Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 12

The play, the play’s the thing.

There were times when the yoke of this galling slavery was rendered lighter. Among the prisoners at Emu Plains a theatre was established under the auspices of one “Jemmy King”, a most eccentric genius, on a small scale, who was at once architect, manager, carpenter, scene-painter, decorator, machinist, mechanician, and to crown all, a very passable comic actor.

What rendered this combination of talents more extraordinary, Jemmy could neither read nor write, the only method he possessed of learning his parts being to listen while another read them; and though during these lessons the ever busy fingers of Manager King would still be at work, perhaps in the discordant avocation of a tinker, employed in making or mending the theatrical lamps, yet none of the corps dramatique were more perfect at rehearsal.

The theatre, as before stated, had few external charms. It was formed only of slabs and bark; yet the interstices of the walls being filled in with mud, and the whole of the interior whitewashed with pipeclay, of which there was abundance near, it produced no despicable effect by candlelight. The whole affair was under the benign patronage of the superintendent, who bestowed upon the performers many indispensables for their use. Of course, in New South Wales, there was no lack of timber. The materials for the walls of the edifice were thus easily procured, as were also those for the very rude seats of the pit and boxes — for to no less than the latter accommodation did the ambitious followers of Thespis at Emu aspire — together with the framework of the scenes.

The canvas necessary was obtained in fragments of bags, prisoners’ duck clothing, bed ticks, etc., and painted in distemper with pipeclay, charcoal and various coloured earths. Lamps and candlesticks were fabricated from worn-out tin pots and dishes by the never-failing hands of King. Materials to light the theatre were supplied by voluntary contributions of the officials, who, forming the haut ton of the establishment, received candles, or oil, as part of their supply of rations from the governmerit stores.

But the wardrobe! Oh, the wardrobe! No powers of language can enable me to do justice to a description of the wardrobe.

In the first place, to survey “King Artexomines” in the solemn extravaganza of Bumbastes Furioso: his glittering crown was composed of odds and ends of tin and copper, brightly furbished, most of it garnished with pieces of window glass set on parti-coloured foils of a flowing wig fabricated of bits of sheepskin, the wool being powdered with bone ashes; a gaudy fringe of fur bedecked a regal mantle that in the days of its pristine freshness had been a purple stiff cloak with cape and hood, and belonging to “Mother” Row, the wife of the camp constable; which splendid fur trimming had once covered a native cat, in the glossy spotted coat of which indulgent observers might detect a very faint resemblance to the imperial ermine; and to complete the truly magnificent ensemble of this august monarch, his boots of russet hue had assumed their present form from the legs of an ancient pair of duck trousers, whilom the property of Manager King, dyed to that colour by the juice of wattle-bark.

The caput of the doughty “General Bumbastes” was surmounted by a magnificent cocked scraper, the body of which was pasteboard covered over with black cloth, once appertaining to the skirts of the parson’s coat, adorned with a floating forest of feathers that waved gallantly in the breeze, the latter being supplied at the expense of the barndoor cocks belonging to Regentville, a host of whom had been denuded of their tails for this purpose. The stalwart general’s coat had once covered a corporal of the guard; but the theatrical tailor having turned it, and having with great difficulty procured a consignment of cast-off copper lace and bullion from the military officers at Sydney, this was newly furbished for the occasion, and now shone most resplendently decorative on the brawny breast and shoulders of the (pot?) valiant hero, whose unwhisperables of humble duck were clean washed and fancifully braided in a most ingenious manner with strips of old blue cloth. A pair of monstrous policeman’s boots, equipped with glittering tin spurs having rowells as big round as dollars, ended the martial person of the ferocious commander, who was, moreover, supplied with a sword that in point of size might have done honour to old “Bell the Cat” himself. The blade and guard were each composed of the very best hoop-iron, well scoured and bright, however, and the sword knot, to furnish which all the ragged silk handkerchiefs within a mile had been laid under contribution, might have vied in size with the swab of a 74-gun ship.

The rest of the properties of the theatre at Emu were of a like description; but seen at night, and from a distance, they appeared in the eyes of most of the beholders to be quite faultless. True it is, the chiefest number of the audiences, being composed of either the small settlers of the Nepean or their wives and children, had no more exalted idea of theatrical splendour than might be derived from the exhibitions of travelling mountebanks, or at best a strolling company of comedians in a country barn.

But there were at times others among the spectators of the humble attempts or the brethren of the sock and buskin: the then Chief Justice, nay, the very representative of royalty himself, having deigned to honour the Emu Theatre with their presence, moved, it may be supposed, by the novelty of the thing, and a desire to observe what kind of shifts could be made by men as utterly destitute of all means and appliances as even their great prototype Thespis, who first represented comedies in the early days of Athens to his then rude countrymen, having only a waggon for a stage and the sky for a canopy.

Visits such as these, of course, were hailed as great honours and prepared for with corresponding anxiety. Ralph formed one of the corps when it was honoured by a “bespeak” from the Chief Justice, who was then residing at Regentville for the vacation with all his family; and the Knight who owned that spacious and wealthy estate, together with a perfect galaxy of the élite of Australian aristocracy, proposed to accompany his illustrious visitor to the entertainment.

King having laid before the superintendent a list of the pieces they were ready to represent, it was forwarded to Sir John, who selected Raymond and Agnes, followed by The Devil to Pay, for the evening’s performance.

Dire was now the turmoil among all the hangers-on in the theatre, that structure, in the first place, requiring repairs, and all the interior to be whitewashed and redecorated. The scenery, too, and the dresses wanted a good deal of touching up. Rehearsals must be had and the properties looked to.

