Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

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In the 70s, when I attended university in Canberra, the memories I cherish are the hours solving the world’s problems while sitting with friends in the campus bar at the Australian National University. At night, we’d have a beer; during the day, a coffee. The intellectual discussions and debates stimulating and meaningful, adding value to the lectures and tutorials provided at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. I was lucky many of the staff wrote the text books for their particular subjects. My teachers included: Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, and Dorothy Shineberg.

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At university, I was continuing a tradition started at home by my father and mother. The family would sit for hours after dinner, listening to family anecdotes, sharing stories of our day, discussing current affairs, politics, religion, exploring philosophical questions and ideas thrown up by books, films, TV shows or the daily newspapers.

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I miss the conversations my husband, John and I had about so many  subjects and events. I appreciate writer friends, other members of the Union of Australian Women, my two daughters and my writing students, filling the gap left by John’s untimely death in 2002, because I  crave intellectual stimulation.

Life gets busy, people are short of time; we can all be distracted or self-absorbed. Conversations can be minimal, repetitive and shallow, only touching the surface of a topic, ignoring the philosophical to concentrate on the popular, avoiding the controversial and challenging issues. We  live in the digital age, the 24 hour news cycle, the era where investigative journalism is almost non-existent. Important issues often ignored or underreported.

However, on Saturday, I relived university days courtesy of my dear friend Lisa Hill who told me about a wonderful new project at Arts Centre Melbourne, in The Channel, the Centre’s newest venue.

The Script Club is an invitation to rediscover classic Australian plays, and share your opinion ‘in a robust round-table discussion led by John McCallum – Theatre Critic for The Australian and Senior Lecturer in Theatre at UNSW.’

Copies of the plays provided beforehand, plus a copy of John’s book Belonging, Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. The website advertising blurb promises, ‘This is an open discussion, not a lecture – you bring your own opinions and we’ll bring afternoon tea!’

John McCallum explained the motivation behind Script Club, which was first presented by Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney

“There are many great plays in the Australian repertoire that have, mysteriously, been more or less forgotten. They still have a lot in them to excite us and to say to us, and they ought to be revived. Script Club highlights three of these. It is like a tasting menu (there are many more). When you read an old play you should always ask, ‘What’s in it for us, now?’ That is what we will be asking.”

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The first of the three classic plays to be considered was Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and considering the current controversy over Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes and the subject matter of the play, there’s an easy answer to John’s first question. A definite yes for relevance!

The preface in the Currency Press 1974 edition we were given, states:

…The one guiding principle will be to make the play as accessible as possible in the imaginative sense. Whatever the format adopted to meet individual circumstances, the editor will include a discussion of the play and of its place with the work of its author. Where appropriate, comment will be made on the stage history and staging of the play…

In one summary Brumby Innes “begins with a corroboree and, like Coonardoo, attempts to engage with a portrayal of Aboriginal life. Its central character, Brumby Innes, is a swaggering drunk who exploits the black workers on his station and abuses the women; he bears a close resemblance to Sam Geary in Coonardoo. Yet, Brumby Innes provides the central energy of the drama, and the celebration of that energy in the play conflicts with the dramatic critique of his sexism and racism. Brumby Innes’s character exemplifies the ambivalent attitude in Prichard’s work toward this type of male hero. Portrayed as stereotypically masculine, such characters are admired for their energetic, vital sexuality; yet, the extreme limitations of such maleness are also acknowledged.”

The prize-winning play, although written in 1927, wasn’t performed until 1940. A press cutting from Western Mail  Thursday 26 December 1940 can be found on Trove:

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Here’s a link to a review and reasonable summary under the title Realism, racism and seduction in Brumby Innes when the play was performed again in the 70s.

Lisa and I read the play before the Script Club and as I sat at the table with the others, I mentioned the controversy over Adam Goodes, and suggested Australian society needs to, in the buzz word of the moment ‘have a conversation‘ about our attitudes, in the past, present and our future relationships with indigenous Australians. The racial inequality and power structure the play highlights (between Aboriginal and White Australia, between men and women, between those who own land and those who have nothing) remains, as this article by Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant illustrates.

