The celebration of the New Wave in Australian theatre parallels and is closely allied to other celebrations within Australian culture such as Anzac Day. The assumption that the New Wave defined and expressedthe Australian voice is almost universally acknowledged. The reality is that the paradigm of acceptance of the New Wave created a myth that erases the rich traditions of past Australian theatre practice and in effect blocks new Australian work. This paper, whilst acknowledging the achievements of the New Wave in creating a particular vernacular tradition within Australian theatre, examines the ways in which the myth acts as a kind of cultural constipation, and ignores considerations such as the establishment of systematic government funding for the performing arts that facilitated its effective dominance. The particular focus is on two groupings of Australian voices that continue to fight for a place within Australian mainstream theatre: Indigenous voices and women’s voices.
If you say something and publish something often enough, it must be true. Repetition brings results. Newspapers quote academic sources, academic sources recycle newspaper copy, and eventually what might have been one group’s achievement becomes the only achievement. A need for a simple linear narrative that supplies heroes and villains, defining events and cultural glory, drives a reductionist view of the complexities of history, erasing anomalies, precursors, and dissenting voices. This tendency becomes magnified in an Australian political climate which has over the last decade celebrated simplistic nationalist agendas (we await the decisions of approximately one hundred and thirty committees of review to see where we may go next), and is dominated by the post-war boomer generation who have a well-documented penchant for cultural and historical blindness that places them as central to the genesis of Australian culture (Davis 1997).
The New Wave mythology is another manifestation of a particular kind of white, masculinist, nationalist agenda that dominates Australian cultural history. The mythologised image of Australian theatre is that it was largely a creation, and consequently a possession, of the boomer generation. This image depends on and is developed from the mythology associated with the so-called New Wave. The writers and artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, known as the New Wave, were portrayed at the time and since as having created the space for authentic Australian theatre practice, and have since become the benchmark against which previous and subsequent theatre practice is ‘passed’ or ‘failed’ by cultural commentators. In the 1990s descriptions of the New Wave clearly restate the mythology: ‘their success imbued others with the confidence to succeed on their own terms’; the ‘key companies’, Nimrod, La Mama and the Australian Performing Group, ‘allowed for early stirrings of Feminist theatre and Aboriginal theatre as well as the new middle class nationalism’ (Graham 1999; McCallum 1995). These descriptions reflect a central tenet of the mythology; the New Wave is presented as having created the space that others could then enter. It is common to see this period of theatrical creativity labelled either implicitly or explicitly as the birth or rebirth of Australian theatre. The operational effects of this mythology of the New Wave include three major consequences: one is the erasure within valorised theatre histories of substantial preceding theatre practices that also focussed on expressing the Australian voice; the second is the erasure within those histories of theatre practices and practitioners that were contemporary with the New Wave but not part of it; and the third is the proscription of current theatre practice into a binary relationship which either validates contemporary practice or erases it through reference to the mythology of the New Wave.
This paper explores some of the ways in which this mythology, as a contribution to an ongoing process, has erased previous practices and proscribed current practices, eliding female, Indigenous and even other nationalist narratives, contributing to a meretriciously simple narrative that reinforces John Howard’s rallying cry of ‘factual’ history – which in Australia means history written by and for white Anglo-Celtic men. The mythology surrounding the New Wave in theatre is not unique in itself; it is another example of the practices of white possession in Australia (Moreton-Robinson 2007). In this instance, theatre is implicitly and explicitly owned by a group of white, tertiary-educated men, many of whom happened to live in Carlton at the end of the 1960s. As a counter to this image, it might also be mentioned that in the case of La Mama, the entire phenomenon was underwritten and to an extent, orchestrated by a woman, Betty Burstall, who is often characterised as an administrator, but was in fact performing a function which today’s practice would consider to be an artistic director.
The ‘jolt of recognition’: the foundation of the mythology
Much of the celebration of New Wave work, as distinct from previous Australian theatre work, is based on critics and artists labelling this work as ‘uniquely Australian’ (Brisbane 1971; Radic 1991). Even though ‘uniqueness’ is a much-abused word, this image has proved to be very powerful and enduring. The recent fortieth anniversary of the first production of Jack Hibberd’s White with Wire Wheels and La Mama Theatre, offers a timely opportunity to deconstruct the mythology of the New Wave, and examine the ways in which it operates to control and define current theatre practice.
