Recent media debate in Australian theatre has wrestled with the place of new writing in the repertoire, the role of classic adaptations and the rise of auteur directors – a debate that carries a history of swinging between nationalist and internationalist perspectives. While much discussion focuses on the question of whether and how national identity is relevant to contemporary performance practice, situated at the periphery of the debate is an intrinsic, if unarticulated, force in Australian theatre: forgetting. Using the concepts of memory and forgetting as keystones, this paper charts some broad trends in the making of the Australian repertoire before arriving at a close reading of Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin (1979) and Nowhere (2001). Working with the idea that memory is a force that shapes Australian theatre, the paper argues that the presentation of memory in performance can be used to resist hegemony.
In 2013, media debate surrounding young Australian director Simon Stone was nothing short of polemic. Headlines reading, ‘The perfect storm: playwright vs. director’, ‘Theatre debate is a generational battle for the ages’, and ‘Theatre directors are hooked on classics as the adaptation takes over’ (Croggon, 2013; Myers, 2013; Neill, 2013), entrenched a dichotomy between playwrights who advocate producing new Australian drama and a new generation of directors adapting classic works. The tone of the adaptation debate was inflamed by its treatment of the relationship between nationalism and Australian theatre. More recently, in his keynote address at the National Play Festival, Andrew Bovell reflected on nature of the debate by asking:
When we re-visit the classics do we simply continue to draw on a vast history of whiteness that has dominated and shaped western theatre? Does it in effect entrench the privileged position that whiteness holds in our theatre and in our culture? (Bovell, 2014)
His passionate speech highlights that while nationalism in Australia has come to mean whiteness, it is not something that is necessarily circumvented by reaching across culture. Instead Bovell notes a ‘craving for a theatre that is particular to our time and place and past and future’ (Bovell, 2014). This appears to be a craving to remember a national story without reinforcing a kind of nationalism that fades ‘back to white’ (Bovell, 2014). Defining nationalism is problematic, especially in the context of Australia’s theatre, but for the purposes of this paper it can be described using Benedict Anderson’s concept of an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 2006:6). Anderson’s position suggests that the emergence of nationalism ‘[brings] with [it] characteristic amnesias’ (Anderson, 2006: 204) and it is this aspect of nationalism’s ‘imaginative process’ that will be explored here. What Bovell appears to be advocating another way of imagining the Australian community, what we could call a ‘critical nationalism’ (Johanson & Glow, 2009), which aims to open the national imagination by stripping away the hegemonic tendencies that he describes in terms of whiteness. Certainly the memories of nationalism, and the memories it can invoke, have had impact on Australian theatre. However, the adaptation debate saw a dichotomy, ‘it’s either Australian or its not,’ reinforce a diminished imaginative process. This ‘either/or’ thinking has deeper roots. John McCallum suggests for most of the twentieth century Australian drama can be characterised by ‘periods of strident nationalism, interspersed with times of outward-looking internationalism’ (McCallum, 2009: 5). The cultural habit of swinging between nationalist and internationalist perspectives, values and play texts, has come to form ‘the material world and the ideas [of the present]… and will continue to do so unless we take active steps to unmake their consequences’ (Morris-Suzuki cited in Lo, 2013: 355). So if we view the adaptation debate as symptomatic of this cultural swing, we can see what arises from the swing is a monocular vision of what Australian theatre should be, compounded by the assumption that nationalism equates to whiteness, this inevitably diminishes Australian drama and the national repertoire. The ‘either/or’ thinking necessarily excludes and forgets. However, by acknowledging the intrinsic, if unarticulated force, of forgetting it is possible to foster a critical approach in understanding nationalism’s impact, and to resist hegemonic forces. While the question of adaptation is not central to this work, Simon Stone sees his own practice as a way of acknowledging ‘the tension of being here and now and then’ (cited in Targe,t 2013. Emphasis added). Taking this sentiment, it is clear that the way Australia remembers its past is pivotal in shaping its present condition, but there is also a need to transform and break from the cultural swing. By pursuing a repertoire with a diversity of play texts rooted in the particular condition of place (Australia and its history), we situate our theatre as being here and now and then. This is the pathway to a practice that can resist the whiteness that tends to manifest in the nationalist and internationalist perspectives and imaginations.
