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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Although most parts of New Zealand, almost from the first years of settlement, have known some form of theatre, there has on the whole been no continuing theatrical tradition, with the result that since the advent of the radio, the talking film, and the economic depression of the thirties, the professional theatre has struggled to maintain a toehold in the Dominion. Geographical isolation, the scattered nature of the population, difficulties and costs of transport have all contributed to making professional theatre an uneconomic undertaking. Because of shipping links – especially prior to 1914 – New Zealand has always been particularly sensitive to theatrical events in Australia, and her theatrical history has been fullest when the Australian theatre has flourished most.

The Pioneer Theatre

David C. Osborne, self-styled Professor of Elocution, gave New Zealand its first recorded performance of a play on Christmas Eve, 1841, when he presented The Lawyer Outwitted in a detached building called The Albert Theatre, adjoining Watson's Exchange Hotel at Auckland.

James Henry Marriott and a comedy of amateurs gave Wellington its first theatrical entertainment with A Ghost in Spite of Himself and The Village Lawyer at the Ship Hotel on 11 May 1843. In September of that year, Marriott opened New Zealand's first theatre proper, the Royal Victoria, behind the Ship Hotel. Eighteen months later this company of shopkeepers and artisans moved to the Britannia Saloon where, by courtesy of the Oddfellows Lodge, in the four years that followed Marriott and his players presented nearly 300 productions to more than 68,000 people.

A theatrical pioneer in Australia, George Buckingham, opened with a small professional company on Boxing Night, 1843, at the Fitzroy Theatre, in the Royal Hotel, Auckland, with The Two Gregories and Lovers' Quarrels. In 1844 Buckingham built his Royal Victoria Theatre but his company disbanded in the following year. A new era began with the arrival at Auckland in 1855 of Mr and Mrs W. H. Foley. This remarkable pair, sometimes together but more often apart, kept the theatre alive somewhere in the country over the next 12 years, and they blazed the theatrical trail through every settlement of the colony. An American acrobat, equestrian, and clown, Foley was a circus veteran of the Californian and Australian diggings. He gave New Zealand its first circus and was its first real showman. But Mrs Foley was the true pioneer of professional theatre in New Zealand. Her repertoire included The Hunchback, The Stranger, The Wife, and a three-act version of Hamlet. On 16 November, 1855, at the theatre in Auckland's Albert Barracks, the Foleys presented The Rough Diamond with the assistance of George Buckingham and the Military Amateurs. At the end of January 1856, Foley imported a dramatic company from Australia which included H. T. Craven, Harry Jackson, Charles Southwell, and Amelia Fisher, and on 3 March he opened with Othello in the Theatre Royal, Victoria Street East. For the next three years, drama held its precarious sway at the Theatre Royal with Harry Jackson, T. S. Bellair, W. Hill, and B. N. Jones as successive lessees. Among the visiting artists was Charles Kemble Mason, a member of the noted Kemble family.

Before following her husband and his circus to Wellington, Mrs Foley held a short theatrical season at the Oddfellows Hall in Nelson. On 18 November 1856, the Foleys reopened the old Royal Victoria Theatre, Wellington, rechristening it The Royal Olympic. After three months Mrs Foley surrendered the lease to Mr and Mrs R. H. Cox. Canterbury saw its first dramatic performance when Mrs Foley appeared on 23 July 1857 at the Lyttelton Town Hall in The Loan of a Lover.

By 1860 she had found her leading man in Vernon Webster and together they gave Dunedin its first theatrical performance, just beating the Australian theatrical invasion that was to follow the discovery of gold. On 26 December 1861, they began a series of drawing room dramatic performances at the Masonic Hall, later transferring to Luhning's Music Hall where they played for more than a month. During 1865–66 their company resided in Napier.

The year 1860 saw the opening of the Oddfellows Hall, Wellington, where sporadic entertainment was staged in the sixties, although this theatre, the Royal Olympic, the Royal Lyceum (formerly the Britannia Saloon), and a bijou theatre in the Empire Hotel were more often closed than open during this period.

