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After forty-five years of the stage, the veteran actor-manager J.C. WILLIAMSON tells Bookfellow the story of his professional career in  Part 1 of a two-part transcript of an article first published in 1907. 

“AND NOW” (he said) “it is nearly time to take in sail. The burden of theatrical direction is heavy; the pressure is unceasing—and I am no longer young. After forty-five strenuous years in the service of the public, I feel that I owe a little to myself, a great deal to my wife and children. At sixty a man may fairly rest from active labour. It is not easy to give up when one feels so well and strong; but my desire is to relinquish management in the very near future.”

I WAS BORN at Mercer, Pennsylvania, USA, on 26 August, 1845. Mercer is a county town where my father was a doctor. Both my father and mother were Americans. He was of Irish descent, she of Scottish. Of course I look upon America as my native country. Sometimes people have said to me, “Your fortune is bound up in Australia now; why don’t you get naturalised?” I don’t see that. Australia is my country too, and I expect to spend the rest of my days here, but I think a man should never deny his mother country.

I had a good common school and high school education, and the American schools in those days were excellent. One thing they seemed to do was to make every boy wish to hit out for himself. That was the first idea of every American boy in my time, to get away from home as soon as possible and start and make his own way. The schools encouraged independence of character. I don't think they do so now —I don’t know, of course, because I haven't been in close touch with America for a long time—but it seems to me that the American boy of to-day is less ambitious than we used to be. He isn't so eager to go ahead and do something for himself at an early age.

While I was a boy, our family shifted west to Milwaukee, the capital of Wisconsin, where my uncle was a merchant in a big way of business. There was a large family of us boys and girls, but I was the only one with a turn for the stage, and I don’t know that any of my father’s or mother’s people was ever inclined that way.

“Jimmy” was the Bloodhound

I used to act in amateur theatricals, and when I was sixteen I got an engagement with a company at the Milwaukee theatre. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, and did pretty well everything. My mornings were spent in learning fencing and dancing. In the afternoon I’d look after the box office, and at evening help the stage manager and take my part—sometimes three or four parts.

I remember I even painted some of the scenery for a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I knew nothing about scene-painting, but I did the ice scene—with the blocks of ice made out of candle boxes—and when Eliza and her child were escaping across the ice I shouted and waved the red fire, and looked after the barking of the bloodhound. I was the bloodhound.

Eliza crosses the ice George Cruikshank 1852‘Eliza Crosses the Ohio on the Floating Ice’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Drawing by George Cruikshank, 1852. The Victorian Web.

Well, one of the company arranged to go to Canada, and asked me to come along. That was in 1862. I went to my uncle—who was my guardian, my father being dead—and told him about it. I suppose they saw there was no stopping me; but he said “Remember, if you go, you go for good: there must be no coming back unless you give up the stage altogether. You can't do a little of this and a little of something else.” He wanted me to go to Harvard or Yale and study for a profession. “All right!” I said, and off I went, and from that day to this I have been connected with the stage, and I can say truly that I have made my own way and never had help from anybody to the extent of a shilling that I didn’t earn.

* * * * * * * * *

We played in Canada one year, and when the company broke up I determined to come to New York. That was in 1863. New York, of course, was the centre of our theatrical world, and it seemed there wasn’t much chance there for a youth of seventeen. However, I came along, and met a Mr. English whom I had seen with the company in Canada. He was running a high-class vaudeville entertainment at the Olympic Theatre, and he told me that he was going to put on a farce to play before his entertainment, and offered me a small part. I was to be “Quicksilver” in The Artful Dodger. He offered me ten dollars a week, and I took it gladly. I was engaged in New York!

Engaged in New York

Well, when the rehearsals came on I saw there was likely to be trouble. The principal actor objected to me playing “Quicksilver,” the fact was he had a friend of his own whom he wished to put on, and he would not hear of me. So one day I went in and saw Mr. English, and he said: “Jimmy, I can’t give you that part.” “But,” I said, “you've engaged me.” “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry, but the fact is Mr. So-and-So objects. He says you're too young.” “But,” I said, “I'm engaged!” “I can’t help that,” he said; “you can't have the part.” The end of it was he offered me another and smaller part. “But,” he said, “I can only give you five dollars a week!” “Never mind; I'm engaged!” That was my idea to have an engagement. Five dollars is only £1 a week, but I didn’t care: I could live on that, and I went on and took the part. The result was that in a few nights the actor who was playing “Quicksilver” didn't turn up, and I played “Quicksilver” for the rest of the run of the piece.

