Nellie Stewart

  • Haddon Chambers and the Long Arm of Neglect (Revisited) (Part 2)

    ROGER NEILL concludes his two-part article on the life and works of Australian-born Charles Haddon Chambers, commemorating 100 years since the death of a playwright who deserves better recognition in the country of his birth.

    High point: The Tyranny of Tears

    Although Haddon Chambers’ next full-length play,The Tyranny of Tears of 1899, was substantially his most successful and critically applauded play, re-staged over several decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty. At the heart of it is the relentless patronising of his wife by the leading man. As Elizabeth Schafer puts it:

    The Tyranny of Tears featured a married couple renegotiating their marriage as the wife is pressured into behaving more acceptably. Initially she exerts ‘tyranny’ by crying prettily and using emotional blackmail to alienate her husband from his friends and keep his focus relentlessly on her, to the detriment of his writing … I would want to ask, more stringently than the play allows, what precisely would make a woman employ such ‘tyranny’ in the first place?

    My own assumption is that the Hampstead writer-husband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed, it may be that this tightly composed domestic comedy is based on his own marriage, the wife Mabel on his own wife. While her manipulative tears might indeed drive a man to distraction, it never seems to occur to Parbury that he might be part of the problem. Being constantly positioned by him as an inferior being, a ‘dear little woman’, might well promote in a wife feelings of anger, even revenge. His self-perception (always being, by right, in the right) would be irksome, to say the least. Any modern staging would be bound to re-balance the roles—as happens so often with contemporary productions of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew.

    One wonders whether Chambers’ relationship with such a powerful woman as Melba—so much more direct and self-confident than the Mabel character—might not have sharpened his sense of the problems in his own marriage. Another side of Chambers is embodied in a second male character, George Dunning, the unmarried outsider who disturbs the ‘harmony’ of the marriage. Mabel Parbury says to him that she thinks his alarming influence over her husband is ‘the ridicule of the untamed for the tamed.’ ‘Say of the disreputable for the respectable,’ responds Gunning.

    The Tyranny of Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus on 6 April 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and his wife, the ‘adored’ Mary Moore, as Mrs Parbury. ‘I did not expect that he would ever take this keen interest in ordinary human character,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review, ‘nor that he would ever write dialogues so pointed and witty.’ It ran for 115 performances and Chambers drew a ten per cent royalty from the play, which gave him £160 a week, equivalent to around $A30,000 a week in current money, supplemented by the royalties he was earning from the revival under Beerbohm Tree of Captain Swift, running at the same time at Her Majesty’s in London. Tyranny was revived in January 1902 at Wyndham’s and in February 1914 at the Comedy (52 performances).

    Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented The Tyranny of Tears in New York in September at the Empire. It became a star vehicle for John Drew as Parbury. Drew was to become a ‘close pal’ of Chambers. In Australia it was toured by Robert Brough’s company in 1900 (and later 1902) with Mr and Mrs Brough in leading roles, first opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 12 May. After Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, the company went on to Calcutta.

    Tyrannywas followed in 1901 by The Awakening, which did well and aroused much comment. A guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and first translator of Ibsen), William Archer, paraphrased it as follows in Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship of 1912:

    [It] turned on a sudden conversion—the ‘awakening’, in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer [Jim Trower], a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he ‘awakens’ to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the audience to be assured of the fact?

    The Awakening seems to me to be the most autobiographical of all Chambers’ work, and the ambivalence that Archer senses in the ‘lady-killer’ may well reflect ambivalence in the playwright himself. In a letter to a friend Chambers admits that he was ‘weak enough to be persuaded into making [an] alteration’, going on to say that ‘when the play is done in America it will be exactly as written, as the balance was disturbed by a regretted attempt to whitewash Jim Trower.’

    Initially postponed following the death of Queen Victoria, it opened at the St James’s Theatre in London on 6 February 1901 (running for 59 performances) with George Alexander as the philanderer James St John Trower, A.E. Matthews as Cecil Bird, H.B. Irving as Lord Reginald Dugdale and Fay Davis as the ‘country maiden’ Olive Lawrence. ‘He uses his innate sense of the theatre, not for striking out unscrupulously theatrical effects, but for creating effects of real life across footlights,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review. The following month Chambers directed H.V. Esmond’s The Wilderness at the same theatre. Although Frohman purchased the American rights for The Awakening, I have yet to discover any performance there. It was given a decade later by an amateur company at the Palace Theatre in Sydney (December 1912).

    In the early years of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears and The Awakening (1901) with a series of adaptations from European originals—A Modern Magdalen (1902), The Younger Mrs Parling (1904), The Thief (1907), Suzanne (1910) and Tante (1913). Did he turn to adaptation because he felt his own creative powers waning?

    Chambers’ next three productions all had their premières in New York. A Modern Magdalen was refashioned by Chambers from a Danish play, Familie Jensen by Edgar Hoyen. Here Chambers returns to an earlier theme—the woman with a past and her subsequent rejection by society. It opened in New York in March 1902 at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for 73 performances.

    An apparently different play, specifically written (it was claimed by George Musgrove) by Haddon Chambers for the Australian musical comedy star Nellie Stewart, called Dolores, made its première at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in July 1903. Not lasting long there, it was toured throughout Australia. In reality, Dolores was A Modern Magdalen.Clearly, Nellie Stewart was not enamoured of Mr Chambers, complaining in her memoirs that an agreement was made with the playwright for a series of new plays for Nellie, none of which was forthcoming. She described him as a ‘casual Australian’. Perhaps Haddon was not amused. Around the same time, there were reports that A Modern Magdalenhad been translated into French for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, but this does not seem to have come to anything. A Modern Magdalenwas made into a movie in Hollywood in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore and Cathrine Countiss.

    His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling opened at the Park Theater in Boston in November 1903 with Annie Russell in the lead role, and then ran for 36 performances at the Garrick in New York. It was from Le Détour by Henri Bernstein, and again took up the cause of the ‘fallen woman’—‘a mixture of Ibsen and Dumas fils,’ said the New York Times. Mauled by the American critics, it never reached the stage in London.

    The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened in September 1907 again at the Lyceum in New York (a major hit, running for 281 performances), with the English actor, Kyrle Bellew, as Richard Voysin and Margaret Illington as his wife. Bellew had toured Australia twice with the radiant Mrs Brown Potter in the 1890s and had prospected (and acted) on the goldfields of Victoria twenty years earlier.

    The version of The Thief which ran at the St James’s Theatre in London (opening 12 November 1907 with George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh) was by Cosmo Gordon Lennox. Haddon Chambers’ adaptation was not performed in England until June 1927, when it was given by the repertory company at the Playhouse in Broadstairs, Kent.

    Chambers adapted Suzanne from a Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, by Frantz Fonson and Ferdinand Wicheler. It was produced at the Lyceum in New York by Charles Frohman, opening in December 1910, with Billie Burke (Suzanne), Julian L’Estrange and George W. Anson in leading roles. It ran for 64 performances.

    The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a best-selling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production, it was tried out at the Apollo in Atlantic City in October 1913 before opening at the Empire in New York, where it ran for 79 performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist, Madame Okraska. The New York Times described it as a work of ‘exceptional adroitness’ with ‘splendid characterisation’. It opened at the Haymarket in London as The Impossible Womanin September 1914 with Lillah McCarthy (running for 89 performances) and under that title was made into a British film with Constance Collier in 1919.

    Breaking with Melba

    It seems that Haddon Chambers’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a halt at some time during the period around 1906-08. Some saw it as an abrupt break. In his memoirs, Henry Russell says: ‘For reasons that I never understood and which he never explained, he suddenly ceased to be persona grata to her.’ He goes on to speculate that Haddon ‘found her a trifle too exigent from time to time’, seeming to imply that he dropped her, which I doubt. Exigent had been a word he had used in The Tyranny of Tears to describe the manipulative wife. ‘His infatuation lasted longer than hers, and she had a lot of trouble in getting rid of him,’ wrote Melba’s early biographer, Percy Colson.

