Minnie Tittell Brune was the most popular actress on the Australian stage between the years 1904 and 1909. Whilst in the country she performed in drama, pantomime and Shakespeare, and she became a household name in Australia and in New Zealand.
She was born Minnie Tittle in San Francisco California in 1875. Her first appearance on stage was when she was four and a half. She played Little Jim in Lights of London at the Californian theatre. Her family was very conservative. Two great aunts were nuns in Montreal. The Tittle family did not approve of theatrical ambitions, so it was ironic that all three daughters pursued a theatrical career.
The theatre was calling, and she went on tour with Charles Frohman. She appeared in New York in ‘The Girl I left Behind’ and toured the United States with actors such as Frederick Ward and Junius Brutus Booth. J.C. Williamson spotted Minnie whilst she was holidaying in Europe in the early 1900s. Williamson engaged her for a long tour of Australia to commence in 1904. By that time she had married Clarence Brune, and was billing herself as Minnie Tittell Brune.
Minnie’s arrival in Australia was not auspicious. The ship on which she and her husband travelled, the Australia, ran aground in Port Phillip Bay in June 1904 but Minnie was unhurt. Minnie’s first appearance in Sydney was on Saturday 21 September 1904. The play was Sunday, ‘a story of western life’ and the place was Her Majesty’s Theatre. Minnie played Sunday, ‘the whole hearted lovable girl at a miners camp.’ She was supported by Roy Redgrave and Gaston Mervale. The performance was an astounding critical success.
Sunday continued until October when the same cast presented the play L’Aiglon, the eaglet. It concerned the trials of Napoleon’s son, the Duke of Reichstadt who was played by Minnie Tittell Brune. She had to memorise over one hundred and thirty type written pages of script and sustain an intense emotional pitch throughout the five act play. A reviewer said:
Miss Brune’s triumph was so remarkable that all the other performances sank into comparative insignificance?her dramatic intensity fairly astounded the audience, her success was little short of sensational.
The performance was enthusiastically acknowledged by an appreciative crowd which included leaders of Sydney’s social set. She was cheered loudly and long and had to respond to several curtain calls. L’Aiglon was followed in November by Romeo and Juliet. Minnie played Juliet and A.E. Greenaway played Romeo. The first night was witnessed by another fashionable crowd, which included former leading lady, Essie Jenyns. Minnie’s work as Juliet was praised by all.
Miss Brune looks the part and as for her acting – well it is on the same plane as her previous work, which in other words means it was excellent. At this time, Minnie was twenty nine years old. She had long dark hair and huge dark eyes. A long patrician nose graced her oblong face. She liked a quiet domestic life and was particularly fond of animals. In fact she had a bird and a dog with her on the ‘Australia’ when it was shipwrecked. She was a non-smoker and non-drinker and was quite religious. She often quoted the bible in interviews and was not afraid to admit to religious feelings.
By May 1905 she was being called a ‘genius’. That month she performed Sunday at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. The programme notes reinforced her reputation as one of the greatest actresses to visit Australia.
She holds the audience tightly in the hollow of a diminutive palm and hers is the conquest over tears and laughter?That is the power and that is why TITTELL BRUNE is Great! The Age newspaper considered that her performance as Sunday had improved from the one the previous year. The paper lauded her as:
One of those actresses who is always seeking to better their work and by the exercise of their intelligence to get more and more effect from their parts.
In October 1905 Minnie played Camille for the first time in Sydney, and she was compared favourably with Sarah Bernhardt. It concluded that her portrayal was not ‘likely to be excelled for some time.’ Unlike her contemporaries, Minnie refused to smoke in Camille. She did not blame other actresses for smoking in the part, but acted on her own feelings in the matter. The season was a long one and lasted until the end of the year. She revived Sunday, and was now calling it, her favourite play, and L’Aiglon was also repeated for Sydney audiences that year.
