Dianne Reilly: Good evening, everyone. My name is Dianne Reilly, and I’m La Trobe Librarian here at the State Library for those who don’t know me.
Tonight we are going hear one of a series of lectures from the State Library’s wonderful Creative Fellowships program. We’ve had the most marvellous people who’ve undertaken fellowships here at the library over the last five years, and this evening we’re going to hear about the collaboration of two of Melbourne’s outstanding, up-and-coming (although they’re probably already there) theatre professionals, on research for a new play.
Chris Kohn graduated from the VCA in directing in 1998. He’s worked for a variety of companies as director, dramaturg, video artist and writer, and is co-founder of the Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre Company. With this company he has directed and co-written a number of plays, including – there are so many, I’m just trying to locate them in my notes – the Black swan of trespass, and for that particular play he was co-writer, composer, musician and video designer. He also was involved in the eisteddfod in 2003; other plays called the Dire tribe and Boxed set, among many plays. And he was assistant director and musician for Neil Armfield’s production of Waiting for Godot at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney. He has been an affiliate director with the Melbourne Theatre Company and on the review panel for the Next Wave festival.
In 2004 he undertook a program of professional development for experimental theatre in New York and Europe, funded by the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, and received the 2004 George Fairfax Memorial Award for outstanding achievement for graduates of the VCA. He devised the Black swan of trespass with Lally Katz, and this toured to New York where he had a lot to do with the direction of it.
Chris has worked, and is probably still working, at the Arena Theatre Company, and his shows with the Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre Company have been nominated for 10 Green Room awards and received five, not a bad record.
Lally Katz is a graduate of the School of Studies in Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne and she has worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London in Sloane Square. Lally’s extensive work with the Melbourne-based company, Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre Company, culminated in the Black swan of trespass that won so many awards that I’ve referred to. Lally has playwriting awards from St Martin’s Youth Theatre and Playworks; and has written for the Arena Theatre Company and the St Martin’s Youth Theatre, Packed You Theatre, and Union House Theatre at the University of Melbourne. She has recently written with Tom Wright Criminology which was I think was staged at the Malthouse this year, and Missing link for the Area Theatre Company which was a co-commission with Chris Kohn for the Malthouse Theatre which will be produced next year, so we can look forward to that one.
There’s so much more I could tell you about these two talented writers, but they have been here at the State Library researching another style of play about Melbourne’s vaudeville artists and theatres between the wars. Their research has been focused on the vaudeville of Melbourne in the Edwardian era. Looking particularly at the domestic and international touring acts that graced the stages of Melbourne’s lively vaudeville scene in 1913 and ‘14, they have explored the wealth of material that we have here at the State Library, including a wonderful collection of theatre programs, scrapbooks, magazines, photos and sound recordings. The resources here have been instrumental in the creation of the first draft of their new play for Malthouse, and with a view to the premier production next year. So I think this is a very exciting occasion and I’ll ask you all to join with me in welcoming Chris Kohn and Lally Katz together with actor, Christopher Brown. Thank you.
Chris Kohn: Just to clarify 1913, ‘14 aren’t exactly what you’d call ‘between the wars’, but I’ll clarify that a bit later. Thanks Dianne, and thanks for attending the talk. As you know, I’m Chris, and this is Lally, we were co-fellows here and Chris Brown is just over here and we’ll be reading a bit later. We’re not historians, but theatre makers with an interesting history. So it’s appropriate that we start with a little bit of theatre.
The theatre is dark; from behind the red curtain a soft, faraway sound of piano music starts up, but it’s not like it’s starting up, it’s as though we’re in the middle of a song, of an old refrain that we are only just beginning to hear and so the curtain opens. Behind the curtain, sitting in a quiet footlight at the piano is Bones. Bones is in blackface, he smiles warmly at the audience and then looks back towards his piano which he continues to play.
Chris Brown [in character as Bones]: Tonight I’ve been wanting to tell you about the greatest vaudeville theatre to ever have been right here in Melbourne, Australia – Mugs castle. Alrighty, you don’t caught me out. It weren’t the greatest, it weren’t even one of the greatest and you will never read none about it in any damn history books. But it were my whole world. The year were 1914, the end of what were known as the Edwardian summer. It had been for the Edwardians a decadent time. Them Edwardians had had it real good, so good that they’s got bored and had to make up their very own problems and heartaches just for entertainment’s sake. And progress, my lord – introducing the wireless radio, aeroplanes flying higher and further than they ever done before, the moving picture show, everything was travelling toward the heavens. There were no stopping dreams, it were a world created for dreamers, and the Edwardians were very good at keeping their dreams safe from dreary realities.
