Australian Studies, Volume 4, Series 2 (2012)

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The 1863 Melbourne Shakespeare War: Barry Sullivan, Charles and Ellen Kean, and the Play of Cultural Usurpation on the Australian Stage

Kate Flaherty, Edel Lamb


This essay investigates an intricate drama of cultural identity in performances of Shakespeare on the nineteenth-century Melbourne stage. It considers the rivalry between Charles and Ellen Kean and their competitor, Barry Sullivan, for the two-month period in 1863 during which their Australian tours overlapped. This Melbourne Shakespeare war was anticipated, augmented, and richly documented in Melbourne’s papers: The Age, The Argus and Melbourne Punch. This essay pursues two seams of inquiry. The first is an investigation of the discourses of cultural and aesthetic value laced through the language of reviews of their Shakespearean roles. The essay identifies how reviewers register affective engagement with the performers in these roles, and suggests how the roles themselves reflected, by accident or design, the terms of the dispute. The second is concerned with the national identity of the actors. Kean, although born in Waterford, Ireland, had held the post of Queen Victoria’s Master of the Revels and identified himself as English. Sullivan, although born in Birmingham, was of Cork parentage and was identified as Irish by both his supporters and his detractors. This essay tracks the development of the actors’ national and artistic identities established prior to Melbourne and ask how they played out on in the context of the particularities of Australian reception. It shows that, in this instance, these actors were implicated in complex debates over national authority and cultural ownership.

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