Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567
John Henry Romeril (ROHM-ur-ihl) is one of Australia’s most prolific playwrights. He began writing plays while attending Monash University in Clayton, Victoria, Australia, from 1966 until his graduation with a bachelor of art with honors in English in 1970. After moving to Melbourne, Romeril quickly became an influential member of the Australian Performing Group, which staged its plays at the Pram Factory from 1970 to 1980.
In Australia, the cultural climate of the early 1970’s was receptive to Romeril’s dramatic and political interests. State funding for the theater, which allowed young local dramatists to produce creative, controversial plays, began in 1968 with the foundation of the Council for the Arts, succeeded by the Australia Council since 1975. The young Romeril flourished.
At the Pram Factory, Romeril wrote his plays quickly, sometimes in collaboration with fellow playwrights, and focused on their effective production. He often directed, occasionally acted in his plays, and even helped build set designs. His quiet, professional, helpful, and unassuming manner made him one of the leaders of this artists’ collective.
From his beginnings, Romeril has been dedicated to working-class interests, left-wing politics, and collaborative production. The latter meant that the majority of his plays of the 1970’s and 1980’s have not been published. He wrote his plays for production, not for a reading audience. For all his political commitments, Romeril has always stressed the importance of entertaining his audience. Most of his plays include significant comic elements and no dour lecturing. Romeril attracted international attention in 1974 with The Floating World, his tragicomic play of a former World War II prisoner of war who travels on a cruise ship from Australia to Japan, homeland of the former enemy. The play earned for Romeril the first Australia-Canada Literary Award in 1976 and has seen many successful revivals. It remains one of Romeril’s best-known works.
After the breakup of the Australia Performing Group in 1981, Romeril continued to write for community theaters. His dramas focus on topical social issues, including the mistreatment of Aborigines in Koori Radio and class conflict in Australian society. By the 1990’s, Romeril had traveled widely in Japan and Southeast Asia and probed the relationship between Australian and Asian people. In 1995 The Floating World was selected for that year’s Japan-Australia Cultural Exchange Program and was performed in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast. This inspired Romeril to work closely with dramatists from Asia during his term as chair of the Australian National Playwright Centre, which ended in 2000. In 1999, his Crowded House, which envisions a future in which the government is the enemy of children, was performed in Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).
After writing some television scripts in the 1980’s, Romeril’s first screenplay, One Night the Moon, won a 2001 Gold AWGIE Award for its sympathetic treatment of an Aborigine solving a murder mystery. His play Miss Tanaka was a huge hit at Melbourne’s Playbox Theater. Combining Hollywood tunes, Japanese drums, and films of the land of the Aborigine mother of the main character, it includes puppet play and male actors playing female parts and vice versa. Miss Tanaka won for Romeril the 2002 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in the categories of play and community relations. Critics praised Romeril’s mastery of his subject, his craft, and his message. The play provides strong evidence that Romeril’s commitment to multimedia, internationally oriented, and politically engaged plays is bearing rich artistic fruits.
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