State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 10 October 1972


Victorian Pantomimes

The entertainments of an era often provide considerable insight into the atmosphere and attitudes of the time, both in the subject matter portrayed and the sentiments expressed. Some of the preoccupations of our Victorian forebears of a hundred years ago are illustrated in four examples of play texts of the time from the La Trobe Library's collections.
Burlesque, extravaganza and pantomime (and sometimes a mixture of all three) were favourite forms of entertainment in the Victorian age and the texts are typical examples. Three of the four, all of which bear Melbourne imprints, were written by Garnet Walch, a local literary journalist of varied talents who wrote many farces, burlesques, extravaganzas and pantomimes, as well as a dramatization of Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms, which was produced over a number of years with great success. He was secretary of the Melbourne Athenaeum Club from 1872 to 1879 and was a special correspondent for the Argus in 1883.
The pantomime was a traditional part of the Victorian Christmas, and the initial example considered here, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, and Mary Mary Quite Contrary, or Harlequin Piggy Wiggy, and the Good Child's History of England by W. M. Akhurst, was first produced at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne on 26 December 1867. The plot revolves around the adventures of the well-known characters of the title in somewhat improbable alliance and is set in the ‘Castle of Toorakanruen’. This is but one of the many local allusions sprinkled through the text; politicians and members of the corporation come in for their share of comment, and inter-Colonial rivalry appears when Mary Mary surrounded by a boring profusion of flowers, says she would rather be in Adelaide ‘For if there is no humour there, there's wheat.’
The Good Child’s History of England is illustrated, in Scene 5, when Mary Mary teaches Tom Tom the history of his country with the aid of a large volume set up on stage from which appear the monarchs, beginning with William the Conqueror and concluding with Queen Victoria. The allusion was carried on in the Transformation scene which concluded the performance, when the Galatea arrived bearing Victoria's substitute, her son, the Duke of Edinburgh, who in reality had just visited Victoria. There were plentiful references to the visit throughout the work, as the Argus noted:
‘The visit and entertainment of the Duke of Edinburgh, the mayors who have welcomed him, the epidemic of addresses which his progress through the country has evoked, the free banquet and all the various circumstances and phases of the Duke's stay in the colony supplied inexhaustible matter for jokes of this kind, which, as relating to the subject of greatest public interest at the present time, did not fail of their intended effect.’
It appears that even Victoria's ‘loyal welcome to a Royal son1’, in all its tremendous fervour was seen to have its humorous aspects.
The next example is entitled Pygmalion and his Gal (A Dear!) or the Celebrated Living-Stone of Ancient Athens. It was written by Garnet Walch, and first performed at the New Apollo Hall, Melbourne on 31 March 1873. This ‘Original, Mythological Operatic and Extremely Erratic’ work was a burlesque of Sir William Gilbert's play Pygmalion and Galatea written in 1871, and produced a few weeks before this parodied version by the enterprising George Coppin. The burlesque
was produced under the direction of Harry Rickards, later to become impresario of the Tivoli chain of vaudeville theatres. The wit, while hardly of Gilbertian standard, no doubt amused the audience, some of whom would have seen the original version. The statue is described as ‘The Statue, otherwise Galatea (a lady with no pedigree but a first-rate pedestal)’. This character was played improbably by Harry Rickards himself to the accompaniment of much laughter. Local notables once more gained a mention; for example, Pygmalion shows one of his works of
‘A statesman, not unknown to fame,
Who lately gained a handle to his name,
Let Erin hope her wrongs will soon be righted,
There's good times coming shure, when Duffy's knighted.’
or a comment by the Statue,
‘Sir Redmond Barry has good taste,
With that remark you will agree,
His arm is never round the waist,
Of a statue at the Library.’
It seems that even our institutes of learning and their worthy founders could sometimes be viewed with levity.
Not all entertainment was imported however, either in form or ideas, for with Australia Felix; or Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat, written by Garnet Walch and first performed at the Opera House Melbourne on 26 December 1873, a distinctly nationalistic flavour was introduced. The Argus states that ‘the author (himself an Australian)’ had ‘aimed at writing what might truly be termed an Australian pantomime’.2 The scene was laid in Australia at that time and the All-England Cricket match at the M.C.C. ground was the pivot around which the plot revolved, a magic cricket bat being a feature of the plot. As the All-England Eleven were playing in Melbourne at the time, Walch was able to capitalize on the public interest generated by this event.
The characters included ‘Old Australia, an ancient squatter’ and the Missus; ‘Felix Young Australia — their son’; ‘Victoria (an unsophisticated darling)’; ‘the All-England Eleven, their country's pride’ and the ‘Australian Eighteen, their country's hope’ (the latter represented by girls). This somewhat unequal struggle is lost when the hero loses the magic bat, but all is eventually rectified after the audience has been transported by the scene-painter's art practically everywhere from the Island of Monkeys to the Melbourne Post Office Tower. Local allusions were not confined to the scenery — for instance an exchange between two of the characters when a local panorama is shown:
‘What's this so out of proper perpendicular,
A Melbourne bridge.
Well, Melbourne's not particular’
or a little inter-colonial thrust—
‘Yes, mad as New South Wales,
Which grew extremely wild
When Francis and Co. caught the P. and O.
And Parkes was awf'lly riled.’
The fourth example is Adamanta, the Proud Princess of Profusia, and Her Six Unlucky Suitors, or Harlequin Riddle-Me-Ree and the Transit of Venus, … by Garnet Walch, which had its first performance under the direction of William Saurin Lyster at the Opera House, Melbourne on 24 December 1874. Lyster was one of the pioneer producers of grand opera in Melbourne and this production employed a grand orchestra of fifteen solo players from the Italian opera band. Princess Adamanta is described as ‘a young lady with strong views on the question of woman's rights’ who has six suitors — ‘a gallery of local portraits, not very difficult to recognize’, none of whom, however, manage to win
her. Once again local allusions abound — to the Melbourne Cup, Ballarat, larrikins, Yarra pollution, and mining shares. Nevertheless, Melbourne husbands are quoted as models and so
‘Then Melbourne must be moral.
In that respect she bears away the laurel.’
One of the most impressive features of Adamanta was the march of the Amazons, an apparently obligatory item in the production and without which no pantomine could be considered complete. The female warriors in armour went through complicated manoeuvres on stage.
‘The precision with which the female warriors go through their complicated evolutions, the intricacy of their movements, the gorgeous splendour of the uniforms of the different divisions, the sheen of their silver shields and armour, and, above all the contrast between the graceful feminine figures and the guise of horrid war in which they bear part all contribute to secure … the greatest interest and the warmest applause.’3
The promoters of Adamanta were unable to use illustrations in their advertising, and so they had to resort to words to enthuse their intending patrons. The advertisement referr to
‘Magnificent Parisian Jewel Armour, representing a blaze of corruscating gems, Diamonds, Rubies, Emeralds, Sapphires, Topazes, etc.
Illuminated Rainbow (Perfumed) Fountain with original Kaleidoscopic Lime-Light effect4
truly a gorgeous prospect!
The Amazons no longer parade, and the lime-light has been replaced by electricity, but some glimpses of a vanished age linger on in the printed pages and awaken echoes of Victorian evenings of gaiety.
Joan Maslen


Thomas Bankes's A New Royal Authentic and Complete System of Universal Geography:

Our Charistmans Pantomimes: March of Amazons.


Argus, 27 Dec. 1867.


Argus, 25 Dec. 1873.


Australasian Sketcher, 23 Jan. 1875.


Argus, 24 Dec. 1874.