This paper reflects on research conducted twenty years ago into the APG that focused on the period 1969 to 1974. Working from the APG archives in the State Library, I analysed three of its productions: A Stretch of the Imagination, Don’s Party and The Floating World. I argued then the APG was a significant new cultural formation whose aim was to wrest control of history, language and theatre from a conservative anglophone elite. Through its evolving in-house blend of iconoclasm and larrikinism, APG artists and activists hoped to revivify a moribund Australian theatre culture. While the APG as a collective of diverse individuals was an interesting, often contradictory and volatile mix of the experimental and the larrikin, its unifying force was its articulation of a collective opposition to cultural imperialism in the form of British and American (but not European) drama, to censorship, the Liberal Party and ‘Vietnam’. Revisiting the production of The Floating World, this paper articulates how the text and its performance challenged dominant modes of theatrical representation.

This paper peers through two lenses: it reflects from the critical standpoint of the present on research I conducted almost twenty years ago on the early period of the Australian Performing Group (APG) from 1969 to 1974. The research was driven by an interest in the ways in which drama, theatre and performance consciously and unconsciously engage with their historical era or context, that in the case of the APG meant the politically and socially volatile period of the early nineteen seventies. I was also interested in ideology and the new approaches to theatre and performance analysis that had developed ways of reading not only mise en scène but its discourse. In other words, the shape of the research grew out a theoretical and critical interest in scenic writing, signifying processes, semiotics of performance, bodies and space. Working from archives in the State Library, I analysed the documentation of APG policies and practices as well as three of its productions – A Stretch of the Imagination, Don’s Party and The Floating World. I argued then that the APG was a significant cultural formation whose aim was to wrest control of history, language and theatre from what it saw as the conservative Anglophone elite that ran the country. That was its overt ideological claim. Its members hoped to not only make new theatre but theatre that freed itself from the ruling conservative ideologies of the day that had paralysed Australian politics, society and the arts. I suggested that the APG largely succeeded in creating an oppositional space within mainstream cultural life and that its productions could be read as texts inscribed and motivated by the production of a counter-cultural discourse. I also found that its radical potential was realized in its attempts to defamiliarise everyday life through its development of anti-naturalist staging practices (Varney 1989).

My analysis of the original APG production of John Romeril’s The Floating World showed how the naturalism and anti-naturalism opposition played out in the writing and staging of the work. Since my original work on the production, Helen Gilbert’s has traced the production history of The Floating World from 1974 to 1995 and notes that the play is by now one of the few Australian works to receive multiple performances. Gilbert finds that in addition to the play’s thematic concerns with the Australian war veteran, subsequent productions have become an important barometer of Australia’s relations with the Asian-Pacific region and specifically, Japan. Interestingly, she found that the 1995 Playbox Theatre production, directed by Makato Sato with a Japanese cast, finally addressed the questions of race and racism in the play ‘in a way anticipated, albeit obliquely, by the defiant anti-naturalism of the original APG production’ (Gilbert 2001: 62). In returning to the original production, this paper emphasises the central importance of anti-naturalism to the APG’s contribution to the New Wave.

The APG and anti-naturalism

John Romeril, along with director Lindzee Smith and actor John Hawkes, was one of the ‘Monash Lefties’ whose arrival at the APG is credited with shifting the original theatrical emphasis of the group to a more political one (Timlin 1973). Romeril played a key role developing the APG style of politically committed dramatic writing. In The Floating World we see how the political issues of the day – principally opposition to the war in Vietnam – were woven into the content of his play. He also took steps to avoid reproducing in rehearsal the same social relations he criticised in his plays recalling, ‘there was never a question of a majority tyrannising a minority’ (Romeril 1988). He was an early experimenter with democratic theatre practices that has continued through his long career in the theatre.