    One possibility is that the breach stemmed from difficulties surrounding the royalties committed to Chambers by Melba from her early recordings (one shilling per record sold in America). Melba’s first recordings, made at her home in Great Cumberland Place in March and April of 1904, came after long periods of separation from Haddon and this may be a second issue. He was at the carriage door at Euston Station as she left in July 1902 for her first tour of Australia after sixteen years in Europe and she toured frequently in the succeeding years.

    A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904, so ironically he was at last legally free. And, of course, his reputed philandering ways may have had something to do with the breakdown. Ann Blainey suggests that Melba’s affections switched to the Australian flautist, John Lemmoné. In March 1904 Haddon copied out in his own hand a triolet (eight-line verse) that rehearses whimsically the heroic absences of men and the inconstancy of women:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady:

    Noble words were those, I trow.

       ‘Glory calls me – I must go.’

    Back he came: another beau

       Toying with her tresses shady:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady.

    In fact, the verse was not by Chambers, but had been first published in the 24 November 1883 issue of The Bulletin in Sydney as the work of VJD (Irish-Australian poet, Victor Daley). Clearly, it had some enduring meaning for Haddon.

    Sadly, Haddon Chambers is not mentioned either in the first biography of the diva (Melba: A Biographyof 1909 by Agnes G Murphy), which was virtually dictated to the writer by Melba, or in her ‘official’ autobiography, Melodies and Memoriesof 1925, which was ghost-written by Beverley Nichols.

    Between 1903 and 1906 Haddon wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, neither of them enjoying any great success. A third, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with the American, Paul Kester, who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.

    The Golden Silence opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 22 September 1903, running for 78 performances. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh (Countess of Arlington) and Arthur Bourchier (Augustus Mapes), who also directed. At the première, Bourchier had a cool reception from the audience and at the close Haddon Chambers came forward, bowed, and was received with a chorus of groans.

    Sir Anthony, opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York on 19 November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only 16 performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later (28 November 1908, 48 performances), and Max Beerbohm commented on ‘the extreme fidelity with which Mr Chambers has painted the class of people who are his theme … the lower-middle and middle-middle classes’. Perhaps Chambers’ satirising of British snobbery found a more ready response in London than it had in New York. Among the London cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault, and the Wyndham’s staging was co-produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.

    Another Chambers project from 1905-06 that seems not to have reached the stage was a musical comedy, Mr Flame, created with the composer Bernard Rolt. Young and handsome, Rolt was primarily a composer of drawing-room ballads. He had become a close friend of Nellie and Haddon Chambers. The three of them had vacationed together with others in Italy in July 1904—first at a house party at Henry Russell’s villa at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, moving on to Venice, where Melba studied Madama Butterfly with Puccini, a role she never sang. In 1906, Haddon was living in ‘my new little house in Waverton Street’ in Mayfair.

    On 19 September 1908 Haddon Chambers participated in a ‘copyright’ performance of a new American operetta by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, The Prima Donna.Haddon read the lead male role. This happened at the Knickerbocker Theater in New York on 30 November with Fritzi Scheff as the prima donna.

    In 1910 Chambers was reportedly writing another musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden, but this too does not seem to have come to anything.

    Late works

    Two of his last three plays, written immediately before and during the First World War, were admired and also successful at the box office.

    The basic idea for Passers-By of 1911 came to Chambers when he and a friend, the Gaiety actor, Paul Arthur, were walking home on a foggy night from the theatre in London. Chambers collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own daughter, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre on 29 March with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to be one of the most successful new plays of the season with 163 performances.

    When a young gentleman of leisure, Peter Waverton, invites a tramp, Samuel Burns, out of the fog into his Piccadilly apartment for supper, his butler, Pine, complains at the upsetting of social hierarchy. Also out of the fog comes a distressed young mother, Margaret, the father of whose child, unbeknown to him, is Waverton.  Haddon Chambers’ proto-feminist attitudes can be gauged from the unmarried mother, Margaret: ‘You needn’t be embarrassed for me, Peter. I’m not ashamed and I’ve no remorse. He’s my child. I’ve won him and he’s mine only.’

    Irene Vanbrugh wrote in her memoirs: ‘I was to be Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady, an experience I had always wanted. This was in Passers-By by Haddon Chambers, a play with true sentiment, and Gerald’s special, very flexible, sensitive approach to his art delighted me … and kept the scenes between us alive.’ The theatre critic of The Times had a different view on the proceedings: ‘Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the “sympathetic” personage in a sentimental play.’

    Passers-By opened on 14 September 1911 at the Criterion in New York, produced by Frohman, running for 124 performances. ‘Richard Bennett need not fear comparison with Gerald du Maurier,’ wrote the New York Times critic, ‘he has the variety, charm, naturalness, ease.’ It was twice made into silent movies in Hollywood (in 1916 and 1920), the earlier version with Chambers’ close friend, Charles Cherry. Cherry was also in the American stage productions of Tanteand The Great Pursuit.

    The rights for Australasia having been signed by J.C. Williamson, Passers-Bytoured extensively there from January to September 1912. The production opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Hilda Spong as Margaret. Spong had previously appeared in Haddon Chambers’ The Fatal Cardin Sydney seventeen years earlier in 1895. This was her first return to the Antipodes since that time, having established her reputation as a fine actor in Britain and America.

    After Melbourne, the Passers-Bycompany went to New Zealand (Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington), returning to His Majesty’s in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, the Town Hall in Kalgoorlie, His Majesty’s in Perth, the Princess in Bendigo, Her Majesty’s in Ballarat and finally the Theatre Royal in Sydney. In Melbourne and Sydney, Waverton was played by Harcourt Beatty, but on tour the part was taken by the American William Desmond.

    Less successful, The Great Pursuit of 1916 was put on at the Shubert Theatre in New York as a vehicle for the English actor, W. Graham Browne, with his starrier wife Marie Tempest taking a small role. It ran for 29 performances.

    Haddon Chambers’ last finished play, The Saving Grace of 1917, was a hit in London, running for 200 performances at the Garrick Theatre with Sir Charles Hawtrey in the lead role and the young Noel Coward as the juvenile lead (his first ‘grown-up part’). Haddon was at this time living (with valet Hogg) at 4 Aldford Street, off Park Lane, Mayfair—‘tiny but charmingly furnished … every room differently and delightfully decorated,’ according to John D. Williams. In New York (at the Empire again), The Saving Gracewas played to ecstatic reviews (‘amazing subtlety and distinction’) by the English actor, Cyril Maude. Chambers himself directed and the play ran on Broadway for 96 performances.

    It was brought to Sydney by Robert Courtneidge’s company, opening at the Tivoli in October 1920. Brisbane followed, where on 21 November, according to the Northern Herald: ‘A serious panic at His Majesty’s Theatre was narrowly averted … when about 150 university students raided the building and startled the audience … Many people thought there was a fire.’

    The central figure is Blinn Corbett, a penniless English army officer, who has run off with his commanding officer’s wife. Written past the mid-point of the war, millions of casualties having been sustained, but set at its outbreak, it seems astonishing that the enthusiasm to join up was still uppermost in men’s thinking. Nevertheless, The Saving Grace is tautly plotted with crackling, witty dialogue. ‘Haddon Chambers’ best,’ said the New York Times of its American première. Reviewing his long career, the piece continued:

    He has to his credit one of the small number of perfect comedies of manners in the language. The Tyranny of Tears, and a character romance of distinguished charm, Passers-By. The present play blends the acute actuality of the one with the kindly feeling of the other.

