A Cultural History of the Bushranger Legend in Theatres and Cinemas, 1828-2017

A Cultural History of the Bushranger Legend in Theatres and Cinemas, 1828-2017

by Andrew James Couzens


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The bushranger legend is an important component of Australia's cultural history, with names like Ned Kelly and Ben Hall still provoking strong, if ambivalent, responses. Storytellers mobilize this legend in unique and exciting ways that reflect upon both the cultural and actual history of bushrangers, as well as speaking to contemporary concerns and driving debate on the national character. 'Outlaw Nation' is a multidisciplinary investigation into the history of cultural representations of the bushranger legend on the stage and screen, charting that history from its origins in colonial theatre works performed while bushrangers still roamed Australia's bush to contemporary Australian cinema. It considers the influences of industrial, political and social disruptions on these representations as well as their contributions to those disruptions.

'Outlaw Nation' is a comprehensive cultural history of representations of bushrangers in cinema and colonial theatre. Beginning with the bushranger legend's establishment, it explores the formative years of the representational tradition, identifying the origins of characteristics and the social and industrial mechanisms through which they passed from history to popular theatre. Tracing the legend's development, the book interrogates the promotion of these characteristics from a contested popular history to an officially sanctioned national outlook in the cinema. Finally, it analyzes the contemporary fragmentation of the bushranger legend, attending to the dissatisfactions and challenges that arose in response to political and social debates galvanized by the 1988 bicentenary.

The cultural history recounted in 'Outlaw Nation' provides not only an into the role of popular narrative representations of bushrangers in the development and reflection of Australian character, but also a detailed case study of the specific mechanisms at work in the symbiosis between a nation's values and its creative production. Bushrangers have had a heightened though unstable significance in Australia due to the nation's diverse population and historical insecurities and conflicts over colonial identity, land rights and settlement. Community often defined the bushrangers in their stage and screen appearances, and the challenges that these marginalized communities faced were absorbed into the political and social mainstream. 'Outlaw Nation' is an insight into the process through which the bushranger legend earned its cultural resonance in Australia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088911
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/31/2019
Series: Anthem Studies in Australian Literature and Culture , #1
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Andrew James Couzens is an Australian interdisciplinary researcher whose work covers film, theatre, and cultural and media studies. Couzens’s film production experience and time working in film festivals heavily influence his scholarship, which explores intersections between creative industries and cultural expression. For Couzens, creative practice and academic research are mutually beneficial, and he is now applying his research on the bushranger legend to a series of screenplays.

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When the First Fleet reached Australia's shores in 1788 so too did British stage traditions. The theatrical life of the colony was remarkably vibrant considering its function as a penal settlement. Stage traditions and performances were mostly imported from Europe, but when early nineteenth-century colonials of varying backgrounds began to author original local dramas, bushrangers were the first subjects. Three of the earliest melodramas written in Australia exemplify local playwrights' interest in bushranging as an expression of the colony's unique attributes. The three plays adhere to melodramatic conventions established in Europe. However, the details inspired by local experience formed foundations for stage and screen depictions of the bushranger legend.

The first of the three plays composed was David Burn's The Bushrangers, which became the first Australian play ever performed when it was staged in 1829 at the Caledonian Theatre in Edinburgh. David Burn was born in Scotland, moving to Australia in 1826 as a free settler. The play was not performed in Australia 'owing to Burn's critical attitude towards the administration'. Tellingly, Burn included an epilogue for his audience, apologizing for the convict themes and the author's inexperience, implying the lesser status of Australian drama in comparison to the British product. He also draws attention to the lack of certain melodramatic conventions, particularly love, marriage and sentiment. The epilogue may have been humorous and ironic, but it still suggests anxiety over supposedly lesser Antipodean themes. The narrative follows outlaw hero conventions, casting its protagonist in the Robin Hood mould. Convict Matthew Brady escapes from Macquarie Harbour with a gang. While at large, he becomes an embarrassment to the colonial administration, particularly the Governor, who reluctantly offers greater rewards for Brady's capture. Brady assists a family of free settlers before a member of his gang betrays him to the authorities and he is killed in the ensuing gunfight.