To briefly remind readers of the play’s central character, The Floating World features Les Harding, a former prisoner-of-war, who is overwhelmed by memories of the war in the Pacific. He is a working class Australian, a ‘fellow human being’, who is accorded the emotional vulnerability of a recognisable and believable social type, and who, despite his overt racism and his sexism, is deserving of sympathy. This was the view given by the playwright in an interview in 1988 (Romeril 1988). Yet the text does not draw a naturalistic character, but a stylised one, a cultural stereotype tending towards caricature but who retains the capacity for serious social commentary. So while the play tells a powerful Australian story about the experience of war, that offers as Gilbert has recognized, ‘a masterful evocation of human suffering’ (Gilbert 2001: 61), the stage directions specify a stylised visual and gestural system. The original production turned the play into a particularly powerful vehicle through which the post-war generation could voice its opposition to another Asian war, the war in Vietnam. Other concerns that filtered through the play were: the working class experience of the second World War that was favourably contrasted with the arrogance of the officer class, the racism and sexism with which the same working class male oppresses women and Asians and of the silent suffering that grows in between the appearance and the felt reality of this persona.

As a text, The Floating World contains both naturalist and anti-naturalist elements that a performance can exploit to a greater or lesser extent. On the page, Les Harding is both a textual and a performance possibility, a dramatic convention, a character that will be transformed into a theatrically and socially constructed type through which various cultural presuppositions are reproduced, transformed and/or radically deconstructed. The 1974 APG production directed by Lindzee Smith incorporated the naturalism – anti-naturalism dialectic into its structure as an aesthetic form through which radical and conservative views interacted. Designer Peter Corrigan and Smith had spent time studying and working in the ‘new theatre’ movement in New York and San Francisco where radical performance practice placed theatre at the heart of cultural revolution. Their contribution to the development of an APG performance style, and specifically to the production of The Floating World shortly after both had returned from the United States, has not received due critical recognition. The documentation of the 1974 Pram Factory production allows a glimpse into the the emerging importance of design and direction work in the performance-making process. There is evidence of a workshop approach that offers insights the particular way in which Romeril acting on behalf of the APG practised its commitment to democratic decision-making.

The scenario for the play is that Les Harding and his wife Irene have been given, by their daughter and son-in-law, two tickets on the Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Tour of Japan.

IRENE …I still can’t get over it. And coming from the two of them like that, out of the blue. I knew Marge had her head screwed on right when she married Stan. Sensible, like her mum. And the suitcases, what a lovely thought (Romeril 1985: 10).

But the holiday is a disaster. They never arrive at their destination. Les’s uncouth, sexist and racist behaviour dominates the early part of the play that is both comic and satirical. However, as the ship floats towards its destination, Les is increasingly haunted by memories of his time as a POW in Changi. His abusive behaviour, especially towards the Asian waiter, is revealed as a thin cover for a fragmented and damaged psyche. The play is about the shipboard journey and by the end of the play Les is in a straitjacket and facing ‘an institutionalised future’ (Romeril 1985: 95).

What was radical about its staging?

As I have indicated, the production was notable for its democratic decision-making and its belief in what we would now call an aesthetics of process over the emphasis on the end-product. Amongst the documentation is a letter Romeril wrote to the APG members urging them to attend a series of workshop readings of his new play. The letter was called ‘An Autopsy’, a title that suggests that the text needs to be cut open to discover its inner workings. Romeril wanted to:

. . . get as many minds as possible working on the problem of how a production of The Floating World can be made to epitomise the APG’s performance goods (Romeril 1974a).

This suggests that for Romeril, the written text is the product of individual labour and, left at that, it would contravene the collectivist principles that he believed constituted the basis of the APG as a theatre group.

The letter demanded a specific response,

I would hope that by Monday a significant number of APG members […] will have acquired a tolerably thoroughgoing knowledge of the play and a strong sense of what’s likely to happen to it once directorial, design and acting skills are brought to bear on it during rehearsal. I want that knowledge myself, that awareness, so I can strengthen the play accordingly. This is the kind of support I have always expected – at an ideological level – from the APG. It is not the kind of support texts, mine, Jack’s or anyone’s, have always received (Romeril 1974a).

