Updated closure information

10 September, 2020

 

In March 2020, Australia’s performing arts industry faced a situation many described at the time as unprecedented.

The closure of all theatres was indeed unexpected, highly unusual, and extremely unfortunate – but unprecedented it was not. In 1919, the global influenza pandemic also forced restrictions on public gatherings and the closure of theatres across Australia.

The theatre scene in Melbourne at the time was dominated by big producers of big productions, most of which were imports or featured imported stars. When theatres closed at the end of January 1919, there were two huge pastiche-style pantomimes running: Jack and Jill at the King’s Theatre and Goody Two Shoes at Her Majesty’s. Both shows performed daily to audiences of over 2000, with international acts and casts of over 300. Meanwhile the largest theatre, the 3000-seat Theatre Royal, was showing the big American Western melodrama The Great Divide, starring Canadian actress Muriel Starr. There was vaudeville at Fuller’s Bijou and a wartime-themed musical at the Tivoli. The Princess Theatre was showing a production of Gounod’s opera Faust – about a man who sold his soul to the devil. (Opera Australia produced this in January 2020. Spooky!)

 

The stars of pantomimes interrupted by the Spanish Influenza closures in 1919

 

The stars of pantomimes interrupted by the 'Spanish' Influenza closures in 1919:
Queenie Paul (left) in ‘Babes in the Wood’, Grand Opera House Sydney, and May de Sousa (right) in ‘Goody Two Shoes’, Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne.
Scrapbook, J.C. Williamson Ltd Collection
Gift of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, 1978
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

The effect on the theatre industry was similar to today. Industry leaders were dismayed by the arbitrary nature of the closures and the lack of compensation for those most swiftly and directly hit by restrictions. Performing artists were forced to find new ways to practise their art and make a living. There were reports of performers using the enforced time off to write novels. Dancers and acrobats kept up their training at home, or in empty theatres. Some performers trained as volunteer nurses for the temporary hospitals springing up around the city; others enjoyed their first holiday in years.

 

Programme for ‘Goody Two Shoes’, Her Majesty’s Theatre Sydney, May 1919, with advertisements for cold remedies

 

Programme for ‘Goody Two Shoes’, Her Majesty’s Theatre Sydney, May 1919, with advertisements for cold remedies.
Gift of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, 1978
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

When theatres opened again in March 1919, strict ventilation and cleaning practices were enforced by state government regulation. Theatre producers scrambled to remain viable. Interstate tours were hastily rescheduled according to changing restriction and quarantine requirements around the country throughout 1919. For example, in April, the entire company of Jack and Jill was caught at the quarantine camp in Wodonga when NSW theatres suddenly closed for a second time. The Sydney tour was abruptly cancelled and the company was forced back to Melbourne.

Inevitably, some performers got sick, including May de Sousa, the imported American star of the pantomime Goody Two Shoes.

While the immediate effects of the influenza pandemic were similar to those we’re feeling today, the ongoing implications and impact are likely to be very different. Closures in 1919 were comparatively short – just six weeks in Melbourne. While the ongoing crisis affected audiences right through the year, theatre companies were in a good position to bounce back once it was over. There was no competition from at-home entertainment as we have now, and the community was eager to move on and forget. Many of the memoirs, biographies and histories about theatre through that time ignore, or barely mention, the whole episode. It’s almost as though the influenza pandemic was deliberately obliterated from the public consciousness. The Great War claimed fewer lives but its story was strong, with Australia cast as a hero. The pandemic left no such legacy for history to include.

It’s difficult to believe that our current pandemic will be ignored by future generations. With a much more precarious performing arts industry, and much longer closures, the pandemic is now setting precedents that will impact our lives and culture for years to come.

 

Maggie Dickinson, one of two lead performers in ‘Goody Two Shoes’ who contracted ‘Spanish’ Influenza

 

Maggie Dickinson, one of two lead performers in ‘Goody Two Shoes’ who contracted ‘Spanish’ Influenza, 1919
Scrapbook
Gift of Frank Van Straten, 1980
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Dr Kate Rice is the inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow. She has a background in playwriting, specialising in creating work based on real events and ethical creative process.

Find out more about the Frank Van Straten Fellowship and applications for 2021.

 

Dr Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow

 

Dr Kate Rice, inaugural Frank Van Straten Fellow

 

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