    And assessing the whole Haddon Chambers oevre, Michael R. Booth (in his English Plays of the Nineteenth Century) wrote:

    From the French they [English dramatists] absorbed the planned management of plot structure, the elimination of irrelevant material, and the careful subordination of means to ends. In Pinero and Jones French skills are generally applied to plays with many characters, a substantial plot, and an elaborate social setting. The Tyranny of Tears [and The Saving Grace] goes further: the characters are remarkably few in number; the plot is slight; and the setting is many miles, both literally and figuratively, from Mayfair.

    In his memoirs-article of 13 October 1918, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, the fifty-six-year-old playwright described his sadness at losing over recent times so many of his closest friends, naming particularly Charles Frohman (who had drowned in the sinking of the Lusitaniaby a German submarine in May 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in 1917) and George Alexander (in 1918). He also mentioned in passing ‘certain war activities that I had been engaged upon.’ What these were remains unclear.

    If Nellie Melba had been Haddon Chambers’ closest woman friend, his closest male intimate in New York and London over a quarter of a century had been Charles Frohman. Around 1900 Chambers introduced Frohman to Marlow, which the producer fell in love with, regularly staying at the Compleat Angler inn by the river. Following the sinking of the Lusitaniain May 1915 in which Frohman was one of the 1,198 who died, Haddon said to the New York Times:

    Up and down [the High Street] Mr Frohman used to love to walk, dodging in and out of the stores, where he would purchase unconsidered trifles as an excuse for chatting with the shopkeepers.

    Chambers made the journey to the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland, in order to identify and retrieve the body, writing to his sister Agnes in Sydney:

    I went over to Queenstown with Lestocq, his London manager, to get Frohman’s body. We crossed the Irish Channel at night with all lights out on account of the German submarines … It was the saddest quest I was ever upon … We bore him to Liverpool and sent him to New York … Just before the ship went down he said to a girl friend of mine, who was fortunately saved, that ‘after all, death was only a beautiful adventure.’


    The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On 29 October 1920 he married the musical comedy star, Pepita Bobadilla. Haddon was 59, she 28. Although she was advertised as having been born in Ecuador, her real name was Nelly Louise Burton, born in Hamburg, the illegitimate daughter of an English mother and a German officer father.

    Haddon’s health declined and she took care of him until his death, apparently from stroke and heart disease, at 61 in London on 28 March 1921. There was a funeral service at St George’s Hanover Square in London—among the congregation Sir Arthur Pinero, Charles Hawtrey, Lady Wyndham and Lady Tree. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie and with Charles Frohman.

    There is no evidence that he ever embraced the ministry of his Baptist parents or of the ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, after whom he had been named. The British playwright-actor Seymour Hicks (performing in Melbourne in 1924) discussed the death of Haddon Chambers with Melba at her house, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream:

    For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man … Long after I had finished telling her all I could about her mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies.

    Pepita had his final play, unfinished at his death, completed in 1922, acting in it herself at the Savoy Theatre in London. He had written The Card Players for her, but it was not a success. It opened on 26 April, running for 29 performances with Pepita (as Eileen Ashfield), produced by Dot Boucicault. The following year, she was to marry Sidney Reilly, the celebrated ‘Ace of Spies’—on his part bigamously (or even trigamously).

    Haddon had died intestate, effectively leaving everything to Pepita, although how much remained is unclear. In his biography of Reilly, Richard B Spence asserts that she inherited ‘an income of at least £2,000 a year’. This may have been true initially, but if it was based on ticket and book royalties, that amount would have declined rather precipitously as the years went by. Without any substantial supporting evidence, Spence also speculates that Pepita may have met Reilly earlier than she disclosed and that there may have been foul play involved in the sudden death of Haddon Chambers.

    Haddon’s friend, the American theatre director John D. Williams, in an appreciation of Chambers’ life in Century Magazine (December 1921), wrote that Haddon

    … publicly entertained two generations and privately fascinated hundreds of men and women of two worlds. He was irresistible as a companion, the chairman of the committee on fun, wherever he was, a fascinating magician in epigrams … a citizen of the world, at home wherever he found himself, but especially at his best as the play-boy of England and America.

    The younger writer Somerset Maugham wrote a less glamorous, somewhat bitchy remembrance in his A Writer’s Notebook following Haddon Chambers’ death:

    At the first glance he looked a youngish man, but presently you saw that in reality he was old, old … He had the reputation of a Don Juan, and this he valued much more than any that his plays had brought him … The only art in which he seemed at all interested was music … It exasperated him to have his best play, The Tyranny of Tears, ascribed to Oscar Wilde … I see him lounging at a bar, a dapper little man, chatting good-humouredly with a casual acquaintance of women, horses and Covent Garden opera, but with an air as though he were looking for someone who might at any moment come in at that door.

    Why have Haddon Chambers’ plays not (thus far) survived in performance, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons. Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in Britain and America than in Australia. Australian audiences have in modern times found it hard to take English high-society plays—though it must be said that Robert Brough ‘the greatest actor-manager Australia had known’, had made a career of just this in the late nineteenth century, introducing Australian audiences to Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome … and Haddon Chambers. Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor long-term career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.

    It is clear that, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were finally swept from British stages with the arrival of ‘kitchen sink’ in the 1950s. It took several decades before managements would risk them again. Gradually there has been a return, with actors and directors finding ways to make these plays speak to us now, prominent amongst them Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House.

    It remains ironic that, while eight of Haddon Chambers’ plays are now in print (2021),1 his work remains unexplored and unperformed. What of the remainder of the scripts? Most, if not all, reside in typescript form in the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship archive at the British Library.


    1. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace


    Appendix: Plays by C. Haddon Chambers

    One of Them 1886 (one act); The Open Gate 1887 (one act); Captain Swift 1888; Devil Caresfoot1889 (adapted from Rider Haggard’s Dawn); The Idler 1890; Love and War 1891 (adapted from the French); The Honourable Herbert 1891; The Collaborators1892; The Queen of Manoa 1892 (with WO Tristram); The Old Lady 1892; The Pipe of Peace 1892; The Fatal Card (with RC Stephenson) 1894; John-a-Dreams 1894; Boys Together (with J Comyns Carr) 1896; In the Days of the Duke (with J Comyns Carr) 1897; The Tyranny of Tears 1899; Blue Roses 1901 (staged privately); The Awakening 1902 (adapted from the French); The Golden Silence 1903; The Head of the Family (with Paul Kester) 1903 (incomplete? not staged); A Modern Magdalen (adaptation) / Dolores 1902; The Younger Mrs Parling 1903; Sir Anthony 1906; The Thief 1907 (adapted from the French of Henri Bernstein); Suzanne 1910; The Best Girl 1910 (musical comedy with music by John L Golden) (incomplete? not staged); Passers-By 1911; Tante1913 (adapted from novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick) / The Impossible Woman; The Great Pursuit 1916 (revision of The Idler?); The Saving Grace 1917; The Card Players 1922



    Stephen Alomes, When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

    Ann Blainey, I am Melba: A biography, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008

    Elleke Boehmer (ed), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

    Michael R. Booth (ed), English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: III Comedies, Oxford University Press, London, 1973

    Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The Performing Arts as Cultural History,Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

    Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies,Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1967

    Kate Carew, ‘Charles Frohman opens his heart at Kate Carew’s private confessional’, New York Tribune, 25 August 1912

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘The American Producer who Lived at Marlow’, New York Times, 17 October 1915

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, New York Times, 13 October 1918

    Percy Colson, Melba: An Unconventional Biography, Grayson & Grayson, London, 1932

    Noel Coward, Present Indicative, William Heinemann, London & Toronto, 1937

    Maisie Dubosarsky, ‘”Interesting, and unlike other people”: 19th-century popular Australian writers Haddon Chambers and Rosa Praed abroad’, BA honours thesis, University of Sydney, 2009

    Sarah Engledow, ‘Suave’, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 2010

    John Hetherington, Melba: A Biography,Faber and Faber, London, 1967

    Seymour Hicks, Night Lights: Two Men Talk of Love and Ladies, Cassell, London, 1938

