Entertaining Mr Coppin: An Australian showman in Civil War America
IN MARCH 1865, this buccaneering showman from the Australian colonies landed in New York with a view to presenting the eminent English tragedians Charles Kean (1811–1868) and Ellen Kean (1805–1880). Coppin’s plan was to make some fast money and then sail home. Calamitous events overtook the touring company and not even the most audacious theatre manager in the Antipodes could outdo real life drama in the horribly dis-United States.
Entertaining Mr. Coppin: An Australian showman in Civil War America will recount this unlikely theatrical tour, conveying the gaslight and greasepaint atmosphere of a vanished world and the peculiar sights and sounds of mid 19th century American life. Melding biographical portraiture with social history, the book will meticulously reconstruct the 18-month tour Coppin undertook with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean. Readers will be by their side as they travel from Sydney to San Francisco, go north to British Columbia, south to Panama, along America’s eastern seaboard to New York, across the Mississippi, through the mid-west and up into Canada. This journey—undertaken on sailing ships, steamboats and locomotives—was long and hazardous and complicated by skirmishes between Coppin and Mr. Kean. Divided by age, temperament, experience and class, they were constantly at odds and inadvertent witnesses to history when the Civil War ceased in April 1865. Coppin was in New York for the fall of Richmond, the surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, supplying a rare first-hand account of events surrounding the awesome funeral that followed.
Drawing on diaries, journals, letters, illustrations and period photographs, Entertaining Mr. Coppin will not only revisit the theatres, concert halls and museums of old Broadway but the outsized characters who occupied them: impresario P.T. Barnum and tragedian Edwin Booth, mercurial manager Matilda Vining Wood and blackface minstrel Neil Bryant, Shakespeare scholar James Hackett and Irish comic Barney Williams. Coppin stands front and centre like the ringmaster at a circus, orchestrating events as best he can in a nation he has not visited before and struggles to understand. This indefatigable show man eventually came to admire America’s optimism and can-do energy but in recreating his journey through the fractured Republic, Entertaining Mr. Coppin will remind us of the many obstacles he faced ... and the emotional price he paid.
SIMON PLANT is a Melbourne writer.
He was a Herald and Weekly Times reporter and editor for 30 years, specialising in arts and entertainment. Simon, BA [Hons] and Masters [University of Melbourne], has also written two plays and co-curated three significant exhibitions: 1956 Melbourne, Modernity and the XVI Olympiad (1996), at Heide Museum of Modern Art; Star Spangled Manner: Americans and the birth of Australian television (2000–01), at Arts Centre Melbourne and Screensound Australia, Canberra; and Making a Song and Dance: The quest for an Australian musical (2005–06), at Arts Centre Melbourne.
Simon writes regularly on popular culture. Recent articles include:
‘Mr. Coppin’s Face Book: An 1865 album of celebrated people in America’, The LaTrobe Journal. State Library Victoria, September 2020, Simon Plant - Mr Coppin's face book - an 1865 photograph album of celebrated people in America.pdf (slv.vic.gov.au)
‘Show Time: George Coppin turns 200’, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn 2019, Theatre Heritage Australia - Show Time: George Coppin turns 200
‘Standing Orations: Campbell McComas and the Goodfa Business Theatre Company (1985–1993)’, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Spring 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia - Standing Orations: Campbell McComas and the Goodfa Business Theatre Company (1985–1993)
‘The Character Building Camera of H. Walter Barnett’ in The Falk Studios: The theatrical portrait photography of H. Walter Barnett, Theatre Heritage Australia, 2021
Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (part 1), On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Summer 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia - Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (Part 1)
Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (part 2), On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn 2021, Theatre Heritage Australia - Enjoying the Scenery: When the Heidelberg School went backstage (Part 2)
Winter of the Seventeenth Doll: Ray Lawler in New York, On Stage, Theatre Heritage Australia, Autumn, 2021, Theatre Heritage Australia - Winter of the Seventeenth Doll: Ray Lawler in New York