It must be borne in mind that every one of them engaged in these multifarious avocations had withal to labour in the fields at different kinds of work from sunrise to sunset every week day save Saturday, which could not, of course, be pitched upon, as it would be inconvenient, on account of the lateness of the performance encroaching on the hours of the Sabbath before the audience could reach their respective abodes. The indefatigable King and his trusty coadjutors worked nearly all the intervening nights with great zeal, for to these stage-struck heroes it was truly a labour of love.

By the time the period of representation had arrived, all was prepared much to the satisfaction of the manager himself, who, upon surveying the effect of his labours from the pit just after the whole was brilliantly illuminated by four small lamps and full twelve mould candles, rubbed his hands in an ecstasy, and cried, “Well now! This is something like.”

With palpitating hearts, partly through the haste of their running home from work, partly through awe at the greatness of their expected guests, did the assembled Company prepare for their début, and precisely at seven o’clock — in newspaper phrase — the “orchestra struck up an overture”. This orchestra, by the by, consisted of four instruments, namely a violin — only so styled in the theatre; elsewhere it received the humbler appellation of a fiddle —; a flute, much akin to a fife in sharpness of tone; a tambourine, profusely decorated with tin jingles, and the handiwork of Manager King; and a huge drum, which owed its origin to the same omni-capable personage, to whom must also be ascribed all the honour and glory of fabricating the flute, and though last, not least, the fiddle also — beg pardon, violin, I mean — the material of which was King’s great panacea, tin. Tin served him in an infinity of ways; of it he made all sorts of articles, swords and scabbards, spurs and spectacles, decorations and diamonds.

But lo! the curtain now draws up, and the play begins. The melodrama was received with rapturous applause by the unwashed multitude who crowded the pit, and with better expressed approbation by the occupants of the boxes; the only drawback to the manager’s satisfaction being that a number of the men belonging to the camp, as there was no gallery, had taken undisturbed possession of the roof, where they vented their criticisms in rather an obstreperous manner, deaf to the dignified remonstrances of the irritated Jemmy King, who ever and anon devoted them to the deis infernis in “curses, not loud, but deep”.

At length, the sweet symphony of the musicians failing to extract any more plaudits from the auditory, it was judged time to commence the after-piece, which also was received very courteously. In fact, it went off well, but for one trifling incident, which, however, luckily passed unnoticed by the audience, though it elicited a series of grave rebukes from the manager. It was thus. The representative of “Jobson”, having made rather free with some wine which the Knight of Regentville had presented to the performers to solace their thirst during their labours, was somewhat too energetic in applying the stirrup-leather to the shoulders of his sleeping partner “Nell”, whose prototype on this occasion was a strapping young man of twenty-two, and as Master “Jobson” observed his spouse for the nonce winced somewhat under this application, he took a malicious pleasure in repeating the dose when not required by the action of the drama. At last the patience of the quondam “Nell” being quite exhausted, he went close up to “Jobson”, and shaking a fist as large as a moderate sized leg of mutton in his face, said, sotto voce however, “D—— your eyes. If you do that again I’ll knock your infernal head off.” Luckily, at this moment there was a slight noise in the pit, which prevented the words being heard; but the natural energy of the gesture which accompanied them elicited a loud “Bravo! Bravo!” from Sir John, which recalled the recollection of the exasperated wight, or he might have proceeded to put his threat into execution, as he was by no means a person to stand upon trifles.

The performance concluded happily, and a respectful valedictory address having been delivered by the manager, the company prepared to depart. Prior to their doing so, however, the Chief Justice requested that the performers be brought to the entrance before he took his leave, in order that he might have an opportunity of examining their disguises more closely. This request, of course, from so exalted a personage assumed all the force of a command, and in a few minutes the Company of actors was mustered in a double line leading from the foot of the rude staircase to the entrance of the theatre.

The superintendent led the way, followed by his visitors, among whom were several ladies, who viewed the quasi-female performers with unmixed amazement on discovering that the chief representative of the softer sex on these primitive boards had, like Sir John Falstaff in the dress of the cunning woman of Brentford, a most unmitigated growth of whiskers, which the wearer valued so much that he would on no account consent to the sacrifice of them, but rather had contrived a head-dress with much art, the fastenings of which served pretty well, at a distance, to conceal these very unfeminine appendages to a female eye; but on a closer view the quondam lady of the gallant Knight in the play was discovered to be neither more nor less than a brawny bullock-driver, clad in attire which, though perhaps it might once have decorated a duchess, yet, if ever such was the case, its present dilapidated state and faded glories distinctly told of its having been a very, very long time before.

Nor was the astonishment of the gentlemen present much less, to observe the many shifts which it now became apparent had been resorted to in order to trick forth the male performers for the purpose of enabling them to “strut and fret their hour upon the stage” with something like dresses approximating to fitting costume. In particular, Ralph Rashleigh’s dress, as conjuror, elicited the admiration of the Chief justice, who had some difficulty in believing that the flowing wig which adorned his head was made of so humble a material as sheepskin, which after personal examination His Honour satisfied himself to be the case, and remarking that “necessity was the most fruitful parent of invention”, he returned the wig to its wearer, paying him, at the same time, a well-deserved compliment upon his ingenuity, and slipping a pound note unobserved into his hand, saying in a low tone as he did so, “For yourself.”

The guests now departed, the Knight of Regentville and all his party having expressed their high satisfaction at the entertainment, and made such presents to the manager for the Company as, with gifts more suited to their humble circumstances made by other spectators, enabled that functionary to distribute a share amounting to no less than ten shillings to each of the musicians and fifteen shillings to the performers.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05