Entertaining Prospects: Garrison and Gold Town Theatre in New Zealand c.1850–1870
Theatres established throughout New Zealand during the mid-nineteenth century offered colonial audiences, even those in smaller settlements, access to a vast array of live performance and popular dramatic amusements. Examining several garrison and gold towns and experimenting with the use of various digital quantitative and spatial methodologies, this thesis explores the interplay between playhouses and colonial audiences. The study focuses particularly on the extent to which theatre operated as a vehicle and arena for the spread of Anglo culture, performance of gendered work, and the production or degradation of colonial respectability. Providing collective excitement, diversion, and respite from otherwise monotonous or solitary activities, theatres were significant features of civic society and cultural life between 1850 and 1870. Garrison amateur dramatics in Auckland and New Plymouth performed by soldiers stationed in New Zealand during the quieter 1850s proved that there were prospective constituencies of theatregoers with both appetite and appreciation sufficient to support regular theatrical amusements. Theatre expanded as gold fever spread across Otago and then the West Coast during the 1860s. From 1862, Dunedin’s theatre scene exploded as gold attracted diggers and auxiliaries from far and wide.
Theatres were prominent markers of civic development. Whether in transient gold town settlements or commercial urban centres, playhouses shared a common repertoire introduced by performers and managers from across the Anglo-world. Performing contemporary plays from Britain, Australia, and North America, theatre companies in colonial New Zealand brought with them experience and reputations cultivated on touring circuits elsewhere. Analysing how these theatre people acted as conduits of cultural transmission, the study utilises network and spatial analyses to demonstrate how theatre provided access to contemporary theatre culture and thus situated playgoers within a constituency of cultural consumers throughout a vast Anglo-theatre network.
The thesis also investigates the characteristics of theatres as colonial workplaces. Focusing predominantly on commercial theatre, the study explores how, in operating outside broader social conventions, playhouses enjoyed flexibility in defining acceptable work. Quantitative analyses of house size data highlighting the fluctuation of audiences, and debtors’ petitions filed by theatre professionals, demonstrate the economic precarity of theatre business. Nonetheless, theatre women enjoyed greater freedom and opportunity for advancement than in other professions. The analysis demonstrates the uneven extent to which gender was used as grounds for criticism in New Zealand.
Colonial settlements were sensitive to ideas of reputation and progress. As public spaces, theatres featured heavily in contemporary discussion and debate which interpreted venues and repertoire as variously civilizing and corrupting. Alongside amusement and leisure, playhouses were also sites of commerce, social mixing, heightened emotion, drunkenness, and disorder. Assessing how theatre and theatregoing played into a broader discourse of respectability reflecting societal anxiety over colonial reputation, the study argues that theatres were hotly debated because public entertainments were taken to reflect the general character of colonial inhabitants.