Meanwhiles it was boom time for vaudeville. Right here in Melbourne we had the best, the best ex-con, the cockney impersonators from the English music halls, the blackfaced nigger minstrels from the United States of America, they all come and teach us how to laugh. Why, in Melbourne alone there were the Tivoli Theatre on Bourke Street under the new direction of the wild entrepreneur Hugh D Macintosh, otherwise known as Huge Deal. And for those poor folks who couldn’t get no seat in the Tivoli there was Her Majesty’s, the Athenaeum, or the Princess Theatre.
Chris Kohn: More of Bones later. The genesis of this project – as is with the case of almost everything, it seems – was the result of a chance encounter. I was in Grubb’s second-hand bookstore in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy when a book title caught my eye – Act as known. It was a personal account of the life of a vaudeville family between the wars in Australia, written by dancer and contortionist Valentyne Napier. I’ve always been fascinated by the musical, vaudeville and other so-called low performance forms including pantomime and the sideshow, so I bought the book. It was a great read. Vaudevillians are by nature jacks of all trade and the form of this book, like most first-hand accounts, covered all areas from personal stories to a catalogue of artists, images of programs and reviews, and a glossary of vaudeville terms. The theatrical possibilities of this material leapt out at me and the idea for this project was born.
Lally and I have collaborated on five or six shows in the last few years and much of our work together has not been grounded in historical fact but rather in imaginary mysterious landscapes inspired by Australian suburbia and its bizarre yet familiar inhabitants. Our first attempt at rendering historical events on stage was with a play called The black swan of trespass inspired by the Ern Malley hoax and the mythology which surrounds it. Rather than recreating the circumstances of the creation of this iconic hoax figure and his sister Ethel, we attempted to explore the reasons for his creation, his success and his longevity. We saw Ern as a symbol for notions of Australian cultural identity and placed him and Ethel as the central figures. Other characters were drawn from his poems, including Anopholes the mosquito, and the princess of Princess Street. The only historical figures represented in the play, the hoaxers James McAuley and Harold Stewart, were played by a taxidermy rooster and taxidermy cat. In the world of our play the fictional was made immediate and the historical was mediated.
The play was a critical success and played in Melbourne, Sydney and New York, and when thinking about the possibility of creating a show around Australia’s vaudeville milieu we decided we would follow a similar path, creating a parallel world inspired by actual events but not attempting to recreate any actual historical moments. We decided that any figures that were active at the time would not be recreated but rather exist just outside the boundaries of the stage space – this way we would be free to explore the times and the social environment, the beating heart of that place and find parallels with where we are now.
Lally Katz: For me, being at the State Library was as much part of the writing as the research that I did. I pretty much moved in here for about four months and it was kind of like stepping outside of time and into kind of a secret bubble where I could look out at Melbourne, be in Melbourne but look out at it at the same time, kind of like when you're at the airport but much nicer. But to be honest, it takes a lot to get me outside of my own head and imagination and to be able to imagine something else that’s bigger so it was during our residency here that Melbourne started to inhabit a whole new reality. When Chris and I were sharing the office [off-topic remark] we would go through books and read out the different acts and jokes and venues and styles of performance of the Melbourne vaudeville pre-World War I and it was through this way that our main characters were born. Often the way that Chris and I would work is that he kind of feeds information to me and then I’ll take the information he gives me and then leap off from that into something else and then he’ll take what I’ve done and leap into something else again, So as Chris was saying, our original inspiration about the Napier’s spider and butterfly routine, we started off with the kind of acts we wanted to have, and then what kind of characters would perform these acts, and I’ll go back to Chris.
