THEATRE & CONCERT PROGRAM: DOCUMENTING AUSTRALIA'S PERFORMING ARTS
4 October 2013
|Program for JC Williamson production of Matsa,
Queen of Fire (see story below)
Programs are central to the documentation of
music and theatre history.
They provide the essential information about
performances - what was performed, who performed it, when they performed it,
and where the performance took place. But they are also valuable sources of
biographical details, production notes, illustrations of sets and costumes,
photographs of performers, the duration of performances, the number of
people likely to be attracted to them, the cost of admission and details of
According to the late Sydney music critic, Fred Blanks, collections of
concert and recital programs have a number of benefits.
They may be used to
analyse the repertoire at particular times and changes
to repertoire over any period. They may be used to assess changes in the
format of programs. They may be used to assess the results of musicological developments (eg
the early music movement) on events. They may be used to examine the actual
performance repertoire of individual composers. They may be used to analyse
Australian content. They may be used to gain insight into taste and
popularity with reference to particular authors, composers and works. They
may be used to accurately date specific performances and appearances. They
may be used to investigate whether particular works have been performed. And
they may used as a starting point for library searches and other
investigations into various aspects of events,
The value of programs is illustrated by items in
Australian libraries, including the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts,
which held one of the nation’s major collections before the Sydney Opera
House Trust closed it in 1997.
Responsibilities and approaches for managing
program collections in Australia have evolved over the past forty years, influenced by the
establishment of collections in arts centres, increased interest by major
libraries and advances in technology. These developments suggest that new
strategies are required to minimise duplication and wasted effort.
Program rather than programme was the regular spelling until
the 19th century and, according to Fowler, continues to be the preferred
spelling ‘as conforming to the usual English representation of the Greek
gramma, as in diagram, telegram, etc…although the British preference for
programme seems to be as firmly established as the American for program’. Pepita, author of a language column in the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation’s radio and television magazine 24 Hours explored the
etymology in March 1980.
Program is the original English
spelling, and was for hundreds of years the only one. About the middle
of the last century, the longer form came into use, presumably taken
from the French word, and became popular as the more ‘genteel’ usage. It
seems to have reached Australia, oddly enough, via the USA where...it
was adopted by some of the country’s leading publishers. Some old Sydney
printers used rather to enjoy confusing the issue by calling the longer
form the ‘American style’, which of course it was in the history of
However, Australia’s oldest newspapers, which had begun
publication when program was the only form in use, never saw fit to
change their style for the sake of fashion; it remains to this day, and
is used also in their modern mass-circulation magazine subsidiaries.
For some reason no longer readily discoverable, the longer form was the
only one taught in most Australian schools during the early decades of
the 20th century. This is no longer so; and – again for some reason not
readily discernible – there seems in this country to be a fairly rapid
conversion to the original spelling. The Australian Government Style
Manual now requires its use in all Government publications. ABC
Publications have always used the short form, as being what we
considered the better English.
From the Greeks to the 19th century
The history of the program is inextricably linked with the history of the
theatre poster, which began in Greek and Roman times in the form of
hand-lettered drawings on walls to entice the population to theatre
In the late 16th century, essential information appeared on crude
handwritten sheets called daybills, which were pasted on theatres and city
posts. Then, as now, word of mouth was an important way of spreading the
message: loud-voiced barkers or vexillators, accompanied by drumbeats, were
employed to walk through the streets, announcing performances. From the
theatre tops, flags signalled the type of play; black flag for tragedy,
white flag for comedy.
With the invention of the printing press, daybills with limited
information were distributed more widely and, by the end of the 17th
century, larger bills or great bills, with red lettering, were produced in
addition to the smaller black-lettered bills for London theatres.
In the 18th century, further details begin to appear on the daybills,
including a list of actors, characters and admission price. The bills were
sold with the theatres – at first by orange wenches, then by married women
or by the stock old maids in theatre companies – and outside, by street
urchins. The great bill – the immediate ancestor of the theatre poster – was
printed after the smaller bill and was therefore more up-to-date.
The development of printing in the 19th century, particularly of colour
lithography, in part led to the emergence of posters (emphasising the
pictorial elements) and programs (providing the details) as two distinct and
separate publications. The changes in style and format which took place
during that century and during the 20th century can be studied from examples
in Australian library and museum collections.
The Theatre, Sydney, 1796
The first production in Australia was George Farquhar's The Recruiting
Officer, which was performed in a tent by a party of convicts in Sydney
on 4 June 1789. Convicts also opened the first permanent playhouse in the
Australian colonies - at Norfolk Island in 1793.
