Early history of the Theatre Royal in Sydney

The first Theatre Royal in Sydney was built by Barnett Levey. Levey was the brother of a convict and thought that the citizens of Sydney deserved their own entertainment venue. It was located where Dymocks bookshop now stands at 428 George Street.

It was 1827 and Sydney was primarily a town of convicts, emancipists, soldiers, and some free settlers. Governor Darling, a conservative man was in charge of the colony. Darling did not approve of theatricals and after Levey built his theatre, refused permission for performances.

Levey had built the theatre behind his hotel, the Royal Hotel, and in order to circumvent the prohibition presented concerts and one man acts in the space.

Darling left Sydney in 1831 and a new Governor, Bourke, took his place. Bourke was more lenient than his predecessor and gave permission for theatre performances. In 1832 Levey hired several actors and the first officially sanctioned professional plays took place in Sydney.

Levey, by all accounts was somewhat of a drunkard and a terrible organiser. It was inevitable that the demands of theatre management were beyond him. He leased the theatre to a consortium headed by a man named Wyatt. Wyatt ran the theatre until 1837 when his lease expired. Wyatt was however still interested in management and built a new theatre in Pitt Street Sydney. Most of the actors from the Royal moved there. The new theatre, called the Royal Victoria, opened in 1838. It was here that George Coppin, the ‘father of Australian theatre’ first appeared in Australia.

Barnett Levey died in 1837 in mysterious circumstances and his theatre, the Royal, burnt to the ground in 1840. The name ‘Theatre Royal’ fell into disuse for some decades after 1840. It wasn’t until 1875 that the name was once again used in Sydney.

Wyatt ran the Royal Victoria for many years. In 1855 he had to sell, He opened a new theatre on unfashionable Castlereagh Street. It was called the Prince of Wales and located on the site of the current Theatre Royal.

At the Prince of Wales, Wyatt attempted to produce Opera to compete with the more profitable Royal Victoria. Disaster struck in 1860 when Wyatt’s theatre was burnt to the ground. A common occurrence for theatres at that time. Their wooden structure and reliance on candlelight made them prime candidates for such disasters.

By 1861 the theatre had been rebuilt and rechristened. It was now the Prince of Wales Opera House and leased to William Saurin Lyster. Lyster is generally held to be responsible for the first quality opera productions in Australia.

Just over ten years later fire again struck the theatre and the Prince of Wales was no more. A new theatre was built and given the name Theatre Royal. A theatre of that name has stood on that spot in Sydney ever since.

The first night of the Royal was December 11th 1875. It opened under the management of Samuel Lazer. It had red velvet chairs and was decorated in white, gold, and grey with a large glass chandelier as a centrepiece.

In this guise the theatre presented such famous names as Mrs Scott Siddons , George Rignold and the Soldene Opera company. The latter was well known for it’s beautiful and scantily clad girls. Perhaps the most significant event at this time was the arrival of the man who was to become one of Australia’s foremost theatrical entrepreneurs. James Cassius Williamson.

Williamson and his wife Maggie Moore, arrived in Sydney in 1874. They presented the play, Struck Oil. Both were American. Williamson had started his career in New York at Wallacks Theatre. He had subsequently moved to San Francisco where he had met Maggie. The two, like many before them decided to try their luck in Sydney. It was to be the start of a lifelong relationship between Williamson and the city.

In 1878, the Williamson and Moore pairing returned to Australia. Williamson had secured the rights to HMS Pinafore from Gilbert. This was the beginning of a profitable relationship for both men. In 1879 he produced the authorised HMS Pinafore at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

Williamson’s vigorous defence of his rights and Gilbert and Sullivan’s rights, led to him being given the rights to all Gilbert and Sullivan productions in Australia. It was this stroke of good fortune which led to Williamson’s management career. He found that good and popular material such as Gilbert and Sullivan productions did not need the presence of himself or Maggie to attract audiences. This lead to him producing one show and performing in others at the same time.

In 1882 Williamson formed a partnership, known as the firm or the triumvirate, with two other men ,George Musgrove and Arthur Garner. Musgrove had the advantage of being in a relationship with the popular Australian musical comedy star, Nellie Stewart. The three men soon controlled the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, the Royal in Adelaide and the Theatre Royal in Sydney.

During the 1880s under the auspices of these three men several important international artists appeared in Australia. The firm believed strongly in using imported acts to attract local audiences. Amongst the acts in the 1880s were, American actress, Genevieve Ward, Irish actor/playwright Dion Boucicault, and Fred Leslie, English actor. Amongst the local artists was Johann Krause, Australian violinist. In 1885, the Royal also saw the first appearance of Mrs Armstrong, who was later better known, as Nellie Melba.

The depression of the 1890s effected the theatre industry just as it did other Australian industries. The firm however held a trump card. In 1891 the world’s most famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt performed at The Royal. Bernhardt performed in French. The audience followed the performance by using printed booklets in English. The reaction from the public was overwhelming.

By this time Musgrove and Williamson were having business differences and this eventually lead to the dissolution of the partnership between the two in 1901.

In the early 20th century, control of the Theatre Royal fluctuated between the two men. Musgrove presented Nellie Stewart in the very successful Sweet Nell of Ol Drury. Williamson on the other hand continued to present a variety of imported acts. For example in 1905 Williamson presented Scottish actor, Julius Knight, with Maud Jeffries in a season of plays. Maud , an American, eventually settled in Australia and retired from the stage.

Williamson was looking to reduce his responsibilities. He sold shares in the company to business manager George Tallis and Gustave Ramaciotti. Ramaciotti was the firms financial manager. In 1908, Ramaciotti bought the freehold title of the Theatre Royal in Sydney and it remained in his family’s hands until they sold it in 1970. Williamson had been offered the freehold but believed that management and ownership did not mix.

In 1911, Dame Nellie Melba played a season at the royal and was supported by young Irish Tenor John McCormack. In 1912 Australian born Oscar Asche and his wife Lily Brayton played. Later that year English born Hilda Spong graced the stage. Hilda liked Australia so much that she stayed for 14 years.

Williamson was ailing. He made his last Australian stage appearance at a benefit performance in Sydney in 1913. On 6th July that year he died in France. He was buried in his home country, the United States.

Williamson the man may have passed, but his legacy and name dominated the Australian legitimate theatre scene for decades afterwards.


2 thoughts on “Early history of the Theatre Royal in Sydney

  • I have found a program from the Theatre Royal for White Horse in Managing Directors where various Mr Taits , JC Williamson Theatres where presenters. The show was to commence 5th December 1942.
    The following show advertised was Gladys Moncrieff in The Maid of the Mountain. As these seem to be well known names of the past I wondered if you had a collection you wished to add this to?

  • Just wondering if you have any information on Arthur Moss Hyam Levy who was a director/manager of the Theatre Royal with CJ Williamson.


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