University of Tasmania
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The Woman Who Did: Janet Achurch, Ibsen, and the New Woman, Australia 1889-1891

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posted on 2023-05-27, 06:31 authored by Angel, C
The Australian theatre in the late nineteenth century was in transition: it was, like the country, seeking its own identity in a period of social change. The contributions made to its development by men are well documented. Those made by women have received much less recognition. This thesis addresses that hiatus, by examining the life, celebrity, and influence of English actress, Janet Achurch. It focuses on her 1889‚Äö-91 Australian tour and the ambivalent responses to her portrayal of Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Achurch, with her husband, actor Charles Charrington, came to Australia under contract to entrepreneurs Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove. On 14 September, 1889 she opened at the Princess's Theatre in Melbourne with A Doll's House, the play now most closely connected with the concept of the New Woman. She closed with the same play at Brisbane's Theatre Royal on 13 November, 1891. A picture of Achurch's tour has emerged from newspapers and other periodicals accessed through the National Library of Australia's digitised database, Trove. After siting the tour within the historical and cultural context of Australia and its theatre, this thesis follows Achurch's progression, revealed in reviews, opinions, letters to the editor, and advertisements. It then discusses the controversies occasioned by the inclusion of Camille, Hedda Gabler, and Doll's House in her repertoire, before examining Achurch's achievements during her two years in the country. Most controversy centred on Doll's House, which polarised the critics and playgoing public. Responses ranged from deeply supportive to highly condemnatory. Although the sometimes acrimonious debate continued, negative reactions to Doll's House lessened as the tour progressed. A graph of the responses to Doll's House and Nora, coded for sympathy, neutrality, or antipathy, demonstrates the early trend towards a less hostile reception. Achurch, through her abilities as a performer, personal popularity, and staging of drama that stimulated public discussion, made three contributions to theatre in Australia that were of particular significance. First, she contributed by building audiences throughout the country, most notably by reinvigorating the industry in Brisbane, and pioneering the inclusion of Perth in the itineraries of first-rank companies. Second, she introduced the emerging realist direction in literature to the Australian stage through the works of Henrik Ibsen. Third, she established the stage as a forum for discussion of issues affecting women in the late nineteenth century. Achurch represents the many women who, to a smaller or greater degree, influenced the development of theatre in Australia as the nineteenth century drew to a close.


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