In 1895 a theatrical company associated with London’s Gaiety Theatre brought musical comedy to Australia. Hailed as the latest thing in popular entertainment, musical comedy had a reputation for its emphasis on flirtation, fashion and the glamour of its female stars. Australian audiences, drawn by the publicity, gathered eagerly for the company’s first production, A Gaiety Girl. Demand was so clamorous in Sydney that an auction was held for opening-night tickets, fetching the breathtaking sum of 24 shillings for the best seats. The theatre critic for the Bulletin, the Sydney-based weekly, was rapturous in his reviews. He urged all men of discernment to buy a ticket, regardless of the gloomy economic times.
The romping frivolity of theatricals such as A Gaiety Girl was one reason the 1890s were later described as ‘gay’ or ‘naughty’ in Britain, parts of Europe and the United States. Outside intellectual circles, the decade was mythologised as an era of breezy hedonism: big nights out on London’s West End, the rampant growth of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, and rouge-tinted evenings at Montmartre dance halls. In Australia, terms such as ‘Gay Nineties’ or ‘Naughty Nineties’ – like their French equivalent, Belle Epoque – never came into currency. The decade certainly attracted an extraordinary degree of myth making, some of which concerned the wine-fuelled hi-jinks of male bohemians in Sydney and Melbourne. Overwhelmingly, however, the nineties have been remembered for their intensity rather than gaiety, as a period of political and cultural experimentation rather than of racy gossip and glamorous nights on the town.