The oldest surviving playbill is for productions of three plays at Sidaway's
Theatre, Sydney, on 30 July 1796 - Jane Shore, The Wapping Landlady
and The Miraculous Cure. This was printed by George Hughes on a screw
printing press that had arrived with the first fleet and was presented by the Canadian
Government to the National Library of Australia in 2007. The State
Library of New South Wales also has playbills for productions at Sidaway's
Theatre -The Recruiting Officer and Henry 1V - performed in
March and April 1800, The originals are 8” long. The
hand-press printing is crude. The cost of admission is five shillings.
Black-eyed Susan, 1832
Thirty-two years later, the playbill for Black-eyed Susan at the Theatre
Royal, Sydney (held by the State Library of New South Wales) illustrates the extent to
which the art of printing had developed. A variety of typefaces give
prominence to important details. The manager, Mr Meredith, has made sure his
name is in larger letter than the others. There are references to scenery,
machinery and decorations. The top seats are still five shillings.
The Carandini Programs, 1850s
|Program for the Duke of
Edinburgh command performance , Melbourne, 1869.
Concerts given by the Australian singer and
opera impresario, Marie Carandini, were among the earliest concerts
represented by programs in the
Dennis Wolanski Library, deposited in 1981 by her great grandson, the British actor Sir Christopher
Lee. A concert version of Lucy of Lammermoor, performed at White’s Assembly
Rooms, Adelaide in 1858, was conducted by Lewis Lavenu, whose progeny
included another renowned film actor, Tyrone Power.
The Carandini collection includes a gala program on silk, a style of
program introduced overseas in the last decades of the 18th century. The Carandini example, on white silk with a blue lace border, was printed for
the Royal Command night in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh during his second
visit to Australia in 1869 – nearly one year after the attempt on his life at
Clontarf in Sydney.
The program also draws attention to a benefit night for Rosina Carandini,
although benefit nights, as a system of earning income, had become almost
defunct by the mid–nineteenth century.
The earliest playbill held by the Dennis Wolanski Library of the Performing Arts,
was from England, dated 22 May 1789 – a benefit concert for Mr and Mrs
Bernard at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The earliest Australian program was for “a
grand promenade concert” at the Salle de Valentino, 12 December 1853.
Lorgnette and L’entracte
In the last decades of the 19th century, theatre programs predominantly took
the form of a daily or weekly newspaper in which the old-style playbill was
printed on the centre of the front and inside pages. These pages carry a
plethora of theatrical lore, puns and gossip. The merchants, storekeepers
and medicine men of the town had by this time realised the potential of the
program as an advertising medium.
They carry a wealth of information about Victorian theatre:
|Program for George Darrell's production of The
Double Event, Sydney, 1898
The variety of entertainment. Opera,
ballet and farce were standard fare on the evening’s program with other
diverse and minor attractions as well. The audience of the Theatre Royal,
Sydney, on 17 November 1983, for example, was treated to: a one-act play
called The Bonnie Fishwife; a concert featuring Nellie Stewart;
another one act play called Cool as a Cucumber; Colonel Ike Austin,
the great American rifleman who “will give an exhibition of fancy rifle
shooting”; and Harlequin Telegraph! Old Mother Shipton “a pantomime
burlesque with lots of fun including new tricks and effects, the magic
umbrella, the inexhaustible beer jug and Holloway’s new ball costume with
patent inflated headdress”.
The thrills and spills. In the program of
George Darrell’s production of The Double Event at Her Majesty’s
Theatre, Sydney, on 3 August 1898, for example, the management confidently
state that they will provide ”the most perfect and realistic racing scene
ever presented on the stage at any period or in any part of the world. In
the race itself, no less than twenty thoroughbred horses ridden by
professional jockeys will compete”. Before the reader lets forth a gasp of
wonderment at the thought of this spectacle, the extract from the review in
Table Talk should be noted: “…twenty horses rushing past is effective even if
their gallop is that of the circus instead of the field.”
The hype. The audience attending the
production Turned Up at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, on 16 May 1891
was promised a night of escalating excitement: “Act 1 is a breeze! Act 2 is
a storm! Act 3 is a hurricane!” The observations of NL Parker in 1882,
writing about the theatre poster, may be relevant in this context: “Accuracy
is scarcely a strong point with these ‘posters’ for when seen on stage, the
crowds are not so fierce, the shipwrecks a little less awful, whilst the
cliff down which the hero descends in immaculate garb (without crumpling his
collar) provides at least a hundred foot lower than the cliff at which the
street-boys gaze full of wonder and excitement”. The admission price to
Turned Up, incidentally, is still five shillings. Eighty-eight years
without a price hike!
