The show time drama
Before the days of the big moving Tent Theatre, a theatrical project which enabled patrons of the drama in the country to witness productions on a more extended scale from the scenic standpoint, the big dramatic attractions of Show Time at Wattle Flat were staged in the Mechanics’ Institute.
In the midst of its inspection of the 12-stone hacks, or the leap for the Wattle Flat High Jump Record, the spectators always had time to scan the leaflet, announcing the stupendous production of “‘East Lynne,’ by special request, To-night at the Mechanics’ Institute, when the evergreen and emotional drama will be staged with all the beautiful effects which marked its recent metropolitan production.”
How Wattle Flat loved its “East Lynne” at Show time, and long before the last strains of the Wattle Flat Brass Band, in its new Show uniform, had ceased in front of the Mechanics’, the hall was crowded to standing-room only.
Yes, “East Lynne” was a great drawing card indeed, and no Show could stand against it at Wattle Flat. Even the Circus down on the vacant plot, near the police barracks, found it difficult to compete with “East Lynne.”
Most everybody at Wattle Flat had booked seats to see Little Willie pass on to be an angel on this occasion, and there was a hurried exodus from the ground as “Highflyer” topped the 6 ft. 2 in. bar in the twilight.
Outside the Mechanics’ four big kerosene flares were as beacons to point the way to “East Lynne,” and the man at the box-office, pulled the tickets from his roll at a rate that caused the manager, in his somewhat seedy evening clobber, to puff his half-smoked cigar with satisfaction.
The “All Star” Metropolitan Company, behind the scenes was in the throes of black despair.
Just before six o’clock it was found that Archibald Carlyle had struck oil on the Show Ground, and by six o’clock was very well oiled indeed.
Disaster peered into the faces of the Metropolitan Dramatic Company. “East Lynne” must be played, but “East Lynne” without an Archibald was like unto whisky-and-soda without the whisky.
A crowded theatre and no Archie was too horrible to contemplate.
In the dressing room Dan McGuire, the well-known provincial entrepreneur, racked his brains to find a solution, and he struck it in Bill Jobbins, the local bellringer.
“It’s a great play is this ‘East Lynne’,” remarked Jobbins, as he waited for his bell-ringing cash.
“It is indeed, under ordinary circumstances,” remarked McGuire, “but it knocks the ’ell out of ‘East Lynne’ when you aint got no Carlyle.”
“Yes, it’s a great character.” suggested Jobbins, “and take it from me we have a local bloke born for the part, who can knock ’ell out of a lot of professionals.”
“What!” screamed McGuire. “Say it again! Who’s the man who played Carlyle?”
“A chap on the local paper,” said Jobbins. “Saw him outside as I came in.”
McGuire jumped up.
“Go and bring him here. It’s worth five bob to you if you can drag him round.”
Jobbins brought him round, and in twenty minutes Harry Vercoe, of the Wattle Flat Banner was digging in the company’s wardrobe for suitable clobber to dress the part of Archibald.
The curtain was only ten minutes late, after all; and the delay was compensated for by extra variations of popular meldodies by the orchestra, who put his whole soup into the thumping, more especially the selection, “Every Little Bit Added to What You’ve Got Just Makes a Little Bit More.”
When Archibald made his first appearance in the breakfast-room of “East Lynne,” and broke the top off the stage egg, with the finish of an old pro., a howl of surprise echoed throughout the Institute, but, then the patriotism of Wattle Flat was awakened, and realising that the local popular amateur was provided with an opportunity to make good among the pros., all the applause was for Mr. Harry Vercoe.
At the end of the first act, feeling that the audience was whole-hearted in sympathy with Mr. Vercoe, Manager McGuire faced the footlights and with tears in his voice, told of the calamity of a “paralytic” stroke that laid low the leading man, and that it was only due to the spontaneous offer of Mr. Vercoe that Wattle Flat was not disappointed in the presentation of the immoral “East Lynne.”
“It would have been truly heart-breaking,” Mr. McGuire assured the crowd, “if a perverse fate had prevented the presentation of ‘East Lynne’ to Wattle Flat, for Wattle Flat, to all members of the Company, is home from home. The audiences of Wattle Flat are known to be the most intelligent, the most appreciative and the most cordial of any audiences in the State, and if there is one town that possesses a combination of beautiful and cordial citizens, intelligent playgoers and sports to the fullest degree, it is Wattle Flat.”
Never had a curtain-speech aroused such enthusiasm as this, and the second act of “East Lynne” ran like clockwork; every entrance was applauded, every speech of Archibald Carlyle was cheered, and every act of the villainous Levison was hissed; and Wattle Flat could hiss, when justification warranted it.
In the front row of the auditorium sat Jim Lawson, of Fern Gully Farm, minus a tie. Jim grew whiskers and opined that there was no need for a tie. He sat between the downstairs housemaid and the cook from the Royal Hotel, and both the downstairs housemaid and the cook wept copiously throughout. Jim was also stirred to emotion, and the weeps of his companions troubled him exceedingly.
“Stop yet blanky snifflin’!” he said. “It’s only make-believe, this business of Issy leavin’ her old man in the lurch.”
But the weeping continued until the climax arrived.
The scene was presented when Vercoe, as Carlyle, discovered that Madame Vine, wearing a pair of big black goggles, is Issy in disguise, and he begins to upbraid her unfaithfulness, and desertion of the family, to beat the band. Vercoe was putting all his histrionic power into the scene. His dramatic punch was glorious, his contempt for Issy was magnificent, yet the erring lady won the sympathy of Jim Lawson — even though Jim had no tie. He could stand the awfulness of the situation no longer, the sobs of his companions moved him to action, and so in the midst of Archibald’s most powerful denunciations, when Vercoe was turning Lady Issy adrift into the cold, cruel world, Jim jumped from his seat and yelled to the local hero: “For God’s sake, Mister Vercoe, give the old tart another show!” Then Wattle Flat screamed its appreciation, and never in the history of “East Lynne” did such a demonstration occur on the fall of the curtain.
Vercoe’s presentation of the lawyer of “East Lynne” is one of Wattle Flat’s greatest memories and causes of pride, and as a consequence the circulation of the Banner increased to such an extent that the proprietor seriously considered the wisdom of selling out.
Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 86-89
blanky = substitution for a swear word (such as “bloody”)
clobber = clothes; accessories, equipment, personal belongings, or supplies (can also mean to strike someone severely; beat, criticize, defeat, or treat harshly)
oiled = drunk
pro. = professional
sport = a good sport, someone who acts in a good or forbearing fashion in response to a trying situation or a setback; someone who adheres to high standards of sportsmanship; someone who is a good companion
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
aint (have not)