State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991



Melbourne, from its earliest years, has always been appreciative of the creative and performing arts, and many Australian theatrical groups, from the Pioneer Players of the 1920s to the Australian Performing Group of the 1970s, as well as many native-born artists from earlier periods, have lived and worked here and made their contributions to the artistic life of the city.
The State Library of Victoria has always maintained a firm connection with the creative and performing arts, from before the time when Marcus Clarke, who wrote for the theatre as well as producing his famous novel For the Term of His Natural Life was a memberof its staff, to more recent times when Ray Lawler wrote the great Australian play, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in the domed reading room.
These continuing interests and connections are shown in the Library's priceless theatrical collections, especially those of the La Trobe Library, collected over a period of more than one hundred and twenty-five years and continuing to grow.
Contemporary and near-contemporary records give a vivid picture of the beginnings of theatre in Melbourne, as instanced in this description by Garryowen (Edmund Finn) of the Pavilion, Melbourne's first theatre:
The finishing touch was at length put to the Pavilion, which stood on the centre of the ground now occupied by the Spanish Restaurant and Hosie's Scotch Pie Shop, and it was one of the queerest fabrics imaginable. Whenever the wind was high it would rock like an old collier at sea, and it was difficult to account for it not heeling over in a gale. The public entrance from Bourke
Street was up half-a-dozen creaking steps and the further ascent to the ‘dress circle’ and a circular row of small pens known as upper boxes or gallery, was by a ladder-like staircase of a very unstable description.1
A little later William Kelly went to the Queens Theatre to see Hamlet.
There was a tumultuous uproar all the time without any lull whatever… with a stamping and thumping which caused the chandelier to quiver; … The second act commenced without its being apparently noticed until the entrance of Ophelia, which was the signal for a tempest of clapping and savoury compliments, that admitted no intermission until the King and Queen with their train stalked in, when they were greeted with ironical applause… during which [an enthusiastic member of the audience] was so impressed with … the King that he sent him down a bottle of brandy by the thong of a stockwhip from the gallery.
At the end of the performance the players ‘… were obliged to appear before the footlights to bear a pelting shower of nuggets — a substitute for bouquets — many over half an ounce, and several of which fell short of the mark into the orchestra.’2
This raucous behaviour was soon to disappear, and theatre-going became both pleasant and respectable, due in part to the influence of George Coppin. An Englishman who had spent his childhood and youth travelling England with itinerant theatrical companies, including one managed by his father, and had started his career as an actor-manager at the age of seventeen, Coppin was to have a tremendous effect on the Australian theatre, and to make a great contribution to Melbourne life from the time he arrived here, after previously performing in Sydney and Tasmania, in 1845, when the town of Melbourne was ten years old. The papers of this extraordinary man are among the La Trobe Library's most precious possessions, and possibly comprise the greatest single theatrical collection in Australia. They were given to the Library by Lucy Coppin, George Coppin's daughter, who later became secretary to Bland Holt, one of the foremost producers of melodrama in nineteenth-century Australia and a considerable comic actor, whose theatrical memorabilia is also included in the collection. George Coppin was born in England in 1819, and the collection covers the period from his early theatrical travels in England and beyond, until Bland Holt's retirement from the theatre in 1910. This marvellous collection contains over one thousand playbills, as well as posters, programmes, correspondence, photographs, set and costume designs, a few original and many printed scripts, legal documents and other items. Other material relates briefly to Coppin's founding of the Old Colonists’ Association and the Musical and Dramatic Society and his connections with such institutions as the Royal Humane Society.
Amongst other performers who influenced the development of theatre in Australia and who was introduced to Australia by George Coppin was J. C. Williamson. The initial contact is recorded in a letter from Coppin's agent Andrew Birrell in a letter written to Coppin from San Francisco on 30 September 1873:
Friend Coppin,
Inclosed [sic] with this letter you will find an engagement made for you with J. C. Williamson and Wife, which will be the most profitable engagement ever made for you by me. They are young, handsome, sober…3
This prediction was fulfilled, and by September 1880, when the Williamsons revived Struck Oil — the production with which they had opened for Coppin in 1874 — they had played it 1,100 times to a worldwide audience of nearly two million.4
The Coppin collection is part of our rich Australian Manuscripts Collection which contains many other treasures of theatrical interest including at the modem end of the time-scale another great collection, that of the Australian Performing Group, the self-managed theatre collective which worked from the Pram Factory in Carlton, and nurtured the talents of an emerging generation of native-born playwrights of the 1970s, including David Williamson, Jack Hibbcrd, John Romeril, Alex Buzo, Barry Oakley and others who have gone on to wider success. These are but two examples of the wealth of theatrical material contained in the Australian Manuscripts Collection.
Another rich source of reference is the Picture Collection where treasures of theatrical memorabilia also abound. One of the most significant and beautiful is the collection of lithographic theatre
posters contained in the Troedel Collection donated by the firm of Troedel and Cooper. These great examples of the lithographer's art give an almost tangible feeling for the period when they were produced from approximately 1870–1900, an era often styled ‘The golden age’ of the Australian theatre.
‘Programmes alone include those for drama, opera and oratorio; ballet, modern dance and folk dance; musical comedy; variety; vocal, chamber and orchestral music; popular music; mime and puppetry.’
From an even earlier period is a collection of Barry Sullivan posters advertising his Melbourne performances in 1865, including his appearances as Hamlet, a role which won him wide acclaim. Serendipity is probably the best way to describe the La Trobe Library's acquisition of these magnificent posters which are the size of a normal door. They were most generously donated by a man who had found them in the roof of a Richmond house he was assisting a friend to renovate. The acquisition posed two problems for conservation staff: how to separate at least 30 posters of this size pasted one on top of the other; and how to store them when separated. The initial problem was solved by the installation of a child's paddling pool in which they were soaked, and the second problem solved itself as each of the posters came apart into the three sections in which these ‘three-sheeters’ had originally been printed. These posters, showing the use of a fascinating array of printing types, are now part of the Picture Collection, which also includes more modern posters, portraits of performers and illustrations of both early and modern theatres.
One of the great specialist collections located in the La Trobe Library which is vital to research into the performing arts is the Theatre Programme Collection. This collection consists of an estimated 20,000 items, making it possibly the largest in Australia. The collection includes programmes, brochures, handbills and publicity material relating to performances in any branch of the performing arts which have been given in Victoria, whether by Australian or imported artists. Programmes include not only those for drama performances, but also for performances of opera and oratorio; ballet, modem dance and folk dance; musical comedy; variety; vocal, chamber and orchestral music; popularmusic; mime and puppetry and liveperformances associated with early cinemas. Most of the programmes relate to the period from 1900 onwards, but a considerable number of earlier programmes are included in the collection, which is housed in a self-indexing arrangement in filing cabinets. Many aspects of the growth of the performing arts in Australia may be traced through this collection, for example, the growth of classical ballet, always an art form particularly attractive to Melbourne audiences.
Although theatrical dancing had been practised in Australia from early times, the great impetus for the establishment of classical ballet in Australia came from the visits of Anna Pavlova in 1926 and 1929. A selection of programmes of her performances is represented in the collection, as well as examples from the De Basil and Borovansky companies which followed and distinguished visitors such as the Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert, all leading to the establishment of the present Australian Ballet, which is establishing a world-wide reputation and is based in Melbourne.
There are numerous other treasures in this collection including a programme for Melba's first public performance in 1885 in Melbourne. The collection is intended primarily as a reference aid to supply a date of performance which enables reviews to be located, but can also supply such information as biographical details of performers and their portraits, set and costume designs, details of writers and composers, and even advertisements of the period. The collection is continually being enriched by donations from staff and the public, and work is continuing on the preservation of the material and its ease of use.
No substantial research can be attempted into the history of the performing arts in Australia without the use of newspapers, which are essential to the performing arts in order to advertise a performance and create an audience, and to inform that same audience of the content and standards of what is presented. One of the La Trobe Library's greatest assets is our magnificent newspaper collection.

