Australia’s earliest surviving printed document is a playbill which advertises a performance of the tragedy, Jane Shore, followed by a comic dance, The Wapping landlady and a farce, The miraculous cure. The performances were at Australia’s first purpose built theatre in Sydney on 30 July 1796. A new book, The playbill and its people, details how the playbill reflects colonial social life and Sydney theatre at the turn of the eighteenth century.

An employee of the National Library and Archives of Canada discovered the playbill amongst other, mainly Canadian, documents and recognised its significance. It was gifted to the people of Australia in September 2007 by the Prime Minister of Canada and now resides in the National Library in Canberra.

Forty-five years after the Sydney performance a wooden theatre was built next to the Eagle Inn in Bourke Street, Melbourne. The Royal Pavilion Saloon opened with a concert on 12 April 1841. Within a year the name had changed to Theatre Royal Melbourne and the venue hosted the city’s first plays, The widow’s victim and The lottery ticket.

Shows a single storey licensed business, the single storey Eagle Tavern and a large, wooden Theatre Royal with gabled roof, several people in the street
[The Eagle Tavern and Theatre Royal], H28250/28

If you’d like to know more about theatre in Victoria, our guide to researching performance in Victoria will provide a useful starting point.

Written by Kerri Hall
Librarian, Australian History and Literature Team

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