There is a hint of tension between the writers and the ensemble and it appears that Romeril’s leadership is critical to the process – the APG product does not automatically emerge at the spontaneous will of the people or the playwright. The problem of how to get from the individualised page to the collectivised stage was one of the challenges undertaken by the team. The letter urged members to consider the text as open, offering members the opportunity to play more than one role in the creative process:

To throw the book at this book of mine. It is a flexible text – in terms of casting, staging, interpretation. I want to know what makes us happiest. I want a consensus performance. I want the actor, the writer, the director in all of us to manifest in terms of the text. I want its rhythms [sic] plumbed, its possibilities explored (Romeril 1974a).

In the interview conducted for the original study fifteen years later, Romeril did not actually recall having written the letter. His reflections on the not-remembered letter are however interesting and worth citing:

Frankly I don’t recall how it was received or perceived, just as I don’t recall writing it. The drift is a good enough indicator I suppose or where the company was at, the things that were on the company’s mind. I don’t think of myself as an instigator in such matters. It’s hardly the case that I was an ideological pacesetter. The collectivist principles, the whole thing of worker control was very much on our minds, but it wasn’t something any of us invented, we took it from the milieu (Romeril 1988).

These reflections remind us of the broader social movement of which the A PG was a part and how the language of the milieu was a signifier of commitment to certain radical ideals and of belonging. That Romeril would go on to participate in workers’ theatre, especially as a founding member of Melbourne Workers Theatre shows, however, that his modest denials of being a ‘pacesetter’ understate the important role he went on to play in the continuation of the APG’s radical agenda in other companies.

Romeril was in effect arguing the case against the privileging of the written text – claiming, instead, that the performance ought to subsume its constituent parts, even the playwrighting. Historically, the production of The Floating World constituted a radical break with the idea of the sole-authored text and of the stage servile to it. Romeril wrote:

performance is the mediation of all our various and often…particular skills…I want us to come to grips with the problem of making ‘my’ play ‘our’ play, making my bundle of words and hunches our ‘ours’ (Romeril 1974a).

The letter can also be read as a position statement. The discourse indicates a desire to persuade and points to the many shades of opinion that animated the APG. As Romeril later said with diplomatic understatement, ‘People’s ideas of what “APG-ism” was about varied’ (Romeril 1988).

But there were further pressures for the playwright that Romeril later acknowledged in the following way.

Whilst I was attracted to the notion of animating the Ensemble . . . building the ensemble, getting it on side, there is still a sense of the author delivering a script (Romeril 1988).

It is possible to glimpse a pre-performance text at work interpreting the written character and working towards its transition into performance. Romeril refers to himself in the letter as the project director and playwright. Discussions had centred on the characterisation of Les, Irene and Robinson, who it was felt, ought to be ‘glimpsed as rounded figures and not as masks or caricatures’ (Romeril 1974b). It is interesting to note the actors’ doubts about the dramatic potential of caricature with the actors feeling they needed a ‘fleshier subtext to work on’ (Romeril 1974b). It appears that the dramatic power of mise en scene, of scenic writing and the signifying power of the body in space were not yet fully recognized by the actors who were, understandably, cautious about an alternative mode of performance. Character and author-centred critics were always going to reinforce the model of the rounded psychological character. Leonard Radic, for instance, wrote that the play worked because ‘Romeril does not caricature his prototype ugly Aussie … he is saved from caricature by his suffering’ (Radic 1974). Radic’s re-imposition of the unified character of conventional realism ran counter to the impulse towards stylisation and theatricalisation that marked the staging of the play. The APG asserted that caricature and the larrikin-style could make serious points about human suffering to a theatre audience that was willing to receive it that way.

Like the critics, the actors were still unsure about caricature and expressed a desire for more rounded characters to work on. Romeril agreed in principle that some work could be done on the text to accord Irene and Robinson the fullness given to Les. ‘To work it through’, an extra rehearsal slot, called ‘pre-rehearsal’ was established in which suggestions were made and discussed by all interested members (Romeril 1974b). Here we see how structural changes evolved to accommodate new working methods and that a model evolved for theatrical change to occurr through negotiation rather than imposition. Proposals from the ‘pre-rehearsal’ meetings went to the customary Project Meetings. These Project Meetings were held in the already established programming slot that was a routine organisational practice for all APG productions. In these meetings final decisions regarding directors, designers and casting were made after which rehearsals would begin in earnest. There discussions would continue on questions of interpretation, textual revision, use of space and visual design. Clearly, the performance was to be, on this occasion a collective effort. The documentation of the performance supports the APG’s self-definition as a collective enterprise. Its internal working processes ensured that it was more than the single playwright’s voice that spoke through a production.