In 1906 Minnie added La Tosca to her repertoire. La Tosca was not one of her most successful roles. Critics however, blamed the play rather than the actress for the lack of success. Minnie played La Tosca in Melbourne in February and followed it with Leah Kleschna. The latter play caused great interest amongst Melbourne theatre lovers. Full houses met every performance. Minnie’s excellence was an established fact by this time and reviewers took her talent as a given.
Leah Kleschna was followed by L’Aiglon, Romeo and Juliet, Camille and Dorothy Vernon. Minnie mixed the old established favourites with new material and scored success with each role. In October, Minnie travelled to New Zealand where she was rapturously welcomed. Theatre managers in that country were eager to capitalise on her reputation. This tour of New Zealand broke box office records in each place she visited, she was as famous there as she was in Australia.
Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney was heavily booked in advance for Minnie’s 1906 Christmas season. A packed house witnessed every play in which she performed. In January 1907 Minnie with Thomas Kingston played in Parsifal. Minnie played Kundry, the woman who attempted to seduce the guileless Parsifal and after being rejected became a penitent. The season lasted until March 1907. That month she was voted by readers of Theatre Magazine as the most popular actress on the Australian stage.
She travelled to Hobart for a brief season after the conclusion of the Sydney run. Amongst the plays performed in Tasmania were Leah Kleschna, Dorothy Vernon, Merely Mary Ann and Sunday. The company then travelled to Melbourne. Minnie’s reappearance in Melbourne was an occasion for ‘enthusiastic demonstrations of personal friendship and professional admiration.’ She opened in Parsifal at His Majestys in Melbourne . It was witnessed by an overcrowded house and received with standing ovations, loud cheers and several floral tributes. The reviewers suspended all criticism, assuming correctly that the season would be a critical and popular success. Another picture of Minnie in Parsifal is shown in Figure 3.
Parsifal’s religious themes probably appealed to Minnie’s religious upbringing. She took her Roman Catholic faith seriously and was often conflicted about her roles as Catholic and actress. The role of Kundry, a fallen woman who sought redemption probably found some resonance in her own character.
An actress as popular as Minnie would always suffer the vicissitudes of fame. Yet she appreciated the Australian audiences. She found them more responsive than those in London. They had an ability to laugh and cry in the theatre that stimulated the actress. Minnie stayed in Melbourne until May 1907. In June she appeared in Parsifal in Adelaide, and she proceeded to Brisbane in July. In Brisbane the company performed revivals of Sunday and Leah Kleschna and also played Dorothy Vernon.
She starred in Peter Pan, and it was a piece that mixed drama, comedy and pantomime and was produced with the usual lavish care and attention of J.C. Williamson. As Peter, Minnie acted with ‘a vivaciousness that was necessary to the piece and her mischievous, though human childish pranks, were charming.’ The production was greeted with the ‘greatest fervour’ and plans were made for a benefit. The benefit went ahead a week after opening night on a Saturday afternoon. The poor children of Sydney were invited and enjoyed an amazing experience with Australia’s pre-eminent actress.
After Peter Pan, Minnie played Diana, in Diana of Dobsons. The story concerned a spirited shopgirl who inherited three hundred pounds. The romantic interest was an ex-army captain who the girl condemned for his wastrel life. Diana and the Captain lived happily ever after and Minnie Tittell Brune had another hit. As Diana, Minnie had found a part that allowed her to show rebelliousness and pathos. It was a fine addition to her repertoire.
Diana of Dobsons was quickly followed by another revival of Sunday and in November by The Girl of the Golden West. By March 1909 Minnie had returned to Melbourne and was preparing for her final months in Australia. In May she returned to Sydney for her last performances. Her last show was Sunday at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.
Minnie Tittell Brune’s five year sojourn in Australia was over. She left the colony to try her luck in London and she met with limited success in that competitive environment.
Minnie lived to the age of 99 and died in Los Angeles in her home state of California in September 1974. She was living as a member of the Order of St Francis and was laid to rest with a Catholic service.
Minnie had the good fortune to indulge the two sides of her character. She enjoyed immense success as an actress and appeared to have found peace in a convent. Although little known in her own country, she was a major figure in the history of the Australian stage.