On the 17 november 1906 Meynell, Gunn & Varna’s New English Comedy Company commenced a short season at the Palace with the three-act farcical comedy The Little Stranger by Michael Morton. With the play’s withdrawal on 7 December, W. Arundel Orchard’s comic opera The Emperor was revived for a single night on Saturday, 8 December.
The theatre remained dark for a fortnight pending the ‘first appearance’ in Australia of comedian Harry Macdona in The New Boy on 22 December 1906.
Written by Arthur Law, this three-act farce had been seen in Australia during 1894 with Ralph Roberts as Archibald Rennick. Since its first production in London that same year, with Weedon Grossmith in the title role, it had enjoyed much success throughout the UK and America.
In addition to Macdona, who played the eponymous ‘new boy’, the second husband of Mrs. Bolder, who somewhat younger (and smaller in stature) than his wife, is mistakenly believed to be her son. For various reasons, he is prepared to go along with the assumption and is enrolled at a local school. In reviewing the play, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:
A gentleman whose name was announced as Mr. Harry Macdona took the part of Archibald Rennick, the new boy, and Miss Vera Remee was Mrs. Rennick. Miss Remee may not have all the arts and graces of a highly finished actress, but she carried herself through her part with more than credit. She was natural, enunciation was clear, and distinct, and she was not in the least stagey. Mr. Macdona, on the other hand, was not a thorough success. He was boisterously rollicking throughout, and though he was expected to do a good deal of fooling, he did some of it too well.1
As the Herald alludes, the claim in the ads that Macdona was a ‘distinguished English comedian … known throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom as the Greatest Laughter Producer of the modern stage’, 2 seems to have little validity. The only acting Macdona on the UK stage during the early 1900s (as listed in theatrical journals/directories of the period) seems to be Charles Macdona, an Irishman, who would go on to establish the Macdona Players and become a champion of George Bernard Shaw. A small mention of the 1906/07 Palace season in the UK-theatre journal The Era, refers to Harry Macdona as a ‘Sydney comedian’.3 Indeed, closer investigation suggests he was none other than Tom Cosgrove, a local actor, whose brother John Cosgrove was also a member of the company. It is not clear why he changed his name as over the following few decades he can be spotted performing under both names.
Nevertheless, despite some lukewarm reviews of opening night, The New Boy was not a complete failure. The Bulletin noted for example: ‘At Sydney Palace Harry Cosgrove Macdona continues to give sparkle to the comedy of The New Boy. The Boy is having quite a run, and the people who a few weeks ago were merely good amateurs are now getting a professional touch in the quality of their performances.’ 4
On the 12 January, the company produced Jane, and on the 28 January, Dr. Bill, both farcical comedies that had been performed back in 1890 by the Brough-Boucicault Comedy Company.
With the departure of Macdona and co., concert and film promoters J. & N. Tait returned with the film The Story of the Kelly Gang which screened from 9–23 February 1907. The film, described by the promoters as ‘one of the most realistic types of cinematography yet placed before the public’5 had created a sensation in Melbourne where is ran for seven weeks. It had also just completed a two-and-a-half-week season in Adelaide. Now it was Sydney’s turn. Running for just over an hour (film historians continue to debate claims that it was the world’s first feature film6), it occupied the second half of a two-part entertainment, with the crowded house displaying ‘considerable impatience’ during the first part.7 Indeed, audiences were not disappointed in the main event, cheering and clapping at its conclusion. Yet despite the crowds who flocked to the Palace, the season was limited to only a fortnight, closing on 23 February.
On the 20 and 21 March, the Bank of New South Wales Dramatic Society presented The Brixton Burglary (another comedy made popular in Australia by the Brough Comedy Company in the 1890s).