The collective approach was also felt to produce a better show and one of the legacies of the APG has been a wider acceptance of the ensemble approach to performance-making. Romeril recalls some important textual revisions that occurred during pre-performance, in particular the collage scenes. This was the case with Scene 11, ‘Oh What a Lovely War’. In this instance, we see that the text can give a performance room to move, that it can in fact be suggestive rather than authoritative or prescriptive. Romeril cites the research conducted by Wilfred Last (who played McLeod) as an instance of the textual revision that occurred during pre-performance. The heavy jingoism of the written text was tempered by the research conducted by the performers themselves. Last’s research had shown evidence for U.S. atrocities during the Pacific War, which shifted the object of critique from Japan to war (Romeril 1988).

Meanwhile, the APG Newsletter suggested a critical framework for the reception of the performance. Set against a quotation from The Nation Review, in which Rohan Rivett referred to the feeling of victimization amongst Japanese pilgrims to Hiroshima, the APG replied:

Possibly The Floating World is as unbalanced, [as the Japanese sense of being wronged at Hiroshima] being written from an Australian point of view. Hopefully, it will convince its audience at a level deeper than that of jingoistic outrage and affront. Hopefully it is saying that war is destructive of our humanity, not just in terms of death tolls but in terms of the psychic damage it visits on the survivors, who are, after all, the only people in a position to achieve redress (APG 1974a).

The Newsletter assisted in the construction, among other things, of the discourse of the performance. Of prime significance was that history would be retold by the Carlton avant-garde. The venue for the performance, the Pram Factory in Carlton, inscribed its own signature on the official Cherry Blossom setting for the drama. The building, a former factory, had been appropriated, ‘liberated’, by the APG for the cultural revolution they were enacting. By 1974, the name itself signified experimentalism and radicalism – an audience went there knowing only that they would not be seeing a mainstream theatrical production. In 1973, John Timlin was already referring to it as `the focal point of much of Carlton’s intellectual, artistic and political life’ (Timlin 1973).

The performance’s substitution of a fictional APG badge for that of the RSL on the publicity poster is further evidence of the anti-authoritarian feelings that energised the performers. It transgressed the convention of uncritical respect for the RSL and anticipated the time, erroneously as we now know, when an alternative culture would displace the dominant RSL ethos. One of the subtexts of the promotional material is the discourse of the APG. As it enters the cultural market place regulated by box office and grant, it is promoting itself as a radical and political cultural force.

Scenography and staging

The text’s anti-naturalistic fragmented sense of time and place was extended in Peter Corrigan’s set design. As the production moved from pre-performance into performance, interpretive decisions were given material stage form. Peter Corrigan’s design interpreted the play’s setting as a stylised cruise ship’s sun deck. He took Romeril’s fragmented scenes and translated them into separate performance spaces. The complexity and density of the stage design, which bothered some critics, mirrored and extended the increasingly claustrophobic world in which Les was caught between his past and his present.

The acting and audience space were both enclosed in ‘a green cage’ constructed out of the chicken wire that surrounded the performance area (Romeril 1985: xxxi; APG 1974b). Those of us who were not present at the original performance can imagine how the chicken wire enclosure delineated a theatrical space in which the actors and the audience appeared to be caught. The spectators entered through an enclosed space to participate in the action as if they were seated on deckchairs on board the cruise ship. The parodic and comic elements of the visual design system would be apparent, particularly in avant-garde Carlton. The spectator might also at this point detect a superior attitude on the part of the APG to its dramatic subjects. Might it also be that the spectator is so estranged from the world of the Cherry Blossom Tour that she will be unable to empathise with her fellow captives, Les and Irene Harding? Remarkably, empathetic and anti-naturalist intentions were materialised in the spatial metaphor constituted by the chicken wire enclosure. The spectators were placed in the dramatic world alongside the characters, but, at the same time, they were estranged by the overall effect of the stage signification system. In this way, the spectators were positioned both inside and outside the dramatic world.