The first play written, performed and published in Australia was another titled The Bushrangers, this time in 1834 by newspaper entrepreneur Henry Melville, a wealthy migrant to Hobart. The play was published anonymously in the Hobart Town Magazine, one of Melville's publications. According to the letter to the editor published alongside the play, of which Melville was both recipient and author, he wrote it with the intention of 'introducing a few Colonial characters'. These include: Mr Norwood, a fallen gentleman who has emigrated from England to Australia following his ruination in a scam; his daughter Marian, who fulfils the role of melodramatic heroine as a victim and romantic interest; the hero Frederick Seymour, an English gentleman who followed Marian, his love, to the colonies; the villainous bushrangers Bill Fellows, Harry Fawkes and Charles Hoodwink; Ellen, the Norwoods' Irish servant; and Murrahwa, an Aboriginal chief. Other than the bushrangers and Murrahwa, these so-called colonial characters are defined by their experiences in Britain rather than the colonies. The simple plot follows the romantic attachment between Frederick and Marian, an arrangement Mr Norwood expressly forbids. The bushrangers, seeking vengeance for Norwood's assistance to the police, kidnap Marian and plan Norwood's murder. Frederick rescues Marian, reconciling with her father, and all three bushrangers are captured or killed in a final melee at Norwood's home.

The last play included in this comparison was written by Charles Harpur and published under multiple titles: The Tragedy of Donohoe in 1835 as extracts in the Monitor; The Bushrangers in 1853 in a collection of Harpur's poetry; and Stalwart the Bushranger, the version extant from 1867, which was first published in an edition edited by Elizabeth Perkins in 1987. The latter version makes up the bulk of this investigation, though where the differences are relevant, I will refer to earlier versions. Harpur was one of the earliest Australian-born poets and writers. Despite its multiple publications, his bushranger play was not performed. Harpur wrote the play in blank verse, though the earlier extracts published as The Tragedy of Donohoe are in prose. In the romantic narrative, escaped convict Stalwart becomes separated from his gang and injured during an altercation with pursuing troopers. Two young lovers, Linda and Abel, nurse him to health. He attempts to woo Linda, but his advances become threatening, and Abel chases him off. Stalwart seeks revenge on Abel for this humiliation, robbing and murdering him. Linda commits suicide, and Stalwart, wracked with guilt, engages with the pursuing troopers for a final, suicidal battle.

Comparing these three texts demonstrates not only the early primacy of bushrangers in texts about Australia but also differences based on the authorial context and intended audiences. However, it is impossible to appreciate the significance of the three works without first considering the conventions of the dramatic formula they adopted: the melodrama. The specific applications of these conventions in the colonial context resulted in more dramatic diversions in later formulations of the genre in Australia.


Stage melodrama is thought to have developed in Europe as a response to larger theatres and audiences due to urbanization and changes to audience demographics. The need to appeal to a larger popular audience, the larger theatrical spaces allowing for more performers and grander sets and technological changes that allowed for dramatically staged spectacles contributed to the ascendancy of a genre that foregrounded exterior conflict over the psychological complexity of tragedy. This conflict took place via the specific interposition of recurring symbolic and archetypal characters that established a Manichean conflict of good versus evil:

The classic pattern begins with the presentation of a situation as both ideal and normal. The action accelerates as some influence, depicted as external, threatens that situation, and ends when evil is vanquished and the virtuous characters return to the condition they cherish and deserve. The play is therefore the enactment of a dark fantasy concerning the ideal society's dissolution and ultimate (and inevitable) salvation; its threatened loss or destruction inspires the fear that engages the audience's rapt attention, and its subjection to assault indicates its vulnerability while its survival proves its strength.

The result is a stage genre that is inherently conservative, depicting change and the external as evil and stability and the familiar as good. The characters themselves undergo no moral or psychological change, and the plots are dramatic and exaggerated, including features such as 'an innocent heroine subject to sexual pressure from the villain, a hero imprisoned and on the point of death, a last-minute reprieve and a happy ending'.