I had an idea I could do better, so one day I went and saw the elder Mr. Wallack. Wallack’s Theatre at that time was the leading theatre of America, and there never has been a better company on the English-speaking stage than Wallack’s company was then. There were no stars, but nearly every performer was an artist worthy of being starred: and if the same company could be brought together at the present time under the existing conditions of theatrical affairs there would not be a theatre in New York which would hold money enough at regular prices to pay the salaries they could command. That is because salaries were comparatively very low in those days. The most I ever drew at Wallack’s was fifty dollars a week. They used to stage the old comedies like Sheridan’s, and newer ones like Robertson’s. I remember Charles Mathews was the light comedian one season, and Charles Wyndham (now Sir Charles) was another.

I called at the old gentleman’s house—he was over seventy at that time. I met him just as he was getting into his carriage, and he consented to see me the following day. The following day I called, and was shown into a waiting-room—and I’ll tell you a singular thing. Do you see that picture of John Kemble as Rolla hanging on the wall? That was offered to me some years ago as a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. I made enquiries, and the history seemed to be all right, it being the original study for his great picture in the Peel gallery, so I bought it. Well, I couldn’t help thinking that I had seen it before; and one day, as I was looking at it, the memory came back to me. It had hung in old Mr. Wallack’s house, in the room where I sat waiting for him. I looked into the papers I had got with it, and sure enough I found that it had been owned by the elder Mr. Wallack. So it had travelled from England to America and from America to Australia, and had come to remind me of my first important engagement.

Taken on at Wallack’s

When I was shown into the old gentleman’s room I told him I wanted an engagement to fill a vacancy there would be in his company the next season. He put his hand on a pile of papers that seemed about two feet high, and he said “Do you see that, my boy? Two-thirds of those letters are from people who want the little engagement you are asking me for.” Then we talked, and he asked me to call again. I called, and found he had gone to the seaside. When he came back I called again, and he told me he was going to give me the part. So I came on at Wallack’s.

* * * * * * * * *

Just before I joined I had a joke with Mr. English. He was forming a company to go touring, and he met me one day and offered me a place in the company. I thanked him, and said “No,” I didn't think I'd be able to; I thought of taking an engagement at Wallack’s. That rather took him aback, for, of course, he didn’t believe the thing was possible, because Wallack’s was a close corporation in those days. To show you the strength of their company at that time, they played The Rivals in New York one night, complete to the smallest part. Every part was played by an actor, and by a good actor too. The same night the other half of the company played The School for Scandal at Brooklyn, also complete, with a good actor for every part. All the actors in both pieces belonged to the regular company, and either of those casts would be considered star casts nowadays.

I made my first big New York success as Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop with “Lotta”—America’s most popular star comedienne—during a summer season at Wallack’s.

A Treble Recall and a Waiting “Star”

Altogether I stayed with Wallack’s for seven years, playing all kinds of parts, and gradually improving my position. Generally I was cast for dialect parts. I took all dialects—French, Dutch, Irish, Chinese, Negro, Yorkshire, Somersetshire—anything that came along. Perhaps the greatest success of my young days was gained one night that I was playing “Sim” in O’Keefe's play of Wild Oats. I had a scene with Lester Wallack, who was a great actor. Now, Wallack’s Theatre in those days was a regular home of stage tradition, so far as the old comedies were concerned. The prompt books contained all the business that had been set down for the regular parts in all the plays, often going back many years and commencing with the business directed by the authors. The books were regarded as a kind of stage Bible, and any departure from them was simply not to be thought of.

