'The new prima donnas': 'homegrown' Tasmanian 'stars' of the 1860s Emma and Clelia Howson

Anae, Nicole (2005) 'The new prima donnas': 'homegrown' Tasmanian 'stars' of the 1860s Emma and Clelia Howson. Journal of Australian Studies, 28 (84). pp. 173-181. ISSN 1444-3058

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[Introduction]: Even during the height of his career, Errol Flynn’s reputation was never really
overshadowed by his ‘Tasmanian-ness’. In fact, both his reputation and his origins
were often integral to his publicity. Around the same era, Merle Oberon’s
publicists claimed that the famous actress was Tasmanian-born, specifically, into
a wealthy Hobart family. Whether or not this was true, Oberon’s identification as
‘Tasmanian-born’ cast a glowing light on the State’s cultural credibility despite the
fact that she lived 10,000 miles away and returned to the island only once, in 1978.
Modern-day Tasmanian celebrities encounter a similar emphasis on their State
of origin. Tasmanian actress Essie Davis received considerable attention after
playing the role of Dutch artist Vermeer’s wife in Peter Webber’s film Girl With a
Pearl Earring (2003). Sunday Tasmanian journalist Danielle Wood claimed on 7
March 2004 that ‘Essie Davis is making her Tasmanian family feel proud for good
reason’.1 The emphasis on the Tasmanian homeland is reiterated in a comment
made by Australian Idol’s first Tasmanian-born top-ten finalist, Amali Ward.
When asked why she wanted to be an Australian Idol, Ward replied: ‘To prove to
mainlanders that Tasmania is not just about incest! The amount of jokes I’ve heard
is ridiculous’.2
Exploring the ways in which Davis and Ward are represented in the media is
useful to an examination of earlier Tasmanian-born ‘stars’ of the colonial theatre
Emma and Clelia Howson. Ward’s remark reveals, among other things, how
alongside her ‘Tasmanian-ness’ are pressures concerning State identity not
necessarily projected onto the girl from Queensland or the guy from New South
Wales. Ward’s aim to ‘prove’ a point to ‘mainlanders’ is akin to Woods’s claim that
Davis ‘is making her Tasmanian family feel proud’. While Ward seeks approval,
and Davis has apparently earned it, each construction narrates and enacts gestures
of ‘Tasmanian-ness’. I suggest that these are reflexive articulations traceable to
ideologies about being ‘Tasmanian’ that were first propagated by early settlers.
The representations of Ward and Davis (and indeed Flynn and Oberon)
illustrate Veronica Kelly’s notion of the enactment of ‘serviceable identities’.3 For
Kelly, colonials continually rehearsed and renewed their sense of distinctiveness.
This meant that identity resembled a series of ‘performances’, which were
motivated by a struggle against ‘social and discursive abjection’.4 From its early
beginnings as a penal colony, Tasmania both created and inherited a range of
identity types, some of which settlers were eager to overthrow. The performance
of Tasmanian identity was, and is, enacted through a variety of mediums. For
colonials, the interplay between identity and credibility was inextricably
connected with theatre and press culture, a point exemplified by the media
representation of Emma and Clelia Howson.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information (displayed to public): Special Issue: Backburning, by Helen Addison Smith, An Nguyen and Denise Tallis (eds.). Author version deposited in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher.
Depositing User: epEditor USQ
Faculty / Department / School: Historic - Faculty of Education
Date Deposited: 11 Oct 2007 00:39
Last Modified: 02 Jul 2013 22:37
Uncontrolled Keywords: Tasmania, Tasmanian, stage performers, Emma Howson, Clelia Howson
Fields of Research (FoR): 20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2001 Communication and Media Studies > 200104 Media Studies
20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200212 Screen and Media Culture
URI: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/id/eprint/1302

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