The size of the market. The Stage, a
program newspaper similar to Lorgnette and L’entr’acte, sometimes boasted
its circulation figure of 20,000 – useful information on the theatre-going
public of the day.
Matsa Queen of Fire, 1897
Toward the end of the 19th century, theatre
managements printed more elaborate and more visually stimulating program
souvenirs. JC Williamson’s program for Matsa, Queen of Fire or the Apples
of Isis, the Dates of Osiris and the Little People of the Mountains of the
Moon – Onn and Oph - performed in Sydney at Her Majesty’s Theatre in
1897, includes the libretto as well as a number of other features: a
colourful and exotic cover; details of the cast and magnificent scenery etc;
a synopses of scenery and events including a grand ancient Egyptian floral
ballet; a startling fire ballet, the rising of the Nile (a grand and
realistic screen of the inundation and rescue of Simbal’s party); a
sensational aerial ballet by Miss Mary Weir; and photographs of the stars
and scenes – including the rising of the Nile.
The Twentieth Century
|Program for The Valkyrie, Princess Theatre, Melbourme, 1907
In the Edwardian period, a long, slim format (4”
x 10”) became common, with more pages and more illustrations. The covers
were occasionally in colour.
The program for George Musgrove's production of The Valkyrie in 1907
(a single sheet of heavy paper folded in the middle) provides an example of
the value of programs in highlighting aspects of contemporary social
behaviour. In days well before the office smoker is ostracised, “ Gentlemen
are kindly requested to refrain from smoking in the foyer, accommodation
being provided for that purpose on the balcony”.
This program, slim as it is, also offers interesting notes on stage effects
and the duration of the performance.
"The management desire to point out that there be no cause for alarm at the
fire scene at the end of the opera as no fire is used. All materials
required for obtaining the effects are non-inflammable and non-combustible...The indulgence of the audience is asked by management for what is, in
Australia, a lengthy time between each act. The stage settings and effects in the opera are so intricate that 25 minutes (or more) will be required to
accomplish each change. It is anticipated that the final curtains will fall
at 11.10pm.” The opera commenced at 7pm.
In the 1920s through to the 1950s, JCW’s Magazine Programme was a
particularly informative example of the theatre program. Following the
format of the long running American Playbill, its magazine section
was packed with information and photographs of the local theatre and music
AUSTRALIAN COLLECTIONS, INITIATIVES &
The Wolanski Foundation is continuing research on this important topic,
based on its experience at the Sydney Opera House 1973-1997, reports by Paul
Bentley to the AusStage performing arts gateway 2000-2001, reports relating
to the establishment of a performing arts research centre in Sydney
2001-2004, work on behalf of NIDA and the Seaborn Broughton and Walford
Foundation 2001-2008 and other initiatives. In 2008, the foundation assisted
University of Technology student Stephanie Volkens to conduct a survey on
practices at the National Library of Australia, State Library of NSW, State
Library of Victoria, Queensland Performing Arts Museum, the Victorian Arts
Centre's Performing Arts Collection, the Performing Arts Collection of South
Australia and AusStage.
We will by making available the result of this work in the near future.
The Century of the Programme: an Archive of Theatre Programmes, From Their
Inception in the 1860s Through Their Continuous Development to the 1960s.
Romney: Motley Books, 1985.
Entertaining Australia: an Illustrated History, edited by Katharine
Brisbane. Sydney: Currency Press, 1991.
Fowler, HW. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 2nd ed revised by Sir
Ernest Gower. Oxford: Clarendon Pressm 1965.
Haill, Catherine. Theatre Posters. London: HMSO, 1983.
Marchant, Sylvia. Tales of a Theatre Playbill. How a small theatre playbill
for the Theatre, Sydney, 30 July 1796, Australia's earliest printed document
came into the National Library collection. In National Library of Australia
News, December 2007
Meacham, Steve. Rough and Ready Colony Had Theatrical Flair. In the Sydney
Morning Herald, 24 September 2007.
Australian Culture 1789-2000
Being There Without Being There: the Arts in the
Age of YouTube (2012)
Catching Lightning in a Bucket: Archiving
the Performing Arts in the Digital Age (2013)
Evolving Stages: Australian Performing Arts Online