Revisiting 1968 through a Playwright’s Eyes

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilisation from destroying itself.

Albert Camus

Yesterday, I attended The Script Club, the final meeting for the year – our purpose, under the guidance of John McCallum (author, academic, theatre reviewer/critic) to examine classic plays by Australian playwrights with the view of reawakening interest to restage them.

We examined three plays:  Brumby Innes, by Katharine Susannah Prichard,  A Stretch Of The Imagination by Jack Hibberd and yesterday’s Chicago Chicago by John Romeril.

The attendance at the events has been beneficial to me as a writer, historian and teacher of creative writing. John’s vast knowledge of Australian plays awe-inspiring because of his research, plus he speaks from personal experience with many iconic names in Australian theatre. His passion for the stage revealed when he shares knowledge that’s a boon to the eclectic group in The Script Club: writers, actors, producers, set designers, students,  play enthusiasts and employees in the art industry.

images-3.jpeg

John was genuinely interested in hearing a range of opinions and ideas about the plays he’d chosen to discuss, their relevance to a modern audience and how they could be revived to give the maximum satisfaction to an audience.

Everyone agreed that Romeril’s play, Chicago Chicago was the most difficult play to categorise so far and as usual there were those who disliked it and others who preferred it to the previous plays. The life experience, prejudices,  preferences, reactions and opinions of the participants are always valuable in a roundtable discussion.

images-4.jpeg

Chicago Chicago placed in the One Act genre with its 20 scenes in two parts, described as “a surreal attack on political exploration set against the 1968 Chicago Democrat Convention.” First produced in Melbourne 1970 by the Australian Performing Group, the play was written in 1969. This group grew out of the Pram Factory, a place that nurtured “many gifted writers and actors, directors of film, theatre and TV, artists, musicians and singers, circus performers, arts administrators and community artists.

John asked those of us at The Script Club  for our initial reaction:

An unusual play… very different… it would be interesting to stage but not yet there for understanding the story… liked it, my favourite so far… each scene grew out of the previous like baboushka dolls… loved the cardboard cut-out characters of George & Lillian, they’re used in a way to explain the play… they were the only ones that made sense… gave me a perspective on USA… rapid fire change of scenes kept me engaged… I couldn’t get an emotional connection… depressing view of humanity… a savage attack laying bare the worst side of human nature… nihilistic… an amazing play for its time… need to read it more than once to understand it all… intriguing… some parts confusing, not sure what he meant…

John realised that for younger audiences (and many attendees of The Script Club), the play had to be put into historical context for its full brilliance (or otherwise) to be appreciated. 1968 was astounding for the USA and the rest of the world. Billed as the year that changed history:

1968…  a year of seismic social and political change across the globe. From the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States, protests and revolutions in Europe and the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa. The world would never be the same again.

The Guardian (here a photograph is worth a 1000 words)

Horrific scenes from Vietnam on every newspaper front page and beamed nightly into our lounge rooms. Vietnam the first televised war interspersed with advertisements, of course! Civil Rights marchers in America clashed with National Guardsmen, the tanks rolled down the streets of Memphis. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy stunned the world. Workers and students rioted in Paris. The Biafran-Nigerian War and mass starvation in Biafra also played out on our TVs. Russian tanks invaded Prague, Czechoslovakia. Two African American Olympians gave the black power salute after winning gold at the Mexican Olympics. All this counterbalanced by the Californian ‘summer of love’ – the rise of the hippies and yippies.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin released in 1964, re-released by Burl Ives in 1968 and sung by others. The constant airplay showed its relevance to the youth of the day, along with Barry McGuire’s, Eve of Destruction. 

The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is the setting for Chicago Chicago.  LBJ (President Johnston) announced he would not recontest the presidency and Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey fought for Democrat preselection. America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War a major issue dividing the two candidates.

Thousands of protesters from various groups hoped to influence the delegates and get their countercultural views heard. Met by thousands of police ordered on duty by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley; the demonstrators chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ as street battles raged for eight days.

This photograph from a blog Culture Through Politics. Propaganda. Art.

tumblr_m9supc7Zbb1qzprlbo1_r1_1280.png

All of this background detail is necessary to make sense of some of the references in the play and certainly to get the full impact of the setting of some of the scenes.

Chicago Chicago one of several Australian plays produced in the 60s treating Australian involvement in Vietnam allegorically, as a symbol of military invasion and destruction of power operating for its own preservation. Romeril’s play surveyed the American context of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and became significant by raising consciousness around Australia’s participation in Vietnam. It evoked the uncertainty and confusion of that era.

Romeril had this to say about his work in a Double Dialogues Conference with John McCallum, the full transcript available online.

“drama exists in a state of contention – the kind of contention…that is the tension between naturalism, on the one hand, and a much more formalised or stylised drive to theatre. That’s always fascinated me and it always, I think, gives theatre its density of attack.

He quotes the influence of Japanese playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, who wrote more than a 100 plays between 1683 and the 1720s.

“He said the theatre is neither fully fanciful nor yet wholly realistic but it lives in the gap between the two, in the slender margin between the real and the unreal. So the audience will still be flashing between something that is luminescently beautiful, so beautiful, it can’t be the real and behaviour that is so well observed that it does have a naturalistic aura, even though it is being produced by actors, night after night after night. And so that tension is something that audiences are constantly going through. And a script ought to, and the players ought to, be aspiring to put an audience in that state and they themselves should be operating in that state. It’s why the theatre can achieve or get close to a real existentiality. It can matter and that’s when it hits us and works on us.”