A range of factors contributed to the success of the New Wave and the terms of its valorisation in the 1960s and 1970s. As discussed elsewhere (Casey 2000; Casey 2004), these factors included: the establishment of systematic government funding for the performing arts; the establishment of venues such as La Mama providing the opportunity for theatre artists to collaborate, explore and establish themselves; the common interests and social backgrounds of critics, drama officers at the Australian Council for the Arts, and the artists; the social climate – a time of protest and explorations of new forms and content within theatre and performance and critical attention opening up to Australian work and publication of texts. Whilst all these factors were important in terms of the mythology of the New Wave, two are critical: the changes in press coverage and the establishment of systematic government funding for the performing arts.
Within Australian theatre historiography, work produced with the advantage of systematic funding is habitually the main theatrical practice that is acknowledged as ‘authentically’ Australian or often even acknowledged as having existed (for example see Milne 2004). This framing effectively erases the theatrical practice and voices that preceded the 1960s and systematic funding. The foregrounding of funded theatre practice is further entrenched by the beginnings of media recognition and the terms of that recognition.
From 1968 onwards, owing largely to the work of Katherine Brisbane, Australian theatre was discussed in Australian newspapers. The arts provided material for a wide range of copy in the late 1960s and the early 1970s; battles over censorship were one of the major issues keeping theatre in the news. This increase in coverage does not represent an increase in the production of new Australian work except under a new category as ‘professional’ (Casey 2004). What it does represent is Australian theatre on the record. This memory of a ‘beginning’ was not so easily forgotten even within the journalistic and theatrical discourses that fetishize the new. The press coverage provided public validation for the work and propagated the frames of reception. The New Wave work was received critically as ‘claiming artistic space on Australian stages for Australian voices in the face of long term pressures to conform to British and US standards’ (Brisbane 1971). The titles of articles at the time such as ‘Not Wrong – Just Different’ highlight the terms of the debate (Brisbane 1971). As Carrillo Gantner observes, there was a ‘feeling of being young pioneers out to remould Australia’ (1998). This is the mythology – male Anglo-Celtic Australian voices in a battle for space and recognition within an Anglo-centric imperial worldview.
The reception of the New Wave as ‘unique’ and part of a ‘discrete pocket of history’ has become more and more entrenched over time as this perspective continues to stand as a ‘truth’ (Brisbane 1999). The terms of respect established to validate the New Wave depend on declaring a terra nullius, or as one article announced, apparently without either irony or sensitivity, ‘a year zero’ (Graham 1999). Apart from the disservice this form of valorisation does the artists whose work preceded the late 1960s, it also excludes many people who contributed directly and/or indirectly to the phenomenon of the New Wave. The denial of ‘any history’, the declaration of terra nullius, is a constantly recurring theme in Australia. Australian theatre practice is an empty land. Then the young, white, intrepid, lone male explorers arrive on the scene. The mountains and the deserts are conquered. It is now safe for other souls to venture forth. But is it?
The first effect: the erasure of history
Since the 1890s, the search for ‘the Australian voice’, as a separate and special equivalence to self image and the resulting valorisations, have depended on a more or less explicit conception of cultural identity as a single static entity. Inherent in this tendency is the proposition that culture is an essence. Therefore, society is preconstituted, the result of a culture that is transparent and can be deciphered as a complete and finished totality (Olaniyan 1995).
In Australia, writers such as Ghassan Hage have explored the continued maintenance of this fantasy of the ‘white’ nation (1998). The importance of this fantasy and the resulting imagined nation is a key component in social and legislative practices in Australia. Celebrated mainstream cultural history and cultural nationalism rest on this idea of an ‘imagined community’. The history of Australian drama up to 1970 has often been presented as a series of isolated renaissances. This type of framing usually acknowledges Louis Esson and the Pioneer Players in the 1920s and Ray Lawler’sSummer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) in the 1950s as isolated incidents in a largely empty landscape. This picture usually concludes by placing the beginning of a real Australian voice on Australian stages as coinciding with the beginning of government systematic subsidy to the performing arts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The confusion between the history of subsidized theatre and the history of Australian drama hides a rich and varied field including the foundations of a range of traditions within Australian theatre practice. The Australian drama texts written prior to 1970, like the myths that present this period as a barren landscape, reflect particular social and political moments.
