Australian Drama Analysis

Early Origins

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In June, 1789, only eighteen months after the arrival of the First Fleet, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer (pr. 1706) was performed in Sydney by a cast of convicts as a King’s Birthday entertainment for an audience of sixty that included the colonial governor. Thereafter, musical entertainments as well as civil and religious spectacles and stage plays were commonplace; that is, theater became an integral part of the regional culture, and taking into account the educational background of some of the convicts, one might have expected original dramatic materials making use of the novel local milieu. Convicts, soldiers, settlers, and Aborigines isolated in a generally inhospitable and inaccessible environment would seem to have offered ample scope for plays on themes of expatriation, penitence, ambition, fortitude, and rivalry set in unusual, if not exotic, locales, but a deference to established, successful models, a reluctance to experiment and minimal leisure combined to keep local drama imitative, derivative, and repetitious in structure, theme, and characters. These traits are to be found in the other genres also; it was some time before recognizably Australian characters, speech, and subjects were widely incorporated into Australian literature.

Literary reputations in Australia were traditionally based on achievement in poetry or fiction, while the dominance of comedy and musical comedy in commercial theaters (a reflection of British theater offerings) eliminated the stimulus to attempt serious plays and tragedies, which were relegated to little theaters—located in suburbs or in the insalubrious sections of the capital cities, in the main. A publishing industry that...

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Rise in Nationalist Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The increasing nationalism at the close of the century became a feature of all forms of Australian culture. With federation in 1901, chauvinism became less strident yet no less apparent: Australia’s participation in the Boer War, World War I, and the Versailles Peace Treaty sustained the sense of national identity. In drama, William Moore (who organized a writers’ theater) and Louis Esson, who had met William Butler Yeats and been advised by him to write “Australian plays,” accepted responsibility for the encouragement of an Australian drama.

Esson’s Three Short Plays (pb. 1911), which included The Woman Tamer, Dead Timber, and The Sacred Place, helped establish the one-act play as a national norm and influenced the choice of theme and characters. (The one-act play became the dramatic equivalent of the short story in Australian fiction; Esson’s role was thus similar to that of Henry Lawson.) Esson redirected the play from the melodrama of his forerunners to social realism, represented both city and country issues, and included the attitudes, problems, and antipathies of the several social classes. Accordingly, some critics have noted the influence of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw rather than of Yeats, John Millington Synge, or Lady Augusta Gregory. In The Woman Tamer, Esson explores interrelationships in a slum household; in Dead Timber, he reveals the monotonous struggle for...

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Women Playwrights

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The role of women in Australia, which has increasingly become the focus of sociological studies, has been explored with understanding and feeling by several competent dramatists, among them Katharine Susannah Prichard, Betty Roland, and Dymphna Cusack. Prichard, author of twenty-four published novels, also wrote seventeen plays, eleven of which were produced in Australian little theaters. Only one, Brumby Innes , which won a drama contest run by The Triad magazine in 1927, was published (1940); it remained unproduced until 1972, possibly because it had been expanded into the very successful novel Coonardoo (1929). Set in the Outback, Brumby Innes is a mature investigation of black-white and male-female interrelationships, which, it suggests, follow a course from affection and accommodation to sensuality, dominance, and brutal imperiousness. Brumby Innes, in its analysis of alienation, self-doubt, domination, and denigration, perhaps reflects the influence of Eugene O’Neill.

Roland ’s The Touch of Silk (pr. 1928) has continued to hold a unique position in Australian drama: It was published by a university press and continues to enjoy readership and discussion, unlike Roland’s later, more propagandist plays, the best known of which is probably Are You Ready, Comrade? (pr. 1938). The Touch of Silk is a study of the difficulties of a sensitive young French woman, Jeanne, in adapting...

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Mid-twentieth Century Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the 1940’s, other dramatists developed their art. Max Afford wrote and adapted plays for radio: His Lady in Danger (pr. 1944), a well-constructed, popular comedy-thriller, has retained its enthusiasts, though it is subliterary. Sumner Locke Elliott , author of Interval (pr. 1942), a sophisticated piece set in London that demonstrated his mastery of dramaturgy, achieved fame with Rusty Bugles (pr. 1948), “a play of inaction” as one critic termed it, which has no principal characters, includes the coarse language characteristic of soldiers stationed in an isolated ordnance camp, and engages its characters in antiwar discussions. After the success of Rusty Bugles, the playwright moved to New York, where he regularly wrote and adapted plays for Studio One, Sunday Night Playhouse, and other broadcast series. He adapted his first novel, Careful, He Might Hear You, into a successful film in 1984.

