SBS > Gold > Arts and Entertainment > Theatre


Theatre


Theatre on the gold fields

For those with money in their pocket the theatre offered perfect relief from the realities of life on the goldfields.


Dress circle boxes, Queen’s Theatre: lucky diggers in Melbourne by S. T. Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H330


"The dress circle was crammed... with florid-looking women in too low satin dresses, some in their smeared hair, with their pinned bonnets dangling in front of the boxes; others crowned with tiaras like rosebushes in full bearing, and all hung round with chains, watches, collars, and bracelets of most ponderous manufacture. Their lords-in-waiting were habited either in tartan jumpers or red worsted shirts, smoking short pipes, and indulging in indelicate attentions... 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... The third act was transformed into a most amusing colloquy between the Danish Grave-digger and the gold-diggers from Eagle Hawk, made up of mutual inquiries about the depth of the sinking, and the return to the tub, which so tickled Hamlet that he gave up the soliquy and joined in the joking.... there was no alternative but cut down the remainder of the performance to the last scene... But Hamlet, Ophelia, and the Ghost, in undress, were obliged to appear before the foot-lights to bear a pelting shower of nuggets - a substitute for bouquets - many of over half an ounce..."

In a short time theatres rose up everywhere to support the demand for entertainment, and actors and actresses were induced away from the comforts of the city seeking fame and fortune.

"Sandhurst supports three theatres: one (The Criterion) quite as capacious and elegant as our own Lyceum, where Catherine Hayes, Madam Bishop, Lola Montes, Miss Goddard, and Gustavus Brooke fretted their hours upon the stage, carrying away substantial recognitions of their abilities..."


Theatre Royal, Bendigo, 1861 showing three signs - Shamrock Hotel, (top), Cobb & Co Booking Office (middle), Theatre Royal (bottom)] by Benjamin P. Batchelder
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H1999 *LTAF 61


The Theatre Royal in Bendigo (originally known as Sandhurst) was built on to the Shamrock Hotel as a concert hall.

"The concert-hall attached to the Shamrock Hotel [Sandhurst] on which the enterprising landlord spent no less a sum than £8000... and in a like spirit he [has secured] the first artists in the colony, his musical staff often costing him as much in salaries alone as £150 per week... There are concerts every night, but Mondays and Saturdays are the grand evenings, when every inch of the enormous hall, and every corner of the different approaches, are thoroughly filled. It was no uncommon thing, I understand, to receive £500 of a Saturday night."


Section of G.S. Coppin. Playbills for "Spirit of the goldfields", performed at Theatre Royal, Geelong, July 1852.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
MS 8827.



Theatre Royal, Ballarat, letterpress handbill, 1854.
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria
H10498



Theatre in Melbourne

The initial rush for gold resulted in an exodus of the cities which severely affected attendances at city theatres and caused many to close their doors.

Diggers moved back to the cities when they had exhausted their gold prospects in the country gold regions. These mostly young single men were keen to attend night-time entertainment showing off their newfound wealth. In order to cater for the increased demand for shows, six new theatres opened in Melbourne over an eight-year period.

In 1855, the Olympic Theatre, otherwise known as the "Iron Pot", was assembled in Melbourne in a period of just thirty days. The great nineteenth century theatre manager, George Coppin ordered the prefabricated cast and corrugated iron, timber and glass building from London to showcase the star Irish Shakespearian actor Gustavus Vaughan Brooke. Also appearing on the same bill as Brooke was the magician and illusionist 'Wizard Jacobs', reputed to be the world's best solo entertainer with acts like 'the great suspension feat'. The Theatre Royal which opened in the same year boasted an auditorium and stage to rival the largest London theatre.


Olympic Theatre, Collins Street Melbourne.
By the Calvert Brothers, c. 1860.
Courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum
Victorian Arts Centre


Other Melbourne theatres which hosted celebrated international acts the likes of opera star Catherine Hayes and Lola "Spider Dance" Montez, included the Princess’s Theatre, the Queen’s Theatre, the Haymarket Theatre, the Alexandra Theatre and the Prince of Wales Opera House.



Credits

Theatre on the gold fields

State Library of Victoria

From the State Library of Victoria’s virtual exhibition Life on the Goldfields.



Theatre in Melbourne

Victorian Arts Centre

By Catherine O'Donoghue
Courtesy of the Performing Arts Museum
Victorian Arts Centre




 
 

| Top | Home  | About the VCC  | Contact us |