On Saturday, 23 March 1907, Herbert Flemming’s company commenced a six-week season. In partnership with Robert Brough, Flemming had been joint manager of the Brough-Flemming Company, and in early 1906 following Robert Brough’s death, had taken over the reins of the organisation. Still operating as the Brough-Flemming Company they opened their season at the Palace with the first Sydney production of Mrs Gorringe’s Necklace, a four-act comedy by Henry Hubert Davies, which the company had premiered in Adelaide in September 1906. With this piece they were making their reappearance in Sydney after a twelve-month absence. The company had just returned from a tour of New Zealand with Florence Brough (née Trevelyan) (Mrs. Robert Brough) as leading lady. The tour had been a huge undertaking emotionally and mentally for Mrs. Brough and as her health was still fragile following her husband’s death, she withdrew from the Sydney season. Her absence necessitated a complete change of personnel among the female cast. Newcomer Madeline Meredith stepped into the role of Mrs. Gorringe, while Beatrice Day (the original Mrs. Gorringe), now played Isabel, one of Mrs. Jardine’s daughters (previously played by Kate Gair). Miss Gordon Lee continued as Vicky Jardine, her other daughter. Robert Brough’s sister Bessie Major made a welcome return, taking on the role of Mrs. Jardine, originally performed by Mrs. Brough.
When Mrs. Gorringe’s Necklace was first performed at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in 1903, the title character was considered the lead role, with Mary Moore as Mrs. Gorringe and Charles Wyndham as Captain Mowbray (played in Australia by Herbert Flemming). Under Flemming’s direction, Mrs. Jardine was considered the principal female role as the personality of Mrs. Gorringe (whose necklace is stolen at Mrs. Jardine’s house-party) is considered a silly and flighty character, whereas Mrs. Jardine is more grounded and sensible—and admirably better suited to the persona of Florence Brough.
An interesting aside concerning Madeline Meredith who played Mrs. Gorringe in Sydney. Born Madeline Constance Tudway in 1873, she was the only daughter of Charles Clement Tudway and Lady Edith Nelson (daughter of Lord Horatio Nelson)—and consequently a member of the British peerage. But rather than follow family tradition, she decided to pursue a career on the stage, making her debut in 1892. She came to Australia in 1906 as a member of the Julius Knight-Maud Jeffries company (and was with them during their 1906 Palace season) and since that time had been playing second leads with the Meynell-Gunn company at the Criterion Theatre.
Miss Meredith’s performance in the Brough-Flemming Company’s next piece, a revival of Dr. Wake’s Patient on 6 April 1907, was much anticipated. Would she be as good as Mrs. Brough in the role of the Countess of St. Olbyn? Perhaps breeding would help. As noted by The Australian Star: ‘Her conception of the part was excellent, and she was equal to every emergency called for in the representation of the haughty and altogether selfish countess.’8 Other roles were filled by Herbert Flemming as Farmer Wake (his original role), with Carter Pickford as Dr. Wake, Beatrice Day as Lady Geronia, Bessie Major as Mrs. Wake, and Mary Milward as Mrs. Murdoch.
The following Saturday, 13 April 1907, Peter’s Mother was presented for the first time in Australia. Mrs. Henry de la Pasteur’s three-act comedy had just closed in London after 149 performances, with Marion Terry (sister of Ellen Terry) as Lady Mary Crewys. Sydneysiders hoped that Mrs. Brough would make her reappearance, but she did not, and the role was played by Beatrice Day. Carter Pickford played her son, Peter, with Bessie Major as Lady Belstone, Herbert Flemming as John Crewys QC, and Miss Gordon Lee as Sarah Hewell.
Peter’s Mother was performed for a fortnight, and on the 27 April, another new play was given its Sydney premiere: What Would a Gentleman Do?
A comedy by Gilbert Dayle, this play had brief run at the Apollo Theatre in London during September 1902. Prior this, under the title The Man from Australia, it had been seen at the Princess Theatre in Llandudno (Wales) the previous April. As What Would a Gentleman Do?, it had its first Australian outing in Perth in August 1906 with Herbert Flemming as Dickie Hook—the man from Australia—a wealthy but unsophisticated young Australian in England, who with the aid of The Complete Gentleman attempts to understand the manners and customs of polished society. Other roles were played by Florence Brough (Agatha Kederby), Beatrice Day (Madge Kederby) and Emma Temple (Dolly Banter).