Chris Kohn: So we decided quite early on to shift from between the wars to pre-World War I because we discovered that this is really when vaudeville was in its heyday, before the moving picture took over as the dominant popular medium. It was a time when the acts were more diverse and more outlandish, and the rules of engagement were still being invented and then constantly reinvented. We were also drawn to the era because it was just a little more shadowy and out of reach, it’s just outside of living history and so it exists only through records. We knew from the start that our way into vaudeville was through these acts – this presented a challenge because at the time film was a very new technology so there’s very little existing video documentation of these acts. There’s a lot more audio documentation, but the technology at the time was such that the quality’s actually quite poor and vaudeville is essentially a live art, so the recordings can really only ever give an indication of what the performers were like.
Adding to the problem is the fact that many performers refuse to record their signature tunes for fear of losing income. They figured quite reasonably that if their songs could be listened to by anyone at any time without them being there, that people may stop bothering to actually come and see them perform. There was also a sort of a sense that, a fear that a song once laid down might lose its magic, its aura, through the ability for it to be repeated.
So we had three main ways of accessing these acts: they were through first-hand descriptions from contemporaries; photographs; and recollections by both the performers and audience members and fans. And one of our first great finds was a folio of cuttings of photos and articles collected by what seemed to be a single enthusiast, spanning a 20-year period between 1902 and 1922, just lots of just things cut out from Punch and Table talk and different kind of industry rags at the time. So we’ll just sort of read a few of these, of the names of some of the performers, just to give you a kind of an indication of the sort of world that we’re talking about.
Lally: Sandow the Strongman; Harry Salmon and Ida Chester, society entertainers and coster impersonators; Cavanagh the boy juggler; Carl Collier, comical comedian famous for his giddy cane and hat manipulation; the Scott brothers, conversational jesters and champion ragtime dancers; the Kaufman troupe of fancy and trick cyclists; the Four Eugenes acrobatic troupe; Signor Galetti and his clever baboons pictured ready for their trotting race and trolleys lead by dogs – but we don’t have the picture [laughs]; Little Edna, champion club and axe swinger of Austral-Asia; Franco Piper who juggled and played four banjos.
Chris Kohn: The manacled marvel Briro; Ethel Buckley the soubrette; Carter the Great and his aviation act – I don’t know how that would have gone indoors, but anyway; Prince Charles the educated ape, a chimpanzee – he would apparently clean himself every day, and preferred cold water, and would ride a bicycle to and fro from the theatre; Alfred Holt, a mimic famous for his catfight imitation that would keep the neighbours awake when he practised. The famous midgets of Tiny Town, 30 in all including the midget sisters misses Anita and Paola and their manager Mr Andreas Zeward; the Tossing Testroes; Miss Minnie Kaufman the trick cyclist; Madame Toucar with her 65 performing game cocks. Then there was other sort of scandalous things like the mysterious glory girl of 1913, who was famous because she appeared out of nowhere, and she refused to be interviewed, and she avoided ever being seen offstage, and she’d come to the theatre veiled, and left no address so that she couldn’t be sought at her home … and so this was sort of one of the publicity stunts that were, that sort of thing was popular at the time. There were the Primrose Four, 1000 pounds of harmony – four fat faces, they say that they’ve ‘ever so many times elevators had turned dog on us’.
So these are acts that you’ve probably never heard of, maybe you’ve never heard of any of them, but they all had their moment of fame before they were lost to history. Other more familiar names such as Harry Houdini, WC Fields and Ada Reeves would also grace the stages of the Tivoli and other venues but the name, these sort of names represent a tiny minority, and they survive largely due to their successful transition to screen. In some cases even the art forms themselves have not stood the test of time, and they’ve not found a place in our common lexicon, even though we might be able to imagine what they were – such as Madamoiselle de Dio with her prismatic dancing; Dalien O’Brien; the Tanglefoot Dancers; or the Om Sisters, human electricity and gas generators.
We considered the transience of these people – this list of names of entertainers who have come and gone – as a kind of metaphor for the theatrical moment – the theatrical moment because it comes and goes in an instant, and in this way is different from the film or any recorded and reproduced art form. A theatrical show happens and then disappears forever. You were either there as it was created or you were not, and even if you were there on a particular night, the theatre show only ever happens the same way once; the experience is different each time it is presented, it resists reproduction and I think that’s one of the sources of its power. These names of performers lost in time were also a metaphor for history in general – until recently history, of course, has been considered an art of recording momentous, significant events, although that has changed in more recent times. It’s the small events that sort of disappear, but we were interested in the small events, in the acts that shone brightly and then faded away, or the little stories about accidental deaths of inconsequential people – ads for foot cream, gossip, hearsay.
