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George Frederick Price Darrell (1851–1921)

by Helen M. Van Der Poorten

This article was published:

George Frederick Price Darrell (1851-1921), by John William Lindt

George Frederick Price Darrell (1851-1921), by John William Lindt

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23530956

George Frederick Price Darrell (1851?-1921), dramatist and theatrical manager, was born in England probably the son of G. F. P. Darrell and his wife Jane, née Cartere. In 1865 he went to the New Zealand goldfields, but soon joined Simonsen's New Zealand touring opera company. In 1869 he was in Melbourne and Sydney as leading juvenile actor to Walter Montgomery.

In September 1869 Darrell left Sydney for Auckland as a member of Mrs Robert Heir's company, with a tour to California intended, but they did not leave New Zealand. On 20 January 1870 at St George's Church, Shortlands, Kent, he married Fanny Heir. He returned to Australia as her stage manager. She was 36 at the time, and some years past her best. There were no children of this otherwise successful union.

The Darrells toured extensively through New Zealand, to Brisbane, Adelaide, and western New South Wales. In 1873-74 they visited the United States where Darrell laid the basis for his future career as a commercial playwright and leading manager. By 1877 he formed 'Darrell's Dramatic Company for the Production of Australian Plays', and presented his Transported for Life and next year Back from the Grave in spectacular productions at Melbourne and Sydney.

Not all of his later plays were so acclaimed; The Forlorn Hope, playing in Melbourne when Mrs Darrell died in January 1880, was rejected by critics for its 'tendency to claptrap and … sentimentality'. The New Zealand Mail considered that he owed all of his success as an actor and author to his wife. On 12 January 1880 the Australian Natives' Association gave him a complimentary benefit in Melbourne for his services to 'Patriotic Drama', and thereafter he called himself a 'Native Australian Dramatist'.

In April 1883 Darrell produced his best known piece, The Sunny South, at Melbourne, with Essie Jenyns in the starring role. He was to perform in this play himself over 1500 times. At London on 27 October 1884, he opened with it at the Grand Theatre, Islington, and received acclaim never before given to a colonial dramatist; but the season was interrupted when he was injured by a bowie knife. Success went to his head, and he adopted a notoriously arrogant and 'Dandyish' public style. A fellow playwright reported that Darrell considered The Sunny South worthy of comparison only with Hamlet. In September 1898 it was again produced in London, and made another record for an Australian playwright; in 1914 it was made into a film in Australia.

He continued to turn out numerous pieces on Australian themes, and spent much of his time in England. In 1887 a lengthy illness prevented him from acting or writing, and in May he complained in the London Era that English playwrights were plagiarizing his 'original dramas'. In fact Darrell's highly episodic plays were themselves derivative of contemporary European dramas, and relied for their novelty on spectacular scenic tableaux and such exotic colonial stereotypes as 'The Wool King'. Australian critics remained lukewarm to Darrell's works, but popular support allowed him to continue producing them and other sensational dramas. On 23 August 1887 a complimentary benefit at Melbourne, organized by his confrères, realized more than £400. George Coppin presented him with an illuminated address for his services to the native drama.

Darrell remained a prominent manager until the turn of the century, when he faded into relative obscurity as a writer of short stories. In 1916 he published The Belle of the Bush (Sydney) and made a final stage appearance reading militaristic poems for the Shakespeare Anzac Day performance at Sydney's Adelphi Theatre. On 6 May 1886 in New Zealand he had married Christine (Cissie) Peachey, a young actress in one of his companies. Their son Rupert became a prominent pantomime actor in Australia and the United States.

Ill health, financial difficulties, and the departure of Rupert for the United States seemed to have made Darrell increasingly despondent. On 27 January 1921 he disappeared from his lodgings in Darlinghurst, Sydney, leaving a suicide note to the effect that he was 'going on a long voyage'. Next day his body was washed up on Dee Why beach. His funeral on 31 January was organized and paid for by J. C. Williamson Ltd; he was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. L. C. Rees, Towards an Australian Drama (Sydney, 1953)
  • G. L. Dann, ‘Australian Drama From "Sunny South" to "Fire on the Snow"’, Queensland Writing, 1954, pp 22-26
  • Illustrated Australian News, Jan 1880
  • New Zealand Mail, 28 May 1881.

Citation details

Helen M. Van Der Poorten, 'Darrell, George Frederick Price (1851–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Frederick Price Darrell (1851-1921), by John William Lindt

George Frederick Price Darrell (1851-1921), by John William Lindt

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23530956

Life Summary [details]




January, 1921 (aged ~ 70)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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