The Gold Rush Days

From the time of the gold rush, Otago became a mecca for theatrical companies from Australia and beyond, especially for the weaker marginal companies which had been making a difficult living in the smalls of Australia. On 1 March 1862, Dunedin greeted for the first time Charles R. Thatcher and his wife Madame Vitelli in the concert room of the Commercial Hotel. The “Inimitable” Thatcher's talent for improvising topical verses and setting them to the music of popular songs made him a tremendous favourite wherever he appeared and he was constantly on tour all over the country in the five years that followed his debut. The year 1862 saw the first two theatres built in Dunedin. The saleyards and stables of Jones, Bird, and Co. were converted into the Princess Theatre which opened on 5 March of that year under the management of the Fawcett brothers, presenting The Cramond Brig and That Rascal Jack. On 12 July, Clarence Holt and James Leroy opened the Theatre Royal (also known as the Queen's Theatre) with The Lady of Lyons, in a company headed by Mr and Mrs Holt and Marie Duret. Holt remained in Dunedin for more than two years and presented many stars under his management. Several distinguished artists brought to Australia by the Melbourne manager G. S. Coppin made their way to New Zealand in the sixties. Among these were the American comedian Joseph Jefferson, Mrs Robert Heir, Lady Don, Walter Montgomery, Madame Celeste, Charles Dillon, Miss Cleveland, and Charles Young. The tragedian Henry Talbot toured in 1869 with Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. Among the lesser lights who regularly provided entertainment in the main towns at this time were J. P. Hydes, Harriet Gordon, Mr and Mrs C. W. Barry, J. L. Hall, and John and Marian Dunn. Many of these were to become familiar faces on the New Zealand stage for more than 20 years.

The growing number of British regiments quartered in Auckland swelled the audience for theatre, and during the sixties regular productions were presented both at the Brunswick Music Hall (later the Prince of Wales Theatre) and at the Oddfellows Hall which opened as the Theatre Royal under George Fawcett on 1 September 1864. Fawcett, who was later known as George Fawcett Rowe, appeared with Eloise Juno in a varied repertoire which included his own adaptations of David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Cricket on the Hearth.

At Christchurch the Canterbury Music Hall was converted by J. L. Hall into the Royal Princess and opened on Boxing Night, 1862. The theatre followed the diggers to the West Coast, and music halls, concert rooms, and large theatres multiplied rapidly in the new gold towns. The Royal Visit of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869 saw Command Performances given at Auckland and Dunedin, including Julius Vogel's dramatisation of Lady Audley's Secret.

The Lean Seventies

The beginning of the seventies brought an end to the major gold rushes and the war in the north. For the next 30 years the country was honeycombed with small dramatic combinations – constantly grouping and regrouping – which struggled to make a precarious living. Many more theatres were built but although they were seldom empty for long, audiences were fickle and times were generally hard.

In 1873, William Henry Hoskins took over the Theatre Royal (the former Princess), Christchurch, where he and his second wife, Florence Colville, engaged a resident stock company which performed regularly there and elsewhere for the next seven years. Hoskins, one-time tutor to Henry Irving and a leading actor with Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells, had a deserved reputation as a light comedian and Shakespearean actor. While the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, was under his management, a rival company under Mrs Walter Hill and Charles Burford played at the Academy of Music, which in 1879 became the Gaiety Theatre.

Visiting artists in the seventies included Charles Wheatleigh in The Shaugraun, the American stars Mr and Mrs F. M. Bates, May Howard, G. D. Chaplin, and Mrs Scott Siddons, the veteran Shakespearean actor, William Creswick, Signor and Signora Majeroni, Lytton Sothern, George Rignold in Henry V, Emily Soldene, and the tragedian Henry Talbot. Companies headed by Mr and Mrs George Darrell, Steele and Keogh, and J. P. Hydes were seldom off the scene. Young New Zealand actors and actresses had their first chance under the resident managers to make a career in the theatre, among them being George Darrell, Walter Bentley, Harry Marshall, Harry Diver, Henry Jewett and Rosa Towers.

Throughout the seventies and the eighties many new theatres were built: another Theatre Royal at Christchurch opened under Hoskins with School for Scandal in 1876; the Wellington Theatre Royal began its career on 13 February 1873; the old Princess in Dunedin, destroyed by fire in 1875, was rebuilt the following year; the Queen's Theatre, Christchurch, opened in November 1883; Auckland's new Theatre Royal was launched under the management of Messrs Barnett and Levy in August 1876; and in 1882 came H. N. Abbott's new Opera House, Auckland. An imposing new Imperial Opera House was erected in Wellington in 1877 but was destroyed in a great fire two years later. Its successor, opened in 1886, met a similar fate in March 1888. A third building on the same site was erected by the end of that year.