Lally: But we weren’t only interested in performers, we also read a lot about the entrepreneurs of the time. Frank van Straten’s brilliant book Huge deal about Hugh D McIntosh was a great inspiration – we followed the thread of his competitions with his nemesis, John Wren. We were also really lucky that the John Wren exhibition was on during our residency here, it was at Fed Square, and coincidentally we know his grandson, great-grandson I think, who looks exactly like him and we were thinking of doing a spin-off show where he plays John Wren, and …
Chris Kohn: He’s an actor.
Lally: …he’s an actor too, which makes it more convenient. And then Chris became really interested in Harry Clay, who is a more suburban and less glamorous version of the vaudeville entrepreneur.
All the entrepreneurs’ boats were always sinking because they had too much champagne on them, and it was from this, from the inspiration of Harry Clay, that we named our main character Charlie Mud and decided to call his theatre Mud’s Castle.
Chris Kohn: So Harry Clay was a vaudeville promoter who gained success appealing to the suburban audiences mostly in Sydney but also a bit in Melbourne, as well as regional centres. The audience were treated to simpler, less flashy shows at a lower price. Clay differs from our Mud, though, as he was a successful businessman, and content with his place in the vaudeville food chain, whereas from the moment the show opens it’s very clear that Mud is a failure as a businessman, and has very lofty aspirations. [Speaks quietly, away from microphone] This is Charlie Mud.
Chris Brown [in character as Charlie Mud]: If you only count my vaudeville career, there were 37 times I almost died on stage. I’m exaggerating, you think? But I’m not. There’s so many good ways to do it. You’d be a fool not to die at least once onstage. One crazy musician who used to tour a lot out bush nearly sawed me in half; 14 dwarves deliberately trampled me twice; and fires, of course there were fires, particularly in the theatres owned by Jews. The first time was when I was still a jockey. It was being a jockey that got me my start on the stage. John Wren had called me up, he had fingers in all the pies – horse racing, the theatre, the unions, football, libraries, you name it, it was his oyster.
Wren knew me because I was a top jockey. Anyone was at the top and you bet Wren knew them. Wren writes to me and says, ‘Here’s a sweet deal, all you have to do is turn up, we’ll provide the horse and you’ve just got to jump on it from all different angles. It’d be easy for a man of your talents.’ So I do, I turn up and I’m used to performing in front of folks, I’m used to the roar of all those mouths, but usually I’ve got to share this roar with at least 12 other guys. All those mouths, all those mouths, they’re cheering me on. This time, all those eyes, they’re watching just me. And the horse. And when I’m funny, because I can be funny, they’re laughing with me.
Wren told me after the first time I’d done it, he said I was a natural. The fifth time I do it, I take my usual run-up and I’m gonna jump up on the back of him, of this big old gelding, mild-mannered as any bloke is with the zing removed from him. I’ve never been afraid of a gelding. A stallion, oh yes, of course, but not a gelding. So as I run up right behind him, about to leap on, when this old gelding, he doesn’t kick me – you think I’m about to say he kicks me – but he don’t. He dies. That big gelding falls right back on top of me and dies. It takes him five minutes to drag him off me, by which time I’m blue. I don’t remember it but Wren told me that the first thing I said once I started breathing again was, ’Gotta get back on that horse.’
[Laughs] That’s funny, eh? But ironically I never do get on another horse. But if you count it like a metaphor, and I’m counting it as a metaphor, and the stage is a horse, then yes, I did get right back on. And here we are, out in the air to the Swanston River, withering in the shadow of the Tivoli. I told the artistes today, I told them, ‘It’s one thing to die onstage, it’s another to let the stage die under ya.’ That’s why it’s our final night at Mud’s Castle.’
Chris Kohn: As we discovered more and more journals on microfilm, and cuttings and images and programs, particularly from the extensive Tivoli collection, we decided we would limit our area of interest further. So we were sort of getting narrower and narrower until we sort of narrowed right into the period of just leading just up to the Great War. So it was a time of relative prosperity and peace, with a sense that anything was possible. The new year editorial in The Age that year indicates the prevailing official mood: The new year comes in smilingly, the old year went out graciously, much of good was in the past, much of promise seems pointing to the future. Australians can well afford to look forward with hope and confidence. The lean years that some people are so fond of warning us against are not yet in sight and there is no need for anyone to go in search of them.
