The History of JCH Plays

This page contains excerpts from the 2021 live exhibit on the History of Theatre at Janet Clarke Hall, created by current student, Bec Carra, along with our Librarian and Archivist. With thanks to a generous alum who donated materials which inspired this exhibit. Please enjoy.
It must come as no surprise, that the establishment of a Women's College was not met with very much enthusiasm in it's beginning...

What may actually come as a shock, is that this College may not exist but for the Dramatic Arts. This tale begins with Dr Leeper, the Warden of Trinity College, who battled the Trinity Council to be allowed to admit female students during the 1880s. Unfortunately, there was a loop hole- Dr Leeper was required to source the funds for this venture himself, without the aid of the Council. 

Eventually, the students of Trinity College came around to the idea of the Trinity Women's Hostel, and helped Dr Leeper produce the first Latin play ever performed in Victoria- Aulularia  by Plautus. This venture managed to raise £290 (today ~$36,000) for the establishment of the Hostel.

After the success of Aulularia, Dr Leeper embarked on a mission to produce the first Greek Tragedy ever to be performed in Victoria, and was one of the first plays which included women from the Trinity Women's Hostel.

Alcestis by Euripides was a gargantuan undertaking, and was intended to raise money to build a gymnasium for Trinity College. The cast included a group of Trinity and Hostel students performing the main roles, 100 professional singers from the Melbourne Liedertafel group singing the chorus from backstage, and a full orchestra. The music for the play was composed by Prof. Marshall Hall, one of the most renowned Australian composers of the time. In addition to this, the set was professionally painted and designed to be as archaeologically accurate as possible. 

In the lead up to the event, lectures were hosted by University professors to explain the importance and history of Greek Tragedies, with the proceeds of this going towards the cost of the play. 

Alcestis was performed at Melbourne Town Hall on the 16th of June, 1898, to an audience of 1000s including the most renowned Victorian gentry. To top off the extravagance of this event, the play was performed in Ancient Greek, and so the audience was provided with translation in order to follow along.

Despite the play's rave reviews and apparent success, the production of Alcestis was a major economic failure. The production cost was in excess of £450 (today ~$70,000), and resulted in a rather spectacular loss. Dr Leeper had to issue requests for public support to provide funds to cover the lost £143 and donations to help build the gymnasium. 



JCH theatre image 1

The Chief Waiting Woman was performed by Ada Lambert, who was the first female to receive a Masters of Science and be appointed as a lecturer at the University of Melbourne. The heroine was performed by Florence Towl, who later became the renowned Opera singer Madame Ballara.

The Hostel Dramatic Club was established in 1902, and their first play ever to be produced and performed exclusively by Hostel students was an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, Cranford.

Cranford was certainly a progressive choice to perform, and reflective of the Women's Suffrage movements of the time. (As a side- while women were allowed to vote in Commonwealth elections since 1902, Victoria only granted women a vote in the state elections in 1908). The play revolves around a female society of widows and spinsters, and offers a satirical view of women's life in the Victorian era. 

The first production of Cranford was performed in the Common Room over two nights in 1908. Unfortunately, the Common Room (approximately where Jack Tan's flat is), was rather small and the cast "could not contrive that the audience should all be seated". However, the play was such a hit that on the second night "the onlookers overflowed to the stairs and corridors, from where, as well as the room itself, came a hearty applause for all the characters". The proceeds raised went towards the upkeep of the tennis court, which was apparently always falling into disrepair from overuse.  The second staging of Cranford was at Prahran Town Hall in 1909, and was received by a large audience including members of the Gentry. The proceeds from this staging went towards raising money for the Prahran Crèche. 

She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men...she knew they were superior


Anna (Freda) Bage: A renowned Biologist, professor and Women's activist. She was one of the first women to represent Australia at the League of Nations, and was a champion Women's education. 

Ethel Bage: Took over a completely female-run Garage and Driving Service in 1926 in honour of a friend. The Bage and Memorial Debate are also named after her.

Enid Joske: Principal of Janet Clarke Hall for 25 years (despite being expected to only stay 3 months, and during a time when the Trinity Warden was against the presence of JCH).


From 1910-1990, Hostiles (later JCHers) helped in the yearly Trinity-JCH productions. Most years, it is claimed, Hostiles stole the show with their acting capabilities, and the Hostel Dramatic Club helped sell lollies in order to raise funds for charitable works (and the tennis court). Notable productions of this period include Pygmalion and Galatea (1920),  His Excellency the Governor (1923), The Roundabout (1934, starring Mary Heseltine- pioneer of the Pap Smear, see image),  The Time of Your Life (1949), The Beaux Stratagem (1950), Hassan (1955), Alice in Wonderland (1959), The Madwoman of Chaillot (1965) and A Man of All Seasons (1966)

During this time period, JCH also had a few other theatrical traditions. At the beginning of every year, the Fresher Play was a popular event. New students were tasked each year to write and produce a play within two days to be performed at the Fresher Dinner. These plays included poetry, popular songs, chorus lines, ballet routines and dancing.  Fortnightly play readings were also an honoured tradition and past time.

HASSAN (1955)

The biggest undertaking since the unfortunate Alcestis, Hassan was a huge event for Trinity and JCH students. At the time, the cast of 65 was the largest ever involved in a College production. All the costumes were designed by Philip Sargeant (a renowned Architect, actor, painter and poet) and hand sewn by JCHers. Hassan was performed at the Union Theatre, and was labelled a terrific success. 


Hassan set a precedent for the next 10 years of Trinity-JCH plays. The production of The Madwoman of Chaillot involved over 50 cast members, and reportedly had "excellent costume, scenery and makeup" mostly done by JCHers. The play was a resounding success, "remarkable for the calibre and simple amount of amateur acting".  Unfortunately, the actual story and contents of the play were described as bland, boring and bad.


Dramatic Works and Play Readings:
The Janet Clarke Hall Dramatic Society was reformed in 1938 by Enid Joske, some years after the Hostel Dramatic Society. Joske was a strong supporter of the Dramatic Arts, and began a longstanding tradition and highly popular pastime of hosting play readings every fortnight. These readings would be held in the Principal's sitting room, where students could participate or spectate depending on their inclination. The selection of plays tended to be read sequentially, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and following through to Modern times. A collection of the old books used for these play readings are on display in the SCR display cabinet.


1990- 2000

JCH and St Hilda's team up for College productions, with a Musical focus. Notable performances include Annie Get Your Gun, Jack the Ripper- The Musical and Mikkado.


For the first time since 1909, JCH stages its very own performances in the JCR. Notable performances include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Much Ado About Nothing, An Ideal Husband, Move Over Mrs Markham, The Servant of Two Masters, and Dom Juan.


The Ants Are Our Friends was written by Pera Wells (former secretary-general of WFUNA), and performed for the first time by members of JCH. The play centred on issues of Climate Change and global politics.


Workscheme Wars, a throwback to the Fresher Plays of the 1900s, this performance will be the first to be entirely written and performed by JCHers.


Curators' note: Much of the text of this exhibit was drawn from excerpts of Fleur-de-Lys, Tiger Lilly Rag and Luce. As with all historical works, it is helpful to view their portrayals of society, gender, ethnicity, and race within the context of the time and place in which they were produced. We encourage thoughtful and critical reflection of the Arts over time and look forward to viewing future works as they grapple with the themes and tensions of the current day and modern audiences. 

You can also view our History of JCH page.

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