Individual products of popular culture such as theatrical genres are almost impossible to define with any exactitude because they are always in a state of flux. With no controls from above or specified rules of production, popular theatre is popular because of its ability to adapt to any number of variable, including changing public tastes and new technologies . Its producers do this, either consciously or not, by shifting generic boundaries, hybridizing other forms and by borrowing ideas from any number of sources – whether they be popular and serious/legitimate forms.
The general descriptions below should therefore being considered as such – i.e. as generalisations. While the expanded entries linked to “More details” are attempts to present a more thorough understanding of each particular form or genre over the course of 1850-1930 period they too should still be considered as overviews. In some instances, for example, the term “musical entertainment” is given – either because that is how it was promoted or because its actual form is indeterminable. It is expected that over time some works may need to be have their form or genre changed as new information becomes available.
1. Ballad Opera
3. Café Chantant
5. Comic Opera
6. Digger Entertainment
7. Costume Comedy
8. Farce (aka Minstrel Farce)
11. Musical Comedy
1. BALLAD OPERA
Originating in 18th century England, and sharing a similar purpose with burlesque, the ballad opera was essentially a reaction to serious opera (at this time almost invariably sung in Italian), with the libretti invariably including satirical references to contemporary politics. Rather than compose original music for these works its creators instead drew on pre-existing songs, drawn from a wide variety of contemporary sources, including folk melodies, children’s nursery rhymes and popular airs by classical composers. The term “ballad opera” is derived from the London broadside ballad, typically a cheap sheet of paper on which were printed ballads, poems, rhymes etc which could be sung to a well-known air or folk song. Particular songs were often suggested on these sheets. Possibly the first ballad opera to be written in Australia was The Currency Lass (1944) by Edward Geoghegan.
Easily the most popular narrative-driven music theatre genre to be staged in Australia during the 19th century, burlesque’s were humorous theatrical works involving parody and grotesque exaggeration of serious or well-known plays, operas, classical legends and children’s stories. The genre’s popularity with writers, performers and audiences had much to do with their desire to have a good-natured laugh at other theatrical works, and especially high art forms like opera and “legitimate” drama. The influence of minstrelsy saw the local burlesque take on more American overtones in the 1860s and 1870s. The musical elements of burlesque are believed to have developed out of the musical forms they were based on (e.g. opera) and through the influence of pantomime. In the early 1900s the term was often used in place of musical comedy, as with the type of productions produced by the American Burlesque Company (ca. 1913), and even the revusical (as staged by the Follies of Pleasure Company, ca. 1916).
3. CAFÉ CHANTANT
The Café Chantant (“Singing café”), was a type of musical establishment associated with France’s belle époque (beautiful era) – roughly 1850 to 1914. These outdoor cafés, where small groups of performers performed popular music for the public, naturally draw comparison with forms of entertainment such as music hall, vaudeville and cabaret. The music was generally lighthearted and sometimes even risqué or bawdy, and unlike cabaret rarely political, though-provoking or confrontational. Although references to these singing cafés have been located in Australian newspapers as early as 1855, it was not until the early 1870s that they begun to operate. Furthermore, they were mostly presented as a type of community and charity events, and therefore often held in Town Halls and School of Arts etc. From around 1914, however, a number of producers and organisations began staging Café Chantant entertainments more as a “fourth wall” theatrical production. See for example the 1922 production.
A comedietta is a short dramatic composition infused with humour (as opposed to the slapstick of a farce) which is generally played out in one (or at most two) acts, and hence is longer than a sketch but shorter than a comedy play. Comediettas in Australia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries could sometimes include musical performances, although these were often labeled musical comedietta. They were often presented either prior to or after the main entertainment of the evening – typically a dramatic play. In this respect there is usually an attempt to create more rounded characters and a tightly organised narrative structure to the piece as opposed to the physical mayhem associated with farce or the brevity of a society sketch.
5. COMIC OPERA
Closely related to operetta and opera bouffe, comic opera is generally considered to be a dramatic work with a humorous plot and presented with a combination of spoken dialogue and songs. With scores and texts from the period under investigation available, the problem of genre classification is made difficult because not only are there no universally accepted agreement for distinguishing comic opera from these other forms but because “comic opera” was also often applied to works that might otherwise be considered burlesque or extravaganza. Although one of the most popular dramatic entertainments on offer in the antipodes during the mid to late-1800s, with seasons of 50 or more nights not uncommon, by the early 1900s it was beginning to compete with the more contemporary musical comedy. The first comic opera to be set in an all Australian setting is believed to have been Fayette (1892), by James Brunton Stephens and G.B. Allen.