For the first Sydney performance Gregan McMahon now played the young would-be gentleman. Audiences sympathised with poor Dickie as his attempts at assimilation failed and he grappled with the problem of ‘What would a gentleman do?’. A complete change to the female roles saw Beatrice Day as Dolly Banter, Bessie Major as Agatha Kederby and Miss Gordon Lee as Madge Kederby. The curtain-raiser In Honour Bound by Sydney Grundy was also performed with Beatrice Day and Herbert Flemming as Sir George and Lady Carlyon.
Two revivals followed, The Walls of Jericho (11–14 May) and Quality Street (15–17 May) with Beatrice Day as the heroine in each of these plays. The season closed with the first Australian production of Olivia, a play by W.G. Wills, based on The Vicar of Wakefield, and first performed in London in March 1878 with Hermann Vezin as Dr. Primrose and Ellen Terry as Olivia. A 1885 revival saw Henry Irving as the vicar with Ellen Terry again as Olivia. In Sydney, the play was directed by H.W. Varna (previously associated with the Meynell, Gunn and Varna company), who was said to be using a copy of Irving’s original script containing his marginal notes and directions.9 As Olivia, Beatrice Day was commended for her finished performance as the pretty muslin-clad heroine, supported by Herbert Flemming as Dr. Primrose.
With the close of the season on 31 May, Herbert Flemming re-badged the company as the Herbert Flemming Comedy Company and headed north for a tour of Queensland. Although his company would play one more season in Sydney during 1908, Herbert Flemming sadly died in October 1908, aged just 52.
The following evening, Saturday, 1 June, saw a change of pace with Charles Holloway’s company. Their opening piece was the melodrama The Coal King by Ernest Martin and Fewlass Llewellyn for the first time in Sydney. This play had first been performed at the Elephant and Castle in London in October 1904 and had enjoyed a successful provincial career. The first Australian production had been given at the Theatre Royal in Hobart by Holloway’s company in November 1906.
Charles Holloway’s company excelled at melodrama, and The Coal King was true to form. Tom Roberts, the son and heir of a mining magnate is brought up in humble circumstances, having been swapped at birth with his foster mother’s real son. Working in the colliery Tom has risen to the position of mine-manager. He is love with the village schoolmistress, Grace Shirley, which earns the enmity of Walter Harford, the fake heir, who is cruel and vindictive. Tom manages to avoid being accused of a crime he didn’t commit and a mine collapse to win the hand of Grace and his rightful position as the real son of the mine owner. Beatrice Holloway played Grace, with Robert Inman as the hero and Godfrey Cass as the villain.
The 1860 Irish drama The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault followed on 15 June for six nights only, with John P. O’Neill as Myles-Na-Coppaleen (with songs) and Beatrice Holloway as Eily O’Connor.
The final seven nights of the season saw a revival of Two Little Vagabonds with Beatrice Holloway reprising her original role as Dick, one of ‘little vagabonds’. The other, Wally, was played by Mabel Russell.
On Monday, 1 July 1907 the Empire Pictures Co., under the direction of Edwin Geach, commenced a season of films presenting for the first time in Sydney scenes of ‘Bonnie Scotland’ and ‘Dear Ould Ireland’. On 15 July, they were supplanted by ‘Canada As It Is’ and ‘Magnificent Naval Display’ (depicting a torpedo-destroyer and submarine flotilla attack).
On Saturday, 3 August 1907, music hall artiste Florence Baines made her first appearance in Australia. Accompanied by a company of fifteen English artists, she opened in an original musical play entitled Miss Lancashire Limited. This was performed with success throughout the English provinces during 1905 with Baines as Mary Ellen Thompson, a Lancashire parlourmaid who changes places with an heiress. The farce, written by Sydney Sydney, (yes! this was his name) was liberally interspersed with songs and ditties to demonstrate Florence Baines’ talent as an entertainer, including her popular ‘Laughing Song’. A lady of generous proportions, she was a larger-than-life figure, and her magnetic performance style earned her the title ‘the girl who set London laughing’. She proved one of the most popular attractions at the Palace in recent years.
