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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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