Theatrical Heyday, 1880–1914

The rise in Australia of the actor-manager J. C. Williamson as an entrepreneur had a marked effect on the theatre in New Zealand. For nearly 50 years Williamson or his firm kept both Australia and New Zealand stocked with comedy, drama, and light opera companies. Williamson, with his wife Maggie Moore, a favourite with New Zealand audiences for 40 years to come, visited New Zealand in 1881 with Struck Oil and Eureka.

Between 1880 and 1900 the plays most often presented in the New Zealand theatres were East Lynne, Hamlet, The Lady of Lyons, The Colleen Bawn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and The Shaughraun. Irish melodramas of the Boucicault school were prime favourites but there were more than 70 different Shakespearean productions in these 20 years. The eighties and nineties saw for the first time such popular visiting artists as Frank Thornton in The Private Secretary and Charley's Aunt, Genevieve Ward with W. H. Vernon in Forget Me Not, and the Australasian star Nellie Stewart who, from her first appearance in a family entertainment Rainbow Revels in 1878, was a theatrical idol. George Darrell and George Leitch toured companies of melodramas including works by their own hand. Dion Boucicault gave 36 performances of his own plays in 1885.

Regular visits were made by Shakespearean companies headed by Louise Pomeroy, Daniel Bandmann, Walter Bentley, and George C. Miln. Meynell and Gunn appeared on the scene as entrepreneurs. Special mention must be made of Bland Holt, son of Clarance Holt, whose sensational dramas, spectacularly staged, met with unparalleled success for over 30 years.

Unique in New Zealand theatrical history was the Pollard Lilliputian Opera Company which began as a company of boys and girls, ranging from 10–13 years of age, who kept together for many years. From 1880–1903, under their director Thomas John Pollard, this company toured New Zealand in more than 40 productions of light opera, musical comedy, and pantomime. W. S. Percy, Maud and May Beatty, Marion Mitchell, and Gertie Campion began their career with the Pollard company.

In 1890 J. L. Toole, with the young Irene Vanbrugh in his company, toured the country in several of his most famous roles, and the same year saw Janet Achurch introducing Ibsen to New Zealand audiences. Until his retirement in 1912 the romantic actor Julius Knight paid many visits to New Zealand in such popular pieces as The Royal Divorce, Monsieur Beaucaire, Raffles and The Prisoner of Zenda. Other visiting artists in the 20 years before the First World War were Edith Crane and Tyrone Power in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Trilby, and Wilson Barrett and Lilah McCarthy in The Sign of the Cross and Othello. The Dampier company presented a repertoire of 11 Shakespearean productions and 20 other dramas. The highest reputation was enjoyed by the Brough-Boucicault company, headed by Mr and Mrs Robert Brough, Dion Boucicault junior, and G. S. Titheradge, which set a fine standard of polished production in the works of Wilde, Pinero, and H. A. Jones.

Vaudeville and variety have always found an enthusiastic audience in New Zealand. In the period under review the names of Harry Rickards, P. R. Dix, and the Fuller family were most prominent in this form of theatrical entertainment. Beginning in the nineties as a family entertainment in Dunedin, John Fuller and Sons made “Fullers” a household word in the country. They became promoters of vaudeville and variety and, later, theatre owners and theatrical entrepreneurs, importing artists from overseas for revues, musicals, melodramas and opera. At the turn of the century P. R. Dix had resident companies in each of the four centres for more than six years.

The decade before the First World War brought visits from Tittel Brune, Cuyler Hastings, Oscar Asche, and Lily Brayton in Kismet and Othello, and Ethel and H. B. Irving and Ellen Terry on a recital tour. This, too, was the decade which saw new theatre buildings in most parts of the country, many of which still remain as cinemas and occasional hosts to the live theatre.

Post-1914 Era

The First World War loosened the ties between New Zealand and the theatre overseas. During the war years Sarah Allgood appeared in Peg of My Heart, Katherine Macdonnell and Charles Waldron in Daddy Long Legs, Cyril Maude in Grumpy, and Marie Tempest headed a company in Mrs Dot and Penelope. At the end of the war The Diggers, originally drawn from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force entertainment units for the troops overseas, were phenomenally successful in revue. Their success was matched by that of the Kiwi Concert Party at the end of the Second World War.

