Historical Overview of Theatre in
The Australian Continent
• modern, industrialized
nation on largely
unpopulated continent
• seven states, territories
• only island continent
• only continent to be
occupied by single nation
• population hugs seaboard;
interior is mostly desert
(80% of country in arid or
semiarid zones)
Australia and New Zealand
Aboriginal Australia
• ancestors of the
Aborigines arrived on the
continent at least 65,00070,000 years ago
• from South Indonesia
during the last ice age
• over time, separated into
distinct tribal groups with
their own languages and
• subsistence husbandry
Kinship, Religion, and the Land
• over this long period, tribal lands were integrated into
a complex set of religious beliefs and practices that
governed all aspects of Aboriginal life
• believed that physical structure of tribal territory
embodied ancient spiritual entities that preserved and
protected the land and its people
• since the land was a physical expression of spirit
ancestors, and the spirits were progenitors of the
Aborigines, land and people were connected in
mutually dependent relationship
• land central to sense of personal identity; myths of
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
European Exploration
• Terra Australis Incognita
• 17C Dutch exploration: in
1642 Abel Tasman named
Australia “New Holland”
• initial reports unfavorable
• 1770 James Cook annexed
east coast territory on
behalf of King George III
of England, named it
“New South Wales”
Convict Transportation 1788-1868
• 1776 Britain’s North
American colonies
declared independence
• Britain could no longer
send convicts to America
• overflowing prisons
• in the 1780s it was
suggested that Britain
could use New South
Wales as a prison
• transportation for seven
years, 10 years, or life
The Australian Penal Colony
• in January 1788 the first
shipload of convicts
arrived in Botany Bay
• founded settlement named
• life was very difficult for
early convict settlers: soil
infertile, food scarce,
sickness rife
• eventually learned how to
survive; convicts who
finished their “lags”
became free settlers
Colonial Expansion
• Lachlan Macquarie
became Governor of the
colony in 1810
• number of free settlers
increased markedly
• exploration inland
• development of towns,
roads, public buildings
• pastoral wealth; gold
discovered in 1850s
• convict transportation
ceased in 1868
What about the Aborigines?
• 18C approx. 600,000 - one
million Aborigines
• huge cultural gap between
colonizers and colonized
• Aborigines considered to be
“rural pests”
• opposing notions of land
ownership and use: terra
• two centuries of appalling
economic and cultural
The Stolen Generation
• as a result of murder, dispossession,
sickness, Aboriginal population
• c.1900 Europeans assumed that
Aborigines were dying out
• non-full-blood children forcibly
removed from families, placed in
institutions to learn European values
and trades
• expected to breed with other “halfcastes” or whites and ultimately
eliminate the Aboriginal blood line
• loss of identity, mistreatment
History of Australian Theatre
Convict Theatre 1788-1840
• convict theatre fueled by lateGeorgian craze for amateur
• instigated by convicts
• first play = George Farquhar’s
The Recruiting Officer, June 4
• 1796 = Sydney’s first theatre,
managed by Robert Sidaway
• convict performances
sustained until c.1840
19C Colonial Theatre
• similar trends to other colonial settlements:
melodrama, musicals, comedy, domestic
drama, farces, and other “light theatre”
• bushranger plays
• literary-historical drama in verse, based on
historical drama of the 18C (Addison,
Racine), also Shakespeare; escapist
Towards an “Australian” Theatre
• call for “indigenous” Australian drama
• influence of realism, and Independent
Theatres overseas
• rise of repertory groups, “authors’ theatres,”
e.g. Australian Theatre Society, Adelaide
Repertory Theatre
• still characterized by amateurism, lacked
widespread national support
Postcolonial Influences
• 1950s = theatre subsidization
• Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust
• Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) and the
Australian audience
• new era of sustained professionalism in
management, production, and acting associated
with the Australian play
• out of this new creative environment = 1960s new
dramatists, artists, experimenting with new forms
Aboriginal Theatre, 1970-2005
• 1960s organized Aboriginal civil
rights movement
• 1971 Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry
Pickers performed
• 1970s-80s collective initiatives;
Black Theatre Groups
• 1989 Bran Nue Dae = turning
point in Aboriginal theatre
• 1990s social, political change
• more creative control, intense and
high-profile activity; women
writers; Indigenous Theatre
Groups; writing as resistance, also

Historical Overview of Theatre in Australia