You are here:

Documenting Theatre in Australia

The Sydney Theatre Playbill of 1796 is a survivor — the earliest known document to be printed in the colony of New South Wales, and now held in the collection of the National Library of Australia. Consisting of only one page, the Playbill is a circular advertising a theatrical performance on 30 July 1796 at the Theatre, Sydney. The plays it advertises — Jane Shore, The Wapping Landlady and The Miraculous Cure — were calculated to transport the audience, in imagination at least, back to England, and far from the shores of Sydney Cove.

At the top of the playbill are the words, ‘By permission of His Excellency’, indicating that this performance was officially authorised by the governor as proxy for the King. The place, date and time of the performance are next, then a list of performances, and names of the performers – then, as now, a major promotional point, as popular players drew an audience.

Jane Shore, a popular play written in 1714 by English dramatist Nicholas Rowe (1674–1718) headed the bill. This tragedy in Shakespearean style took the life of the famous mistress of the medieval English King Edward IV as its dramatic subject.

The second performance brought a change of mood with The Wapping Landlady, a comic dance. This featured an overly plump barmaid and two credulous sailors. Maintaining the comic turn, the third performance, The Miraculous Cure, was a farce, showing unlikely characters in improbable situations.1

While the existence of the Playbill testifies to the fact that Britons transplanted to Sydney Cove were eager to enjoy theatrical entertainments, and the opportunity for social interaction that they provided, another century or more would elapse before plays and musicals with a distinctly Australian flavour found favour with local audiences.

Louis Esson and Vance Palmer formed the Pioneer Players in the early 1920s with the goal of producing plays based on the lives of ordinary Australians, but they failed to attract an audience. It was not until 1933 that the first commercially successful Australian musical, Collits’ Inn, starring Gladys Moncrieff and George Wallace, was presented by F W Thring.

The 1950s and early 1960s brought some celebrated works of Australian theatre with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955), Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart (1958) and Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year (1962). Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral (staged in 1961) was followed by The Season at Sarsaparilla, A Cheery Soul and Night on Bare Mountain (1961-62).2

The 1970s and 1980s saw a number of playwrights, including David Williamson, Alex Buzo, Peter O’Shaughnessy and Nick Enright, setting the scene for the decades to come, with powerful and commercially successful plays that have attracted attention and debate in Australia and overseas.

The documentary heritage of Australian playwrights and theatrical performances in Australia – with the exception of the 1796 Playbill – is not represented at present on the Australian Register. Neither is the rest of Australia’s vast literary heritage, which is well represented in libraries and archives across the nation. It is to be hoped that recognition of the absence of this significant body of documentary heritage from the Register will prompt the nomination of collections of our theatrical and literary heritage.

Collit's Inn musical newspaper ad

Collit’s Inn (1933) was Australia’s first commercially successful musical. The Great Southern Hotel, close to the New Tivoli Theatre where the musical was playing, capitalised on its popularity in this newspaper advertisement. Despite the fame of this musical, and the success of many other theatrical productions by Australian playwrights, or on Australian themes, none of their records have been inscribed so far on the Australian Register.

1 National Library of Australia,

2William H Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, second edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994.

In this section