First, to clarify the concept of the cultural swing, AA Phillips’ essay ‘The Family Relationship’ gives a parallel. In a survey of nineteenth-century Australian literature, Phillips asserts that colonialism’s psychological influence leaves Australians ‘still not quite sure whether to be proud or ashamed of ourselves’ (Phillips, 2006:61). For Phillips, this uncertainty manifests as the Cultural Cringe, and pushes both readers and writers to go for certainty instead (Phillips, 2006: 62). So the cultural swing is not a reflection of shifts in taste, it is the decision to exclude, even reject, ambiguity. In effect, the cultural swing is like trying to read text without acknowledging negative space, or listening to music without acknowledging silence. In Australian theatre, the influence of the swing informs audiences, critics and practitioners. John McCallum’s examination of theatre criticism between 1955 and 1978 highlights this fact. Noting the development of an exclusive language of critical description has narrowed down the content and style of Australian drama, his central argument is that ‘reviewers and critics have had a significant impact on writers […] and writers […] have suffered when they have not fitted the mould’ (McCallum, 1981: 243). So the cultural swing contains the relationships between practitioners, audiences and critics, but also imposes a kind of relationship that rejects ‘different’ writers. This symptom sees particular playwrights canonised and some forgotten. The accumulative effect of this process changes institutional values and allows a shrinking and replicable repertoire to emerge. The cultural swing can be resisted, however, if Australian theatre remembers its position in making and interpreting the world.
It is useful to pull out some threads from the adaptation debate to trace how they weave into an on-going cultural commentary that has historically informed the theatrical landscape in Australia. Importantly there is some overlap because both sides of this apparent divide are concerned with the creation of new work. If new play texts and practitioners bring new audiences, then ‘new-ish’ adaptations could also, in theory, revitalise them. However, adaptations cause unease because it can be argued that theatre, as an ‘expensive collaborative art form…[will] look for safe bets with a ready audience – and that usually means adaptations’ (Hutcheon, 2006: 87). So Stone-style adaptations are unpalatable to some critics because they suggest a new generation of directors making safe commercial decisions rather than taking risks, which in turn leads to a perceived inversion of the values of play development. Rather than new and untested texts emerging, being tested and then produced, newish productions of known and celebrated texts take their place. In his defence of Stone, Ralph Myers claims that playwrights are theatre-makers, distinct from literary writers, and warns critics not to exile commercially successfully practitioners or Australia will have ‘nothing left to dig up and sell’ (2013). This position freights an unacknowledged economic rationalism, which privileges the box office as yardstick, but is also ‘to the detriment of the creative process which underpin the sector’s long term viability’ (Glow, 2007: 4). Of course, we cannot have theatres without audiences, but Myers’ response reminds Stone’s critics that his production of Wild Duck was the hit of an international festival (2013). This indicates the power of the cultural swing and its divided mentality, where international and commercial success is good, and national and commercial risk is bad. It indicates that Australian theatre is heavily invested in presenting itself as vibrant, young and successful, as being here and now but not ‘then’.
Rosemary Neill’s interviews with a number of playwrights and directors suggest that the apparent adaptation trend shows a decline in the literary values of plays. Through the interviews Neill asserts that adaptations are not all equipped to address the immediacy of contemporary Australian culture, but complicates this idea by bringing questions of national identity to the fore (2013). The specific question of whether classic adaptations can be a sign of cultural confidence or a story of cultural domination (Meyrick, 2013: 8) sits outside the boundaries of this work. In her reassessment of the debate, however, Alison Croggon optimistically argues, ‘What has actually happened is that adaptations and other kinds of collaboration have built an entirely new stage’ (2013). While this comment suggests growth and diversity in the Australian repertoire, it severs the link between Australian theatre and nationalism, and in so doing reduces a significant challenge to a matter of taste. Croggon neglects the fact that theatre is an ‘artistic, economic and institutional entity’ (Meyrick, 2005: 1). Australian theatre has a past; the trouble is that it is easy to forget. Nevertheless, by extracting the ideas in the adaptation debate, it is possible to see what is forgotten in the heat of an argument. Shifts in institutional forces and the lingering role of nationalism shapes the here and now. So the memory of these forces forms the theatrical landscape, which indicates there is some value in remembering both the past through Australian plays, and remembering Australian plays of the past to resist the influence of the cultural swing.