Well, in this scene with Lester Wallack, between Rover and Sim, I seemed to feel the part much better in my own way than in the way it was set down for me by the prompt-book. I told that to the stage manager—Mr. John Gilbert—and he was properly shocked. “My boy,” he said, “it’s not to be thought of!” But when I got on the stage I felt as if I must take the part my own way after all, and I did. When my scene was over I went back to the dressing-room, and after a bit (it seemed quite a good while) a call boy came along and said “Mr. Williamson, you’re wanted!” I came out wondering what was up, and thinking the old gentleman was going to take me to task for altering the business. To my surprise I was told to go on in front; the audience had called for me—a remarkable thing in the middle of a scene. I went on, and they applauded furiously. Then I went off and was called back for more applause. Then I went off again, but the public would not let Mr. Wallack go on with the scene and a third time I was called back, and we had to do the end of the scene over again before they would let us go.

Well now, Mr. Wallack was a star, and I was only a youngster, and it was a very unusual thing that the star should be made to wait while the audience recalled the junior who had played with him. I always think that was one of the finest things that ever happened to me; and I was very proud of being specially complimented by Charles Fechter, who was in front.

“Where’s Jimmy Williamson?”

One night old Mr. Wallack came to me and said that, owing to the illness of John Brougham, I must play the part of Sir Lucius O'Trigger in The Rivals on the following night. It is a very long part, and there were only a few hours to get it up in. “Jimmy,” he said, “you've got to do it!” “Well,” I said, “I'll try.  So after the play that night I went home and wrote out the part, which took me till about two o'clock, and studied it. Then I went to bed for two or three hours, woke up, had some strong coffee, and at it again. At night I played the part letter perfect. That was my idea, always to be ready for anything, and never miss a chance of getting on. The consequence was that, in the last years of my time at Wallack’s, whenever there was anything out of the way to do, they said “Where's Jimmy Williamson?”

After that I got an engagement at the Old Broadway Theatre as principal comedian; till in 1871 John McCullough, manager of the California Theatre, came to New York looking for a comedian. The California Theatre at San Francisco was a very big affair in those times, and prided itself upon its superiority. Their leading comedian, John Raymond, was leaving them, and after looking all round the manager offered me his place. That, of course, was a high testimonial, so I signed on at a very fine salary, and said good-bye to New York. In San Francisco I had great success at the California, with occasional trips starring round about. While I was in San Francisco, Dion Boucicault, senior, father of Dot Boucicault, came over to play a season, and I’ll tell you how he dished the ’Frisco reporters. They thought themselves smart men, as indeed they were, and when Boucicault’s season was announced they all sharpened their pencils, and it was hinted that Dion was going to have a warm time.

How Boucicault Dished the Reporters

Well, of course, he heard all about it, and this is what he did. On his first night he introduced a sketch called Boucicault in California. In this he appeared at home in the Occidental Hotel, just arriving. I was Murphy, his servant, with remarks on all and sundry; Barton Hill came to tell him about the pieces he was going to play; then came in an actress to play the part of a debutante with a San Jose reputation (which is as if a debutante with a Parramatta reputation came to play at Sydney)—and so on. Then came in the reporters, especially W.A. Mestayer, as Bogus Push, of The Weekly Pill—and Boucicault talked to the reporters. He told them his opinion of everything, especially California—and left the genuine reporters without a leg to stand on. He simply said on the stage everything they had to say in the papers, and left them nothing at all to write. That always struck me as a particularly happy instance of turning the tables.

* * * * * * * * *

After three years of San Francisco I determined to try a trip to Australia. Horace Greeley’s advice, “Go West, young man! Go West!” was a popular saying in America about that time, and we determined to go still further West. Well, we came to Australia and landed in Melbourne in 1874, and opened at the Theatre Royal with Struck Oil. I suppose there’s no better known piece in this country. I’ve met hundreds of people who date their acquaintance with the theatre back to that piece. Men meet me and say “Look here, Mr. Williamson, I know you well! I remember when I was a boy my father took me to see Struck Oil.”

