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The arts in a time of national emergency – Case study, theatre

Modern day arts in the community are regarded as ‘bringing people together, fostering a sense of community, supporting mental wellbeing by building confidence and self-esteem, and inspiring us to get moving.’[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.[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.[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.[iv]

Extracted from Iroquois folklore, Longfellow’s poem tells of the deeds of legendary Native American hero Hiawatha, a Mohawk Indian chief born circa 1525.[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.[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.[vii] The well-attended season included thirteen evening and two matinee performances, and seven thousand school children were invited to see two dress rehearsals.[viii]

The Argus newspaper favourably reviewed the thirteen-night production, and described the show as ‘an event which musical Melbourne will long remember.’[ix] 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.’

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. Hopefully, 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.

References

[i] Vic Health. 12 Nov. 2014. Innovative Challenge: Arts – ‘Time to get Victorians Moving using Technology and the Arts’, Media Release.

[ii]  Kenneth R. Hendy. 21 October 1939. ‘Hiawatha Comes to Melbourne’, The Argus, Weekend Magazine, p. 2.

[iii] Jack Cowdrey. 2012. ‘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 website. ‘Hiawatha’.

[vi] Hendy 1939. Ibid.

[vii] Colligan 1996. Ibid.

[viii] The Argus. 23 October, 1939. ‘Pageantry of Hiawatha’, p. 2.

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