The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Floating World opens with a dramatic monologue by Harry, lamenting the sale of Australian rain forests to a Japanese developer. Harry introduces the setting for the following nineteen scenes, a cruise ship sailing to Japan on a package tour arranged by an Australian women’s magazine. Suddenly, Les Harding appears on the stage, which is designed like a ship’s deck. Seasick, he vomits over the railing and is joined by Herbert Robinson.

Their dialogue introduces their opposing backgrounds. Les is a blue-collar Australian former infantryman captured by the Japanese and forced to slave on the infamous Burma-Thailand railroad. Robinson is a retired vice admiral of the British navy. He was never taken prisoner and comes from the upper class. While the two can bond as men, their social differences ultimately remain too strong a division.

When the Malaysian waiter appears first, he is dressed as an officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, an outfit he will don repeatedly to visualize Les’s confusion of past and present. Reading from its badly translated instruction manual, the Waiter sets up the first of his Dippy Birds. These are Japanese toys of the 1970’s and represent Japan’s postwar economic power.

Irene Harding is introduced while writing a letter home. She is a working-class housewife with a married daughter, and she is somewhat disillusioned with her husband. Irene’s intellectually shallow yet socially ambitious and racially paternalistic...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The first production at the Pram Factory in Melbourne, Australia, utilized the small theater space to enclose both the audience and the stage in camouflage-green chicken-wire mesh, to indicate the idea that the play takes place in Les’s war-afflicted head. The doubling of the Waiter as a Japanese soldier, who is played by the same actor, is a powerful device to visualize Les’s mental confusion. This is echoed by the directive that Williams and McLeod are played by the same actor, and the fact that later in the play, every character but Irene assumes a second identity as a member of Les’s memory world.

In order to create alienation among his audience and to discourage them from identifying with the twisted values of the Hardings, the first production by the Australian Performing Group cast actors against type. Middle-aged Les was played by youthful Bruce Spence, and the Waiter/Japanese soldier was played by white actress Carol Porter. When a more realist cast was used, Australian audiences occasionally overidentified with Les Harding’s character, to the disapproval of critics. Sato’s 1995 production not only translated the play into Japanese but also used Japanese actors and actress Yumiko Itoh for important roles.

By using bunraku puppets for the major supporting roles of Comic, Waiter, and Harry, Sato again moved a step beyond realism in order to give the play a more universal focus. Japanese-style puppets were also used in Andrew Ross’s production at the Black Swan/State Theatre Company of South Australia, where they doubled for human players in some scenes. Their use was lauded for making Les’s anti-Asian statements more alienating, as some were uttered by himself as a Japanese puppet.

The Dippy Birds were a cultural phenomenon of the mid-1970’s, and directors have handled their inclusion or exclusion in the play differently. Feeling that the birds’ original symbolism—which alluded to the cheapness of Japanese products—had been superseded by the time of their 1986 Sydney Theatre Company’s production, the directors replaced them with three demons drawn from the Japanese Kabuki theater. Sato brought back the Dippy Birds, leaving open the question of their exact meaning.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Gilbert, Helen. “Cultural Frictions: John Romeril’s The Floating World.” Theatre Research International 26, no. 1 (March, 2001): 60-70.

Griffiths, Gareth, ed. John Romeril. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1993.

Sawada, Keiji. “The Japanese Version of The Floating World: A Cross-Cultural Event Between Japan and Australia.” Australasian Drama Studies 28 (April, 1996): 4-19.

Tompkins, Joanne. “Re-orienting Australian Drama: Staging Theatrical Irony.” Ariel 25, no. 4 (October, 1994): 117-133.

Wigmore, Lionel. The Japanese Thrust: Australia in the War of 1939-1945. Series 1 (Army). Vol. 4. Canberra, Australia: The War Memorial, 1957.