It is worth stepping outside the 2013 debate to take a long view. In broader surveys of Australian theatre two key ideas reoccur, and are telling in regard to the vitality of a repertoire. There has been a decline in small and middle-sized theatre companies (Milne, 2004; Meyrick, 2005), and the effect of this gap is compounded on a cultural level by the tendency to forget. While Major Organisations have inherited programming structures from New Wave companies, the actual repertoire is shrinking (Milne, 2004; Meyrick, 2005). This is partially a result of a reaction against nationalism’s role in Australian theatre. Peter Fitzpatrick’s comments concerning the New Wave argued the preoccupation with Australianness was ‘so confined to one sex and one generation that its vision of Australian society is inevitably not only narrow but distorting’ (1979: 18). It is important to note that in this reaction against a particular kind of nationalism there is a trace of forgetfulness. However, the role of memory is supplanted by the effects of the cultural swing. In the mid-nineties, the concept of Australianness appeared to be in flux, with a raised awareness of Indigenous, migratory and multicultural voices, and the prospect of an Australian Republic pointed to the fact that ‘the paradoxes of the present Australian culture, the myths that embody them, the values that underlie them and the audiences that receive them may well be on the verge, too, of a new and major transformation’ (Carrol, 1995:378). The prospect of transformation, however, met commentary that settled on the notion that ‘interest in the classics perhaps represents, in a new generation, the latest turn in the great cycles between nationalism and internationalism’ (McCallum, 2009: 378). In spite of a raised awareness of multiple memories working in Australia, the cultural swing continued. Certainly Australianness has been tied to accessing subsidy (Croggon, 2010: 57), so the production of new work is inevitably tied to a nationalist discourse, but this summary demonstrates that a limited vision of nationalism has excluded the function of memory in forming the Australian repertoire. Nevertheless, when memory is accepted as a foundational force, it can open the idea that national identity and the cultural swing are constructs, and so they can be reconstructed. This also opens the possibility that the ‘either/or’ mentality produced by the cultural swing can be subdued.
When nationalism is characterised as ‘a desire for a single, legible identity that is fundamentally hostile to the fluid exchange that is the primal soup of art’ (Croggon, 2010: 55), we either have homogenous nationalistic art or not. This paints nationalism in one colour by following the desire for singularity in its description of nationalism. The process of homogenisation is not limited to nationalistic culture because international or cross-cultural performance can ‘result in an abstract, depoliticized [sic], and ahistorical notions of ‘difference,’ or, in effect, a masked ‘indifference’’ (Lo & Gilbert, 2002:49). Essentially, analysis that swings with a dichotomy that reduces an understanding of Australian theatre to good and bad, national and international, gets stuck. But:
A theatre can be ‘Australian’ without seeking to subsume all differences into one monolithic, unaccommodating aesthetic. In fact, a sense of professional holism is vital to an environment of cultural diversity and aesthetic innovation (Meyrick, 2005 :52).
The challenge to achieve this holism is for practitioners, policy makers, critics, academics and audiences, and a necessary step toward this is a move to ‘critical nationalism’ (Johanson & Glow, 2009). To make this possible it is worth exploring how memory informs nationalism as an imaginative process, that can be seen clearly in Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin (1979) and Nowhere (2001).
