This play is set in Australia, and the action takes place in the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, between the “end of the year” of the school term and the beginning of the next calendar year. As well as this, the bulk of the play is set...
This play is set in Australia, and the action takes place in the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, between the “end of the year” of the school term and the beginning of the next calendar year. As well as this, the bulk of the play is set at the beach, or its immediate surrounds. These two elements reinforce the play’s themes of the liminal: the space between land and sea, the space between life and death, the space between “us” and “them,” the space between “adult” and “child”.
Two characters in this play, Tom and Meg, are trying to navigate their way into adulthood; they are not quite children but also not yet fully formed adults. We are reminded of the fragility of the two young characters when it is revealed that Tom has leukemia and that his parents tried to keep him from finding out. His attempt to coerce Meg into having sex with him shows that he is trying to become an adult in some ways to make up for the fact that he will likely die before adulthood. This tension is underscored by Coral’s anguish at her dead son: he did not make it to full adulthood as he was killed in the war, far from home.
Further exploring this space between childhood and adulthood, the adult character of Coral has seemingly regressed to a less mature mind, due to the trauma of losing her son. She behaves inappropriately and immaturely (according to her husband) and accosts strangers at the upscale Gold Coast hotel where they spend Christmas. She attempts to form a relationship with a young man—about the same age as her son would have been—who is on his honeymoon (another transitional space—between marriage and married life). When her husband scolds her for this, she runs away to the campsite where the other two families are. She puts on a play with Tom where she plays a woman who turns into a mermaid to follow a man who is roaming the ocean as a ghost.
This play also examines the way that class doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. The socio-economic classes of the characters relate inversely to their familial cohesion. Roy and Coral are wealthy; he is a principal and takes them to an upscale Gold Coast resort for Christmas. But this couple is the least happy of the families: they are both grieving their son who died at war, and the play ends with their likely separation. Gwen and Jim are middle class; they own a caravan and go to the same ground every year for Christmas; they make snooty remarks about the people they perceive as working class. They bicker constantly, and their daughter Meg muses that she wonders if they wish each other dead. Harry and Vic are working class; they both work at factories; they have a tent which Gwen disparagingly calls a “lean-to”. But this couple is, externally at least, the most happy. They are determined to have fun and be happy as a family on this camping trip.
Michael Gow's play is set in 1967. It is the end of the year. The place is Australia. The suburbs of Sydney and the New South Wales beaches are the prominent locations. Throughout the play, the characters react to the personal consequences upon their lives caused by the social changes and issues that produced the conflicts that compel them to act as they do.
In the 1960s, Australia, like every other Western country, was hit hard by the social and military upheavals of the decade. Australia was overtly pro-American Vietnam involvement. Some Australians took up the counter-culture protests against the war along with the representatives of the antiwar movements in all other countries. The division this caused in Australia was the same as in America and elsewhere in the West.
Australia was involved in Vietnam for a decade ending in 1972. During this time, 500 Australian military personnel lost their lives and 3,000 were wounded. In comparison to American casualties, this figure is modest, but to the personnel and families directly affected by these numbers, they were anything but modest. The effects of this social conflict is one of the greatest themes in Away. Other themes are the sexual revolution, brought about by the introduction of birth control pills; waning Christian beliefs in the wake of the aftermath of two world wars; and changing values and lifestyles resulting from newly emergent economic prosperity and consumerism coupled with a surge of European immigrants.
Away is written in five acts in the style of a Shakespearean play. In fact, Gow employs significant allusion to Shakespeare's plays, namely King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. According to Valerie Sutherland (see link), Act One present the orientation; Acts Two and Three, the conflict, with the climax coming at the end of Act Three; Act Four, with a brief portion of Act Five, presents the resolution; and Act Five "rounds out themes and returns to the familiar school setting of the opening scene" (pg. 17).
Other themes include going away and (the ultimate going away) death, a theme which is pointed to by Tom’s opening line in Act One, Scene Two: “You going away tomorrow?” At one point, Coral asks whether or not it is “better for them to die like that? Looking like gods?" Another is the tightly related theme of reconciliation, as families and individuals must come to grips with the effects of social conflicts. Along with Australians' newly emerging social values, attitudes, and beliefs, another theme is emotional baggage. This has a powerful physical symbol in the physical baggage that the families take with them on their holiday vacations.