    Eric Irwin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre 1788-1914, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1985

    Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man,John Lane / The Bodley Head, 1915

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    Roger Neill, ‘Melba: Melba’s First Recordings’, Historic Masters, London, 2008  

    Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter, Methuen, London, 1956

    Margot Peters, Mrs Pat: The Life of Mrs Patrick Campbell,Hamish Hamilton, London, 1984

    Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama: A Historical and Critical Survey from the 1830s to the 1970s,Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973

    George Rowell, The Victorian Theatre: A Survey, Oxford University Press, London, 1956

    Russell, Henry, The Passing Show,Thornton Butterworth, London, 1926

    Elizabeth Schafer, ‘A tale of two Australians: Haddon Chambers, Gilbert Murray and the imperial London stage’ in Playing Australia: Australian theatre and the international stage (Vol 9 Australian playwights),Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York, 2003

    Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly,Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002

    Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands, Sydney, 1923

    J.C. Trewin, The Edwardian Theatre,Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976

    Irene Vanbrugh, To Tell My Story, Hutchinson, London, 1948

    Pamela Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Phoebe, Melbourne, 1996

    J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, 1910-1919, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, 2014

    Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography, Methuen, London, 1993

    John D. Williams, ‘A Play-Boy of Two Worlds’, Century Magazine, New York, December 1921

    A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker, London, 1951 



    With grateful thanks for help of all kinds:

    Elisabeth Kumm of Theatre Heritage Australia; Pamela Botha, Melbourne; Christine Chambers, great-niece of Haddon Chambers, Little River, California; Maisie Dubosarsky Fieschi, Paris; Christine Egan, Fort Street School Archives, Petersham; Kathryn Johnson, the British Library; Tony Locantro, Barking; John Wilson, Cheltenham; Sophie Wilson, King’s Sutton; Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, Sydney; Theatre Museum, University of Bristol

    © Roger Neill 2021


    This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission),

  • Plaque to Nellie Stewart Unveiled at Former Den-o-Gwynne

    Nellie Stewart was born and bred in Sydney. In 1913 George Musgrove built her a house at 23 Wunulla Road in Point Piper, which they called ‘Den-o-Gwynne’. The house still stands, and as part of an ongoing project by the Woollahra Municipal Council, a plaque was laid in the footpath outside the property to commemorate its former illustrious tenant.

    Nellie StewartNellie Stewart, c.1901. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.On 31 October 2022, Woollahra Municipal Council in Sydney unveiled the latest addition to its historical Plaque Scheme, a marker commemorating the actor and singer Eleanor (Nellie) Stewart at 23 Wunulla Road, Point Piper, her former home. Nellie Stewart was a much-loved and highly accomplished artiste, and became synonymous with the role of Nell Gwynne in the play Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which she performed for nearly thirty years.

    The plaque ceremony was presided over by Deputy Mayor of Woollahra, Councillor Isabelle Shapiro, with guest speaker Graham Shirley, an Australian filmmaker and author known for his work in Australian film history. The nomination for the plaque was made by Graham Humphrey, community member. All those in attendance listened to the highlights of Nellie’s life, career, and impact on Australian theatre with keen interest outside the Den-o-Gwynne property,named for Nellie’s most famous role.

    Nellie was born in Woolloomooloo on 20 November 1858. Her father Richard Stewart (formerly Towzey), was an English actor, comedian, entrepreneur and theatre manager. Her Irish-born mother Theodosia (née Yates, formerly Guerin) was the daughter of Richard and Mary Ann Yates, famously known for their work at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. Nellie made her stage debut at the tender age of five, and it is no surprise that travel with her theatre-centric family provided her with a viable entry to the craft.

    As a young woman, Nellie toured in productions with her family (and the upper echelon of Australia’s theatre elite) to New Zealand, England, and the United States. Upon their return to Australia, Nellie went out on her own, being cast in leading adult roles independent of her family’s successes. Still, her ties in the theatre continued to influence her life, and it was forever changed upon meeting the producer George Musgrove: Nellie would become his leading lady both on and off the stage.

    Nellie and George's partnership was mutually beneficial—she graced the stage with poise and he managed her career and helped create opportunities for her talent. Their daughter, Nancye Doris Stewart, was born in 1892. Though the two never married, Nellie Stewart was given a bangle by George Musgrove which she wore on her upper arm for the rest of her life. This fashion statement became known as ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ and was swiftly emulated by thousands of women all over Australia.

    At the turn of the 20th century, Nellie had performed 35 different productions, including her role as the iconic ‘Sweet Nell’. She was best suited to light or comic operas and pantomimes, after a stint in grand opera caused her to strain her voice. One of the most photographed figures of the day, her national significance became most apparent when she performed the song ‘Australia’ at the opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901.

    After Nellie and George toured the theatre hubs of the world, both separately and together, they settled in Point Piper at Den-o-Gwynne in 1913, which George had built for Nellie and Nancye. He sadly fell ill and died of whooping cough in 1916, but Nellie carried on; she was nearly 70 when she resurrected her last performance of Sweet Nell. Writing her memoirs took much of her time in the later years, and she inspired a new generation of actors through the opening of the Nellie Stewart School of Acting. Her last public performance was with her daughter performing the balcony scene of Romeo & Juliet three days before her death on 20th of June 1931.

    Nellie completed her memoir with the following words, which summarises her wishes and intentions in life: ‘I am still steadfast in my determination to do my utmost best always. Resolve will meet no rocks, but it can scale them. And so, friends of mine, au ’voir. Let me take my leave of you in the lasts words of “Sweet Nell”—“Memory will be my happiness—For you are enshrined there”.’ (1924)

    She made a lasting impact on the Australian theatre community, and turn of the 20th century culture, and her plaque is the 39th unveiled by Woollahra Municipal Council. The plaque scheme relies on nominations from members of the community, so please contact Woollahra Libraries to make a nomination. You can learn more about Nellie’s life and achievements here:

  • STEWART, Nellie (1858-1931)

    Australian actress & vocalist. Née Eleanor Stewart Towzey. Born 20 November 1858, Sydney, NSW, Australia. Daughter of Richard Stewart Towzey (actor) and Theodosia Yates (actress). Married Richard Goldsbrough Rowe, 26 January 1884, Melbourne, VIC, Australia. Died 21 June 1931, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

    On stage in Australia from age of five. By 1883 she was playing leading roles in musical comedy and opera for Williamson, Garner and Musgrove. Also performed in London during late 1890s. Toured with George Musgrove's company from 1902 including a trip to USA in 1906 that was ended due to San Francisco earthquake. Following Musgrove's death in 1916 she continued to perform in Australia.

    Riley/Hailes Scrapbook, pages 172, 296.

  • Sweet Nell

    Sweet Nell banner 1200
    Australian actress Nellie Stewart (1858–1931) created hundreds of roles during her sixty-seven year stage career, performing in comic operas, pantomimes, burlesques and plays. As ELISABETH KUMM discovers, one of her most admired characterisations was the Restoration-era actress and courtesan Nell Gwynne in the play Sweet Nell of Old Drury.


    Written byAmerican playwright Paul Kester, Sweet Nell of Old Drurywas first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in August 1900 with Julia Neilson in the title role. It was an instant success and Neilson revived the play many times during the following two decades. When it was produced in America for the first time in December 1900, Ada Rehan was the Nell. On Broadway, the play was also performed in 1923 with Laurette Taylor in the lead. But it was in Australia in 1902 with Nellie Stewart as Nell Gwynne that the play was to have its greatest popularity.