There are a number of reasons for the selective recognition of Australian drama and the denial or apparent invisibility of a large number of texts (Casey 2007). One important reason is that theatre in the Australian imagination has been heavily loaded with expectations that it will construct and give voice to the nation as a reflection, affirmation and formative event of a particular white, masculinist national identity. This national identity within the competing forces from the dominant settler society of cultural cringe and triumphal nationalism has been constructed as a singular voice. In many ways, Australian drama has fulfilled this demand to voice the national identity. However, this identity is not a singular voice but many different voices exploring Australian preoccupations, identities and struggles. Australian drama prior to 1970 examines, critiques and voices dominant and competing relationships with the landscape, attitudes and relationships between settlers and Indigenous Australian people, issues of identity and nationalism, relationships with migrants and issues of class and gender.
Implicit in many Australian drama texts is the question of who is and is not Australian, who or what type of person has sovereignty over the land and therefore the nation. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the nationalist enterprise that dominated the 1890s continued after the Federation of the Australian states in 1901. One of the features of the constructed nationalism of the 1890s was the creation of the legend of the Australian ‘man from the bush’. As Russell Ward argued, Australians generally actively identified the distinctive ‘bush’ ethos as an expression and symbol of nationalism (Ward 1958). This Australianism as defined by the Bulletin was racially and gender specific:
By the term Australian we mean not just those who were merely born in Australia. All white men who come to these shores with a clean record and who leave behind them the memory of the class distinctions and religious differences of the Old World; all men who place the happiness of their adopted land before imperialism … are Australians (Anon 1887).
In 1901 the Australian states became a federation. In the first year of the new Parliament of the Australian Federal Government, the Prime Minister Edmund Barton declared that it gave him pleasure ‘to place before this House a measure of definite and high policy’ (Anon 1907). The measure was the Immigration Restriction Bill that would establish nationally a ‘White Australia’ policy restricting immigration and citizenship for non-white people including those already resident. The speeches by politicians such as Alfred Deakin affirmed an understood link between the desired notions of Australian nationality and unity of race. It was presented as a fundamental principle of the Australian nation. This perception of the nation was complicated by the non-white members of the population and in particular by the presence of non-white Indigenous Australians. Women, of course, were not part of the discussion whether black or white.
By the mid-twentieth century, the mythology of the bush and the celebration of the ‘man of the bush’ had undergone a substantial transition into yet another legend. The ideal of the ‘man from the bush’ had been merged with the image of the Australian soldiers, the ANZACs, who fought in the First World War. The white Australian digger of the legend was enterprising and independent, loyal to his mates and to his country, brave in battle, and cheerfully undisciplined and contemptuous of military etiquette and the British officer class. According to the legend these qualities, fostered in the Australian bush, and immortalized in war, typified white Australians and white Australian society, a frontier land of equal opportunity in which enterprising men could make good. In both legends, the male bonding or mateship becomes the main characteristic in the description of Australianness, in a landscape that ignores the fact that the majority of white Australians live in cities. On a number of levels, the insistence of this narrative of Australian nationalism, relying on ‘bush’ values, represents an aspect of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s conceptualisation of white possession (Moreton-Robinson 2007). If the white man is nurtured by the bush as the ‘authentic’ Australia, and elides the fact that he largely resides in the coastal cities, he by default claims the country’s interior and further erases the sovereignty of Indigenous Australians. His physical presence, claiming the ‘bush’ as a white masculinist preserve, mirrors the planting of the British flag on Australian soil by Captain Cook. Australian theatre work has been dominated by representations of white Australian nationalism and sovereignty.
In Australian theatre, from the plays about the bushrangers in the nineteenth century, through the battlers on the land in texts in the early twentieth century, to the transitions in this image in Rusty Bugles (1948) and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll Australian issues, concerns and relationship with the nation have been represented as those of the Anglo Australian male. In effect, the claiming of the landscape of Australian theatre history by the white, male artists of the New Wave is the artistic equivalent of planting the flag; the territory of the ‘authentic’ Australian voice is theirs and theirs alone.