6. DIGGER ENTERTAINMENT
Digger entertainment was first staged by ANZAC soldiers in the European battlefields as a means of providing some respite from the hardships of the war. While some return soldier troupes toured Australia during the war (e.g. The Gallipoli Strollers, 1917), the best-remembered digger troupes formed themselves into professional touring companies after the war. The shows they initially presented could best be described as an all-male revue that featured female impersonation, comedy sketches, musical performances and songs and dance. The themes focused on for many years were naturally soldier-related, and hence these troupes were especially keen to represent themselves as warrior companies (this also helped to allay concerns over the female impersonators). The entertainment also typically comprised a rich mix of humour and pathos. By the mid-1920s any of the digger troupes still touring had begun to incorporate actual female performers, but not at the expense of the male cross-dressers. This allowed the focus to expand beyond the male perspective and to incorporate themes that were women-based. By the 1930s most digger troupes had disbanded as the public gradually began to distance itself from the war, and as many of the original performers retired.
7. COSTUME COMEDY
Costume comedy companies produced refined comic and musical entertainments which were designed to be bright and cheery. They were especially popular in Australia between ca. 1910 and the end of World War I, but gradually lost their appeal as audiences became more interested in the revusical. Walter George, who had a long association with Australia (Smart Set and Sunshine Players) has claimed that he originated costume comedy in England, possibly during the 1890s. It’s success in Australian was due, however, to the influence of Edward Branscombe’s Dandies. Other popular troupes included the Courtiers and Huxham’s Serenaders. What set these shows apart from other similar forms of entertainment was that they focused more on music and singing than they did on other aspects of vaudeville, and particularly forms of music that might be considered along the lines of “high” art. Comic routines, topical jokes and allusions, were always part of the entertainment, but they were of a cultivated type and never stooped to the “low” comedy of vaudeville.
8. FARCE (aka MINSTREL FARCE)
The farce derives its humour largely from physical horseplay and contrived and improbable situations, and hence while burlesque thrives on satire and invariably focuses it humour on the world of theatre and music, farce works by maintaining a connection to the world of real people. It therefore aims to depicts our grosser faults and expose (in exaggerated form) the inherent stupidity of humanity. The minstrel farce was an especially popular part of Australian entertainment during the late 19th century, typically being the performance that ended the minstrels show. Performed by as few as four comedians, but often by most of the company, it is believed that these works lasted between 15-30 minutes and sometimes included musical performances. The physical nature of the performances eventually led to some comedians specializing in what became known as “knockabout comedy” – a form of acrobatic nonsense made popular in Australia by McKisson and Kearns (1890s), Morris and Wilson (1900s) and George Wallace and Jim Gerald (1920s).
- See: Farces and Sketches: 1870-1919 (Research Lists)
Follies is a form of revue distinguished by much higher production values and scale. Typically described as “lavish” a Follies production features beautiful chorus girls, often scantily clad, and high profile vaudeville-style entertainers, whose talents ranged from comedy to song and dance and specialty acts. This type of entertainment emerged in Paris through the Folies Bergères and in America under producer Florenz Ziegfeld from 1907 onwards. Although the term was loosely applied in Australia by some revusical companies (e.g. The Follies of Pleasure), the genre was almost entirely associated with the Tivoli Circuit during the WWI era, which some of the biggest stars being Jack Cannot, Vera Pearce and Vaude and Verne. By the late 1910s Tivoli General Manager Hugh D McIntosh had moved the direction of his entertainments towards musical comedies. In 1927, under J.C. Williamson’s management, the Tivoli circuit (trading as Tivoli Celebrity Vaudeville) briefly brought the Follies back, and then only as a second part entertainment, following the vaudeville program.