    Kester’s play, which is in four acts, charts the major events in the life of Nell Gwynne. Act 1, set in London in 1667, shows Nell outside the King’s Theatre in Drury Lane, where working as an orange seller she encounters the pleasure-seeking King Charles II (in disguise) for the first time. In Act 2, now an established favourite of the King’s, Nell shelters Lady Olivia Vernon (ward of the villainous Chief Justice Lord Jeffreys), whose lover Sir Roger Fairfax has been falsely accused of treason. Fairfax is captured in Nell’s boudoir and imprisoned by Jeffreys who, wishing to undermine Nell’s position at Court, tells the King that Fairfax is her lover. Act 3 sees Nell outwitting Jeffreys by donning a wig and cape and entering his house where Lady Olivia has been held captive. By impersonating Jeffreys, Nell facilitates Lady Olivia’s escape. In the final act, Lord Jeffreys’ infamy is revealed and Nell is reconciled with the King.

    At the heart of this play, Nell Gwynne, in spite of her humble beginnings, is shown to be a woman of spunk, true to her friends, and loyal to the King, and worth more as a person than the so called nobles of the Court whose motives are driven by jealousy, personal gain and duplicity.

    Nell Gwynne has been the subject of numerous operas and dramas. Prior to 1900 there was The Peckham Frolic; or Nell Gwyn (1799), a three act comedy by Edward Jerningham; Douglas Jerrold’s comedy Nell Gwynne; or, The prologue (1833); John Walker’s drama Nell Gwynne, the Orange Girl (1833); Charles Reade and Tom Taylor’s drama The King’s Rival (1854); G.A. A’Beckett’s burlesque Charles II; or, Something like history(1872); a comic opera, Nell Gwynne (1876), with libretto by H.B. Farnie and music by Alfred Cellier; and a second comic opera by Farnie, also called Nell Gwynne (1884) but with music by Robert Planquette. During the twentieth century, she was the central character in Anthony Hope and Edward Rose’s comedy English Nell(1900); and in Ivor Novello and Harold Fraser-Simpson musical comedy Our Nell (1924). She also made an appearance in George Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939).

    Nell has been seen on the silver screen many times. The first, shot in 1900, was a scene from Julia Neilson’s stage production.1 In 1911, in Australia, Nellie Stewart’s performance was also filmed. The silent era saw Nell portrayed by Mary Pickford (1915), Lois Sturt (1922) and Dorothy Gish (1926). With the advent of sound, came Gracie Fields (1934), Anna Neagle (1934) and Margaret Lockwood (1949).

    Nellie Stewart introduced Sweet Nell to Australian audiences on 15 February 1902 at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. The Haymarket script was used, which incorporated additional dialogue and a reworked final act by J. Hartley Manners.2 The original music written for the London production by Raymond Rôze was employed throughout, including Nell Gwynne’s song in Act 2, ‘How happy the lover’, with words by John Dryden.

    A sumptuous production, the scenery for the first two acts was painted by W.R. Coleman, and the final two by Phil Goatcher, possibly based on the original London designs by Joseph Harker. A special feature was the period furniture made at the Princess Theatre by William Gardiner (the property manager) from ‘drawings from the British Museum’. A harpsicord was also commissioned from Allan & Co. music warehouse, based on ‘tracings obtained at the British Museum’. The opening night program also tells us that the ‘Correct Costumes of the Period’ were by A. & L. Nathan, London, after ‘reliable authorities’ and ‘Characteristic Wigs’ were by Gustave of Paris.3

    Supported by members of George Musgrove’s New English Comedy and Dramatic Company, the principal roles were played by Harcourt Beatty (King Charles II), Albert Gran (Lord Jeffreys), Ernest Imeson (Sir Roger Fairfax) and Minnie Sadler (Lady Olivia Vernon).

    Sweet Nell cover 1902Cover of program for the first Australian production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 1902. View full program.

    With the staging of this play, Nellie Stewart was appearing in a straight play for the first time. A well-established star of the comic opera stage, she had taxed her singing voice too much and it was no longer possible for her to maintain a career as a singing actress. The opening night reviews applauded her transition to the dramatic stage.

    It is not too much to say that this performance places her amid the very first of the comedy actresses who have been seen in Australia. The brilliant success which she achieved in work of such high calibre, and so different from that in which she has been seen hitherto, was cordially and almost tumultuously recognised by the audience, who recalled her again and again at the close of every act.4

    The same reviewer noted:

    From the beginning to end Miss Stewart never failed and never flagged … There were depths in her voice that really touched the heart in the emotional passages, and there was an unconquerable gaiety and joyousness in the livelier moments with which the piece abounds.

    Yet despite the positive reviews, in her autobiography Nellie recalled that for the first two weeks of the season ‘business was indifferent’ on account that people ‘associated me with comic opera and the singing stage, and they were quite unwilling to believe that I could possibly make a success in the speaking part’. George Musgrove very nearly pulled the play, but on the recommendation of Harcourt Beatty, he ‘gave it a chance’.5

    Following a five week season in Melbourne, the play was taken to Tasmania and onto Adelaide, before opening in Sydney in June, where it played a further five weeks. The Sweet Nell boom had begun.

    A souvenir booklet was produced commemorating the first production in Melbourne, featuring photographs by Talma. Postcards depicting Nellie Stewart in various costumes from the play were also widely circulated.

    Over the next thirty years, Sweet Nell remained a key feature of Nellie’s repertoire. In 1906 she took it to America. The company received encouraging reviews in San Francisco, but when the earthquake hit on 18 April, they lost heavily and their tour came to an abrupt end.

    In 1911 Spencer’s Pictures arranged to make a film version of the play, inviting Nellie to recreate her role. She received a whopping £1000 for her participation, said to be half the total budget of the project! The film was shot at Spencer’s Wonderland City studio in Bondi, and in the grounds of various Sydney mansions over a six week period commencing in September 1911. The cast, which was drawn from the current touring company, included Augustus Neville as the King, Charles Lawrence as Lord Jeffreys, Leslie Woods as Sir Robert Fairfax, and Roslyn Vane as Lady Olivia Vernon. George Musgrove took on the role of director, though his inexperience soon became evident and he was replaced by Raymond Longford. The film was screened for the first time at the Lyceum Theatre in Sydney on 2 December 1911. Some 12,000 people reportedly saw the film during the first seven sessions.6

    Sweet Nell film 1911Drawing by Harry JuliusOver the coming months, Nellie was a tireless promoter of the film, making personal appearances at showings. This was to be her only foray into films. Despite screening regularly for the next six years, no copies of the film have survived.7

    On 2 February 1931, to commemorate Nell Gwynne’s birthday, Nellie Stewart featured in a radio broadcast of the play Sweet Nell. Produced under the direction of Laurence Halbert, in association with Nellie Stewart, the program was aired on Sydney’s 2BL at 8.00pm (and on relay to Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and other cities). Other than Nellie Stewart as Nell and Arthur Greenaway as Charles II, the cast members are unknown.

    Following the success of the radio broadcast, Nellie was approached by the Columbia Graphophone Company to recorded scenes from Sweet Nell of Old Drury at their studio in Homebush, Sydney on 24 March 1931. Issued on two 12 inch 78 rpm records (catalogue numbers DO346 and DOX165), the first record featured Nell Gwynne’s entrance, Act 1, and the Finale, Act 4, with Nellie Stewart as Nell, Nancye Stewart (Nellie’s daughter) as Lady Olivia, and Mayne Lynton (Nancye’s husband) as Charles II. The second record featured a comedy scene from Act 1 and Nellie Stewart ‘Addresses Her Public’.8

    Extracts from these records were featured in Ladies, Please!, a CD compiled by THA in 2010.

