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Australian Itinerant Theatres as Colonial Cultural Assimilation

by Elysia Yu


1. Introduction


Itinerant theatre played a predominant role in the development of transnational theatre during the late nineteenth century.[1] Rapidly developing transcontinental transport networks allowed increased access for theatre troupes, allowing them to expand their reach along growing trade routes to previously inaccessible or remote distant locations.[2] While British and American troupes made up most of the globetrotting theatre scene during the late ninteenth cenutry, some Australian theatre companied joined the increasingly transnational theatre industry.[3] The Australian counterparts to the American and European theatre troupes that dominated the emerging transnational theatre market had the geographical advantage of being closer to European colonies in South and Southeast Asia, primarily touring there.[4] Although both Australia and Southeast Asian colonies like Singapore were both under British rule, the relationship Australia had with the British imperial government was vastly different to that of South and Southeast Asian British colonies.[5] Theatre history literature has mostly discussed the dynamics between British itinerant theatres and their audiences in regions like Southeast Asia, leaving the history of touring theatre troupes from Australia are comparatively underexplored.[6] In light of this, this essay aims to investigate the touring practices of Australian itinerant theatres in nineteenth century Southeast Asia by looking into the theatrical companies founded by Mr. Harry Stanley, a renowned theatre manager at that time. By doing so, this paper argues that even though Australian itinerant theatres may appear to have been commercial in nature and motivation, it ultimately functioned as a colonial instrument of cultural assimilation. The essay further examines Australia's peculiar positioning as a unique European colony contra other British colonies in South and Southeast Asia in relation to the intercolonial cultural exchange between Britain, its Southeast Asian colonies, and Australia effected by itinerant theatre.


2. Australia in the late nineteenth century


Since the late eighteenth century, Australia had been facing a gradual migration of British settlers.[7] Facing British annexation, the aboriginal people resisted forcefully.[8] Subsequent conflicts ended with significant reduction in the aboriginal population, resulting in the British settler population becoming the majority populace in Australia, predominantly controlling most of its land.[9] Following violent colonisation, policies were also adopted to achieve cultural assimilation.[10] Instilling a sense of Britishness in the newly established colony was a prime agenda for the new colonial government which viewed aboriginal cultures as inferior.[11] For instance, plays celebrating the British empire were one of the popular genres of theatre in Australia during the nineteenth century.[12]


"Batavia Road" by Izzy Orloff from the State Library of Western Australia is in the Public Domain


Australia benefitted from an accelerated economic growth during the course of the nineteenth century with the advancement of maritime transport networks.[13] Nonetheless, such prosperity was without complementary developments in basic infrastructures. As a result, the inner workings of the country were far from pleasant.[14] These grim realities, like the great disparities in wealth between the upper class and the poor in Melbourne, were depicted in Australian literature, such as in the famous novel The Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Australian writer David Hume.[15] In contrast, such themes were rarely exhibited in Australian theatrical productions in the late nineteenth century. Instead, plays tended to portray and idealised utopian prospect for the colony and the Empire at large, with only incidental references to local realities.[16]


3. Mr Harry Stanley's theatre companies


Originating from London, Mr. Harry Stanley only moved to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century after serving in the British navy during the Crimean War.[17] Experience little success with gold digging, Stanley joined a theatrical troupe and became a performer.[18] After reaping success in several performances, he then founded his own theatrical company, the Stanley Opera Company, and started to tour around Victoria.[19] Aside from the Stanley Opera Company, he also established the Stanley's Opera Bouffe and Pantomime Company as well as the Juvenile Operatic Troupe for young performers.[20] He later extended the tour to cities and ports outside of Australia, which led to the companies' ascending popularity in Southeast Asia.


4. Features of Mr. Stanley's theatre companies


4.1 Route selection

As exorbitant costs would be incurred by transcontinental touring, careful selection of travelling routes were crucial to the tours' success.[21] Like other touring itinerant theatres, Stanley's theatrical companies followed the steamships of colonial commercial trade to embark on their touring journey around the globe.[22] The abundance of European diaspora in colonial port cities signified ample demand for entertainment like European theatrical performances, which could generate profits in the long run.[23] Apart from the European diasporas, the local merchants who maintained amicable relationships with the Europeans or Britons were also audiences due to their accepting attitude towards European cultures, especially those closely related to the colonial powers of the respective regions.