I find this passage quite particularly poignant as, at this stage, the cracks were forming in Europe that would eventually usher in the horrors of the Great War and Australia’s own entry into modernity. So the idea that there is no need for anyone to go in search of these lean years is particularly interesting. More general reading, such as these editorials, helped us to get an idea of the official sort of public thought at the time. But the paper of record at the time, The Age, was smaller than it is now and less representative of a broad range of opinions and perspectives, so it began to be an exercise of reading against the grain of the official record by comparing this to the values and perspectives offered through the stage press, the smaller periodicals, private letters and the actual vaudeville routines themselves. While I was following these threads, Lally was following trails of her own.
Lally: The times that Chris wasn’t in the Library or was looking through microfilms, I spent doing a different kind of research. I would spend hours staring at the faces and the places in the portrait gallery, reading over and over again the names and brief biographies of the people whose images are recorded there. It was a way of beginning to populate Melbourne’s past in my imagination. I would go into the newspaper reading room and read articles from the time and everything was fascinating – often I wouldn’t get to the arts pages because I wouldn’t be able to help typing out advertisements and obituaries word-for-word. I was really stunned by the placement of words and how polite and how different the rhythm of words was to how we speak and write now. I would often [laughs] kind of end up in there for hours, just typing things in different lines in exactly the same way that they were in the newspaper. People, these really nice people, would say to me, ‘You know you can just scan it onto your computer, you don’t have to type it all out,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh no, no, it’s the way that I’m researching’.
It was kind of a way of getting into the past for me, and it was copying out obituaries and small news stories that I began to come across, over and over again, little snippets about people, particularly babies and small children being found floating dead in the Yarra River, and this fascinated me for a few reasons. Often when I’m working on a new piece of writing I sort of feel like a detective, and clues start to present themselves, and if I follow the clues then I’ll find the story. And so one thing was, interestingly, when Harry Houdini visited Melbourne in 1911 he jumped into the Yarra River and performed an escape act. Incidentally, Houdini was really terrified of sharks. So apparently he was really scared before he went into the Yarra that there was going to be a shark, which would be pretty scary if you were in a straitjacket at the bottom of the Yarra and a shark came. But there were rumours – and these were only hearsay, we couldn’t find any mention of it in the newspapers – that Houdini, when he came out of the river, brought a dead body that he found with him up from the river, and that he discovered from the bottom of the Yarra.
During the residency I spent a lot of time sitting outside the door of the Library, on the steps, watching Swanston Street. I would get kind of lost in the rhythm of the trams and the people and it seemed to me from where I was sitting, sort of in the world of the Library looking out at Melbourne, that Swanston Street was like a river and that the trams that were moving up and down it were like barges and the people walking along it were walking along the riverbank and on sunny days it was kind of as though the people of Melbourne came to sun themselves on the banks on Swanston River, and on cloudier, rainy days they were only coming to the river for business purposes. I started to imagine that Swanston River was in place of the Yarra River and that it was kind of the last, ghostly part to an alternate Melbourne, to an imagined Melbourne that most people didn’t know the way to anymore. I started to imagine that the colourful people and performers that we’d been researching actually existed in this imagined Melbourne along Swanston River as slightly altered versions of themselves. This coincided with reading we’d been doing about Bearbrass, which probably a lot of you know is what Melbourne was called before it was called Melbourne, and we were thinking: what if at that time when Melbourne became Melbourne, another option for reality here continued adjacent to our reality? Operating alongside it, and for a while competing over which would be the actual, real Melbourne … but slowly the Melbourne of Yarra River pulled ahead, and the Melbourne of Swanston River became more and more forgotten, and hard to find?
Chris Kohn: So when we’ve created shows together in the past, we’ve always sort of found that we’ve needed a hook, an idea on which we could kind of hang the whole show, and once that’s found we have the beginnings of a world and with that world then comes the characters and the story and the plot. And with Black swan of trespass the hook was just basically the idea that the central character would be Ern Malley himself, and that he would have some kind of awareness of his own fragile status as a hoax, created with a specific purpose that perhaps wasn’t the purpose that he agreed with.
