Acting and Collecting: Imagining Asia through material culture and musical theatre

Peter Thorley


This paper explores the link between Asian-inspired material culture and musical theatre through the collections of Anglo-Australian performer Herbert Browne (1895-1975). Brown played lead roles in 1920s Australian musical theatre productions of The Mikado and Chu Chin Chow and re-lived his connection with oriental theatre by collecting and responding to objects performatively in the Chinoiserie room of his Melbourne home. Oriental musical theatre blended exotic cultures and locales in visually spectacular productions which bore little resemblance to reality. The taste for escapist fiction in the theatre took place against a backdrop of museum collecting which aimed to reproduce authentic Asian and Other cultures. In this paper, I draw on French philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s observations on the relationship between thought and the body’s interaction with space to interpret the influence of Browne’s theatricality on collecting choices. From this perspective, objects materialize particular understandings of the world which originate in the body and the body’s performative engagement with space.

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Copyright (c) 2016 Peter Thorley

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