The minstrel show was an entertainment phenomenon that originated in the USA during the 1830s and went on to become the most popular form of 19th century theatre throughout much of the western world. The typical minstrel performance followed a three-act structure, the first part semi-circle (led by Mr Interlocutor and the endmen), the second part “olio” (comprising specialty acts, including the comic lecture), and finally the afterpiece (or farce). The afterpiece could also comprise a burlesque of a popular play. American minstrel troupes first started coming to Australia in the late 1840s, with one of the most influential being the Georgia Minstrels, an all black troupe which toured in the late 1860s under the management of Charles B. Hicks. Several members of that troupe remained in the country for many years, playing a significant role in helping develop the local industry. Other key minstrels troupes to be associated with Australia included Hiscocks’ Federal Minstrels, Emerson’s California Minstrels, and various line-ups led by Charles and Harry Cogill. Arguably Australia’s greatest ever minstrel comedian was W. Horace Bent. Although Harry Rickards gradually phased minstrelsy out of his Tivoli programs in the mid-1890s in favour of vaudeville , it was still popular with Australian audiences up until the late-1910s. It was also often revived in the 1920s and beyond for one-off seasons of “old time” entertainment, and had another significant revival in the 1960s through the television variety series The Black and White Minstrel Show.
Musical comedy is a form of theatre combining songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance, with the emphasis being on humour – although emotion in the form of pathos, love, anger etc – is typically present. Where musical comedy differs from comic opera and operetta is that the story (i.e. the libretto) is considered as important as the music. As with these more “legitimate” musical theatre genres, musical comedy is often difficult to distinguish in various historical periods from other forms – plays with music and burlesques, for example. The musical as a genre has also changed quite significantly over time in response to its creators adapting and adopting new ideas and technologies. Although two Australian productions have long been claimed as our first musical comedy – these being F.F.F. (1920) and Collits’ Inn (1933), neither claim is actually correct (although the latter work was possibly our first attempt to produce a musical comedy in the Broadway tradition). Research conducted for the AVTA has, for example, identified the term musical comedy being applied to Australian-written works as far back as the early 1890s, including The Irish Millionaire (1890) by Dan Tracey et al, and Fairy (1891) by Thomas Hilhouse “Toso” Taylor. George Edwards also wrote and directed two musical comedies in 1920, these being The New Barmaid and The Gumleaf Girls.
A dramatic form which uses vocal and instrumental music to convey story, emotion and entertainment, opera is closely related to drama in that it uses the theatrical elements of stage action, scenery, costumes and dialogue. It’s most obvious difference, however, is that words are traditionally sung rather than spoken. The first operas to have been written and produced in Australia were Don John of Austria (1847) and The Corsair (1848), while the first semi-permanent company to tour full-scale European opera was run by William Lyster between 1861-1869. Possibly the first opera to include an Australian setting was El Dorado (1895) by C. W. Chiplin and Hugo Alpin.
NB: Because traditional opera is rarely produced for the popular culture demographic, it is not a music theatre genre that is given great attention in this archive. There are, nevertheless, a number of composers, librettists and works included in the AVTA due to their connection (or in some instances likely connection) with the variety industry. In some instances the creatives may also have written or been involved in the production of variety theatre works, while some opera productions similarly involved practitioners from the variety industry.
A dramatically-organised music theatre genre similar in structure to light or comic opera, operetta is characteristically built around a romantically sentimental plot interspersed with songs, orchestral music, and rather elaborate dancing scenes, along with spoken dialogue. Because of the similarities between comic opera and operetta it is often unclear which genre term should be applied to particular works. In most instances the advertised form, or the author(s) attribution is used.
Traditionally a seasonal entertainment (although not confined to Christmas or Easter), pantomime is a form of musical theatre comprising comedy, music and physical action. The antecedents of pantomime date back to ancient Greece, and aspects of the tradition can be seen in the theatre practice of the Middle Ages. It also has very clear and strong links with commedia dell’arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy during the early Modern period and which reached England by the 16th century. The English tradition became more formalized during the 17th century and by the mid-nineteenth century began to resemble the type of theatrical performance we today might recognise. Generally speaking pantomime in Australia during the 19th and early 20th centuries favoured well-known stories (particularly fairytales) and spectacle. It was also often presented on two levels – one for children and the other for their adult company with topical references and adult jokes, while retaining a child-like world of fantasy.
