack Hibberd and John Romeril. Other APG regulars included David Williamson, Barry Oakley, Graeme Blundell, Max Gillies, Evelyn Krape and Bruce Spence.
Some La Mama, APG and even some commercial presentations raised the ire of the guardians of Victoria's morals. Alex Buzo's Norm and Ahmed, Jean-Claude van Itallie's America hurrah! and Mart Crowley's The boys in the band (Playbox Theatre, 1969) all attracted prosecution. Three actors in the latter play were convicted for using offensive or obscene language in a public place. In 1970 action was taken to prevent the presentation of the American nude revue Oh, Calcutta! at the Lido, but the following year the musical Hair with its nude finale caused little concern, probably thanks to the discreetly dim lighting (Metro Bourke Street, 1971). However, a mere six years later, Gordon Chater was able to appear totally nude in Steve J. Spears's The elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Playbox Theatre, 1977).
Although the APG folded in 1981, La Mama continues to flourish, as does the internationally acclaimed Circus Oz, launched at the Pram Factory in 1977, and later with headquarters in Port Melbourne. Another Melbourne 'Fringe' company, Playbox, had its origins in Hoopla Productions, founded in 1976 by Graeme Blundell, Carillo Gantner and Garrie Hutchinson. The company used the Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street from 1977 until the auditorium was destroyed by fire in 1984. In 1990 Playbox opened two flexible performing venues - the Merlyn and the Beckett - in the CUB Malthouse in South Melbourne.
In 1972 John Pinder opened his Flying Trapeze Café in Fitzroy, providing a venue for local intimate stand-up comedy and cabaret. The Last Laugh, in Collingwood, followed in 1975. This in turn led to a host of informal venues providing a broad range of comedy styles, from the political to the absurdist. From 1987 all these converged in the annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
The Victorian College of the Arts was established in 1976 in the old Police College complex in St Kilda Road. In the 1980s graduates from its schools of drama, music, dance, art, film and television, and creative arts found expression in new 'fringe' enterprises such as West Theatre Company (based in Moonee Ponds), John Ellis' Church Theatre in Hawthorn, Jean-Pierre Mignon's Australian Nouveau Theatre (originally working in the Anthill Theatre, South Melbourne, and later in Gasworks Park, Port Melbourne) and Handspan Theatre Company (established in 1977 to explore and develop new directions in puppetry). By the 1990s, however, these and other similarly innovative companies had ceased production. A rare survivor was the contemporary music theatre company Chamber Made Opera, founded by Douglas Horton in 1988.
With the opening of the Arts Centre on the site once occupied by Wirth's Circus, the focus of Melbourne's mainstream theatre shifted from the central city to St Kilda Road. Designed by Roy Grounds with interior decor by John Truscott, the Arts Centre's Melbourne Concert Hall debuted in 1982 (it was renamed Hamer Hall in 2004); the State Theatre, Playhouse and George Fairfax Studio followed in 1984. The Performing Arts Collection - now the major resource of its kind in Australia - is housed in the complex.
The annual Melbourne International Arts Festival had its genesis in 1986 as a complement to Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival in Italy. The 1995 festival was notable for the participation of Gideon Obarzanek's Chunky Move - now the State's resident dance company. In 1983 the annual Green Room Awards were established to recognise excellence in the performing arts in Melbourne.
In 1990 the venerable Princess Theatre reopened after extensive refurbishment by its new owner, David Marriner. He later restored the Regent Theatre in Collins Street and the Forum in Flinders Street as live venues, and also owns the Comedy. These, as well as Her Majesty's and the Athenaeum, give Melbourne a range of historic, traditional theatrical venues unequalled in any city of comparable size anywhere in the world.