One of the theatre posters from the rich resource of the Troedel Collection advertising J.C. Williamson's production of “Struck Oil”.

I conducted a brief survey several years ago in which I listed Melbourne newspapers with theatrical content. The list, from 1838–1920, contains no fewer than fifty titles, which is testimony to the wealth of this collection.
In these newspapers one can trace the history of the theatre in Melbourne from the first theatrical performance recorded in the Port Phillip Herald of February 1842, up to the review of last night's play or concert. Newspapers, as well as providing information, are vital in re-creating the atmosphere of the performance and its era. Who could resist a visit to the pantomime Adamanta in 1874 after the following Argus description of its march of the Amazons, an obligatory item in most pantomimes of the time:
The precision with which the female warriors go through their complicated evolutions, the intricacy of their movements, the gorgeous splendour of the uniforms of the different divisions, the sheen of their silver shields and armour, and, above all the contrast between the graceful feminine figures and the guise of horrid war in which they bear part all contribute to secure… the greatest interest and the warmest applause.5
These resources mentioned are a sample of the treasures available to those with an interest in the history of the performing arts in Australia. They have been used as a contribution to the authenticity of stage productions, films and television programmes, and to provide evidence of Melbourne's artistic heritage and its documentation. The La Trobe Collection will, we trust, continue to enrich the life of Melbourne in the future.


Finn, Edmund (Garryowen) The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835–1852 historical, anecdotal and personal by Garryowen. Fergusson and Mitchell, Melbourne, 1888.


Kelly, William Life in Victoria; or Victoria in 1853 and Victoria in 1858, Chapman and Hall, London, 1859.


Letter, Andrew Birrell to George Coppin. San Francisco. 30 September 1873. Coppin Collection, Australian Manuscripts Collection.


The Argus, 30 September 1880.


Australasian Sketcher, 23 January 1875.