Revues are a form of popular culture entertainment in which unrelated sketches comprising elements of song, dance and dialogue are organised around a unifying idea or theme (usually intimated in the title). Traditionally featuring comedy and topical references, often with a sharp satiric edge, the revue genre is an amalgamation of several theatrical traditions – notably minstrelsy’s olio section (including the comic lecture), burlesque and the society sketch. The revue is closely associated with follies (a more extravagantly produced revue), the revusical, vaudeville, cabaret, and the intimate revue (which gained popularity in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The first revue to be staged in Australia was the British production, Come Over Here (1913). Produced by J. C. Williamson’s it was reworked for Australian audiences.
Revusicals are essentially one act musical comedies. While closely aligned with intimate revue in terms of production values, the revusical differs through its use of a storyline to hold the various sketches and improvised scenes together. The Australian revusical emerged primarily as a vehicle for two principal comedians, who were supported by a small but versatile ensemble of variety performers and six scantily-clad chorus girls. It’s antecedents can be located in burlesque, and particularly the 1913 tour of Australian by the Bert Le Blanc-led American Burlesque Company, minstrel farce and musical comedy. Often referred to as tabloid musical comedies, miniature musical comedies, revuettes and musical travesties during the 1910s, by the 1920s the shortened descriptive “revue” was more commonly used. This subsequently led historians in later years to incorrectly assume that the productions were styled long intimate revue lines. The first revusical to be written and produced in Australia is believed to have been The Telephone Girls (Aug. 1913). Referred to as a “tabloid” the show was produced and directed by C. Post Mason, with the text by Wilton Welch and music by Charlie Vaude (Vaude and Verne). Although “tabloids” were being produced in Britain from the early 1910s, the Australian miniature musical comedy developed more along the lines of American burlesque than as comedy plays with music. It possible then, that the revusical is the first and possibly the only theatrical genre to originate in Australia, with the term being used in this country as early as 1915 – and some 15 years before it appears anywhere else in the wold.
The Australian public’s interest in musical scenas, especially those set in the Oriental, is evidenced by the fact that a large number were produced around the country between the mid-1910s and early 1920s. These classy and extravagant productions, which tended to run for about 20-30 minutes, and often involved up to five or six musical/dance numbers, were particularly favoured by costume comedy companies like Edward Branscombe’s Dandies, John N. McCallum‘s Courtiers and Huxham’s Serenaders. The Oriental scenas typically had titles like In Sunny Japan (1914), In China Town (1917), Asia Minor (1918) and A Dream of the East (1919). Other themes can be envisaged by titles such as At the Farmer’s Ball, Life in a Gypsy Camp, The Love of an Indian Squaw and Kidstakes Junction (all 1918).
A theatrical sketch is a short play or performance of slight dramatic construction and often of a light or comic nature. Although the term has been applied to a number of related popular culture genres, notably farce, revusical and skit, a sketch invariably differs in terms of the number of performers, the style of presentation (particularly in terms of comedic delivery), and production values. Generally speaking a sketch is presented by a small ensemble of performers (up to about six, and commonly with only two or three actors). It may or may not involve musical performance. In comedy sketches the humour is less physical (as with farce), relying more on verbal and psychological interplay thus allowing it to explore a concept, character or situation. A skit, on the other hand, tends to be a (single) dramatized joke. Sketches were a mainstay of minstrelsy (the olio section), vaudeville and revue.
- See: Farces and Sketches: 1870-1919 (Research Lists)
While the shift away from minstrelsy towards a program of individual and unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill had been taking place in the USA and Great Britain by the 1880s, vaudeville’s did not emerge in Australia until the 1890s, when Harry Rickards gradually phased out the semicircle and afterpiece sections from his Tivoli programs. Even then it took until the First World War era for vaudeville to finally oust its predecessor from most levels of the industry. Except for the Tivoli circuit the vaudeville programs offered by firms like Fullers’ Theatres and Harry Clay often began to share the bill from 1915 onwards with revusicals (the latter being staged primarily as the second half entertainment). Types of acts favoured by Australian vaudeville audiences musical acts, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, sketches or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities and digger troupes. Vaudeville also offered audiences the opportunity to experience the latest fads and popular culture phenomena – including for example, new music trends (ragtime and jazz), dance styles (the Tango, Apache Dance and Charleston) and even sports like volleyball. While vaudeville and the revusical declined in popularity in the late 1920s many of the artists and acts were reinvented for revue, which continued the variety tradition well into the 1960s.