Historical Insights

The “Historical Insights” page provides access to general historical accounts of popular culture entertainment activity in Australia up until the mid-1930s. Here you can:

  1. Read digitised PDF copies of Newspaper & Magazine Articles
  2. Access online Audio-Visual Resources (including podcasts)
  3. Access online Academic & Critical Publications (including theses)
  4.  Visit Research Websites and related online resources
The resources and items made available will typically provide information and observations relating to the social, performative, industrial and/or institutional  evolution of variety theatre in this country. Some will also focus more towards the history of city-specific theatres and venues, as well as other aspects relating to the production and reception of popular culture entertainment – notably variety theatre’s association with film, radio, circus, publishing and war.



This section comprises selected historical accounts of variety theatre up until the mid-1930s that were published in newspapers and magazines. [Click on << General Historical Overviews >> below]

Please be aware that these articles will likely contain historical information which must now be considered out of date, if not erroneous. All observations and personal accounts should also be treated with circumspection. It is hoped that over time these articles will also provide insight into the way Australian variety theatre has been recorded by social and theatre commentators working in the print media.

It is further anticipated that by collecting such articles in one place we may better understand not only how this recorded history evolved, but why our current understanding differs so markedly to what actually occurred.

<<  General Historical Overviews  (PDF) >>

Please note:  As the collection increases it will eventually be divided into specialised sections and or time periods



All Titles Produced by Efftee Film Productions.” Australian Screen.
• This section of the Australian Screen website collates 20 clips from Frank Thing‘s company (Efftee Film Productions) that have been preserved by the National Film and Sound Archive. These include scenes from Thring’s feature films, newsreels, advertisements, documentaries and variety shorts. The variety performances were produced as part of the Efftee Entertainers series (see the AVTA entry in the “Film and Vaudeville” section for more details). [Sighted 9/05/2017]

Circus in Australia(2011) Late Night Live, Radio National, 29 November.
• Phillip Adams’ guest, Mark St Leon, recently published a book on the history of the circus in Australia. In this program St Leon looks at some of the famous local and international circuses. [Podcast]

Reg Gorman: Hanging on to Vaudeville.” (2011) Verbatim, Radio National, 18 July.
• A veteran of Australian television, film and theatre, Reg Gorman is also from the last generation of Australian vaudevillians. Introduced by Amanda Smith. [Podcast]

Laughing at the Front(2011) Hindsight. Radio National, 24 April.
• The First World War had a major presence on the Australian stage, particularly in vaudeville theatre, before and after 1918; and following the Armistice, many variety shows were performed by diggers themselves. Featuring Prof. Richard Fotheringham, Prof. Graham Seal, Dr Clay Djubal and Dr Lisa Trahair. [Podcast]



Burns, Christopher. (2012) “Parading Kiwis: New Zealand Soldier Concert Parties, 1916-1954.” MA Diss. University of Auckland.
• Accounts of New Zealand’s involvement in the two world wars are frequently confined to a focus on the nation and a restrictive image of the soldier. By looking at soldier entertainers, Burns reveals far more ambiguous attitudes towards nationalism and masculinity.  [ResearchSpace@Auckland]

Burns, Christopher. (2012) “A Taste of Civvy Street: Heroic Adventure and Domesticity in the Soldier Concert Parties of the First and Second World Wars.” Journal of New Zealand Studies 13 (2012).
• The soldier concert parties of the First and Second World War promoted an alternate model of masculinity, one in which the desire for heroic adventure and homosocial camaraderie could fit comfortably with a yearning for the pleasures and comforts of civilian life. [Journal of New Zealand Studies]

NB: Although Christopher Burns’ thesis and essay focus on New Zealand war entertainment, there are close similarities with Australian concert parties and soldiers.

Djubal, Clay.”‘What Oh Tonight‘ : The Methodology Factor and Pre-1930s Variety Theatre.” (2005) Ph D. Diss. The University of Queensland.
• Supported by extensive primary sources this thesis argues that historians need to engage with the variety industry on its terms – by responding to the infrastructure and social networks through which it operated – if they are to gain insight into its production and reception as popular culture entertainment. [AVTA. Also held by eSpace, The University of Queensland].

Djubal, Clay.  “‘For the Duration’: Australian One Act Musical Comedies and the Fashioning of an Imagined National Identity between 1914 and 1918.” (2011) Mixed Bag: Monograph Series.
• The quest to determine a definitive Australian national identity has been a preoccupation of social commentators, writers, historians and cultural theorists for more than a century. However, little interest had been shown in the thoughts and stories of circulating in popular culture magazines and newspapers written by or about “average” Australians. Clay Djubal explores this missing link. [AVTA]

Ryan, Delyse. “Brisbane Theatre During World War I.” (2000) Ph D. Diss. The University of Queensland.
• Ryan looks closely at some of the social formants which helped to create and frame the theatrical events in the Queensland capital during the war years. The theatre’s community role, particularly the way it helped construct and reflect social and civic identity, as well as the ways in which theatrical techniques were used outside the theatres as a special response to the war.  [eSpace, The University of Queensland]

Thorne, Ross. “Melbourne’s Lost Theatres, Parts One and Two.” (1978) Originally published in Theatre Australia (May and July)
• Architect, theatre building historian and filmmaker Ross Thorne looks at Melbourne’s remarkable lost theatres, including those built by George Coppin, J.C. Williamson and Harry Rickards [www.rossthorne.com]