The History of “Struck Oil”

The history of the piece is rather interesting. While I was at the California I was told that an old miner named Sam Smith had written some plays and was anxious to sell them. I was looking round for some things to take to Australia, so when a friend asked me if I would go and hear him read one I said “Certainly.” The piece the old man wanted to show me was called The Blue and the Grey, but I saw there was not much in that. “Well,” he said, “I have another piece if you’ll let me read it. It’s called The Deed, or Five Years Away.” So he read that, and it contained the basis of Struck Oil. I saw there was a good deal in it, and a great deal that would have to be cut out and altered. So I bought it right out, giving the old fellow a hundred dollars more than he asked for it; and got a friend of mine—Clay Greene—to re-write it. A little later, I went starring to Salt Lake City, and I thought I'd try this piece. We rehearsed it, and I saw the last act wouldn’t do.  So one Sunday morning I started upon it and wrote and re-wrote until I had made it suit my own notion, giving out the parts to the company as I went along. We played it the next night, and it went very well, so we took it back to San Francisco and played it there, and I brought it along to Australia.

One of my friends, Mr. William Hoskins (so well known in Australia), said to me in San Francisco, “What have you got to take out there?” “Well,” I said, “I've got so and so, and so and so,”—and I mentioned Struck Oil. He said, “Don’t give them that in Australia on any account, it will be an utter failure. There are no Germans out there, and they won’t understand it.” Then, coming over in the ship, I used to have a look at it now and again, and read a bit here and there. The captain stopped one day to hear me, and he said, “Now, if you'll take my advice, you’ll keep that in your box. A thing like that won't go down in Australia.”

Well, I suppose I ought to have been discouraged, but I wasn’t, and I’ll tell you how I came to play it on our opening night in Melbourne. The night before we opened, I had gone to the Opera House, and Richard Stewart was there playing Prince Cassimir in the Princess of Trebizond. About the only German he used was “Mein Gott in Himmel!” and that seemed to go down so well with the audience that I said, “We'll have Struck Oil.” And of course you know how it caught on.

A Nightmare Adventure

In 1875 I went to India. It was at the time that the Prince of Wales was visiting there—the present King—and India was en fête. I suppose there has never been such a time there since. I had the honour of meeting the Prince of Wales in Charles Mathews’ dressing-room (for he was in India too), and I can tell you a story in connection with Mathews. One night after the play a lot of English officers came to supper with him, and I was there, and we had a very jolly time, and sat up till three in the morning. Their talk was all military, and they told us the awful tales of the Mutiny, of the well at Cawnpore, the massacre at Delhi, and so on— a very gruesome set of stories.

With all these things ringing in my head I went to bed and dreamed of throat-cutting and smothering, and all kinds of horrible things, and suddenly I woke to consciousness and realised that I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes, and saw what seemed to me (scarcely half-awake) a horrid black figure holding my nose with one hand, while he brandished a razor in the other. I gave a fearful yell and caught up the pillow and dashed it at him—sent him flying into one corner of the room, and his razor into the other. Next moment I was out of bed ready to defend myself, and I saw this darkey crouching at the other side of the room, and chattering pitifully. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, and for a moment I didn’t understand either. Then it came to me that it was the native barber who was accustomed to come in early in the morning and shave me while I lay in bed, and he had just been starting operations when he got mixed up with my dreams of the Mutiny.

THE BOOKFELLOW, 10 January 1907, pp. 11-12

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

WELL, to continue. After India a few months were devoted to a jaunt through Egypt, Italy, France and Germany. Then, on Easter Monday, 1876,I opened at the Adelphi under the management of F.B. Chatterton, who had also the Drury Lane Theatre. Chatterton was the author of the much-quoted remark, “Shakespeare spells ruin.” We commenced our season with Struck Oil, the engagement being to star for three months with the option on the part of the manager to extend. This option was almost immediately exercised, extending the season from Easter to Easter—twelve months in all. We played Struck Oil 100 nights, which was a good run in those times, thirty years ago.

AdelphiSilk theatre program for the Adelphi Theatre, 1876

We then went into Irish drama, doing a revival of Arrah-na-Pogue with a big cast, including such London favourites as William Terriss, Sam Emery, Mrs. Alfred Melon and Shiel Barry — the great Michael Feeney. We played Arrah-na-Pogue for four months, with such success that the manager wished to continue us in Irish drama, and insisted upon putting up The Shaughraun. I wouldn’t agree to this, because I knew the piece was Dion Boucicault’s. It was copyrighted in America, but the copyright did not extend to England, and legally we were free to play it. But Boucicault would not give his consent, though the manager offered him every inducement—and I held out that I would not play till Boucicault did give his consent. The manager went so far as to cast the piece and call rehearsals, and when he found I was determined he commenced an action at law against me for breach of engagement, but the case fell through. In fact, he had no chance, for I had Charles Mathews, Joe Jefferson, and others ready to back me up, and prove that he had no business to make the cast without the star’s consent. But the dispute ended our Adelphi season, and after touring two years in America, starring in Struck Oil, I decided to make another trip around the world, and came back to Australia. That was in 1879, and I've been here ever since; except for trips every two or three years to get new plays, new people, and new ideas. I believe in keeping myself right up to date.