Australian colonial theatre is often framed around its relationship to the imperial powers of Great Britain and the United States. Robert Jordan's survey of Australia's convict theatres until 1840 demonstrates the scarcity of locally written content in the colony's early years, relegated to topical monologues performed in interludes. These convict theatres were limited by censorious overseers to approved productions usually imported from Britain. Different tastes influenced the later commercial theatre, which began in earnest with the opening of Barnett Levey's Sydney playhouse in 1832. Richard Waterhouse, in his study of the evolution of minstrel to vaudeville shows in Australia, argued that Australians enjoyed imported American entertainment because 'in the late nineteenth century there emerged an optimism that if the colonists adhered to the same values which Americans had followed with spectacular success then Australia would indeed become the new America', indicating the role of that other former colony in developing local tastes. Through the early and mid-nineteenth century, Australian theatre managers usually imported melodramas from Britain and the United States, while Australian plays tended to be either imitations or adaptations of foreign melodramas. Some early melodramas written in Australia were not even performed for Australian audiences, as was the case with Burn's The Bushrangers, which had its Australian premiere in a student production in 1971, 142 years after it was first performed at the Caledonian Theatre. Plays written in Australia for consumption overseas exploited the exoticism of the Antipodes but maintained standard narrative conventions familiar to their British audiences.

Toward the end of the century, theatre managers such as Alfred Dampier and Dan Barry made local melodrama central to their repertoire, though Fotheringham cautions against overstating the reach of these plays, noting that they were usually performed by 'second-ranking companies'. Where earlier plays had suited London audiences, these less prestigious works struggled with '[m] anaging the transactions between the values of the local and parent cultures, between melodramatic convention and "real life", and between nationalist populism and imperial loyalties' and were more successful domestically. The 1880s, then, saw the gradual emergence of an Australian theatre tradition, one that did not necessarily appeal to a British audience – though most playwrights at least had that ambition – and embodied slight deviations from global theatrical conventions to better reflect colonial experiences. Some of these deviations are obvious from the synopses of the plays, while others revealed themselves in subtle departures from certain character archetypes.

Bushrangers were one such popular and uniquely Australian archetype filling locally written stage stories, particularly following the Kelly Gang outbreak from 1878– 80. Yet this was not a straightforward uniquely national type, as Veronica Kelly argues that bushrangers

merely filled the characterological place already prepared by the audience's long exposure to brigand-heroes of the Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin variety; the cultural position, and the dramaturgical models, for the nationalistic bushranger, were already in position well before Glenrowan.

For Kelly, these precursors suggest that ' "Australian" readings are not the provenance of the texts but of the historical specificity of the audience, who negotiate meanings to suit their needs and situation'.

The work of scholars including Fotheringham and Kelly demonstrates that, as Federation approached, Australian theatre began to identify and celebrate national characteristics distinct from its British heritage, yet these differences remained rooted in imported conventions and traditions. Australian playwrights began by packaging these differences for British audiences, foregrounding the colony's exoticism and relating Australia's penal status to social and political conditions in England. Later, as Australian audiences developed, these differences became less about exoticism and more about representing the experience of settlers in a manner that was relatable to as broad a spectrum of the settler population as possible. Throughout the nineteenth century, bushrangers negotiated the changing cultural landscape, and their onstage appearances record the evolution of their significance to the Australian character. The following analysis therefore interrogates the interactions between the genre conventions of melodrama, the nineteenth century's changing social and historical context and the elevation of the bushranger to a figure of national significance. The three plays I analyse in this chapter performed the groundwork for later representations of Australian bushrangers in the nationalistic texts at the end of the century.

Three Bushranger Melodramas

In The Diminishing Paradise, Ross Gibson explores how English writers before 1850 defined Australia based on their literary traditions of pastoralism and natural arcadia. English traditions also influenced the work of colonial playwrights, meaning that their stylistic and thematic concerns were often imported rather than reflecting local experience. Nevertheless, contextual factors such as the author's social background and intended audience play a significant role in understanding the interaction between local and imperial influences in locally written plays. It is fortunate, then, that three bushranger plays featuring melodramatic plots exist, each written in the first half of the nineteenth century by an author with a different background, for different audiences, revealing numerous attitudes and expectations regarding bushrangers. The contextual differences provide fertile ground for analysing some of the textual differences and their contributions toward specific local features of representations of bushrangers.