The focus here is not on the issue of access to Australian stages for Australian writers though it could be argued that moments of triumphal nationalism coincide with recognition of Australian voices. The focus here is on the increasing engagement with Australian cultural production within Australia that was progressively increasing in the 1960s and provided the foundation for the success of the New Wave. In the 1960s, the limited opening up of main stream and related theatres like the Old Tote in Sydney to new Australian work revealed plays such as Rodney Milgate’s A Refined Look at Existence (1966). Although the seasons, such as the Old Tote’s season of Australian plays, were not regarded as great successes, the work and the campaigns to stage it marked the beginning in the 1960s of the fight for recognition and space for Australian works that supported and enabled the New Wave. These precedents were not just in terms of Australian work but also more specifically opening up space for the kind of work produced by the New Wave. For example, Milgate’s play is an exploration of the colloquial Australian voice foregrounding the parodic and irreverent masculine Australian figure that featured so strongly as the larrikin or ocker figures in work in the 1970s.
The second effect: the erasure of contemporaneous theatre practice- Indigenous theatre practice
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Australian cultural production, like Australian cultures, was habitually vulnerable to accusations of derivation; indeed it still is vulnerable to those accusations. Drawing on Eurocentric paradigms, it was usual for the parameters of critical reception to assume English cultural ownership of both the form and content of Australian theatre. The reception and establishment of Australian cultures as special and particular within the template used to valorise the New Wave is locked into Eurocentric definitions of ‘other’ cultures that dominate the nineteenth century and a large amount of the twentieth. Euro-Australian culture in these terms must be unique, a self-contained unit that is intrinsically and essentially different. ‘The essential Ocker answers the essential salt of the earth John Bull’ (Casey 2000). As Katharine Brisbane’s article proclaimed, Australian work was not wrong, just different (1971). In this context, culture becomes a tangible object which people either do or do not possess. Specificity is not respected, it must be proven. The struggle is to prove the existence of this object in a context dominated by the parameters of denial. If it is accepted that previous work is not ‘authentically’ Australian then there has to be ‘a year zero’ – a clear demarcation between when we have ‘it’ and when we do not (Casey 2000).
Given the terms of its initial valorisation, New Wave work is important because it is accepted as uniquely Australian, separate and different from anything that precedes or surrounds it. The terms of difference are established on the basis of exclusion of the work and practitioners that preceded or contributed to the New Wave outside what is valorised. Exclusions of what does not fit the template are implicitly or explicitly justified on the grounds that their contribution could not have been important or unique (Casey 2000). When work by other voices is valorised it is through a parallel application of the template for acceptance that developed in relation to New Wave work, including the template of separation and negation of past work.
Within this process of validation the sequence of acceptance is critical. The New Wave work is given recognition first. Then the reception of work such as work by Indigenous artists is framed by the same terms used to celebrate the New Wave resulting in a dominant social memory that effectively negates past work that has not been recognized and cannot be if the New Wave is the marker that begins the process. Part of the process within this paradigm is the valorisation of the elements that fit at the expense of those that do not.
The New Wave mythology implicitly reaffirms the narratives of Aboriginality as lower on a cultural hierarchy, in need of help and guidance by the ‘pioneering’ Anglo-Celt. Splits and tensions between different cultural groupings are part of the history of Australian theatre. The dominance of one particular grouping has been locked into the social memory as an expression of their ‘superiority’ rather than another thread in the ongoing adjustments to colonialism.
The narratives and constructions that inform Australian history and commentary have undergone reviews and changes in the last thirty years. There have been a number of developments within critical theory aimed at exploring more dialogic paradigms of cultural difference and commonality. To apply Hayden White’s general principle, the changes in the cultural constructions underlying the critical commentary that defines much of the work by Indigenous Australian artists delineates a social history of Australian attitudes more than it delineates the work (1973).
