The finest old theatres in Australia have very similar histories, although they may have been built in different states and belonged to different decades. What was shared was that those pioneering theatres carried the cultural hopes of their backers in the earliest days of Australian society.
So what made Hobart’s theatrical experience very special? In 1834 a consortium of Hobart Town’s business leaders was formed with the aim of establishing a permanent theatre for the rapidly expanding colony. Hobart Town must have been a rough old place in colonial days, so their leader brewer Peter Degraves asked the architect, John Lee Archer, to make the new Theatre Royal gorgeous. The foundation stone was laid in 1834 and it was up and running in 1837. Thus Hobart has the honour of being the oldest continually operating theatre in Australia.
Did the good burghers of Hobart Town mind that the theatre was placed between pubs, brothels, an abattoir, tanneries and tiny dock workers’ cottages? Apparently not, since it was given an impressive neoclassical façade and a charming interior (which was rebuilt after destruction by fire in 1984).
However, there was a price to pay. The entertainment ranged from traditional music hall to nasty cock fights. Worse still, the theatre’s own history tells, a sleazy tavern operated beneath the auditorium. Prostitutes, sailors and general riffraff would enter the pit with tankards full and create all sorts of drama of their own, much to the displeasure of the gentry in the boxes. During intervals, drunken prostitutes could be seen bounding across the seats, heading to the conveniences as fast as they could.
There were three entrances to the Hobart theatre; a grand front entrance for the well heeled, a door off the side lane for ordinary working families, and a tacky entrance from the pub in the basement that opened directly into the cheapest seats.
The addition of the gallery in the 1850s and new decoration to the auditorium in the 1890s made the site attractive. The finest renovations started in 1911, when new balconies were added, the front entrance enlarged, and plush red velvet upholstery appeared for the first time. The crème of the entertainment world have trod the boards in the Theatre Royal, including Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndike.
Saved from demolition several times, the theatre survived fires, a call to demolish the building during the Second World War and decades of wear and tear. The worst threat came in the late 1940s; it was then that the actor Sir Laurence Olivier was among the many people working to save this Hobart institution.
Again, when a devastating fire in 1984 destroyed much of the stage area and the front of the auditorium, closure seemed imminent. A fundraising appeal was launched to raise the $1 million needed to carry out repairs. The money was raised and the theatre underwent major reconstruction and refurbishment, reopening in March 1986. Today historians love the Theatre Royal, and so do fans of the performing arts.
Helen Webberley is a lecturer in history and art history at
the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne. Since November
2008, she has been writing blog articles on the art, architecture
and history of Britain and its Empire, Europe, the Mediterranean
and North America.
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