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Hiawatha: A message from 1939 to today

Modern day arts in the community are regarded as “bringing people together, fostering a sense of community, supporting mental well-being by building confidence and self-esteem, and inspiring us to get moving” (ref. i).

In 1939, similar recognition of the social benefits from attending live theatre performance may have influenced the decision for Melbourne City Council to proceed with presenting the spectacular musical pageant Hiawatha at the Royal Exhibition Building. This decision was controversial, as the show opened when Australia was just one month into the outbreak of World War Two (ref. ii).

Based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Hiawatha comprised three cantatas composed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. English audiences were already familiar with the lavish pageant presented between 1924 and 1939 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, adapted, dramatised and produced by Thomas C. Fairbairn (ref. iii). Now the musical pageant was arriving in Melbourne, produced and directed by Fairbairn who installed a stage in the Exhibition Building measuring one hundred and fifty by forty-five feet (ref. iv).

Extracted from Iroquois folklore, Longfellow’s poem tells of the deeds of legendary Native American hero Hiawatha, a Mohawk Indian chief (or described by some sources as leader of the Onondaga tribe) born circa 1525 (ref. v). Hiawatha is attributed with having united five tribes to form the Iroquois Confederacy.

This was a challenging dilemma for the pageant organisers. Not realising a war would be commencing later in the year, plans had been underway for months to organise this event scheduled for October, 1939 to coincide with the annual Spring Racing Carnival. A cast of almost one thousand professional and amateur performers had enthusiastically rehearsed for several months. These included seven hundred singers aged between sixteen and sixty-four from various local choral societies, eighty dancers and a seventy-five piece, full symphony orchestra led by Edouard Lambert under the musical direction of Bernard Heinze (ref. vi).

But from another perspective, following the September announcement of outbreak of war, young men and women were selflessly enlisting in the forces to serve their country, and memories of the horrors of World War One lingered as the nation prepared to endure another period of uncertainty and conflict.  The organisers would know, however, that live entertainment during World War One had lifted the spirits of troops and communities. The season of Hiawatha with its pageantry, music and drama, opened on 21 October at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, and closed on 4 November. Horace Stevens as Hiawatha led the cast of this grand-scale spectacular sponsored by the Melbourne City Council and presented in aid of the Australian Red Cross and related funds.

Patrons in the 3500-strong audience on opening night included the Governor, Sir Winston Dugan, Lady Dugan and other leading Victorian citizens (ref. vii). The well-attended season included thirteen evening and two matinee performances, and seven thousand school children were invited to see two dress rehearsals .

The Argus newspaper favourably reviewed the thirteen-night production, and described the show as “an event which musical Melbourne will long remember.” (ref. viii). The review notes that “the great audience of three thousand went home thoroughly satisfied and happy that, though the war had caused the cancellation of most of the events of the Melbourne spring carnival, Hiawatha had survived.”

 

Contemporary message

This positive, uplifting benefit of attending live theatre performance during a war remains as relevant today as in past centuries. Since 2020, Australia has engaged in global war with an invisible enemy, the Covid-19 virus and its variants.

As modern-day live theatre gradually regenerates after long closures from the pandemic, the strong demand for tickets suggests people once again need to raise spirits by enjoying fun, escapism and the magic of theatre. The theatre community is hopeful that sufficient government arts funding will ensure that all theatre companies can quickly rebuild to again provide communities with the significant social and cultural benefits from live theatre performance.

 


Sections of this story have been extracted from the book In the Name of Theatre: The History, Culture and Voices of Amateur Theatre in Victoria, and The Show Went On a story published in Theatre Heritage Australia’s online magazine On Stage, both written by Dr Cheryl Threadgold.

References

[i] Vic Health 2014. Innovative Challenge: Arts – ‘Time to get Victorians Moving using Technology and the Arts’, Media Release 12 November, 2014. <https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/media-and-resources/media-releases/time-to-get-victorians-moving-using-technology-and-the-arts>.

[ii]  Kenneth R. Hendy 21 Oct. 1939. ‘Hiawatha Comes to Melbourne’, The Argus, Weekend Magazine, p. 2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11248349

[iii] Jack Cowdrey 2012. ‘June Story of the Month: The Royal Choral Society and the Royal Albert Hall. https://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2012/june/june-story-of-the-month-the-royal-choral-society-and-the-royal-albert-hall

[iv] Mimi Colligan 1996. ‘From Hallelujah to Hiawatha’. In Victorian Icon: the Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne by David Dunstan with contributions by Mimi Colligan [and fourteen others],The Exhibition Trustees in association with Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, Victoria, p. 345.

[v] HistoryNet. ‘Hiawatha’, https://www.historynet.com/hiawatha

[vi] Hendy 1939. Ibid.

[vii] Colligan 1996. Ibid.

[viii] The Argus 23 October 1939. ‘Pageantry of Hiawatha’, The Argus, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/11265689.

IMAGE: Hiawatha Cast, Melbourne, 1939. Royal Exhibition Building. Melbourne City Council (Organiser of event). Royal Exhibition Building Collection. HT 35085. Museums Victoria Collections.

Review Status: Pending

Theatrecraft in Victoria

Theatre and Melbourne

As Melbourne continued to develop following the gold rush years in the 1850s, theatre burst into life in the city and has continued to flourish, making Melbourne and regional Victorian cities the most active in Australia. As a result, we have an abundance of architecturally well-designed theatres across the state, providing space for the entrepreneurial spirit which prevails here.

Community theatre

Similarly, a passion for performance community theatre continues, with the spread of companies to outer suburbs and country areas. The consequent involvement of these communities is reflected in the major events staged throughout the year in addition to ongoing programs. Ostensibly a leisure time pursuit, but one that a large population takes seriously, devoting endless time and energy to it, in the pursuit of high standards.

The Victorian Drama League

Established in 1952 to support the community theatre world, The Victorian Drama League (VDL) has members comprising theatre companies, play reading groups, schools, one-act play festivals as well as individual members. While the major proportion of its members are from Victoria it has a growing membership in all states and territories. Access to an extensive library of plays, reference books and tapes is one of many services it provides to its members. The VDL publishes online https://vdl.org.au , featuring reviews of members’ productions, as well as news and notices of interest to the community theatre world.

Standards

Bruce Cochrane, VDL President 2015 to present writes:

“In the forty plus years I have been involved in community theatre, I have observed the constant pursuit of excellence, which is celebrated in our annual Awards Event. In the future, I see more well trained and enthusiastic people of all ages stepping up to be a part of the wonderful family of community theatre”.

Further reading

Dr Cheryl Threadgold’s In the Name of Theatre: The History, Culture and Voices of Amateur Theatre in Victoria of 2020 first outlines the history of amateur theatre in Victoria, from the 18th century in New South Wales to the modern day. In Part 2 the culture and voices of amateur theatre are shared in individual stories from 129 musical and non-musical amateur theatre companies currently operating in urban and regional Victoria.

Known past amateur theatre companies in Victoria are listed to pay tribute to their existence, and some research data collated from interviews with representatives from 70 theatre companies, giving insight into the transformative benefits of amateur theatre, and perceived strengths, threats and weaknesses of companies.

ISBN 978-0-646-81339-4. Available from the book’s website.

 

Review Status: Pending