Sometimes they [convicts] act plays with a screen of blankets for the drop-scene, getting together remnants of stolen toggery to deck out their persons with; soot, chalk, red paint, and flake white, being employed to polish off their complexions. A friend of mine (surgeon of a convict-ship), in passing across the stage as the performance was about to commence, happened to inquire the name of it: “Oh, sir, the ‘Forty Thieves.” was the response of the facetious rogue next him. “It is well chosen then,” replied my friend, ‘as you cannot be at a loss for actors.”
Cunningham, Peter. Royal Navy Surgeon for convict ships. 1819-1828. Two Years in New South Wales. 1827 1
Acting was a favourite activity for convicts, a performance being noted on board the Scarborough as the First Fleet approached Botany Bay. The Recruiting Officer was the first official performance recorded in Sydney and convict theatres were later arranged at Norfolk Island and Emu Plains. Women convicts in England 2, and in Hobart were noted “in idleness”, – “they dance, play, dress up for acting” 3. This propensity for play acting was not unusual and was shared at many levels of society. In Convict Theatres of Early Australia 1788-1840, Robert Jordan writes: In the light of their enthusiasm for play-going, one group whose involvement in amateur theatricals should cause no surprise is seamen. The crews of merchant vessels were too small and overworked to manage much in this line, but heavily manned men-of-war were a different proposition. Tate Wilkinson has a vivid picture of the ordinary seamen aboard the warship Bedford running their own amateur company, led by their more senior colleagues, the bosuns, carpenters and the like. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, had similar activities among the lower ranks, while HMS Britannia boasted both a seamen’s company and an officers’ company performing on separate occasions in different parts of the ship. 4 In London, the play Ali Baba, or, The Forty Thieves was dramatised in 1788 by John O’Keefe for the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. O’Keefe also produced the highly successful musical comedy Omai, or, With Captain Cook around the World,  and a number of plays performed in the colony, such as The Castle of Andalusia  which featured at the Norfolk Island convict theatre in 1840. 5 ________________________________________________________________________
This rather amusing request appeared in the Sydney Gazette of 22 June, 1811 6. One wonders if the “borrowed” edition of the Forty Thieves was ever recovered.
The dance from The Forty Thieves is included in Wheatstone’s A selection of elegant & fashionable country dances, reels, waltzes &c [music] : for the ensuing season 1808. Two volumes of this manual are held in the National Library of Australia. These belonged to Captain Daniel Woodriff, and are bound in an album along with a varied collection of his music.
Full recording available on our CD
Country dance: Triple minor longways.
|A1||1-4||1st and 2nd couples right hands across.|
|5-8||1st and 2nd couples left hands across.|
|A2||1-8||1st couple lead down the middle and back, cast one place. 2nd couple moving up.|
|B1||1-8||1st couple turn first corners with the right hand,
turn partner by the left hand,
turn second corners with the right hand,
turn partner by the left hand.
Finish in the middle of the set facing the men’s side.
|B2||1-8||1st couple lead out between the men, separate and cast back to the middle; lead out the ladies’ side, separate and cast into second place, turn two hands.|
A Selection of Fashionable & Elegant Dances. Wheatstone, London. 1808. 7 National Library of Australia
_________________________________________________________________________ Sources Ali Baba, or, the Forty Thieves, Destroyed by Morgiana, a slave. On which is founded The New Grand Operatical Romance. Newcastle : M. Angus and Son, printers [1790-1800].
1Cunningham, Peter. Two Years in New South Wales. 1827. D.S. Macmillan (ed), Angus & Robertson, 1966.
2Oxley,Deborah. Convict Maids. The Forced Migration of Women to Australia. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
3Boyce, James. Van Diemen’s Land. Black Inc., 2008
4Jordan, Robert Convict Theatres of Early Australia 1788-1840. Currency House, Sydney. 2002 Also: Goodwin, Peter. Men o’ War. The Illustrated Story of Life in Nelson’s Navy. National Maritime Museum, Carlton Books, London 2003
5Notes on John O’Keefe. Accessed 13 September, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_O%27Keeffe_%28Irish_writer%29
6The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (1811, June 22), p. 2. Retrieved September 13, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article628272 7Wheatstone, A selection of elegant & fashionable country dances, reels, waltzes &c [music] : for the ensuing season 1808, including much admired Neapolitan & Maltese pandean airs, arranged for the pianoforte or harp, alto flute or patent flageolet : with an accompt. for the piano forte or harp / by Augs. Voigt National Library of Australia. _________________________________________________________________ The information on this website www.colonialdance.com.au may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Heather Clarke.