The Silent Showman
Chapter Three - The Firm
As George Tallis strolled away from his meeting with JC Williamson, he would
have been impressed by the bustle of Melbourne’s Bourke Street. It was a
thoroughfare swarming with Cobb & Co. hansom cabs, cyclists and carts.
For the tired pedestrian or frazzled businessman there were coffee palaces,
tea rooms and pubs galore. For casual shoppers and tourists there were stalls,
bookshops, jewellers, shoe and leather goods shops, barbers and a large emporium
or two. Photographers spruiked: ‘Excuse me sir, let me take a picture of
you with your lovely lady.’ Pop, click. Night revellers were offered a variety
of billiard halls, taverns and dives. Theatres, large and small, advertised
plays, concerts, musicals, opera and vaudeville. Bourke Street was the vibrant
hub of Melbourne and its breathless pace was infectious. It gathered up all
who had energy, ambition and imagination and propelled them into the exciting
future of a rapidly growing colony.
‘Melbourne,’ British novelist Anthony Trollope had written in 1873, ‘looks
as though she were boasting to herself hourly that she is not as other cities’.1
Yet only fifty years before Tallis’s arrival in 1886, Melbourne had just
thirteen buildings, eight of them turf huts. Then it bore the quaint name
‘Dootigala’,2 which it might well have kept had it not been for unprecedented progress, and politicians.
By the 1850s Melbourne, stimulated by the discovery of gold at nearby Ballarat,
was said to be the richest city in the world. Katharine Brisbane, theatre
critic and publisher, puts to rest the old story that Australia was a forgotten
backwater of entertainment when she describes a colonial society:
with a huge disposable income spent on grand public buildings,
parks and private houses, and on food, drink and entertainment. Entrepreneurs
built theatres and hippodromes the size of our present arts complexes in
the major cities and on the goldfields, widening the opportunities for touring
and attracting opera singers, tragedians, circus stars and low comedians
from around the world.3
By the time George Tallis arrived, Australia was already established as a
land where theatre fortunes could be won and lost. One early great impresario
was the amazing George Selth Coppin, sometimes called the father of Australian
theatre. Coppin was a twenty-two-year-old English actor playing comic roles
in Dublin when, in 1843, he decided, on the throw of a dice, to take his
talents to Australia. With his companion, the American actress Maria Burroughs,
Coppin packed Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre for its manager, Joseph Wyatt,
but soon left to follow his own star. Over the next sixty-three years he
managed to cram several careers into one lifetime. He was in turn, and often
at once, actor, theatre-builder and manager, hotelier, politician, philanthropist
and entrepreneur, importing stars, spectacles and pantomimes, and mounting
lavish shows. Always a visionary and gambler, he made and squandered riches
with equal abandon.
No move that Coppin made in his startling life was more consequential than
his decision in 1873 to bring to Australia the American husband-and-wife
acting team of James Cassius Williamson and Maggie Moore. Williamson, at
twenty-nine, was the leading comic character actor at San Francisco’s California
Theatre, having learnt his trade at New York’s Wallack’s, then America’s
leading theatre and its finest training ground. Of his journey to Australia
with his bride and a new star play, Struck Oil, that he had acquired in its
original draft from an Irish-American backwoodsman, Williamson later recalled:
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.4
The rather flippant tone is uncharacteristic of Williamson, who throughout
his career was cautious and shrewd. He was shrewd enough to open his Melbourne
season with Struck Oil, despite gloomy predictions that Australian audiences
wouldn’t understand its Dutch dialect comedy. Of the play a critic once remarked:
If our readers will take the trouble to recollect, they will see
that comedian star plays have been, without exception, merely dramatic shells,
owing their life and vigour to some one central character, into which the
genius of the actor has infused human nature É [they] are all of them
dramatic absurdities, and yet they have all drawn and will draw thousands
to see and hear them. And so it is with Struck Oil, and such will be Mr Williamson’s
luck with the piece.5
Williamson and Moore made a smash hit of the play in their Melbourne and
Sydney seasons. They left for a world tour in 1875, but were to return -
with a vengeance. In the meantime the pair had charmed audiences across five
continents, proving Williamson’s uncanny ability to read the popular Victorian
taste for novelty.