So now we had a hook for our vaudeville show, a sort of parallel Melbourne on the banks of the Swanston River which was home to a failing theatre in the shadow of the legendary Tivoli. The real world of our Melbourne and the reality of the coming war was threatening to bust in on the stage door and overwhelm its inhabitants as they fought for their own existence and laid their own claims on perpetuity. This was laid out in the opening monologue which you heard a bit of before, delivered by Bones, our voice of authority and spokesperson for history.
Chris Brown [in character as Bones]: In Mud’s Castle we was set away from the other theatres. You ever heard of the legend of Swanston River? Long ago, before Melbourne were Melbourne, it were called Bearbrass, and were nothing more than a few huts scattered along the river. Legend has it that the founders were John Batman, who was loved by all though sadly lost his nose to syphilis, and John Pascoe Fawkner, who were hated by all but kept his nose, had a disagreement in regards to how this city would best progress. Unable to reach for an agreement, they split the river into two and began to build their own versions of Melbourne. Once Melbourne had the Yarra River and Swanston Street, and the other had Swanston River and Yarra Street. For some years both Melbournes existed – on top of but oblivious to the other one, and that’s where we was, in Mud’s vaudeville castle on the edge of Swanston River.
When we was started out there, the river were in abundance – it flowed fast, it were deep as the oceans I’d say, and filled with them fishes. And the industry – what a noise those barge ships made when they come in from the bay, drown out my piano every time. Folks used to come by the river and watch our show, they did, and they loved it. They loved our act. In 1914, a drought set in to Swanston River and as the river disappeared, so too did our audiences. It seems they both dried up together – 1914 were also the year when the Great War began and as it were the end of the Edwardian summer.
Chris Kohn: So we discovered the world but we still had to discover the form. As it turns out, the form found us. In the years we were looking at, the form of vaudeville was beginning to change. When Harry Rickards had opened the Melbourne Opera, or the new Melbourne Opera House, in 1900, his vaudeville shows were based on a combination of American vaudeville and the English music hall. There was a first part, imaginatively referred to as the first part, and then the second part, which of course was called the second part. In the First Part the regular company were on stage throughout in a sort of rough semi-circle, usually with a thematic set and a backdrop. The MC, known as Mr Interlocutor, was centre stage at the head of the semi-circle and there was a blackface minstrel at either end, downstage – they were usually referred to as Tambo and Bones. After opening with a group song the company members would take it in turn to present their signature act, or perhaps try some new material, and in between there would be some comedic banter and some satire between the interlocutor, Tambo and Bones. At the end of the first part there would be another group song and then interval.
The second part, after interval, would be a succession of individual or group performances, often including international stars and local favourites. And some of those names like Sandow the Strongman and people like that, and Ada Reeve, they would have been in the second part. There were front cloth acts that would take place downstage in front of a closed curtain while the scenery was changed upstage, such as acrobatic trapezes and things like that. So that was kind of the form that lasted for, it was quite prevalent in a lot of the theatres, then it started to change once Hugh D McIntosh took over, when Harry Rickards died in 1911. Then he started to gradually bring about a change to the format. But the emphasis was always on the variety and that’s something that vaudevillians always talk about is variety. Here’s a newspaper article from the Sydney Sun in 1913 which describes it: Why, the variety stage includes everything nowadays – operatic singers, comedy and dramatic sketches, high class music, eccentric singing and dancing, all sorts of feats and strengths, feats of strength and skills jostle one another in the one program.
Also one thing we kept seeing was that a lot of vaudevillians who would talk about the death of vaudeville would sometimes refer to the coming of the moving pictures and other forms of entertainment, but a lot of them talked about how it was when the variety started to leave vaudeville and it became more about just singing and comedy, that that’s when vaudeville really started to decline. It was this sense of jostling that appealed to us as dramatic form, this jostling between all these different kinds of acts and just imagining what might be happening backstage with 53 game cocks and performing dogs and a strongman and all these things backstage. There was a lot of fighting over pay, there’s lots of this is documented in different forms; conditions were argued about such as the size of the dressing room, the class of accommodation on sea voyages and, and which is pretty much the same as today really; and also there was a lot of arguing over billing, where somebody would be in the bill. The best spot, reserved for the bigger stars such as Harry Houdini, would be second-to-last, but the worst spot was the last one, as the patrons would all leave after the star finished their turn and it was generally reserved for an act that would guarantee a swift exit by all the patrons.
