Photo: Christopher Deere
Australia in 50 Plays by Julian Meyrick. Currency Press, Sydney, March 2022.
Media Contact: Martin Portus, Phone 0401 360 806 firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Julian Meyrick has written an academic work of great importance. He helps us understand our own culture in a quite unusual way. I need to begin a little differently in order to explain.
I am sorry. Sorry that I have not read, and certainly not seen, more than a limited number of the 50 plays Meyrick has selected. And sorry, therefore, that reviews I have written in the past twenty years, the period covered in his last two chapters out of eight, have not been informed as they might have been – even should have been. I may even apologise for referencing the English and the Irish – Shakespeare and Shaw – so much when considering the Australians – say, David Williamson and Nakkiah Lui.
My natural assumptions about the theatre canon were established at Sydney University, where in 1960 I failed 3rd Year English. The crucial question was asked about the future of poetic verse-drama. I wrote that Christopher Fry, T S Eliot and Douglas Stewart were already out of date, so it had no future. This was a sociological argument, I was told, not the required literary argument. Fail!
I reckon, though, I failed too because I dared to mention Fire on the Snow by the Australian, Douglas Stewart. I knew it was daring to do so, because in those three years’ formal education it was made clear that Australia had no literature worth academic study. In 1961 I wrote favourably of Murder in the Cathedral, mentioned no Australian writers, and passed my Bachelors Degree. My Masters Degree, as you would expect, was a study of Bernard Shaw.
I start with this personal anecdote because Julian Meyrick makes sure we understand how his personal experiences as a theatre practitioner underpins his need to explain why he should open up our cultural knowledge and his reasons for choosing these particular 50 plays, written since Australia became a legal entity by the passing of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK), s. 9 by the British Parliament; Ratified: 6 July 1900; Date effective: 1 January 1901.
My time at Sydney University becomes relevant when I find that Douglas Stewart’s verse dramas created, even more than they reflected, crucial changes in our culture, well before Ray Lawler wrote The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on 28 November 1955: “While the Doll’s status as a cultural catalyst is important, the environment that conditioned its production and reception was the achievement of prior artists. The Doll may look like the start of the Australian drama narrative, but it is the middle of it, the reward for the steady creative toil of post-federation theatre. Borrowing the observation of Indigenous artist Gordon Bennett, by the 1950s, Australian drama had enough of a past to conceive a future. That this past was—and remains—largely unacknowledged, reflects the difficulty Australia has of owning its past generally. In my Conclusion I consider how our negative view of nationhood is preventing proper understanding of the role and value of Australian drama.”
The Contents page of Australia in 50 Plays is the work of a stirrer [my comments]:
Chapter 1. 1901–1914: Ozziewood [not exactly Hollywood]
Chapter 2. 1915–1929: Unknown knowns [not admitting what we don’t want to think about]
Chapter 3. 1930–1945: The real Australia [really?]
Chapter 4. 1945–1960: A step change [waving; not drowning]
Chapter 5. 1961–1975: Not better, just different [just so]
Chapter 6. 1976–1990: The compelling mood darkens [what Lucky Country?]
Chapter 7. 1991–2005: The End (yet the persistence) of History [to the Right or to the Left?]
Chapter 8. 2006–2020: The return of the nation [Black is the New White]
Conclusion "…the historically indisputable fact that drama is a serious mode of inquiry on a par with academic research…"
But this is the sort of stirring the pot that nowadays I find in The Saturday Paper. Meyrick’s work combines details of information that are alluded to, but often not made explicit by others, with carefully thought-through critical analysis. New lights are shone from different angles than I expected. Academic history becomes a personal conversation. It’s as if I am watching a play, hearing what the characters say, picking up the nuances behind their words and actions, even in the silences. And thinking and feeling what I might say or do in response.
“There is something deeply dispiriting about the absence of women from key roles in Australian theatre as it ‘professionalised’” he says in Chapter 4, and I’m thinking but there are all those plays he’s told me about in the first half of that century written and directed and presented in theatres led by women – some even Communists, what’s more. So what happened to the women after World War II?
What happened to playwrights “such as Betty Roland, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Hilda Bull, Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Dymphna Cusack, and directors like May Hollingworth (the Metropolitan Theatre), Doris Fitton (the Independent Theatre, Catherine Duncan (the New Theatre) and Barbara Sisley (La Boite) [who] are the prophets and pathfinders of Australian Drama, their creative and management talents transforming it into a serious cultural force”?
Of course I’ve never forgotten One Day of the Year (the first professional season was in April 1961 at the Palace Theatre in Sydney as I was repeating 3rd Year uni) – but it was written by a bloke. Alan Seymour. But then, at its debut on 20 July 1960 as an amateur production by the Adelaide Theatre Group, Jean Marshall, the Director, and those involved in the Adelaide production had received death threats – as did Seymour when I saw it. So at least Alan Seymour was my kind of bloke.
And Julian Meyrick is certainly my kind of academic historian, writing the right stuff for anyone active and even merely interested in theatre – Australian or of any other kind.