In these important ways there was no mistaking the anti-naturalist intentions of the performance. Within the enclosure was set an oval rostrum designed to suggest the prow of a ship. A green painted floor cloth covered the surface of the rostrum suggesting the artificial grass to be found on a cruise ship’s deck. The green was doubly metaphoric, referring to both the artificiality of stage naturalism and the simulation of the village green on the cruise ship. It parodied the society of the simulacrum in which the image, literally the colour green, has so effectively replaced the real thing, actual grass, that we iconise our icons.

A red zigzag was painted along the side of the rostrum suggesting a circus, which focused the thematic and stylistic elements of the drama: the theatre of war, its mad circus and its tragedy. The zigzags also set up a visual echo to Harry the narrator and musician’s drum. It was as if the performance conspired to ridicule Les, who was oblivious to the comic absurdity of the set upon which he stood. The set also, by implication, mocked its own staging in a self-parodic gesture that further distanced the sophisticated APG from its naive and comic hero.

Finally, two naturalistic striped canvas deckchairs occupied the space midway between the funnels and Spence (Hawkes 1974). The stage combined metonymic, metaphoric and naturalistic elements for the realisation of the dramatic whole. That is to say, the stage blended elements of the radical and the mainstream theatrical tradition. It is significant that the deck chairs on which the actors sat signified naturalism, while their utterances took place within the anti-naturalist form in which the mise en scene was constituted. As the play begins, Les and Irene sit on the deckchairs sunning themselves before lunch, oblivious to their theatrical surroundings. The performance thus effectively signaled its distance from the characters whose placement in the set estranged them from the naturalism their costume and linguistic system initially evoked.

Casting choices further distanced the performance from the dramatic world. As Les and Irene sit on deckchairs sunning themselves before lunch oblivious to their theatricalisation on the APG’s stylised set, a very young Bruce Spence could hardly be a WW2 veteran any more than musician, actor and comedian, Jane Clifton, was a grandmother or likely to take a Women’s Weekly Tour. The casting distanced the APG from the textual Les and Irene in ways that later productions that cast against racial type further estranged the character, presenting him as a figure for observation as well as empathy. For instance, Peter Cummins, who was originally pegged for the role, would have constituted a more naturalistic casting decision. In other words, that which moves towards naturalism – that part of the performance, which imitates everyday language and mannerisms – was pulled back into anti-naturalism by the design and casting. The naturalism of the character was therefore offset or questioned by the staging that interrupted audience identification and sympathy.

In conjunction with casting, the costume also yields much cultural and ideological information. The costume list for the original production designated three sets of clothes for Les: his cruise wear, his army gear and his straitjacket. Les, in the present of the play, wears what is listed as ‘a small nasty brown hat with white band’, a pale fawn cardigan, dark trousers, an orange shirt, braces, white slip-ons and dark socks. He is also assigned a big straw hat (APG 1974c).

Some consideration can be given to the presuppositions inscribed in the designation of Les’s ‘horrible brown hat’. The visual and gestural signs Spence carries on his body are the ‘attitudinal markers’, which indicate the APG’s notion of how class shapes behaviour and character (Elam 1984: 76). It states that either Les lacks taste, just like, according to the logic of association, the Australian working class male to which he refers, or, he wears it deliberately to defy middle class dress codes. The later MTC Les, in towelling hat and shorts, was an ocker, a member of a specific and recognisable social type; his defiance and oddity modified. The APG Les Harding in lace-up shoes and braces is defiant and out of place. The text has Les on more than one occasion expressing his contempt for the falseness of shipboard life and his determination to transgress the bounds of polite behaviour. The contrast between Les and his wife’s attitudes in Scene 4 ‘A Letter Home’ is a good example. Les finds the cruise as objectionable. On this point, character and spectator share a common attitude to commercial culture. The condition of possibility for an empathetic response to Les is created by the text and the performance conveys this intention through the visual system available to it. The hat functions in this reading as a concretization of Les’s feelings of estrangement from and resentment towards the cruise. In this instance, text and performance are complementary theatrical systems.