4.2 Audience

The theatrical companies usually attracted huge audiences and had their venues filled up with people who longed to see performances by the famed troupes.[24] While European diaspora might be among the audience to once again experience their home countries' entertainment tradition, the plays were also open to the local audiences. For instance, the theatre companies were positively received by the Parsees in Bombay and the troupes even got to perform before the Nizam of Hyderabad.[25] Theatrical performances by the Australian troupes had become one of the most sought-after entertainment for the local upper-class. Nevertheless, rather than branding themselves as exclusively upper-class luxury entertainment, the theatre companies attempted to accommodate audiences from across the socioeconomic classes. From an article dated 24th October 1890 in Shanghai, it can be seen that Stanley's theatre companies lowered the entrance fare by a considerable extent in order to boost attendance.[26]


4.3 Management personnel

The theatre companies were mainly managed by Mr. Harry Stanley. Acting as both manager and actor of his theatre companies like other theatrical troupes at the time, Stanley had become an esteemed figure both locally and transnationally.[27] For instance, he was warmly welcomed by Hyderabad noble Salar Jung and received a medal by the Burmese king.[28] The fact that his obituary was published in a Singaporean newspaper in 1896 indicated his eminence in the colony as well.[29]


4.4 Performers

With around fifty actors performing, the companies primarily recruited their performers from Australia.[30] The performers were comprised of juvenile actors as well as adult actors. Instead of having the same batch of actors performing throughout the entire tour, Stanley would make regular trips back to Australia to search for a new cast so as to keep audiences intrigued and continually engaged.[31] Aside from Australian actors, the theatre companies also collaborated with local amateur actors.[32] The inclusion of young Singaporean actors and Bombay amateur actors evidence the companies' attempt to localise their acts with local talents in hopes of better attracting the local audiences.[33]


Cecil Street, Singapore by C.J. Kleingrothe from Leiden University Libraries Southeast Asian & Caribbean Images (KITLV)is in the Public Domain


4.5 Repertoire and Ways of Performance

The repertoire of the theatre companies chiefly included plays by English playwright W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan.[34] Most of the plays performed were comic operas with occasional performances of pantomimes and burlesques.[35] Portraying sailors and soldiers as heroic figures, the plays by Gilbert and Sullivan conveyed an endorsement of chauvinistic and imperialistic cultural beliefs.[36] Pirates of Penzance performed in Bombay and Singapore, featuring casually misogynist characters and romanticised exploits of pirates, is a case in point.[37] Stanley's productions also introduced their audiences to British culture beyond the contents of their plays. For instance, the Scottish folk song 'Auld Lang Syne' were sung by actors at one performance in Bombay on New Year's Eve in 1892, which is commonly sung on New Year's Eve in British culture.[38]


Apart from performances ladened with Britishness, the theatre's repertoire also comprised of plays with oriental themes. Plays like The Mikado and Naulakha were performed while the theatre toured in Bombay.[39] Although the plays set in Japan and the Indian subcontinent, particularly familiar to the local audiences of Bombay, the characters were often depicted as underdeveloped, peculiar, and idiotic.[40] Despite the seemingly ethnically diverse characters of these plays, they were often supernumeraries who played stereotypical roles. For instance, a scene from a play performed in 1889 in Bombay described the play's dacoit (bandit) characters as Bengalis.[41] Portrayal of non-European characters were at best caricatures of cultural identities, as illustrated by one musical performance involving a Chinese Singaporean character singing pidgin English songs for comic relief.[42]


5. Roles of Australian itinerant theatre


5.1 Providing entertainment for European diaspora

Like British itinerant theatres, Australian itinerant theatres provided theatrical entertainment for European diasporas.[43] Instead of performing Shakespearean classics, the theatre companies led by Stanley selected plays which were more relevant to the sociopolitical circumstances that British diasporas were facing in British colonies.[44] Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Victorian Britain was riddled with anxieties over the economic downturn and threats to their global imperial rule.[45] Extravagant performances served as an escape from the unease in late nineteenth century.[46] By including tunes like 'Rule Britannia' in their performances, the theatre soothed British diaspora's settler anxiety with their overtly imperialistic leitmotif.[47]


Arrival of Mail Steamer off Apolla Bunder by Bourne and Shepherd from Museum of Photographic Art Collections is in the Public Domain