One of the insidious powers of the New Wave mythology, like other versions of terra nullius, is that it must be displaced before we can see pre-existing practices, and that process of displacement is long and drawn out. The New Wave mythology is so dominant that even with the best of intentions, the careful researcher can be led astray. For example, in her research focussed on discovering and reconstructing alternative narratives, Casey has constantly found her thinking proscribed by the idea of a new beginning. Each time, that new beginning for Indigenous theatre practice proves to be much earlier than previously accepted – rather like the amount of time Indigenous peoples have lived on this land.
The third effect: the proscription of current theatre practice – the female playwright
Much has been said about the impact of the New Wave on women playwrights and makers of theatre. Without spending much time going over old ground, suffice it to say that we could characterise the New Wave as focussed on male playwrights and underwritten female characters, as reinforcing female stereotypes of passivity, and as redolent of a ‘larrikin’ blokiness that excluded female voices both on and off the stage – and be sure of the reader nodding and sighing heavily, because we have heard it all before. Feminist complaints about the New Wave have become a staple of commentary about the period. The work of identifying and documenting the masculinist emphasis of the New Wave is crucially important – and we will cite just a few examples to set the scene for what we like to add to that work. Fensham and Varney’s Doll’s Revolutionsummarises the erasure of women writers for the theatre:
From the post-war period through to the 1970s, women writers, many of them left-wing and experimental, had their role as playwrights eclipsed, their artistic contribution usurped and their public recognition stolen, by what John McCallum calls the ‘parvenu young men’ of the New Wave … (Fensham, Varney et al 2005:36).
Michelle Arrow’s book Upstaged outlines the history of women’s theatre writing in Australia (Arrow 2002). Arrow casts the lack of focus on this previously unwritten history in a generational light. Following Mark Davis’ Ganglands, she suggests that:
…the events of the late 1960s seemed to change everything… the playwrights who came before were seen as tired, out of date, with nothing to offer this younger, fresher generation (Arrow 2002:195).
Arrow goes on to cite the same quote from John McCallum, placing it in its context of a comment on the declining reputation of Mona Brand, who in a more equitable universe would undoubtedly be a major figure in Australian theatre history. To foreshadow our theory about the effect of the New Wave on women practitioners with a brief diversion – the Chamber’s Dictionary definition of ‘parvenu’ is: ‘person of low birth who has obtained riches or power: upstart’. Given the above outline of the importance of financial subsidies to the prominence of the New Wave, the first half of the definition has resonance. Within the context of the valorisation of the ‘larrikin’ tradition of the New Wave, its ‘refreshing’ vulgarity and its concentration on the vernacular, what might have been read as a rebuke on McCallum’s part could be seen as ironically complimentary, emphasizing as it does the essentially conservative Australian stereotype of the brash young man cutting through the niceties of a staid Australian theatre tradition. Like the legend of Ned Kelly, the Bulletin writers, and the often recited and related myth of the revival of the Australian film industry, the parvenu playwrights of the New Wave apparently arrived just in time to save Australian theatre from the strictures of an enforced and sterile gentility – a characteristic unsurprisingly often falsely attributed to women.
However, McCallum’s published views on theatre written and made by women since the New Wave are not even ironically complimentary. In 1999, the Australian published a look back at the century past and predictions for the future. McCallum’s contribution included a sidebar titled ‘Overrated people, organisations and events’. After putting paid to Louis Esson, The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the New Wave of the 1960s, McCallum offered us the following:
The Women’s Theatre Movement: Never happened. Throughout the 70s, Dorothy Hewett and Alma de Groen were the token women playwrights and huge critical efforts were expended to make their idiosyncratic, personal plays seem feminist. The few women’s theatre groups of the period have assumed an importance out of all proportion to their impact. The truth is that the bush drama Esson dreamed of became a reality in the 30s and 40s through the work of a new generation of women writers and producers, one of whom was his wife Hilda …Women’s experience has been brought into the theatre by the physical and contemporary performance theatre of the 80s and 90s (McCallum 1999).
Obviously there is a great deal to respond to in this short paragraph. It would be polite to assume that McCallum may have been flippantly controversial for the sake of good copy. It would possibly be considered impolite to say that it is always good to hear from an expert on authentic women’s experience. We would like to emphasize one important point – McCallum’s implicit assumption that work by women must constitute a movementto be of significance and have lasting impact. The plays of de Groen and Hewett are ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘personal’, therefore not feminist. Feminism is portrayed as monolithic, with a clear party line that is presumably driven by an implacable ideology – therefore cannot be as ‘authentic’ as the practitioners of ‘physical and contemporary performance theatre’ who followed, who are also implicitly not feminist.