John McCallum led the discussion with the question: – Reading this old play, what’s in it for us in 2015?

The 9 of us around the table at the inaugural session offered plenty of reasons of why the play should be performed with suggestions on how it can be staged using modern technology and stagecraft.

The group comprised John, Joshua (a producer at Arts Centre Melbourne), two other men (one a theatre actor, the other a West Australian with personal experience of the setting of the play), five women (a translator and university educator, two theatre actors, a project officer with Arts Centre Melbourne, and myself). Unfortunately, Lisa couldn’t attend,but when she does we’ll have her wealth of experience as a blogger specialising in Australian literature.

There because we loved various aspects of Australian theatre, whether it was writing, acting, stagecraft, historical setting and background, topics and themes explored, or just the whole appeal of drama, we discovered that apart from John, none of us had heard of Brumby Innes.

John said each play chosen for Script Club will be looked at in view of modern day performance.

  • Can we recapture original script?
  • Do we want to? ( If the subject matter and the way it is written is controversial, or deemed inappropriate/irrelevant.)
  • Can we do something new?  A reinterpretation perhaps, capturing the spirit of the original, or perhaps a mash-up and revision.

Although performed rarely, Brumby Innes (along with a great body of the author’s work), is studied in drama courses and at universities. It was written when the Australian dramatic theatre tradition was yet to be born and Prichard confesses many times that she didn’t consider herself a playwright. However, John McCallum’s mission is to see Brumby Innes performed again and considered a classic among Australian plays.

Under his guidance, we explored the characters and themes and agreed how wonderful this play could be if staged. Perhaps become a ‘game changer’ if performed today in collaboration with indigenous artists and dancers. The need for authenticity demands discussion with indigenous actors.

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The importance of reading the script twice became obvious as we shared what we remembered, forgot or misunderstood as the discussion progressed. John advised the first time you read a script you pick up some clues, but the second time is when you begin to appreciate the nuances of the plot and characters. (Memo to self, before Script Club in October read the selected play twice, and then again just before the session!)

Brumby Innes was written in the early part of the twentieth century and some of the language used when referring to Aboriginal people is not used today. (for example: reference to women as ‘gins’) However, the play does challenge the conventions of the time – the Aboriginal cast outnumbering the whites, the opening scene being of a corroboree and much of the action from the perspective of the ‘black’s camp’ as opposed the settler’s homestead. Aboriginal words are used throughout the play; the Aboriginal characters often speaking at length in their own language.

Prichard notes:

“The corroboree in this play is used to give something of the dignity, beauty and mystery of a primitive people in their natural surroundings: against their appearance under the conditions of a vanquished race…

Words sung to the corroboree are treasure really. The Aboriginals seem reluctant to tell them, superstitious of unravelling their mystery, perhaps. Often the words they sing are not words of their everyday language. Many of the corroboree songs, or tabee, are in a dead language, I think… hereditary legends and sag, drifted down from remote ages; others are inspirational, sung by the yinerrie, inventor of corroborees, or poet of the tribe, and director of ceremonies, as the spirit moves him.

Only folk reared on isolated stations, who have had lifelong associations with the blacks, or a native who has broken with his people and traditions, are able to gather some of these songs and to tell us their meaning.”

The opening scene lets you see the Aboriginal world, the community that is being destroyed by the white ‘invaders’ when a drunken Brumby Innes arrives demanding Wylba, a young Aboriginal girl goes with him to the homestead. When Wylba and her boyfriend Mickina protest, Brumby pulls out a gun and fires it. Peace shattered just as Aboriginal culture is shattered by arrogant men like Brumby wielding their power.

The link between land and power a strong message in the play. The Aboriginals are vanquished, but not vanished despite the loss of their land, the oppression and indignities they suffer. There are instances in the play, and certainly the ending shows they understand Brumby Innes and know how to survive.

