This paver in the Art Walk outside Melbourne’s Art Centre an apt quote as I attended The Script Club today to discuss yet another Australian play in the three-part series facilitated by theatre critic, John McCallum. The inaugural meeting covered in my post in August.
Today, ten of us discussed Jack Hibberd’s, A Stretch Of The Imagination, using text courtesy of Currency Press (published 2000, reprinted 2014):
Monk O’Neill, the lonely misanthropist has become an archetype of the Australian character since he first appeared on our stages in 1971.
The book has two other perhaps better-known plays By Hibberd – Dimboola and White With Wire Wheels, but today we focused on A Stretch Of The Imagination. The blurb saying:
A Stretch Of The Imagination(1972) introduces us to the painfully lonely world of Monk O’Neill, one of the great comic creations of Australian dramatic literature. Monk’s colourful, rambling monologue cuts to the quick of what Australia once was and what one day it could become. The resilient ironies of the play will not be lost on today’s generation.
John quoted from his edition of the play where the one-man play was immediately recognised as a memorable piece of Australian theatre by drama critic Dr Margaret Williams. She nominated it as “the contemporary play, which future generations may accept as a classic”. A play with an appeal to each generation to explore and perform.
John reiterated his vision for The Script Club to examine classic scripts with the view to performance and explained his lifelong ambition to promote an Australian repertoire for production on stage. Apart from Joshua, the Producer at The Channel, myself and one other, there were seven new participants in the club. We had a discussion to put the play in context.
Most of us were baby boomers and remembered the heady days of the 60s and 70s: young people politically active with women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, anti-war and anti-conscription rallies, and Aboriginal land rights. Commonwealth Scholarships enabled people to continue their education. Writers and artists explored where we stood in the world; they discussed Australian identity. Barry Humphries’ characters like “Bazza McKenzie” appeared on the screen.
Hibberd’s play, produced by the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory in Melbourne was part of this ‘New Wave’, some of the characteristics being:
- Expressions of male ritual (e.g., social habits of males in bar rooms, at football clubs, the deification of mateship and cars and general misogyny)
- Confrontation in social relations (many plays explore confrontational situations and relationships with friends, families, co-workers and strangers)
- The use of the vernacular, including swearing and abusive language
- Introduced or centred a new dominant stereotype (the larrikin, hard drinking, tough talking ocker.)
Characteristics that some participants felt we could do without seeing again, even if mocked with satire and irony. The challenge to the revolting ocker stereotype and the exploration of Australian identity could be performed without Hibberd’s ‘old, abusive, misogynistic, white male’. Is there even such a stereotype existing now? Haven’t we moved beyond that? Do we need to see more misogyny or this enduring archetype of the Australian male?
Paul McGillick introduces all the plays in the Currency Press edition and has this to say about Monk:
Monk is a distinctly unpleasant man. But he is also, at the end of the day, a very honest one and there is a strong impression that he has gone into this voluntary exile, living in a humpy on One Tree Hill (he has actually chopped down the tree in a fit of pique), in order to confront his past and through this confrontation to explore his own creativity – in effect, to create himself all over again using the raw materials of the life he has already lived.
Beneath Monk’s aggression, crudity and callous rejection of other human beings, there is despair. He has lacked the courage to commit to intimacy… and is now on a quest to find his Self. But his quest is paradoxical: he must learn to be alone, but literal aloneness is both solipsistic and narcissistic and can only result in a distorted view of the Self.
Put a group of creative people together to discuss art and like witnesses to an accident, you will get a variety of opinions and interpretations. Our group was no different. Not only did we differ on theme and relevance to the current generation but questioned whether Monk’s ramblings were fictional like the unreliable narrator in a novel. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘performing’ his life at all – just fantasising about his overseas travel, sporting prowess, name-dropping and wishful thinking.
Several of us felt Monk’s life was believable, even if he was prone to exaggeration. John explained the New Wave celebration of Australian identity could be offensive and vulgar and the mockery nasty. Two agendas seemed to operate – a radical casting off of the past dominated by “imperial theatre” and a new nationalism proud of being “Orstralian”.