Around 1913, this Hugh D McIntosh grew in confidence and vision and the form started changing and the first part/second part format, as I said, began to phased out. But our little theatre run by Mud was to be one that was run by traditional values, or to put it another way was the fear of change. So we decided that in our show, the first half would take the form of a traditional first part, albeit scaled down with Mr Interlocutor, his ragged company of misfits including a magician and a singer and a ventriloquist, and the blackface minstrel Bones.
Bones is a figure we’re still kind of exploring further. As we’re researching, we realise how much of vaudeville comedy is based on stereotypes, the stock types for each race, gender, cultural background. Such as, there was always the shifty sort of money-grubbing Jew; the simple child-like and untrustworthy black, you know, often referred to as ‘nigger’ or ‘coon’, you know, very offensive terms these days and in that day as well for some people obviously; the happy-go-lucky coster, which was offensive in other ways maybe; the self-important toff, and so on. But the kind of, the inherent superiority of the white race was kind of taken as a given at that time, even though some commentators were already arguing for, the fact that some commentators were already kind of contesting this shows that it wasn’t a universally-held belief but it was certainly kind of prevalent.
So we were interested in what that means, and presenting those sort of things to today’s audience. We decided that we would largely present these values as they were, rather than introducing commentary at all points, as it’s sometimes more interesting to allow the audience to filter the material through their own set of values. This meant kind of exploring, kind of unflinchingly presenting jokes and songs as they might have been. We found songs, there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of surviving songs like Coon, coon, coon and If the man in the moon were a coon, things like that which when presented today kind of yield new theatrical possibilities, certainly kind of raise a lot more questions than they might have done in the time.
But we also thought we’d add a form of commentary in the character of Bones by making him a white person who performs in blackface, but who has somehow sort of become his role over the years, to the point where, we have this idea that at some point one day he just didn’t take his makeup off and then from then on he sort of totally inhabits the character of Bones in his life, and he has no status outside of his performed character. And for us this provides some fertile ground for the investigation of identity and subjectivity, and the degree to which any vaudeville performer at the time, sort of through repetition and through – many of them would have the same act, like someone like Julian Rose had the same act for 15 years, unchanged literally, and hence the title of the book Actor as known – people did have, it was written in their contract, they had to perform as they were expected to perform, in the sense that they might almost become the character that they’re playing. So yeah, it’s something that we started to explore a little bit.
Lally: Vaudeville was eventually forgotten and, like Chris was saying, the documentaries we watched and in the accounts that we read, so many of the vaudevillians were fascinated with what became a vaudeville, like how it died, whose fault it was, was it their fault for not being able to change their act and move with the times, or was it the fault of the moving picture and then later television and of course it was all of these things and none of them, it was just simply time. And it began to occur to me that the theatre, which has not only been my career but whole world and Chris’s, although he’s married now which leads to a healthier lifestyle, was, in a way, the ghost of vaudeville. But alternately it’s also a thriving reality of its own, which anyone who’s part of understands how necessary and addictive it is – but it’s a bubble just outside of, we’re on the side of mainstream reality where grown-ups can still live inside their imaginations and that’s what I saw Swanston River as. And in our play Charlie Mud, in utter desperation to keep his reality and his theatre alive, makes a deal with the devil, who in this case is a fictionalised version of John Wren, and John Wren’s the silent partner in Mud’s Castle and in order for Wren to bankroll Mud’s Castle, Mud agrees to let Wren hide dead bodies in the Swanston River behind the theatre. However, we learn at the beginning of the play that a terrible drought has set in to Swanston River, so all the dead bodies are starting to rise up and Mud knows he’s in trouble.
Chris Kohn: Ok, I was going to say something about, I’ll just see how much, oh no I think we’re just going to make it – the second half of our show begins, the first half, the form of the first half is a series of acts through which we sort of by accident we see that actually this company is falling apart and it sort of ends in a fairly dramatic kind of trick that goes wrong. And in the second half, the company lines up to begin a second part and discovers that everybody who was left in the audience has now gone, so they’re playing to nobody. Which leaves them with the decision, as it’s their last night: do they perform without an audience? Do they go on regardless? And it places them in a position of existential uncertainty. What is an act without an audience to complete it? Where does it go? Who are they performing for – themselves? Each other? The world? On one level they’re performing for the audience that is really there, the modern-day witnesses of their final death throes.
