Elizabeth Jolley Drama Analysis

Elizabeth Jolley is an important writer whose critical reputation keeps increasing. Her radio plays were very popular in Australia when produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1975 to 1992, and the audio and scripts deserve to be more accessible to the reading and listening public. Jolley navigates skillfully between the realist tradition and the narrative experiments of postmodern fiction. Her deviation from the historical/biographical style of much fiction changed the direction of Australian literature in the later decades of the twentieth century.

Often comic and with frequently eccentric characters, Jolley’s works always have a serious subtext. Major themes explore the effects on individuals of differing from social norms, the valuation of the worth of a life, the role of women in a patriarchal society, and the intersection of life and death as individuals confront imminent death. Jolley’s long interest in drama and the dramatic form influence all her work. She is particularly alert to the nuances of language and to the speaking voice. Her radio plays and also her novels and short stories emphasize monologue and dialogue. Action is typically structured around single dramatic moments.

Night Report

Jolley’s first produced radio play, Night Report, was highly recommended by all the judges of the Soundstage competition and was immediately accepted for production in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Perth studios.

The comic dialogue in the short play is not spoken; it appears in the form of notes written between Night Sister M. Shady and Matron A. Shroud at a dismal hospital for the aged. In her written instructions the Matron is quick to criticize the subordinate nurse rather than accept her own responsibilities. Nurse Shady in turn excuses herself in equally repetitive reports after her night shift. The inane notes between the two reveal the shoddy care the patients receive. The Matron’s brother arrives and is admitted to the ward. Soon he is heavily in debt for gambling long into the nights with the other patients and Nurse Shady. A total reversal in the two women’s roles ends the play.

Satirical in its portrayal of lack of compassion, the play uses one specific situation to indicate patterns of the larger world. The play eventually became part of the opening of Jolley’s novel Mr. Scobie’s Riddle, and its characters appear in the short story “‘Surprise! Surprise’ from Matron.” Such re-use or elaboration of material and characters is common throughout Jolley’s works.

The Performance

Based on a short story of the same title, The Performance is set in a ward in a large psychiatric hospital. The main character is a middle-aged postal carrier, identified only as “Man,” who carries on a long monologue about his life, part meditation and part confession. A ward orderly, Michael, occasionally makes an irrelevant comment.

What emerges is a slow revelation of the postal carrier’s life and his mental breakdown. However, the “revelation” is more question than answer. What led to his inability to act? How did his relationship with his outgoing wife, always “performing” before her creative writing students, contribute to his sense of inadequacy? Is his guilt from not delivering a letter to an old woman who desperately awaited a letter from her son, or is it from more sinister events? Is it ever possible to present only one answer? What is the purpose of life anyway? His is a tragic monologue, somewhere between a moan and a howl of the frustration felt by character and listener alike.

Unlike Jolley’s first play, the script gives precisely detailed instructions for voices, for background sounds in the hospital, and for specific music to be used in the scenes or between scenes. All elements are designed to reinforce each other in the service of dramatic effects. Jolley continued this pattern in subsequent plays.

By this second play she was also including in the script optional cuts (“opt.cut” and “end opt. cut”), identifying sections that could be omitted according to the time...

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