Australian Drama

Australian Drama #

The first play, written, published and staged, by a native born playwright was Charles Harpur’s The Bushranger, a verse play in five acts in 1853.

A timeline of Australian History and Culture can be found here:

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.

The play was never staged again and the script appears to be lost. Perhaps it will turn up some day.

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:

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.

  1. Australians often dominated by cultural cringe of commercial theatre

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

  3. 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.
  1. Non- verbal physicality of Actor’s performance.

Summer of the 17th Doll - Ray Lawler #

Though Australian poets and novelists had achieved a degree of world stature, virtually no plays before 1955 merited serious consideration. “The Doll” became the first genuine threatrical work of art about real Ausralian characters at work and play with universal ramifications.

Lawler’s skill was evident in his ability to portray complex recognisable characters accurately, manage the exposition unobtrusively, manage exits and entrances smoothly, writng dialogue economically and telling - revealing character and furthering plot incidentally - evoking the natural Aussie cadences in slang and accents.

We explore the tragedy of the common man - essentially good people brought down by their fatal flaw – false pride of masculinity for Roo, romantic, nostalgic idealism for Olive.

The language reveals the inarticulateness of the characters yet the intensity of their emotions become evident through actions, body language and frustrated violence – the smashing of the doll at the end and Olive’s breakdown.

Summer of the 17th Doll was universally acclaimed in Melbourne, Sydney and London, but not America. Perhaps the language failed to resonate. The Aussie low brow, wry, sardonic, yet affectionate put-downs were too subtle:

Barney: “What do you need vinegar for? You’re sour enough already”.

Or to Roo: “You pigheaded mug” is an effective affection, not an insult. Themes include the self-reliance of male ego, the primitive theory of the fittest, conflicting with the whole culture of mateship.

For Olive, the refusal to accept the inevitability of change – the ravages of growing up, confronting your illusions and accepting your responsibilities.

One Day of the Year - Alan Seymour #

Anzac Day, April 25th has been a national holiday from WWI, commemorating Australia’s Baptism of Fire By 1958 it had lost a lot of its original significance, mainly a day of heavy drinking and gambling with Two-Up.

While the play appears critical, it can also be interpretated as a subtle and unexpected appreciation of Anzac Day. The revolt of Hughie is against his unaccomplished, middle-aged, stubborn, proud and insular father Alf, a returned soldier celebrating Anzac Day as his one opportunity to show that he is: “as good as a man as them” (Bloody Poms or Jumped up Aussies).

Hughie’s reasoning is that Anzac Day has become “one long grog-up”. He cites the following reasons:

  1. The public’s ignorance of most people as to what really happened at Gallipoli and what the day actually meant.
  2. Those who were there don’t know the full story, only what they , one man' view from a trench. Contemporary Historians have a more objective view.
  3. Why glorify such a ridiculous Campaign? The bloody Pom, pushed those men up those cliffs knowing it was suicide. While they were brave to follow such a ridiculous order - but can give no credit in wasting their lives. Sure they had guts, but the day - it’s a mug’s day.
  4. War is such a wasteful damaging concept, we should not air and revere it nationally, but rather forget it and be ashamed you took part in it.

Alf’s arguments are worth listening to:

  1. It’s the ordinary man’s right to feel proud of himself.
  2. It’s not a soldier’s march; it’s a mate’s march, doing what had to be done.
  3. We’re not celebrating a victory, but a defeat. It is courageous and noble if we can admit a defeat.
  4. “Where’s your heart, Hughie?” Alf is purely emotional - a feeling created by the battle.

While the play ends without resolving the conflict, Wacka, a reticent original Anzac, attempts a compromise to reconcile father and son:

To Hughie: “give the old blokes a bit of a go sometimes son”.

To Alf: “He’s got the right to think and say what he likes”

Anzac Day’s revival could be attributed to Bob Hawke’s government flying surviving veterans to celebrate the 75th anniversary in 1990. Later, Howard and Abbott in 2015 pumped new blood and money into the day to promote war fervour.

Paul Daley feels we should tease out the complexity of – and, yes, the urgent need to contest – all things Anzac, looking beyond the sentimentality and myth too often attached to Australian war commemoration.