    Nellie Stewart played Sweet Nell for the last time at a charity performance in 1931, just weeks before her death on 20 June at the age of 72. In August 1931, ‘in view of the high esteem in which Miss Nellie Stewart was held’, the Columbia Co. offered the original matrices of their recordings, ‘suitably framed and engraved’ to the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales) in Sydney.9

    Sweet Nell lives on in other ways too. In 1930, artist William B. McInnes painted a full-length portrait of Nellie in Sweet Nellas she appeared in the early 1900s. The portrait was commissioned via subscription and presented to Nellie by Sir Robert Best on behalf of her admirers at a function at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre on 19 October 1930. Nellie immediately offered the painting to the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria so that it may be placed on public view.10

    In June 1931, Table Talkmagazine published a full colour plate of the McInnes painting ‘ready for framing’, urging people to place their orders early to avoid missing out.11

    Another portrait by Mary Edwards, also painted in 1930, depicted Nellie as Sweet Nell. Like McInnes’ painting Edwards (apparently) entered her portrait in the Archibald Prize. In late years, the portrait hung in Nancye Stewart’s sitting room.12

    Further artefacts connected with Nellie Stewart’s depiction of Sweet Nell reside in various public collections. The State Library Victoria, for example, holds a turquoise ring worn by Nellie in the play, and the Australian Performing Arts Collection has an apron that she wore as part of her Act 1 orange seller costume.

    Nellie Stewart will long be identified with her namesake Sweet Nell through the many pictures that exist, but wouldn’t it be something if the film version of her performance were discovered, so we could see her in action!



    1. Denis Gifford, British Film Catalogue: Fiction film, 1895–1970, p.15 . The same year, scenes from English Nell, which was performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London with Marie Tempest, were also released. See also Internet Movie Database,

    2. TheDaily Mail, 5 September 1900

    3. Sweet Nell of Old Drurytheatre program, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 15 February 1902

    4. TheArgus, 17 February 1902, p.6

    5. Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, p.138

    6. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film, 1900–1977, p.41

    7. Graham Shirley, ‘The lost film of Nellie Stewart’, Openbook, Summer 2020

    8. Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 26 April 1931, p.10

    9. Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga), 26 August 1931, p.4

    10. TheArgus, 20 October 1930, p.12

    11. TheHerald, 23 June 1931, p.12

    12. ABC Weekly, 14 February 1942, p.14


    W. Davenport Adams, A Dictionary of the Drama, vol. 1, Chatto & Windus, 1904

    Reginald Clarence, The Stage Cyclopaedia, Burt Franklin, 1909

    Denis Gifford, British Film Catalogue: Fiction film, 1895–1970, 3rd edn, 2001

    Barbara Korte & Doris Lechner (eds), History and Humour: British and American perspectives, Transcript, 2013

    Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film, 1900–1977, Oxford University Press, 1980

    Marjorie Skill, Sweet Nell of Old Sydney, Urania Publishing Company, 1974

    Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands Ltd, 1923

    Graham Shirley, ‘The lost film of Nellie Stewart’, Openbook, Summer 2020

    Lewis C. Strang, Famous Actresses of the Day in America, second series, L.C. Page and Company, 1902

    Sweet Nell of Old Drury [souvenir of first performance at Princess Theatre, Melbourne], Atlas Press, 1902

    J.P. Wearing, The London Stage: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 1900-1909, 2nd edn, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014



    With thanks to

    Judy Leech, Rob Morrison

  • The Comedy Theatre: Melbourne's most intimate playhouse (Part 3)

    IMG 1757 sunscreen again

    From 1928, when it first opened its doors, the Comedy Theatre established itself as Melbourne's premier playhouse, perfectly suited to the staging of drawing room comedies and intense dramas. In Part 3 of the Comedy Theatre story, RALPH MARSDON focusses on the years 1928 to 1960.

    The biggest successof the theatre’s first years was a four-month season by British husband and wife stars Dion Boucicault Jr and Irene Vanbrugh, beginning on 21 July. Their repertoire, which occasionally echoed that of the old Brough–Boucicault company, included plays by Pinero, A.A. Milne and Frederick Lonsdale—notably a first Australian production of Lonsdale’s On Approval on 20 October.

    The arrival of sound films and the imminent Great Depression made 1929 the first of several patchy years. But the attractions included seasons by the reigning imported dramatic favourite Leon Gordon, English actor Lewis Shaw starring in John Van Druten’s then sensational Young Woodley, and a short revival of Sweet Nell of Old Drury with the beloved Nellie Stewart.

    Spanish-American comic actor Leo Carrillo interrupted the beginning of a busy Hollywood career to star in Lombardi Limited from 29 February 1930. This ran until mid April when Nellie Stewart, together with her daughter Nancye and son-in-law Mayne Lynton, starred in Edward Sheldon’s Romance. 1930 also saw seasons by English actor William Faversham and American actress Edith Taliaferro. The Firm was not too proud to refuse a six-night lease for the Victorian Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Championships early in September either. But the longest running single attraction of the period was St. John Irvine’s play, The First Mrs Fraser, which notched up 67 performances from 26 December—a very good run for the times.

    Gregan McMahon and his repertory players first came to the Comedy on 17 March 1931. McMahon, who also directed more commercial fare for The Firm, had entered into an arrangement for the use of their theatres when they fell vacant and his group were frequent occupants of the Comedy throughout the 1930s. Their first offering was a comedy called Yellow Sands which featured McMahon and rising local actress Coral Brown(e). This was followed by Galsworthy’s The Roof. Each play ran for five nights.

    British actor Frank Harvey in a couple of Edgar Wallace thrillers interspersed with Galsworthy’s Loyalties held the stage for two months from 4 April 1931 and returned for another month in September. Prior to this came a short run of the comedy A Warm Corner, whose cast included Ethel Morrison, Cecil Kellaway, Campbell Copelin and Coral Brown(e), who also supported Harvey in his later season.

    Nellie Bramley and her company, with their policy of weekly change popular drama, came to the Comedy on 26 March 1932 but transferred to the Palace after three weeks, leaving the theatre dark—apart from short runs by McMahon’s Players—for the rest of that year. 1933 was equally bleak, beginning with a couple of transfers from the King’s, including a fortnight of the Athene Seyler–Nicholas Hannen season from 15 April. A short-lived Ben Travers farce, A Bit of a Test, followed this but for the rest of the year the theatre was used only by amateurs.

    1934 brought some improvement, with the Melbourne premiere of Ivor Novello’s Fresh Fields on 18 May. Then came a popular thriller, Ten Minute Alibi, followed by a light comedy, The Wind and the Rain. Both of these starred Englishman George Thirlwell and Australia’s Jocelyn Howarth in a run totalling fourteen weeks from 25 August. The Russian Ballet, transferring from the King’s, ended the year with a week-long run from Christmas Eve.

    A trio of modern comedies got 1935 off to a moderate start but other offerings petered out by early April and returned only fitfully towards the end of the year. From 11 January 1936 The Firm bowed to the inevitable and reopened the Comedy as a cinema screening first releases and revivals, beginning with a British double bill comprising The Constant Nymph and Man of Aran.

    This policy continued over the next three years with only occasional interruptions for live attractions. Notable plays and players in this period were a month long run of Emlyn Williams’ thriller, Night Must Fall, from 15 February 1936; famous American impressionist Ruth Draper in a series of character sketches for a month from 16 May 1938; British silent film star Betty Balfour in a comedy called Personal Appearance for a fortnight from 20 August 1938; another month-long run for a thriller called Black Limelight from 8 April 1939; and American stage and screen actor Ian Keith in Libel during August 1939. It was also in this year that the bronze plaque honouring George Coppin was installed in the Comedy’s foyer. Unveiled by his daughter Lucy on 26 March, it was dedicated to ‘The Hon. George Selth Coppin, Philanthropist and Father of the Theatre in Victoria’.

    The Comedy switched to foreign film revivals in March 1940 but from 14 September British actress Marie Ney was starred in the thriller Ladies in Retirement for six weeks; she returned from the King’s for the last three weeks of Private Lives on 23 December. Also notable in 1940 was a two-night debut season by the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company on 9 and 10 December—the very first presentation of ballet in Australia by a locally nurtured company.