Apart from John, no one had seen the play performed and despite reading the play twice to develop sympathy for Monk, some had no sympathy at all, the character failing to resonate emotionally. Joshua went as far as to say, ‘Why write a play like this?’ He considered Monk a repellent, disgusting character who shoots his dog, kills a stranger albeit accidentally, and describes relationships with women purely in terms of sexual escapades, some extremely abusive.
I saw Monk as callous and arrogant but in his brutally honest descriptions and mockery there was a hint he knew his behaviour was unacceptable. I love Hibberd’s clever use of words, the puns and bald statements of profound or comic significance. I could see many metaphors that enriched the lines.
Was Monk just a horrible old man or an existentialist hero? Stereotypes are constructed and produced for a reason. Did the play represent the death of civilisation – the world destroyed like Monk destroyed ever relationship he had?
He had been educated (Xavier College – private school no less) had travelled to Europe and met Proust, yet he’d abused, misused, abandoned every woman he had relationships with in his life.
We all agreed that how the play is performed and interpreted by the actor is crucial to the audience’s understanding and reaction. John favours Max Gillies (someone who has acted in the role already) or Michael Caton.
We discussed universal themes and how/why the play appealed to international audiences. Is the play about ageing, about death and dying? It was likened to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, equating Monk to Willy Loman.
There was a suggestion the play was about failure. A man coming from a position of privilege (Monk had attended Xavier College) but the choices made has left him isolated, old, ill and facing death.
Or was the play about a character washed up from the Bush? Embodied with all the mythical qualities and prejudices of the ‘blokes’ written about so often in that typical Australian setting, but cut down to size. ‘Our landscape large enough to cut anyone down to size.’
Monk is isolated and exposed, amusing himself, mocking the niceties of society while coping with the reality of his body’s disintegration. His reminiscing illustrates his resilience, his honest assessment of his behaviour and clarity regarding the country’s history. He writes his will bequeathing ‘all my lands and property, goods and chattels, to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In the advent of extinction of the Aboriginal at the time of my decease, I would then bequeath my estate to the populous Oriental nations of the north… I am very favourably disposed towards the Chinaman. On no account must my domain fall into the clutches of the predatory and upstart albino. I believe that the tides of history will swamp and wash aside this small pink tribe of mistletoe men, like insects…Change insects to dead leaves…’
Monk then apologises for cutting down the one tall tree on his hillock!
When John asked us to discuss how the play could be performed today – Naturalism V Stylisation… I suggested the play could be set in an urban wilderness exposing the natural world we’ve destroyed, the isolation some people experience with ageing and also being at odds with ‘the norm’.
Someone else suggested a homeless person under a railway bridge. The question was asked – could the part be played by a woman? Are there ‘ugly’ stereotypical females similar to Monk?
We stretched our own and each other’s imagination!
Researching for this post I found what the playwright, Jack Hibberd has to say about this “monodrama about an outback philosopher, Monk O’Neill, who interlards his daily surviving chores with theatrical re-enactments of important segments from his long past.”
The play lasts nearly two hours, and requires a virtuosos actor and an interpretative director. The actor is required to physically transform into younger versions of himself, and as well to transform into other characters. Stretch, among other things, dramatizes, place, time, the strange workings of memory, history, a care for the environment, remorse, and death.
This comico-tragic work has been performed in China (Sanghai, Beijing, 1987) in Mandarin, and was the first Australian play produced in that country. It has also been produced in London (twice), the USA, Germany and NZ.
Whether John’s wish for revival happens, I’m glad I ‘stretched’ not only my ‘imagination’ but moved outside my comfort zone to ponder bigger issues in The Script Club’s lively discussion.
As usual a lovely afternoon tea was provided. The two hours flew – even going over time – a good indicator the subject matter engrossing. No one slipped out early or even looked at a watch!
It was a glorious day to be in Melbourne and Southbank and I look forward to November and our next Script Club get-together.