Teaching that “we live in the greatest country on Earth” is not history. It’s jingoistic nationalism. Ironically, it’s also an approach more aligned with the standards for history education in the Chinese national curriculum than the histories being taught and discussed in Australian classrooms as we speak.

Seymour, Alan #

Alan Seymour’s groundbreaking play The One Day of the Year, written in 1958 when Alan was 31, was famously rejected in 1960 by the very first Adelaide Festival as being too controversial. An amateur company produced the work in that city in the same year, and in Sydney, 1961, the first professional production earned Alan death threats.

It is now one of the great cornerstones of the Australian theatre. Its nominal subject is ANZAC Day and the limits of Australian mateship and masculinity.

Former Education Minister Alan Tudge suggested that some things, such as Anzac Day, are sacred and beyond critical inquiry.

Film; Gallipoli -

Alex Buzo #

Born in Sydney in 1944, educated at the Armidale School and then the International School in Geneva and the University of New South Wales, Buzo became a prolific and popular writer in many genres, but especially plays reflecting contentious issues of Australian culture from the perspective of a second generation migrant.

The mirror he depicted Australian society was often not a welcome one.

Norm and Ahmed #

A rather unflattering view of Aussie ockerism with all the platitudes of defensive, insecure but aggressive nationalism. The “Norms” of our society display a vague patriotism laced with feelings of inferiority/superiority easily threatened by foreigners. No wonder interest in Buzo’s plays have waned.

Macquarie #

In 1971, Buzo took a new look at the state of Australia in 1810, after the Rum Rebellion with a new Governor with his own regiment attempted to restore law and order by reining in the haughty, entrenched and corrupt Rum Corps.

Macquarie made some headway in liberal reforms; stamping out the trade in rum, improving morale by raising emancipists dignity and value through equality of opportunity and appointments to high office, ambitious programs of infrastructure of roads, bridges, and Government Buildings designed by a former convict Francis Greenaway. To keep currency in the colony he imaginatively had Spanish coins punched to create a holey dollar with the dump valued at five cents.

The reactionaries, led by the cynical “flogging parson” Samuel Marsden and others undermined his achievements claiming that man’s essential depravity could only be restrained with severe punishment and exclusion – once a convict; always a convict. They railed against his extravagant expenditure on government works, which they claimed would be better spent by the elite faux aristocrats.

Buzo raises fundamental dialectical questions regarding the contest for power; is it for the betterment of society or for selfish interests? In the political game, are the cards stacked against compassionate high - principled players? Do liberal idealists always lose to powerful reactionary forces?

Buzo also questions the unscrupulous tactics used by the privileged to manipulate and brain wash the masses through labelling, name calling and casuistry - turning vice into virtue, greed into patriotism. Ultimately the fickle and gullible masses were easy prey for the superior but specious propaganda of the upper classes. People side against their own best interest.

Eleven years later Macquarie was recalled in disgrace. History rewarded him as the “Father of Australia” even though lately, questions have been raised about his part in the the Appin Massacre of 1815.

David Williamson #

Perhaps one of the most controversial writer in Australia today due to his scathing and vitriolic portrayals of Australians of all walks of life. Deified by some as the Shakespeare of Australia, but reviled by the elitist cultural gatekeepers – theatre critics - he is just a slick populist, writing entertainment for the masses.

Rising to his own defence, in a calm, considered and measured response, David Williamson had this to say:

“Elites” of any epoch have always made the judgement as to what is “serious” art and what is trivial entertainment. The problem is they’re often wrong. In his brilliant book called Serious Art, the philosopher John Passmore shows just how difficult it is to decide what is serious art and what isn’t. He gives examples of how time and time again the serious art anointed by one epoch’s elites is the pretentious and forgotten art of the next epoch and how the entertainment of one epoch becomes the venerated art of the next.

When Williamson left Melbourne for Sydney, Melbournians rejected him, while Sydney-siders idolised him; but when he had the audacity to satirise Sydney’s obsession with property, money and position, and then had the temerity to re-locate to Queensland, Sydney also disparaged his achievements.

We don’t like prophets who reflect the flaws of our society, in a mirror, too accurately. Like the Queen in Snow White hearing the mirror tell her that Snow White is the fairest of them all, the mirror cracks.

It remains my considered contention that plays like The Removalists, Don’s Party, The Club, Dead White Males and many others will pass the test of time and become National Treasures.