Miss Lancashire Ltd. played to capacity audiences at the Palace until 1 October 1907—an extraordinary 59 performances!10 Florence Baines and her ‘Laughing Song’ continued to keep Australia and New Zealand in stitches until July 1909 when she returned to England.
The following Saturday, 5 October 1907, saw the production of a new drama in four acts called The Yellow Peril by Alfred Newcomb. Being presented for the first time by Charles W. Taylor’s New English and Australian Dramatic Organisation, the play was described as the ‘only DRAMA on a CHINESE SUBJECT ever written for the ENGLISH STAGE’, replete with magnificent Chinese costumes and scenic effects.11 According to news reports, the play’s author was a New Zealander who had spent ’22 active years in the Far East’ and was therefore an authority on the ‘Chinese question’ and the perils of inter-marriage, the theme of the play.12 Laura Roberts played the heroine Vera Montgomery, who becomes the unhappy wife of a Chinese potentate, the Marquis Lo-Feng-Sao (Harry Diver).
Unfortunately for Taylor and his company, The Yellow Peril did not ‘catch on’ in Sydney and it was abruptly withdrawn on 15 October. As a result, the theatre was plunged into darkness.
It was re-opened for a special ‘Irish Night’ organised by Dr. Charles W. MacCarthy on Saturday, 2 November 1907. The evening was dedicated to a certain Mrs. Kevin Izod O’Doherty, an Irish woman whose story of hardship and survival earned her the sobriquet ‘Eva of The Nation’. Andrew Mack who had just concluded a successful season at the Criterion Theatre gave his services as did ‘The Australian Queen of Irish Song’ Marie Narelle who contributed to a largely amateur program of songs and monologues.
On Saturday, 9 November 1907, Carter, the Great Magician, assisted by Miss Abigail Price, made his first appearance in Australia, presenting a program of Magic, Mirth and Mystery.
To be continued
1. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 December 1906, p.3
2. Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 1906, p.2
3. The Era, 2 February 1907, p.13
4. The Bulletin, 10 January 1907, p.8
5. Advertisement, The Daily Telegraph, 9 February 1907, p.2
6. See Graham Shirley & Sally Jackson, ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang: Restoring the world’s first feature’, n.d.; Ina Bertrand & William D. Routt, The Picture That Will Live Forever: The Story of the Kelly Gang, 2007.
7. The Australian Star, 11 February 1907, p.2. Henry William Varna (1865–1935) was an American-born, British educated theatre producer. In 1897 he joined Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London as stage manager. In this capacity he travelled to Australia to oversee the staging of Tree’s production of The Darling of the Gods with Julius Knight and Maud Jeffries. He next teamed with Meynell and Gunn and oversaw the production of The Little Stranger. During 1908, with Herbert Flemming’s Company he produced The Mummy and the Humming Bird. Settling in Australia he was subsequently associated with actor-manager Allan Wilkie and in later years ran his own dramatic school in Sydney and was a prominent member of the Actors’ Association.
8. The Australian Star, 8 April 1907, p.2
9. The Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1907, p.19
10. Advertisement, The Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1907, p.2
11. Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1907, p.2
12. The West Coast Times, 19 March 1907, p.3
Allardyce Nicoll, English Drama 1900–1930: The beginnings of the modern period, Cambridge University Press, 1973
Ina Bertrand & William D. Routt, The Picture That Will Live Forever: The Story of the Kelly Gang, ATOM, 2007, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=H-elDgAAQBAJ
Graham Shirley & Sally Jackson, ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang: Restoring the world’s first feature’, National Film & Sound Archive, n.d., https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/story-kelly-gang
J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1900–1909: A calendar of productions, performers, and personnel, 2nd edition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014
The Australian Star (Sydney), The Bulletin (Sydney), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), The Era (London), The New Zealand Mail (Wellington), The Sydney Morning Herald, The West Coat Times (Hokitika)
Papers Past, http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Bathurst City Library, Bathurst, NSW
National Library of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, London
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
With thanks to
John S. Clark, Judy Leech, Rob Morrison, Les Tod