    March–April 1941 saw the last seasons by the Gregan McMahon Players. McMahon himself died only a few months later in August—but immediately following came a fresh lease of life for the Comedy when JCW entered into an arrangement with David N. Martin to present a series of plays from his Minerva Theatre in Sydney. These began with Room for Two, a comedy starring Marjorie Gordon and Hal Thompson, which ran for a month from 12 April 1941. This was followed by another comedy, Susan and God, which also starred Gordon, and ran for a then record 228 performances from 17 May.

    Polished British actor Edwin Styles was the resident star for almost a year from 4 April 1942, beginning in the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, which ran for 161 performances. This was followed by Robert’s Wife, a comedy drama by St. John Irvine, Daphne Du Maurier’s romantic drama Rebecca, and Robert Sherwood’s romantic comedy, Reunion in Vienna. These and other Minerva attractions employed such rising or established local talents as Dick Bentley, Aileen Britten, Letty Craydon, Keith Eden, Claude Flemming, Sheila Helpman(n), Lloyd Lamble, Hal Lashwood, John McCallum, Muriel Steinbeck and Bettina Welch.

    The classic black farce Arsenic and Old Lace was the first fresh attraction of 1943, and was followed by the comedy My Sister Eileen and Lillian Hellman’s drama, Watch on the Rhine. On 12 November came a second, month long season by the Borovansky Ballet and, from 11 December, Kiss and Tell. This very successful F. Hugh Herbert comedy had run close to 200 performances when it was ‘suspended until further notice’ by an Actors Equity strike on 26 March 1944. This was the first major industrial action taken by actors in Australia and was resolved after three weeks with victory for the strikers and the adoption of compulsory union membership for the profession. Kiss and Tell resumed on 10 June 1944 and went on to establish an all-time record for a straight play at the Comedy, with a run of 414 performances.

    Edwin Styles returned for another long stay on 23 December 1944 in The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse, which ran until 11 April 1945 and was followed by Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit which played even more successfully, until 7 September. A short break from the middlebrow, mostly lightweight fare now familiar at the Comedy came on 5 April 1946 when The Firm presented Doris Fitton and her Independent Theatre company from Sydney in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. All thirteen acts of this American adaptation of classic Greek tragedy were played out for twelve nights between 6.30 pm. and 11 pm, with a twenty-minute interval at 8 pm.

    Australian-based international stage stars Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott opened at the Comedy on 17 August 1946 in three Noël Coward one-acters, Ways and Means, Family Albumand Shadow Play and played profitably until 14 December. Following them came the Kiwis, an all-male New Zealand wartime concert party company formed in Egypt in 1941. Now sponsored by The Firm, the Kiwis opened on 20 December 1946 in Alamein, the first of three fast moving revues. On 16 August 1947 this was replaced by a second revue called Tripoli and on 10 January 1948 came Benghazi. On the following 20 November came a ‘farewell’—a compendium of all three shows—which ran until 6 January 1949. In total the Kiwis played for a phenomenal 867 consecutive performances—an all-time record for an individual attraction at the Comedy.

    Plays returned on 8 January 1949 with Garson Kanin’s comedy, Born Yesterday, followed by a London success, Fly Away Peter, then an American farce called Separate Rooms. All these did well but the stellar highlight of the year was British comic actor Robert Morley opposite Sophie Stewart in his own play, Edward, My Son, from 2 December—the first of Morley’s many successful Australian visits.

    After this came the Australian premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on 18 February 1950—appropriately enough a summer night of overpowering heat in the as yet un-airconditioned Comedy. American actor Arthur Franz starred as Stanley Kowalski in this rare venture by JCW into serious modern American drama which paid off with a run of more than three months.

    Not quite as successful was Harvey, the American comedy that followed, despite the presence of famed wide-mouthed American film comedian Joe E. Brown. From 12 August The Firm took another gamble with a Doris Fitton production—an American musical fantasy called Dark of the Moon. Some six weeks later this made way for the hit of the year, the R.F. Delderfield wartime farce, Worm’s Eye View, which ran exactly six months from 30 September with British immigrants William Hodge and Gordon Chater in the casts.

    British husband and wife stars Evelyn Laye and Frank Lawton began a four month season on 12 May 1951 in Daphne Du Maurier’s September Tide and John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle, F. Hugh Herbert’s comedy, The Moon is Blue, which followed, had a reputation for raciness at the time but was only moderately well received during its ten weeks from 14 September.

    From 5 December 1951 the Comedy housed its first ever Shakespearian season when John Alden’s Australian company arrived with a repertoire beginning and ending with King Lear, which ran until 29 March 1952. The hit show of that year was Seagulls Over Sorrento, a farce by Australian author Hugh Hastings, which brought back William Hodge as star and chalked up 221 performances from 5 April, The Kiwis also returned after this and their two new revues again did excellent business, with a combined run of over six months to 24 April 1953.

    Frederick Knott’s Dial M For Murder, gripped Comedy audiences for four months from 30 April and although Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, which came next, closed after five weeks, a third William Hodge hit followed this: Reluctant Heroes, another services farce, running seven months to 5 May 1954. The rest of that year saw Dear Charles, a comedy with Sophie Stewart and Clement McCallin, doing well with a run of over five months. But a revival of White Cargo and a new Australian play, Pommy (again with Bill Hodge) did poorly and the end of the year saw Hodge in the perennial Charley’s Aunt.

    On 12 February 1955 Googie Withers and John McCallum made their first duo appearance in Australia in a comedy called Simon and Laura. They followed this on 14 May with Terence Rattigan’s drama, The Deep Blue Sea, ending this first of their many successful Comedy seasons on 9 July. A couple of American comedies that failed to draw preceded what many considered the artistic highlight of the year—Judith Anderson in her American success, Medea, on 20 December—the first presentation at the Comedy by the recently formed Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT).

    Sailor Beware, another services farce, held the Comedy stage between 18 January and 5 May 1956 and on 12 June came a second AETT drama season lasting nine weeks, the highlight of which was a revival of the original production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with Lawler himself in the cast. British husband and wife Roger Livesey and Ursula Jeans starred in William Douglas Home’s comedy The Reluctant Debutante for over five months from 25 August 1956 while 4 February 1957 brought another successful expatriate, Leo McKern in The Rainmaker—although the play itself failed to please.

    Nor did Janus the comedy which followed, despite the presence of British star Jessie Matthews, nor the next, Double Image, a thriller with British actor Emrys Jones. Although only introduced late in 1956, the popularity of television was already taking effect and the days of four or five month runs for often routine plays were coming to an end.

    Another AETT presentation arrived on 23 July 1957: British actor Paul Rogers in Vanburgh’s The Relapse, and Hamlet, with a local cast including Zoe Caldwell as Ophelia, which played alternate weeks until 28 August. Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, with the distinguished Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson, ran for over three months from 31 August. Not so fortunate for The Firm was a prize-winning local play, The Multi Coloured Umbrella, which had been a success when first produced at the Little Theatre but closed here after three weeks.

    An undisputed money-spinner was Luisillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre, beginning the first of several Comedy seasons on 11 March 1958. On 22 April another Australian play sponsored by the AETT, Richard Benyon’s The Shifting Heart was well received prior to a London production, with an eight week run to 18 June. Eight-week runs were also scored by expatriate star Robert Helpmann in Noël Coward’s Nude with Violin and Edwin Styles and Sophie Stewart in Not In the Book. The end of the year brought For Amusement Only, an English revue starring rising locals Toni Lamond, Tikki Taylor, John Newman and Frank Sheldon.

    Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was revived for five weeks from 31 January 1959 and was followed by Googie Withers and John McCallum (now also The Firm’s assistant managing director) in Roar Like a Dove for nine weeks. John Alden’s Shakespeare company also returned on 12 June, with Scottish actor John Laurie as King Lear the highlight of the season, and on 12 September came the premiere of Ray Lawler’s new play, The Piccadilly Bushman. This failed to repeat the success of The Doll during its eight week run and the end of year attractions were British husband and wife Muriel Pavlow and Derek Farr in The Gazebo and Odd Man In for a total of three months to 23 February 1960.

