Australian Drama

Australian Drama #

The first play, written, published and staged, by a native born playwright was **Charles Harpur’s T***he Bushranger, *a verse play in five acts in 1853. 

Advance Australia was staged at the Princess Theatre in Bendigo on Saturday 3 July 1920. It was written by a local Catholic priest, John Joseph Kennedy. The play was strongly anti-imperialist and intensely Australian, and the performance created a national furore.  The drama follows a family’s experience during the First World War. The mother has lost her husband in the Boer War. She asks her sons *“Why should you offer yourselves as cannon fodder because Imperial megalomaniacs quarrel?” * Her sons, though, volunteer for service and one is killed.

A lengthy and positive review, highlighting pieces of dialogue, was published in the Bendigo Advertiser on Monday 5 July 1920. This precipitated a hastily organised protest meeting at the Bendigo Beehive Exchange that evening.

A larger ‘indignation’ meeting at the Bendigo Town Hall, carried a motion expressing “detestation and abhorrence of the disloyal sentiments uttered in the play… [and].. emphatic disapproval of the mendacious and dastardly reflections on the English soldiers.

One speaker, Chaplain Captain Dorman, attacked the play for depicting the English as degenerate and effeminate. Another speaker challenged the playwright’s view that the British looked upon Australians as an inferior class. A message was read from the Prime Minister Billy Hughes condemning the play as thinly disguised Sinn Fein propaganda. None of the speakers had seen the play and relied for their views on the newspaper report.

Meanwhile, outside the Town Hall, a large group of supporters of the play gathered and gave three cheers for Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, for Father Kennedy, for Home Rule and for Ireland.

The author, Father Kennedy, had himself served as a chaplain during the war and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 for conspicuous gallantry in action at the Battle of Fromelles. He had repeatedly returned to the frontline trenches under heavy shell fire to rescue the wounded.

The Battle of Fromelles was a disaster, with  5,533 Australian casualties in a single night.  Father Kennedy’s experiences of this futile carnage formed the basis of his play.

In the aftermath of the failed Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and the subsequent battle for Irish independence, it was a particularly volatile time in relations between the British Government and Irish republicans, and this was mirrored in Australia.

Characteristics of Australian Drama

  1) Democratic spirit of egalitarianism.  About the life of ordinary people.  Australians appear to relate to each other as equals and can have a healthy disrespect for vaunted arrogated authority.  Coetzee was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people and its egalitarianism as quite unique in the world.

  2) Urban vs Rural;  Sydney & the Bush.   

Instead of nature being identified with god, Henry Lawson depicted the “hell” pioneers had to endure. The Bush is seen as Scourge; it turns people eccentric, drives them mad -  ‘Past carin’.  

Banjo Paterson admonished Lawson for his blindness to the romance and beauty of bush life.

Coetzee feels he has a strong pull toward the land and the landscape which appears to have a mysterious dwarfing power over people. 

Keating: * “if you don’t live in Sydney you’re just camping out*”.


  1. Mateship - The mateship depicted in most stories is a fragile one, less based on mutual support than on a refuge from despair.  

  2. Derivative nature of overseas influence:

  3. Early composers were imitative and derivative.  This means they depicted Australia in British terms.  Painters portrayed Australian scenes as they were in England while writers modelled their descriptions of the landscape using the styles and language of English Writers. 

  4. Australians often dominated by cultural cringe of commercial theatre

  5. Until the 1950’s few distinctive middle class idioms presented on stage.

  6. Move from naturalism of 1950’s to:

          mixture of surrealism, Absurd, Brechtian Epic

          realism & distinctive montage effects

  1. Role of music, eg: Summer of .17^(th) Doll .  radio

                                         Away                    Mendelssohn

                                         Signal Driver Vaudeville

                                 Strictly Ballroom               theatricality

  1. Sardonic laconic humour/expressions, idioms. 
    grimly jocular, bitter mockery, cynical.

  2. Non- verbal physicality of Actor’s performance.