We can position Dorothy Hewett as one of Australia’s forgotten playwrights. Nowhere was Hewett’s first premiere in eighteen years and director Aubrey Mellor suggested it was a great tragedy that directors were only just coming to terms with how to stage her work (Litson, 2001: 20). Moreover, director Stephen Barry’s introduction to Mukinupin reveals that the announcement of Hewett’s commission to write for Western Australia’s sesquicentenary was met by men cutting themselves shaving and people stopping him on the street to explain why he had asked ‘that woman’ to write (cited in Hewett 1979:v). We can see here Hewett’s personal trajectory as a reflection of who was deemed appropriate to narrate or stage national stories, and her plays certainly tie together the idea of memory and national identity. As a story of the establishment of a wheat-belt town, Mukinupin sees the place self-consciously doubled, with pairs of characters showing a history of violence that came to make the genteel town. Similarly, Nowhere sees the social rejects, ex-communist Josh, Vietnam veteran Snow and the young Aboriginal woman Vonnie use memory to reconcile how they identify with their past. But far from being conventional bush tales, the plays represent a critical nationalism where ‘‘Australia’ is still conjured as a meaningful ‘place,’ an entity to be reckoned with, but stripped of the conventional and hegemonic connotations by which is has been predominately known’ (Johanson & Glow, 2009: 392). The suspicion of nationalism stems from the knowledge that it has the power to fracture, create boundaries and cause people to hate, even kill each other (Brett cited in Johanson & Glow, 2009:386), but Hewett’s plays actively prevent this possibility. By reminding audiences that nationalism is a construct, and using an ambiguous restorative trope, the plays acknowledge the damage and healing possibilities of national communities. The end of Nowhere sees Josh amidst flooding rains saying ‘She’s comin’ to sweep us all away, sweeten the waters and green the land agen [sic] ’ (Hewett, 2001:53), suggesting something can grow from a destructive force. In Mukinupin, Jack Tuesday dresses in army uniform on stage as he heads to the First World War, and the cast sing, ‘Your country needs you in the trenches,/Follow your masters into war,/And if you cop it we’ll remember/You at the Mukinupin store’ (Hewett, 1979:42). In the second act his return sees the town celebrate Jack as a war hero, though he confesses his shell shocked twin Harry is the real hero, something the town finds hard to swallow. Later Mukinupin’s patriarch Eek Perkins sees the drunk and damaged Harry, and says ‘He’s still out there howling under the war memorial. National disgrace! We didn’t put that up to be desecrated’ (Hewett, 1979:98). When staged, this sentiment is complicated by the audience’s knowledge that Eek, the upstanding owner of the general store, was responsible for the massacre of Mukinipin’s unseen Indigenous peoples and mother of Lily Perkins, his illegitimate daughter. This demonstrates a critical approach to understanding national identity and in his review Zoltan Kovacs noted, ‘The play achieves a satisfying sense of moral balance – good and evil and dark and light seem in continual equal opposition’ (1979:37). Breaking from the ‘either/or’ mentality of the cultural swing, this critical nationalism can hold together split identities. Stephen Barry described Mukinupin as being ‘full of the spirit of celebration’ (Hewett 1979: v), but there was space for the self-reflexive and the ironic that points to the very constructedness of national being. This space is reinforced in the closing song ‘The Mukinupin Carousel’, which sees actors performing in a kind of tableaux, making the audience hyperaware that they are viewing a performance. Mukinupin balances ambiguities and uncertainties with a grounded sense of dealing with present conditions and begins forming a tradition of critical nationalism, though what should be emphasised is this formation stems from the play’s treatment of memory. Mardy Amos wrote of the production: ‘Dorothy Hewett has played the bower bird’ (1979:10). As a commission for Western Australia’s sesquicentennial celebrations, it is distinctly regional, partly autobiographical, intertextual in its absorption of images and words from The Tempest, Macbeth and Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the play still conjures an image of national identity and with its mythic and epic qualities points to something universal. While we might replace global with national, and nations with regions in the following quotation, the arrangement in Hewett’s nest shows how ‘memory discourses appear global in one register, [though] at their core they remain tied to the histories of specific nations and states’ (Huyssen cited in Lo, 2013: 350-351). While nationalism in Australia has been defined by forgetting, Hewett’s work shows that the transition to critical nationalism is possible through a holistic memory practice.