Theatrical entertainment in the twenties was marked by the preponderance of musical plays, elaborately staged and dressed, and popular melodramas. The firm of J. and N. Tait in Australia (which later joined J. C. Williamson's Ltd.) introduced overseas artists in the hits of the day. Highlights of the period were provided by Gertrude Elliot, Emilie Polini, Guy Bates Post, Maurice Moscovitch, and the film actress Pauline Frederick, and there were return visits from Oscar Asche, Dion Boucicault, and Marie Tempest. Seymour Hicks and his wife Ellaline Terriss played a successful season with Scrooge and Broadway Jones. Most popular musical stars were Gladys Moncrieff, Marie Burke, Dorothy Brunton, Madge Elliott, and Cyril Ritchard.

Particular attention must be paid to Allan Wilkie and his wife Frediswyde Hunter-Watts who toured Australia and New Zealand with their company throughout the twenties, presenting a most extensive repertoire of Shakespeare's plays in most towns of any size. Wilkie's company was a nursery for young New Zealand players.

Among the New Zealand actors and actresses who made successful careers in the theatre overseas were Harry Roberts, Harry Plimmer, Ethel Morrison, Charles Archers, Maggie Knight and, at a later date, Rosalind Atkinson, Marie Ney, Joan and Betty Rayner, Redmond Phillips, and Clive Revel.

During the thirties an occasional overseas company toured the main towns: Margaret Rawlings in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson in St. Joan and Macbeth, Fay Compton in Victoria Regina, and several smaller Williamson companies in such plays as Night Must Fall and The Wind and the Rain, the latter by the New Zealand playwright Merton Hodge.

The arrival of the talking film and the depression hit the theatre doubly hard; audiences dwindled, the theatres became converted into cinemas; and films succeeded the theatre as the entertainment of the people. From 1930–50 the amateur theatre was almost unchallenged in the field of legitimate theatre.

The years following the Second World War were notable for the visit in 1948 of the Old Vic Theatre company headed by Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre from Stratford-on-Avon toured in 1953. Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir Lewis Casson, Sir Ralph Richardson appeared in 1955, supported by an Australian cast, in Separate Tables and The Sleeping Prince. Emlyn Williams and Sir Donald Wolfitt have toured in recitals from the works of Dylan Thomas, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Googie Withers has headed Australian companies in The Deep Blue Sea and The Constant Wife. The year 1962 saw records broken by My Fair Lady, and the Old Vic Company, with Vivien Leigh as its star, presented The Lady of the Camellias, Twelfth Night, and Duel of Angels.

There have been signs of the emergence of a permanent professional theatre in the Dominion. Since 1947, the Community Arts Service of the Auckland Regional Council of Adult Education has continuously toured the northern half of the North Island. In 1952, Richard and Edith Campion formed the New Zealand Players, a national touring Company which became a trust in 1956 and collapsed in 1960. Between 1953 and 1960 the company offered 30 plays, five of them by New Zealand playwrights, to an average attendance of 50,000, and it gave employment to more than 100 actors. The Players' Drama Quartette which tours secondary schools with a programme of dramatic scenes, has survived the company, which was succeeded by the New Zealand Theatre Trust with Richard Campion as artistic director. The trust, however, did not survive more than two productions. Earlier post-war attempts to establish a professional theatre had come from Sir Robert Kerridge with a New Zealand Theatre Company and The Pasadena Players. Ngaio Marsh's Commonwealth company collapsed on its first visit to the Dominion. In 1957 William Menlove and William Esquilant founded The Southern Comedy Players, their activities at first being confined to the South Island. Among the productions of their company have been Charley's Aunt, Private Lives, Sailor Beware, Salad Days, and Johnny Belinda. The company has lately extended its field to the North Island.

The State, through the Department of Internal Affairs and the Arts Advisory Council (established in 1960), has subsidised the work of the local professional companies and the amateur theatre, and many students of acting and production have received drama bursaries for study overseas. Moreover, the New Zealand Broadcasting Service has cultivated the theatre in New Zealand by offering work in its productions to actors both from local and from visiting companies.

Nevertheless, the theatre today remains the step-sister of the arts in New Zealand.


Nola Leigh Millar, B.A., Director, New Theatre Company, Wellington.