The naturalism – anti-naturalism dialectic between everyday language and its theatrical situation of utterance can be examined more closely in a mise en scene early in the performance. In the crucial first scene, Les is presented as a working class male, who is socially ill-at-ease on the deck of a cruise ship. He is seasick and is dressed in Sunday rather than Holiday gear. His behaviour is, however, enacted in a crudely confrontational style. The APG accords with the text over Les’s bitter resentment towards the upper classes, particularly ‘British Navy chaps’. With Robinson as a caricature of that class, (Robert Meldrum ‘dodders comically as a retired admiral’), audience sympathy is again directed towards Les whose fate as a POW is clearly linked with his working class origins (Jillett 1974). The spectator has two areas of agreement with Les: his hatred of the cruise and his understanding of how his class position largely determined his war experience. However, standing on the comic set, built more for a circus than a tragedy, both characters appear as dramatic representations for critical observation rather than empathy. One can imagine the set pulling the empathy producing elements of the dialogue back to a more APG centred perspective. What was this perspective? As light focuses on him, Les stands at the tip of the rostrum facing the audience and ‘vomits’ (Romeril 1985: 6; Hawkes 1974b). It was as if his gestural system has aligned itself with Les’s verbal contempt for Robinson.

But the gesture also had a shock value. In choosing to defy the social code, this gestic act indicated the realm of social relations brought to bear on the situation, underlining Les’s contempt, displayed throughout, for the cruise, the Asian waiter, his wife, Robinson, and his life situation. But more significantly, it reproduced the social dialectic of conflicting class relations. The performance complied with Les’s anger, defiance and bitterness. It also demonstrated his powerlessness to change his life. His vomiting symbolized a combination of helplessness and defiance in the face of immovable social structures.

The Captain of the Dippy Birds

The naturalism- anti-naturalism dialectic between everyday language and its theatrical situation of utterance can be examined more closely in the dramatic representation of Les’s mental breakdown that takes place in a series of events. These events are accompanied by material representations including stage objects stipulated by the text, such as the dippy bird, green lighting effects, verbal representations of the Japanese soldiers Les imagines he hears and the actualized stage presence of and Les’s dialogue with the characters he imagines. A sub-world, described in the text as ‘internal scenes’, is created for Les in which the material objects interact with the verbal system to activate a symbolic system that stands for the state of Les’s mind.

One of these material objects, the dippy bird, has an intriguing stage presence and indicates a further radical advance made in this production. Letting the stage as well as the characters speak was a new development in Australian theatre, that forty years later is still to be widely adopted. The dippy bird as stage object was inscribed with a range of dramaturgical and cultural significations that tell us much about the times. The activating of the toy by the waiter dressed as a Japanese Army Officer, and the way in which it dramatically counterposes Les’s monologue, adds several layers to the play’s significance.

The Captain of the Dippy Birds is a figment of Les’s imagination played by the waiter dressed as a Japanese Army Officer.

WAITER: One, Firstly, set down Bird’s head completely into the water to get wet. Two, balance Bird’s by inserting the cross piece into the 2 slots provided by the stand . . . Three, Water in glass filled every time . . . (Romeril 1985:9).

When he has finished, the Officer grins widely. This performance within the performance is ritually enacted four times at key moments in the drama. The spectator increasingly ‘sees’ the dippy bird’s appearance as the concretisation of Les’s mental condition. Contrary to the critics’ and the actors’ beliefs that dramatic impact resides in the fully rounded speaking character, it is evident that dramatic power is a much more complex phenomenon. In this instance, it is the simultaneous production of empathy and critical distance through estrangement that produces the most powerful and memorable political statement of performance. Les and the Dippy Bird are the focus of an interaction which has consequences for the kind of dramaturgy being developed by the performance. By the time the waiter sets up the fourth and last dippy bird, Les has entered his final stream of consciousness. Setting the poetics of a verbally-articulated nightmare against the mechanized inanity of the toy, suggests that it is not Les’s nightmare that appalls – in fact it has great poetic qualities – but the meaningless of it. The performance can be seen to have incorporated into itself the dialectical relation between two theatrical systems, the verbal and non-verbal, the shown and the showing, the said and the saying. This dichotomy is linked to two theatrical modes of representation, the life-like naturalist and the symbolic. One aims at identification, and quotes a social type; the other is an estranged, dialectical commentary. One can imagine the more life-like stage objects contesting the absurdity of the anti-naturalist elements, the one working to build up authenticity, the other collapsing by foregrounding the illusion making-business of the stage.