George Coppin was not the Australian theatre’s only impresario in the 1870s.
Another influential figure was Irishman William Saurin Lyster who, over two
decades of management, toured international opera companies to the larger
cities, and also presented drama and variety seasons. While Coppin helped
introduce Williamson to Australia, Lyster was instrumental in the careers
of the two men who would become JC Williamson’s partners in the most potent
theatrical force in Australia during the 1880s - the ‘Triumvirate’ of Williamson,
Garner and Musgrove.
Arthur Garner was a softly spoken, elegant English actor who had worked at
the Melbourne Theatre Royal and toured country Victoria with the Williamsons.
He was married to the well-known actress Blanche Stammers. Under Lyster’s
instructions, Garner assembled a London comedy company which, with its fine
repertoire of light plays and players, superb scenery, stage accessories
and costumes, had Melbourne and Sydney critics in raptures in 1879 and 1880.
George Musgrove was Lyster’s nephew. He had learnt opera in his uncle’s office
at the Opera House in Bourke Street before somehow borrowing money to travel
to England and engage a company to play Offenbach’s comic opera La Fille
du tambour-major in Australia in 1880. Musgrove’s companion, the great actress
and singer Nellie Stewart, later wrote:
Nothing like [this production] had ever been attempted in Australia
before, and I know of no other example of such enterprise in a young man
of twenty-six. He brought out his complete company from England and every
member of it had scored at least one individual success on a big scale É
Mr Musgrove carried his innovation still further, he was the first Australian
manager to import and introduce showgirls. He brought out eight, all most
beautiful, among them the famous Consuelo, nearly six feet of blazing loveliness.6
JC Williamson and Maggie Moore returned to Australia in 1879 to play again
under the management of George Coppin, but Williamson was soon taking his
own steps into theatrical management. He had arrived bearing the exclusive
Australian and New Zealand performing rights to Gilbert & Sullivan’s
HMS Pinafore. He was unimpressed to find a number of ‘pirated’ versions of
the operetta already playing, and expressed his dissatisfaction through the
courts, serving a stiff warning that English copyright laws would apply equally
in Australia. The London D’Oyly Carte company noticed Williamson’s ethical
approach, and over the years allowed him to secure all of the new Gilbert
& Sullivan works at a very good price. These comic operas continued to
feed the coffers of companies bearing the Williamson name until the 1960s.
In order to stage Gilbert & Sullivan and popular French light operas,
Williamson in 1880 set up the Comic Opera Company, soon renaming it the Royal
Comic Opera Company. Now busy presenting both drama and comic opera, Williamson
needed a base, and in September 1881 he took up the lease of the Theatre
Royal in Melbourne, even though he had said that he 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’.7
Williamson was soon to learn the soundness of his intuition, later describing his activities as a one-man management:
I stage-managed the productions of these delightful comic operas,
and [these have] become ‘traditional’ here. At that time I had not even an
assistant stage-manager - just a prompter. There was work in plenty then.
In addition to producing new pieces I watched the business side, and wrote
all my own advertisements. The post of treasurer and business manager was
one. It is very different now.8
Given the strains, it is not surprising that Williamson agreed when first
Arthur Garner, and then George Musgrove, asked him to join them in partnership
after the death of their mentor WS Lyster in 1880. The firm of Williamson,
Garner and Musgrove was instituted in May 1882, and this marked the beginning
of the mighty Williamson theatre organisation. For over eighty years it was
to be the principal purveyor of theatrical entertainment in Australia and
New Zealand. Even George Coppin was a sleeping partner for a while before
he again lapsed into temporary impecuniosity.
These two mergers of rival groups became models that succeeding Williamson
firms adopted. As time went on, the mergers became larger, until they assumed
the form of amalgamations. The philosophy, which never wavered, was this:
it is better to eat at the table in a civilised manner than to fight over
the meal. By combining abilities and resources, the partners were demonstrating
a method by which theatrical managements could grow and outlast their principals.