Critical nationalism can be traced to Mukinupin, but it has not been fostered. In 1973 Hewett wrote ‘The major subsidised companies, whose job should surely be to take risks and provide a supportive environment for real talent, are the most timid’ (1979: v), and there has long been a counterintuitive thread which suggests subsidy should be used to preserve high art that has a proven track record (Windschuttle cited in Johanson & Glow, 2009: 394). This only shows how easily the past is forgotten; cultural institutions are not preexisting monoliths, and without active and present participation they will decay. However extreme this idea may be, it has infiltrated debate in a way that binds right-wing politics and a narrow nationalism to the idea of Australianness, and this is damaging to the reception of Australian works.
Reviews of Nowhere reveal this undercurrent. In two markedly different responses, John McCallum’s palpable enthusiasm celebrates Hewett’s return to Australian stages and concludes with a call, ‘If only theatres would put on her great plays of the 1970s and ‘80s’ (2001:19). Bryce Hallet, on the other hand, his review notably positioned after a review of the coinciding Wooster Group performance concludes:
The play celebrates the past, particularly the need to keep our history alive; but I’m not entirely certain Nowhere will put Hewett back on the theatrical map and bring her new audiences (2001:19).
This statement echoes the thrust of the adaptation debate in 2013, but, through Hallet’s shortcuts to meaning, it shows that forgetting prevents particular plays from being seen on their own terms. While the review is quite balanced in assessing what it sees as the shortcomings of Aurbrey Mellor’s production of Nowhere, Hallet’s description of the colloquial elements, the ‘dinky di’ language and ‘bush bastards,’ places the work in a narrow nationalist box. The review suggests that somehow Hewett’s time is past, that her vision of Australia is something of a curiosity, and effectively imposes a particular kind memory on the reception of Nowhere. It irons out the complexities in the characterisation and replaces the ambiguities in Hewett’s play with an ironclad imagining of Australia. It undermines the possibility that Hewett offers, in which ‘[r]econstructing the self in history inevitably leads to a reconstruction of national identity’ (Gilbert, 1998: 231). Nowhere gives this gesture as Vonnie becomes a memory from Josh and Snow’s past. Through Vonnie, Josh, an ex-communist, meets Edith, his onetime love interest, whom he leaves behind when he quits the party. Remembering this fact awakens optimism in this seemingly stubborn old man. However, when Vonnie becomes the memory of Kitty, the hippy-ex-girlfriend of the damaged Vietnam veteran Snow, he reacts violently and punches Vonnie in the face (Hewett, 2001: 28). This event reflects the way an engagement with memory can work as a destructive as much as regenerative force, and speaks to the way that Hallet’s review might be symptomatic of narrow national memory.
This essay grew out of a debate concerning adaptation, but by tracing a longer history, it is clear that the debate is symptomatic of tensions in nationalism imaginative process. However, it is evident that the past and the way it is remembered is actively constructed. So if, like Andrew Bovell, we despair that, at this moment, Australia seems to be known for its racism, its whiteness, then we might share too in his fighting spirit that sees the ‘society we want to be is not yet determined’ (2014). It is not a matter of populating Australian stages with Hewett’s plays, or staging Australian plays because they are Australian, or adapting classics because they are classics. What is required are plays that cause Australian audiences to cut themselves shaving, a theatre that engages in critical nationalism. Certainly, a cultural swing, which is produced by and produces selective memories, has reduced nationalism to a narrow and damaging force, and this phenomenon is reflected institutionally in the reduction of theatre companies and a shrinking repertoire. But this does not mean that Australia’s theatre need abandon its most rich resource, its diversity of people and place. Nationalism need not equate to whiteness, and it is possible imagine another nationalism, to use memory to reconstruct it in a way that fosters compassion. Indeed, this is what theatre might offer. In her foreword to Mukinupin, Katherine Brisbane argues:
Drama, by its nature, is essentially a regional art. It springs from the interpretation of a life recognisable to its first audiences; and it is only those works which survive that firing and tempering, and gather into their text a keen parochial strength, that can communicate to a larger audience the commonality in human existence which has come to be called ‘the universal’ (cited in Hewett 1979: iii).
So there is a need for theatre to be here and now, but not an ephemeral here and now. Rather a here and now that acknowledges the past and the diversity of memories that make it. An engagement with critical nationalism to reconstruct national identities can both subdue the cultural swing and resist the damaging forces that would have Australia forget.
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