Alfred Dampier 1847-1908

Alfred Dampier

Alfred Dampier

Dampier and his company were resident in Sydney from 1885 until 1888 at the Royal Standard Theatre.

From late 1888 to 1892 Dampier was based in Melbourne at the Alexandra (later renamed Her Majesty’s).

Dampier’s versatility as a producer was demonstrated at Christmas 1891 when he directed Garnet Walch’s Jack the Giant Killer at the Alexandra.

 

Dampier and his company were resident in Sydney from 1885 until 1888 at the Royal Standard Theatre and, later, at the Gaiety. During this period he enthusiastically promoted home-grown drama – mostly with plays on which he had collaborated. One of his biggest successes was For the Term of His Natural Life, which he and Thomas Walker (a parliamentarian who used the pen-name Thomas Somers) adapted from Marcus Clarke’s epic novel. It premiered at the Royal Standard on 5 June 1886 and was so successful that it outlasted a rival version at another theatre and remained in the repertory for years. Dampier scored again with Monte Cristo (1887), Jess (1888, later known as A Transvaal Heroine and Briton and Boer), and John Perry’s The Life and Death of Captain Cook (1888) which had won first prize in Dampier’s competition for an Australian centenary play. Dampier’s wife often contributed to his scripts, and her The Flying Dutchman; or, Vanderdecken was staged sporadically.

From late 1888 to 1892 Dampier was based in Melbourne at the Alexandra (later renamed Her Majesty’s). The predominance of local plays in his repertoire prompted him to dub it ‘The Australian Theatre’. He had a big hit with Robbery Under Arms, adapted by Dampier and Garnet Walch from Rolf Boldrewood’s rollicking novel. They reset the location from New South Wales to Victoria, presumably to evoke memories of the exploits of Ned Kelly only a decade before. Dampier first played the gentlemanly bushranger, Captain Starlight, at the Alexandra on 1 March 1890. Its initial run of 42 performances was a record for that time. He introduced the play to London audiences at the Princess’s Theatre in 1894; it was revived at the London Pavilion in 1908. Dampier’s other successes included The Miner’s Right (1891), The Trapper (1891), This Great City (1891), The Scout (1891, later retitled The Prairie King), Wilful Murder (1892), To the West (1896) and The Duchess of Coolgardie (1896).

The Scout was particulary spectacular. A huge stage tank represened a backwoods lake replete with ducks, geese and swans, and there were warlike Indians in canoes, gunfights galore, an Indian encampment at night, and wildly galloping horses. For the finale the lake was transformed into a raging torrent. The great Sarah Bernhardt, who took time off during her Melbourne season to catch a matinee performance, was greatly impressed. After the final curtain, ‘arrayed in a costume of virginal white, she clambered at the imminent risk of her neck up a shaky ladder onto the stage, where, to the accompaniment of dripping cowboys, Indians and other accessories, she congratulated [the company].’

To tie in with Melbourne’s Centennial International Exhibition, Dampier and J.H. Wrangham came up with a timely crowd-pleaser, Marvellous Melbourne, its title a phrase first coined by George Augustus Sala in 1885. Premiering at the Alexandra on 19 January 1889, the play had everything: Spencer Street Station, complete with Aborigines, newsboys and a swagman, a Little Bourke Street opium den, a Toorak mansion, ‘Falls Bridge by moonlight’, and the Melbourne Cup – and it ran nearly four hours! The Argus called it ‘vivid, vital and vehement’. Dampier staged it in Sydney in 1893 with its title judiciously altered to Slaves of Sydney.

Dampier’s versatility as a producer was demonstrated at Christmas 1891 when he directed Garnet Walch’s Jack the Giant Killer at the Alexandra. His daughter, Rose, played Princess Laughing Eyes.

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Biographical references

Richard Fotheringham: ‘Alfred Dampier’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995
Eric Irvin: Dictionary of the Australian Theatre. Hale and Iremonger, 1985
Hal Porter: Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby, 1965
Leslie Rees: The Making of Australian Drama. Angus and Robertson, 1973
John Rickard: ‘Alfred Dampier’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 4
Margaret Williams: Australia on the Popular Stage, Oxford University Press, 1983