5.2 Colonial instrument of cultural assimilation

Though Stanley's itinerant Australian theatre was not funded by colonial British governments and mainly operated out of private economic incentives, the touring theatres were very much a part of British coloniality.[48] The accentuation of Britishness in the performances influenced the perception of Britain by their non-British and non-European audiences. Notwithstanding the fact the Stanley's theatre companies hailed from another British colony itself, it functioned more so like other British touring theatre troupes of the time. It is no surprise that Stanley who was raised in Britain, and immigrated to Australian cities populated mostly by British settler colonisers identified as British more so than Australian, which at the time was not a distinct national identity of its own.[49] It also reveals that unlike the neighbouring British colonies in Southeast Asia, colonial settlements in Australia maintained closer sociocultural ties to the British mainland despite its greater geographical distance.[50] The fact that Australia was surrounded by various Asian nations and isolated from the European mainland may have also intensified underlying anxieties over legitimating the colony's British identity as distinct from other British Colonies in Southeast and South Asia. Participating in the colonial theatre trade and imperial project of cultural assimilate functioned to differentiate Australia from other British colonies by establishing it as an exporter of cultural commodity and entertainment, rather than a recipient.51 Stanley's touring theatre companies can be seen as a prime example of this legitimating period of British settlement and colonisation of Australia.


6. Conclusion


From theatrical circuits to repertoire, the Australian itinerant theatres that were examined in this article shared considerable resemblance with the British traditional theatres and exuded a great sense of Britishness. in addition to providing entertainment for European diasporas in European colonies, the performances that were delivered also influenced the local audience in Southeast Asian countries and represented Australia as a culturally European region despite its geographic location. Although the theatre companies operated out of commercial incentives, their role in facilitating cultural assimilation in British colonies are undeniable. Further investigations into Australian theatre history could better reveal the distinct conditions of the rather unique British colony, and its particular role in British colonial rule in Southeast and South Asia.


Notes

[1] Christopher Balme, and Nic Leonhardt, 'Introduction: Theatrical Trade Routes,' Journal of Global Theatre History 1, no. 1 (2016): 1-9, 2. [2] Ibid. [3] Richard Fotheringham, and Angela Turner, ed., Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage: 1834-1899 (St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2006), xxi, xxviii-iv. [4] Andrew Hassam, 'The wreck of the barque James Service from Calcutta to Melbourne, July 1878: commercial and cultural trade between India and Australia,' in Landscape, Place and Culture: Linkages between Australia and India, ed. Paul Brown, and Deb Narayan Bandyopadhyay (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 72-93, 73-4. [5] Marty Gould, Nineteenth-century theatre and the imperial encounter (NYC/Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 144-7. [6] Fotheringham, xxiv. [7] Penelope Edmonds, and Jane Carey, 'Australian settler colonialism over the long nineteenth century,' in The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, ed. Cavanagh, Edward, and Lorenzo Veracini, 371-389 (Abingdon/NYC: Routledge, 2016), 371. [8] Ibid, 372-3. [9] Ibid, 376. [10] Ibid,379-80. [11] Ibid. [12] Veronica Kelly, 'Melodrama, an Australian pantomime, and the theatrical constructions of colonial history,' Journal of Australian Studies 17, no. 38 (1993): 51-61, 51-2; Kelly, 'Colonial "Australian" theatre writers: cultural authorship and the case of Marcus Clarke's' "first" play,' Australian Literary Studies 18, no. 1 (1997): 31-44, 31-4. [13] Hassam, 87-9; Christopher Pittard, Purity and contamination in late Victorian detective fiction (Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013), 54-60. [14] Pittard, 54-60. [15] Ibid. [16] Kelly, 'Melodrama,' 53-4. [17] 'Biography of Mr Harry Stanley,' The Herald, 26 September 1885, 3. [18] Ibid. [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid. [21] Balme and Leonhardt, 6-7. [22] 'Biography of Mr Harry Stanley,' 3. [23] Fotheringham and Turner, xxxii-iii. [24] 'Stanley's Opera Company at the City Hall,' Hong Kong Daily Press, 2 July 1892, 2.; 'The Stanley Opera Company,' The Times of India, 16 January 1892, 3. [25] 'Biography of Mr Harry Stanley,' 3. [26] 'The Stanley Opera Company: The Mikado,' The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 24 October 1890, 500. [27] 'Biography of Mr Harry Stanley,' 3. [28] Ibid. [29] 'The Late Mr. Harry Stanley,' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 16 June 1896. [30] 'Return of Mr. Stanley's Opera Company,' The Times of India, 31 October 1891, 5.; 'The Stanley Opera Company,' The Times of India, 19 July 1889, 5. [31] 'Theatricals in Bombay,' The Lorgnette, 6 April 1889, 3. [32] 'The Stanley Opera Company,' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 28 May 1890, 24; 'Mystery of a Hansom Cab,' The Times of India, 3 May 1889. [33] 'The Stanley Opera Company,' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 28 May 1890, 24. [34] 'The Stanley Opera Company,' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 20 March 1888, 1. [35] 'Stanley's Opera Bouffe Company,' The Times of India, 5 May 1888, 4. [36] Melvin Eugene Page, and Penny M. Sonnenburg, Colonialism: an international, social, cultural, and political encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 234-5. [37] 'The Stanley Opera Company,' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 20 March 1888, 1. [38] 'The Stanley Opera Company,' The Times of India, 4 January 1892, 3. [39] 'Return of Mr. Stanley's Opera Company,' The Times of India, 31 October 1891, 5; 'Bombay Amusements,' The Times of India, 8 April 1893, 3. [40] Page and Sonnenburg, 234-5, 398-9. [41] 'The Stanley Company's New Pantomime,' The Times of India 9 March 1889, 3. [42] Untitled, Straits Times Weekly Issue, 28 January 1891, 8. [43] Fotheringham and Turner, xxxii-iii.