I had always said I would never go in for permanent management, because you see a manager’s life is never his own: he has to be at work all the time. I was doing well enough as an actor, and when a star actor wants a rest he can simply knock off and take a holiday for six months, or as long as he likes and then begin again. But a manager has no rest. Once he starts he has to keep going all the time. So I had always said “No management for me!”

At the Head of the Australian Profession

But when I came to Australia the second time, I brought out among other new pieces Pinafore, and the first thing I had to do when I landed was to take out injunctions against the people who were playing it without authority. Pinafore went very well, and then I got The Pirates of Penzance. George Musgrove was running an opera company at the time with Tambour Major, and Arthur Garner was running his English comedy company, and they came to me and said “We had better go into partnership!” Well, I held out for a bit, but eventually agreed, and that started what people called “The Triumvirate,” which lasted for nine years. Then Musgrove went out, and Garner and I were together for two years. Then I bought Garner out for a time until Musgrove rejoined me. We were together for seven years, and I was alone for four years until I joined forces with my present partners, Mr. George Tallis and Mr. Gustave Ramaciotti—both friends long associated with my affairs—Mr. Tallis as my Melbourne manager and Mr. Ramaciotti as legal adviser.

So now you’ve got a very fair outline of my professional career. A good deal of it has been spent in playing, but there’s a good deal that has not been play by any means. The stage has given me a lot of pleasure, a fair share of success, and a great deal of very hard work. I think it is capacity for hard persistent work that the Australian-born actor sometimes lacks. Sometimes he wants perseverance: he doesn’t keep plugging away, and he doesn’t think enough of the stage when he’s off the stage. If a man wants to be a good actor, he has to give his mind to the profession all the time. It’s not enough to gain applause at night, if you think so much about the applause next morning that you forget to look out for the next chance. An actor should be always studying to improve himself, always studying to fit himself for better parts, always studying to make himself such a trustworthy man all round that when there's an opening ahead, he'll be chosen to fill it.

Australian Actors

In our profession it is difficult to know enough, and you can never know too much. As a young man, when I was not engaged in a piece, I used to go round to the other theatres, wherever I happened to be: picking up an idea here, a wrinkle there, or storing away a little bit of business for future use: watching the other fellows take a part and deciding how I would take it if I got the chance, and so on: and, what is most important, studying what to avoid in order to correct my faults. Australian actors have great talent, naturally—and, mind you, I'm not making any sweeping condemnation, but I do think that it may fairly be said that some are deficient in application, deficient in painstaking ambition, too apt to forget that stage laurels will fade if they are not continually refreshed by new achievements. It seems to be the fault of the country. Things ripen too quickly. The fruit ripens quickly, the crops mature quickly—but the harvests are irregular.

THE BOOKFELLOW, 24 January 1907, p.8


Additional Source

Ian G. Dicker, J.C.W.—A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson [The Elizabeth Tudor Press, NSW: 1974]

Original Sources of Photos and Illustrations

The Harvard Theatre Collection: Wallack’s Theatre, c.1865; J.W. Wallack, Sr.; JCW c.1868; Maggie Moore (1873); Poster for Struck Oil

California Historical Society, San Francisco: John McCullough; The California Theatre c.1871; JCW c.1871

The New York Public Library Theatre Collection: Playbill for Wallack’s Theatre

J.C. Willamson’s Life-Story in His Own Words [N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Ltd., 1913]: JCW and family

J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd., Sydney: Script page of Struck Oil

(The original 1874 orchestra parts for the incidental music for Struck Oil remain extant in the “J.C. Williamson collection of performance materials” archived at the National Library of Australia in Canberra—see