This week on 2SER Breakfast, Alex and Minna were treading the boards of the old Tivoli Theatre in Castlereagh Street looking for some Christmas time theatrical scandal.
Over 100 years ago, the Tivoli was the venue for pantomimes, live dancing and musical shows, especially at Christmas. The Victorians thrived on pantomime – musical retellings of fairy tales and children’s stories, that combined slapstick, spectacle and the subversion of gender with lavish costumes.
One well-known pantomime star of yesteryear was Billie Barlow, an English burlesque actress who started her career in early Gilbert & Suliivan works and toured the world. Only in her mid teens when she began her career in the chorus of the London company Opera Comique as Minnie Barlow, during a tour to America other company members gave her the nickname Billie and it stuck.
As well as singing and variety entertainment, Barlow specialised in ‘breeches roles’, in particular as ‘principal boy’. In the days when most women’s bodies, and their lower limbs in particular, were comprehensively covered up in public, these roles provided an opportunity for an actress in the 19th century to wear a costume revealing the legs covered only in tights, potentially increasing the size of the audience. Collectable cigarette cards & carte de visites of the day show the range of her theatrical guises and outlandish costumes.
Barlow visited Australia several times over the course of her career and was billed as ‘the English Queen of Burlesque’. The Evening News described her in 1892 as ‘the pretty little lady…with the sunny curls, laughing eyes, and saucy nose.’ However the costume she wore as the Principal Boy, Jack Grist, in the production of Puss in Boots at the Tivoli at Christmas in 1900 caused quite a stir.
Puss in Boots was an English work licensed to Harry Rickards by Barlow’s husband Everard Menzies Stuart. It was amended to include references for local audiences and was, in the main, very well received. One reviewer described it being as much about ‘the funny man as the legs and the limelight’. Barlow had previously performed the role in Britain and in America, where no adverse comments about the costumes had been made.
A Melbourne reviewer of the production when it toured there in February commented that ‘she looks very fine and large in very tight tights, and goes through her part with plenty of spirit. The masculine attire of pantomime suits her better when she dilutes with a flowing cloak behind, than when she dons it neat and leaves nothing to the imagination’ but an earlier review in The Bulletin went further.
The Bulletin had published several reviews during the Sydney season, none of them overly enthusiastic, and on 12 January 1901 declared that:
‘…one becomes more and more impressed by the riskiness of Billie Barlow’s first costume. It is a costume that doesn’t simply suggest the “nood” in an ordinary sense; it rather suggests that Miss Bill has taken off her flesh and is wandering about clothed in her naked soul’
The same review ended in ‘The ballet in the marble hall contrives to look as it it was a trifle sinful as well, and the public likes sin. The man who can invent a perfectly new sin will make a fortune’.
The suggestion that the costume was indecent was not appreciated, and Barlow (using her legal name of Minnie Menzies Stuart) promptly sued the publication for libel, saying such an inference would damage her international career. The colourful court proceedings that followed over the next few months were lapped up by the public, and a delighted media that indulged in all their most risque and derogatory comments about women on the stage. The Bulletin was represented in court by soon-to-be Australian Prime Minister George Reid, who did not hold back: He asked the members of the jury ‘to remember that the stage could be made an engine for the greatest evils’ and suggested ‘It was no wonder that poisonous influences were spreading amongst the community where divorces were becoming notoriously frequent, when such exhibitions were popular and the person that was the party to them could come into court and ask for £5000 in damages’.
The jury and judge visited the theatre just to make sure what they thought of the costume (with their wives apparently, something that gave rise to even more lewd comments in the press), but despite her protestations of artistic integrity, found The Bulletin was justified in its description. Barlow tried to appeal but the request was denied.
The case was reported with glee across the country. The Clarence and Richmond Examiner observed this type of scandal as inevitable because “Theatres in which the sensual passions pandered to by immoral song and indecent dress or posturing are a decided curse. The harm they do is almost calculable.”
Although she was supposed to pay court costs, Barlow left the country on the next leg of her tour before doing so. On her return to Sydney in 1912, The Bulletin followed it up, and when she paid, apparently gave the amount to charity.
The scandal is a good reminder that theatre has always been a space where gender roles are questioned, satirised, subverted. Drag, cabaret and burlesque comedy remain with us today and we hope to see it come back to life in 2021.
Dictionary of Sydney: Harry Rickards’s Tivoli
Head to the Dictionary to explore everything under the subject Theatre!
Kurt Gänzl: Kurt of Gerolstein AROUND THE WORLD IN TWENTY YEARS: Years One to Twelve: A husband from Hell … or merely the theatre? (2020)
Nigel Ward, The Conversation, ’A brief history of the pantomime – and why it’s about so much more than ‘blokes in dresses’ (2016)
G&S Archive: The D’Oyley Cart Opera Company – Billie Barlow
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
For more Dictionary of Sydney on the radio, tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.