    In his autobiography, Life with Googie, John McCallum recalls working at the Comedy about this time in a ‘near-perfect set-up…for running a theatre circuit. Head office was on the second floor...with the Accounts department above it and Publicity below. Across the road was the flagship of the circuit, Her Majesty’s Theatre, behind which were the workshops and paint-frames, rehearsal rooms, wardrobe, laundry and dry cleaning, scene dock and stores... And so it was possible, in the course of a few minutes’ walk, to check on the exact state of any production in preparation.’



    To be continued


  • William Beckwith McInnes: An artist's life

    Theatre Heritage Australia is thrilled to be able to publish an extract from a new book by MARGOT TASCA, published by Thames & Hudson, celebrating the achievements of Australian artist W.B. McInnes (1889–1939). Among his many commissions was the 1930 portrait of actress Nellie Stewart who is depicted as she was in the early 1900s dressed for the role of Nell Gwynne.

    Miss Nellie Stewart NGVWilliam Beckwith McInnes, Miss Nellie Stewart, 1930. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.McInnes’s most famous public commission was for stage actress Nellie Stewart. The Nellie Stewart Portrait Fund was initiated in August 1929, with the aim to raise between 350 and 400 guineas. Subscribers from all over Australia, donated from a shilling upwards to commission an eminent painter to immortalise Stewart as ‘Sweet Nell’. Sweet Nell was a role that Stewart had played many times and was strong in the memory of the community. It was to be a tribute to her beauty and youthful appearance, which was a significant challenge for McInnes as the actress was now 72 years old, however her ‘ageless’ appearance was an often-marvelled feature of Stewart’s. The public wanted to remember her as their sweet young Nell, and this was McInnes’s task. It was keenly hoped that the portrait would be hung in a public gallery.

    Nellie Stewart was possibly the most adored and loved actress of any time in Australian history. She was not only beautiful and vivacious, but she had incredible magnetism. She was called ‘Australia’s Idol’. Her celebrity cannot be overstated, with her celebrity status equivalent to Dame Nellie Melba’s but unlike Melba, there would be no recorded legacy of her performances. Once she stopped performing on stage, she would be forgotten.

    Nellie Stewart worked on stage for more than fifty years, playing leading roles. There are many stories about her that reflect her colourful character and immense spirit. In 1883, she broke her arm while performing on stage and in true ‘the show must go on’ spirit, she had her arm set during the interval, then continued with the second half performance. Nellie was also a fashion icon whose dress style was copied by women all over Australia and New Zealand. She wore a particular bangle that was given to her by her devoted long-term partner and father of her daughter. The plain gold bangle was in lieu of a wedding ring as her partner was unable to obtain a divorce from his wife. This began a trend amongst young women – the ‘Nellie Stewart bangle’ as a symbol of romantic attachment.

    In 1888 she played the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. On opening night, Federici, who played Mephistopheles, sang the final note of his aria and fell dead as he descended below the stage. (It is said that his ghost haunts the theatre.) For Stewart however, the unfortunate legacy from this production was that after singing for twenty-four consecutive nights, she damaged her vocal cords and was forced to confine her performances to predominantly speaking roles thereafter.

    Throughout the 1920s there had been talk amongst her fans that a portrait should be painted of her for perpetuity. Art writer William Moore had suggested it as early as 1922. The idea gained momentum in the late 1920s as Nellie neared her seventies. At the initiative of some Sydney admirers, Nellie sat for artist Mary Edwards in 1929, however after several sittings, Nellie was unimpressed by the painting and refused to accept it. An incensed Mary Edwards took Stewart to court claiming £100 under an alleged agreement to purchase the portrait of herself in the costume of Nell Gwynne. Mary Edwards supported her argument by having the portrait ‘approved’ by Sir John Longstaff. This court case was heard around the time that McInnes began painting his portrait of Stewart. It had to be foremost in his mind and remind him of the necessity to adhere to the concept of ‘young’ Nell. As a result, although there is some fine brushwork in the costume, the painting is very much a flat record of the actress and the times, rather than a great painting.

    Mary Edwards was awarded £75 on the basis that she should be paid for actual material costs and time and skill, regardless of whether the sitter was satisfied. Edwards auctioned the Nellie Stewart portrait off soon after. (Edwards painted and exhibited all her life but is now possibly most remembered for her involvement in taking legal action against the Sydney National Gallery trustees in an effort to revoke the award of the Archibald Prize for portrait painting in 1943 to William Dobell for his alleged ‘caricature’ of Joshua Smith.)

    McInnes’s portrait was presented to Stewart during a special evening performance at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne in October 1930.As a special souvenir supplement, Table Talk reproduced a free presentation plate of McInnes’ portrait of Stewart as Sweet Nell, in the journal in full colour and ready for framing. In accordance with the subscribers’ wishes, Stewart gifted the painting to the National Gallery of Victoria. In February 1931 Bernard Hall hung the painting in the gallery, replacing a painting by Max Meldrum. This drew the wrath of Meldrum’s supporters who saw the act as a deliberate insult to Meldrum, who they believed to be one of the greatest painters of all time. The Meldrum painting The Peasant of Pace had been presented by Meldrum, under the terms of the National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship in 1912. It had been on view for nearly twenty years and Hall felt it had had a good innings. The Meldrum supporters agitated for its reinstatement through a barrage of letters to the press.

    Disliking public conflict, McInnes expressed his regret to the press that the Meldrum painting had been removed. He said he would much rather his other painting Malcolm and Gyp, had been removed to make room for the Nellie Stewart picture. With his usual humility he said, ‘I would not like to see the work of any other artist removed to make way for my work." As an extra conciliation, he added that he would like to see more Meldrum works in the gallery. Writer Vance Palmer drafted a letter of protest against the removal of Meldrum’s painting and garnered as many significant signatures as possible. Several artists went to McInnes’s house and asked him to sign the letter. McInnes signed the letter but then later changed his mind and followed after them to remove his name from the letter. Perhaps it was out of consideration for Hall. It was an awkward position for him. Hall, as usual, appeared unmoved and explained that the decision was made simply on the basis of what had been hanging the longest and the Gallery trustees upheld this decision.

    The controversy resulted in increased attendance at the gallery. Everyone wanted to see the Nellie Stewart portrait and what all the fuss was about. The only sufferer was the attendant at the McArthur Gallery, who was kept busy directing people to ‘the picture’. McInnes knew the painting was certainly not one of his great works. In fact, Bernard Hall had advised the trustees that McInnes had much better work that could be bought but allowance had to be made for public taste and sentiment and besides, Sweet Nell had been gifted to them.

    Stewart died eight months after her portrait was completed. The whole nation went into mourning. Thousands of people lined the streets around the church for her funeral, with a further series of services held for the crowds of fans who wanted to pay their respects. In true character, Nellie requested no-one wear black or be gloomy.

    Nellie Stewart (1858–1931) was a beloved Australian stage actress and singer. Her most famous role was as Nell Gwynne in the romantic comedy Sweet Nell of Old Drury. From this production, she became popularly known as ‘Sweet Nell’. Stewart first played the role in 1902 at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. She played the role again nine years later, at the age of 52, touring nationally for many months. It was through this production of Sweet Nell of Old Drury, which comprised of one-night performances in most of Australia’s cities and large towns, that she endeared herself to the hearts of many Australians. Stewart was all charm, wit and vivacity, and the crowds adored her. Wherever she played, there was standing room only. This tour was followed by a film adaptation of the play in which Stewart starred, consolidating her name further. When Stewart was nearly 70, she played the role yet again in Sydney and was acclaimed for her lithe and graceful performance. Understandably it was her fame as Sweet Nell that was held in the hearts of Australians everywhere and this dictated McInnes’s depiction.


    Margot Tasca, William Beckwith McInnes: An artist’s life, Thames & Hudson Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 2022

    For more information or to order your copy of the book visit,