John Romeril has been a prolific writer, a dramaturge and a constant supporter of theatre practice of all types and all levels throughout Australia for many, many years. If, like Romeril, we believe theatre to be part of life, keeping up with all political and social events, perhaps Chicago Chicago can be set in a different era, perhaps updated. Everyone agreed that so many of the points/issues/themes of the script still relevant today.

History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places.

History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration.

And of course nations use identity history as well—and sometimes abuse it. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty.

Peter N. Stearns, American Historical Association

Romeril’s cutting edge play incorporates the technology of 1968: overhead projector, slides, public address system for voiceovers, tape recordings. It may be interesting to use old technology – a media library would have images from the 60s, nostalgia is “in”. Lighting always critical to set the mood and create the changes necessary for the stage to become: hotel room, hospital ward, cell, home, party at the convention… street scenes, Game Show, park…

Or perhaps use the full force of new technology – sound vital for a sense of place. Environmental sounds (old or new) will evoke setting and mood. Would we show the capacity modern technology has for surveillance nowadays by streaming live feed video on stage? Stick with the cardboard cut-outs or have puppets? Or just use screen projections?

Does the dialogue between The Psychiatrist and The Man in one scene have to change to reflect modern approaches to mental health? Do some of the “speeches” have to be shortened? They are long but insightful.

The play has opportunities for comedy (the cliched speeches of the President) as well as tragedy (the vicious beating of the man giving away his wealth).

We discussed so many aspects of the play: the meaning of certain scenes, what we thought Romeril intended, how an audience may interpret the play. Although he did say in his playwright’s note:

The present version, Chicago, Chicago, differs from the past two quite substantially, so much so that the old title seemed inappropriate. The changes have all been made to make it less obscure and more entertaining. The play is still a protest against the American way of life, but is now, I trust, more effective for being more obvious and more theatrical.

I have not gone to any great lengths to ‘over-direct’ the script. I leave that to the reader and to those people interested in performing the play. However, it would be wise to suggest that despite the naturalism of some of the dialogue, the play will succeed only with a good deal of stylized acting. Voices should be experimented with, as should styles of physical action. The set, indeed the total effect should be spare and quite formal. The slides I regard simply as a device for informing the audience and for clarifying the stage action.

At first glance the large number of characters might seem formidable. However it is technically possible for eight people to stage the play, and the list of characters has been broken down accordingly.

One thing all of us at The Script Club yesterday had in common (apart from facilitator John McCallum) was confessing we would never have read Chicago Chicago if not part of such a great activity. The new world and ideas and detailed discussion enjoyable and worthwhile leaving plenty of food for thought. (And the refreshments provided by The Script Club always yummy!)

John laughed at how intense and excited our discussions became and suggested we’d all go home and write our version of the play – and maybe some of us will! I know most of us hope The Script Club will continue in 2016, and we’ll be reminded to enrol.

The last word is from the playwright explaining where he got ideas for the play. It is from the transcript of the Double Dialogue Conference quoted above:

One of the jobs I got finally was at the Department of Agriculture Library. My job was to send out the magazines to various agronomists and herb testers who needed them for their work. I would distribute these journals and so on as they arrived and hunt up books that they wanted and so on and so forth. I ended up reading a lot of it. InChicago Chicago, for example, there was a whole lot of rip offs that I took holus bolus – ‘found’ language. It was the whole thing, yeah, I know Kurt Zwigers and I know William Burroughs and I know this and I know that; I’ll do cover versions and see how they go down. I’m quite proud of Chicago Chicago first performed in 1969. It’s one of the densest things I’ve ever written and it does manage with student casts to mop up a lot of energy and the more people you have the wilder and weirder it can seem, because it’s sort of like symphonic in its treatment, rather than the usual small quartet, sextet or octet that we’re used to in the theatre. Of course the engine of all that stuff was very much Brecht and Meyerhold and Biomechanics and a little bit of Artaud and you’d stumble into Brecht’s output on aesthetics, very interesting challenges to the head…

I sort of worked up Chicago – following the 1968 Democratic Convention and so on. The wisdom of Brecht is – those key remarks – like how do you capture the sense of the twentieth century? You’ve got to bust out of the drawing room drama. You’ve got to have a large social canvass of some sort – the impact on our lives of the stock exchange, the meatworks, the giant shifting of chattels, from corn-fed cattle up to Chicago to the stockyards. Modernism is what? How do you get the sneers of the world you actually inhabit and its impact on you onto the stage?

you drag the new on to that very old arena that the theatre is. But that always was so. So there was a modernist project that I was fulfilling in some ways or drawn to.

All the plays discussed at The Script Club have been ‘interesting challenges to the head’ and for me have been emotionally engaging. That’s what you expect from good writing and good theatre.

I walked out into Melbourne’s nurturing sunshine and a beautiful world of ferries and canoes on the Yarra River, a busker, creative craft market, people shopping, tourists, parents and children hurrying into a performance of the Australian Girls Choir – and even a wedding!

Real-life drama to keep me entertained on the walk to Flinders Street station and homeward bound with my writer’s notebook handy – just in case I do decide to write my play.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s