Though all three of the plays make bushrangers central to their narrative, each treats the theme differently. The most straightforward representation is found in Melville's text, where the bushrangers are the villains. However, the text sets up an implicit comparison between these rogues and a more common melodramatic villainous archetype: the gentleman conman. Mr Norwood fell victim to one of these in England – Frederick's brother, establishing Norwood's dislike of his daughter's beau – prompting his migration to 'a land where honesty and perseverance will triumph – where the industry of the meanest labourer is sure to find a competence'. The brief reference to English villainy draws attention to Melville's deviation from melodramatic convention by having poor, low-class villains rather than a middle-class one.

They also diverge from the tradition of gentleman outlaws like Dick Turpin as Melville demonstrates through the lack of honour amongst the bushrangers and their contradictory attempts at self-justification:

HARRY FAWKES For my part I think life's life – it's a thing money wont purchase, I'd take every rap a man's worth, but I'd never take his life, unless to save my own.

CHARLEY HOODWINK You are rather squeamish, Fawkes. Do you forget shooting Murrahwa, the chief 's wife – you know why? and do you recollect any thing about the young ones?

HARRY FAWKES I'm talking of whites, not of blacks – those blacks have no more feeling than dogs, they are only men and women in shape, nothing more – but what's use talking.

Murrahwa receives ambivalent treatment in the play, a disconcerting mix of noble savage, patronizing sympathy, exoticism and scorn. His begging for blankets and ethnicity initially mark him as an object of scorn, with Ellen claiming she is unsure 'which is worst, the bushrangers or you natives – the one obtain from us what they want without leave, whilst the other ask permission first'. Her attitude changes upon discovering the bushrangers had murdered Murrahwa's wife and children, proclaiming, 'What a sad thing it is that your skin is black – you have a good soul.' In the final scenes Murrahwa facilitates the bushrangers' defeat, leading Frederick to their lair and sneaking up on Fawkes to take revenge for the bushranger's murder of his family. Though still a crude and offensive caricature, Murrahwa receives sympathetic treatment with his own cathartic subplot.

Fawkes's admission above is therefore intended to evoke audience disgust. The exchange, a response to Fellows's suggestion that he has no moral objection to 'knocking out [Norwood's] brains', also appears to establish Fawkes as the most moral of the three. Once they kidnap Marian, however, the roles are reversed as they discuss what to do next:

BILL FELLOWS To settle the old fool, to be sure, as soon as possible.

HARRY FAWKES And the daughter too, or she'll blab.

BILL FELLOWS No! I'll not stand that.

Now Fellows is the one with a conscience, while Fawkes recommends murdering their captive. Fawkes becomes even more abominable when, left alone to guard Marian, he attempts to rape her. The bushrangers tease each other at any display of squeamishness, apparently competing to be the most reprehensible. The contradictions in their words and actions make it pointless trying to differentiate between each bushranger's moral codes. Despite their protestations, they have none.


Excerpted from "A Cultural History of the Bushranger Legend in Theatres and Cinemas, 1828-2017"
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Copyright © 2019 Andrew James Couzens.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; List of Figures; Introduction: Defining the Bushranger Legend;

Part 1: Establishing the Legend;

1. The First Bushranger Melodrama;

2. Alfred Dampier and the Nationalistic Melodrama;

3. Wild West Shows and Wild Australia;

4. Hippodramas and Edward Irham Cole;

Part 2: Developing the Legend;

5. The Bushranger Genre from Stage to Screen;

6. The Bushranger Ban;

7. British and American Interventions in the Bushranger Legend;

8. Radical Nationalism and the Bushranger Legend;

Part 3: Fragmenting the Legend;

9. Historical Revisionism and the Bushranger Legend;

10. Diversification and Inclusiveness of the Bushranger Legend;

11. Globalization of the Bushranger Legend in Outlaw Road Movies;



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Richly researched and accessible, this study of the bushranger legend of the Australian outback as it has proliferated and diversified through national to global formats – from melodramas, wild west shows and hippodramas to folklore and Ned Kelly myths to screen versions including outlaw road movies – will become standard reading.’

—Janet Wilson, Professor of English and Postcolonial Studies, University of Northampton, UK

‘A study that delves where many only skim. A significant contribution to the broader field of outlaw studies.’

—Stephen Gaunson, Senior Lecturer, Cinema Studies, School of Media & Communication, Design and Social Context, RMIT University, Australia

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