Prichard sees the white invasion of Australia as having the same dimensions as the Trojan War. Aboriginal Polly (Brumby’s discarded lover) ‘a Hecuba in bronze‘ representing all the raped and abused Aboriginal women, abducted and taken by men like Brumby Innes. She is given a powerful line in the play  when she challenges Brumby in front of his white peers and says, ‘Liar.’ Her quiet dignity showing she may be defeated, but is a survivor.

It is said about Euripides play Hecuba that it ‘is one of the few tragedies that evoke a sense of utter desolation and destruction in the audience, and there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish, and no sign of any silver lining. Few ancient tragedies culminate in such unmitigated hopelessness for all the principle characters concerned, and even fewer imply that their terrible fates were quite so richly deserved.’

This sums up how I felt after the first reading of Prichard’s play – difficult to find any likeable character and feeling immense anger at the accurate depiction of the dispossession and abuse of indigenous Australians and all women, whether white or black.

However, listening to other opinions at the Script Club and  John’s persuasive and knowledgeable guidance as he coaxed responses and ideas for staging Brumby Innes, I confess to being excited that the play may be revived. If performed today, the emotional controversy and meaningful discussions generated should engage a huge number of people – force us to have much needed awkward conversations about human rights, equality and social justice.

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How the roles are interpreted by the actors will make a huge difference and we spent some time dissecting the character of Brumby, May and Polly. Prichard was a progressive thinker and her play considered radical, the probable reason of why it wasn’t performed for nearly two decades. She reveals the plight of Aboriginal and white women. Brumby marries May after raping ‘the struggling, but yielding‘ young woman. Brumby pushes her towards his bunk, ‘I like ’em thoroughbred and bucking’ a bit at first.’

It is revealed that Wylbie is only thirteen years old, little more than a child, but Brumby has no shame or remorse when taken to court for abusing her. Another land owner (May’s uncle) lies for him. Brumby is not punished, but two Aboriginal men are sentenced to jail for assault (they challenged Brumby) and stealing supplies (their rations are meagre). Injustice piled upon injustice, but an accurate depiction of the era.

Prichard’s anti-romantic approach and attitude to sex challenges the idea you could or should marry for love. Brumby and May’s marriage happens because Brumby is ready to have children and they must be ‘purebred’. May has come up from the city seeking excitement, with her eye on marrying someone with land and wealth. There is a shortage of white women in the bush, it’s not unusual for landowners like her uncle and Brumby to make arrangements for marriage to carry on the dynasties they want to establish. May is attracted to Brumby’s arrogance and macho behaviour. He has a charisma women find attractive apparently – like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the participants at Script Club suggests.

John compares the machinations of cattle station owners to the popular Game of Thrones – the play is full of personal and political power struggles. One of the women agreed, confessing she had to stop herself from being trapped in a TV mentality and applying those expectations when reading the play.

The two hours flew and the refreshments provided much appreciated, especially a scrumptious selection of scones, jam and cream. Brains and vocal chords received a good workout and when I left to catch a train home I thought the lovely surrounds of Southbank an ideal setting for The Channel – the Yarra River a metaphor for the flow of ideas and opinions in Script Club, the backdrop of old and new buildings like the revival of old plays in a modern setting!

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I studied playwriting many years ago under John Powers who wrote The Last of The Knucklemen, which was later turned into a film by Tim Burstall. He liked a play I wrote about domestic violence and encouraged me to keep writing plays. The Bitter End was performed at a women’s forum in Melbourne 2002; a ten-minute play I wrote was short-listed at Kingston’s Write Up Festival in 2013 .

The Script Club has stirred my creative juices and although like Prichard, I don’t consider playwriting my forte, perhaps I’ll have another go at this genre!

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6 thoughts on “Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

    1. Thank you Tessa – and for the fabulous links – I’m afraid to have my narrow perspective up as quickly as possible (I want people to know about The Channel and Script Club) I did minimal research – Mr Google had to suffice – but I’m glad anyone wanting to follow through with serious research now has your links too. The shared knowledge aspect of blogging and the Internet is what I love the most!

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