The radio dramas and verse plays of New Zealand-born Douglas Stewart gave indications that he was properly to be compared with Louis MacNeice and Christopher Isherwood as a major dramatist in these forms, but the virtual eclipse of radio drama after World War II, the growth of theatergoing, and the demise of verse drama combined to deflect attention from Stewart’s very remarkable plays. In an environment in which even standard English was a rarity, Stewart’s language (with its finely turned phrases and impeccable nuances of diction) clearly created an impression, but where the predisposition of the public was for musical comedy, operetta, and the domestic comedy, his expressed interest in the creation of national myths from legendary individuals...

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Contemporary Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After 1960, Australian dramatists attempted most of the modern techniques of the theater and wrote in other than realist terms. The influences of absurdism, expressionism, and symbolism could be noted. Bertolt Brecht and Friedrich Dürrenmatt became as influential as Shaw and Ibsen, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. As a consequence, a narrowly nationalistic and dominantly realist drama became cosmopolitan in the widest sense. The transformation was aided by the establishment of drama schools and professional theaters, extended university education, overseas travel, and the surcease of blind adherence to outdated and overused dramatic modes. Among the important new playwrights to develop were David Williamson, Alexander Buzo, Jack Hibberd, Ric Throssell, Dorothy Hewett, and Patrick White .

With four plays produced between 1961 and 1964, White—best known as a novelist—established himself as a dramatist of some stature. The Ham Funeral (pr. 1961), which is informed by Ibsen’s theory that illusion is essential for equanimity, shows that there is poetry in even circumscribed, dreary lives. The Season at Sarsaparilla (pr. 1962), a patently expressionist play subtitled A Charade of Suburbia, is a devastating comedy of conformism. The main characters lead lives not quite of quiet desperation but ones in which “there’s practically no end to the variations of monotony.” A Cheery Soul (pr. 1963)—based on one of White’s own short stories—explores the artificiality of a voluble, self-satisfied suburban do-gooder, while Night on Bald Mountain (pr. 1963), a darker play, subsumes all the themes and essential character-types of the author’s earlier work to stress the sterility of the proud, the detached, and the intellectual. Toward the end of the play, Professor Sword says, “You and I are here on the edge of the world, and might so easily slip over, into this merciless morning light . . . along with the illusions of importance and grandeur that we had.” The theme of the play is summed up in Sword’s later aphorism, “Failure is sometimes the beginnings of success.”

David Williamson ’s Don’s Party (pr. 1971) and The Removalists (pr. 1971), Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination (pr. 1972) and A Toast to Melba (pr. 1976), and the several plays of the prolific Buzo are among the more inventive, substantial, and likely to survive as both literature and theater. Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (pr. 1968) is one of the most affecting treatments of xenophobia; The Front Room Boys (pr. 1969) lays bare the sterile life of the office worker confined to the routines of the large corporation. In both, there is the sure touch of the playwright who has an ear for the speech and interests of the common person and the analytic methodology of the sociologist. Williamson’s output has been astonishing, as have been his range and his development over three decades. The Removalists is an excavation of the “ocker” stereotype, what in the Untied States would be called the “redneck”—the ill-mannered, often violent working-class male. Don’s Party is a depiction of the social and sexual turbulence of the early 1970’s middle class, which also takes a serious look at Australian political immaturity. Travelling North (pr. 1979) is a moving depiction of an older couple who have devoted their lives to a misplaced commitment to hardline communism. Dead White Males (pr. 1995) satirized “political correctness” in academia, whereas Heretic (pr. 1996) took on anthropology’s romanticization of Pacific Islands peoples. However, it is a mistake to see Williamson as merely a topical or thematic dramatist. Emerald City (pr. 1987), about an younger man’s love for an older woman, a father’s love for his son, and the corrupting effects of widespread wealth in the new “Yuppie” leisure class, assays perennial questions in a resonant fashion. By the end of the twentieth century...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Carroll, Dennis. Australian Contemporary Drama. Sydney, Australia: Currency Press, 1995. A lucid and accessible survey of figures in late twentieth century Australian drama.

Gilbert, Helen. Sightlines. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Occasionally dense writing, but a good overview of major figures and trends in Australian drama of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Kelly, Veronica. The Theatre of Louis Nowra. Sydney, Australia: Currency Press, 2000. Thorough account of Nowra’s dazzling career.

Tate, Peta, and Elizabeth Schafer, eds. Australian Women’s Drama: Texts and Feminism. Sydney, Australia: Currency Press, 1997. Traces the evolution of women’s drama and examines the way in which it reflects emerging feminist theory.

Vandenbroucke, Russell, ed. Contemporary Australian Plays. London: Methuen, 2001. This anthology of 1990’s plays includes a long and useful introduction to the subject by an American critic.

Webby, Elizabeth, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Includes two thorough and comprehensive chapters on Australian drama.