[44] Page and Sonnenburg, 234-5. [44] Ibid. [45] Ibid. [46] Gould, 94-5, 156-60; Page and Sonnenburg, 234-5. [47] Gould 213-4; Page and Sonnenburg, 872-3. [48] Ien Ang, On not speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West (London/NYC: Psychology Press, 2001), 101-4, 113-5. [49] Ibid. [50] Ibid,

Bibliography


Newspapers:


'Biography of Mr Harry Stanley.' The Herald, 26 September 1885.


'Bombay Amusements.' The Times of India, 8 April 1893.


'Mystery of a Hansom Cab.' The Times of India, 3 May 1889.


'Return of Mr. Stanley's Opera Company.' The Times of India, 31 October 1891.


'Stanley's Opera Bouffe Company.' The Times of India, 5 May 1888.


'Stanley's Opera Company at the City Hall.' Hong Kong Daily Press, 2 July 1892.


'The Late Mr. Harry Stanley.' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 16 June 1896.


'The Stanley Company's New Pantomime.' The Times of India 9 March 1889.


'The Stanley Opera Company.' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 20 March 1888.


'The Stanley Opera Company.' Straits Times Weekly Issue, 28 May 1890.


'The Stanley Opera Company.' The Times of India, 19 July 1889.


'The Stanley Opera Company.' The Times of India, 16 January 1892.


'The Stanley Opera Company.' The Times of India, 4 January 1892.


'The Stanley Opera Company: The Mikado.' The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette, 24 October 1890.


'Theatricals in Bombay.' The Lorgnette, 6 April 1889.

Untitled. Straits Times Weekly Issue, 28 January 1891.


Books and Articles:


Ang, Ien. On not speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West. London/NYC: Psychology Press, 2001.


Balme, Christopher, and Nic Leonhardt. 'Introduction: Theatrical Trade Routes.' Journal of Global Theatre History 1, no. 1 (2016): 1-9


Edmonds, Penelope, and Jane Carey. 'Australian settler colonialism over the long nineteenth century.' In The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism, edited by Cavanagh, Edward, and Lorenzo Veracini, 371-389. Abingdon/NYC: Routledge, 2016.


Fotheringham, Richard, and Angela Turner, eds. Australian Plays for the Colonial Stage: 1834-1899. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2006.

Gould, Marty. Nineteenth-century theatre and the imperial encounter. NYC/Abingdon: Routledge, 2011.


Hassam, Andrew. 'The wreck of the barque James Service from Calcutta to Melbourne, July 1878: commercial and cultural trade between India and Australia.' In Landscape, Place and Culture: Linkages between Australia and India, edited by Paul Brown, and Deb Narayan Bandyopadhyay, 72-93. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011.


Kelly, Veronica. 'Melodrama, an Australian pantomime, and the theatrical constructions of colonial history.' Journal of Australian Studies 17, no. 38 (1993): 51-61.


———. 'Colonial "Australian" theatre writers: cultural authorship and the case of Marcus Clarke's' "first" play.' Australian Literary Studies 18, no. 1 (1997): 31-44.


Page, Melvin Eugene, and Penny M. Sonnenburg. Colonialism: an international, social, cultural, and political encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.


Pittard, Christopher. Purity and contamination in late Victorian detective fiction. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

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