No longer would all the responsibility rest on the shoulders of the particular
actor-manager or entrepreneur.
Of course there were reactive cries of monopoly, and they grew louder over
the decades. But in the first years at least, criticism was muted when dire
predictions of lowered theatrical standards and crushed oppositions, in the
interest of partnership profits, failed to materialise.
At the same time, an experienced hand like George Coppin, in a letter written
to Henry Edwards in 1882, foresaw that there might be problems of conflict
in this ‘super-group’:
The only difficulty I see is the improbability of their agreeing
very long together - both Williamson and Garner are very self-opinionated
with bad tempers. This draw back with wife actresses will make it rather
difficult for them to work in harmony unless they separate - one taking the
management in Melbourne and the other in Sydney - keeping Mr Musgrove travelling.9
The Williamson, Garner and Musgrove combination had youth as well as experience
on its side - in 1882 the men were thirty-six, thirty-one and twenty-nine
respectively - and the three were ideally placed to take advantage of the
vacuum left in theatrical management by Lyster’s death and Coppin’s roller-coaster
The Triumvirate set the stage for great development. Within four years it
gained control of the Theatre Royal and the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne,
the Sydney Theatre Royal, and set up an arrangement with the Adelaide Royal.
This flourished into a large-scale business that was quickly noticed by producers
and agents on the other side of the world. The early success of the Triumvirate
lay in the partners’ ability to import players and the latest shows from
overseas, often within twelve months of their premiere. Country touring involved
whole companies, which were transported from town to town for short seasons
of a few days. Occasionally shows crossed the Tasman to test the New Zealand
market. Here the Triumvirate was in the vanguard, as it managed companies
on tour and balanced engagements. The tyranny of distance was overcome as
the partners serviced the theatrical thirst of dispersed populations, and
made money besides.
At the core of the partnership was Williamson. According to Punch:
The JC Williamson organisation in those days was a modest affair
when compared with what it is today. There was no careful subdivision of
duties. Everybody did a little of everything, and JC Williamson did most
Williamson brought to Australia a financially responsible attitude towards
all theatre management. Although he was a shrewd bargainer, he was always
fair in his dealings with agents and companies. The news got around that
Williamson was a man of his word; he was, in fact, the man to do business
Williamson had noted only too well the financial mistakes of other theatre
entrepreneurs, and he had experienced Coppin’s boom-bust economics himself.
Clearly, that was not the way to survive, and he developed a more reliable
approach to management. In his last interview in Australia he outlined the
model which had brought him success over three decades:
My object has always been, in working at high pressure and going
in for very expensive productions in all kinds of entertainment, to offer
plays that I felt the whole audience wanted ... My desire has been to amuse
and interest, to elevate if possible, and at the same time to meet all demands
on treasury day.11
Williamson always regarded theatre as a business. By keeping this creed in
full view, he became, over the years, the survivor of various partnerships
as they broke up. And throughout the 1880s it was the Williamson philosophy
that helped the Triumvirate to head off opposition.
But no man can build an empire on his own. Williamson had an instinct for
picking the right helpers, and it seems that when George Tallis appeared
in November 1886 Williamson at once saw an appropriate applicant. The eyes
of the partners would be upon the raw recruit; his performance carefully
measured against expectations. Said Punch many years later:
Tallis, no doubt, had luck in the fact that he entered a business
where merit is marked out and recognised so speedily. He had luck also in
the fact that James Cassius Williamson was at the head of that business.
[Williamson] speedily noticed the keenness and the marked ability of the
new youngster in the office. He saw that Tallis meant to get on, and that
was just the sort of man Williamson wanted.12
This, then, was the ‘Firm’ that young George Tallis joined in 1886. Although
his older sister counselled mistrust of ‘play people’ in her letters to him,
she would surely have been pleased by the tenor of the show run by JC Williamson.
It provided family entertainment and was run on strict business principles.
The year George arrived was an annus mirabilis of the Australian theatre.