The assumptions that underlie McCallum’s Saturday morning copy point to a particular thread in Australian culture that underpins the supposed dominance of the New Wave in Australian theatre. Fensham, Varney, and Arrow point to generational issues, the dominance of male artistic directors of building-based companies, the tendency of Australian culture to ‘blokiness’, and an increased sense of nationalistic fervour as reasons for that dominance, and they are undoubtedly correct. However, we would also suggest that Australian culture likes a group of mates who make good. Like the writers who coalesced around the Bulletin magazine, like the painters of the Heidelberg school, like those Angry Young Penguins, Australian culture constitutes the avant-garde as a group of male friends who are one step ahead of the pack. Australia is hardly alone in this, obviously. To take an eclectic group of examples from English literary and visual culture – the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the Bloomsbury group, the Angry Young Men all demonstrate this tendency for culture to be historically defined as a group or movement. The difference in this country is that whilst Virginia Woolf or Christina Rossetti could be argued as key members of two of these groups, in Australia women do not appear. In Australia, the avant-garde is always male, even in the face of the evidence. And we are always searching for the avant-garde in theatre. It must be new, it must be cutting-edge, and lately it must be that indefinable and mysterious thing – world-class. And we require a male artist to lead that avant-garde. As just one example, the body of work of Jenny Kemp is more innovative in form, more complex in conception and ultimately more satisfying in performance than anything that Barrie Kosky has produced since Gilgul, given his dependence on the traditions of vaudeville and the Yiddish theatre, and lately his repetition of the same motifs apparently regardless of his subject matter. Yet Kosky is avant-garde, and a candidate for a living icon award on the ABC’s Sunday Arts program, and Jenny Kemp, whilst valorised in the academy, is virtually unknown outside theatre circles. Women’s lack of self-promotion? Perhaps. But this disparity is just one example of the true legacy of the New Wave, and paradigmatic of its impact upon women practitioners. There is no blame in this statement. In fact, it could be said that the work of the New Wave artists themselves was so disparate and even ‘idiosyncratic’ that to suggest they constitute a group at all is drawing a long bow. But their historical impact is not based upon anything ‘new’ about their work. It is not based on their work at all. They are the fortunate inheritors of a tradition that anoints a group of male artists as the avant-garde, and excludes other voices from that beatitude. And to give a quick, partial, Melbourne-based and biased summary of the last few years, the search for the next avant-garde anointees goes on. Chameleon Theatre, Kosky’s Gilgul and the artists associated with it – like Michael Kantor, kickhouse, theatre@risk, Stuck Pigs Squealing. Women may be associated with these various enterprises, but they will never be characterised as the leading light. For the idea of the avant-garde is marked as male in this country, and we must, at all costs, be avant-garde and punching above our weight in the culture division.
Returning briefly to the generational argument, we offer a speculation in a larger context. One of the complaints often heard about the current wave of anti-globalisation protests is that they are fragmented, they cover too many causes, they do not really know why they are in the streets with banners. Anti-nuclear, stop the pulp mill, stop climate change, save the refugees, indigenous land rights, more money for the arts. Much of the commentary from those who still speak from the ‘boomer’ position at the time of the S11 protests in Melbourne, for example, contrasted this fragmentation with the moratoriums of the 1970s, pointing out that real change can only be achieved if everyone has the same, clear objective. If we march on behalf of a movement, rather than a personal passion, regardless of how worthy the individual causes may be. Perhaps real change might come when a diversity of causes, and peoples, are recognised as a legitimate reason to take to the streets. Perhaps one day, we might discuss the theatrical history of the late 1960s and early 1970s not as a group of brash young men, but as the complex and diverse work of individual artists, rather than yoking them to an ill-fitting and uncomfortable banner. And then, perhaps, the fact that women and Indigenous practitioners have consistently produced the most innovative, interesting, entertaining and avant-garde theatre in this country might actually be acknowledged.
Casey and Gallagher Bibliography
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