Australian Jewish community and culture

Arts and culture - Barnett Levey

Barnett Levey (1798-1837), merchant and theatre director, was born in London. The first free Jewish settler in the colony, he arrived in Sydney on the John Bull in December 1821 to join his prosperous emancipist brother, Solomon Levey.

Levey quickly established himself as a merchant, opening a store at 72 George Street in February 1825. He married Sarah Emma Wilson in June that year, and by August he had been appointed an auctioneer. Through his storefront, Levey also established one of the colony's first lending libraries. From 1826, Barnett Levey interested himself in the cultural activities of Sydney and set about establishing the first permanent theatre in Australia.

To finance the building of his theatre, in November 1827, Levey founded a company. The following March a temporary structure was erected at the rear of his George Street property. To gain more money, Levey converted the front of his building into the Royal Hotel. 

Item 06: Seal of ‘B. Levey Theatre Royal Sydney’, [between 1832-1836]

In June 1829 Levey was granted a licence by Governor Darling to holding balls and concerts there. These functions were later curtailed, as local authorities deemed the colony's 'prison population...unfit subjects to go to plays', and Levey was forced to sell up in December 1830. 

Still determinated to establish a theatre in Sydney, in 1832 Levey was permitted to present four 'At Homes' at the Royal Hotel to finance his theatrical plans. On 22 December, he received the first theatre licence granted in the colony. A temporary stage was erected in the saloon of the hotel and, under the patronage of Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, Levey opened his theatre, with a performance of Douglas Jerrold's 'Black-Eyed Susan', on 26 December 1832.

In 1833, Levey finally got to build his 'Theatre Royal', the first real theatre in Australia, on land at the rear of the Royal Hotel. Seating about 1000 people, it opened on 5 October with a presentation of 'The Miller and his Men', and a farce, 'The Irishman in London'. Levey was, at last, a theatre director and, under his management, comedies and melodramas as well as Shakespearean plays and operatic extravaganzas played to packed houses.  

By January 1834, however, Levey was advertising for business partners and soon lost control of the theatre to other lessees. In April 1837, with the assistance of the 4th Regiment, he staged his last great performance, a 'grand national and patriotic pageant', but it was not a success.

Levey had built the theatre behind his hotel, the Royal Hotel, and in order to circumvent the prohibition presented concerts and one man acts in the space. In 1832 Levey hired several actors and the first officially sanctioned professional plays took place in Sydney. unfortunately the theatre burnt down in 1940 , it would have stood where Dymocks bookstore now stands 428 george st, Sydney.  The name ‘Theatre Royal’ fell into disuse for some decades after 1840. It wasn’t until 1875 that the name was once again used in Sydney.

Sick, tired and worn out by his efforts to make the theatre pay, Barnett Levey died on 2 October 1837, leaving a widow and four small children in poverty. Acknowledging his bold idealism, The Sydney Times, 21 October 1837, stated that:

'to his spirit and perseverance are the public indebted for the introduction of theatricals into New South Wales'.



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