A letter written by Williamson in February 1886 confirms just how busy the
Triumvirate then was:
Frank Thornton and our Private Secretary company have just returned
from New Zealand ... and are now playing at the Bijou ... At our Theatre
Royal, Melbourne, our opera company are now finishing their ninth week in
The Mikado, which has been an enormous success. We shall run it through Easter
... At our Bijou Theatre, Melbourne, the Majeronis begin a season, on Saturday,
with Queen Elizabeth. At the Opera House we produce Falka, at the same date.
In Sidney [sic] our stock dramatic company, now in the seventh week to excellent
business, produce The Magistrate next Monday. At the Gaiety, The Great Pink
Pearl is running well.13
And the Triumvirate, of course, was not the only show around. Tallis recalled
in his unpublished memoirs other great managements of the day, including
one that began its long influence on the Australian stage in the year of
A partnership was formed by two well known London actors, Robert Brough and
Dion Boucicault. An organisation which had a profound effect on the future
of the Australian Theatre was created in 1886. The Bijou Theatre, Melbourne,
and the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, both intimate houses and eminently suited
to Comedy, were secured and the new company Brough and Boucicault surrounded
themselves with a brilliant company of overseas artists ...
Tallis discussed this ‘fruitful and prolific period in the theatre world’,
during which playwrights Pinero, Wilde, Chambers, Shaw, Barrie and others
‘were drawn upon for their best’ by Brough and Boucicault. Their works were
faultlessly staged by Boucicault, regarded as one of the greatest producers
in the world in his time. George continued:
Unfortunately, these high class plays and comedies were to a great
extent caviar to the average theatre goer at this early stage... but the
seed was well and truly sown and bore fruit later.
Nor was robust drama neglected during these remarkable years of profusion.
The Adelphi and Drury Lane London were in their prime and Mr and Mrs Bland
Holt, supported by a strong and virile dramatic company, presented all the
great London Adelphi and Drury Lane successes at the Theatre Royal Melbourne.
So, in this very interesting period starting in 1886 playgoers were provided
with a very varied and excellent fare with elaborate pantomimes, of course,
Thus from the nineties to a time before the introduction of the Radio or
the Talkies may well have been the Golden period of Australian theatre.
The Brough-Boucicault and Holt companies, among others, were competition
for Williamson and partners, although the friendly associations that existed
between these entrepreneurial groups led to more cooperation than opposition.
They were all part of the 1880s surge of theatre of all kinds. This energy
was felt in local halls, on the streets and in the outback. Groups of painted
buskers and players roamed the cities, and travelled by train and Cobb &
Co. to remote settlements. Formalised into bush stock companies these barnstormers
left hardly a trace; that is unless the ring master was Dan Barry, who was
described by JC Williamson as the ‘worst actor and the best showman in Australia’.
There were no frills in the tough business of bringing fun and enlightenment
to the frontiers of the colonies. Barry plagiarised good scripts, and with
faithful bulldog Paddy at his heels roamed the hinterlands of Australia -
where he was better known than Williamson himself. Dan and Paddy often appeared
in the same show, when it was difficult to decide which of the two had put
on the worse performance.
With Australian theatre so very alive, no wonder the Triumvirate was looking
for young men with management potential. And those young men would need to
look sharp because the 1880s were rich in plays, players and managements
competing for audiences. George Tallis had joined the biggest and most professional
outfit in town, and the one that would outlast all its rivals. He was ready
to put his shoulder to the wheel.
1 Ronald J Walker, Foreword, Melbourne’s Yesterdays
2 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Vol 18, p 90
3 Katharine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, p 12
4 JC Williamson, Life-Story Told in His Own Words with Valedictory Messages,p 18
5 cited in Ian Dicker, JCW: A Short Biography of James Cassius Williamson, pp 80, 81
6 Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, p 45
7 JC Williamson’s Life Story, p 21
8 Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1913
9 cited in Dicker, p 103
10 Melbourne Punch, 22 May 1913
11 Theatre Magazine, 1913
12 Punch, 1913
13 cited in Dicker, p 107