Thorne, Ross. “Sydney’s Lost Theatres, Parts One and Two.” (1979) Originally published in Theatre Australia (Aug. and Sept.)
• The second installment in Theatre Australia‘s “Lost Theatres” series, Ross Thorne looks at the Sydney buildings which disappeared prior to the mid-1930s. [www.rossthorne.com]

Webby, Elizabeth. “Harlequin in Van Diemen’s Land.” (2009) Script and Print 33.1-4 (2009) 167-184.
• Published as part of a special edition in memory of historian and academic Harold Love, this article looks at several Australian pantomimes staged in Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) during the early to mid-nineteenth century. [Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, sighted 9/05.2017]

Wittman, W. Matthew. “Empire of Culture: U.S. Entertainers and the Making of the Pacific Circuit, 1850-1890.” (2010) PhD Diss. The University of Michigan, USA.
• This dissertation is a transnational cultural history of the Pacific entertainment circuit (including Australia and New Zealand). It focuses on the experiences of the U.S. entertainers that moved through it and their reciprocal interactions with the people and places that they encountered along the way. [University of Michigan]



The Academy Literature and Drama Website: “Theatres”. This database comprising more than 400 entries on prominent authors, playwrights, theatres and theatre history, was constructed by Dr Simon Ryan and Dr Delyse Ryan for the Institute for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (IATL) at the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane. The “Theatres” section includes summaries of over 70 theatres in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

AustLit: The Australian Literature Resource. AustLit aims to be the definitive virtual research environment and information resource for Australian literary, print, and narrative culture. Its Australian Popular Theatre (APT) subset was compiled by Dr Clay Djubal between 2006 and 2009 and focuses on writers and other key practitioners working in popular culture entertainments such as revue, revusical, minstrelsy, pantomime, burlesque and musical comedy. The APT comprises more than 4,500 works entries (productions, reviews, criticism etc) and over 600 agent entries.

NB 1: AustLit is a subscription service, and hence only limited access to the site is available to the general public. Full free access is available, however, through most Australian universities and state libraries, as well as many public libraries. See your local institution for further details.
NB 2: To find out more about the APT subset click on this link <<Australian Popular Theatre>>
NB 3: Almost all of the APT entries (for pre-1935 works and agents) are now out of date, a result of funding for the subset having ended in early-2009. Nevertheless, the AustLit database is still the world’s foremost relational database in the humanities area. Its advance search option is an especially useful tool for exploring creative and industrial relationships between people, organisations and works.

AusStage. The audacious aim* of this event-orientated database is to provide an accessible online resource for researching live performance in Australia. This means not only “any” type of live performance, but Australian productions of internationally-written works, too. Although the database comprises more than 92,000 events (as of May 2017), this number also includes revivals. Unfortunately much of the database is currently skewed towards the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with minimal attention paid to entertainment forms such as revue (it has no revusical genre), burlesque and vaudeville staged during the Australian Variety Theatre Archive’s temporal parameters (ca. 1840s-1935).

* Especially given the unreliable nature of long-term government arts funding. University and private sector disinterest in supporting ongoing (digital) arts research ventures with no profit or commercial potential also suggests that AusStage will struggle to survive, let alone map the history of Australian entertainment and arts events. The impact of investment malaise can be seen with AustLit. All its original university partners have either severed or severely reduced their commitments. AustLit has also received little or no Australian Research Council (ARC) funding since at least 2014. This has resulted not only in the decimation of its staff but also the loss of many decades worth of expertise. It is therefore questionable whether the database can continue to claim to be the “definitive virtual research environment and information resource” given that does not have enough people (with appropriate expertise and training) to keep up with current indexing – let alone maintain a retrospective indexing and updating program. This situation also means that it no longer has the capacity to respond to the huge number of errors that are now known to exist within the database – a consequence of the online explosion of previously unavailable resources (notably Trove). A similar scenario is currently affecting AusStage.
NB: AusStage’s pre-1930s popular culture theatrical entries  (with the possible exception of pantomime) appear to have been contributed by people with limited expertise in the field. In this respect there are many errors and much misleading information – including incorrect genre-assignation, authorship, and work titles. The primacy of an “event” over the “work,” means, too, that only revivals of works might be included, thereby providing a flawed historical account of some works (i.e. no indication of debut productions). See the Radio Girl (by Rex Shaw) for example. in this instance only the 1933 and 1934 revivals are currently entered even though the work premiered in 1926 and was given its first revival in 1927 (as per The Radio Girl entry in AVTA).

Thespian Lodge No. 268.  Stig Hokanson’s website is devoted to theatrical practitioners who were once members of the Brisbane chapter of the Freemasons. Quite a few of the entries were for people involved in variety theatre. [sighted 9/05/2017]

Waverley Cemetery: Who’s Who Encore. Provides a glimpse into a forgotten world and recalls to centre stage famous people who are buried in this unique and iconic cemetery on top of the cliffs at Bronte in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. Many of the people included in this online publication were involved in variety theatre. [sighted 9/05/2017]

Published on May 8, 2017 at 4:02 am  Comments Off on Historical Insights