So it think, I guess that’s probably a good place now to throw to. Well, I’ll just say one last little thing which is that, just to throw another thing in there, there’s a figure called the Apocalypse Bear who is in a few of Lally’s plays who sort of turns up, he’s always there to, sorry about the pun, but to literally bear witness on the ends of things, whenever something is ending he’s there. And we’re never sure whether he’s benevolent or malevolent and so he sort of figures as well. Anyway, we’re a long way from finishing what the play will be, and in fact we’ve got another development next year and then the show will probably actually become a show the year after that. We’ve found with the last development, as I’m sure we will with the next one, that we discover a lot more in the room, and in fact a lot of our research we have been bringing into the room and a lot of it really comes alive when it’s given into the hands of the performers. So we still have a lot of more drafting to do, more research, more, as I said, workshop time. But certainly the time that we have had here as creative fellows has been really invaluable, and we hope that the show will reflect this, if not in exact historical events then certainly in the overall feeling and the atmosphere, and I guess kind of reflecting some things about the way that people were feeling and thinking at the time. And I guess, in a way, maybe rescuing some of the lost, inconsequential moments in Melbourne’s vaudeville history.
So I’ll just throw to Bones for one last little closing monologue.
Chris Brown [in character as Bones]: It’s not so bad really, I ain’t seen everything there is to see, but I’ve seen enough to know that somewhere at the end of every drought, there’s a flood. And everyone’s piling into their boats just like Noah did, collecting everything they think they can’t stand to lose. I’ll let you in on something, I tell you something right from my heart, but you can’t never tell no-one else because I’ll know it was you who told, you’re the only one I’m telling, because I’ve seen you there all night in the darkest seat of the house and I know you’ve seen me see you. We locked eyes one time, two times we locked eyes and I trust you. This is me, there are the ten things I would pack on my ark if I happened to be Noah – one, my piano; two, my foot stop-itching cream; three, a photograph of my mumma when she were young; four, a program from Mud’s Castle – only need one, every night we’re the same; five, a can opener; six, can I say a hundred and still count it for only one – you’ll let me won’t ya? – one hundred tines of pineapple; seven, the kind of mirror that makes your face look long; eight, another hundred tins of pineapple; nine, a backup can opener in case the first one breaks; ten, a photograph of Miss Ethelyn Rarity.
Ethelyn floated down Swanston River, and Swanston River, like all rivers, become something like the sea. And yes, she’s been dead already, but it was still pretty scary for her body. You don’t know what it’s like: the dark rust underneath the ship, the night time sky hitting the waves. She floated to the top of the world and up near Germany. I went almost the whole way too, following on my silly little paddle boat. I wanted to hold her hand, though of course I couldn’t reach it. I like to think it was a comfort for her, though, my trying like that. And finally, when the sea split into two currents, I was in one and she was in the quicker. I could see her satin white costume join the phosphorous that the whales eat and I thought to myself she’ll be alright there. I hope that’s what I saw. I’m ready. You hear it? The rain.
Chris Kohn: I’d just like to also just say thank you to the State Library of Victoria for allowing us to have this time as creative fellows.
Lally: Yeah it’s been brilliant, thank you.
Dianne: Well I think that we’ve seen from Chris Brown’s acting that even in their first draft, a well-researched, informative and most enjoyable play is emerging, and this is from the research carried out here at the State Library by and large, but I know that there are other resources that you’ve drawn upon. Chris and Lally have been a delight to work with here at the State Library and we’ve loved having them. They’re such fun, as you can see from the presentation tonight. Chris is about to go to work in Sydney for five weeks and then to take up another fellowship in Paris, lucky person. I’m sure that we can look forward to seeing Lally’s and Chris’s names up in lights for a long time to come. So would you please join me in thanking them.
Thank you. Before you go this evening, on the table at the back of the room there is a flyer about our next Creative Fellowship talk. It will be Eileen Chanin speaking about modern women of the arts, these were women at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. This will take place on the 13th of September, so it would be good to see some of you here. Thank you.