In the final minutes, the four dippy birds form a square around Les, who is bound in a straitjacket and deeply immersed in recounting terrifying memories. The controversial word stream that ends the performance again asserts the primacy of the linguistic over the visual and gestural systems, which contest it. Les is physically bound in a white cloth, metonymically representing a straitjacket and carrying with it several further connotations of injury and hospitalisation. Wrapped in the white cloth and bound to the stretcher, Les’s condition is communicated through the physicalisation of his mental state into the desperate movements of the actor’s body. His gestures act as powerful metaphors both contributing to and distracting from the spoken words and constitute a dialectic of language and gesture.

The deconstruction of the lead actor has dramaturgical effects which can be seen to coincide with the political and aesthetic values of the APG, without suggesting that the link is as intentional as a simple reflection model might suppose. The visual and gestural systems work to bring out from underneath the verbal system the truer reality that is suppressed or not accounted for by words. In the process, the notion of the heroic digger is estranged and reconstructed as the myth that hides the real human suffering in war.


Mindful of The Age critic Martin Ball’s recent critique of the timidity of the 2007 MTC season for its lack of ‘interpretive flair’, and the absence of ‘some leap of the imagination using the tools available to a director’, there is much that can be mined from the creative advances and mistakes of the much younger and comparatively amateur practitioners at the APG (Ball 2007: 11).

Reflecting on those two time frames, that is, on the view from 1988 of the theatrical activism of the late sixties and early seventies, from the present vantage point of 2008, thirty years later, I can confidently assert that the APG’s lasting impact was its promotion of social and politically engaged theatre. It helped reshape theatre as a political force, as a tribunal for the evaluation of social values and as a platform for dissent. I also reiterate the importance of anti-naturalism to the realization in practice of its radical political and artistic program.


APG (1974a). ‘APG Newsletter’, Australian Performing Group Archive, MS 11436, State Library, Victoria, Box 50

APG (1974b). Stage Plan for the original production. MS 11436

APG (1974c). Costume List, The Floating World 1974 APG Production, MS 11436

Ball, Martin (2007). “Let’s raise the curtain on fresh thinking”, The Age, 24 September

Elam, Keir (1984). The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen)

Gilbert, Helen (2001). “Cultural Frictions: John Romeril’s The Floating World”, Theatre Research International Vol. 26, no. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hawkes, Ponch (1974). Production photograph, Australian Performing Group Archive, Box 50

Jillett, Neil (1974). ‘Propaganda that works’, The Sun, August 1974, Australian Performing Group Archive, 1974, Box 50

Radic, Leonard (1974). The Age, 9/8/1974, Australian Performing Group Archive, 1974. Box 50

‘APG Newsletter’, Australian Performing Group Archive, 1974, Box 50

Romeril, John (1974a). Notice to APG members entitled ‘An Autopsy’, Australian Performing Group Archive, MS 11436, State Library, Victoria, Box 50

Romeril, John (1974b). Report of rehearsal meetings, Australian Performing Group Archive, 1974, Box 50

Romeril, John (1985). The Floating World (Sydney: Currency Press)

Romeril, John (1988). Author’s interview with John Romeril 9/12/1988 in “The Australian Performing Group: Text and Performance”, unpublished Masters thesis, University of Melbourne

Timlin, John (1973). “Pramocracy: the Alternative Theatre in Carlton” Australian Performing Group Archive, MS 11436, State Library, Victoria, Box 7

Varney, Denise (1989). “The Australian Performing Group: Text and Performance”, unpublished Masters thesis, University of Melbourne